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Wildlife is sparse but most of it is unique to the region. If wild-camping in remote and uninhabited wilderness areas hits your buttons then Kaokoveld is the place to explore! Damaraland and Kaokoland are jointly known as the Kaokoveld, more an informal name for the geographic area falling into the politically defined Kunene region in the country’s remote north-western corner.
This special area of interest is bounded by the Kunene River which forms the border with Angola; Etosha to the south and the Skeleton Coast to the west.
Inland from the Skeleton Coast, Kaokoland is a wild mountainous desert area. It’s sanctuary to small but wide-ranging populations of desert-adapted elephants and lions, black rhino and giraffe. The ecosystem here is fragile and roads can be horrendous in the more interesting areas where basic infrastructure is virtually non-existent.
The northern hinterland was reached by the Herero during the early southward Bantu migrations about 450 years ago and the Dorstlandtrekkers over 120 years ago. The Himba tribe are Herero descendants who continue their semi-nomadic existence in this primitive and sparsely inhabited wilderness. Population density here is around one person every 2 km².
It’s rugged, harsh, untamed and practically devoid of commercial tourist developments. Ideally suited to serious self-drive enthusiasts or well-seasoned African adventurers.
To the south in Damaraland we gain insights into some of the most unusual natural features and fascinating cultures.
Exploring the Kaokoveld
An area well known within the Zambezi team since 1984 it’s provided extraordinary adventures and exploratory trips through the years.
- The most practical way to explore is with the use of one of the handful of Professional Guides who’ve spent many years in the region….good starting points are extensions from either our Desert Encounter safari or in conjunction with a trip to Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp.
- The alternative for intrepid explorers is to cover the area on a self-drive basis. Arrive well-read and after having done solid research on route options. If you have any special interest in history, culture, geology, botany, birding or specific wildlife then you’re still best to engage a local guide with in depth knowledge to get it right!
Desert-adapted elephants and rhino have been key species attracting seasoned travellers for many years but in 2015 a lot of the work done by Dr Flip Stander since 1988 with desert lions was brought to international attention with the Vanishing Kings documentary by Will and Liane Steenkamp.
Safari highlights in Kaokoveld
The Kaokoveld is home to one of Africa’s two populations of desert-adapted elephants. Small herds are wide ranging and are regularly seen in the Huab, Hoanib, Hoarusib, and Khumib river beds. Regularly surviving without drinking for days at a time during drought conditions they’re selective feeders too and rarely knock over trees, strip bark or break branches like other elephants.
The long term conservation of a unique population of desert-adapted lions in the Kunene region has been the focal point of Dr Flip Stander’s research project since 1998. Despite harsh conditions lions are highly adaptive, resilient and breed well in the right conditions. With expansion of their range human conflict in Kaokoland was inevitable and has demanded careful management.
The Ovahimba people of the Kunene region and southern Angola are semi-nomadic pastoral people who’ve inhabited the area over the last five centuries. They’ve maintained most of their traditions despite recent political change. Their traditional hairstyles, intricately designed jewellery and red ochre with fat body lotions set them apart in the larger towns of Puros and Opuwo.
Damaraland, named after the Damara people who make up most of the local population, is the hilly transitional zone between the arid Skeleton Coast and Namibia’s scrubby central plateau - it holds the main repositories and best known prehistoric rock paintings and engravings.
Twyfelfontein (“doubtful spring”) has one of the most extensive galleries of rock art in Africa providing a unique window to a past culture and civilisation with over 2000 documented engravings. Unlike most prehistoric art sites in southern Africa, most of the Twyfelfontein works aren’t paintings but rather engravings, or petroglyphs which have been imprinted by chipping through the hard patina covering the sandstone, dolomite or basaltic lava.
The Brandberg (“fire mountain”, “mountain of the Gods”, “forsaken mountain”) named for the effect created by the rising and setting sun on its faces, is a massive inselberg that dominates the surrounding rock and gravel plains. Maack’s Shelter in the Tsisab (“leopard”) Ravine contains the famous “White Lady” painting which has evoked a myriad hypotheses as to its origin and meaning. The figure is estimated to be over 4000 years old.
The summit of the Brandberg, Konigstein, is the country’s highest peak at 2579m. Conquered in 1918, it provides a formidable goal for mountaineers with horrendous daytime temperatures, bitterly cold nights and a serious scarcity of water.
The Messum Crater is a secluded volcanic feature in the Gobobose Mountains west of Brandberg - one of the best areas in Namibia for seeing lichen fields.
Spitzkoppe (“pointed hill) - a remnant of an ancient volcano is one of Namibia’s most recognisable landmarks, nicknamed the Matterhorn of Africa - an area which is rich in semi-precious stones.
One of the highlights in Kaokoland is the Epupa Falls where the Kunene River widens with a few islands in the channel above the falls. Although Epupa Falls are only around 35 m deep its startling beauty is mainly due to the contrast with its arid areas surrounds. The green Makalani palms extend only 30m from the river and beyond this the land becomes semi-arid savannah and desert mountains.
Hartmann’s Valley is an arid valley with weather that varies dramatically as mist creeps up it from the coast. 70 km from end to end, it is beautiful and cool at sunrise, and the track ends in high dunes which are showed off in early morning light.
The next inland valley from Hartmann’s is the Marienfluss which is reached via a fairly new-looking Himba settlement. This valley has soft sand and more greenery than Hartmann’s and is covered in light scrub and a few trees that mark an underground river.