Off the grid in Namibia’s wild, wild West

Longtime best friend David recently visited Namibia, so we hired a 4×4 with a roof-mounted tent to explore a corner of the country that has attracted me since my arrival: Damaraland and Kaokoland. Lying mostly in Kunene Region, it is considered one of the most remote places on Earth and besides its fascinating scenery, flora and free-ranging wildlife, it is the traditional homeland of the Damara and Himba tribes.

I hope you enjoy the photos, credit for which is shared with David. Thanks for the visit and the great time!

When apartheid was imposed, tribes were sent to various areas of what later became the country of Namibia. Damaraland and Kaokoland are in the remote, sparsely populated Northwest of the country.

The Road

This is the best road we found: a veritable super-highway between Sesfontein and Khorixas.
Most of the time, we were on tracks like these…

Sometimes, like this stretch of the Jan Joubert Pass (in the centre of the photograph), our 4×4 skills were truly tested.
Zooming in gives you a better sense of the road conditions over the Jan Joubert Pass. This was rated only 3 on the 1-4 Kaoko Scale – some passes are even more treacherous.
A good map and GPS coordinates were essential to find key landmarks like the “Red Drum…”
… and the “Blue Drum.” (Clearly there’s some Burning Man-type whimsy at work in the Kaokoveld!)
Nothing gives you the sense of expanse like endless roads reaching towards the horizon…

The Land

Smoke from wildfires in Angola hindered our view, but that’s the Namib Desert off in the distance.
We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn a couple of times.

Near Walvis Bay, yet another unique geological feature.
Near the small town of Uis, at the base of Brandberg Mountain (Namibia’s tallest), the sun sets over the old tin mine, now filled with water for fish farming.
Though technically it was still Spring, the air got chilly when the sun went down.
There is more than one way to warm up, however – thanks to Basel, an innkeeper and bigger-than-life local celebrity in Uis.
Several views of a marble quarry we came across. It’s common to see giant marble blocks atop semi trucks heading to the port at Walvis Bay, to be shipped abroad for cutting and polishing. The country hopes to develop those skills locally so that Namibian consumers don’t have to buy expensive re-imported Namibian marble tiles for their homes, businesses and lodges.

Entering into the Marienflus, heading to Angola.
Our furthest point: The Kunene River, separating Namibia from Angola across the water.

The Flora and Fauna

Nicknamed The Arid Eden, the areas is known for its unique, drought-resistant trees and plants, which can sometimes take on curious shapes.

I will never get tired of seeing car-sized bird colony nests!
We had to make way for a monitor on the road.
Though our pickup truck was much bigger, he and we both knew who truly owned the road.
Can you see the bull elephant hiding in the tall grass and reeds? We almost didn’t either.
This herd wasn’t so well hidden.

And this young, loud and rambunctious one was anything but hidden.
Sometimes, we got pretty close to these massive creatures.
And other times, they let us know we were getting too close.
It’s always fun to sit beside a water hole, watching the animals drink, bathe and play.

These are a sub-species of African elephant, known for their extra long legs (giving them longer strides to cover greater distances in search of water). These “desert elephants” are uniquely adapted to their environment.
There are other animals who have also adapted to the conditions, including these Oryx.

And these Hartmann’s Zebras…
And Ostrich…

And Kudu…
And the omnipresent Springbok.
Even the wild donkeys!

From a distance, on the far side of the river, it’s easy to miss the patient crocodiles.

Africa’s heaviest flying bird!
Speaking of birds, we loved watching this beautiful flock of flamingos land for their late afternoon meal in the wetlands.

The Campsites

Free camping in the Damaraland bush!

Camp Synchro, along the Kunene River, which forms the border between Namibia and Angola.
Sunrise at our last campsite, along a dry river bed outside near Palmvag.

The People

Himba women and children, usually a bit shy but often quick to smile.

The Himba women cover their skin and hair with a mixture of ochre and animal fat to protect themselves from the sun and arid climes.

A Himba village with personal huts and a small stick corral. Technically, they’re not considered nomadic, but the Himba will move their villages whenever they can improve their access to food and water..
When they do move, the personal huts, larger communal structures and animal corrals are fairly easy to build at the new sites.
We enjoyed the Himba craftwork and bought baskets and jewellery.
The Kunene River provides water for drinking, laundry and bathing to the families in the nearby villages – oftentimes on the same trip. This family knew where to go to avoid the crocs.
South of the traditional Himba lands, we visited Fillomina, a friend working at Hobatere Lodge.
Fillomina and I met at a traditional Damara wedding last year – her cousin is a good friend of mine in Arandis.
While these lands are currently occupied by traditional Damara and Himba peoples, they were originally occupied from 7,000-2,000 years ago by the ancestors of today’s San people (Bushmen). The ancient San left tens of thousands of colorful rock and cave paintings – these are thought to be about 5,000 years old.
Almost nondescript in the middle of this panel is the famous White Lady of Brandberg, so called because an early 20th Century explorer mistakenly identified the figure as “female with Mediterranean features.” It has since been interpreted as an ancient male shaman holding an ostrich egg chalice, but the name has stuck nonetheless.
Closeup of The White Lady.

The Friendship

Author: Chris

Until 2019, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Namibia focused on Community Economic Development. Before that, I was a high-tech executive, small business owner, consultant and business broker.

14 thoughts on “Off the grid in Namibia’s wild, wild West”

  1. Hillsides of solid marble, amazingly beautiful hair-styles of the local women, pink flamingoes reflected in the lake- once again, professional photography from a great and generous human being. Happy Thanksgiving Chris!

  2. A couple comments from the other guy:
    We did 2,319 miles in that rugged rig.
    Two thousand three hundred and nineteen miles! On mostly gravel roads which over time developed a bone-rattling washboard surface. I was the grateful passenger of Chris’ capable driving. All from the “wrong” side of the vehicle & road (darn those Brits), causing Chris to flip on his windshield wipers when intending to signal a turn. I’m glad I wasn’t the one needing to master 4×4 gear-shifting with my left hand!
    Chris did well over some challenging sections. To put this into perspective: on our first morning in the boonies, when cracking open the sole surviving eggs (only 4 of 12), the yolks and egg whites were already pre-scrambled!

    Mostly I wanted to comment on something you already know about Chris: he was at his best when interacting with the people. He greeted everyone, everywhere, in every way possible. If his greeting was met with no response, he’d try a greeting in another language. Invariably, a Namibian-Afrikaans accent added to his Californian-English helped engage the stranger and reward him with a smile. He revels in making a connection with people. But you certainly know that.

    During our time together, his stories of his work with Peace Corps were truly inspiring. He’s making a lasting and positive impact here.
    Thanks for a great trip, Chris!

    1. How nice to see you two old friends adventuring together. Beautiful photos of a dramatic land and lovely people.

  3. Wow! National geographic quality expedition! Loved it. What an adventure! Love to hear how this experience has changed you. I can tell you are seeing with new eyes. Thanks again for the stories.

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