The relentless struggle between sea and shoreAugust 24, 2016
An epic sort of freedomAugust 29, 2016
Text by Ron Swilling
| This article was first published in the Flamingo April 2009 issue.
Six, five, four, three, two … one! The baobab countdown begins with excitement as the first king of trees appears bathed in afternoon light and adorned with birds’ nests.
F ifty kilometres before Epupa Falls, the mighty trees stand out from the surrounding mopane woodland fringed with wild sage. Along the 180-kilometre journey from Opuwo, Himba villages with their rounded huts smoothed with dung and sand dot the countryside. Bare-breasted Himba beauties dressed in animal-skin wraps walk through the dry land with the cow skins swishing behind them as they go, in what looks like the Himba equivalent to a hip-waggle.
The last two baobabs serve as an imaginary gateway, with the mountain pass leading to a dazzling Kunene river-world. Cresting the last rise, a valley of makalani palms stretches before you, and nestled in the palms on the banks of the crashing river cascading over the rocks, are the Epupa Falls campsites.
My visit to Epupa began with a conversation I had with an elderly woman traveller I met in a campsite in the east of the country. We were still sitting chatting in our pyjamas, her in her robe, as the sun warmed the chilly winter’s day. “You have to go to Epupa Falls,” she stressed. Her lifelong travels had taken her to waterfalls all over the world, but, she said, Epupa topped her list. She told me to sit on a rock on the side of the main falls with the water gushing below and the baobabs rising from the cliff sides. “Write the picture,” she said.
And so I arrived at Epupa Falls to write the picture. Already awed by the makalani palm forest on the banks of the Kunene River with Angola and a similar forest mirrored on the opposite bank with its grassy mountains above, and already having spent a night dreaming to the tune of the water rushing to leap over the 35-metre drop to the gorge below, I ventured to the falls. On my first visit, they seemed small in comparison to the Victoria Falls where the Zambezi River plunges over the rocks. Epupa Falls is rich in African character and, like the campsites, the atmosphere is relaxed and simple, with people washing in the pools at the water’s edge and a multicoloured string of clothes hanging in the makalani palms. Himba boys walk past with their unique high pony-tailed hairstyles and fabric wraps, their sticks in hand. The amount of the water in the falls depends on the season and the hydroelectric plant 135 kilometres upstream at Ruacana, with the dam usually closed over weekends. A few baobabs cling precariously to the rocks above the chasm, belying the peaceful atmosphere, and mountains and trees surround the watery tumble of the Kunene River.
I sat in the makalani shade at the campsite, lulled by the rumbling water and refreshed by the waterfall mist, and in the late afternoon walked the short distance back to Epupa Falls for a second helping of baobab-and-water treat. This time, the dam gates were open and myriad spectacular waterfalls gushed down in torrents, sending rainbows heavenwards in breathtaking bursts. I sat on the rocks on the side of the falls and absorbed powerful magnificence until the gold of the afternoon disappeared into dusk.
Driving south, back to Opuwo, I followed the old woman’s final instructions and watched the majestic baobab kings disappear in my rear-view mirror one by one. That evening I dialled her number to give her my impressions of Epupa Falls.