Kaokoland & Epupa Falls
For adventurers who dream of uncharted territory.
Arid and remote. Among the world’s last great wilderness areas, located in the far northwest, Kaokoland is one of the relatively untouched, almost inaccessible regions in Namibia, saved for fly-in safaris. It is a world of incredible mountain scenery, a refuge for the rare desert dwelling elephant, black rhino and giraffe and the home of the Himba people.
Kaokoland extends from the Kunene River southwards across a sparsely populated and harsh environment down to the Hoanib River. The area holds a special allure for lovers of remote and wild places. When visiting this area we recommended having an experience guide with you or going with a fly-in safari. Routes are scarcely signposted, corrugated and are extremely stony or sandy. The Van Zyl’s Pass is the most notorious pass in Namibia. The narrow track, leading through the rugged Otjihipa Mountains, consists of course, jagged rocks. Only well-equipped 4×4 vehicles with powerful engines and good ground clearance will be able to manage the trip.
In Kaokoland the home of the desert dwelling elephant’s range as far as 3,000 km², with the animals trekking distances up to 200 km in search for water. Thought initially these elephants were a different species to the African elephant, because they had longer legs, were taller, and had larger feet. However, because they have less to eat than their Etosha counterparts, they carry a different body mass, therefore appearing taller and with longer legs. They do have larger feet, an environmental adaptation caused by their walking primarily on soft sand.
By definition, desert dwelling elephants occupy an arid habitat for part of the year having special behavioural characteristics, large annual and seasonal ranges, social structure, and daily activities suited to an arid environment. The elephants of the desert take greater care when feeding, they hardly ever fell trees, breaks fewer branches, and debark less than other elephants. Whereas adult elephants on average drink between 100 and 200 litres of water a day, in Kaokoland they drink only once every three or four days. During droughts they dig deep, narrow holes (gorras) in dry riverbeds with their tusks, trunk and feet to find water.
The nomadic Himba people are one of the many reasons why visitors travel to Namibia. A visit to a Himba settlement allows you not only to take photographs of these nomadic people, but also to learn of their fascinating lifestyle. This ancient tribe lives in the northwest region of Namibia. The Himba are descendants of a group of Herero herders who fled into the remote northwest after been displaced by the Nama people. They speak Otjihimba, a dialect of the Herero language. Their population is around 20,000 to 50,000 people. The Himba are semi-nomadic, pastoral people who breed cattle and goats.
Guided visits to their village allow tourists an insight into their captivating way of life. The language barrier makes it very difficult to communicate and can lead to misunderstandings and an unpleasant experience for both the visitors and the Himba if not having an experienced guide with you. Remember to show respect for local people when on a community tour. Request permission before taking photographs.
The remoteness and the vast travel distances involved make it quite tricky to approach the Himba. A self-drive or guided drive to the settlements involves a lot of driving. The suggested alternative is to take a chartered flight up north from either Windhoek or Swakopmund for any other destination for that matter for a day visit or short safari. Fly-In safaris are a good option for travellers with a flexible budget and limited time in Namibia. We book fly-in excursions in conjunction with Desert Air.
To the south the area is characterised by rugged mountains, which are dissected by numerous waterways, further north the Otjihipa form the eastern boundary of the Marienfluss, while the west of the valley is defined by the Hartmann Mountains.
Marienfluss and Hartmann Valley
In the far northwest corner of Kunene, Marienfluss and Hartmann’s Valley constitute one of Namibia’s most remote wilderness landscapes, receiving few visitors beyond the semi-nomadic Himba with their cattle and goats, alongside herds of springbok and oryx.
Marienfluss is arguably the more beautiful of the two, being lusher if there has been rain, coated with flaxen grasses, and home to carpets of “fairy circles” a curious natural phenomenon.
From the air, they appear like a giant polka-dot pattern across a vast sheet of scorched cloth, along the eastern fringes of the desert. A closer inspection reveals discs of bare earth, fringed with lush grasses, which are higher and healthier than the ones between the circles. Measuring between 2 and 20 m in diameter, the larger circles have an average lifespan between 40 and 60 years, as they appear, mature growing in some cases, and then fade.
What’s more, there is a gorgeous riverside campsite to reward the dusty drive, though do not be tempted to jump in the water, as this is prime crocodile territory. These days there’s even a tiny Himba store selling cold beer. Reaching the end of Hartmann’s Valley is a rough ride, 70 km of more arid conditions that will take you well over 2 hours to drive. Its moonscapes have a desolate beauty; vast expanses of flecked cream or rust coloured sand, interspersed with endless domes of seemingly barren grey rock; as you approach the Kunene, the huge dunes to the west separate you from the Skeleton Coast, some 50 km away.
With its scenically beautiful surroundings, Epupa Falls is one of Namibia’s prime tourist destinations a unique and truly exceptional attraction because of the largely unspoiled environment. The scenery is enchanting, situated amid the arid desert, a green oasis of palm and baobab trees lining the riverbeds.
The Falls are a series of cascades where the Kunene River drops a total of 60 m over a distance of about 1.5 km, separating into a multitude of channels and forming a myriad of rock pools. The main fall drops 36 m into a narrow gorge and carries an estimated one third of the Kunene River’s water. Nonetheless, the water level changes depending on the annual rainfalls so that the natural spectacle is subject to seasonal fluctuations. It is possible to swim in these pools, but keep a lookout for crocodiles!
Bird-watching is rewarding, especially for the rare rufous-tailed palm thrush. Also found in the area are bee-eaters, African fish-eagles, kingfishers ranging from the giant to the tiny malachite kingfisher, rosy-faced lovebirds, paradise flycatchers, louries, bulbuls, hornbills and rollers.
Travelling with a vehicle with higher clearance is recommended. A fly-in safari to this area is also very popular and recommended due to vast distances and time spent on the road. Due to the high temperatures in this area arrival and departure times are advised to be early mornings. There are lodges in the immediate vicinity of Epupa Falls. Further, along the Kunene River, lodges offer excellent river views and a choice of accommodation. You can visit Epupa Falls on a day visit from Opuwo, the drive from here to Epupa takes around 3 hours.
Enhanced by richly coloured rock walls, variety of trees including wild figs, baobabs and waving makalani palms, spectacular sunsets and perennially flowing waters, the Epupa area offers much to see, do and experience.
Epupa Falls is in a malaria area. The risk of contracting malaria is higher between the summer rainy seasons of October to April. During the dry winter months, the risk of contracting malaria is far lower. Please refer to our Namibia fact sheet for more information.
At 120 m high and 700 m wide, the Ruacana Falls on the Kunene River are located 135 km upstream from Epupa Falls. However, for most of the year the waterfall is dry, due to the Ruacana Hydropower Plant upstream, which meets more than 50% of Namibia’s electricity requirements. As a result, it is best to view them in the rainy season, March or April when water is released over the spillway.
There is a touch of the Wild West about Opuwo, officially declared a town only at the end of 2000; Opuwo has long acted as the capital of the Kunene Region, and the gateway to Epupa Falls and the land of the Himba people. The town itself doesn’t offer much for the tourist, except in the form of hand-made made jewellery and other crafts, which can be found on the streets and at the open market. The Kunene Craft Centre is also a good place to stock up on souvenirs from the area. Opuwo has well-stocked grocery shops, Internet Cafes, a post office, banks, fuel, a hospital, and everything else a traveller might need. A good place to eat is the Kaokoland Restaurant, located in the Opuwo Business Park. Opuwo is connected to Kamanjab and Windhoek by a tarred road that is in excellent condition. There’s an airfield in town, managed by the Opuwo Country Hotel.
Outapi is situated 90 km northwest of Oshakati near the border of Angola. The Outapi War Museum on the way to Ruacana Falls is an interesting stop. It is set on the grounds of a former South African Defence Force base built in 1975. South African conscripts were stationed here during the Bush War. It was created to preserve, and exhibit artefacts, posters, photographs, and weapons of war used during the conflict by all sides. The museum itself is located underground. On the same property, you will also find a B&B establishment with a restaurant.
Sesfontein is located northwest of Namibia near the Hoanib River at the southern border of the Himba people. Sesfontein derives its name from the six fountains, which have their source in the vicinity and lush green gardens convey the character of an oasis. Sesfontein is located approximately 600 km from Windhoek.
For adventurers who dream of uncharted territory, the spectacular and little-known Otjitaimo Canyon lurks about 10 km north of the main road, along the western flanks of the north/south mountain range east of Sesfontein. At Fort Sesfontein, you and 43 other guests can live out all your Lawrence of Arabia fantasies, spending the night in a colonial fort out in the middle of the desert. It also offers tours to Himba villages, local rock art, and other excursions. During the months of November to March, we recommend to make use of a 4×4 vehicle. For fly-in safaris, you can fly directly to Sesfontein sport aircraft. Sesfontein has a 1700 m long runway.
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