You too can drive the new river road along the wild Kunene – with­out a 4x4!


Astream orig­i­nates near a vil­lage on the Bié Plateau in An­gola. Trib­u­taries join up with this stream and it grows and grows un­til it be­comes the Kunene, which snakes through the land­scape for a thou­sand kilo­me­tres be­fore emp­ty­ing into the At­lantic Ocean.

The Kunene is one of our planet’s last re­main­ing wilder­nesses. Huge sec­tions aren’t ac­ces­si­ble, not even if you have a 4x4, and it’s full of croc­o­diles from Epupa Falls to the sea.

East of Epupa, how­ever, there are some hints of civil­i­sa­tion along its banks. My plan is to drive along the river and see as much of the Kunene as I can, find­ing places to stay and meet­ing the peo­ple who call this un­tamed place home.

Where the Kunene stum­bles

North of Opuwu, on the C43 to Epupa Falls, there’s a sign point­ing to Swart­boois­drift – a small dot on my GPS about 85 km up­stream from the wa­ter­fall.

Around many camp­fires en route to the river, I was warned that it would take close to 10 hours to drive the D3700 next to the Kunene. “You need a high­er­grade 4x4,” some­one said. “You can’t do it alone.”

I’m not in a higher-grade 4x4 and I’m very much alone, so I amended my plan. I’ll turn around at Epupa Falls, drive back to this turn-off, then fol­low a de­tour of about 100 km via Swart­boois­drift to reach a pass­able part of the no­to­ri­ous river road.

Just to be safe, I mark the turn-off on my GPS. But for now I’m not go­ing to worry about what lies ahead. It’s time to see a wa­ter­fall.

Opuwu is the cap­i­tal of the re­gion and the last place where you can buy gro­ceries and fill up with diesel. It’s also where the tar road ends. From here to Epupa it’s 180 km of (graded) gravel.

The land­scape be­comes more moun­tain­ous as I ap­proach An­gola and the road goes up and down un­til I see green­ery in the next val­ley: palm trees on the banks of the Kunene.

A week ago I watched the Kunene flow into the sea on the Skele­ton Coast (see p 10). There, the river was more than a kilo­me­tre wide, calm, and sur­rounded by sand and stone. Here the pic­ture is en­tirely dif­fer­ent: The river is nar­rower and lined with dense thick­ets. Makalani palms and wild fig trees crowd its banks.

As you drive down the main road to Epupa vil­lage, a jeep track turns off the road and goes up a hill on the left. This is the rea­son most peo­ple visit Epupa – the view of the wa­ter­fall from the top of that hill is un­par­al­leled.

Epupa is a tricky des­ti­na­tion. For years, there was only one good road in and out, which meant you couldn’t add it to your itin­er­ary as a stop on a cir­cu­lar route. You had to want to come here, and just here.

It’s late, but I drive the jeep track any­way. I get out of my red Isuzu bakkie at the top of the hill and look at the Kunene be­low, tum­bling over a 50-me­tre cliff in a se­ries of streams. Some of the streams are small and seem to orig­i­nate from the cliff it­self; oth­ers, closer to the river­bank, flow stronger. Baob­abs cling to rocky is­lands in the wa­ter.

The set­ting sun turns the sky pink and the spray of the wa­ter­fall burns bright orange. I think of all the wa­ter­falls I’ve seen. Epupa isn’t as mighty as Vic Falls, but it’s wild and pris­tine and above all else, un­ex­pected. There are no crowds here, no rail­ings to hold on to, no park

UN­DER MAKALANI PALMS (op­po­site page). Camp at Epupa Falls Lodge and watch the wa­ter whip past your tent on its way to the wa­ter­fall. At night you’ll fall asleep to its roar.

gates or signs; just a tor­rent of mirac­u­lous wa­ter in a land of dry riverbeds.

I watch the res­i­dents of the vil­lage wash their clothes in pools near the fall­ing wa­ter. Right be­hind the big­gest wa­ter­fall, a build­ing peeks out from be­hind the palm trees – Epupa Falls Lodge, where I’ll spend the night.

Meet Koos Kunene

Epupa Falls Lodge is owned by Koos van Wyk, known lo­cally as “Koos Kunene”. He’s a leg­end in this part of the world and clearly a lit­tle un­com­fort­able with the fame that goes with it. “I don’t do in­ter­views with jour­nal­ists,” he says. “If you want to talk to me, come over for a braai.”

Fair enough. I pitch my tent as close to the wa­ter as pos­si­ble then I join Koos at the fire. He’s with An­dries Ober­holzer, who tells me he’s from “all over”, An­neke de Kock from Cape Town and mis­sion­ary Sarel Visser. Sarel worked in Kaokoveld for years and now lives in Outjo with his wife Net­tie and their sheep­dog Karla.

Koos sits next to the fire, bare­foot, wear­ing a faded peak cap. He has a tod­dler on each knee. “I raised their mother,” he says. “She’s from An­gola. Now I’m rais­ing her daugh­ters. This is Chiconene and Pikkewyn.”

The gates at Epupa Falls Lodge are never locked. Two Himba girls in tra­di­tional dress en­ter and sneak up be­hind Koos to give him a fright. “This is what many places along the river lack,” he says as the Himba girls start to braid An­neke’s hair. “When you stay here, you ex­pe­ri­ence the river and its peo­ple.”

The kids stay for din­ner. Once Sarel has blessed each plate, Koos tells me about his child­hood in the Kala­hari and how he de­vel­oped two tourism busi­nesses in north­ern Namibia 30 years ago. Af­ter his busi­ness in the Marien­fluss burnt down in 2010, he turned his fo­cus to this camp next to the Kunene.

“I came here on my own,” he says. “It’s far away from braais on a Satur­day night and potjiekos on Sun­day. I’m here and I’m happy.”

The last of the wan­der­ers

The next morn­ing I meet John Muhenje at the lodge gate, who will take me on a tour of a nearby Himba vil­lage. I pay him R150 for his ser­vice as a guide, but he tells me not to put my wal­let away just yet. “You can’t ar­rive at the vil­lage empty-handed,” he says. “Not with money, though.”

So we go to the lodge shop, where I buy a few bags of mealiemeal. Then we drive about 10 km to the vil­lage in the veld.

The Kunene Val­ley and the sur­round­ing desert is the home­land of the Himba peo­ple – the only tra­di­tion­ally no­madic tribe in Namibia. Vil­lages like this one – us­ing reli­able wa­ter from the river – are an ex­cep­tion.

Af­ter a long day, my mat­tress is call­ing my name. In my tent I can hear the wa­ter­fall and An­dries and Koos singing next to the camp­fire: “Gee my die ou Kala­hari, die ou Kala­har­i­land!”

The vil­lage is quiet and seems de­serted save for two women, a child, a few goats and chick­ens. “The men are in the veld herd­ing goats,” says John. “The women do every­thing in and around camp, from cook­ing and col­lect­ing fire­wood to plas­ter­ing the huts.”

The huts are built with mopane branches and plas­tered with a mix­ture of cow dung and clay. They stand in a cir­cle around the cat­tle kraal, where a holy fire burns in the mid­dle.

Like any tribe liv­ing in the desert, Himba cul­ture is in­flu­enced by the scarcity of wa­ter. The women don’t use wa­ter to bathe. In­stead, they rub them­selves with

otjize – a mix of red ochre and but­ter­fat, which gives their skin a red­dish tinge.

The Himba also use otjize to braid their hair. “You can learn a lot by look­ing at the dif­fer­ent hair­styles,” John says. “You can tell whether a per­son is sin­gle, mar­ried or a wid­ower. You can even see if the per­son has a twin!”

On the way back to Epupa I ask John how he mar­ries the tra­di­tions of his peo­ple with his west­ern­ized sur­round­ings and life­style. “It’s some­times hard to bal­ance,” he ad­mits. “The mod­ern world clashes with the tra­di­tional and I stand with a foot in both. Some­times I wear my tra­di­tional clothes and spend time with my fam­ily. This will al­ways be my cul­ture and these will al­ways be my peo­ple.”

A short cut along the river

Back at Epupa Falls Lodge I pack up camp, say good­bye to Koos and get ready for my epic de­tour to Swart­boois­drift.

Koos looks be­mused. “Why don’t you drive along the river?” he says. “They just graded a new road.”

I can’t be­lieve what I’m hear­ing and ask him again if my bakkie will man­age.

“Of course! The fi­nal 20 km sec­tion still has to be graded, but it’s not too wild. The rest you can ba­si­cally drive in a sedan. I reg­u­larly meet grumpy 4x4 driv­ers who were hop­ing for a full­day chal­lenge from Swart­boois­drift. They ar­rive here at lunchtime and sit on the deck drink­ing beers.”

I trust Koos, so we shake hands and I head out.

At the lodge gate I turn left and drive past Koos’s neigh­bours – Omarunga Lodge & Camp­site and Kapika Wa­ter­fall Lodge – and the turn-off to the more lux­u­ri­ous Epupa Camp a lit­tle way up­stream (see p 115 for rates). The gravel road is in­deed freshly graded and the river is never too far from my left shoul­der.

There’s no traf­fic be­sides the graders and be­cause the road is still so new, there aren’t any places to stop or stay over. I can see where the old road used to run: an un­even jeep track go­ing up steep, rocky hills that no ve­hi­cle should ever have to tackle. No won­der it had such a rep­u­ta­tion!

But it’s not all plain sail­ing. On one hill, I hear the dis­heart­en­ing sound of a flat tyre on gravel. Koos warned me that my tyres might suf­fer: “The rocks haven’t set­tled yet,” he said.

Still, if I had to choose a place to get a flat, it would be here. I change the wheel then I sit on the back of the bakkie, sip a cooldrink and watch the Kunene feel­ing its way through the hilly land­scape.

Back on the road, I’ve only driven a few kilo­me­tres be­fore a Himba man sig­nals for me to stop. My first in­stinct is that I’m in trou­ble. Have I strayed onto pri­vate prop­erty? But the man gives me two thumbs-up, whis­tles loudly and for the next 10 min­utes I’m in a Kunene traf­fic jam as he herds his goats across the road to the wa­ter.

The fi­nal 20 km sec­tion is jeep track and moves even closer to the wa­ter, but the bakkie man­ages fine. This new river road has opened up the re­gion. For the first time you can in­cor­po­rate Epupa Falls into a cir­cu­lar route. How­ever, I un­der­stand why the 4x4 guys are dis­ap­pointed: The un­graded fi­nal sec­tion has an ap­peal of its own. Like the river, it’s still wild and pris­tine.

At Swart­boois­drift the jeep track joins up with the main road – the one I would have fol­lowed had I taken the de­tour. My des­ti­na­tion is Kunene River Lodge nearby.

RIVER DOGS (op­po­site page). These Jack Rus­sells are called Me and Too. They be­long to Pete Mor­gan, owner of Kunene River Lodge, and there’s a good chance they’ll join you on a river cruise.

The ebb and flow of the Kunene

One of the at­trac­tions of the Kunene is the birdlife along its banks – more than 300 species have been recorded. Bird­watch­ers come from all over to see spe­cials like ru­fous-tailed palm-thrush, An­golan cave chat and Cinderella wax­bill. This is the only place in south­ern Africa where you can see these species and Pete Mor­gan knows just where to find them.

“We some­times have guests from Europe or the US who book a two-week stay just to see the An­golan cave chat,” says Pete as he shows me pic­tures of the rare birds in the re­cep­tion of­fice at Kunene River Lodge. “So I take them up the river and they see the bird on their first out­ing. Then they get in their cars and go home! I don’t mind,” he adds. “They’ve al­ready paid.”

Pete and his wife Hil­lary first came to Kunene River Lodge as guests. They loved it so much that they bought the lodge in 2005. To­gether, they’ve de­vel­oped it into a place with some­thing for ev­ery­one: There’s a deck if you want to watch the river all day and kayaks for ad­ven­ture junkies who want to pad­dle the rapids.

I’m the only camper in the camp­site and I choose the stand fur­thest from the gate. It’s quiet, close to the wa­ter, and the river­bank is steep enough to keep the crocs away… The zip of my tent is bro­ken and I don’t want any un­wel­come vis­i­tors. The roads have also taken their toll on my food supplies. Milk boxes broke open and ru­ined my dry food. Din­ner will be a sad af­fair: in­stant noo­dles and tinned sausage.

Late that af­ter­noon, Pete takes me out on the river in his boat. His Jack Rus­sells join us. “Their names are Me and Too,” he says. “If one gets to do some­thing, the

other one wants the same.”

Pete has trav­elled up the river hun­dreds of times. He knows where the birds are – and the crocs. Be­sides the three su­per spe­cials men­tioned ear­lier, you can also see grey kestrel, vi­o­let wood-hoopoe, Ben­nett’s wood­pecker, Rüp­pell’s par­rot, bare-cheeked bab­bler, carp’s tit, Mada­gas­car bee-eater and white-tailed shrike.

We cruise up to a big rapid. “The Kunene is a tough river,” Pete says. “It has wa­ter­falls, rapids, croc­o­diles and places where the bank is only rocks and cliffs. And it’s never the same be­cause the river has tides.”

These “tides” are caused by the hy­dro­elec­tric plant at Rua­cana, about 50 km up­stream. It was built in the 1970s and the river was dammed. Sluices con­trol the flow, which leads to fluc­tu­a­tions in wa­ter level.

The sun is set­ting when we turn back. Me and Too are fast asleep on the benches in the boat. The river is peaceful, seem­ingly un­aware of its own rapids just kilo­me­tres up­stream. The sil­hou­ettes of palm trees on the banks are re­flected in the wa­ter. Pete makes one last stop at a sand­bank on the An­golan side and pours us each a gin and tonic. Night falls and the bats come out to play, as does a bat hawk – a species usu­ally only seen in Etosha and the Zam­bezi Re­gion. The hawk hunts the bats like a fighter plane and even­tu­ally catches and eats one mid-flight.

The show goes on un­til the sun has long since van­ished be­hind the hori­zon.

The next morn­ing a vervet mon­key peeks into my tent, not ex­pect­ing to find anyone home. I don’t know who gets a big­ger fright, but for the rest of the morn­ing I don’t see a sin­gle mon­key. Steam rises from the river in the cool morn­ing air as I pack up my tent. It’s then that I re­alise: It’s wrong to stay here for only one night.

The last of the Kunene

The gravel road from Kunene River Lodge to Rua­cana hugs the river and some­times wan­ders off when the land­scape around the river gets too wild. There are more places to stay and even a farm­house or two.

I stop at camp­sites along the way. Kunene Is­lands, Omun­jandi and Mavinga can’t com­pete with Kunene River Lodge, but they’re on the wa­ter and well main­tained – you don’t need much more. (See p 115 for way­points and rates.)

Epupa is not the only wa­ter­fall on the Kunene worth see­ing. Rua­cana is also im­pres­sive, es­pe­cially when the falls are in spate. Un­for­tu­nately this doesn’t hap­pen any more be­cause the wa­ter has been di­verted by the hy­dro­elec­tric scheme and the rocks just bake in the sun.

At the base of Rua­cana Falls is Hippo Pool Camp, but it seems to have dried up along with the wa­ter­fall. You can still camp here but the fa­cil­i­ties are di­lap­i­dated so I de­cide to give it a miss.

The dirt road soon turns to tar. I pull over and look back at the Kunene. It turns north here, cross­ing into An­gola. The bor­der car­ries on east in a straight line for 445 km, to where it starts to fol­low the course of the Oka­vango River.

You can drive 138 km along the Kunene in Namibia – a 138 km oa­sis in an in­hos­pitable land­scape. The rest of the river – close to 900 km – re­mains a mys­tery. It’s a wild river that will keep call­ing me back to see more.

WILD WATERS. Epupa Falls is made up of hun­dreds of tum­bling cas­cades. Epupa Falls Lodge is vis­i­ble in the back­ground.

Epupa Falls Lodge

BOR­DER CON­TROL? Join Pete Mor­gan on a boat cruise from Kunene River Lodge and you might stop for sun­down­ers on a sand­bank in An­gola.

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