data Bisbocci Abroad: A Trip to Kunene--Epupa Falls

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Trip to Kunene--Epupa Falls

             If I had not known any better, I would have thought that Opuwo was the last town one reached before falling off the edge of the world. The single road leading into the town passes through desolate and sparsely populated countryside and cuts through beautiful, barren mountains. Other than the ostriches crossing the road and the occasional groups of people sitting in the shade of the baobab trees, there were very few signs of habitation. The isolation and pace of life were so unfamiliar to me as an American, that I could not help but feel that I had traveled across space and time altogether.
             The city itself is the cultural heart of Kunene and it pulses with the activities of a myriad of people hailing from diverse cultural backgrounds. They come to Opuwo from the far reaches of Kaokoland and blend into the multicultural atmosphere of this tiny metropolis. These groups of people live in a world that is uniquely their own, but they are not wholly untouched by modernity.
         In Opuwo, it is possible to see Himbas in grocery stores or at bars--topless and and covered in ochre--while simultaneously drinking Coca Cola or talking on a cell phone. The complex relationship between tradition and modernity, local culture and globalization is certainly fascinating to witness and difficult to capture in words. Perhaps the New York Times article The Lure of Namibia says it best,  when it describes Opuwo as "the heart of a modern Africa, tangled by time and defined by the collision of centuries and traditions."

           We decided to spend Friday night with our friends in Opuwo and went to the Country Lodge together for a few drinks under the stars. The lodge sits atop a hill overlooking the valley and I can only imagine how beautiful it would have been during the day.  When we reached the lodge, the sun had already dipped below the mountains and a canopy of stars illuminated the night sky. If it had not been for our plans to visit Epupa, we would have likely returned to the lodge the next day for an afternoon swim. However, we were all anxious to explore the wilderness of Kaokoland, so we left our guesthouse early the next morning and set out for the Kunene River.
          Despite the absence of a large, swaying cement mixer, our ride to Epupa Falls from Opuwo was longer, bumpier and generally more draining than the drive the previous day. The truck zoomed down the dirt road for over 100km, jamming into ruts and sending us flying over potholes. Despite the circumstances, I once again felt a sense of exhilaration and excitement as the strong wind slapped my face and sent my hair flying in a million directions
          For the whole ride, I sat in the back corner of the bakki--at the point where the wind blows the strongest--perched on top of the cooler containing our food. From my lookout, I marveled at the scenery around me, as dust blew into my eyes and nose. The environment was breathtaking and it seemed as though I had just jumped onto a set of a National Geographic article.  Himba women sat chatting by the dry riverbeds. Men wrapped in animal skins carried spears and led their cattle to pools of scarce and precious water. We even passed a traditional burial site that was marked by large cattle horns.  
           I did not take any pictures, partly because I was in the back of a moving pickup truck and partly because I did not want to be intrusive. Next time, however, I will I will be sure to ask the locals for at least one photograph. 

             If visiting Opuwo gave me the feeling that I had entered the last town at the edge of Earth, the drive to Epupa certainly made me feel as though I would fall off the map at any minute. And we did--almost--fall off the Namibian map.   
            Epupa Falls sits literally at the edge of Namibia, on the Angolan border. The Kunene River divides the two countries and from the waterfall, we could even see the beautiful Angolan mountains. 

Landscape at Epupa Falls
               I had seen many pictures of Epupa Falls on the Internet and was anxious to see the site with my own eyes. I believe strongly that, though photos can highlight the beauty of a location, they can never substitute travel. There is something so spectacular about seeing a place in all of its dimensions -of taking in the smells, breathing the air and noticing life as it unfolds around you.                      
                Our first glimpse of the falls was from our campsite, where we could see little more than the placid river and rising mist in the distance. Yet, as we moved closer, we could hear the roar of the water and, when we turned the corner, we saw the main attraction--a cascading sheet of water that plunges 37 meters into an abyss. The main part of Epupa is dramatic and beautiful, but it is merely a fragment of the entire waterfall. The entire waterfall is comprised of a series of smaller cascades that stretch out over the span of one and a half miles.                     
               If I had judged Epupa merely by the pictures of the place, I would have known of its beauty, but I would never have grasped just how stunning the surrounding area is. From the top of the falls, it is possible to see rust-colored mountains rising in all directions. The rocky red earth is covered in a carpet of makalani palms and baobab trees that cling to the edges of the cliffs and overlook the cascading water. 

Epupa Falls

Epupa Falls
           After befriending a group of Himba children and snapping photos of the beautiful scenery, many of my friends returned to the campsite, but Nora and I decided to take a short hike so we could view the falls from different angles. Each perspective of the waterfall was spectacular and different. We even debated climbing one of the nearby mountains for an aerial view of the site, but our dehydration and the afternoon sun forced us to turn back. 

Our New Friends
Epupa Falls from a Distance

           Luckily, after returning to camp, we were able to drive up to the summit of a nearby mountain, where we caught a birds-eye-view of the falls just in time for sunset! 

Epupa Falls from Above

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