Namibia spoils you for space. We had already been across a vast swath of the country seeing landscapes so devoid of humans and human structures that it was hard to believe anyone actually lived in the country. Spending time in Etosha only made this more of a reality, as the animals far and away outnumber humans in this massive expanse of wilderness. And so we felt prepared to move onto the even more remote northwestern area of Kaokoland. We weren’t.
We left the flat open scrublands south of Etosha and headed through rugged rock-strewn hills to Palmwag. Maps in Namibia are helpful and not helpful. They show places like Palmwag and you could logically think it is a reasonably populated place. You would be wrong. Palmwag is a small collection of huts and an animal control fence to keep cattle, sheep and other animals out of the huge wildlife concessions that make up most of Kaokoland and Damaraland.
Of course the most important information on maps of Namibia is petrol stations. Palmwag had one and we stopped. It was two pumps, a tin shed and a Himba woman selling jewelry. That’s it. Fuelled up, we headed north into territory that makes you realise how insignificant humans really can be.
For a couple of hours the only company we had was a bull elephant making his way up from a small water course. We gave him plenty of space, making sure we stopped in a place we felt would allow him the opportunity to walk straight up in front of us. He preferred to go behind the car. Admittedly, since this is an area much more wild than Etosha, we probably should just be happy he didn’t come through the car! It was a lovely, intimate experience however, in the fading light of the day, between the rocky hills, with just us and him.
Our destination was Khowarib Lodge, an oasis of simple beauty and welcoming peace along the Hoanib River. This part of the river has permanent water, a rarity in this dry corner of Namibia, and a collection of luxury tents perch within the trees on the river’s edge. The dirt paths are marked by rough wood railing leading you to the welcoming embrace of the reception, bar, dining area. This interlinked, thatch covered area opens onto the natural splendour of the Khowarib Gorge, with the towering rock faces catching the setting sun’s rays. Sitting there with a drink in your hand and the comforting coolness of evening descending, you are literally and figuratively miles from anywhere.
The real reason for our foray into this area was to track desert elephants up the Hoanib River. As the river heads northwest from Khowarib, it dries out and becomes a sandy track leading towards the extreme remoteness of the northern Skeleton Coast. There are some isolated pools that retain water most of the year and within these pockets of moisture the largest animals on land exist in a precarious balance of nature. It isn’t just elephants that live here, there are lions, giraffe, gemsbok and ostrich to name a few.
The drive up to this area took us past Sesfontein, an old German fort turned hotel. This was a relic of the troubled colonial past of Namibia, once called South-West Africa and first German controlled and then a part of apartheid era South Africa. From this fort, the colonial powers were able to control native ethnic groups such as the Himba and Herero. The fort isn’t much to look at, more like a country estate in southern France, but its presence must be an uncomfortable reminder for the local population descended from some of the oppressed groups of the past.
Not far from Sesfontein, we turned into the river system, a series of interconnected dry stream beds that allow the rare rain water to run down from the mountains and head towards the Atlantic. We bumped and bounced through these sandy tracks and then crossed a huge open rocky plain surrounded by shimmering mountains. The heat was impressive but the roof of our vehicle pushed up to allow a breeze so it was bearable.
We crossed a small bit of water with a sign warning about the dangers of going forward without first informing someone of your intentions. Basically the authorities were taking no responsibility for finding and helping you if you got stuck out in an inhospitable environment. It set a promising tone for the rest of the experience.
We made our way up the river bed, snaking between the mountains and around sandy islets. Not far from the ‘entrance’ we came across a patch of bright green reeds reaching over the top of the vehicle. Within them came a rustle and then a grey trunk and ears emerged through the vegetation. An elephant cow was chomping her way through the water fed grasses, content to eye us up and then continue her meal. With little space between us and elephants much less accustomed to human interaction, we moved off.
There were two other elephants in the reeds that we could see behind us, but not fifty meters further along, we saw a mother and young calf. They were digging in the wet soil of the river bed, snorting air into the sand to bring up salt rich water from below ground. The young one was learning some tricks of the trade from mom and we were able to sit and admire the peaceful family teaching session from remarkably close distance.
Desert elephants are very similar to other elephants, but have smaller body masses, longer legs and seemingly larger feet. The latter is so they can cross sand dunes to reach the water. They eat vegetation with a high concentration of moisture to offset the lack of drinking water and usually live in smaller family units of 2-3. These gentle giants we got to spend a day interacting with are the only desert elephants besides another small group in Mali.
We were careful to not engage the elephants too closely, but they seemed to be content with our presence in their territory. This was common throughout the day as we encountered further groups of desert elephants, giraffe and the elusive lions, often mere meters from the animals.
It was a day filled with intimate encounters amidst the sandy river bed, crumbling hillsides and occasionally thick vegetation. A picnic lunch in the shade with a journey of giraffe having their own meal just along the riverbed was a wonderfully remote experience. This whole corner of Namibia is ridiculously remote and starkly beautiful.
It is also not for the faint of heart or unprepared. We had no intention of going out into the sandy unknown on our own, but we did see some people who were heavily kitted out for the adventurous routes. These vehicles had extra tyres, petrol canisters, dig out kits, water tanks and top-notch suspension and tyres – all an absolute necessity and impressive to see.
About an hour after leaving Khowarib heading back south the following day, we hit a dip in the gravel road and our left rear tyre exploded! Literally the wall of the tyre ripped apart and Cora did a great job controlling the car at 70kph on a gravel road with a quickly shredding tyre. So, in 40+ degree heat, with the sun beating down, we got our first taste of changing a tyre on our car. It was not smooth sailing. We had to unpack the back of two weeks of camping stuff and tools to even get the tools out and then the bolts wouldn’t budge, not even a little. Nothing like nearly wrenching your back out in the beating down sun, but at least the view was nice.
We were saved by the one car that came past us in the entire hour we were out on the side of the road. They had a can of coke, which when shaken and sprayed over the bolts, did the trick (take note – a can of coke in the car is an extremely practical thing). Before long we were cautiously back on the road.
Our trip into the great remote northwest had given us a wonderful taste of the beauty and harshness of this enchanting area. Both the good and the challenging. We only wished to have more time to explore.