Category Archives: Kunene

Through the Khowarib Schlucht

Our first look at the track running through the Khowarib Schlucht was quite intimidating. We had driven south from Ongongo Campsite, where we had spent the night, and entered the Schlucht at its Western end, turning off the C43. Within a very short time we were faced with a very rough stretch of track.

The road shortly after entering the Khowarib Schlucht

The road shortly after entering the Khowarib Schlucht

Jo and I parked the bakkies and walked forward to look at the road. It was tricky, but quite driveable; however the thought of twenty-three kilometers of that sort of track was daunting to say the least.

Jo & Rob checking the track before driving though

Jo & Rob checking the track before driving though

But, we had given ourselves most of the day to cover the 80 kilometres between the C43 and C35 that included the Khowarib Schlucht and without any sort of time pressure we would be able to enjoy the spectacular scenery that we believed lay ahead.

In the Khowarib Schlucht

In the Khowarib Schlucht

In fact the drive turned out to be very enjoyable and not nearly as difficult as we had anticipated. The most difficult part was the navigation as the track split up repeatedly with no indication as to which was the “correct” track to follow. In most cases it didn’t really matter, as the roads almost invariably linked up again, but sometimes the decision was an important one, as some of the threads deteriorated into an assortment of potholes, deeply worn tracks and eroded dongas that made driving more challenging or well nigh impossible.

In the Khowarib Schlucht

In the Khowarib Schlucht

Being cautious souls, we stopped the vehicles frequently to walk over the more challenging sections of the track. We didn’t relish the idea of falling off the track or getting stuck unnecessarily and this also gave us plenty of time to absorb the scenery. The rocky cliffs towering over the track are a golden-red and present a magnificent sight.

Magnificent rock faces in the Khowarib Schlucht

Magnificent rock faces in the Khowarib Schlucht

The cliffs are a wonderful deep, golden red

The cliffs are a wonderful deep, golden red

The track crosses the dry Hoanib River numerous times, sometimes following the river-bed for a short way before climbing up the bank again. On occasion there was water to cross, but most of the time the bed of the river is of thick, soft sand that demands low-range four-wheel drive and a fair amount of concentration to maintain forward momentum.

A rare water crossing in the Khowarib Schlucht

A rare water crossing in the Khowarib Schlucht

Water crossing

Water crossing

It was crossing this river, that we got stuck. We had crossed the soft sand of the river-bed and driven up the bank on the far side when we found that we were on the wrong route; the track was impassable due to massive erosion. A quick excursion on foot showed that we should not have crossed the river-bed directly, but should have turned left on entering the river-bed and driven along the river for a few hundred metres before exiting again onto the same bank. We turned the cars and dropped back down the bank onto the soft sand. Correction, not onto the sand, rather into the sand! The Toyota sank down and stopped. Nothing serious, though, we let the tyres down (which we should have done a lot earlier!) and removed some of the sand from in front of the wheels. In about thirty minutes we were on our way again.

Digging the bakkiie from the loose sand

Digging the bakkie from the loose sand

The wonderful cliffs form a natural amphitheatre

The wonderful cliffs form a natural amphitheatre

An interesting feature of the drive through the Schlucht are the “dust holes” that occur without any real warning. These stretches of track are filled with the finest talcum-like dust that billows around the car like a thick, opaque mist. If there is the slightest tailwind, this cloud engulfs the car and reduces visibility to a few metres.  Quite disconcerting. Even just walking through this talcum-sand raises puffs of dust around your feet and ankles.

Rob walking through one of the dust holes found within the Schlucht

Rob walking through one of the dust holes found within the Schlucht

The little village of Umumbaadjie marks the end of the Schlucht itself, but there is still about 55 km of track, passing through the Kamdescha Veterinary Control Point (and yes, they did check that we had no meat with us), before reaching the C35  It was still quite early in the day when we reached the C35 and so there was a quick change of plan and we headed south for 200 km to Outjo, where we camped just outside the town at a farm called Sophienhof. This was the first and only occasion on the entire trip that Jo, Des and Gwen were able to pitch their tents on grass!

After spending the night at this very comfortable spot, we had an easy drive back to Windhoek to end the trip.

Epupa Falls on the Kunene River

For die-hard 4×4 enthusiasts there is a riverside track running from Kunene River Lodge to Epupa Falls.  When we initially planned our trip we were hoping to take this route, but we subsequently heard such horrendous stories about how bad the road was and how much damage it inflicts on vehicles, that we decided to take the more drivable route, turning South at Swartbooisdrift and then picking up the C43 to Epupa Falls.  This proved a wise decision in the end as the trip was very pleasant and took far less time than it would have going the shorter way.

Our first stop of the day was at the Dorsland (Thirst land) Trekkers Memorial just outside Swartbooisdrift.  The monument commemorates the settlers who trekked north from South Africa due to strife with the Zulus and subsequent annexation by the British.  They settled in Angola (and other areas), but decided to move once again when the Portuguese wouldn’t allow them to speak their own language in schools and wanted to convert these staunch Protestants to Catholicism.  They suffered many hardships on their epic journey and have earned their place in history.

Dorsland Trekker Monument                               Zebra Mountain

Another interesting feature on the trip to Epupa Falls is the Zebra Mountain range that extends south-east and north-west for 48 km between the Kunene, Omuhonga and Otjitanga rivers.  According to  “The New Dictionary of South African Place Names” by Peter E Raper, the name of this range is derived from its striped appearance caused by ironstone ridges alternating with declivities in which pale coloured vegetation grows.  We were there at the right time of the year to see this striking effect, which  may not be as visible once the vegetation turns green in summer.

Our destination at Epupa Falls was Omarunga Camp, another small oasis along the Kunene River that contrasts sharply with its dry and arid surrounds.  Our campsite, under lush Makalani Palms, was just metres upstream from the falls and right on the river bank.  The ablution block was open air and made out of Makalani Palm leaves and branches.  (This sounds a bit flimsy but it is such a lovely experience to shower in a roofless outdoor cubicle like that!)

Campsite under the palms                               Campsite under the palms

It was a bit of a squeeze getting all three tents onto one campsite, but eventually we were settled in.  Jo and Des were most impressed with the ease with which they could erect or take down their Oz tent and at this stage of the journey they had it down to a fine art.

We discovered shortly after arrival that we were camping in a hard hat area, as the large Makalani Palm nuts drop from the trees and could cause serious injury if they hit an unsuspecting camper on the head.  Management claimed no responsibility for damage or injury caused by these falling nuts. Rob attempted to pad our windscreen with some shadecloth and held thumbs that the wind wouldn’t come up during our stay.

We hadn’t been there long when someone pointed out a three metre crocodile in the middle of the river.  Obviously there would be no swimming here, although we did see the locals washing themselves at the head of the falls.  No doubt they kept an eye out for each other’s safety.

The falls are a five minute walk from the campsite.  Unfortunately, we weren’t there at the right time of the year to see them in full flow, but they were stunning nonetheless.  It was late afternoon when we arrived which meant that we were treated to seeing the sinking sun hitting the enormous Baobab trees that dot the area.  I could just imagine them in the rainy season with the water flooding down.  Some cling tenaciously to the sides of the gorge while others stand like fat old ladies paddling, defying the rushing waters to wash them away.

Awesome scenery

Scenic Baobab trees Scenic Baobab trees

Adding some glamour to the falls

Adding some glamour to the falls

It’s a magical spot and we had to drag ourselves away with the promise of a good hike around the area the next day.

We were pleased to find that African mourning doves are plentiful in this area.  I feel sorry for doves in general, because they are so common that most people don’t pay them too much attention. Mourning doves aren’t widely distributed which made the sighting a little more exciting than it would otherwise have been.  We had a number of Red-eyed bulbuls, Weavers and Pale-winged starlings visit the campsite and on a walk we also saw a Short-toed rock thrush and an African pied wagtail.  Sunbirds love the flowers in the palm trees so there is plenty of bird activity in the area.

African Mourning Dove                               Pale-winged Starlings and Weavers

The local community has shown some enterprising spirit by charging tourists to climb a hill that gives one a spectacular view of the falls and surrounds.

We didn’t mind paying the small fee as the view was worth it and we were able to shelter from the heat in a lean-to made out of Makalani Palm leaves.  Unfortunately for Gwen and me, we had started our hike a bit late and the heat was beginning to tell on us.  We decided to head back to the camp when the others carried on along the gorge.  Des was startled by a nearby crocodile when she ventured a bit close to the water.

Besides the falls, there isn’t a whole lot to see or do other than just relax or visit a Himba settlement, so on our second evening we decided to leave a day earlier than planned and head on to our next destination, Ongonga, where at least we could swim in the heat of the day.

View from Sundown Hill                              Our resident chef

Epupa Falls is well worth a visit and Omarunga Camp is an idyllic spot.  The only downside was the somewhat hefty price of drinks in the pub.  If you’re planning to camp in a group, we suggest that you ask for individual campsites as three tents on a single site is a bit cramped.  Omarunga also has a Lodge with beautiful tented accommodation for those wanting something more luxurious than the campsite.

Kunene River Lodge

Kunene River Lodge is a short journey of 56 kms from Hippo Pools.   When driving on dirt roads it may seem like an advantage having only a short distance like that to cover, but the drive was through such rugged and picturesque landscape that I was quite disappointed when we arrived at our destination so soon.

The road followed the river for most of the way and we were treated to glimpses of the Makalani Palm-lined banks, which gave the  journey a tropical feel.  When we left the river, we drove through stunning Mopani trees still clad in their autumn coloured leaves, waiting for the rains to summon forth their summer foliage.

We passed Himba settlements along the river and marveled at their simple yet harsh lifestyle.  Every settlement we drove past had children who waved vigorously at us, their friendly smiles lighting up their dark little faces.

Kunene River Lodge is a veritable Garden of Eden and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wishing that this had been the sole destination of our ten day holiday.  Set below a canopy of indigenous trees and shrubs it can only be described as idyllic.

Shady camping area                               Deck overlooking the river

We were given campsite no. 7 – a stunning spot right on the river under enormous leadwood and jackalberry trees.  From here we could see Angola just metres across the river from us.

Not long after arrival we were greeted by the resident vervet monkeys, who proceeded to use their well-honed thieving skills and made off with a packet of rusks that Gwen had brought along.  We later learned that they had become such a nuisance that the owner had resorted to shooting them with a paintball gun.  He said he realized this was probably a futile attempt at solving the problem, but it served to chase them off temporarily.  Jo’s contribution was to build this dirty great catty which was big enough to load with a monkey and shoot it clean across the river!

Monkey enjoying Gwen's rusk                               Jo monkey-proofs the camp

The birdlife at the lodge was outstanding and we immediately booked an excursion to try and see the elusive and rare Cinderella Waxbill that is only found in this area.  Peter, who was to lead the tour, said that we would have to hike at the hottest time of the day in the hopes of finding them.  Seeing Cinderella Waxbills was the motivation for coming on this trip in the first place, so we were very hopeful when we donned our biggest hats, grabbed lots of water and set off at midday on our quest.  We walked along a semi-dry river bed for about half an hour before Peter heard the soft calls of the Cinderella Waxbills.

We crept up close to a bush halfway up a hillside and, sure enough, there were about three of them deep in the bush.  We managed to see them clearly but were unfortunately not able to get a photograph.  The best we can do to show you what they look like is by printing KRL’s logo :

Cindarella Waxbill

Cinderella Waxbill

We considered ourselves really lucky to have seen them though, as many who had come before us were not as fortunate.

Back at the reception area, Peter showed us a Cinderella Waxbill nest that he had found a few years before.  He had watched the little family hatch and grow before removing the nest some months after they left.  Little is known about these birds, so all information is gratefully received.  Peter’s knowledge of birds is exceptional and he made a wonderful guide.

Obviously the waxbills were lifers for us, but we also managed to tick off a couple more.  The Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush breeds well in the grounds of the lodge and we spent many happy minutes following them to get photos.  Their call is quite distinctive so once you hear one, it is pretty easy to locate it as it forages for food in the undergrowth.  Rob managed to photograph some Red-necked Spurfowls in a field next to the campsite so the trip was proving quite successful as far as first-timers were concerned.

Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush                               Bare-cheeked Babbler

The Bare-cheeked Babblers were there in profusion and, although they were very nervous, I eventually got a couple to sit still long enough for a photo.  Apart from the Swamp Boubou’s, Yellow-bellied Bulbuls, Golden Weavers and Grey Go Away birds which were very evident around the campsite, we also saw Black Crakes, a Bearded Woodpecker and lots of Meve’s Starlings.   One didn’t even have to go out looking for these birds as they were cheeky enough to come into the camping area to look for food.

It was a bitter blow for Rob when his longer lens, a Sigma 70-300 mm zoom, packed up on him.  His 500mm lens is still being repaired and this is his back-up.  This is not the sort of loss one needs when on a birding trip!  He gained some consolation from the fact that he was now forced to spend time just observing the birds instead of trying to photograph them.

This amazing bat was in a tree just metres from our tent.

A rude awakening

A rude awakening

The Lodge has an enormous wooden deck that juts out over the river – an awesome spot to have a cold beer and watch the Red-billed Queleas come in to roost in the reeds opposite, or to catch a glimpse of the Malachite and Pygmy Kingfishers as they fly into the reeds.  As the sun goes down the Cormorants and Egrets skim along the water on their way to their roosts.

On our last night there we took a short sundown cruise along the river, and as darkness fell our ‘captain’ cut the engines and let us drift slowly back to the Lodge.  The peace and calm that descended over the river was tangible – none of us wanted the trip to end.  It’s interludes like these that make one appreciate an African evening.

All aboard for an amazing cruise

All aboard for an amazing cruise

The Lodge doesn’t only cater for campers, but has a number of luxury bungalows and rustic chalets for visitors.  The swimming pool is a necessity and is well-used.  For the more adventurous, the staff offer white water rafting excursions.  All in all an excellent spot for a short or (preferably) long term visit.

Hippo Pools – On the Kunene River

Rob and I have, in the course of our travels, covered most of Namibia during the four years that we have been here.  We would be loath to go back to South Africa leaving any area undiscovered and for this reason we chose the Kunene Region, bordering Angola, as the destination for our latest ten day trip; it being one of the few remaining areas that we had yet to visit.

We have also seen and photographed most of the local birds around Namibia so needed a completely new area to notch up more lifers.  The Kunene Region has a number of birds that are endemic to the area, so it was with great anticipation that we headed out of Windhoek for our first stop – Hippo Pools – west of Ruacana on the Kunene River.

This trip would be slightly different in that our good friends, Jo, Des and Gwen would be accompanying us.  Jo and Des, new to camping, were keen to experience it for themselves and to try out their newly acquired Oz tent.  Gwen, Des’s mom, is an old hat at camping and wanted to spend some quality time out in the bush before immigrating to Australia.

Our journey to Hippo Pools started off on a very positive note when just 150 kms from Windhoek we spotted a pair of leopards on an anthill at the side of the road.  This was especially exciting for us, as, try as we might, Rob and I have never been fortunate enough to see a leopard in the wild – not even on any of our numerous game reserve visits.  The pair consisted of a mother and baby, but we were only able to photograph the little one as the mother slunk off into the long grass in the hope of diverting our attention away from her cub.

Leopard cub

The area was very productive as far as bird sightings was concerned as we saw seven Wahlberg Eagles along the next 100 km stretch of road.  Namibian highways can be quite dangerous because of warthogs that feed next to the road, so the verges are kept mowed to enable motorists to keep an eye out for these portly little creatures, as well as other animals like Kudu.  Hitting one of them at speed is guaranteed to inflict serious damage to one’s vehicle and one’s health.

We saw so many warthogs, baboons and little buck along the way that we could have been forgiven for thinking we were driving through a game reserve.  Birds often forage in these mowed areas along the roadside and we ticked Crowned Lapwings, Black-bellied Koorhaans and Red-crested Koorhaans off our list. We were also pleased to see an enormous Kori Bustard catching a bit of shade under a tree.

Hippo Pools is a community-run campsite on the banks of the Kunene River.  There are several well-appointed sites and a clean ablution block.   On arrival we settled into a lovely campsite very close to a little beach on the edge of the river and headed off to explore the area.  We were camped a few hundred metres downstream from the Ruacana hydro-electric scheme.  The water flow of the river is influenced by this scheme and in the early evenings, sluice gates are opened and water rushes down into the river.  It raises the level of the river and gives campers the opportunity of listening to the soothing sound of running water as they lie in their tents.

As the sun was going down we were treated to one of the most amazing spectacles that we have been privileged to witness on our camping trips.  Red-billed quelea’s flew in to roost on a little island in the middle of the river.  For at least forty-five minutes they came in flocks of varying size.

Red-billed Queleas

At times the sky was blackened by these birds and as they took their last few synchronized flights for the day, the sound of their wings flapping was akin to that of a strong wind.  We sat in awe as literally thousands upon thousands of birds circled around us and landed for one last drink of water before settling down for the night.

We wondered why we had never read any accounts of this incredible phenomenon in write ups about Hippo Pools.  It should be a major tourist attraction!  Unfortunately these flocks have a downside;  they are known to devour entire crops and are considered an enormous nuisance to farmers in more developed agricultural areas.  Their departure in the morning is just as spectacular, as they seem to have an invisible control tower telling each flock exactly when to leave.

We were woken early the next morning by the cry of the African Fish Eagle – the ultimate sound of Africa!  It was a fitting alarm clock for our environment and we were soon out, armed with cameras and binoculars looking for birds.

African Fish Eagle

We split up and covered different areas of the campsite and surrounds and soon Rob was engrossed getting pictures of a little flock of Blue waxbills, whilst I spent hours chasing Red-headed Weavers in an attempt to get a decent shot.  It’s amazing how quickly the time flies when one is photographing the birds and enjoying walking about in nature.

Blue Waxbill Red-headed Weaver

Sometime during the morning we moved to an even better campsite when the occupants departed for their next destination.   Although a bit of a mission to move a car with the rooftop tent up and open, it proved a very wise idea, as we settled next to a tree that a group of Madagascar Bee-eaters used as a base from which to hunt insects.

Madagascar Bee-eater

Madagascar Bee-eater

They were lifers for us and very obligingly allowed us to get some beautiful shots to add to our collection.  It was fun observing their catching and killing techniques as often several birds went for the same insect.  The victor would return to a perch and then smack the insect on the branch before eating it.  We had a symphony of smacking all day long as they feasted on the bounty of the riverside.  We later learned that the Madagascar Bee-eaters had arrived early this year as they normally only return to the area at the end of October.  Our good fortune!

Jo, Des and Gwen arrived from Windhoek in the late afternoon and we spent an enjoyable evening around the campfire watching the Queleas come in to roost, followed by the most amazing sunset.   Good food, good company and the African night sounds as background music – this is what makes camping so magical.

Jo, Des, Gwen, Jane and Rob

Stunning sunset

The next day Rob and I were back in the bush checking out the birds and wildlife.  First on our list was a two meter crocodile that was swimming quite close to our campsite.  We were amazed that there were no signs warning people not to swim because of crocs.  The only sign that was posted warned swimmers to vacate the water when the sluice gates opened and the water level rose.  I wonder how many tourists have ended up as crocodile fodder!

I loved this magnificent specimen of a Namibian Rock Agama.

Namibian Rock Agama

When we left Hippo Pools we took a short drive to see the Ruacana Falls, but unfortunately it was the wrong time of year as far as water flow was concerned and we mostly saw bare rock face.  We could only imagine their splendour at the height of the rainy season.

Ruacana Falls

Hippo Pools is a magnificent spot and well worth visiting.  The only downside that we found was that many visitors have no concept of space or privacy and on a number of occasions we had groups of people milling around inside our campsite when they came to look at the view of the river.  We would never dream of walking into someone’s camping area like that, but then who are we to say that we own the view!

The next leg of the trip would be Kunene River Lodge.