The far north of Namibia holds some of the country’s most-visited and least-explored landscapes. In the former category is the vast expanse of Etosha National Park, which receives over two hundred thousand visitors annually, drawn by almost guaranteed sightings of large numbers of big mammals, as well as abundant birdlife. In contrast, the evocative mountainous wilderness of northern Kunene – lacking in decent roads and largely devoid of people – remains inaccessible to most, though it provides an unforgettable experience for those who make it that far.
Centring on a vast salt pan, Etosha National Park is the main reason visitors venture to the north of Namibia, enticed by the prospect of coming face to face with a lion, glimpsing a leopard at dawn, or gazing at herds of zebra and wildebeest sweeping across the savannah. As there is only limited accommodation inside Etosha, many stay in the more comfortable lodges and campgrounds sprinkled just outside the park boundary, often set in private reserves that also offer outstanding wildlife-viewing opportunities. North from Etosha, the predominantly flat, sandy scenery extends to the urban and rural developments in the so-called “Four O’s” – the small, but densely populated, regions of Oshikoto, Omusati, Ohangwena and Oshana, home predominantly to the Owambo peoples. Oshakati is the main commercial hub of the chaotic conurbation, a useful pit stop to stock up on supplies, and to witness life outside the tourist bubble. There are a handful of modest cultural attractions in the area, worth taking in if you’re passing through: the traditional royal homestead at Tsandi, a giant baobab in Outapi, or Lake Oponona, a large dusty depression for much of the year, which transforms into an avian wetland paradise after good rains.
Heading west into the sparsely populated northern Kunene region, the landscape alters dramatically as you enter the Kaokoveld, as does the population density – only 1.7 people per square kilometre. From the dramatic waterfalls at Ruacana and Epupa on the Kunene River, striking, reddish-brown stony earth gives way to rugged, mountainous areas, interspersed with desolate valleys at Marienfluss and Hartmann’s. Yet further west, the Wilderness Area of the Skeleton Coast National Park – only accessible by fly-in safari – eventually melts into rippling dune fields before hitting the Atlantic coast. This remote, starkly beautiful region is home to desert-adapted elephant, black rhino and even lion – and to the semi-nomadic Himba, one of Namibia’s most recognizable and resilient indigenous peoples. The small, underdeveloped and isolated regional capital of Opuwo is the place for independent travellers to start their explorations, though it’s not until you spend time in one of their remote settlements that you’ll begin to learn more about the people and their environment.