The Kunene River is a Journey

Photo: Lloyd Zandberg

The Kunene River is a Journey

12 August 2019 | Tourism

The Kunene River forms a natural border between Namibia’s far north-western region and Angola’s south-western areas, which at the coast essentially is just a continuation of the Namib Desert for the first stretch towards Namibe, the first southern harbour town of our neighbouring country.

Frank Steffen

Known as the “Cunene” in the Portuguese language, this perennial river flows from the Angolan highlands southwards towards Namibia, where it becomes part of the border at the height of the Ruacana Falls. From here its waters turn west having over millions of years burrowed its path to the Atlantic Ocean. With a length of just more than 1 000 kilometres it is one of Africa’s most scenic and accessible rivers, which swells in the summer months, when it rains in central Angola.

Until the Tertiary Age, the Kunene meandered towards the east, finally discharging its water into what is today known as the Etosha Pan. Similar to the Okavango River which forms the Okavango Delta further east of the country, the Kunene formed a delta, which can still be distinguished from the air, as it spans the area reaching from Okahao to Oshakati and Ondangwa. The delta, now part of the Cuvelai basin, finally spills its load into the Pan, in the distant past known as the Ekuma Lake. This water flow came to an end when the Kunene broke through the western mountain barriers of Kaokoveld and followed its path towards the Atlantic.

Since the Seventies, the river once again feeds the northern areas of Namibia with water pumped from the Calueque Dam, just above the Ruacana Falls, into a canal which starts in the vicinity of the town of Ruacana, carrying water to the Olushandja Dam and as far as Ondangwa and beyond. The dam itself has stolen much of the Ruacana Fall’s previous thunder.

Investment in dams
Plans by the Namibian government to also dam up the water at the height of the Epupa Falls further west, so as to form the Epupa Dam and Hydroelectric Plant, have until now been met by strong resistance from both the native Ovahimba tribes and nature conservationists - among other, because it would destroy much of these people’s traditional lands and burial grounds.

The Orokawe Dam proposed in the Baynes Mountains was just as ferociously opposed in 2012 and resulted in the “Declaration of the most affected Ovahimba, Ovatwa, Ovatjimba and Ovazemba against the Orokawe Dam in the Baynes Mountains” which was addressed by the traditional chiefs to the African Union and the United Nations Human Rights Council.

With the Kaokoveld being made more accessible to tourism and mining exploration by the day, visitors, who prefer visiting nature in its untouched form, need to visit the Kunene River now. Tourismus Namibia dedicated its May 2019-edition to the Kaokoveld providing ideas on how to approach the Kunene River from the coast, i.e. Namib Desert at the Kunene’s mouth - essentially a river delta - and following it inland via detours, following it all the way eastwards to the Ruacana Falls. But then you may prefer to do it the other way around.

One of a kind experience
Fact is, that you will find few areas in the world, which will reward you with as much peace and tranquillity, as the Kunene does. Whether you join guided tours such as those of Omalweendo Safaris taking you from the river mouth westwards towards Serra Cafema, or you reach the Serra Cafema Camp of Wilderness Safaris in another way, you will fall in love with this area, its people and specifically the river and its surrounds. Kaokoveld teems with wildlife and offers the visitor a most spectacular environment.

You cannot strictly follow the river all the way to Ruacana, as you will find that the Hartmann-, Baynes- and Zebra mountain ranges keep intersecting the northern Kaokoveld such, that you need to circumvent these obstacles and then return to the river either along the Marienfluss to magnificent places such as Camp Synchro, the Okahirongo Camp Site or any number of communal camp sites (if wild camping is not your cup of tea), or you may skip the Marienfluss and follow the road from Opuwo to Okongwati and on to the Pupa Falls, where you will have a huge choice of accommodation.

Follow this magical river upwards and stay over at Camp Cornie or the Kunene River Lodge (close to Swartbooisdrif) and start understanding why the local folk do not wish this paradise to disappear under water. The Kunene River proved over and over again, that it is a journey and not a destination!

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