2015 Namibia (1/2): Kaokoland Trekking

Places Northwest Namibia. Kunene. Kaokoland. Hartmann Mountains, Hartmann’s Valley
Time & length February/March 2015, 3 ½ weeks
Partners Katharina Sungler
After an incredibly adventurous road trip, my friend Katharina and I arrived at the Kunene River in Otjinhungwa (Marienfluss) in the very northwest of Namibia, right at the border to Angola. There we spent two magnificent weeks hiking through the desert, exploring some beautiful but inhospitable territory that most other tourists only see through the windshield of their cars, if at all.

Why Namibia? Before I came up with this idea, I had several other adventures planned instead. A river expedition in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a very technical route in southern Patagonia, a long hike through Colombia and Venezuela and a visit of the dry areas in western Kenya. All of these ideas failed for several reasons; finally I decided to book flights to Namibia where I was especially interested in the very northwest of the country: Kaokoland and Damaraland.

These places are among the driest parts of the country. Generally, Namibia is known for the extended road trips people take there: pack your gear, take 10 liters of water per day and then drive through the desert. No tourists think about hiking the country – too dry, too hot, to dangerous. So I wondered, is it possible to conduct a major hiking trip in a place where survival is so difficult because it almost never rains? Is it possible to hike in the desert, when it’s 45°C and you can’t find any shadow to rest in?

First a few interesting facts about Kaokoland, the area Katharina and I visited during the first 3 ½ weeks of my 7-week-stay. Kaokoland is Namibia’s most northwestern region and is only separated from Angola by the Kunene River. The Kunene is one of only two rivers in Namibia that carries water year-around. The time we were there, February and March, is usually the rainy season in Namibia, but this particular place has barely seen any rain at all during the last ten years. We didn’t count on rain to begin with and sure enough, we always stayed dry.

Well, I shouldn’t say “dry”. Kaokoland is very, very hot; 45°C around noon was not unusual and there was barely any shadow to rest in. Consequently we were sweating a lot, even when we didn’t move. Even at night. But this is something you can get used to.

The bigger challenge is to find enough water. I typically consumed between 8 and 12 liters a day – that is a lot of weight to carry if you don’t find that many water sources. The water issue was the main reason why we decided to stay close to the Kunene River. Other than that river there are no natural water sources in the area. After I almost died of thirst two years ago on my spectacular hike in Karamoja, I now wanted to make very sure we always had enough to drink.

Besides the beautiful landscape, Kunene is also home to several tribes that in part still maintain a very traditional life style. The Himba people, for example, are one of the last tribes in southern Africa who still practice their traditions like they did hundreds of years ago. So do the Ovahakaona people, who originally came from Angola. Others, such as the Herero and Damara people, have adapted a more modern life style.

While I stayed in Namibia for seven weeks, Katharina could only stay for the first 3 ½ weeks. Katharina and I had already hiked together in Alaska in 2013 where we became good friends; now we were looking forward to our next adventure.

After we landed in Windhoek on February 2, Katharina and I spend a day grocery shopping and enjoying the sun in Namibia’s capital. Then we took a bus from Windhoek to Oshakati, which was actually supposed to go to Opuwo, capital of the Kunene region. But apparently we got ripped off at the bus terminal in Windhoek, which forced us take a shared taxi from Oshakati to Opuwo late in the day. Well, it could have been worse.

Our goal was now to find somebody who could drive us to Otjinhungwa (Marienfluss) where we planned on starting our hike. Otjinhungwa is separated from Opuwo by almost 500 km of bad dirt and sand road with little or no traffic (click here to see a map). Since hitchhiking on roads with no traffic is not an option, we had to look for a driver. And of course we found one: the man’s name was “KK”, he works in tourism in Opuwo and had no problem leaving his tiny little office for a few days. He borrowed an old 4×4 pickup truck from his friend and agreed on driving us all the way to Otjinhungwa, no matter how long it would take. After I had written a short contract, which was signed by all parties, we left Opuwo in the afternoon of February 5.

Soon after we left, Katharina and I realized what worn-out vehicle we were driving with. Many things were broken, including the four-wheel drive, climate control, 3 out of four brakes, door handles, and “something with the engine”, as KK put it. Although we insisted on taking two spare tires and a lot more fuel than KK thought we would need, Katharina and I didn’t believe we would make it all the way to the Kunene River, after our first tire broke only two hours out of Opuwo. Using the most primitive tools you can imagine, it took us three hours to change tires, but eventually we continued and spent the night in a Himba village on the way. Since KK is Himba, he was able to translate and explain everything we needed to know about the people there. Soon after we arrived, we found ourselves sitting in one of the tiny houses, talking to the eight locals we shared the one-room building with. In the morning, we asked the people if we could take some pictures, which they didn’t have a problem with.

It took us two more full days to make it to Otjinhungwa (Marienfluss), our destination. I could tell you the funniest stories about this drive – it was incredibly dramatic and hilarious at the same time. I have no idea how this car actually made it that far. We lost more tires, petrol and all the faith we had in reaching our goal. But we still made it. Every 30 minutes, something broke. Something that we actually couldn’t repair – but we somehow did, or we got help at the right moment from a person who came out of nowhere in a place of total solitude. If I believed in miracles, then that’s what I would call it. But since I don’t, I’m just going to quote KK who in times of total disaster always said: “It’s okay. It’s Africa.”

In Otjinhungwa we stayed with Sarah and Ryan, who operate “Camp Syncro”, located right at the Kunene River. I had already been in touch with Sarah and Ryan weeks before we arrived; they helped me plan this trip and provided very important information. Once we finally reached their camp late at night, Katharina and I felt very welcome.

The next day, KK started his way back to Opuwo – Katharina and I made bets on whether or not this car would ever see its owner again. In the meantime, we looked around, searching for a local who was willing to accompany us on our hike. In desert areas like this, where water places are extremely rare – not even mentioning dangerous animals like crocodiles, cheetahs, snakes, scorpions and others – I’d rather have someone with me who grew up in that place and knows it inside out. Also, a local can help with translating in case we run into some remote Himba villages.

In my experience finding a guide in Africa has never been particularly difficult. At least not in an area like this: everybody has time (only few people work regularly) and appreciates some extra money. So the only challenge is to find the right person, not any person.

Otjinhungwa is not a big place. It has a tiny school, a mini shop and a couple more buildings, that’s it. Soon we were told that a guy named “Something” might be right for us. We found Something sleeping under a tree – that’s what the people there do most of the time, we realized after a while.

Something got his name years ago from his teacher who always said “You are something (else)!” He is 31 years old, married (plus several girlfriends, of course), two kids and was not only willing to hike with us, he also had unlimited time. In terms of the area around us he seemed fairly knowledgeable; good enough, at least. Even more critical, it was obvious that he has a good heart; he was polite, dedicated and understood what was important to us. We agreed on a daily rate, gave him food for two weeks, a sports bag (that’s all we could spare and nobody in town had a backpack) and asked him to meet us in our camp at 6.30 the next morning to start the hike.

On our way back to Ryan and Sarah’s camp, we passed by the local soccer field where I took a few pictures of students during gym class African style.

Something arrived 30 minutes late; obviously he had no watch. For three days we hiked west and took a few detours until we arrived at the Kunene River camp, which at the time did not have a single guest. The reason was obvious: it was just too fricking hot this time of the year, Katharina and I were constantly sweating – not only because of the crazy temperatures; the humidity in the Kunene River valley was also significantly higher than in the desert areas further south.

Still, we enjoyed the first part of our two-week hike a lot. The landscape was beautiful, Something proved to be a great guide and it all felt right. We saw plenty of Oryx, baboons and even crocodiles.

In a place called Otumongo we met two boys from Angola who used a very primitive raft to cross the Kunene River after they were out fishing on the Namibian side of the river. They didn’t seem to worry about crocodiles in the water, although everybody knew that a Himba girl, who was standing in the river fishing, had just recently been killed by three crocodiles only few kilometers east.

On February 12, the three of us left the river and hiked 20 km south to a remote airstrip in the middle of the desert. To get there, we had to pack more than 10 liters of water and carry it over rocks, firm sand and dunes. Especially the dunes got to us. Something encouraged us to keep going and said “You must be strong. You must walk with your heart.” Fortunately there were some scattered clouds in the sky that day so the heat wasn’t that unbearable.

The Kaokoland desert is simply beautiful, I really loved it. When we arrived at the air strip, we found a tiny little building with a water drum on top where we filled up our containers.

The air strip serves as a landing place for small airplanes that take tourists from Windhoek into the desert. The very fancy Serra Cafema Lodge was less than 25 kilometers north of the strip and could send drivers to collect their customers right after they stepped out of the plane.

Besides that little building at the air strip, there was nothing but desert around us.

Considering the beauty of the desert around us, we decided to base camp at the air strip and explore the area around us. For three days, we left way before sunrise and came back in the late evening. Although one might think the desert is monotonous and inhospitable there are still so many wonderful things to see; Katharina and I never got tired of hiking the dunes, climbing the rocks and taking pictures of the oryx that wander the desert for dozens of kilometers every day. These animals are incredibly brave. Not all the oryx we saw were alive, though; as a result of the constant drought, we found many of them lying in the sand, dead.

Finding some shade during midday hours was one of the major challenges in the area. One time I saw a huge cave in the rocks far above us, which we later climbed up to and enjoyed for a good rest. The view was unbelievable!

On our last day at the air strip we visited friends of Something’s, a Himba couple living in the rocks of a dry river bed. Their only water source was a small pothole in the sand, which they shared with their goats and the wildlife in the area.

Although we spent four nights at the same place, Katharina and I were able to see and explore so many things that I can call our time at the air strip my favorite part of the entire trip.

We broke camp and started our way back to the Kunene River early on February 16. The more we got used to the climate, the more we could enjoy what was around us. It’s interesting to see how our bodies can adjust to different temperatures: in late September I had been watching the Northern Lights in Alaska while the water in my bottle turned to ice; now I was sweating in the desert with temperatures over 40°C. And still enjoyed it.

Something ran out of food, which he only told us after it was almost too late. We decided to hike further west towards the coast and pass by Serra Cafema Lodge. According to Something, there was supposed to be a small grocery store for the workers there, so we decided to go and check it out. When we arrived, the staff told us that the shop had been out of service for a while now, but fortunately they could spare some basic groceries like rice, spaghetti, biscuits and some vegetables. The people in charge of the lodge were very friendly to us. Not only did they sell us their groceries for a fair price, they also offered us coffee, biscuits and let us sit in their comfortable lounge after they realized that we had come on foot, which of course had never happened to them before.

The place itself was surreal. A facility of extreme luxury and prestige in the middle of Namibia’s poor north, right in the desert! For a stay in the lodge, tourists pay about 1000 US-Dollars per night.

Well, the three of us kept going and spent the night further west, where I found a small pool in the rocks somewhere in the river bed that we thought would be safe from crocodiles. We took a good bath. Later, Katharina saw a crocodile waiting for us at the exact place where we had washed our bodies just a few hours earlier.

On February 18 we spent another day hiking in the desert west of Serra Cafema. Ironically, Something was the one complaining about the heat now – I guess he didn’t quite understand why we would voluntarily expose ourselves to these conditions and call this “fun”.

Our way back to Otumongo was quite uneventful. Well, we encountered a funny spider and I took pictures of a black scorpion (apparently the most dangerous one) lying down right in front of him. Something made sure the scorpion wouldn’t come too close to me.

Before we returned to Otjinhungwa (Marienfluss), we left the river again for an extended day-hike in an open valley to the south.

We reached Camp Syncro in Otjinhungwa in the afternoon of February 22 and celebrated our achievement with ice cold beer that Sarah and Ryan took from their refrigerator. In our home country we can have cold drinks whenever we want, but here in the desert we are talking about a remarkable occurrence, which we appreciated accordingly.

Another surprise happened over night. Like we had discussed with Ryan before, we started our drive back to Opuwo with him at 2 am in the morning. While Katharina and I sat in the back of his pickup truck, Ryan drove through the dark as if there was no tomorrow. We found it hard to believe that any vehicle could do the trip from Otjinhungwa to Opuwo in only eight hours, but that’s how long it took. Considering that the drive in with KK took 3 days, 8 hours was pretty damn fast. I guess the vehicle made the main difference: Ryan’s truck was actually capable of driving on dirt roads.

Back in Opuwo, Katharina and I checked into the same guesthouse we had stayed in earlier and got some rest. We also met KK and invited him to dinner, where we discussed the next day, which was also our last day in Kaokoland. The plan was to drive to a small Ovahakaona village out of Opuwo and spend a few hours there, talking to the people. The Ovahakaona are originally from Angola; many of them moved to Namibia a few decades ago. They speak Otjiherero, just like the Himba and Herero. KK organized a driver and joined us as our translator.

We arrived at the village just after noon on February 24. Most of the day we spent sitting under a tree, talking to the villagers. Thanks to KK, we understood a little more about their traditions, their culture and the way they see tourists like us. The conversation was really interesting. Often they found our questions surprising; according to one elder woman, tourists usually just stop for a few pictures and then move on.

After 5.30 pm, when the sunlight got less intense, I asked the people if I could take pictures of them. Before we took off, we left the groceries that we bought in Opuwo with the elders, a common way to say “thanks” in Namibia.

Here are some of the photos I shot that day.

On February 25 we took the bus from Opuwo back to Windhoek. After a day at the pool, some final reflections on our hike and a few cold beers in between, Katharina flew home to Vienna in the evening of the 26th.

I stayed in Windhoek and welcomed Gini, another friend of mine who joined me on the second part of my 7-week journey through northern Namibia.

Conclusively, I want to point out how happy I am about the weeks in Kaokoland. I found the landscape absolutely stunning and Something, our companion, did a really good job guiding us. Of course I also loved the adventure that comes with a difficult self-organized hiking trip in a wild place like that with so little infrastructure – things changed all the time and we had to be very flexible in order to cope with all the unexpected events that happened to us. But not only was the journey itself pretty rewarding and exciting, I’m also very happy about my friendship to Katharina who never lost her faith in what we were doing up there, no matter how challenging it was.

So, how is hiking in desert areas like this, which only sees tourists with vehicles, never on foot? It’s difficult, exhausting, disappointing at times and often physically very demanding. It’s also very rewarding, beautiful and intriguingly exciting; a time full of surprises and adventure. I wouldn’t want to miss a single day. So yes, go for it!