This verdant strip of land between Etosha and the Kunene and Okavango rivers is largely blank on Namibia's normal tourist map. However, it is highly populated and home to the Owambo people, who formed the backbone of SWAPO's support during the struggle for independence. The region was something of a battleground before 1990, and now the map's blank spaces hide a high concentration of rural people practising subsistence farming of maize, sorghum and millet.
Before independence this area was known as Ovamboland, and recently it has been split into four regions: Omusati, Oshana, Ohangwena and Oshikoto. Here, for simplicity, I will refer to the whole area as Owamboland. During the summer Owamboland appears quite unlike the rest of Namibia. It receives over 500mm of rain and supports a thick cover of vegetation and extensive arable farming.
The Owambo people are Namibia's most numerous ethnic group, and since independence and free elections their party, SWAPO, has dominated the government. Much effort is now going into the provision of services here. There are two main arteries through Owamboland: the B1/C46, and the smaller C45. The small towns that line these roads, like trading posts along a Wild West railroad, are growing rapidly.
Alongside the main B1 there is a canal – a vital water supply during the heat of the dry season. Driving by, you pass women carrying water back to their houses, while others wash and children splash around to cool off. Occasionally there are groups meeting in the shade of the trees on the banks, and men fishing in the murky water. Some have just a string tied to the end of a long stick, but others use tall conical traps, perhaps a metre high, made of sticks. The successful will spend their afternoon by the roadside, selling fresh fish from the shade of small stalls.
Always you see people hitching between the rural towns, and the small, tightly packed combi vans, which stop for them: the local bus service. If you are driving and have space, then do offer lifts to people; they will appreciate it. It's one of the best opportunities you will get to talk to the locals about their home area.
Owamboland has three major towns – Oshakati, Ondangwa and Ruacana – and many smaller ones. With the exception of Ruacana, which was built solely to service the big hydro-electric power station there, the others vary surprisingly little and have a very similar atmosphere.
There is usually a petrol station, a take-away or two, a few basic food shops, a couple of bottle stalls (alias bars) and maybe a beer hall. The fuel is cheaper at the larger 24-hour stations, in the bigger towns, and you can stock up on cold drinks there also. The take-aways and bars trade under some marvellous names: Freedom Square Snack Bar, Music Lovers Bar and the Come Together Bar, to name but a few. These can be lively, friendly places to share a beer, but a word of warning: they are not recommended for lone women visitors.
Away from the towns, the land seems to go on forever. There are no mountains or hills or even kopjes – only feathery clumps of palm trees and the odd baobab tree break the even horizon. After a year of good rains, the wide flat fields are full of water, like Far Eastern rice paddies, complete with cattle wading like water buffalo.
Travelling eastwards and slightly south, towards Tsumeb, notice how, as the land becomes drier, the population density decreases, and maize becomes the more dominant crop. Where the land is not cultivated, acacia scrub starts gradually to replace the greener mopane bushes by the roadside. Keep your eyes open for raptors – especially the distinctive bateleur eagles that are common here.
Towards the edge of Owamboland, at Oshivelo (about 150km from Ondangwa and 91km from Tsumeb), you must stop to pass through a veterinary cordon fence. This is just a kilometre north of the bed of the Omuramba Owambo, which feeds into the Etosha pan.