by Conrad Brain
There are some destinations on the planet where, for some reason, the place is greater than the sum of its parts.
It is often an abstract feeling, perhaps a fleeting impression or an inexplicable sense of satisfaction that transforms the place to beyond what is there. One such place in Namibia is Epupa – the whole valley surrounding the magnificent falls, the mist-laden atmosphere of the falls themselves, the surrounding bush and the ochre-coloured Himba people. As a whole and with an elegant arc of colours above the falls, Epupa is a vibrant confirmation that there is something special at the end of a rainbow.
This is not to say that the sum of attractions at Epupa, other than the place itself, is insignificant. On the contrary. An array of new and exciting activities, campsites, luxury camps, community incentives and even improved road access all combine to add significantly to making Epupa a place of immense attraction. Special guided excursions by local Himbas to authentic functioning settlements can now take you into the fascinating heart of a Himba village.
Guided excursions are now on offer from the tourist camps at Epupa and also from the new community campsite closest to the falls themselves. Also, next to the falls, is a new community market with Himba curios, beautiful and original local jewellery and other crafts that provide a glimpse into the local culture. Special guided walks into the fascinating mountain wilderness around Epupa are a speciality of Koos Verwey, who also has a campsite on the palm-covered banks of Epupa. These walks can be tailored to his guests’ requirements and provide insight into the little-known extreme terrain bordering on the Kunene River.
New and exciting wildlife sightings around Epupa are also a confirmation of recent conservation successes and species introduction. Black-faced impala herds are now a regular sighting. This endemic species originally came from the Epupa area and recently, following a re-introduction programme, seems to be thriving.
Unusual hippo sightings in the river upstream from the falls and the very exciting appearance of elephants close to the river all add to a very encouraging sign of wildlife recovery in the area. Crocodiles are regularly seen up- as well as downstream from the falls and, of course, the highly endemic Cinderella Waxbill, Rufous-tailed Palm-Thrush and Grey Kestrel continue to make the Kunene a must for birders.
Also, in the light of concrete moves to develop a trans-frontier park between Iona National Park in Angola and Skeleton Coast Park and sections of its hinterland in Namibia, research on wildlife occurrence and distribution on both sides of the Kunene provides an exciting new incentive for wildlife conservation in the Epupa environment.
From Epupa Camp, kayak excursions can be arranged and there is no better way to become acquainted with the Epupa riverine habitat than from the river itself. The intoxicating life of a river flowing through an arid habitat is indeed unforgettable, made all the more special when visitors stay at Epupa Camp with its luxury amenities.
To travel to Epupa by air is now easier and more attractive than ever before. This is due mainly to the availability of aircraft fuel at Opuwo and the opportunity of relaxing, dining or overnighting at the new Opuwo Country Hotel that opened late last year. The aircraft fuel station at Opuwo is operated by the Opuwo Country Hotel and pickups and drop-offs at the airfield by hotel staff are easily arranged. Opuwo is also now fully cellphone operational. The flight from Opuwo to Epupa over the Zebra Mountains is spectacular and flights from Epupa or Opuwo to anywhere in the country are now possible, thanks to the fuel installation at Opuwo.
The notorious airfield at Epupa is now well maintained and the approach to the airfield gives an insightful view of a Himba village from the air. It is this perspective that will add to the wonder of the Himba culture when visitors visit the village accompanied by local guides.
It is safe to swim in the small rock pools at the falls and the sheer exhilaration of the natural Jacuzzi-type pools is addictive. Lying in cool, cascading Kunene water definitely provides you with a unique perspective of the surrounding arid habitat. It is this environment that is becoming more and more attractive to visitors, thanks to the new incentives, camp luxuries and community involvement at Epupa.
However, at dusk there is probably no better way to bid farewell to the day than by simply soaking up the Epupa atmosphere. From riverside, next to the thundering falls, or high up on the surrounding mountain lookouts, a tangible blanket of peace descends on the valley. The new attractions and activities at Epupa only add to a powerful, ancient and unchanged ambience that is simply greater than the place as a whole. The magnetic pull to head north up to Epupa is now greater than ever before.
“Please be patient. Trust me to make the introductions and you will have a wonderful experience with my people.”
Tsungee Raphael was born on the banks of the Kunene River at a village close to the Epupa Falls on Namibia’s northern border with Angola. At the time of his birth, few outsiders visited the land of the Ovahimba people. The key political events of the previous century – colonial occupation, wars between the colonial powers and local Namibians, the change-over between colonial powers, the war between South Africa and neighbouring Angola and the struggle for and ultimate achievement of independence – seemed to have had little effect on the nomads of northern Namibia. They continued going about their daily lives as if nothing had changed. They still live the way their ancestors lived through centuries, in perfect harmony with their surroundings.
What has changed is the fascination of the outside world with the Himbas’ way of life. Hundreds of tourists visit the region every year, and regard a meeting with Himbas and a visit to one of their villages as the highlight of their trip. “We want to introduce our way of life to tourists, because we know they are important to us, but we also want them to respect our ways,” says Tsungee, who went to school in Opuwo. “Many of the tourists, especially the self-drivers, don’t realise that the villages they visit are real villages, not living museums with actors dressed in costumes. The tourists sometimes exhibit behaviour they would never dream of exhibiting in their own countries. They often have little regard for the villagers’ privacy and traditions.”
Tsungee became a tour guide because he is educated and knows he can apply his knowledge and training to benefit the communities and the tourism industry. He started as a guide at the community camp site at Epupa, received tour-guide training through NATH in 1998, and has since been appointed in a permanent position as a guide at the upmarket Epupa Tented Camp.
“Tourists must accept that they are guests in the villages and behave accordingly. Sometimes the Headman says to me: ‘Tsungee, keep your people under control!’ But because of the training I received from Dr Simone Hertzog long ago, I understand the tourists and I can explain their behaviour to my people. The fact that I speak English and have a little knowledge of other European languages, means that I’m able to tell tourists what the respectful thing is to do. Sometimes I have to explain to the villagers that photographers are not interested in talking. They only want to take photographs and they’ll often come very close. I say to them, ‘Don’t be frightened. They don’t mean to insult you. They’re just doing their job.’”
Campsites and tented lodges at Epupa are shaded by makalani palms on the banks of the Kunene River. They are Epupa Camp, an upmarket tented lodge, Omarunga Camp, with tents and camping sites, a community camp site, with trained guides to accompany visitors on walking trails, and the privately owned campsite run by local people, Hot Springs.
Further west along the Kunene River lie Skeleton Coast Safaris’ stopover camp and Wilderness Safaris’ tented camp, Serra Cafema. At Swartbooisdrift, east of Epupa, is Kunene River Lodge and further east, at the Ruacana Falls, Ruacana Eha Lodge.
This article appeared in the Feb/March ‘06 edition of Travel News Namibia.