This vast tract of land is Namibia at its most enticing – and yet most inhospitable. Kaokoland appeals to the adventurer and explorer in us, keeping quiet about the dangers involved. On the eastern side, hilly tracks become mudslides as they get washed away by the rains, whilst the baking desert in the west affords no comfort for those who get stranded. Even dry riverbeds hide soft traps of deep sand, whilst the few which seem damp and hard may turn to quicksand within metres. Having struggled to free a Land Rover with just one wheel stuck in quicksand, it is easy to believe tales of vehicles vanishing within an hour.
One road on the eastern side was particularly memorable for me – it started favourably as a good gravel track. After 20km, it had deteriorated into a series of rocky ruts, shaking us to our bones and forcing us to slow down to 10km/h. After a while, when we'd come too far to think of returning, the track descended into a sandy riverbed, strewn with boulders and enclosed by walls of rock. The only way was for passengers to walk and guide the driver, watching as the tyres lurched from boulder to boulder.
Hours later we emerged – on to another difficult track. Gradually it flattened and the driving eased: we were happy to be travelling faster. Then the pace was interrupted. Streams crossed the road. Someone would wade across to check the depth, and then the 4WD would swiftly follow, its momentum carrying it across the muddy bed. The third stream stopped us: more than thigh-high, fast flowing – a river in flood. We slept dry in our tents, thankful that the floods hadn't reached that first rocky riverbed whilst we were there.
To come to Kaokoland independently, you should have a two-vehicle 4WD expedition, all your supplies, an experienced navigator, detailed maps and good local advice on routes. Even then you'll probably get lost a few times. This is not a trip to undertake lightly: if things go wrong you will be hundreds of kilometres from help, and days from a hospital.
If you can get an expedition together, then in contrast to Damaraland's regulated concession areas, Kaokoland has yet to adopt any formal system of control. You are free to travel where you can. However, this freedom is causing lasting damage to the area. The Kaokoveld's drier areas, especially to the west, have a very fragile ecosystem: simply driving a vehicle off the tracks and 'across country' can cause permanent damage – killing plants and animals, and leaving marks that last for centuries. Vehicle trails made 40 years ago can still be seen as the crushed plants and lichens haven't recovered yet. Here, you must be responsible and treat the environment with care. Never drive off the tracks.
Owambo–Himba politics in the Kaokoveld
For many years now, conservationists have argued that Kaokoland ought to revert to its previous status as a national park. They cite as a model the Masai Mara, in East Africa, where the Masai people live in the park, their cattle coexisting with the game. The Himba people of Kaokoland have a similar culture, and could similarly coexist. This type of protection would stem the worst aspects of development in the region, and go some way to protecting both the Himba culture and the wildlife.
However, this view has not found favour within the SWAPO government. They are keen to present Namibia to the world as a modern, forward-looking country, and seem to feel that cattle-herding tribesmen in ochre and animal skins will damage this image. One government minister, Hidepo Hamutenya, is on record as suggesting that the Himba 'should be in ties and suits, rather than being half-naked and half dressed'.
Cynics point out that the Owambo (Namibia's dominant tribe, and SWAPO's power-base) and the Himba did not fight side-by-side in the liberation struggle, so SWAPO's will to act in the best interests of the Himba is very limited. These issues are coming to a focus in controversial plans for a hydro-electric dam at Epupa.