All images courtesy of Libby Robb
All images courtesy of Libby Robb
They told us at breakfast that an elephant had strolled through the Palmwag Camp, nibbled at our thatched roof, eaten some green leaves off the plants in the garden and then wandered round to the camping site where somebody woke up to find an elephant’s trunk blowing in her ear and a steaming pile of fresh dung quite close to her sleeping bag. The elephant, one of a large herd, was apparently called In-House Ellie and came by, with friends, most nights.
That’s what life off-grid is like when you go to Namibia’s fascinating wilderness of Kaokoland, in the remote north-west, an undisturbed place where people can listen to the quiet, see life as it was, glimpse a scattering of locals, mainly semi-nomadic Himbas living as they did hundreds of years ago. And see game!
The land comprises locally-run wildlife conservancies where lions, rhinos and giraffes roam and herds of springbok, gemsbok and ostriches move with cattle and goats in search of grazing and families of curious suricates stand and stare.
One 92-year-old great-grandmother tells a tale of how she was out tending her goats when a leopard appeared snarling from behind a rock. She apparently threw up her hands and snarled back and it crept off. And if you notice heaps of stones put around the bases of telegraph poles and water-tanks, it’s to stop the elephants pushing them over. It’s like that up there.
Namibia is huge. It’s been independent since 1990 and has a population of 2.6m.
In the south are all those familiar places like Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, Luderitz, Kolmanskop where old colonial German houses sink under sand-dunes, and Keetmanshoop. The coastal Namib desert with its massive dunes is considered to be the oldest desert in the world and spreads south to Oranjemund at the mouth of the Orange River, South Africa and IDB.
North of Windhoek is Etosha, Damaraland, Caprivi and the captivating Skeleton Coast with its desert elephants and lions and shipwrecks rusting in the roaring winds and rough Atlantic sea.
And behind the crumpled layers of grey and purple coastal mountains lies Kaokoland, one of the most elusive regions of Africa. For a long time nobody knew much about Kaokoland.
Getting there presents a challenge for starters. There are little domestic landing strips but mainly people drive. The roads are not trivial, sometimes scarcely visible gravel and red sand tracks or chassis-shattering corrugated rocks. Four-wheel drive Land Cruisers, extra water, padkos, spare tyres and a tow-rope are essentials. Especially the tow-rope.
We had to cross three rivers are one point : two were dry as old bones but the third coursed with water from sudden, exceptional summer rainfall which meant we needed to wait for another vehicle to pass so if we got stuck, they could pull us out. We waited and waited, many hours, before anybody passed us. Eventually they didn’t have to tow us out but they said they’d once spent three days sleeping under a tree waiting for a passing vehicle to help them out.
We were actually heading up Kaokoland towards the Kunene River, to a remarkable place called House on the Hill, three ecologically-friendly, self-catering rondavels privately owned in partnership with the local people.
It’s a place you need to visit if you have an interest in an incredible, untamed environment. It literally sits on the side of a mountain full of quartz. Behind it is a range of marble mountains where great blocks of marble have been cut out of the mountainside by the Chinese, who discovered too late they were not able to transport them over the rough terrain to be despatched. In front of the rondavels is a massive, rugged green valley where the game silently goes as it pleases and countless species of bird fly by. And the locals live.
The locals are mainly desert-adapted nomads, the Himbas, current population 50 000 and probably the last semi-nomadic rural people living traditionally.
The Himba women are stunning, shining with a red sheen on their skin made from ochre and fat. Their hair is plaited and covered in thick mud paste, their bodies clad in a skimpy skin skirts and their bare chests covered with beads and ornaments. The men have less specific fashions and mainly wear what looks like a blue duster in the front and a swathe of a skirt in the back.
Mainly they are pastoral but some of the women now work in indigenous natural product enterprises harvesting essential resins and seeds. They have harvested these products for centuries which are now being used in natural products internationally. And the ladies get paid in cash – – so much easier than taking a goat to town and selling it!
To sit of an evening quietly around the braai in this magical world, one can simply forget that there is an urgent modern world somewhere out there in the darkness beyond the stars.
The tourists haven’t really got to Kaokoland yet but tours are starting. Campsites are springing up, along with environmentally-sound lodges. Word is getting around. Starkly beautiful, breath-taking destinations as far out of reach as it gets are there.
If you’re keen to savour remotest Africa and limitless horizons, get there soon before the others hear about it. But bear in mind that nice little town car you might hire in Windhoek wouldn’t do more than a handful of miles on those road and with maps hardly marking the local roads, go with somebody who knows their way.