Magic experiences in Damaraland and Kaokoveld

Frank Steffen
Frank Steffen



There is something peculiar about Namibia’s north-western regions, specifically Kaokoveld and Damaraland, which strikes a chord in our human soul. Namibians – blessed as we are – often take this for granted, but the Italian curator, Dr Marco Ferrario has experienced this as a visitor and since then, Namibia is part of his being, with the “Lone Stone Men of the Desert” having captured a special place in his heart.



Dr Ferrario was especially intrigued by the quaint and unique stone structures that have been created by an unknown artist, who for years has been traversing the equally unique northwest. These “Lone Stone Men of the Desert” are found throughout the area and have made it to the 2022 Venice Art Biennale. This 59th edition of the renowned art exhibition began in April and ends by the end of this month, November. Thousands of artworks from more than 80 countries have come together – Namibia is one of them.



Art connects

The unknown Namibian artist added intrigue and titillation in as much as he does presents art for the sake of art and not for his own benefit – so he has become known as RENN. It is he who jointly with Dr Ferrario has literally recreated these art sculptures on site in Venice – some of them huge – in order to bring a common message to the world, as Dr Ferrario puts it: "Separated from each other by miles of desert and located in amazing as well as pristine places, far from cities, these cairns seem to symbolically represent the 'deserts' that separate different, human cultures. There is a need for humans to come together and consider their place and role in the universe. It is not us, who direct what happens, we need to start respecting this little speck in the universe called earth and need to take responsibility for it!” That in essence is the central theme of the Biennale.



But it is the message of “art for the sake of art” that is the most telling and probably rewarding message, not dissimilar to what the Kaokoveld and Damaraland do. These harsh regions are one big melting pot of natural art that presents itself in the form of unique sculptures and rock formations.



Intriguing Damaraland

If you enjoy nature that can be green and lush during the rainy season, but then turns into a semi-desert during the winter months, then Damaraland is for you. The region is well served by a host of hospitality establishments of the highest order. You may choose the finest and most luxurious establishment or for that matter keep it simple and aligned to your back pocket. And for those who love camping, there is an abundance of choice.



The common thread is the access to nature and more specifically also to the local folk, the Damara people, and wildlife that has over the years recovered well – unfortunately this also leads to human-wildlife-conflict. The “Bergdama” more than 200 years ago relented to pressure by the Herero and Khoisan, who gradually pushed this tribe out of central Namibia to this area.



This is the home of the much-loved desert-lions and desert-elephants. Both are not unique species, but instead share the same DNA as the rest. They simply adapted (thus the term desert-adapted lions and –elephants) and they are now as unique to this area as the Damara, who call this region their home.



Brandberg’s White Lay

It would seem that you have not been to the Damaraland, if you have not been to Namibia’s highest mountain, the Brandberg, where you find climbing opportunities, but more importantly you can visit sites that display marvellous, age-old rock art, with the White Lady featuring as highlight. Follow the Ugab River and enjoy encounters with desert-adapted elephants and various other wildlife. Remember that you would be well-advised to be self-sufficient and preferable part of a touring group that makes use of off road-vehicles when you aim for the catchment areas of the Ugab-, Koigab- or Uniab Rivers.



But while Damaraland does not always offer tarred roads, it certainly has good gravel roads that allow you to visit any number of lodges and campsites, and more specifically allow you access to natural wonders such as the Burnt Mountain and the Organ Pipes. You should certainly visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Twyfelfontein, where you will be able to admire the unique rock engravings that back anything between 1 000 and 10 000 years. As you leave that area towards Khorixas, the administrative centre of Damaraland, you might want to stop at the Damara Living Museum and the Petrified Forest. In Khorixas you are able to replenish and as you drive towards Outjo, you should consider visiting the Vingerklip, that natural rock formation that calls us to attention, not unlike the “Lone Stone Men of the Desert”.



Untouched Kaokoveld

Instead of aiming for Outjo and the Etosha National Park, your alternative could be a visit of the Kaokoveld, where the Ovahimba Tribe is at home, a people that have somehow made it into the modern world without giving up their traditions and culture.



Again, depending on what type of trip it is you want to undertake, there are different routes to- and through the Kaokoveld. From Khorixas it is easy to follow the main road (gravel) that leads up to Kamanjab, where you can catch the tar road leading up to Ruacana or for that matter to Opuwo the administrative capital of the Kaokoveld.



Whether you choose the former or the latter, these towns both allow for memorable trip as you drive up (from Opuwo) or towards the west (from Ruacana) towards the Epupa Falls. This extremely beautiful spot might not offer you the might of the Ruacana Falls when the water thunders down a cliff of 120 meters, but the Epupa Falls are loved for the equal beauty (albeit a much smaller drop of approximately 35 meters) and its easier access.



Kaokoveld is full of choices, but the more hardened off-roader (who might have accessed Epupa via Ruacana) might prefer to leave Epupa and actually turn south towards Okangwati and onwards towards Etengua (aka Etengwa) and on to the Van Zyl’s Pass. During the arduous journey towards the Pass you might at times question your decision to attempt the drive, but having reached the pass – and you will know when you have reached the outlook post! –, you will not regret the trip half a second!



Marvellous Marienfluss

Once you conquered the pass, which by the way is less of a challenge than the drive to Van Zyl’s, you enter the Marienfluss Valley, which offers you an experience second to none. It is especially along these natural wonders and further south as you drive towards Orupembe and later Purros, that you find the sculptures of RENN more frequently. Again you would be well advised to be equipped and ready to take on the Khumib-, Hoarusib- and Hoanib-River basins. But be prepared for a lot of wildlife – this is paradise!



For those who want to drive up the skeleton coast past Möwe Bay and Angra Fria, before turning towards Serra Cafema as you traverse the Namib Desert onwards towards the Hartmann Mountains, you might want to join guided tours as the one of the Omalweendo Safaris team. That too ends up down at the Khumib River and Orupembe. So again you would end up at the Hoarusib River (Purros) and go down further towards Sesfontein and/or Khowarib.



Having visited these places one thing is for sure, you will never forget that you have been in this hidden paradise.

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