Ihala At Dawn

One of the joys of traveling the Kaokaveld , in the north west corner of Namibia, is the remoteness and lack of infrastructure and people. There are countless river beds many of which can be accessed by a network of 4x4 eco trails into fabulous vistas and rocky canyons, and a true sense of isolation, self reliance and adventure. All the basic needs, food, fuel, water, have to be rationed and planned as they may not be available at the next stop, or even the one after that. It is the nearest thing to a feeling of true exploration that we may encounter in our over populated and over resourced world and so it draws in many travellers eager for the off beat experience and 4x4 challenge away from the maddening crowds.

It feels like a vast area but the mileage is actually quite modest. It is the time to cover that mileage which makes it seem so huge. 100 km can easily take 8-10 hours in the hot sun, deep sand and dry dust and from now on in, the journey distance is measured in hours and not kilometres.


Khowarib River

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Our first departure from the road was down the Ongongo gorge and into the Khowarib river bed and schlekte or canyon. It turned into a 10 hour drive through the soft sand of the river bed into the rocky canyon, but it was beautiful and in places quite green. The river bed is dotted with Ana and Camel thorn trees and we are soon rewarded with sightings of giraffe, springbok and oryx.

The bird life was fantastic and along the river bed there were cliffs of mud or soft clay in which we could see olive bee eaters nesting. Some were building nests, and some already established and already bringing food with frequent swooping flights to catch passing insects.

It seems a painful process trying to dig holes with that slender beak. I wondered how many got broken. They flew into the bank with head and beak outstretched like a spear. There were also rosy faced parakeets, larks and chats in abundance.

Finally as the afternoon was waning we turned the corner and there they were. Three bull elephants, our first desert elephants. They were smaller than the elephants of Etosha and more skittish. They were pulling on the camel thorn and remained calm when they saw us. That is until Ian fired up his V 8 engine. It was enough to make anybody run!

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Puros is a remote community up in the Kaokaveld to the NorthWest of Sesfontein. It boasts a small village and a community camp site famous for its toilets, built into the trunk of ancient trees in an attempt to hide them from the marauding elephants. The elephants dig up the water pipes and tanks almost on a daily basis. There is a resident Himba community who welcome you to their village and demonstrate their crafts and some of their fascinating culture, for a small fee. There is now a school in Puros and more of the children get an opportunity for education between herding the goats and cattle. They are a very dignified people despite the lack of clothes and sophistication. The ochre and fat salve they rub into their skin, scented with camifora bark, keeps the skin looking supple and young. Still it is a hard life and there were few really old people. When we asked about them we were told bluntly that they die. They have little idea of time and do not count their years of age or date of birth.

Through the canyon there is another 4x4 eco trail which is, in our opinion, one of the most beautiful in the area. There are many water birds visiting the pools of water and the chance of seeing elephant is good. Try not to sneak up on them in a tight gorge though! .The canyon becomes quite narrow in places which is why the cattle and game do not stay there for long. It seems they also realise it is a bottle neck with limited escape options from predators. So they come to drink and then return to the dry plains. There are said to be 5 or 6 lion living and hunting in the canyon. We have seen spoor but have not spotted the cats.

The trail takes about 6-8 hours to reach the Hoanib river bed, where you can either turn south to Palmweg or east to Sesfontein. Although only 50-100 km from the sea there is no way through to the coast here and a lot of the routes are currently controlled by lodges and concessions for guided trips.

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Hoanib River

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The Hoanib River is a personal destination for us. In the BBC Africa series there is a sequence of fighting giraffe filmed in the Hoanib which is breath taking. When we came to the Kaokaveld in 2013 we spent a short time in the Hoanib and vowed to return for a better look so when we arrived at the end of the Puros eco trail we turned east to follow it down its length to Sesfontein. Since the Africa series I think the Hoanib has become a more well known destination. As we turned in we spotted a bakkie with a huge gimble head mounted on the back for a movie camera and clearly there are film crew here again. They had occupied the first camp site but undeterred we pressed on. At the waterhole we ran into a small herd of elephants on their way to drink. The river bed is sandy with some shrub and trees. Oryx and springbok are common and occasional ostrich. It is beautiful as it wends its way to a narrow gorge called the Porte. Disappointingly we found no giraffes.

We camped at the end of the trail and after a quick visit to Sesfontein for fuel we retraced our steps next day. The iconic photo here is of an elephant in the river bed standing on tiptoe to reach the pods of a big Ana tree. Well I can report we saw this but sadly did not get cameras up in time to photograph. Still it remains a magic memory and we were lucky as we had many elephant sightings in the river that day. We really tried to dodge the film crew, who were actually very friendly, but we may be in one or two of their shots!

In Sesfontein, and even before, we had heard rumors of a lion man called Flip who is following and protecting the desert lions of the Hoanib. Amazingly early next morning we saw 3 lions in the valley. I think the truck with the revolving ariel on the roof gave it away. We did not speak to him as he sped away. He is rumored to only like lions and dislike people. I think it may be true! Still a sighting of true desert lions was something special. Dudley wanted to stay with them as they looked ready to hunt, at least in the next 24hours!, but time and future plans defeated him. We moved on as they snoozed beneath a camel thorn tree.

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From the Hoanib you can turn south and follow the Crowther 4x4 trail to the Palmweg game reserve. It is a tiny reserve on the southern border of the Kaokaveld but it is very scenic and has mountain zebra and giraffe and many buck, even some elephants closer to the lodge where there is some flowing water.

The Crowther route is only 100 km but another 10 hour trek through some fairly barren lunar landscape, following the edge of the skeleton coast park before the greenery reappears. It's hot and dry but there are a few camp spots along the way and it ends at a small lodge with great views, cold beer and hot water. We travelled down over 2 days and enjoyed some beautiful sunset light. If you have the time it's worth the trip, It was a short hop from Palmweg to our next destination, the ominously named skeleton coast!

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