Valley of the palms

In the far north-west of one of Africa's least populous countries flows a river that breathes life into the desert. Laura Parfitt visits the Kunene valley
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The Independent Travel

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Epupa was the tranquillity - the only sounds audible were the gentle buzzing of a fly, a bird singing and the occasional grunt from a cow or goat. But when you journey north, things become positively deafening by comparison. Here water flows - Epupa is in the extreme north-west of Namibia, separated from Angola by the Kunene river.

The Kunene valley is home to one of Africa's most beautiful sights - the Epupa falls - which send water crashing down from 100ft into a broad valley buttressed by mountains. Around the falls a ribbon of green extends into the vast Namib desert, which surrounds the river on all sides. This verdant strand is made up of 6,000 Makalani palms, the largest palm in the world. These plants, and the region's flourishing wildlife, are entirely dependent on the Kunene river for survival.

The water supply also supports the Himba tribe - a semi-nomadic group whose lifestyle has not changed for hundreds of years. Like the Kenyan Masai, the Himba's only source of power is fire, they have no modern machinery or vehicles of any kind and still barter for goods.

Epupa Camp is run by a knowledgeable and energetic man named Brummer Olivier, and provides a good base from which to explore this fascinating frontier regionand mingle with its people. The campsite comprises a huddle of tents on a bend in the river - each tent is equipped with camp beds, mosquito nets and a shower room with flushing toilet. There is electricity, but the generator is switched off at 10pm - a lantern and candle is supplied on each bedside table, as is mosquito spray.

This is camping, but with a luxurious twist: my tent was only two metres from the water. I was able to sit outside on my own terrace or lie on my bed, taking in the dawn, waiting for nightfall or simply watching the river run past.

The camp is built to blend in with its surroundings - the small gardens around the tents are a mixture of desert cacti, local red granite rocks, wood and baskets woven by the Himba. Meals are served communally at an open-air shack overlooking the river, while a camp fire burns at the water's edge.

Over dinner, you can ask Brummer about the local birds, trees, insects and fish. He seems to know almost everything, and whatever he cannot answer he will research in his extensive libraryof books, which he frequently shows to the guests. He also has photographs of every life form he has encountered around the camp, and has a vast array of horror stories about zebra snakes, monitor lizards, scorpions, crocodiles and spiders.

Although you are cocooned in the enclosure, it is impossible to forget you are right in the middle of the desert. Epupa camp provides just the right balance of danger and safety, and is so far removed from everyday life that it regenerates the soul. The wine with dinner isn't bad, either. During the day, guests can amuse themselves by seeing how many of the 250 local bird species they can spot. The lucky ones may come across a Cinderella waxbill - a tiny, light grey specimen with a red rump that is found only in this remote corner of Africa.

Another highlight of the Kunene region is a visit to the falls, 300 metres from the camp. Here, there is nothing man-made to spoil the natural beauty. You can stand precariously on the edge and take photos, or swim in one of the pools formed at the top of the falls. Here, Brummer picks up a stick and stone and plays a hybrid of cricket and baseball with the local Himba children. They are a semi-nomadic tribe: women, children and older men live in permanent settlements while the younger men graze their cattle over a vast area around Epupa - a way of life that has survived more or less intact since the 16th century.

Thanks to Brummer and his fellow guides (one of whom is one of the only tribesman who speaks both Himba and English), it's possible to go to a Himba village. Daily tasks for the women include grinding ochre (which is then mixed with butter to make a kind of body paint), and preparing maize meal; the men who remain in the village mend fences and huts. Visitors also learn about the holy fire, which is never allowed to go out.

The Himba are interested in why they are so fascinating to the outside world, but appear pleased that tourists bring gifts of maize meal, sugar and snuff. If you want to visit the Himba people, your time may be running out. The government of Namibia has had plans since 1997 to build a hydroelectric dam which would flood the region, drowning the falls and submerging many of the Himba villages and their burial sites, where the people talk to the spirits of their ancestors who guide them in their daily lives.

The Namibian government wants to stop importing electricity but has so far failed to reach an agreement with the Angolan authorities, who are currently preoccupied with rebuilding a nation shattered by civil war. Despite the delay, commitment to the hydroelectric plan is strong, and Epupa may be a region living on borrowed time.

Each evening at sunset, Brummer Olivier drives his guests from Epupa Camp in a Land Cruiser to the top of a hillside overlooking the Epupa falls. He brings with him a generous supply of beer, gin and tonic water, and each guest is invited to have a "sundowner".

Brummer says that each night the landscape looks different; each evening's light is unique; each evening a one-off. He says that he's done this every day since he arrived at the camp some two and a half years ago, and he never gets tired of the sight.

SURVIVAL TIPS

By Charlotte Martin

GETTING TO NAMIBIA

Air Namibia (01293 596654) no longer flies from the UK, but you can fly out on a connecting service from London to Frankfurt and transfer to Air Namibia's four-times-weekly overnight flight from Frankfurt to Windhoek for £584 return. Alternatively, fly on British Airways, South African Airways or Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow to Cape Town or Johannesburg, and connect there to Air Namibia.

REACHING EPUPA

You can charter a plane for the three hour flight with Desert Air (00 264 61 22 8101. A two-night stay in Epupa Falls is N$12,218 (£1,000). Namibia Travel Connection: 00 2 64 61 246 427 will arrange flight charter, and include it in the price when you book a package to stay at the falls. Alternatively you can hire a 4x4 car for the 12-hour journey, but it can get pretty rugged in places. Sense of Africa offers chaffeur driven cars to Epupa. 00 2 64 61 275 300, www.sense-of-africa.com

STAYING THERE

The nightly rate at Epupa is N$1,100 (£90) per person, including breakfast, lunch, dinner and excursions. For Epupa Camp bookings call 00 264 61 232 740 or visit www.epupa.com.na. At Omarunga Camp (00 264 65 695 101), you can either camp for N$76 (£6) per night, or take the half-board option of N$582 (£47) per person.

RED TAPE

UK citizens must have six months remaining on their passport after their expected departure date from Namibia.

HEALTH

Protection against malaria is advised when travelling in some northern areas of Kunene Province, particularly around Epupa Falls. Vaccinations for diphtheria, tetanus, yellow fever, typhoid, rabies and meningococcal meningitis are advised.

MORE INFORMATION

020 7636 2924; www.namibiatourism.co.uk

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