Namibia: Caprivi to Epupa

26 April – 17 May 2013

After a final game drive around the Chobe Riverfront in the morning we crossed over the border and prepared for our second taster of the Caprivi Strip. We’d enjoyed our time at the two camps we’d visited previously so much that we headed back their way again.

We had a good laugh catching up with Dan, Philip and Philip’s girlfriend Martjie at Mavunje over a potjie and a few too many drinks. It was also good not to be on the move each morning and spend a day enjoying the peaceful setting by the river. We then moved on to Nunda near Popa Falls where we were able to recharge all our batteries, including ours, and catch up on a few jobs. A big thank you to Dan, Philip and Martjie who between then managed to get Karen’s Kindle back to her at Divundu (Nunda) after she’d left it in the camp in her few-too-many-the-night-before daze!

From Nunda we put in a long day’s drive across to Tsumeb, part of the “The Triangle” of Otavi, Tsumeb and Grootfontein, the gateway (well at least for us) to Etosha National Park. Here we stocked up on goods before heading into the park. We got slightly overexcited when we came across a store selling lots of camping equipment, but managed to limit our purchases to those necessities like a plastic toddy measuring bottle and potjie stand …!

We then drove the short distance to the eastern side of Etosha National Park and the Pan (which creates very deceptive mirages). The park is quite different to any we’ve been in so far: the majority of the roads are good graded gravel, the camping areas are big and provide electricity, taps and braai stands and each of the restcamps have floodlit waterholes where you can while away the time looking out for thirsty animals when the park gates are closed (as well as when they’re open of course!).

We arrived at the first camp, Namutoni, mid afternoon, so after setting up camp we went to go and check out the waterhole and lodge area. There wasn’t any action at the waterhole, but after climbing up one of the towers of the old fort we spotted our first rhino in the distance: this completed our “big five” sightings. Not that we’re only interested in the big five, but it did feel satisfying to have finally seen them all as rhinos had been somewhat elusive. This sighting was topped the following morning when one of them walked out onto the road right in front of us. It was fantastic to see him (rhinos automatically feel like they should be male for some reason!) so close up, but he was soon simply showing us his ample backside as he trotted off into the bush.

Our second camp in the park provided more wildlife sightings. In the afternoon a couple of rhinos came down to the watering hole. Then in the evening there were two honey badgers scouting around the camps and bins for scraps. They’re known to be quite aggressive at times, but luckily these two seemed pretty chilled and soon ran off if they were confronted. After dinner we went back up to the waterhole and were greeted by several herds of elephants. It was wonderful to watch them interacting with each other, the different herds taking their turns to go down and drink and some of the older elephants pushing the younger ones out of their way to show them who’s boss. It really was also nice to be able to watch them after the sun had gone down.

The next day we really had a treat at the various waterholes as we made our way over towards Okaukuejo restcamp. As we arrived at the Aus waterhole a fellow Landie driver pointed out that there was a leopard there. We couldn’t believe it as by this time it was 11am. While we sat and watched it, it tried its luck chasing after, first, a warthog and then a kudu. It must have been incredibly hungry to be hunting in the heat of the day like this. However, without the cover of darkness, it was unsuccessful on this occasion, but very fun to watch. We then made our way over to the Olifantsbad hole, where we’d been tipped off that there was a pride of lions that had been hanging around for a few days. At the hole there was a whole array of elephants, antelope and jackals, which we stopped to watch for a while, but no sign of the lions. However, as we continued our drive, we spotted them sleeping among the trees not far from the picnic spot: it’s clearly a very hard life being a cat.

That night at the restcamp’s waterhole we had another rhino encounter. As he stood there rehydrating, a giraffe was patiently waiting in the background for its turn. It soon seemed like the rhino was taunting it though, as it would start to make a move to walk away, but then decided that it wanted just a bit more to drink and tucked back in again. This also meant that we’d seen four of the big five in just one day – more than we ever imagined we would see.

We had toyed with staying another night in the park, but after a drive around the following morning where we had a great encounter with a lone male lion getting his morning drink, we decided it was time to move on. On our way out we encountered another veterinary control point that we hadn’t been aware of, but luckily we managed to bluff our way though without them checking in the fridge. Good job as we still had plenty of meat supplies on board and, being frozen, would unlikely be a foot and mouth risk. We’d mistakenly thought that once we’d crossed over into Namibia and through that control point there wouldn’t be any more, but we’d already encountered one just past the Caprivi and were subsequently warned about another up towards Kaokoland as well.

From Etosha we drove a short way south and stayed the night in Outjo. Karen got pretty excited when the manager asked if she wanted to bottle feed the baby steenbok they had rescued. It lived up to cuteness expectations as it gobbled down the milk and then ran around her legs when it was finished.

The next day we started our journey up into the Kaokoland. The Kaokoland is a region of largely unspoilt mountain wilderness in the north-west of Namibia. Our first port of call was Warmquella and the Ongongo waterfall and pool. It’s a beautiful gem of a place where there’s a small waterfall that flows down a rock overhang into a crystal clear pool. As we stripped off and slipped into the refreshing but surprisingly warm water, we also noticed a couple of fresh water turtles sunbathing on the rocks. The only thing that put a slight dampener on this wonderful oasis was when we stopped to chat with a couple of German guys that had arrived and Karen noticed some leeches attaching themselves to her feet. We all jumped out and spent the next ten minutes or so detaching them and checking our various body parts for stragglers. For anyone else going to visit: don’t let this stop you going in for a dip, just make sure you keep moving!

As we were drying off we heard the familiar sound of a Landie making its way towards us. It turned out to be the father and son, Joel and Freddie, who we’d chatted to in Etosha and had pointed out the leopard to us. That evening we bonded over a braai and a few drinks and before we knew it we were discussing travelling together through Kaokoland. Freddie is a photographer (www.fcvphotography.com ) and the main purpose of their trip was for him to get some good shots of the Himba people in the region (more on the Himba later in this post). Their intended route was into the wilderness up to Epupa and then back via Van Zyl’s pass. Van Zyl’s is an infamous pass in overlanding circles for its remoteness and difficulty level. It’s not recommended to attempt it as a lone vehicle because, if something went wrong or you broke down, it could be days before another vehicle came by. This was great for us as we’d put it on the “another day” list and had planned to take the more “main” roads up to Epupa. For Joel, he was relieved that they weren’t going to be risking it solo.

Our first joint destination was Purros, popular for visiting the Himba villages and also home to some of the area’s desert elephants and lions. The scenery along the way was spectacular. Desert mountains with varying numbers of bushes and trees on them, the odd oasis with palm trees and increased greenery and land changing from rocks to sand and from red to beige. We also spotted hardy springbok, gemsbok, ostrich, zebra and giraffe along the way. At one point we came across a vast plain largely covered with small grasses but with huge numbers of circular patches of bare sand. These are known as “fairy circles” and were apparently featured in the recent BBC series Africa. No one really knows how they came about, although various theories exist, like since-dead Euphorbia bushes leaving behind poisonous chemicals. We, however, soon concluded that it must have been UFOs landing there for a party on their way back from forming some crop circles! It was a truly magnificent setting and we climbed up onto our roofracks to get a better view.

In Purros we met Robbin who works at the campsite and is also a guide. We arranged for him to take us on a tour of the traditional Himba village nearby the following day and then got settled in. We drove out to the village early the next morning. The Himba people split from the Herero tribe and fled to Kaokoland from the Botswana/Namibia border in search of land, having been displaced by the Nama people. They, like many other tribes, live in traditional kraals and simple mud huts. The construction, particularly of the fence around the kraal, is very striking as well as sturdy and apparently takes between two to three months to build. The appearance of the women is very distinctive: they cover their skin and hair in a mixture of deep red ochre and butter, with herbs being added to the neck and hair for fragrance. The hair is braided and also covered in a thick coating of this mixture, almost looking like a version of dreadlocks. At the end of these braids are tufts of artificial hair. Their appearance is enhanced with handmade jewellery and metal beading, with married women wearing an additional headpiece. Their clothing is simply a skirt of animal skin with pleated material at the front.

It was fascinating learning about their culture and the way that they live and we enjoyed interacting with them as Freddie set about taking photographs. Karen particularly enjoyed dancing and playing with the children, who were loving the attention. We were pretty shocked when some other tourists turned up, spent about ten minutes taking photos, handed out sweets to the kids and then buggered off. A tick on their “to do” list rather than wanting to learn about the culture it would seem.

On the way back to the camp we drove along the riverbed and encountered our first desert elephant. It plodded slowly along, munching on the thorn bushes along the banks. It was hard to believe that it could survive in such harsh conditions and it certainly looked more parched and wrinkly than elephants we’ve seen so far. Apparently they’ve adapted to these conditions by being less bulky, with longer legs and larger feet and they can go for several days without water. The only other place in the world that they’re found is in Mali.

After a second visit to the Himba village in the afternoon we planned our next few days and decided to go a more interesting route to Opuwo, the last reasonably large town, and wild camp along the way. Robbin, our guide, had some business to do in Opuwo, so Freddie and Joel made room for him in their Landie and four became five. We enjoyed yet more stunning scenery along the way and made a huge bonfire that night in a riverbed thanks to Robbin and Joel’s impressive wood-collecting efforts. The roads on this stretch, whilst pretty corrugated in parts and with the odd steep ascent/decent, weren’t particularly challenging: just stunning remoteness.

We spent a few days in Opuwo where we stocked up on supplies (it was quite odd seeing near-naked women cruising the aisles of the supermarket), the boys checked over the cars and we enjoyed the lodge’s infinity pool (which has an amazing view out over the mountains). As is often the case, unfortunately it wasn’t all plain sailing with the car checks and Freddie’s Landie needed a bit of work. This meant staying an extra day than originally intended, however we can think of far worse places to be stuck! By this point we felt like we’d all known each other for years and had settled into a great unit of teamwork and banter. Robbin had also become a permanent addition to the team in order to help Freddie arrange further sessions with the Himba and translate for him.

So, the merry band of travellers set off on the next stage of the journey to Epupa. Epupa is famous for the Epupa Falls: a series of waterfalls. Whilst not as imposing or impressive as Victoria Falls, they’re still well worth a visit and are pretty spectacular. Our campsite (the Epupa Falls Campsite) was right on the river and overlooking one of the cascades and it was nice falling asleep to the sound of the water crashing down. We also nearly acquired a sixth addition to the team in the form of “camp dog”, a black and white Jack Russell who adopted us while we were there.

As well as admire the falls and go for a dip in a natural pool formed near them, Freddie arranged to photograph another Himba village whilst we were there. We noticed that the Himba up in Epupa were even more decorative than those we’d visited in Purros, with more jewellery and beading. It was also nice as we were able to meet the chief and some of the young men of the kraal. Those young men that haven’t yet been “released” by their father into manhood have impressive horn-shaped hair styles. They even have specially fitted hair covers to go over them when they’re just going about their business to keep them from getting dusty!

We really enjoyed our time with the Himba both in Purros and Epupa: it was a much more relaxed experience than with the Mursi and having Robbin to translate was a huge benefit. They appear to be very content and jovial and take a real pride in their appearance, making sure their jewellery is straight and the pleats in their skirts just right. Karen also received a marriage proposal from one of the Himba men, which would have made her wife number five (he seemed a little put out when she said that she thought he had enough wives to keep happy already!). We were particularly impressed with the chief, who exuded an air of calm and respect, but was also very hands-on with the kids, who obviously adored him.

Unfortunately while we were there Freddie had more car trouble and needed to replace a pionion bearing. This drew into question Van Zyl’s pass, but after a few phone calls he managed to arrange to have the necessary parts posted to Opuwo. It was therefore decided, seeing as we were all keen to continue with our plan to do Van Zyl’s together, to drive back to Opuwo and do the loop from there once the work had been finished. Flexibility is key trait when it comes to overlanding; it isn’t a mode of travel for those wanting to stick to a rigid timetable. This probably explains why we’re still on the road at this point rather than already being in Cape Town!

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4 thoughts on “Namibia: Caprivi to Epupa

  1. Hi Marcello !

    A very good friend of our’s son is Dr Philip Stander – his websitre is http://www.desertlion.info he is a great friend of Peter (our son) check it out – I have asked him that should you want to contact him it is OK – his mission in life is to save the desert lions of Namibia. Check out his website and then it is up to you – can’t wait to see you when you get back ! Love Heidi & Emil and the rest of the clan

    Emil & Heidi Meyer Haus Enzian Bed & Breakfast 84 Keurboom Street PROTEA HEIGHTS Brackenfell 7560 RSA Tel +27 (0) 21 9812510 Cell +27 (0) 82 9253363 Fax +27 (0) 86 6104831 Web http://www.hausenzian.co.za Email hsenzian@mweb.co.za

  2. Marcello

    I am keen to hear how far you got down the Huab River. You will remember we had a brief discussion about the route at Abu Huab Camp, when we “donated” our left over condiments.

    • Hi Merwe,

      How could I forget the evening I arrived with nothing and returned with many wonderful condiments, thanks again to your Mrs.

      After our lengthy discussion about how far down the river you had ventured that day and the input from your new friend who was providing training for the local guides, I discussed it with the others and we decided for various reasons that it would be better to enter the park via Springbokwasser Gate. Thankfully we took this route as they issue you with a day permit which needs to be returned at the gate you exit therefore had we entered via the Abu Huab river we would have had some difficulty explaining how we had entered the park not having the necessary paperwork.

      Springbokwasser Gate has great scenery and a campsite which relies on donations as it does not charge for camping as well as the Officer at the gate being very helpful and friendly, the same cannot be said for the officer we dealt with at the exit gate just before Mile 108.

      I hope the rest of your trip was good and enjoyed Namibia as much as we did.

      Marcello

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