Text and photos by Peter Cunningham
Since Namibia is a desert destination, most visitors do not stake too much importance on its rivers, although the country can lay claim to some of the most important large rivers in Southern Africa.
These range from the brooding canyon-enclosed Kunene in the isolated north-west to the tranquil Okavango, meandering Kwando with its lush floodplains and oxbow lakes, the majestic Zambezi in the north-east and the underrated reed-lined Orange in the far south.
The flash-flood-associated ephemeral rivers flowing through the Skeleton Coast into the cold-fog-enchanted Atlantic Ocean are known to the more intrepid travellers exploring the land of the Himba and desert elephant in north-western Namibia. These have mesmerising names such as the Ugab, Huab, Khoichab, Hoanib, Hoarusib and Khumib, all splendid rivers in their own right.
While travelling by road in southern Namibia – an area bound either to captivate or to drive you to tears – the meandering, most often dry, river courses can inspire. Take the captivating Löwen River – an unassuming stream fringed by the contrasting green of sweet thorn (Acacia karroo) and road culverts haloed by swifts – for starters. Löwen refers to lions that presumably used to roam the dry southern plains before being exterminated by humans. Another reference to lions in the form of a dry riverbed is the Leeu River west of Okahandja.
The early hunter-explorer James Chapman confirms that lions were ubiquitous in Namibia and refers to troubled nights spent throughout the country in the mid-1800s fending off hungry lions:
River spotting and consequent vivid flights of imagination can become a favourite pastime if you consent to such banalities. For example, albeit not as awe-inspiring as lions, but nevertheless just as mesmerising, the Schlangkopf River between Keetmanshoop and Aus conjures up the age-old human fear of snakes. Another river reference to snakes – the Onjoka River (Onjoka being Herero for snake) – cuts under the road north of Okahandja.
In Namibia it is inevitable that pachyderms be included, with the Olifants River that partly drains the Kalahari or sandy eastern parts of Namibia alluding to past mega herbivore distribution. In Chapman’s time Gobabis was named Elephants Fountain as in the entry:
Today the closest elephants are found in the Khaudum and Tsumkwe areas much further north.
Another notable animal-named river, albeit generalist in nature, caters for ichthyologists, namely the Fish River. Although fish are found in pools along its course, the Fish is without a doubt better known for eroding the world’s second largest canyon, with depths scoured of up to half a kilometre, making it equally spectacular to the Grand Canyon in North America.
For good measure domestic stock are also provided for in the Schaap and Swartskaap Rivers south of Windhoek, referring to sheep in general, the latter indicating the karakul and associated pelt industry that Namibia was once famous for.
How rivers are named or what stories resulted in a particular name and who exactly takes a decision on such naming events passes me by, but certainly the name that has perplexed me most, is the Wasser River. Of all the river names great and wonderful I have frequently mused over, this name brings the inevitable idiotic grin to my face as I scan the distances for another riparian marvel.
Flamingo February 2009