Photo essay: A portrait of Namibia’s Kunene region, home to desert wildlife and starry skies
In the northwest corner of the country is Kunene, a region of vast desert landscapes formed tens of millions of years ago. Here, animals and people have adapted to live in some of Africa’s harshest conditions, thriving in a landscape that offers few resources.
Posted 28 October 2022, 06:03 BST
While parts of southern and eastern Africa have become magnets for travelers seeking wildlife experiences, the terracotta of northwest Namibia remains largely unknown to most. The extreme drought and heat, along with the harsh and rugged landscape, keep all but the most adventurous travelers away. But for those seeking space, silence and starry skies, few destinations come close.
Covering nearly 43,000 square miles and with an average of just two people per square mile, the Kunene region is one of the most remote and least populated regions in southern Africa. With few fences and roads, these empty and vast landscapes are a spectacular destination for self-guided explorers, although a 4×4 is necessary for the notoriously rocky roads. A map and GPS are also mandatory, as getting lost here can have deadly consequences.
Kunene is home to some of the last free-ranging wildlife populations in Southern Africa. Wild animals adapted to the desert thrive here, chief among them the Gemsbok antelope. The hardy beasts have adapted so well to their environment that they never need to drink, drawing all their water from wild fruits or tubers buried deep in the earth. They have a unique ability to raise their body temperature beyond the surrounding environment to release excess heat, while a cooling system in their nasal cavity – called the carotid rete – cools blood from the heart before it does not enter their brain.
The Gembsbok antelope shares the land with the local cattle and goats, belonging to the Himba and Damara peoples of the region. Almost uniquely in Southern Africa, where most parks are fenced and operated by central governments, many Kunene reserves and nature reserves are managed and operated by local people themselves.
Giant acacia trees provide welcome shade for travelers – and lunch for giraffes that roam the dry beds of the Hoarusib Valley, near the village of Puros. Another animal adapted to life in the desert, they get much of their water from the leaves they browse.
The coast, meanwhile, attracts thousands of Cape fur seals. They feed on the rich Atlantic fish stocks, kept healthy by the cold Benguela Current, whose temperatures are also responsible for the harsh conditions and sparse rainfall.
The area near the village of Puros is home to herds of African bush elephants. They are the same species found in other more humid regions of the African savannah, but they are specially adapted to the Namibian desert, with wider feet to prevent them from sinking into the sand and an ability to spend long periods without water.
Using a local guide is the best way to explore everything; people like Robbin Uatokuja from Puros know where and how to view Kunene’s wildlife, while maintaining a respectful distance.
Despite the arid environment, perhaps Kuene’s most defining feature is the Kunene River, which gave the area its name. During flood season, the river tumbles down Epupa Falls on the Angolan border, throwing up huge clouds of cool spray: a remarkable anomaly in a sweltering desert, offering travelers respite from the intense heat and to the Namib drought.
Even the sun in the sky seems in harmony with the rawness of the landscape: every evening and every morning it burns red on the dusty horizon, shining on the oldest desert in the world, some 60 million years old. Intimidating yet alluring, Kunene is a true land of adventure. Exploring the region is not always easy, but it creates a feeling of immense freedom.