Damaraland: in detail
Damaraland safari holidays: the full story
Outside of any national park, the huge tracts of Damaraland’s semi-desert wilderness are spectacular. This is home to the country’s famous desert-adapted elephants and black rhino, and also to a few small communities who are benefiting from the visitors who come here.
Attractions for holidays & safaris in southern DamaralandIn the south, bare granite domes spring up from gravel plains like sentinels; walk amongst them to find caves and shelters adorned by a wealth of Bushman rock art.
SpitzkoppeAt the far southern end of the Kunene Region lies a small cluster of mountains, rising from the flat gravel plains that make up the desert floor. These include Spitzkoppe, Klein Spitzkoppe and the Pondok Mountains. Of these the highest is Spitzkoppe, which at 1,728m towers 600m above the surrounding plains: a demanding technical climb. Its resemblance to the famous Swiss mountain earned it the name of the Matterhorn of Africa, while the extreme conditions found on its faces ensured that it remained unclimbed until 1946.
BrandbergMeasuring about 30km by 23km at its base, and 2,573m at its highest point, this ravine-split massif of granite – Namibia’s highest mountain – totally dominates the surrounding desert plains. Designated a national monument in 1951, and now under consideration for World Heritage Site status, the mountains contain one of the world’s richest galleries of rock art, dating from 1,000 to 6,000 years ago. Of these, the most famous – and fortunately for visitors among the most accessible – is the White Lady.
Walking alone into the mountains is no longer permitted, so travellers visiting on holiday will need to take a guide from the Dâureb Mountain Guide Centre on the eastern side of the mountains.
Rock paintings on Brandberg MassifThis area has been occupied by Bushmen for several thousands of years and still holds a wealth of their artefacts and rock paintings, of which only a fraction have been studied in detail, and some are undoubtedly still to be found. The richest section for art has so far been the Tsisab Ravine, on the northeastern side of the massif.
The White Lady of BrandbergThe figure of the "white lady" stands about 40cm tall, and is central to a large frieze which apparently depicts some sort of procession – in which one or two of the figures have animal features. In her right hand is a flower, or perhaps an ostrich egg-cup, whilst in her left she holds a bow and some arrows. Unlike the other figures, this has been painted white from below the chest. The colouration and form of the figure are reminiscent of some early Mediterranean styles and, together with points gleaned from a more detailed analysis of the pictures, this led early scholars to credit the painters as having links with Europe. Among the site’s first visitors was the Abbé Henri Breuil, a world authority on rock art who studied these paintings and others nearby in the late 1940s. He concluded that the lady had elements of ancient Mediterranean origin.
More recent scholars consider that the people represented are indigenous, with no European links, and they regard the white lady as being a boy, covered with white clay while undergoing an initiation ceremony. Yet others suggest that the painting is of a medicine man. Whichever school of thought you prefer, the white lady is well signposted and – though somewhat faded – worth the 40-minute walk needed to reach it.
Climbing BrandbergWith the highest point in Namibia and some good technical routes in a very demanding environment, the massif attracts serious mountaineers as well as those in search of a few days’ interesting holiday scrambling. It’s very important to remember to take adequate safety precautions though, as the temperatures can be extreme and the mountain is very isolated. Unless you are used to such conditions, stick to short trips in the early morning or late afternoon, and take a long siesta out of the scorching midday heat.
The CratersIn the remote west of southern Damaraland, these two craters are close to accessible areas, and yet themselves very remote. The only practical way to get in here is with a guide who knows the area – as for safety’s sake you need back-up in case of problems.
Messum CraterSouthwest of Brandberg, straddling the boundary of the Dorob National Park, Messum Crater is an amphitheatre of desert where once there was an ancient volcano, over 22km across. Now two concentric circles of mountains ring the gravel plains here. It’s possible to climb down to the salt pan at the bottom of the crater, where there are also rock engravings.
Doros CraterNorthwest of Brandberg, and south of Twyfelfontein, in southern Damaraland, is the remote Doros Crater (or Doros Craters, as it is sometimes called). The geology’s interesting here, and there’s evidence of early human habitation.
VingerklipFor years now the Vingerklip, or "rock finger", has been a well-known landmark in this area, east of Khorixas. Around it are flat-topped mountains, reminiscent of Monument Valley (in Arizona), which are so typical of much of Damaraland. They are the remains of an ancient lava flow which has largely now been eroded. Amidst this beautiful scenery, Vingerklip is a striking pinnacle of rock, a natural obelisk balancing vertically on its own. It’s an impressive sight, and similar to the (now collapsed) Finger of God near Asab.
Twyfelfontein rock engravingsTwyfelfontein, or "doubtful spring" was named by the first European farmer to occupy the land. Formerly the valley was known as Uri-Ais, and seems to have been occupied for thousands of years. Then its spring, on the desert’s margins, would have attracted huge herds of game from the sparse plains around, making this uninviting valley an excellent base for early hunters. This probably explains why the slopes of Twyfelfontein, amid flat-topped mountains typical of Damaraland, conceal one of the continent’s greatest concentrations of rock art. When you first arrive, they seem like any other hillsides strewn with rocks. But the boulders that litter these slopes are dotted with thousands of paintings and ancient engravings, only a fraction of which have been recorded.
Declared a World Heritage Site in 2007, Twyfelfontein was unusual amongst African rock art sites in having both engravings and paintings, though today only engravings can be seen. Many are of animals and their spoor, or geometric motifs – which have been suggested as maps to water sources. Why they were made, nobody knows. Perhaps they were part of the people’s spiritual ceremonies, perhaps it was an ancient nursery to teach their children, or perhaps they were simply doodling.
Organ Pipes and Burnt MountainThe Organ Pipes consist of hundreds of tall angular columns of dolorite in a most unusual formation. They were thought to have formed about 120 million years ago when the dolorite shrank as it cooled, forming these marvellous angular columns up to 5m high in the process.
Nearby, the so-called Burnt Mountain can be a real disappointment if seen in the midday sun, little more than a heap of black shale amidst the dominant sandstone, but when the rocks catch the early morning or late afternoon light, the mountainside glows with a startling rainbow of colours, as if it’s on fire.
Petrified ForestWest of Khorixas, lie a number of petrified trees on a bed of sandstone. Some are partially buried, whilst others lie completely exposed because the sandstone surrounding them has eroded away. It is thought that they were carried here as logs by a river some 260 million years ago, and became stranded on a sandbank. Subsequently sand was deposited around them, creating ideal conditions for the cells of the wood to be replaced by silica, and thus become petrified.
Tracking desert elephantsMost of the lodges in the area run safaris in search of desert-adapted elephants, which are regularly seen, especially between May and October. (It’s worth noting that once the rains start, the elephants retreat up the Huab River, so at each end of the season drives from some of the lodges can be very long, with significant stretches along the road.) Fortunately the river itself, lined with tamarisk and reeds, is an attraction in its own right. Pools draw birds from the hamerkop to the blue-cheeked bee-eater, while away from the river, keep an eye out on the plains for Rüppell’s korhaan, and birds of prey such as black-breasted snake eagles and lappet-faced vultures.
What to see and do in northern DamaralandHeading east from the coast, the gravel plains are soon dotted first with inselbergs, then with low chains of weathered hills. Then, around 50km from the coast, the land begins to rise rapidly: you are coming onto the escarpment, which is the edge of one of the largest sheets of ancient lava in the world. About 300 million years ago, sheets of molten lava poured over the land here in successive layers. Now these Etendeka lavas dominate the scenery, with huge flat-topped mountains of a characteristic red-brown-purplish colour.
Here, in the rugged mountains of Damaraland, private safari reserves protect the rare desert-adapted wildlife that thrives there.
FaunaGenerally the amount of game increases as the vegetation becomes more lush in the east. In the mountains around Palmwag, Etendeka and Damaraland Camp, there are resident steenbok, baboon, kudu, porcupine and the occasional klipspringer and warthog, joined by wide-ranging herds of Hartmann’s mountain zebra, gemsbok and springbok. Equally nomadic but less common are the giraffe and desert-adapted elephant.
Black rhino are present throughout the region, but spend most of their days sleeping under shady bushes. Leopard occur, and both cheetah and lion are seen.
The birdlife is interesting, as several of the Kaokoveld’s ten endemic species are found here. Perhaps the most obvious, and certainly the most vocal, are Rüppell’s korhaan – whose early-morning duets will wake the soundest sleeper. The ground-feeding Monteiro’s hornbill is another endemic, though not to be confused with the local red-billed hornbills. There is also an endemic chat, the Herero chat, which occurs along with its more common cousins, the ant-eating tractrac and familiar chats. Though not endemic, black eagles are often seen around the rockier hillsides: surely one of Africa’s most majestic raptors.
SesfonteinNamed after the “six springs” that surface nearby, the small town of Sesfontein marks the northern edge of Damaraland – and the gateway to Kaokoland. It is a dusty but photogenic spot, set between mountains in the Hoanib Valley.
The local vegetation is dominated by umbrella thorns (Vachellia tortilis), the adaptable mopane (Colophospermum mopane), recognised by its butterfly-shaped leaves, and the beautiful, feathery real fan palms (Hyphaene petersiana). You will often be offered the “vegetable ivory” seeds of these palms, carved into various designs, as souvenirs by the local people. These are highly recommended, as often the sellers are the carvers, and it is far less destructive than buying wood carvings.
Small-group guided safaris to Damaraland with Wild about AfricaIf you’re interested in a private and exclusive guided safari holiday to Damaraland, or if you’d like to join a small group of fellow adventurers on a simple camping adventure or a luxury camping safari around Namibia, see Wild about Africa’s suggestions for Safaris to Damaraland.
Where to stay in Damaraland
Our suggestions for safari camps in Damaraland
Our travellers’ wildlife sightings in Damaraland
This is their success for sightings in Damaraland.
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