They told us at breakfast that an elephant had strolled through the Palmwag Camp, nibbled at our thatched roof, eaten some green leaves off the plants in the garden and then wandered round to the camping site where somebody woke up to find an elephant’s trunk blowing in her ear and a steaming pile of fresh dung quite close to her sleeping-bag. The elephant, one of a large herd, was apparently called In-House Ellie and came by, with friends, most nights.
That’s what life off-grid is like when you go to Namibia’s fascinating wilderness in the remote north, an undisturbed place where people can listen to the quiet, see life as it was, glimpse a scattering of locals, mainly semi-nomadic Himbas living as they did hundreds of years ago. And see game!
Namibia is a huge country. It was a German colony from 1884 to 1914. In the decades that followed to independence in 1990, it was administered by South Africa. It has a population of 2.6m and is almost two countries, with the capital Windhoek dividing the country.
In the south are all familiar places like Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, Luderitz, Kolmanskop where old colonial German houses sink under sand-dunes. The coastal Namib desert with its massive dunes is considered to be the oldest desert in the world and spreads south to Oranjemund at the mouth of the Orange River and South Africa.
North of Windhoek is the age-old game reserve Etosha, Damaraland, Caprivi, many private game reserves and the captivating Skeleton Coast with its desert elephants and lions and shipwrecks rusting in the roaring winds and rough Atlantic sea. And Kaokoland, one of the most elusive regions of Africa.
For a long time nobody knew much about Kaokoland. Getting there presents a challenge for starters. There are little domestic landing strips but mainly people drive. The roads are not trivial, sometimes scarcely visible gravel or chassis-shattering corrugated rocks. Four-wheel drive Land Cruisers, extra water, food, spare tyres and a tow-rope are essentials. Especially the tow-rope.
We had to cross three rivers at one point, two were dry as old bones but the third coursed with water from sudden, exceptional summer rainfall which meant we needed to wait for another vehicle to pass so if we got stuck, they could pull us out. We waited and waited, many hours, before anybody passed us. Eventually they didn’t have to tow us out but they said they’d once spent three days sleeping under a tree waiting for a passing vehicle to help them out.
Kaokoland is a place you need to visit if you have an interest in an incredible, untamed environment where lions, rhinos and giraffes roam and herds of springbok, gemsbok and ostriches move with cattle and goats in search of grazing.
The locals are desert-adapted nomads, the fascinating Himbas, current population 50 000 and probably the last semi-nomadic rural people living traditionally. And some Hereros also live there, once a huge strong tribe who battled the Germans for territory. The women still wear long dresses with petticoats like the missionary’s wives used to.
Tourists haven’t really got to Kaokoland yet but tours are starting. Campsites are springing up, along with environmentally-sound lodges. Word is getting around. Starkly beautiful, breath-taking destinations as far out of reach as it gets are there.
To sit of an evening quietly around a barbeque in this magical world, one can simply forget that there is an urgent modern world somewhere out there in the darkness beyond the stars.