Damaraland: Namibia's best-kept secret

The northwest of Namibia is its best-kept secret. While visitors flock to the coastal town of Swakopmund, the dunes of Sossusvlei or the salt pans of Etosha National Park, the Kunene region is mostly free of people, especially tourists.

Namibia has the second-lowest population density of any country on earth (after Mongolia) but in the northwest, the country’s least populated area, there are even fewer people. Only a few thousand Himba live in a mind-boggling landscape of 100 000 square kilometres, stretching from the town of Khorixas in the south to the Angolan border.

The climate and the terrain is the reason for this paucity of people. Less than 150mm of rain falls every year, sometimes none at all, and ephemeral rivers flow only after irregular thunder storms.

The landscape is as impressive as it is intimidating. Rugged mountains in the eastern escarpment spread out into massive valleys and plains, before the beginning of the Skeleton Coast in the west, where endless dunes lie adjacent to the cold Atlantic Ocean.

This is wild land, where you can drive for two days and not see another car, and where you feel very much subordinate to the grandeur of nature. If you’re searching for your soul, then come find it here.

Despite the aridity and foreboding topography, the Kunene region – comprising Damaraland in the south and Kaokoland in the north – is now becoming one of the most accessible, authentic wildlife destinations in Africa.  Visitors can reliably see desert-adapted elephants, black rhino, lions, Hartmanns Zebra, giraffe and gemsbok.

Other wildlife areas of Africa may offer more numbers of animals, but Namibia’s northwest is the most biodiverse desert on earth. Here you will see Africa’s animals on a massive canvas of rock, sand and dust.

Unlike most protected areas in Southern Africa, the wildlife roams free, unrestricted by fences or gates, moving among the local Himba and the goats and cattle. It all adds up to give the intrepid visitor a feeling of ancient Africa, a time before the white man arrived and stamped his colonial mark. At the core of this remarkable wildlife area is Namibia’s conservancy program.

Two decades ago, just a handful of wild animals remained after decades of poaching by South African army forces and a prolonged drought. When Namibia became independent in 1991, the government gave local communities rights to the land and to the wildlife that lived there.

Today more than 70 conservancies – covering 20% of the nation - have given sanctuary to the wildlife, which have grown every year in number. The conservancies partner with lodges and camps, creating a sustainable economy from eco-tourism which is driven by spectacular wildlife sightings.

The local black rhino population is one of the fastest growing in Africa, and to see one of them in the rocky plains of Damaraland is among the continent’s quintessential must-dos.

“Just over 4 500 black rhinos survive in the wild in Africa,” I was told by Simson Uri-Khob, field operations director for Save The Rhino Trust. “This population of desert-adapted black rhinos in Namibia is considered one of seven key populations on the continent, because it’s one of the largest and fastest-growing.”

The best place to see these iconic creatures is at Desert Rhino Camp, where trackers from Save the Rhino Trust guide visitors every day to get up close and personal with Africa’s fourth-largest mammal species. Sightings are almost guaranteed, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Mornings begin early at 4:30am, and most of the day is spent bouncing on the back of a Land Rover, as the trackers look for spoor. Once found, the trackers guide you on foot to get closer to Africa’s fourth-largest mammal.

Late one afternoon during my stay at Desert Rhino Camp the trackers guided me to within 50 metres of a black rhino. It’s an exhilarating, unsettling sensation: being eyeballed by a double-horned creature the size and weight of a car, which can run across stony ground faster than Usain Bolt on a race track.

As tracker Denzyl Tjiraso and I gazed at the animal, nothing else in the world seemed to exist, except this ancient creature and us, two species of mammals; the rhino at the end of its evolutionary journey, we near the beginning of ours.

We also spotted large herds of Hartmann’s zebra, several giraffe, gemsbok, and a lioness and her cubs. This area has one of the few expanding lion populations in Africa, a result of the tireless efforts of Dr Flip Stander and his Desert Lion Project.

Another good place to see black rhino is at Etendeka Mountain Camp, recently chosen as one of Africa’s 50 most eco-friendly lodges.

Set among basalt koppies, the simple tented camp blends neatly into the austere rocky scene. On my first morning there we saw a male black rhino with impressive horns. But the nature walks with local guide Ivan Narib are the major attraction. The desert and its animals and plants come alive with Ivan’s expert interpretation.

Black rhinos can also sometimes be seen at Doro Nawas, a camp that looks out over some of the best mountain scenery in Damaraland. On an early morning game drive, guide Michael Kauari and I found a mother and her calf in a remote valley, so we watched them for half an hour, before they trotted off.

Another highlight of my stay at Doro Nawas was a trip with Michael to Twyfelfontein, where visitors can admire some of the most impressive rock engravings in Africa. It was Namibia’s first World Heritage Site, proclaimed in 2007, and contains more than 2 500 engravings, some dating back 6 000 years, when hunter gatherer bushmen lived in the area, drinking from the nearby spring.

For visitors who are looking for a place to stay over on the way into the Kunene Region, Palmwag Lodge is easier on the budget. Just off the main road to the north, it has a restaurant and bar, and big pool to cool off. The camp sites and chalets are basic, but clean with excellent staff service. Look out too for some of the desert-adapted elephants, which sometimes come to drink from the spring nearby.

Next article – Namibia’s northwest – Part 2 – Kaokoland

Photojournalist Scott Ramsay spends most of each year exploring Southern Africa's wild places, taking photographs and interviewing the experts who work in the protected areas. Through his project Year in the Wild 2013-14, he hopes to create awareness for conservation and to inspire others to travel responsibly to the continent's wildlife areas. For more, go to 

Partners include Ford Everest, Goodyear, Cape Union Mart, K-Way, Globecomm, Vodacom, Frontrunner, EeziAwn, National Luna, Hetzner, Tracks 4 Africa, Outdoor Photo and Birdlife South Africa.

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