Tracking black rhinos (Sarah Gilbert)
Article Words : Sarah Gilbert | 26 August

The last wilderness: Tracking black rhinos in Namibia

The rugged north-west of Namibia brings travellers face-to-face with desert-adapted wildlife and a remote region little changed (or visited) in centuries

With the wind direction in our favour, we crept stealthily over the rocky ground to within 75m of our quarry. Nantos was earth-coloured from dust bathing and hard to spot as he snoozed under a tree; he looked more like a giant boulder until his trumpet-shaped ears suddenly began to twitch.

Black rhinos make up for their poor eyesight with extremely good hearing. A rock shifted and he was on his feet, moody and staring in our direction. I held my breath; it was fight or flight – not for me, I’d been told not to move, but for Nantos. Luckily, he chose flight and disappeared in the opposite direction at an astonishing speed.

I was staying at the remote Desert Rhino Camp in the private Palmwag Concession, spread over 4,500 square km of Namibia’s Damaraland. It’s a joint venture between Wilderness Safaris and Save the Rhino Trust, and we’d set out at 6.30am in search of this critically endangered species, bouncing over uneven terrain while expert trackers went on foot. The Concession now holds the largest free-roaming population of black rhino in Africa and is one of few places where numbers are steadily increasing, thanks to monitoring and conservation work in tandem with three local communities.

It was a memorable end to my travels around the wild north-west of Namibia, an arid, uncompromising yet beautiful Eden that is still off most travellers’ radars. I’d learnt how black rhino had adapted to their environment by avoiding the heat of the day and eating the plentiful but poisonous euphorbia damarana with no ill effects, and how desert-dwelling lions had become opportunistic hunters, developing tougher paws and joints and relying on blood when there was no water to be found. To see all this up close felt like discovering an unseen corner of the country but, as I’d discovered, the journey here would bring me even closer to this untamed land.

A vervet monkey (Sarah Gilbert)

A vervet monkey (Sarah Gilbert)

Nights under the stars

I’d begun my trip with a mobile camping safari around Kaokoland, the perfect way to discover one of southern Africa’s last true wildernesses. Its epic landscapes are flanked by the perennial Kunene River to the north, the desolate Skeleton Coast to the west and the ephemeral Hoanib River to the south, providing refuge for an astonishingly wide variety of desert-adapted flora and fauna, as well as the Himba, one of Africa’s last semi-nomadic cultures.

Kaokoland has an enduring appeal for would-be adventurers but it’s not an expedition to undertake lightly. If things go wrong, as they can for the unprepared – from running out of diesel to sinking into seemingly dry riverbeds, to brushes with hungry leopards – you could be days from help. Fortunately, I was in excellent company. Straight-talking Caesar – founder of Kunene Tours – had been exploring this region for 25 years and could rustle up a braai (barbecue) just about anywhere, while his assistant, Max, could set up and break camp in record time.

Just before sunset, we pitched under the spreading branches of a jackalberry tree at Kunene River Lodge. Its namesake river is a precious resource, flowing south from the Angolan highlands before veering west to become the watery frontier with Namibia, until it spills into the Atlantic Ocean. That evening, the water echoed the pink streaks that lit up the sky, and from the safety of the deck, I watched log-like crocodiles riding the current to float downstream.

Van Zyl's Pass isn't for the faint-hearted (Sarah Gilbert)

Van Zyl's Pass isn't for the faint-hearted (Sarah Gilbert)

We ate dinner al fresco to a soundtrack of whistling tree frogs and the frog-like trill of the African scops owl. This was followed by cautionary campfire tales until the embers burned low, such as the story of the couple who jumped out of their vehicle as it careered over a cliff on the Van Zyl’s Pass then spent four days hiking and hitching to reach the nearest town. My ears pricked up at the mention of the Pass, as we’d soon be driving that rough track ourselves.

The following day we drove 100km west along the river, stopping to picnic on a stretch of bank bordered with papyrus reeds. As I ate, I took in the tranquil ebb and flow of river life: a Goliath heron stalking the shallows, a pied kingfisher nosediving for lunch and a black-chested snake eagle hovering silently overhead. We ended at Epupa Falls, where baobab tree sentinels cling to boulders as the river cascades down a narrow gorge and over rocky promontories.

The riverside campsite was our base for the night, an oasis of towering makalani palms filled with scampering vervet monkeys and the shrill squawks of the delightfully named rosy-faced lovebirds. Here, I was lulled to sleep by the roar of the falls and woken by the gentler call of the rufous-tailed palm thrush.

Leaving the riverine landscape behind, we drove inland along rocky two-tracks lined with ubiquitous mopane trees, fragrant wild sage and less appealing purple-pod terminalia – its flowers, Caesar explained, smell like faeces to attract flies and help it propagate. It was our first night of wild camping and we settled on a quartz-strewn plain close to the start of the Van Zyl’s Pass, the moon and a fire for light.

Elephants have adapted well to life in the dry north-west and can travel up to 65km to find water (Sarah Gilbert)

Elephants have adapted well to life in the dry north-west and can travel up to 65km to find water (Sarah Gilbert)

The hard road

Namibia’s most notorious route takes its name from the very determined Ben van Zyl, commissioner for Kaokoland in the 1960s. He used game trails to mark the way, and it took 20 labourers around four months to build, using just spades and picks.

His shortcut isn’t for the fainthearted. This one-way track lurches over jagged rocks and loose scree in a rollercoaster of vertiginous descents and steep climbs. It may be only 19km long but it can take inexperienced drivers up to six hours to negotiate; Caesar, however. had completed this white-knuckle ride around 120 times. At the first precipitous drop, I jumped out of the vehicle while Caesar and Max walked the track and discussed the route. It was then I had my first encounter with one of the ‘lone men’ of Kaokoland. Perched above my head was one of several figures fashioned from stone and metal that have been scattered around the region by an anonymous artist and appear when least expected.

A rare Hartmann’s mountain zebra emerged from nowhere and walked towards us on gangly legs, docile and curious...

Towards the end of the adrenaline-inducing pass, we took a path that veered upwards, stopping to take in the views over the Marienfluss, a vast valley sandwiched between the Otjihipa and Hartmann Mountains, before getting up close to its mysterious fairy circles – barren patches of land surrounded by grass that only exists in the Namib Desert and which scientists still can’t explain.

We had just cut through a gap in the mountains to reach the Hartmann Valley when a baby zebra – a rare Hartmann’s mountain zebra in fact – emerged from nowhere and walked towards us on gangly legs, docile and curious. This mountain subspecies live in small groups of around ten, but this one was alone and almost snuffling my outstretched hand when his mother’s high-pitched bark reverberated around the valley from a distant hill. It’s common for mountain zebra to hide their young while they spend time feeding but, barely a month old, his curiosity was stronger than his fear.

Hartmann's mountain zebra (Sarah Gilbert)

Hartmann's mountain zebra (Sarah Gilbert)

Westward ho!

The further west we went, the drier and more barren it became. But still there was life: a slender mongoose darted across the track, ostrich sprinted in formation over the plain, springboks bucked and hopped and kicked up dust, and a stately oryx stood and stared for a moment before galloping away. Solitary evergreen shepherd’s trees, wild sesame bushes and tenacious tufts of grass, emboldened by the recent rains, soon gave way to lunar-like terrain glittering with mica. Granite boulders and gravel plains turned to sand dunes.

“Hold on tight,” said Caesar as we raced up a near-vertical dune that seemed to end at the sky. At the last moment he swerved onto a ridge and, heart racing, I looked down over sculpted sand, the mountains of Angola and the bends of the palm-fringed Kunene River, a sliver of green running through the buff -coloured earth.

We found a place to camp and, while Caesar fired up the braai, I wandered just far enough away to feel like the valley was mine alone. I stood marvelling at the stillness as the sun’s last rays painted the rocky escarpment gold, orange, red and purple by turns, before its jagged silhouette turned black and the first stars lit the sky.

A pair of Himba women wander past the mud-packed huts of a village (Sarah Gilbert)

A pair of Himba women wander past the mud-packed huts of a village (Sarah Gilbert)

There are no road signs along this endless valley, just a few brightly coloured oil drums turned iconic markers. The orange drum came with faux plug points, the blue drum boasted a telephone and satellite dish, and we turned right at the red drum towards Etambura Camp, the first lodge to be owned and run by the Himba people.

High on a ridge, Etambura (‘Brings the rain’ in the Himba language) was simple yet stylish, and positively luxurious after wild camping. The five thatched chalets-on-stilts come with five-star views and hot showers, for which the water is heated by metal wood burners called ‘donkeys’ – so called because they never stop working.

As the sun dipped behind the flat-topped Etendeka range, formed by layers of ancient lava flow that have eroded over millennia, the sound of laughter drifted up from a Himba kraal (village) and birdsong filled the air before silence fell and the celestial light show began. We’d passed abandoned kraals and burial places – a collection of stones in the fork of a tree – before but it wouldn’t be until the following morning that I’d have my first encounter with the Himba.

Etambura Camp is the first to be owned and run by the Himba (Sarah Gilbert)

Etambura Camp is the first to be owned and run by the Himba (Sarah Gilbert)

A taste of village life

Uatambaukua emerged from her igloo-shaped hut still fixing her elaborate goatskin headpiece, or erembe. Tall and slender, with only a piece of cloth around her waist and metal beads wound around her ankles, her skin glowed an intense red, having been slathered in otjize – a paste made from red ochre, fat and aromatic resin – which serves as both sun protection and insect repellent.

The Himba’s way of life has barely changed since the 16th century, when they crossed the Angolan border to make Kaokoland their home, and isolation has conserved their traditions. Scattered settlements consist of a few huts – a wooden frame covered with sun-baked mud and cow dung – set around a central enclosure for animals and a sacred fire encircled by stones. Cattle – essentially a four-legged bank account – and goats are key to their subsistence lifestyle, and men, or sometimes the whole village, move with them in search of good grazing.

Max translated their words as the women told me about their day-to-day lives and laid out their jewellery, crafted from leather, ostrich shell and iron, along with an array of ingenious PVC pipe bracelets. They wake before dawn to milk the goats – their diet is limited to maize meal porridge, goat’s meat and milk – and in this bone-dry environment they don’t use water to wash but bathe in great puffs of wild sage smoke.

The Himba's way of life has barely changed since the 16th century

We then headed south to the small village of Purros, camping under some camel thorn acacias at the one-room shop. There, indigenous Herero women sashayed along the sand streets in bold printed dresses inspired by the Victorian Rhenish missionaries, and horn-shaped hats inspired by their cattle.

We’d seen plenty of evidence of elephants, but it was along the Hoanib River that Caesar finally tracked down a matriarchal herd feeding on camel thorn. The earth was dry and cracked, like shards from a broken pot, but these hardy, desert-adapted pachyderms follow dry riverbeds, searching them for underground springs with their inbuilt water diviners and stamping holes with their extra-large feet.

Like Kaokoland’s other inhabitants, these elephants have adjusted to life in this challenging terrain, travelling far greater distances than their cousins in Etosha – as much as 65km a day – to find sustenance. They can go up to three or four days without water and, unlike their counterparts, are less destructive of the vegetation they do find.

Back in Windhoek, dirt roads turned to tarmac, phones began to ring and music blared from radios. I reached for my Himba necklace, the red-stained leather suffused with a musky scent, and for an instant I was transported back to Kaokoland. The capital, small as it is, suddenly seemed too noisy, too crowded, too confined for this city girl. I longed to be back among its boundless horizons and wild beauty before I’d even shaken the dust off my boots.

Tracking rhinos in the private Palmwag Concession (Sarah Gilbert)

Tracking rhinos in the private Palmwag Concession (Sarah Gilbert)

Namibia highlights

1: Sossusvlei

Some spectacular (and huge) dunes are found in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, part of the world’s oldest desert.

2: Skeleton Coast National Park

This wild and desolate coastline is dotted with colonies of cape fur seals and rusting shipwrecks.

3: Caprivi

Bordered by the Okavango and Zambezi Rivers, with a lush, green landscape and an abundance of wildlife.

4: Fish River Canyon

Take a five-day hike along the world’s second-largest canyon or just peer in.

5: Kaokoland

This is one of Africa’s last great wildernesses, and home to spectacular scenery, indigenous Himba and a wealth of desert-adapted wildlife.

6: Twyfelfontein

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of ancient rock art, with over 2,500 engravings daubing its walls.

7: Lüderitz

A slice of old Bavaria that lies sandwiched between the baking Namib Desert, the windswept coast and ghostly mining towns.

Black rhino (Sarah Gilbert)

Black rhino (Sarah Gilbert)

The Trip

The author travelled with Reef & Rainforest Tours (01803 866965) on a ten-night tailor-made itinerary. This included eight nights on a mobile safari in Kaokoland and two nights at Desert Rhino Camp on a fully inclusive basis, international flights with South African Airways via Johannesburg, light aircraft transfers and local medical evacuation cover.

Accommodation

Rivendell Guesthouse (Windhoek) is located in a quiet suburb.

Kunene River Lodge (Kaokoland) offers camping by the water.

Etambura Camp (Kaokoland) is both owned and run by the Himba, with self-catering.

Khowarib Lodge (Damaraland) lies on the fringes of Kaokoland and has all-inclusive offers.

Desert Rhino Camp (Damaraland) is located within the 4,500 sq km Palmwag Concession and has all-inclusive offers.