Ruacana into Kaokoland

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.

Himba teenager showing us the way across the creek

Himba teenager showing us the way across the creek


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.

Along the Kunene river

Along the Kunene river

Our camp site at Kunene River Lodge

Our camp site at Kunene River Lodge


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 guide to the Himba family

Our guide to the Himba family

Himba milking area

Himba milking area

Himba girl

Himba girl

Himba family outside their living area where we spent a couple of hours

Himba family outside their living area where we spent a couple of hours

Making butter

Making butter

Himba woman's ornament made of leather, shells and even found bullets

Himba woman’s ornament made of leather, shells and even found bullets

Himba lady

Himba lady


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.
Upgraded road to Epupa Falls

Upgraded road to Epupa Falls


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.
Epupa Falls

Epupa Falls

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.

Kaokoland, Namibia

Kaokoland, Namibia

Kaokoland, Namibia

Kaokoland, Namibia

Kaokoland, Namibia

Kaokoland, Namibia


Kaokoland, Namibia

Kaokoland, Namibia

Outside Orupembe towards Marble Camp

Outside Orupembe towards Marble Camp

Himba village

Himba village


Marble Camp

Marble Camp


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!!!
North of Marble Camp

North of Marble Camp

Track blocked by overturned vehicle

Track blocked by overturned vehicle

How much beer were they carrying?!

How much beer were they carrying?!


Red Drum junction

Red Drum junction

Himba family

Himba family

Himba mother

Himba mother


Marienfluss, Namibia

Marienfluss, Namibia

Springbok, Marienfluss

Springbok, Marienfluss


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.
Syncro Camp

Syncro Camp


Our campsite at Syncro Camp

Our campsite at Syncro Camp

Angola across the Kunene river at Syncro Camp

Angola across the Kunene river at Syncro Camp


Marienfluss

Marienfluss

The raw beauty of the region touches me in a way few places do.

– Anne

Onward to Peru

We leave San Pedro de Atacama with rain clouds gathering. Snow has fallen to the east causing the road to Argentina and Bolivia to be closed. We could not have proceeded in that direction even if we wanted too. We have decided to move out of Chile and get into Peru. We seem to have ridden endlessly through the Atacama desert in its various forms and we both feel like a change of scenery.

Cold and rain we have not experienced for many months. We realise that in the 8 months on the road traveling, this is only the 8th day of rain! While our trip timing was to avoid the wet seasons as far as possible, I think we have done exceptionally well. A recent comment on the blog noted that we only seem to have pictures with blue skies and sunny days and was that a reflection on how we feel? The answer is yes, we are always happier on blue sky days and while the occasional cosy grey day makes a change, blue skies are our natural habitat.

Rain is waiting for us - we can see how much snow has fallen overnight in the distance

Rain is waiting for us – we can see how much snow has fallen overnight in the distance


Today leaving San Pedro de Atacama is the coldest day we've had

Today leaving San Pedro de Atacama is the coldest day we’ve had

While we press on through the rain, which is unusual for this very arid region, we have to count ourselves lucky that we have missed the worst of the flooding in the Atacama, which is playing out in towns we passed through and stayed at less than a week ago. At each fuel stop we are greeted with a TV screen showing the devastation that such extreme weather for this region is doing. In desert regions, towns cannot justify stormwater drainage systems and when rivers overflow there is nowhere for the water to flow but into houses and businesses. Power and communications are cut to the north of Chile, some cities are without power and the damage to roads will be extensive.

Where we stopped for lunch - chicken is out so it was only boiled rice and fresh tomatoes - nice change from canned tuna and dry crackers

Where we stopped for lunch – chicken is out so it was only boiled rice and fresh tomatoes – nice change from canned tuna and dry crackers

Every petrol stop and restaurant is showing the destruction currently unfolding in Northern Chile

Every petrol stop and restaurant is showing the destruction currently unfolding in Northern Chile

Despite the wet conditions, which improve as we get further north, we make good progress towards our coastal destination of Iquique.

Salar de Pintados national park

Salar de Pintados national park


Coastal clouds south of Iquique

Coastal clouds south of Iquique


The road approach to Iquique is nothing short of spectacular: a 600 metre (2,000 feet) decent from the town of Alto Hospicio cut into the steep side of the mountain runs for over 10 kilometers. As we ride down it feels like we are in an aircraft making our decent to land. Amazing feeling!
On our way down into Iquique

On our way down into Iquique


As we ride towards our hotel, we see multiple tsunami warning signs and with Iquique, like so many other Chilean coast cities pressed up against the mountains, evacuation is not easy. In Iquique’s case, it is compounded by having only a single road, the one we arrived on, as an escape route. On 1 April 2014, less than a year ago, an 8.2 magnitude earthquake occurred offshore, followed by up to 20 aftershocks of 5.0 magnitude or greater, caused many thousands of residents to abandon Iquique entirely, heading to nearby town of Alto Hospicio, a tsunami-proof town 600 meters (2,000 feet) above Iquique. The problem was that the road surface was damaged, and the only way out was to walk up the steep road we had entered up to Alto Hospicio as many did with small children and strollers.
Iquique tsunami warning sign

Iquique tsunami warning sign

Plaza Prat de Iquique

Plaza Prat de Iquique

Iquique was the location of our first real negative encounter with locals and a salutary reminder of how a series of events can lead to a confrontational situation without the intent of either party to reach that position. It happened in a car park, the details are irrelevant now, but being told to reverse over two speed humps with no room to maneuver or help and about 15 cars hooting (at us or for us, we are not sure) left us leaving Iquique with a bad taste.

From time to time, as we have headed north on Ruta 5, our path has been crossed by dry riverbeds that have necessitated the road to make a small detour from its path to make the crossing. As we depart towards Arica we can see on the map two significant canyons running to the Pacific Ocean that require detours of 20 to 30 km to cross. The first is the Quebrada de Chiza which provides a magnificent decent to the canyon floor. Here we encounter some of the strongest and unpredictable crosswinds, caused by wind funneling up from the ocean via the Quebrada de Camarones, we have ever ridden in. We were protected to an extent on the 20 plus kilometer decent, but on the canyon floor we are fully exposed. While we are used to persistent wind in our travels, being in the canyon brings extra hazards. Anne is swept from her lane across the oncoming lane to the start of the hard shoulder and then back again like a giant wind slap. There is nothing we can do except hang on (as stopping is not an option or you would definitely be blown over) and keep going. Luckily traffic is light. The power of nature is always to be respected and here, nature was reminding us of that. We were glad to make the customs post at Cuya and then hug the canyon wall as we climbed out on the other side. Not something we would like to repeat.

Before heading down into Quebrade Chiza canyon

Before heading down into Quebrade Chiza canyon

Camarones valley

Camarones valley


Riding down towards Arica

Riding down towards Arica


The largest Coca-Cola logo (50x120 metres) made out of 70,000 empty bottles outside Arica

The largest Coca-Cola logo (50×120 metres) made out of 70,000 empty bottles outside Arica


We are glad to reach Arica our last stop before we cross into Peru. We are only some 30 kilometers from the border.
San Marcos de Arica church designed by Gustave Eiffel

San Marcos de Arica church designed by Gustave Eiffel

A short ride of about half an hour from Arica sees us at our first border crossing in a month. The luxury that people in the European Union have of just driving across the border without stopping does not exist here. We have found that the information available on the web can very quickly become out of date and therefore the timing and requirements have changed. As usual the actual crossing details are recorded in over Visas and Borders section. Suffice to say that the only unusual aspect of this crossing is going to the cafe cashier to purchase a multi copy form needed for the crossing process. Very helpful people on both the Chilean and Peruvian sides sees the process over in about two hours, fairly normal for us, plus the border was not too crowded.

Level 1 of the Chilean customs & immigration building - cafetaria where you buy carbon copies of RVP

Level 1 of the Chilean customs & immigration building – cafetaria where you buy carbon copies of RVP

Peruvian border post at Santa Rosa

Peruvian border post at Santa Rosa


Across from the SOAT building, this lovely lady gave us a piece of cake to go with our cold drinks

Across from the SOAT building, this lovely lady gave us a piece of cake to go with our cold drinks


A quick stop to pick up SOAT Insurance and half an hour sees us into Tacna and our first interaction with Peruvian traffic reminds us that we will have to raise our situational awareness after Chile.

I have had the same chain since the journey started and it has covered over 25,000 kilometres with the occasional adjustment. I am now having to do almost daily adjustments as the stretching has accelerated significantly and it really rattles by the end of the day. We will need a new chain and sprocket set in Lima. The weight and bulk of the parts meant that we do not carry those spares, but there is a reasonable BMW Motorrad network in the capital cities we pass through.

– Anthony