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Kaokoland

"Where rivers spring to life in the desert, Kaokoland is Namibia’s most unchartered territory. It is the heartland of the Himba people, and its dusty tracks are tackled by the bravest of 4x4 enthusiasts"

Kaokoland is the northwesternmost pocket of Namibia, south of the Angolan border. This is perhaps the wildest and most desolate territory you’ll encounter in southern Africa. It’s incredibly scenic with a network of enigmatic dry rivers coursing under the sand towards the Skeleton Coast and the Atlantic Ocean. The Kunene River is the vein of life in Kaokoland and Namibia’s northern border. Here, you’ll meet the Himba tribespeople and learn what it is to be a self-sufficient traveller!

This part of Namibia appeals to real road adventurers and those who want to drink in total silence, solitude, and stars. Those who investigate Kaokoland tours and destinations are often looking for the road less travelled, off the beaten track, a bit of rugged camping and tough driving. The places that present a bit of a challenge are the most pristine, and that is certainly true for Kaokoland. This is where you’ll meet desert elephants congregating in the dappled shade; see the sweeping grass plains and fairy circles of Marienfluss; the rugged mountains of Puros; Kunene’s Epupa Falls; and the notorious Van Zyl’s Pass.

Sesfontein

Sesfontein is the southernmost point of Kaokoland, bordering on Damaraland. It’s a shabby town, but don’t let that put you off. It has a warm heart for tourism and the local community is committed to working in partnership with the authorities to conserve the wildlife habitat.

The Hoanib River Valley is what is special about this area. It is one of the hotspots for desert wildlife because there is vegetation and water to sustain life, so you’ll have the opportunity to explore via game drive and stand a good chance of seeing the free-roaming desert adapted lions, which are closely tracked and followed by the Desert Lion Conservation Project by fans and followers all over the world via the web. Elephants, giraffes, brown hyena, steenbok, kudu, jackal, and the famous black rhino thrive in the Sesfontein Conservancy, so enjoy the experience.

While you can visit a Himba Village here, we’d recommend saving this special cultural experience for the more remote northern parts of Kaokoland near Opuwo. There are a few sites for rock art around here too, but don’t waste your time and save that for Twyfelfontein. This is the place to see desert lions and elephants!

Puros 

Puros is pretty much the western hub of Kaokoland, with Opuwo being the eastern point of entry about five hours’ drive away. The area around Puros is many a traveller’s favourite region because it’s remote and scenic and a bit of a rough 4×4 drive, so unless self-drive travellers are prepared for that, then it remains uncrowded.

Like Sesfontein to the south, Puros is the territory of the coveted desert lions, so that’s the primary motivation for staying here, but by far the only reason for going. It is extremely remote and could be described as excruciatingly deserted. The simple tracks are the only roads crossing the dusty, rocky, terrain. We would recommend staying at Puros Bush Lodge and exploring the area with a guide.

The Hoarusib River (one of Kaokoland’s major veins) crosses Puros, storing water underground and sustaining vegetation. It is enigmatically beautiful, and to add to the mystery are the Lonely Stone Men of Kaokoland. These numerous sculptures of human figures are hidden in different parts of the north-western Namibia, and the rules are you do not tag their location if you ever find them! Keep the mystery alive.

Marienfluss

The landscape north of Puros gets increasingly arid and soon you’ll feel like you’re on a planet other than Earth (Namibia will do this to you). Right in the farthest northern reaches is Marienfluss, a beautiful valley floor covered in feathery golden grass and flanked by the Hartmann’s mountain range. The red sand floor is pockmarked with fairy circles, which you can also glimpse in the Sossusvlei region, but this is one of the country’s most famous spots for it.

The valley runs north-south and its northern end reaches the Kunene River. You have a chance of seeing special species, such as brown hyena, Cape fox, Kaokoveld rock hyrax, Namaqua chameleon, oryx, and Hartmann’s mountain zebra.

If you’re heading for Marienfluss from Puros, you’ll cross some of the most deserted territory of Kaokoland, and indeed the whole country. The only sign of any travel aide along the way is the “town” of Orupembe. It isn’t a town. Just one endearing little grocer called Shop 1. The diminutive building has become a must-stop for a cold beer and a photo!

Most people travelling to Marienfluss are doing so with the intention to cross Van Zyl’s Pass – a notorious mountain pass requiring serious 4×4 capabilities, proper preparation and back-up. A bucket-list item for many brave souls! The pass is driven in a downwards direction only, descending the mountain into Marienfluss. Only pure-blood Namibians attempt to go at it uphill, and in those cases, you need to be positive there is no one coming in the opposite direction!

Epupa Falls

This is one the most famous sites of Kaokoland. The northern border of Namibia brings relief from the enormous expanse of desert in the form of the Kunene River, if which the Epupa Falls are a part. Lined with palms and lush riparian vegetation, the sandy, rocky, dusty desert meets an oasis. Epupa Falls is a spectacular series of plunging and roaring water, as the Kunene River surges against the river rocks. The rapids continue for about 1.5km and the highest waterfall in the group falls 37m.

There are a couple of beautiful riverside campsites at Epupa and activities that explore the area, whether on foot or on the water. A number of authentic Himba villages are located nearby and there are opportunities to engage with local residents and photograph their traditional adornments respectfully, which is also a highlight of this area.

Ruacana Falls is Epupa’s big sister at a much more powerful 120m drop and 700m breadth when in flood. It’s about 135km east of Epupa, and while it’s impressive to see, it doesn’t offer much more than just the view. Two big power plants have been built there to make use of the natural energy source.

Opuwo

The dusty town of Opuwo is the Headquarters of Kaokoland. It’s the easternmost gateway to the region and the last solid supply stop for self-drivers before entering the great abyss. It is a bustling African town: a mixture of dilapidated market stands, dirt roads, and decent supply stores and fuel stations. Among residents dressed in casual garb are Herero and Himba people in traditional outfits representing their tribes. It’s a melting pot of modern day and ancient Namibian customs.

If you’re staying in Opuwo, you’d be best off at Opuwo Country Lodge, which is one of our favourites and something of an oasis with a treatment spa, swimming pool, and luxury rooms. Most people visit Epupa Falls from Opuwo and take the opportunity to visit a traditional Himba village with a professional guide to facilitate the experience.

Once you’ve had a taste of the “city life” and checked off a local meal or market, take off into the untouched wilderness of Kaokoland!

Rivers of Kaokoland 

The enigmatic river systems of the north-western Namibian desert sustain some of the world’s most endangered species, like desert-adapted lions, elephants, and black rhino. It is thanks to the underground water coursing through the sand and dust that resilient plant life grows and feeds the wildlife. They are the life givers of the desert and adventure seekers have taken to the riverbeds in their 4x4s for the greatest expeditions of their lives.

Kaokoland’s southern border is the Hoanib River and its northern border is the Kunene – one of Namibia’s five of perennial rivers. In between the two are a handful of rivers with enough surface water to make them oases for the resident and migratory wildlife.  On the Kunene River is Serra Cafema – maybe one of the remotest luxury lodges in Africa. Rolling desert sand dunes south of the river meet the burgeoning Kunene, full of life. Flying in and out is the only way to access this riverside retreat. Highly recommend!

The Khumib and Hoarusib Rivers weave around Orupembe between Puros and Marienfluss. Puros is a wildlife hotspot because of the Hoariseb River, and if you’re staying at Puros Bush Lodge, you might get lucky and have elephants come right into your vicinity.

The Hoanib River offers some incredible 4×4 routes around Sesfontein. It flows every couple of years and when it does it can be quite the spectacle, flooding at a few metres high and on very special occasions might reach the sea at the Skeleton Coast.

Travel tip:

The Kaokoland landscape is one of the most pristine in the world. There is very little chance of sharing your views and experiences with anyone, but it can be dangerous if you are underprepared. We recommend a guided itinerary with the experts to make sure you make the most of this wonderland.

When to Go

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Why we like it

  • It’s wild and rugged and only true explorers attempt to cross it.
  • The dry riverbeds sustain endangered populations of desert elephants and lions.
  • Rainfall can change the landscape overnight.
  • It’s extremely vast and empty so tourism density is very low.
  • It has some of the toughest and most exciting 4×4 terrain in southern Africa.

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