The drylands where a gravel road crosses the ephemeral Ugab River into the Kaokoveld once lay under an ice field. The river did not exist at the time, only the glaciers that would gouge out its bed. Some 300 million years later, in the present, it is almost always empty. Across the river the Kaokoveld extends to the Angolan border in the far north-west where the Kunene River runs through desert landscapes to the ocean.
The Kaokoveld spans a succession of ecosystems from true desert in the west to mopane savannah in the east with stark brokenlands and a precipitous escarpment in between. Only the Ugab and Kunene boundaries are clear. A diagonal line from the Ruacana Falls through Kamanjab to the Ugab serves as a rule of thumb for the eastern boundary. In the west the Kaokoveld is intertwined with the Namib.
Another ephemeral river, the Hoanib, bisects the Kaokoveld. The southern part is commonly called Damaraland and the northern part Kaokoland, although the names are no longer in official use, as they represent colonial subdivisions that fell away after independence. They are now part of Kunene, a political region named after the river, where the population density is only 1,7 people/km², well below the national average.
The south and north together form a geographic entity, known as the Kaokoveld since the 1800s and before that as Okaoko, the Herero name for the Namibian side of the Kunene. The south is partly fenced, while the north is open range, less developed and far less accessible. With human settlement largely concentrated in the east, where conditions are somewhat kinder, a vast swathe of country to the west is virtually empty. The escarpment and desert are truly in the back of beyond.
Khorixas and Kamanjab in the south and Opuwo and Ruacana in the north are the only towns. They are actually closer to villages in size, but at least motor fuel and provisions are sold. Most people in the north, semi-nomadic herders with cattle and goats, live in traditional hamlets. In the south the inhabitants lead a settled if basic life on stock farms.
Rock is exposed almost everywhere in the Kaokoveld, especially in the south, coloured in deep shades of black, brown, red and purple. A good bit of the land is mountainous, with the highest point, 1 915m above sea level, in the Baynes Mountains close to the Kunene. The oldest rocks in Namibia, over two billion years old, are found in the same vicinity.
Apart from mopane savannah in the east and gallery forests along the Kunene, vegetation is largely confined to ephemeral watercourses. In the west where rainfall is lowest, with an average of less than 100 mm per year, the canopy cover shrinks to one shrub per hectare. The plains in the west are treeless. Ana trees (Faidherbia albida) and wild tamarisks (Tamarix usneoides) dot the watercourses, while cactus-like euphorbias and trees with fat trunks cling to the mountainsides. In the east purple-pod terminalias (Terminalia prunioides) and baobabs (Adansonia digitata) grow among the mopane trees and shrubs (Colophospermum mopane).
Wildlife is thinly dispersed. It includes desertadapted elephant, black rhinoceros, giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), Hartmann's mountain zebra, gemsbok, black-faced impala (Aepyceros melampus petersi) and springbok. Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) are found in the Kunene.
Huge trees that turned to stone 280 million years ago lie in the Petrified Forest 45km west of Khorixas. Broken into segments but aligned, they are clearly recognisable as fallen trees, some as long as 45m and 1,2m in diameter, complete with wood grain and growth rings. It is the biggest accumulation of petrified logs in southern Africa. Floodwaters uprooted the trees elsewhere and carried them to their present position towards the end of an ice age on the Gondwana supercontinent. The trees were cordaites, early conifers, that are now extinct.
A rounded hill south-west of the Petrified Forest, known as the Burnt Mountain, seems to catch fire again at sunrise and sunset. Its fantastic range of colours comes from a chemical reaction that took place 132 million years ago when molten lava penetrated shale and limestone deposits. In ordinary sunlight it is a dull black. Blackened rubble lies to one side like cinders from the original fire.
Strewn over a hillside at Twyfelfontein in the southern Kaokoveld, boulders and slabs of red sandstone hold some 2 500 prehistoric engravings that depict wildlife, animal spoor and abstract motifs. It is perhaps the largest and finest collection of petroglyphs in Africa.
The engravings show animals such as elephant, giraffe, kudu, lion, rhinoceros, springbok, zebra and ostrich that once used to drink from a fountain at the bottom of the hill. In some cases footprints were engraved instead of hooves or paws. The abstract motifs feature mainly circles.
Stone tools and other artefacts found at Twyfelfontein suggest that hunter-gatherers occupied the site over a period of perhaps 7 000 years. The exact age of the engravings is unknown, but the patina on individual figures -- the darker, the older -- does give an idea of their relative age.
Guides take visitors to view the rock art. The engravings lie along two circular routes, one an hour's climb and the other 40 minutes longer. The engravings are best seen in the softer light of early morning or late afternoon.
Twyfelfontein is a national monument situated about 100km south-west of Khorixas in a valley among flat-topped mountains of red sandstone.
Between the Huab and Hoanib rivercourses and west of the Grootberg, black rocks the size of grapefruit are strewn over 10 000km² of country, a lava field that forms part of the Etendeka Plateau. The basalts originated 132 million years ago, immediately before southern Africa broke apart from South America, when molten lava spewed out of great fissures in the crust of the earth. A sheet of lava 2km thick eventually formed.
After all this time the basalt cover is much reduced due to erosion, but it is still almost 900m thick in parts of the Etendeka Plateau, a wilderness with extensive plains and flattopped mountains. On the opposite side of the Atlantic, in the Parana province of Brazil, identical rocks of the same age are found. They were once part of one and the same lava field.
The Kunene River rises in highlands west of Huambo in Angola and flows in a southerly direction to Calueque, just above the Ruacana Falls, where it swings westward to form the border between Namibia and Angola for the last 340km of its course to the Atlantic.
The 1 050km river receives the bulk of its inflow within Angola where 86% of its catchment lies and where highland rainfall is at least three times as much as that in the Kaokoveld. Steep gradients characterise the lower Kunene, which runs in a glacial valley, deeply incised into rock 300 million years ago. Between the Ruacana Falls and the Atlantic, it drops no less than 1 100m. The only true waterfalls in Namibia, the Ruacana and Epupa falls, are situated on the lower course.
The river enters the Kaokoveld at the Ruacana Falls, where it drops into a zigzag gorge with almost vertical walls. The falls are 124m high and 700m wide in full flood, a wall of water at the height of the rainy season, which later divides into several streams as the river falls. Not far downriver in the Ondoruso Gorge the Kunene tumbles through 8km of white-water rapids with a grade of 2-4.
As the river approaches the Epupa Falls, 140km from the Ruacana Falls, it broadens to enfold a number of islands. The falls are 60m high and 1,5km wide with multiple cascades that bounce off rock faces and ledges as they descend. The only fall with a direct drop, which is also the main one, carries about a third of the water.
A final stretch of turbulence remains. Before the river enters the Namib Desert, it passes through another gorge, over 1,5km deep, in the mountains of the escarpment.
On the edge of the desert where the Kunene at last becomes quiet, ephemeral tributaries reach it through broad valleys in the mountains, among the remotest places in the whole of Namibia. It is here that the Marienfluss valley hugs the foot of the escarpment for a distance of some 60km. On one side of it the Otjihipa mountains rise to a height of 1 897m.
Some stretches of the Kunene look almost tropical, with gallery forests that contain makalani palms (Hyphaene petersiana), sycamore figs (Ficus sycomorus) and jackalberries (Diospyros mespiliformis). Away from the river, however, plant growth is minimal.
Two of the rarest birds in southern Africa, the Cinderella waxbill (Estrilda thomensis) and the rufoustailed palm thrush (Cichladusa ruficauda), are found only along the Kunene.
With slow and careful driving it is possible to negotiate routes D3700 and D3701 with a conventional vehicle to the Epupa Falls and Swartboois Drift respectively on the Kunene.
Everywhere else in the north a 4x4 is essential. All tracks -- even district roads -- are rough, stony and in places dangerously steep. Expect to crawl along at best.
Carry at least 10 litres of drinking water and emergency rations in case of breakdown. You could be stranded for days.
Take at least two spare tyres as well as a tyre-repair kit. Carry basic spares such as a fan belt and sealants for radiators and fuel tanks.
The Kalahari .........