A collection of culture, history and natural beauty
by Ron Swilling
King Nehale Gate, the northern entrance of the Etosha National Park situated just 44 kilometres north of Namutoni, acts as the gateway to the north-central regions. Previously known as Ovamboland, the region is home to the Owambo, the largest ethnic group in Namibia, constituting approximately half of the Namibian population.
This area has a character of its own, the landscape typified by tall makalani palm trees and oshanas (large pools of water), the land dotted with traditional homesteads, encircled by wooden palisades, in a vast tapestry of mahangu (pearl millet) fields.
Traditional Owambo life
It is a place where culture is predominant. Before your first few days have passed, you will probably be familiar with the Owambo traditional food and the respectful way these friendly people greet you.
Thirteen kilometres outside Ondangwa in Olukonda is Nakambale Museum and Restcamp, one such gem where traditional Owambo life can be experienced. Look out for and turn off at the sign to Olukonda, eight kilometres south-east of Ondangwa on the B1 from Tsumeb. Built on the site of a Finnish mission station, now converted into a museum and national monument, the rest camp offers accommodation in safari tents and traditional huts. Campers can erect their tents in the area around a display of a traditional homestead. Facilities are ablution blocks with flush toilets and cold showers, two outside electricity points and a large kitchen.
The traditional homestead introduces guests to the workings of an Ndonga household. Gracious host and manager Maggie Kaanante serves traditional meals (must be pre-booked), enabling you to have your first taste of mahangu porridge, oshimbombo; local chicken, ondjuhwa; wild spinach, ekaka; bean sauce, oshigali; mopane worms, omagungu (when available); and ontaku, a mahangu drink. A visit to a neighbouring homestead will give you the chance to experience local activities, from pounding millet with pestle and mortar and making mahangu porridge to weaving the well-made baskets.
A small craft shop acts as an outlet for community crafts. Maggie offers guided tours through the thick-walled, cool, mission building and church, giving the story of the Finnish missionary, Martti Rautenan, nicknamed Nakambale for the hat he wore, and his family who lived in the high-roofed old house. Nakambale is a stay recommended for its interesting history, taste of traditional Owambo life and simple African charm.
Under the baobab
Travelling north-west to Outapi on the C46 en route to Ruacana, the Ombalantu Baobab Tree Campsite and Heritage Centre is an organised and interesting camping terrain with good facilities. Situated on community land behind the brightly painted open market in Outapi, four campsites are positioned under an ancient baobab tree, the tree’s centre having been used as a refuge for the Ombalantu people during tribal wars and later as a post office and chapel. Its sacred space can be absorbed from the small benches inside the massive tree, as the living tree surrounds you and extends its branches into the heavens.
Each campsite, surrounded by a sapling fence, has an electricity socket and water point, a barbecue area, table and light. The attractive-looking ablution block has hot showers and washing-up sinks. The campsite, dominated by the beautiful and special baobab, makes an easy, convenient and enjoyable stop with friendly staff. A craft shop sells community goods ranging from Commiphora wood pipes and wire craft to well-made Owambo baskets and onyoka shell necklaces.
On the banks of the Kunene River, 12 kilometres from Ruacana, Hippo Pools campsite provides an unspoilt nature retreat. Sitting in the late afternoon looking over the water, listening to the birds, and later enjoying a campfire and starry night, make Hippo Pools a pleasing stop en route to Ruacana or the Epupa Falls, or travelling south to Kaokoland. This basic camping area has ten sites positioned under leadwood and mopane trees, three with great river views, each site having its own barbecue area. There are enviro-toilets, and although there is no electricity, solar panels provide hot-water showers.
Bring groceries along or visit the nearby Okagongo store near the junction to the Ruacana Falls and the border post for basic supplies. The campsite sells reasonably priced bags of firewood. The Ruacana Falls flows only in the summer months during the rainy season. In winter, the water is diverted to power the adjacent hydroelectric plant. The friendly manager of the campsite will accompany you to a nearby Himba village to translate and explain the traditional culture of this intriguing semi-nomadic group of people. Three ethnic groups merge in this area and the three members of staff at Hippo Pools represent all three groups, Owambo, Himba and Zemba.
Rich in birdlife
Although it is rare to see hippos these days, crocodiles are abundant, so don’t be tempted to take a dip, and keep your food locked away from mischievous monkeys. For campers or those not wanting to dig too deeply in their pocket for a night’s accommodation at the lodges, Hippo Pools is an affordable stop, providing time to enjoy the peaceful campsite, birdlife and river setting. Swamp boubous call melodiously and a fish eagle’s cry may herald your day, while the stars provide ample entertainment and blessings at night.
These three campsites easily accessible from the good network of tarred roads running through the north-central regions of Namibia provide affordable and enjoyable stops, offering a combination of history, culture and nature as you explore and discover this interesting part of the country. The rich culture, which is the highlight of the area, merges with the distinctive character of makalani palms, homesteads and oshanas, making it a route to be considered and incorporated into future journeys through Namibia.
This article was made possible by Cymot Namibia
This article appeared in the Aug/Sep ‘08 edition of Travel News Namibia.