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Damaraland and North East Holidays

Everyone wants to see the Namib Desert. The apricot-whip of sand dunes at Sossusvlei is the country’s favourite poster pin-up. But spare a thought (and a good chunk of your itinerary) for Damaraland. Easily dovetailed into a self-drive or escorted tour of Namibia’s highlights, it’s not only big on scenery (picture vast plains sweeping towards ancient rust-coloured mountains), but it also has a few surprises tucked away in its dry riverbeds and rocky valleys.

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Desert-adapted wildlife

Namibia is one of only two countries in the world where you can find desert-adapted elephants (the other is Mali). They’re not a separate species; they’ve simply evolved to thrive in Damaraland’s dry, semi-desert environment. Once you’ve got over the initial thrill of encountering a herd of these dusty behemoths, you might notice that they have smaller bodies, proportionally longer legs and larger feet than other elephants. These subtle adaptations allow them to roam Damaraland’s great thirstlands in search of food and water. It’s unclear exactly how many desert-dwelling elephants are found here, but estimates range from 100 to 600. Camps in the area organize elephant tracking excursions.

Despite its rugged, parched terrain, Damaraland is also home to another heavyweight mammal: the desert-adapted black rhino. According to the Save the Rhino Trust, numbers are flourishing with about 120 individuals in Namibia, up from about 40 in the early 1980s. The Palmwag Concession boasts the largest concentration and is a prime spot to join a guided walking safari, tracking these impressive creatures.

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Archaeological sites

For archaelogists, Damaraland is like an open book. They’ve found tantalizing evidence of Stone Age hunter-gatherer communities, including some of the world’s most striking rock art sites.

Declared Namibia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, Twyfelfontein showcases around 5,000 exquisite rock engravings, dating back 6,000 years. Etched across smooth slabs of sandstone, the petroglyphs depict many of the species still found in Damaraland today, such as giraffe, rhino, elephant, kudu and ostrich. Look closely and you will also notice images of humans, fantasy creatures and geometric patterns – suggesting that the site was far more than simply a ‘hunter’s sketchbook’. In fact, experts believe that this extraordinary place was once a sacred spot for shamanistic rituals.

There are also a few rock paintings at Twyfelfontein, but you need to visit the Brandberg Mountain further south to see Namibia’s most famous ancient artwork. Several thousand Bushman paintings have been discovered in the caves and shelters of this granite monolith. Some are believed to be at least 2,000 years old. Hike 45 minutes along the dry Tsisab Ravine and you reach the Maack Shelter where finely painted oryx and zebra wander across a 5m-long rock face. In amongst them, Bushman hunter-gatherers can be seen with their bows and arrows, collecting bags and digging sticks. But there is one figure, known as The White Lady, which holds centre stage. She (or he) has white legs and arms, suggesting that the scene depicts some kind of ritual or shamanistic trance.

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Geological features

Damaraland’s rock art is spellbinding, but if you’re more of a heavy rock fan, its geology is equally head-spinning. Rising like a precarious exclamation mark above a small hill near Outjo, the Vingerklip or ‘rock finger’ is an impressive 35m-tall pinnacle. It’s actually composed of a sedimentary conglomerate – testament to the fast-flowing rivers that scoured the region 20 million years ago. Another clue to a more verdant past, the Petrified Forest is situated about 50km west of Khorixas and represents the jumbled remains of enormous fossilised tree trunks about 280 million years old. Equally intriguing, the Organ Pipes near Twyfelfontein reveals a seam of angular, 5m-tall dolerite columns formed when molten rock pushed up through the earth’s crust 120 million years ago. Visit during late afternoon to appreciate the rust-red colours. Just a short walk away, a small inselberg called Burnt Mountain also seems to glow in the early morning or evening sunlight. It’s not Namibia’s highest peak. That title belongs to the 2,573m Brandberg, an oval-shaped massif that can be seen looming over the plains from a great distance.

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Apart from the Skeleton Coast, Kaokoland is the most remote area of Namibia. North of Opuwo, it becomes hard to access and the best way to explore the region is by flying to a lodge or on a guided tour. The landscapes in this area are some of the most dramatic in the whole country with barren rocky mountains, sweeping valleys and rolling sand dunes.

Threading an emerald vein of life through the desert, the Kunene River marks Namibia’s northern border with Angola. The stunning Epupa Falls are located here, forming a series of rapids and waterfalls, the tallest cascading 37m. In some areas there are herds of oryx, while the river valley is home to crocodiles, baboons and abundant birdlife.

During a visit to Kaokoland, you may also encounter some of the semi-nomadic Himba tribe in this area, continuing to live as they have for generations. The women smear themselves with a fragrant mixture of ochre, butter and bush herbs, which dyes their skin a burnt orange hue and serves as a natural sunblock and insect repellent. They prefer to dress traditionally, bare-breasted, with little more than a pleated animal-skin skirt in the way of clothing.