Powerful waterfalls and strong locals: why you should visit Epupa in Namibia’s far north

Epupa Falls is a natural wonder that has taken me by surprise, perhaps because all of the fame for waterfalls in Southern Africa goes to the Victoria Falls on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Victoria Falls are of course the world’s largest falls and a destination in their own right, but anyone visiting Namibia should consider adding the Epupa Falls to their itinerary. Tumbling waterfalls and spectacular panoramas – without the bus loads of tourists that you will find at the Victoria Falls – off the beaten track and breath taking!

The road all the way up north to Namibia’s imposing waterfalls on the border with Angola is a long one, but worth every kilometre of the often bumpy ride.

Entering Kaokeveld – the name of this region – is like entering another world. Modernly dressed men and women no longer dominate the street views in the towns we pass. Instead, we see women dressed in colourful gowns consisting of metres of patterned fabric and women wearing just a skirt made of sheepskin. These are the ladies holding on to their own tribe’s traditions in the modern world: the Herero and Himba.

It is clear that they struggle to hold on to traditional culture. Often, Himba parents do not want their children to go to school because it almost certainly means that the children will break with year old traditions. This becomes clear in the village of a Himba family close to Epupa.

Two brothers sit in the shade of a tree close to their house made of wood and cow dung. They are talking with their sister, whose twin babies are clamping on to her legs. She is wearing a traditional Himba costume. A skirt composed of sheepskin on the back and fabric on the front is wrapped around her waist. On top, she wears a belt decorated with thin, round beads made of the shells of ostrich eggs. The lines in the belt represent the number of children she has, just like the metal beaded bracelets that embrace her ankles. Her upper body is solely covered with jewellery. Long beaded necklaces rest on her chest, the centrepiece of which – ohumba she proudly wears between her breasts. The ohumba is a white shell that is passed from mother to daughter, a jewel for which one of her ancestors has had to make the journey to sea by foot. Her wrists are adorned with copper bracelets. Her hair is a true piece of art. A circle of black hair in ponytails is draped around her shoulders. The strands of hair are covered in red ochra, making sure that the extensions that help create the voluminous look a the ends stay in place. These extensions were once made of the hair of Himba men but nowadays goat hair or Brazilian hair from hair salons do the trick. On top of her hair she wears a crown. This erembe is made of goat leather and just like other Himba women she has been wearing the crown either since she’s been married for a year or gave birth to her first child.

Her smooth dark skin is coloured red with the ochra powder she rubbed on. According to tradition, Himba women do not wash themselves from the moment they become an adult, a stage of life the Himba consider to start around the ages of 15 or 16 once they have had their first child as opposed to the 18 years that is stipulated by Namibian law.

The men sitting next to her – her brothers – still hold on to traditional Himba customs, but dress in modern fashion. They wear shorts and t-shirts since they’ve been going to school. But even now, back in their home village during the school holidays, they hold on to these mainstream clothes.

Himba women rub off dirt with otjize instead of washing themselves with water and soap. Otjize is a mixture made from ochre stone powder and butter. Otjize protects the skin from the sun and insects but is mainly used to beautify their look.

Beautiful they are indeed. Their fierce look matches their strength. The weight of their clothes is heavy and they have no issue picking up the 8 kg bags of maize that we have brought along as a token of our gratitude for inviting us, and carry it on their heads.

But even more beautiful is the smile that appears on their faces once we’ve made a couple of jokes. Their expressions soften and the tribe women become giggly girls for a moment when I taste their maize meal and my partner shows them the pictures we have just taken of them. Such a special moment to share a laugh between people coming from completely different cultures.

One of the women shows us around the village, a circular hamlet of dry land enclosed by a wooden fence. Inside are several huts made from a mixture of earth and cattle dung and work shelters made from wood that surround the kraal in the middle where livestock is held. The sleeping huts are about one metre tall and I am surprised by the coolness inside the structure. The primitive lifestyle of the Himba is also clearly visible inside the hut, where goat skin functions as a mattress and the headrest is made from wood.

Each married Himba woman has her own hut with her own children. Her husband shares his nights equally between his wifes as polygamy is common practice. However, men are often away with the livestock, a period in which it is common for women to have an ‘affair’ with another man.

Himba are semi-nomadic as the barren land of the Kaokeveld does not allow them to stay put in one place for an extended period of time. It seems contradictory to the water masses that flow only a few kilometres further north: the Kunene river and Epupa Falls.

The river front is a tropical paradise in a country that is famous for its desert and sand dunes. Palm trees line the Kunene river that marks the border with Angola. As we come closer, we see a couple of Himba children play in the shallow waters of the potholes that have been shaped over time in the rocks by the strong forces of water. From the outdoor deck of our accommodation we watch the smooth river become a whirling strong water mass before it plummets 40 metres into the depth. From this viewpoint the water disappears from the horizon without us being able to see where it lands. And so we set foot to another vantage point.

The magnitude of the falls overwhelm me when a short but rocky climb uphill is rewarded with a panoramic view of the landscape. A green blanket of tropical trees hides half of the river surface from sight. There are many more cliffs from which water comes tumbling down than just the edge that I was able to see from the terrace of the accommodation. It is a surreal landscape, the views of which I only have to share with a handful of other travellers.

The setting sun creates a small rainbow in the water spray. I look down into the abyss to try to see it as best as I can without losing my balance. It is a dazzling sight that I cannot imagine the famous Victoria Falls are able to top. But then, who knows what surprise will be awaiting me there, after many more kilometres driving along bumpy roads and two border crossings. 

From our wood and bamboo eco-hut, we can hear the thundering waterfalls right beside us and see the river making its way to the whopping edge. We fall asleep with the constant sound of rushing water. Epupa Falls is the perfect place to wind down and be inspired, not in quiet surroundings but with the strong sounds of the forces of nature around you, and by the strong and proud locals that are able to survive in an otherwise barren environment.  

Say yes to a North Namibia adventure – tips for a visit to Kaokeveld and Epupa Falls

How do I get to Epupa?

Namibia has one international airport in its capital city Windhoek. The only way to Epupa from there, is by car. It is possible to get there with a regular rental, but I would recommend to hire a 4×4 as the road is unpaved going north from Opuwo. We hired our 4×4 via Bushlore and were incredibly satisfied with the tented Toyota Hillux and their emergency service (yes, we did get stuck and needed help to get out).

Where to stay in Epupa?

Epupa has four lodges, two of which also provide camping spots. We stayed at Epupa Falls Lodge & Campsite that is as close to the waterfall viewpoint as you can get. Our stay was absolutely an experience we will not forget. The views from the terrace are spectacular and from our private hut on poles we fell asleep with the thundering yet soothing sound of the cascades. Dinner is local with an haute cuisine twist – delicious, so also if you’re staying on a campsite it’s worth to join dinner for an evening. I whole-heartedly recommend this accommodation, also for camping.

Note: if you are staying in a hut you really want to use your mosquito net, because the walls are not exactly air tight. At the time of writing there were no double beds / double mosquito net rooms available, so if you’re keen to sleep in the same bed as your partner, be sure to contact the lodge and ask if they have a double bed available.

Disclaimer: kindly note that our stay at Epupa Falls Lodge & Campsite was free of charge as part of the collaboration for this article. The review you have just read reflects my honest and personal opinion.

How can I arrange a meeting with Himba people?

On your route north you will pass a traditional village that is an open air museum (Obahimba Living Museum), and you will see Himba waving you over alongside the road.

We decided not to have such an obvious tourist experience, but to actually visit a Himba family in their own village. Epupa Falls Lodge & Campsite can arrange a personal, private visit for which you are accompanied by a guide who is a Himba man himself. To support the various Himba communities in the region, the guide takes turns in choosing which village to visit. Instead of giving money to the families, we visited a local store (read: shed with some stock of preserved food) prior to our visit and offered a bag of maize meal and other useful products to the families as a token of our gratitude.

I must admit that we did find our visit a a bit uncomfortable at first, as it felt like we were invading their personal space. But then I realized I actually only felt that way because of our completely different cultural values and lifestyles. I am always interested in local life and enjoy it when locals proudly show me their own village. It was no different for me with the Himba. During the visit, language was an obvious barrier, but luckily our guide was willing to ask some of our bold questions to the women and men we met. And besides, smiles work everywhere and the locals had a lot of fun when I took some maize meal from their sharing bowl to taste it.

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