Cruising the Cunene River in Namibia

Crossing Cunene RiverCrossing Cunene River

Crocodiles and rapids, makalani palms and waterfalls. These are just some of the attractions of the Cunene River expedition. Travel to northern Namibia and explore Etosha National Park before venturing onto one of Africa's least explored waterways.

The Cunene crocodile cautiously floats forward to a few metres from our raft and then sinks silently below the surface to his underwater lair. Along this stretch of the river, between Ruacana Falls and Epupa Falls in Namibia, the crocodiles fortunately don't pose much of a threat. After being constantly shot at and attacked by soldiers during the war years, they are scared of humans and shy away from the inflatable rafts.'But on the section of the river that runs below the falls down to the coast, the crocodiles are fearless,' says our river guide Alain Coetzee. 'There they constantly attack the rafts and doing a commercial river trip there would almost be suicide. But I'd still like to experience it one day.'The Cunene River expedition is a unique journey run exclusively by Felix Unite River Adventures along one of the least explored rivers in southern Africa. Since these river trips were started in 1994, only about 500 people have experienced the Cunene cruise.The route, which includes long tranquil stretches of water as well as several heart-stopping rapids, meanders through 125 kilometres of wild untamed scenery where the only other humans you see are the smiling Himba who run down to greet you from the river bank.The Cunene expedition actually begins in Windhoek and is structured so that in addition to the river journey, participants also get one of the best wildlife experiences in Africa - two days in Etosha National Park.After being warmly welcomed at Windhoek's Eros Airport by Alain and his wife Tamara, we hit the road for the 500km journey up north to Etosha. 'We've got quite a drive ahead of us if we want to get to Okaukuejo Camp before the gates close,' says Alain, as we head out into the great wide open.After a biltong break in Okahandja, regarded as the biltong centre of Namibia, we continue through the humid afternoon, passing massive termite mounds and huge sociable weaver nests. The Namibian highway runs straight as an arrow and suddenly the Andersson Gate is ahead. 'Thank you for flying Felix Air and welcome to Etosha National Park,' jokes Alain, as we've made the drive in record time.Okaukuejo Camp is famous for its waterhole where hundreds of animals often come to drink. After watching the golden globe of the sun sink through Etosha's evening haze, I walk to the camp site where Gabriel, the support vehicle driver, has already pitched our tents and Alain is busy barbecuing spare ribs on the fire.Sometime in the middle of the night, I awake to a loud clap of thunder. A storm is brewing and the fresh smell of rain is in the air. Ever alert, Gabriel is busy covering the tents with flysheets before the rain begins to pelt down. Big bangs of thunder echo across Etosha and frequent flashes of lightning cast a purple glow across the sky. In the distance a lion moans and I'm soon lulled back to sleep by the pitter patter of rain on the tent.I'm up long before the sun and sleepily wander down to the waterhole. The storm has passed and the air is clear and still. The blackness of night slowly, almost imperceptibly, changes to the dark blue of dawn. There are no animals in sight and I gaze in awe at the surreal sight of an empty floodlit waterhole. Then, as if from nowhere, a solitary giraffe nervously approaches, constantly looking around for any sign of danger. Satisfied he's alone, the beautiful animal spreads his forelegs and stoops down to drink.After a quick breakfast, we take an early game drive under a hazy yellow sky. Along the way, Alain points out various species of birds such as the northern black Korhaan and the greater Kestrel. At Okondeka waterhole, a wildlife spectacle awaits us. A pride of 10 lions walk slowly across the road while in the distance, herds of giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, springbok and ostrich stir up great plumes of dust as they play.We continue on towards Halali rest camp where we stop for a much-needed swim before an afternoon drive to the edge of Etosha Pan itself. Covering 5000 kmē, which is nearly 25% of the entire park, Etosha Pan is classified as a saline desert and only occasionally holds any water.The wind drops and there's a deafening silence as I walk over the baking hot surface of the cracked clay earth. Waves of shimmering mirages flood the horizon and I lose all sense of perspective on the sheer white flats.Annette, an interior decorator from Johannesburg, has just fulfilled her lifelong dream of walking naked on the great white pan. 'That was fantastic,' she says arriving back with a wide smile on her face. 'What a liberating experience to walk naked into open white nothingness. It's given me a feeling of absolute freedom.' After other prolific sightings of zebra, elephant, kudu, giraffe, Damara dik-dik and more lion, we arrive at Namutoni camp in time for sundowners at the top of the lookout tower.The next morning we set off early for the long drive to Ondoruso Falls, the starting point for our five day journey down the river. Our route takes us east out of Etosha and then northwest into Ovamboland, passing through the towns of Ondangwa, Oshakati and Ruacana.At Ruacana Falls, we leave the tar behind and head out onto the dust. The landscape is astounding with thorny trees growing from the barren beauty of the stony earth. 'It's good to be back here again,' smiles Alain, as we pass small Himba settlements and bump along the last 20km to the banks of the Cunene where we'll be spending our first night.After the long dusty drive, it's a welcome sight to see the fast flowing waters and we've timed our arrival perfectly. The sun is about to set and the rocky landscape is bathed in pastel shades of pink, so soft and subtle it looks like they've been airbrushed by hand. As the silver ball of a full moon rises over Angola, I strip off and slip into the cool Cunene for a skinny dip.Our first day on the river dawns and we wake up in a wild untamed part of the world. The scenery is rugged and remote, untouched by the human hand. 'Welcome to the Cunene, the least explored river in southern Africa,' says Alain as he begins our river briefing. 'The person at the back of the raft is the captain and responsible for steering while in front is the engine room and the power. Along the way we'll see some crocodiles but there's nothing to worry about because they're more scared of us than we are of them.'Before we begin paddling in earnest, we have to portage over the smooth granite rocks past Ondoruso Falls, a grade 5 rapid that's too dangerous to tackle. Then we start our leisurely cruise downstream.Soon we approach the first major rapid, Corkscrew, and immediately I come unstuck. We hit a rock then spin around and, true to the rapid's name, I pop out of the raft. But others suffer the same fate. Two women turn turtle in perfect harmony that would put synchronised swimmers to shame.By lunch break, everyone's got wet but there's a hot wind blowing and within minutes, soaking sarongs and sandals are dry. Tamara has prepared a delicious curried chicken and peach pasta salad and after a short siesta, we hit the water again. 'Guys, I've just seen a crocodile launch itself into the water,' warns Alain, pointing out the marks where it slithered off the sandy bank. 'He's probably under our rafts right now so keep your hands and feet out the water for a while.'We portage past Birthday Rapid and a tail wind allows us to put the paddles down and cruise with the current as the lazy afternoon slips swiftly by. It's been a short day on the river, just 12km of relaxed paddling, until we reach our resting place for the night.One does not normally equate floating down a river with comfort and class. But as wilderness experiences go, Felix Unite have ensured that this is a five star trip. This river experience is laid back luxury where apart from paddling, you don't have to lift a finger. That includes being served platefuls of delicious Cunene cuisine, expertly prepared each night by Tamara. Plus tasty treats like popcorn, chocolate, pretzels and dips. But the unsung hero of the Cunene expedition is undoubtedly Gabriel.Each day, while we're paddling peacefully downstream, he's driving the support vehicle on the rutted road along the river to prepare our camp site for the night. It's tough driving and in places where the road has fallen away, he has to clear a path through the bush as an alternative route. Then every afternoon as we paddle ashore, we're greeted by the welcome sight of our tents already pitched and inflatable mattresses laid out. 'Hallo, did you all have a good day on the river?' he inquires with his ever-present smile.Every morning we wake to the river suffused with the golden colours of dawn. There's not a breath of wind and we set off in silence on mirror-like water. The mood is tranquil as we settle in to the rhythm of the river and paddle past the Zebra mountains and guano-stained rocks. Cattle and goats graze on the river banks and small Himba children run down to the waters edge to wave at the strange people in the red boats. The bird life along the river is astounding and a fish eagle glides gracefully above while goliath heron and blue-cheeked bee-eaters sit and stare at us from trees.The day drifts by in an aqua haze of heat and Himba greetings. Out here on the Cunene, the rest of the world ceases to exist. America is poised to attack Afghanistan and another Big Brother housemate is about to be evicted but these issues are not important right now. Time loses all meaning in the river's gentle flow.Because of its desolate terrain, Namibia is often referred to as 'the land God made in anger.' Up here around the Cunene, the scenery is indeed harsh and unforgiving. But the barren beauty, interspersed with magnificent makalani palms, is so breathtaking it seems a pity that so few visitors get to witness this wonderful part of the world. But, in a way, therein lies the attraction.By lunch on the third day, we arrive at Enyandi Camp and Alain explains the intricacies of S-Bend rapid up ahead. 'From here onwards, the adventure part really starts,' he smiles. 'This is the most technical rapid and you have to tackle it aggressively or you'll flip.'The adrenalin begins to pump as we paddle into the surge. 'Hard left !' shouts my paddling partner as we hit the rapid head on and bounce down into a dip before emerging wet but intact downstream.Another day, another golden dawn. Tall makalani palms are silhouetted against a dappled sky slowly lightening above our tents pitched under a giant sycamore fig tree. All too soon, it's out last day and we set off early for the final 30km stretch to Epupa Falls. We've now entered Kaokoland and paddle past barren white hills, then coast through fast-flowing water trains. Finally we hear the rumble and see the spray of the falls. With aching arms and happy hearts, we beach our rafts for the final time.Epupa Falls is truly one of Africa's greatest sights. Across a stretch of 2km, the Cunene River crashes and cascades down 22 cataracts into a beautiful gorge dotted by huge baobab trees growing from the rocky orange cliffs. A perfect rainbow arcs around the rocks as the afternoon sun catches the spray flying above the falls. No photograph can do justice to the setting and a sunset walk along the gorge is an experience that cannot be adequately described in words.ut if the Namibian government gets its way, these magnificent falls may one day cease to exist. Although the project has been postponed, plans are still underway for a hydro electric scheme that would necessitate building a dam to flood an area larger than the city of Johannesburg. If allowed to go ahead, this scheme would deluge large tracts of land that include about 200 ancestral Himba grave sites and would totally obliterate Epupa Falls. It would be an ecological tragedy of immense proportions.For our final night, we camp mere metres from the thundering water, under a grove of shady makalani palms. After a delicious dinner of lamb with mint sauce and vegetables, I retire to my tent and lie in my sleeping bag, listening to the warm wind rustle through the trees.I close my eyes and play back the pleasures of the past few days - the excitement of the rapids, close encounters with crocodiles, easy river cruising, smiling Himba children and the awesome beauty of Epupa. Then, very gently, I'm lulled to sleep by the soothing roar of the falls.

by Jacques Maraisby Jacques Marais. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.
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