We made good progress to Ruacana, thanks to good roads built by the South African Army back in the 70’s and 80’s. It is strange to think that it wasn’t long ago that a war broke out in this part of the world, so recently really, back in 1988. Most of Ruacana was destroyed in the process. We manage to fill up – out last fuel stop for a few days now. We have 200 litres of fuel and 150 litres of water so we are set to travel deep into Kaokoland.
I wonder how far we’ll get today along the Kunene river and where we will spend the night. The scenery as we leave Ruacana is so different to anything we’ve seen so far. The road now crudely follows the terrain, with steep hills up and down, no more cut and fill. It is wild out here.
We are suddenly graced with the most beautiful sight: a stunning Himba, in her complete traditional dress. The sudden sight of this beautiful woman will remain implanted in my memory as we hadn’t expected to see anyone walking out those bushes, with no village in sight. And she radiated in her deep red skin, against the barren land.
The road heading due west of Ruacana mostly follows the Kunene river which forms the border between Namibia and South Africa, and is one of the few year-round flowing rivers in the region. We start off going through a few passes. The road is now a mixture of gravel and sandy patches, sometimes it is simply a faint track across meadows. Usually a sudden faint track means that people had to deviate from the original track for some reason and numerous new ones have been formed, to find the best way past an obstacle. In our case, it is a small stream with water running. As if by magic, help is suddenly here to guide us: a most handsome teenage boy and 2 young boys.
The teenager is wearing his hair in the traditional Himba way unlike the younger boys. Their attitude towards us is very different. The older one is keen to help guide us while the younger ones demand money and sweets. This immediately worries us both: have we, western tourists, created an expectation that we will give out gifts as we pass through the area, ‘buying’ them and is there a disconnect between generations and those embracing their traditions and those preferring western garb. Unfortunately, the request for money and sweets was repeated many times just for passing through and waving hello, along the Kunene river, the more accessible area to tourists. Being interested in indigenous people and culture, I am looking forward to learning more about the Himba while we travel through their land.
The Kunene river area is simply stunning. It was hot out here, 39 degrees mostly, and the river so inviting …. if it wasn’t for crocodiles… We spot so many areas we would have loved to stop and camp, but we are not comfortable with idea of crocs nearby. So on we go to Kunene River Lodge. Once again, we have no booking but we are still in luck. Kunene River Lodge, where we decide to camp for two days, provides us with the opportunity to visit a Himba village. Not speaking their language, going with a local guide will be interesting and allow me to hopefully have some of my questions answered. We are lucky there are just the two of us and our guide is half Himba himself.
A bit of background: the Himba population of approximately 50,000 live in the Kunene region of North West Namibia and just over the border, across the Kunene river in southern Angola (yet another example of how people have been separated thanks to our wars and orders). The Himba are one of 12 major ethnic groups in Namibia. Many still live a semi nomadic life, raising goats which they milk and cattle which reflect their wealth, both of which are sold for cash. Himba women go topless and both men and women smear their skin in a mixture of butter, ash, aromatic resin and crushed ochre as a way of cleansing their skin and keeping their skin youthful. With their red skin, long platted hair and various leather, bead and shell adornments, the Himba women are beautiful. Girls wear their hair in two plats going forward, boys, one single plat going backwards and married women wear ornate headpieces. But the most fascinating for me was being able to ask questions and share some of my knowledge of Australian indigenous culture and seeing their reaction to the similarities and differences. The similarities especially, considering the physical distance between them, fascinate me.
Our next stop is Epupa Falls. We are told the road that used to take 10 hours has recently been upgraded for the Namibian police and the veterinary service (who are developing a new facility in the region) and the journey time has been cut to 3 hours. They are not wrong. But it is not only time that has been slashed – the poor country has been brutally scared with an oversized 4 lane wide dirt road cut through. It is painful to see. Interestingly, we heard that tourists who used to visit the area for the challenge of driving the old track have now cancelled their holiday. A double negative. Let’s hope it is worthwhile for the vet services.
Epupa Falls must be incredible in the rainy season! They were very low for us after 3 years of drought and being at the end of the dry season but the raw, wild area is stunning nonetheless.
Onto Opuwo next for resupplies of fuel, water and food. What a fascinating place. A crossroad for tourists and Namibians. In the supermarket we see and hear mainly German and French tourists, and see Himba and Herero in all their splendour. So many photo opportunities but I don’t want to ‘steal’ photos.
Tonight’s stop is Marble camp, some 270 kms away. We agonise over the route to take, with conflicting stories and recommendations and choose to take the advice of a local – road conditions can change quickly, from season to season and year to year. From talking to a German couple we met at the camp that evening, we made the right choice – it took them 2 days to get here from Opuwo, while it took us 5.5 hours using the D3707 through Orupembe.
The drive the next day has to be one of the most memorable. From tricky steep narrow rocky pass, to having to part rebuild a by-pass, past an burnt out and over-turned 4×4 just two days prior, to a most beautiful and serene valley, the Marienfluss onto Syncro Camp on the Kunene River. Photos cannot do this valley justice. We drive past many Himba villages, all so immaculate and past many Himba women and kids. Life must be hard out here. Otjinhungwa is where I had hoped we’d get to in Namibia and we made it!!!
We are lucky that Syncro Camp space for us as only 2 of the 4 camping spots they have here are occupied by 4 vehicles and the 4 South African couples are all lovely. And even luckier that the next day we have the whole camp to ourselves.
The raw beauty of the region touches me in a way few places do.