Namibia’s wild northwest: 7 reasons to discover the Kaokoveld

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The ruggedly beautiful Kaokoveld region is wild and under-explored even by Namibia’s standards, and therein lies much of its appeal. This is a huge paradise for adventurous self-drivers, amateur anthropologists and nature lovers alike.

From the jaw-dropping vistas to the iconic desert-adapted megafauna, here’s some insight into the allure of this enigmatic region.

namibia-kaokoveld-landscapeThe stirring landscapes of Namibia’s Kaokoveld region are one of its many allures © Christopher Clark / Lonely Planet

Breathtaking landscapes

Everywhere you travel across the Kaokoveld region in Namibia, there’s invariably an epic backdrop to accompany the experience. Often, neither pictures nor words can adequately sum up the timeless vastness of the ever-changing vistas, which incorporate high basalt mountain plateaus, plunging river valleys, thundering waterfalls, ancient granite rock formations and golden savannah plains.

Many of the irresistibly isolated camps and lodges that you’ll find across the region are perched on hilltops to get the most out of their surrounding landscapes. The luxurious Grootberg Lodge and Opuwo Country Hotel, for example, offer two of the best views in the country from their respective infinity pools. But you’ll be equally stunned by your surroundings in even the most sand-swept and neglected corners of the region.

elephant-namibia-kaokoveldDesert-adapted elephants patrol the verdant fringes of the Kaokoveld’s dry riverbeds © Christopher Clark / Lonely Planet

Rare and iconic wildlife

Most of the Kaokoveld is exceptionally arid and seemingly inhospitable, but it’s not only a resilient human population that continues to carve out an existence here against the odds – there’s also an astonishing array of wildlife.

Most sought after by visitors are the remarkable desert-adapted elephants and rhinos; the Kaokoveld in fact has Africa’s largest concentration of free roaming black rhino. The best way to find these iconic mammals is to track them on foot with an experienced game guide from Palmwag Lodge or Desert Rhino Camp.

More elusive are the critically-endangered desert lions who prey on the area’s populations of oryx, springboks, zebras, kudus and giraffes. Wildlife sightings in the Kaokoveld are generally less frequent than in other parts of Southern Africa, but the desert surroundings make them particularly special.

Himba-people-culture-namibia-kaokoveldA Himba woman, with ochre-coated body and hair, sitting in the light at the entrance to her home © Christopher Clark / Lonely Planet

Enthralling cultural heritage

Considering the Kaokoveld’s isolation, its inaccessibility and its history of underdevelopment, it’s little surprise that the cultures of its various inhabitants are so distinctive, and that their ancient traditions have remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years.

The semi-nomadic Himba have drawn particular interest from photographers for their statuesque appearance. The women coat their hair and bodies in red ochre and adorn themselves with intricate handmade jewelry. A number of tour operators and accommodations can arrange respectful visits to traditional Himba villages, where you’ll get an insight into their fascinating culture.

Equally interesting are the Herero, who are also found throughout the region. Close relatives of the Himba in terms of language and genealogy, the Herero’s appearance could not be more different, with the women bedecked in colourful, floor-length Victorian gowns, a style re-appropriated from German missionaries more than a 150 years ago.

elephant-road-sign-kaokoveld-namibiaWarning! Elephants ahead. Few road signs in the world are as laden with excited anticipation. © Christopher Clark / Lonely Planet

Off the beaten path

There can’t be many countries where it’s easier to escape the crowds than Namibia, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Kaokoveld. Travelling between the region’s various destination highlights, you can sometimes drive for hours on end without seeing another vehicle. When passing through the remote villages that sporadically punctuate the incredibly varied terrain, you’ll find that the local inhabitants are often as surprised to see you as you are them.

If you’re well equipped, self-sufficient and feeling particularly adventurous (or antisocial), you can avoid the handful of other travellers you’ll find at the region’s various camps and lodges altogether. Instead, set up your own campsite out in the bush and marvel at the overpowering stillness and the star-strewn night sky.

4WD-truck-self-drive-namibia-kaokoveldFor a 4WD, much of the Kaokoveld is your playground © Christopher Clark / Lonely Planet

4WD adventures

The distinct lack of tar roads and the abundance of wide open spaces across the Kaokoveld set the perfect scene for a serious 4WD self-drive adventure. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned veteran, the region’s gravel roads and sandy tracks are sure to pose a few challenges, but overcoming them is a large part of the fun, and often makes for the best post-trip stories.

The deep corrugated sand that passes as a road between Sesfontein and Purros is a particularly grueling endurance test, but worth it for the vistas when you arrive, while the notorious Van Zyl’s Pass between two steep mountain ranges is considered the most challenging road in Namibia.

The Ruacana Falls in Namibia’s Kaokoveld region © Christopher Clark / Lonely Planet

Chasing waterfalls

The snaking body of the Kunene River serves as a natural border between the Kaokoveld and Angola. The river creates an incongruously lush greenbelt in this otherwise bone dry region. It is teeming with birdlife and fringed by palms, baobabs and some of Namibia’s most idyllic lodges, and also boasts two impressive sets of waterfalls: Ruacanaand Epupa.

In full flow, the broad Ruacana Falls are a truly spectacular sight, rivalling even Victoria Falls. A visit into the gorge below also incorporates the ruins of an old power station destroyed by Namibian liberation forces decades ago. The idyllic Epupa Falls are surrounded by traditional Himba villages and provide the impetus for white water rafting excursions.

namibia-kaokoveld-pool-touristWhile incredibly remote, the Kaokoveld (and its omnipresent views) are not without their creature comforts © Christopher Clark / Lonely Planet

Eco tourism

Namibia has established a reputation as a leading destination in Africa for responsible tourism, in large part due to its increasingly wide array of spectacular eco-friendly lodges. The country is also seen as a shining light in community-driven conservation.

Grootberg Lodge is a perfect example in both respects. Entirely owned and run by the local rural community, wildlife populations once decimated by poaching are now flourishing again; many of those who were responsible for the poaching have become an integral part of this rejuvenation.

Then there’s Serra Cafema Camp, one of the most remote and eco-friendly camps in southern Africa. As with so many Namibian accommodations, if you stay at Serra Cafema you should feel safe in the knowledge that your tourist dollars are contributing to a range of conservation and community development initiatives.

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