So I’ve lived, breathed, and loved Africa for many, many years. I’ve driven from Nairobi to Johannesburg taking a very wiggly line and my time. I had a cottage on the banks of the Zambezi with elephant and hippo as regular garden guests and I’ve ridden on horseback alongside buffalo and zebra. When I lived in Zambia I used to cross the Katima border into Namibia to take advantage of ‘1st world shopping’ & smuggle cheese & other delights back to Livingstone under the seats of my battered Land Rover. I’d ventured along the Caprivi Strip before, a lovely, straight, tarred, smooth road splitting Angola and Botswana and claimed by Namibia, a little paradise where things seemed like Africa, but they worked. There was electricity, road signs, and a distinct lack of potholes. I thought I knew Namibia based on this little spit of land, based on well-priced fuel, car parts & the availability of Philadelphia Cheese and Heinz Tomato Ketchup…I was very, very, wrong and could not have been more happy to be so gloriously proved so!
Arriving in Namibia by plane proved to be a very typical African affair with my luggage making its own way, without me and in its own good time. Upon checking with the lost luggage staff it become apparent that my bags would either arrive later today, or tomorrow, or the day after, or possibly the day after that and maybe not at all. ‘The bags, they might just be gone,’ I was told. Right. ‘Welcome home,’ I thought and allowed a wry smile to broach my exhausted face as I set off to snooze for an hour or so in a city hotel. Returning later that afternoon proved to be a success and I retrieved my luggage and started my journey proper, driving through the clean, easily navigable streets of Windhoek and heading North out towards Damaraland. As soon as you clear the city boundaries it becomes clear that Namibia is vast, huge, enormous and is bisected North to South by a lonely old tar road… The very same road that drives its way right up to through the Caprivi Strip to the Katima border. But it is not this road I am following on this journey and so soon enough I head off the bitumen and onto gravel wending my way through the stunning Damaraland scenery to the very aptly named Wereldsend (world’s end) campsite. Wereldsend is HQ to IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation) and has a fantastic ‘Loo with a view’. It is here, in the middle of nowhere that I’ll spend my first night before continuing on tomorrow further into nowhere and right to the edge of the world…
Waking up to simply stunning red and orange skies and a childlike ‘Christmas morning’ excitement it’s time to head off again. From here on in the roads become less and less road-like and were it not for the leftover golden grasses from the late rains I’m not sure I’d actually be able to tell which direction I was going in, where I was or where to go…Good gravel highways give way to treacherous tracks with so much loose gravel that I feel as though my Land Rover is aquaplaning its way through the desert with little say from me about how we progress. Traffic starts to fall away too, not that there was much in the first place, (Namibia is vast and its population relatively miniscule) but now I am noticing that I am not noticing vehicles. I feel somewhere stuck between the Twilight Zone, Thelma & Louise, and Jurassic Park and I think I love it.
Stopping at the last vaguely reliable fuel station before heading further on into the wilderness proves eventful. They are almost out of fuel and expect more in a day or so. It’s between me and a huge Afrikaans man with an even huger beard, but in the end chivalry pays off and I fill my tank leaving Johan to ‘make another plan’. It’s Africa. I am sure he will. Other than me, him and the pump guy there is just a lone cockerel for company at this last ‘town’ for some miles. I have to admit that the cockerel is the handsomest and healthiest looking ‘village chicken’ I’ve seen for a while.
I push onwards and here the road becomes a dry riverbed as I follow first the Hoanib and then the Ganumub Rivers where, somewhere near Giribes Plains, camp is set up for the night. I’m lucky – it’s the lunar eclipse and I am a million miles from anywhere or anyone with not a dot of light pollution to be seen. It’s magical, scary, beautiful, and emotional all at once and I feel strangely primeval as I watch the moon being eaten and slowly spat out again before my eyes…
In the morning I awake to the most stunning sunrise, nobody for miles, nothing around, just me, the Land Rover and miles and miles of heart achingly dramatic scenery. I’m heading to the sprawling metropolis of Puros, a Himba village about 80kms from here… it should only take four or five hours and I’ve heard the hot water from the donkey boiler showers in the campsite is unbeatable… considering that I don’t look dissimilar to a dried out mud bathed hippo, I’m looking forward to finding out! The day is spent traversing more dry riverbeds, crunching the folded mud skins under barefeet, following desert adapted elephant spoor (new and old) and generally being entirely over-awed by this huge Jurassic landscape. I’m half expecting a diplodocus around every corner… but I am instead rewarded with an entirely private sighting of a small female unit of elephant. This is not The Chobe in Botswana or Kruger in South Africa and I keep my distance accordingly. Elephant here eek out an existence under tough circumstances, they live in smaller herd units that the limited local resources can better cope with and travel vast, vast distances in search of an age old memory of water buried somewhere deep in the recess of the matriarch’s mind. They are tough, stoical, and truly splendid and have my utmost respect.
I arrive into Puros as the last tendrils of the days sun retreat across the Etendeka Mountains in the distance…. Here I cross another dry river bed to access the campsite, which is in some kind of furore. There has been lion I’m told. ‘When?’ I ask, ‘Now’ I’m told – ‘Just now or now now?’, ‘Now now’. Right, they could be anywhere and I’m about to set up camp for the night. I’ve been in this situation before and I still can’t decide if the adrenalin is brought about by fear or excitement or both. Either way I think I’ll have that shower in the morning by daylight. I am disappointed that while in Africa my insomnia is, as always, temporarily cured and I don’t manage to even try and listen out for lion roars or feet padding by my car before I am well and truly unconscious. I sleep so well that I cannot even manage to conjure up Aslan in my dreams.
After the most incredible, hot, slightly smoky flavoured bucket shower I set out to find out what all yesterday evenings fuss is about and while I do not, thankfully, come face to face with a big cat I do find her spoor. She’s left a trail of paw prints all through the campsite and my my she has big feet.
Nobody seems to know where she is now, but the village seems to be relieved that she’s passed through. The Himba here tread a fine line with the lion. There are several hard working conservationists whose unceasing commitment to working holistically with the local communities, static & more traditionally nomadic, have allowed these northern conservancies to become success stories for both conservation and community based tourism amongst other enterprises. Lion are occasionally speared or poisoned when too many cattle are lost or it is felt that they have become a threat to human populations, but it is less and less so and where communities are made to realise the value of their environment and wildlife and where they are allowed to feel the benefit from it, there is where you will find successful community managed conservation. Generally speaking there is here, in the Kunene. Today I’m continuing onwards to Orupembe where there is a new community owned lodge built into the mountains…. I’m looking forward to being static again for a few nights as once I’m there I plan to explore locally and chill a little. It’s only another 100 or so kms, but I know this to be a full day on these roads, what I don’t expect is to be wowed once more by even more dramatic, stunning and tear inducing landscapes, vast plains, huge mountains, golden grasses and feeling that I could just keep driving forever, until I fell off the edge of the world…. And then I arrive at Orupembe itself…
It’s a one stop shop that is for sure in that it is one shop only, or so it seems. Nearby there are a collection of Himba villages, these tend to move a little from time to time but generally the population is static enough that a small school has been built nearby. The teacher, a Himba tribesman, left the area to train in Windhoek and returned to enlighten & educate his people. He’s charming, funny & kind and I am convinced he’s the best man for the job. He points me in the direction of my new home for the next few nights, Etambura Camp another 25 kms onwards and overlooking the Onjuva or Holy Plains.
The ‘road’ up the hillside is interesting to say the least, but the view I am greeted with at the top is simply celestial – it stretches beyond my comprehension and once again I am convinced that this is where the Earth was born; I am looking out over the grandfather of the world, of time itself. It is simply incredible. This is not the Namibia that I thought I knew and never have I been more pleased to be so wrong…. Etambura is the only camp in Namibia to be 100% Himba owned and managed, power is intermittent, and the water is brought by bowser from several kilometres away up to the top of the hill. If the car towing the bowser breaks down or is utilised for something else then there is no water. The kitchen is an open fire outside the main dining or lapa area and here’s the thing – I have been unbelievably spoiled. I have travelled all over Eastern and Southern Africa and because of my work, I’ve stayed in some of the most exclusive safari lodges and private villas. I’ve had butler service hot chocolate brought to my veranda at night and massages under cool blowing muslin shade cloths in the heat of the afternoon, I’ve been guided by private vehicle and dined on floating pontoons adrift on the Zambezi surrounded only by snoozing hippo and candle light. Yet this rustic camp, here in the middle of nowhere, with an ever changing crew of nomadic skeleton staff, this is probably one of my favourite places in all Africa.
I don’t choose a camp or lodge for the gold taps and marble baths, but for the location, the build, the guiding and as I rise after my first blissful nights sleep at Etambura I am newly excited by the day… today I am going rhino tracking with the local conservancy rangers. I’ve seen rhino before, in fact I was woken one morning by a ZAWA (Zambian Wildlife Authority) scout outside my bedroom door – ‘knocky knocky’, ‘Hallo?’, ‘Madam, the lino has escape the park fence, we chase from your garden?’ – but that is another story entirely. Today is different as there are no fences, there is no 24hr close protection here, there is mile after mile after mile of everywhere and nowhere and a small but healthy population of free-ranging black rhino somewhere in the midst. I’ve not seen black rhino before. I’m impossibly excited, but need to keep a lid on it – our chances are slim to none.
We start by driving a little way, to near where the rhino was last seen, a few days ago, and follow an old dry river bed until the rocks become bigger, the sides narrower and the trees & bushes impassable.
Time to foot. Its easily over 30c already and there is zero shade, I have reasonable walking boots, my trackers – second hand slip on loafers and despite being a million years old and as tall as the hills they skip over the ground like klipspringers, almost trotting over the impossible thistles & grit. I keep up, but only just and we continue like this for hours, climbing small ravines, dipping into mini valleys and traversing miles of what looks to me like exactly the same ground. Same rock, same grass tuft, same stick. I am convinced we are just going in circles. How the hell does one navigate out here? It’s like being on the moon. Every now and then we pause, binoculars raised to scan the endless horizon, I try not to let the excitement get the better of me and search too through my camera lens, trying not to be too distracted by my lightening pulse reverberating through my ears. It can’t be a heart attack, I quite smoking years ago… what about all that cheese & pizza… and we are off again, gambolling like dizzy, sweaty, ungainly lambs over the volcanic rock. And then we stop. No binoculars raised. No camera lens. Just a single pointing finger and there she is. She’s far away, but visible with the naked eye and she is quite possibly the most beautiful rhino that I have ever seen. I’m pretty sure that I am not breathing as I can’t hear my lungs, in fact I’m not convinced that I even have a pulse as that is gone too, no ringing in my ears. Just the scorching sun, total silence and an audience with a free-ranging black rhino cow. She is a survivor and I am humbled and then before I know it she is trotting off, snorting like a startled mare and with tail comically raised rather ‘Pumba the warthog’-esque. And now the endorphins kick in, I am a marathon runner, I am a weightlifter, I am superwoman as we bounce our way back to the abandoned car in the dry river bed. I’d probably cry, but I think I’m too dehydrated to try.
The next day I rise early full of the joys of spring, I have to admit to be pleasantly surprised that I don’t feel as though I’ve been hit by a truck. It’s been a very long time since I spent the whole day hiking at speed. Today is to be a little more downbeat, I’m off to explore the local area visiting a campsite an abandoned marble mine (the Chinese began mining but then came across the issue of getting the produce out of here to anywhere useful – they stopped mining) and approaching the awkward and sometimes contentious issue of visiting a local village or two. I always feel slightly uncomfortable in this kind of situation. I do want to see how the Himba live, I do want to feel as though I have experienced their culture, that I have learned something… but I do not want to feel as though I am contributing to creating a human zoo, or a contrived false reality born purely by an ugly fascination from the West. I don’t want to visit a fake ‘tourism’ village, but to enter somebody’s real home is just downright rude and I do not want to facilitate the hand-out mentality seen too eagerly in parts of East Africa where a white man is a wallet on two legs. Fortunately here, none of this is a problem. Etambura Camp is entirely owned & managed by Himba people, there are only Himba in the area, nobody else even tries to live here. In the evenings at the lodge, somebody – whomever is around and voted suitable by the community (and whose English will suffice) – will come and dine with you. Combative, interactive, thoughtful conversation is encouraged and it would seem that both cultures feel equally questioned & challenged in a very positive way. The Himba here are learning more about European & Western culture & traditions than any school class and I find it refreshing to have the boot on the other foot and be the object of interest. During these dinners I establish who is ‘home’ in the nearby villages and who is receptive to visitors in the coming days, so I don’t feel at like an intruder when I drive off to meet some Himba women at all.
But I do feel dowdy. I am wearing just my shorts & t-shirt, no make-up, jewellery or shoes and I come face to face with some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, made up at almost all times with the foundation of shiny red ochre mixed with ghee and hair elaborately fashioned with cow dung. I feel a bit like the fat friend with braces standing next to the cheerleaders. These women are stunning and their skin luminescent. Bugger Garnier & Loréal, I’m heading to the nearest farm when I get home. I spend the afternoon chatting (gesticulating mainly) showing & taking photos and trying to learn & glean more about this fascinating, unchanged culture. It’s difficult, there is little English spoken here and the women are busy with their chores, so I mostly just hang around and try to help where I can. I’m pretty good with livestock so I’m not entirely useless. I meet young girls with pre-coming of age hairdos, an old lady who’s been away travelling, though I don’t understand where or why and a gaggle of beautiful, giggling girls whose laughter & shrieks at my eyebrow piercing are dwarfed only by those on seeing my belly button ring. Though that could have been the hilarity of seeing a non-flat stomach! I compare bras with the only lady there wearing one (I still don’t know why) and we sit around the fire drawing pictures in the sand with toddlers that seem to appear and disappear again on and off throughout the day.
On my way back to camp I meet some more Himba women who are on their way back from somewhere. We briefly greet each other and compare Land Rover vs Donkey transport before they head onwards again to somewhere else.
I crash onto my bed with a view as soon as I return. I am exhausted & have a long couple of days driving ahead of me to get back to Windhoek. I will rest there a day or so before beginning another journey, driving around Southern Namibia but for now my head is filled with dancing rhino and beautiful, funny, red girls. I certainly don’t think I understand much of Himba culture, but I do feel accepted by it. Welcomed into a different existence, one rooted deeply in the earth, one intrinsically linked with the surrounding environment, one eked out with other desert adapted animals such as elephant, rhino and giraffe. An existence lived in a land where animals and humans alike have adapted to live on the very edge of the world. In the Kunene, Namibia.