Nine days in North-West Namibia: Palmwag, Epupa and the Kunene River

I am still in Namibia and on my most recent trip I revisited the Spitzkoppe, Swakopmund and the Skeleton Coast National Park to finalize footage for my YouTube channel. That was followed by a few days exploring the North-Western regions. This post will focus on the second part of my trip, the North-West of Namibia.

It’s still very easy to travel around in Namibia. There is no lockdown and according to the president it will take a lot to re-introduce another one. Covid cases are on the decrease and deaths are at about 5 to 6 daily. There is a curfew in place from 22:00 until 04:00, you are expected to wear a mask when in public and sanitize when entering and leaving buildings, but these measures have little impact on my travel plans. The borders are open for international visitors as long as you arrive with a negative coved test not older than 3 days.

I left Windhoek and spent a night at the Spitzkoppe community camp. Always a pleasant stay with cheap camping as long as you remember with a small price tag comes only the basics. A toilet, a BBQ pit and a bin, nothing else. There is a restaurant and showers at the entrance. Off course the scenery, amazing sunsets and star gazing makes up for the temporary discomfort. On this occasion I was very lucky as the recent rains in Namibia meant that the rock pools were full of water and I could go for a refreshing swim. All and all a good place to stop for a night or two, but no longer unless you are seriously intro rock climbing or star gazing.

Camping at Spitzkoppe community camp

From there I moved onto Swakopmund where I opted for a bit more luxury in the form of the Delight hotel. I needed decent Wi-Fi and a desk to get some work done. I got exactly what I needed including fast uncapped internet, a large well-lit room and a Nespresso machine which enabled me to burn the midnight oil. The hotel is part of the Gondwana collection so if you are a loyalty card holder you qualify for a whopping 50% discount. It was a quick stop, usually I’d spend more time here and so should you, but I needed to be moving on.

A room at the Swakopmund Delight hotel

I left for the Skeleton Coast, stopping at the Zeila wreck and Henties bay the last decent town on route. The tar road ends a few kilometers after Henties and it will be many kilometers and days before I see it again, it is gravel from here onwards. My next stop is the Cape Cross Seal Reserve to see the noisy and somewhat smelly seals. All are worthwhile stops for a pic and stretching legs and Henties for final shopping.

I did not enter the park on the same day. On a previous trip I spotted an interesting road sign “Camp St Nowhere and Spa” and of course my curiosity got the better of me. It offers seaside (by this I mean on the beach) accommodation in a few run-down bungalows and camp sites. The camp sites are extremely basic, but they are right on the beach and you have a power point which sort of makes up for it. There is a shop, freezing facilities and a spa. I did not ask about the spa nor was I told when checking-in. This will remain a mystery.

Camp St Nowhere
Camp St Nowhere

After one night I was back on the road  and entered the Skeleton Coast Park early that morning via the Ugab gate. Camp St Nowhere is only 27kms from the gate. I was pleasantly surprised when the lady at the office informed me that there is no fee for transiting visitors i.e. if you enter at one gate in the morning and exit at another later in the day. It’s always nice to save a bit of cash.

After taking the customary pic at the iconic Ugab gate I commenced traversing the park from the South. I stopped along the way at the Ugab lagoon, a few wrecks and the abandoned oil rig to do a video. The rest of the drive was scenic as would be expected from the park and I finally reached the Springbokwasser gate on the western side of the park. A few minutes of admin and you exit the park. The thousands of red rocks strewn all over the place is Damaralands way of welcoming you. Beware they might present a pretty picture, but in reality, are tire killers. Always keep one eye on the gravel.  

Driving damaraland

A 100km drive gets you to the Palmwag lodge and campsite operated by the Gondwana collection. As you drive into the camp you can’t miss the main building with the Makalani palm backdrop and large thatch roof that perfectly blends into the surrounding area. I opted to camp and ended up staying two nights, because the first was so great. They also have several rooms and camping2go which is Gondwana’s version of the permanent tents that are very popular these days.

The camp site I stayed at had an unobstructed view off the waterhole and surrounding hills. During the day you can see elephant from there and on the second evening one of them came strolling through the site. I was woken up by its noisy grazing on a bush a mere 3 meters away. The next morning you could follow its tracks as it peacefully made its way through the campsite, many never even aware of its presence. It is the first major encounter I’ve had since getting the ground tent and I’m now pondering if I should switch to a rooftop tent…

Palmwag lodge

The Palmwag lodge offers campers their own swimming pool area with a bar and 300mb of free WIFI every day. Not bad, considering I was paying less than US$10 per night with my loyalty discount. The bathrooms were in excellent condition and more importantly clean with hot water available at all times. The sites had electricity and a basin with a tap which makes life so much easier. The cherry on the cake was the laundry service, which was not free, but the most reasonable I’ve seen in a while. They also have a small petrol station outside the lodge so no need to worry about fuel. I left Palmwag with clean clothes, refreshed and a big fat smile on my face. More so because at Epupa, my next destination, I will again be staying with Gondwana.

I underestimated the drive from Palmwag to Epupa, the 400km took me way longer than expected. Usually, I add an hour or two for pictures and videos along the way, but because of the recent rains in Namibia and damage to the roads I had to slow down way more than usually. I arrived late in the afternoon and properly exhausted. When driving gravel its always best to plan for the worse rather than the best and afford enough time to ensure you arrive at your destination well before sunset. You don’t want to be driving gravel at night in Namibia.

2000 Toyota Hilux
Driving Palmwag to Opuwo

On my way I stopped at Opuwo to refuel, restock, withdraw cash and explore. Opuwo is not the most glamorous town in Namibia, but it has all the infrastructure a traveler needs. It will be the last to have this from there to the Angolan border. It was end of the month lunchtime and as is customary in Namibia the town was overloaded with people. This is another important detail to remember in Namibia, try and avoid towns end of the month. Especially, if it occurs over the weekend. I navigated my way through the masses and got done what was needed. I took on an extra 20liters of fuel in my reserve tank as I wasn’t too sure of the distances. I planned to do the drive from Epupa to Ruacana along the Kunene river and my map app refused to recognize the route which made planning difficult.

After a fairly uneventful but bumpy drive I arrived in Epupa. The drive into Epupa is kind of magical as if it was taken from a storyboard of a Hollywood movie. A few kilometers before the village you commence your decent down a long and winding gravel road. Then as you pass over the last hill the valley below opens up in front of you. At first it is the shiny steel structures of the shanty village, then the camps and their tall Makalani palms and finally the river and falls.

There is not much at Epupa. It is a village that can be traversed within a few minutes and the 3 camps along the river completely overshadows it. Also, there is no proper shops, fuel or banking in town so come prepared, but they do accept credit cards at the lodges so that helps. I opted for the third camp, Omarunga, from the falls which is only 150 meters down the road. I received a warm welcome from the Jurgen Klopp look alike manager. A bit of admin and he personally escorted me to my site.

Epupa falls
Camp site at Epupa falls

The first row of camp sites is next to the river, right on the water and overlooks the Epupa falls. With the recent rains the constant rush of water over the falls could be heard clearly from my site. Having worked at sea for most of my life the noise from the water was a welcome soothing sound, especially when it came to bedtime.

I spent the first day exploring the village and the falls. It takes about 2 mins to reach the end of the road that runs in front of the camps. At the end you’ll find a few huts, a local bar/shop and Himba walking around. If you turn to the right at the fork, you’ll see the police station, a soccer field without grass and more houses. That’s about it.

A bit more excitement can be found at the falls. There is a car park and from there you can explore upstream and downstream. Upstream is where the actual falls are located, and you allowed to wander freely all over the place. This includes working your way right up to the falls. From there moving downstream you’ll find different viewpoints from which to take pictures. The first large baobab is located in the first section. You’ll notice names carved out on its trunk which are not from inconsiderate tourists. In fact, these are the names of all individuals that died at the falls and annually in August the Himba gather at the falls to reminisce over their souls.

Viewpoint at Epupa falls
Viewpoint at Epupa falls

Further down you’ll find a second large baobab which provides welcome shade and a great picture opportunity. The trail that runs in front of the baobab can be hiked all the way down into the valley where you’ll find a beach where a day can be spent lounging in the sun. But before you reach that you will pass the viewpoint called the two trees a perfect spot to take excellent pictures of the falls.

There is also an elevated viewpoint to the left of the carpark. Actually, there is two. The lower one which is more than sufficient and a second more elevated one that you’ll need to pay for to use. If you are unsure Himba guides are plentiful around the car park and for a small fee which needs to be negotiated beforehand they’ll show you around and fill your head with tall tales and fables.

Another noteworthy activity is visiting one of the Himba villages in the surrounding area. On this occasion I opted not to do so, but from experience I can assure you it is worthwhile. Especially if you are not from Namibia. The Himba have long since accepted the invasion of their homeland by curious tourists from all over the world. They understand the economic value of tourism and therefore as long as you are willing to pay will invite you right into their homes. Even along the roads most of the Himba can be asked for a picture as long as you are willing to part with some cash. The fee can be negotiated beforehand.

After two nights, it was meant to be one, but I enjoyed my stay so much I extended to two, I headed east along the Kunene river to Ruacana. I was surprised to find out that Ruacana is only 150km away. That is 90km to Kunene river lodge and then another 60km to Ruacana. I will not need the extra fuel I purchased in Opuwo, but rather safe than sorry. Obviously, it was going to be slow going but why would you want to rush a route as scenic as this one.

Driving Epupa to Ruacana
Driving Epupa to Ruacana

Most of the road runs along the Kunene river with numerous places to stop for a picture, picnic or a break. On occasion the road turns inland usually because of a rise or peak, but always finds its way back. Along the way you’ll find Camp Cornie a great place to overnight if you are not pushed for time or a quick cold refreshment. Either way Cornie the owner of the camp welcomes you with open arms.

After about three hours of driving, I was surprised to see the sign for the Kunene River Lodge where I’d be spending my last night before reaching Ruacana. For a few hours time ceased to exist as I was mesmerized by the scenery, the Kunene river, the animals, the Himba and many villages along the way. I can recommend this drive to anyone that visits the area. No need for a 4×4, but preferably minimum you should have a 4×2 truck or SUV.

Kunene River Lodge was a cold and lonely place. The lodge usually abuzz with tourists and locals was a shadow of itself. The campsites were empty and only a few permanent guests stayed in the chalets. I guess they were mending the roads in the area. The mood extended to the staff which did not seem their usual friendly selves. In all honesty, it felt that me camping for one night was more an inconvenience than money in their pockets. It pains me to write this because I had such an amazing stay on a previous occasion.

The camp sites are located next to the river and have everything  you’ll need. A place to braai (BBQ), electricity, a light, tap and basin, and some have luscious green lawns to pitch a tent on. The pool is located next to the campsites so that is convenient as well. I spent the night and early the next morning I was off for the last 60km to Ruacana.

The drive was scenic with the highlight being the last few kilometers descending into the Ruacana valley with a full view of the Nampower hydroelectric plant and dam. I made a quick stop at the Ruacana falls viewpoint expecting that the recent rain would have the falls in full force. Unfortunately, for the first time on this trip I was disappointed and my journey through North-Western Namibia ended on a somber note.

❤️Nick fr Namibia

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