Remote, rugged and extraordinarily beautiful, Namibia’s north west is home to a rich variety of conservancies where space for wildlife, contemplation and traditional lifestyles helped to inspire Namibia’s communal conservancy movement.
The history of the earth’s evolution is exposed in the rocks and the flat top Etendeka mountains, as volcanic eruptions moved plates and continents collided and divided.
Namibia's first World Heritage Site, Twyfelfontein is a massive, open air art gallery with more than 2,000 rock engravings, one of Africa's largest concentrations of rock art. The Petrified Forest, Burnt Mountain and Organ Pipes add to the allure of discovery in this dramatic landscape.
The north west is incised by ephemeral rivers, including the Hoanib and Hoarusib. Normally dry, waiting for rains in their vast catchment areas to bring the rivers down in flood, these linear oases provide food and refuge for desert dwelling elephants, lions and other desert adapted species.
Occasionally, these rivers flow through to the Skeleton Coast. Shrouded in mystery and often in fog, the Skeleton Coast is home to seals, space and flocks of seabirds. Desert adapted lions are known to prowl the beaches and brown hyenas also haunt the shore.
Dotted throughout this spectacular landscape and along the banks of these rivers are a few, award winning Joint Venture conservancy lodges, while the Khowarib Schlucht, a deep canyon formed where the Hoanib River cuts through the mountains east of Khowarib, and the small towns of Opuwo, Puros and Sesfontein offer interesting sites, and camping and lodge alternatives.
The north west is also home to the world's only free-roaming population of black rhinos. Solitary and endangered, the black rhinos are monitored and protected by Save the Rhino Trust Namibia, Rhino Rangers, conservancy game guards and Namibia's Ministry of Environment and Tourism.
Community forests dotted with large acacias, bulbous moringas and different types of commiphora trees from which the Himba sustainably harvest the resin to use it on their skins are found in the Marienfluss, Orupembe and Puros conservancies.
Rough passes, such as the Van Zyl's pass, offer spectacular views and challenging drives to the Kunene River, one of only a few flowing rivers in Namibia, which separates the wilds of Namibia from the mysteries of Angola on the other side.
With their roots on both sides of the Kunene, the striking, semi-nomadic Himba people inhabit the extreme north west of the country, including the areas around Marienfluss Valley and Epupa Falls.
Along with the Himba, local conservancy members include the Herero and their prized cattle and the Riemvasmaakers whose named is rooted in the word meaning "tied with straps" and connects to their history of dislocation by the South African apartheid regime.
The intrepid traveler who seeks unique experiences, the chance to see wildlife in dramatic settings, and to meet very special people while contributing to conservation and community development will be amply rewarded when exploring the communal conservancies of Namibia's north west.
Namibia's northern region is one of the country's best kept secrets. It extends from the northern border of Namibia's famous Etosha National Park, across white, calcrete plains studded with Makalani palm trees and traditional wooden kraals and homesteads to the flowing waters of the perennial Kunene and Okavango rivers.
After exploring the wonders of Etosha National Park, the King Nehale gate on the northeastern side of the park provides the perfect entry point to the northern region of the country. The area's communal conservancies reflect the history and culture of the Owambo, the largest population group in Namibia.
Visit cultural villages, Namibia's largest open-air market, the Oshakati Omatala, and the oldest building in northern Namibia, the Nakambale Mission House.
Near the village of Tsandi in the northern region is the Uukwaluudhi Royal Homestead and Museum. Uukwaluudhi means "small group of one clan" and the museum provides a glimpse into the history and culture of the Kingdom of Uukwaluudhi. The authenticity of the experience is made clear by the fact that King Taapopi lives next door to the museum and has been known to join guests on their tours!
The Ombalantu Baobab Heritage Centre in Outapi is focused around an 800-year-old baobab tree which has inspired folklore, and, in the past, served as a post office, chapel and hiding place.
On the northern border in this region, the Kunene River provides two very different experiences: it is home to the rushing waters of the Ruacana Falls and just downstream is the Ruacana Dam, site of Namibia’s largest hydroelectric power plant.
With abundant birdlife, crocodiles and a languid flow, a bit further east the Okavango River meanders south, an important source of water and nutrients for the Okavango Swamps in Botswana. This area is also home to significant community forests, which are protected areas of forest, woodland and savannah that are managed by communities who market forest products and other natural resources.
You'll see dense stands of mighty leadwood trees, a variety of acacia trees, with long, hooked, or double thorns depending upon the species, and all four species of Albizia trees. And, because these trees exist, wildlife that finds food and shelter in the forests can thrive. Elephant, kudu, waterbuck, giraffe and a large variety of birds are at home in these forests.
Though there are just a few conservancies in Namibia's northern region, this area is well worth exploring, a unique destination and an easy link between your journey to the northwest and northeast of the country.
Water is life, and a rare luxury in Namibia, one of the most arid countries in the world, but the north east is different. It is riddled with rivers: the Kwando, Linyanti, Chobe, and Zambezi. Each river has its own pattern, power, mystery and history to draw you here.
Life for communities and for wildlife revolves around the water, and so it is for visitors to this lush region. Soak your feet in the spray at Popa Falls. Drive slowly through deep pools and avoid rivers where crocodiles lie in wait. Slip through thick black mud, so soft it is called cotton, and dice with the odds of getting stuck! Drift along channels of the Linyanti River in a mokoro, a traditional wooden boat. Watch as elephants cross the Chobe River, moving from Botswana through protected corridors in Namibia then on to Zambia and Angola and back!
Some species of antelope, including sitatunga and red lechwe, are found here and nowhere else in Namibia. The largest migration of zebra in the world passes through this region. Buffalo roam through the forest and along the edges of the rivers. And, the birds, wow! From the Pel's fishing owl to giant kingfishers to African jacanas that race across lily beds on their broad webbed-feet, and brightly colored carmine bee-eaters that nest in the clay banks along the rivers, there are more than 430 species of birds to discover in the north east.
Many communal conservancies have Joint Venture lodges and campsites in or near national parks, including the lush forest of the Mudumu National Park, the striking wetlands of Nkasa Rupara National Park and the Bwabwata National Park, the first national park in Namibia to be co-managed by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, local communities and conservancy members.
Since the establishment of conservancies in the north east, hundreds of animals have been translocated to the region's parks and conservancies. After decades of local extinction, eland, Africa's largest antelope, giraffe and rare sable antelope were reintroduced into national parks, while conservancies surrounding these parks have welcomed these species and also impala, giraffe and buffalo back onto their land.
The north east is also at the heart of KAZA, the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. Larger than Germany and Austria combined, KAZA encompasses over 50 protected areas in five countries - Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia - and communal conservancies are an important part of this ecological and cultural mosaic.
In traditional villages and at craft markets, you can discover the beauty of music, dance, weaving and art that is an essential part of the north east and you can experience all the wonder and vibrancy that comes with living at this crossroads of African culture.
Home to desert dwelling elephants, Namibia's highest mountain and rich cultural engagement, Namibia's central and west region offers a definitive conservancy experience.
This area is known for its vast expanse of desert, plains, and ephemeral rivers, with isolated mountains jutting into the sky. These are "inselbergs", which mean island mountain, a piece of land erupting from the earth to such a degree that it dwarfs the landscape around it. The communal conservancies in Namibia's central and central west are studded with inselbergs including two of Namibia's most remarkable examples – the Brandberg, Namibia's tallest mountain in the Tsiseb Conservancy, and the Spitzkoppe, a series of mountains dubbed Namibia's "Matterhorn" in the Gaingu Conservancy.
The island mountains provide stunning vistas, challenging climbs, rugged hikes and the chance to view ancient rock art, including the world-famous White Lady etching at the Brandberg.
Around Spitzkoppe there are a multitude of opportunities to admire and purchase locally sourced crystals and semi-precious stones from enterprising miners.
Closer to the coast is the Messum Crater, which is the result of a volcanic eruption some 130 million years ago. In its wake, an 18km wide crater was left behind. In the area, rock art points to early inhabitants, while lichen fields and Welwitschia plants reflect ancient adaptations and draw those interested in botany and landscapes to the region.
The conservancies in the central and central west are also incised by ephemeral rivers, dry river beds that are home to herds of elephant, the occasional black rhino, both spotted and brown hyena, lion prides and herds of springbok that come and go with the rains.
Because of these attractions plus the accessibility of good roads and numerous Joint Venture lodges and community campsites, the central and central west is a prime destination for self-drive tourists. Side Tracks – a series of brochures and maps produced for local conservancies – provides alternative route information including highlights of the flora, fauna and culturally significant sites found just off the beaten track in the central and central west of Namibia.
A place of wonder and raw beauty, the eastern part of Namibia is where you venture to discover an untamed landscape where the past comes to life.
The area's magic is found in shimmering pans, enormous boabab trees and in the people who have lived here for more than 40,000 years, the Ju/'hoansi. Until recently the Ju/'hoansi people practiced a hunter-gather lifestyle utilising their deep knowledge of the land and the life it supports, and though most Ju/'hoansi have adapted to a new lifestyle, many traditional elements remain and are integral to life in the area's remote villages and as part of the Living Museum of the Ju/'hoansi at Grashoek.
Sparsely populated, the land is studded with ancient baobab trees. The Aha Hills straddle Botswana and Namibia, while natural depressions hold water well into the dry season and are important to wildlife and to the history and culture of the Ju/'hoansi people.
Nyae Nyae Conservancy, the country’s first communal conservancy, was established in 1998, giving the Ju/'hoansi the right to manage and benefit from the wildlife in the area. Now, as it was for tens of thousands of years, conservation of the environment is a priority here.
Tucked away in the eastern corner of Namibia is the Khaudum National Park, one of Namibia’s wildest places. Large herds of elephants, the African wild dog - Africa’s most endangered large predator - and rare sable antelope are found in this wilderness.
Khaudum is so remote and challenging that the Ministry of Environment and Tourism makes it mandatory for tourists to travel through the park with a minimum of two vehicles. The park and two neighbouring conservancies, George Mukoya and Muduva Nyangana, connect visitors to a vast, open area that ensures that wildlife can pursue hereditary migratory routes to and from the water rich Kavango River across floodplains and the Okavango Delta, a mere 150 km away.
Outside of the Khaudum, wildlife sightings are rare, but wildlife numbers have increased significantly since the establishment of conservancies. Herds of springbok, oryx and kudu are found here, as well as elephant, sable antelope and Namibia's largest population of roan antelope.
More than 300 species of birds have been recorded in the area which draws birders here, particularly during the wet season when flocks of pelicans, flamingos and rare wattled cranes turn the pans around Nyae Nyae into a festival of colour.
Take the road less traveled to the conservancies in Namibia's east, where adventure awaits.
Given the vast, sparsely inhabited spaces of Namibia's south, it is unsurprising that there are a just a few conservancies here, but their establishment is important to the sense of ownership and responsibility felt by their residents.
For visitors traveling to the Namib-Naukluft Park, its mountains, dunes and vleis, or along the B1 between South Africa and Namibia, there are a few communal conservancies in the area that offer campsites and open places to explore.
With no light pollution, the conservancies in the south provide the perfect backdrop for lying back and watching the stars fill up the night sky. Find Orion's belt, Scorpio, the Seven Sisters, and get lost in the depths of the Milky Way. Early morning and late afternoon, walks and gentle hikes in the area reveal interesting botanical wonders and forests of quiver trees (Aloidendron dichotomum).
The !Han /Awab conservancy straddles the road between Keetmanshoop and Lüdertiz, near Aus where wild horses roam free.