Kaokoland is an area in the NW corner of Namibia's Kunene Region. It remains the most 'untouched' and remote part of the country, much of it still only accessible by 4x4 on hardcore tracks - not for the faint-hearted! The main town in the area is Opuwo.
The local people in Kaokoland are mainly Herero and Himba. These two tribes are closely related and both speak Otjiherero. However, Kaokoland is known for the Himba people (singular: OmuHimba, plural: OvaHimba), some of which still live a traditional lifestyle. Genuine OvaHimba (those not assimilated by Western culture) can only be found in Kaokoland.
Many Herero people, particularly younger ones, speak good English and Afrikaans. Amongst traditional OvaHimba however, you are unlikely to find any that speak other languages. If you are looking for help or advice, aim for a younger person in Western dress.
The C35 from Kamanjab to Ruacana and the C41 to Opuwo are tarred roads. All other C-roads are rough, heavily corrugated gravel roads that are just about passable with an ordinary sedan. With few exceptions, district (D) roads require a 4x4, as do all roads without official designation.
The 100 km wide coastal strip between Terrace Bay and the Angolan border is restricted and may only be visited with a certified tour guide that holds the relevant concession. Expect to pay the guide around N$ 1,000 per day for the privilege, even if they are just a passenger in your car. If you do plan to enter this area you need to contact the concession holder well ahead of time, as you are unlikely to find one just by driving around. Contact the Hospitality Association of Namibia or the Namibia Scientific Society for advice.
Public transport is non-existent. To get the best out of Kaokoland, come in a 4x4 and be prepared to camp. Driving during the rainy season can be challenging - there are frequently deep rivers in flood and a lot of mud which even the strongest 4x4 can easily get stuck in. Ensure your vehicle is equipped with a strong tow rope and a shovel before you leave, and always carry plenty of water and food in case you do get stuck for a while. When faced with a river in flood, best advice is to wait for someone else who know what they're doing to come along and follow them! Do not attempt to cross a really deep river (wade in and if it's above your knees at the deepest point, then think twice) - rather camp for the night and wait for the water level to drop - it can do so in a few hours. Local people will be able to advise - if you can find any English speakers!
Decent 4x4s can be hired in Windhoek, with full camping kits if required. However, do enquire beforehand if the car hire company approves your intended route. Only few of them will allow travelling Kaokoland on untarred roads, and none will rent out a car for you to travel to Cape Fria, or attempt Robbie's Pass. Likely there is a clause in your rental contract stating that you lose all coverage (insurance, rescue) in such case.
Please drive in existing tracks - driving offroad causes lasting damage to local flora and fauna and tracks can remain visible for many years.
- Puros - extremely remote village set amongst stunning mountain scenery, only accessible by 4x4, approximately 5 hours' drive from Opuwo to the south-west. Puros is particularly well-known for its desert elephants which are commonly found in the riverbed behind the village and make regular visits to Puros Bush Lodge and Campsite! Also home to desert lions.
- Marienfluss - amazing valley running north-south, known for its grass fairy circles. The north end reaches the Kunene River which forms the border with Angola.
- Hartmannstal - valley running north-south parallel to Marienfluss, also reaching the Kunene. Driving the entire valley and back (there's no bridge across the river, thus also no border post with Angola) from Puros is very scenic but impossible without extra fuel supplies. The last petrol station is in Sesfontein, 400 km from the end of Hartmannstal. Deep sand doubles your fuel consumption, so you need to have petrol for more than 1,600 km! The alternative is the route from Opuwo, half the distance. This one will take you via van Zyl's Pass, see below.
- Van Zyl's Pass - for super-experienced 4x4 drivers only, this pass is well-known as the most challenging 'road' in Namibia and presents a great challenge to those who like that kind of thing! Leads into Marienfluss. Should only be driven in downwards direction, towards Marienfluss - too dangerous the other way if you were to meet anyone coming down.
- Onjuva - beautiful scenery, lies on route between Puros and Marienfluss.
- Sesfontein - en route to Puros. Small town set in fantastic mountain scenery, where landscape starts to transform into desert.
- Epupa Falls - a waterfall on the Kunene River, at the terminus of the C43
Visit an OvaHimba village
There are two ways to do this, both will teach a lot to the visitor and are valuable experiences:
- Visit a Living Village - Living Villages are local, often communal, enterprises where OvaHimba, well, act as if they were themselves. Tourists are invited to join for anything between a few hours and a few days and learn the OvaHimba lifestyle in the form of a crash course. Typical activities are building a hut, going on a nature walk, taste the food, even sleep in a traditional homestead. You'll find such villages around Opuwo and at all tourist destinations and campsites. Many tourists to Namibia feel that visiting these traditional villages is somewhat 'voyeuristic' - but it is the Himba people's choice, and their only source of income.
- Alternatively you can visit a real OvaHimba village, you just have to ask. A village is wherever you see traditional huts, you can spot them from the road. These huts are part of a homestead, and a few hundred meters away there will be another homestead, and so on. All the homesteads in one area form a village. Himba people are very friendly and accommodating, and if you are able to stick to their basic rules of behaviour (see #Respect below) they will happily allow you to pitch tents right in their homestead, sit on their fire, and exchange views about life and everything else with you. To achieve this, you need to find a local guide. They are everywhere where OvaHimba settlements are - ask around for someone speaking English, and that person is the guide, or can organise one. Of course the guide as well as the hosts expect something in return. The guide will expect money; a fair rate is 100N$ per hour, or 500N$ per day. Ask in advance and be prepared to barter. The villagers also take money but more valuable are food items that are relatively expensive in village shops: maize meal, sugar, cooking oil, tinned fish, tea. Also basic kitchen ware like soap, knives, cups or bowls are welcome presents. Luxury items are sweets for the children and tobacco for the adults; a small pack (12.5g) of tobacco costs about 10N$ in Windhoek, and you should have a dozen or so for the times when you need to show your appreciation.
Game drives and wildlife viewing - in many places, a local guide can come along in your car for a game drive and take you to the best places for game viewing, usually along dry riverbeds. Kaokoland has everything - elephants, lions, leopards, cheetahs, as well as the more common zebras, giraffes and antelopes.
Once you leave Opuwo and head into remote parts of Kaokoland, you won't find a restaurant or cafe anywhere (except perhaps the lodge in Sesfontein). Absolute basic food supplies (rice, pasta, stock cubes, sugar, tea, some canned food) can be purchased in village shops (Puros, Onjuva, Sesfontein, Warmquelle) but don't count on finding anything beyond basic necessities, or anything that requires cold storage. Best to bring all required food along, stock up in Opuwo before you leave. Firewood can usually be bought at campsites.
Cool drinks and beer can sometimes be found in local village shops - see above. Also available at some campsites.
- Puros Bush Lodge and Campsite (lie about 5 km from Puros village along the river - signposted). self-catering lodge camping $60 pppn.
- Marienfluss (At far northern end of valley, on banks of Kunene River). Okarohombo Campsite, $60 pppn.
- Van Zyl's Pass Campsite (About 10 km before the beginning of the Pass itself, near the village of Otjihende). $60 pppn.
- Sesfontein Figtree Campsite (In town of Sesfontein, next to the Conservancy Office). Hot water, natural springs for swimming (if you can get past the local kids!). $60 pppn.
- Onjuva Marble Mine Campsite (En route from Puros to Marienfluss (avoiding Van Zyl's Pass!)). Well-kept campsite, very friendly staff, hot water, beer and cool drinks for sale. $60 pppn.
Crime is virtually non-existent amongst local people in remote parts of Kaokoland, but be sensible and lock up your vehicle etc. The Chinese labourers working at Onjuva Marble Mine have gained a reputation for being a bit light-fingered, so watch your possessions if they are around!
The greatest danger with Kaokoland is its remoteness - if your car breaks down or if you get stuck, help can be a long way. Have an itinerary ready, and share it with friends and local guest houses. A satellite phone is highly recommended, as well as plenty of food and water.
Unsurprisingly, OvaHimba want to be shown respect. Do understand that many of them could live a Western life but consciously choose not to do so. Furthermore, many of the villagers are in no way poor: A healthy head of cattle is worth 10,000N$, and an OmuHimba man eligible to marry might own well over a hundred of them.
Age before beauty - Age and seniority are important notions to many Namibian indigenous people, including OvaHimba. The head of the homestead expects you to talk to him first, even if you both know you will not understand each other. You recognise him by the four insignia of elders: chair, hat, stick, and knife. In a homestead, he is typically the only one sitting on a proper chair, all others sit on tree stumps, tyres, drums, or in the sand. The head will always eat first, do prepare a portion for him if you camp there. When he is finished he will give the remains of his food to the first wife, so make sure his portion is really generous.
Do not take pictures without asking - You must not take pictures of people in front of their huts. The reason is that the set of huts is the homestead, and the hut itself might be the sleeping room, the kitchen, the shrine. Nobody wants to be photographed in their pyjama, on their way to fetching breakfast or getting properly dressed. OvaHimba are not stupid and know what a drone is, and what a telephoto lens does. There have been reports of tourist cars being pelted with stones by bystanders, mostly children. The reason for this treatment is not, as normally reported, that begging children were ignored but rather that tourists intruded the private life of the villagers.
Ask to take pictures, and be prepared to pay a small fee - The reason for the payment is that villagers will get dressed especially for you. Attire is very important, and the right ornament at the wrong place might portray a married woman as single, or a teenage boy as an elder. To have such picture published is an extreme embarrassment to the family of the person.
Please don't give to begging children - this is becoming an increasing problem in Kaokoland, and if tourists give in and hand over food or money, it just encourages a very indignified culture of dependence. If a child does something for you like opening a farm gate for you to drive through, or directing your car through a flowing river, then you may give something. And yes, you should have a bag of loose sweets ready for the situations where you really cannot get rid of them in any other way.