The Kunene is a major river with some serious gorges in totally inhospitable terrain, cutting through the Kaokoveld and Namib Desert.
The river has been paddled from source to sea, first by Willem van Riet and Gordon Rowe, and then by Darron Raw, Johan Radcliffe and Matt Pitman. Other parties have also done shorter sections of it. All those who lived to tell the tale (and not everybody did) have stories of extreme sections interspersed by pools inhabited by crocodiles. Some major portages are also part of the mission at certain sections.
The upper part of the river, going through Angola, is relatively uneventful, with crocodiles being the greatest cause for concern. There are a few waterfalls that should be portaged, and the terrain is rugged and isolated. Unfortunately for the environmental cause, but fortunately for paddlers, there are no more hippos on the river, as they were all shot during the ongoing war in Angola. This applies to wild animals in general in this region.
From the well known Ruacana Falls, the river forms the border between Namibia and Angola. A hydro-electric scheme at Ruacana regulates the flow of the river from here on. The 120km section between Ruacana and Epupa Falls is as accessible as you can get in this rugged area, with a road following the course of the river. Commercial operators offer ad hoc rafting trips on this section. The rapids are mostly class 3 to 4, but don’t under-estimate the section. A highlight is the Ondurusa Falls, about 40km downstream of Ruacana, which can be negotiated.
The spectacular Epupa Falls is on the ‘must’ list of travellers, and various campsites offer accommodation in the area. From Epupa Falls the real action on the Kunene starts. Be very careful when attempting this part of the river: it is unpredictable. Scouting and portaging become very difficult. The crocodiles are bigger than those encountered before, and they don’t have any respect for human beings. There are tracks going to the river at a few spots between Epupa and Otjimborombonga Guard Post, but don’t expect to find them easily.
The section between the Otjimborombonga and Otjinhungwa Guard Posts, going through the Otjihipa Mountains, is the most difficult part of the Kunene and without doubt one of the most dangerous sections in the whole of Southern Africa. Expect class 5 and 6 rapids, sneaking through narrow gullies with steep, barren walls. Scouting and portaging is extremely difficult, but compulsory in many places. Even the pools between rapids are lethal, where monster crocodiles are ready to attack.
Beyond the mountain range, the river starts to flatten out as it nears the Atlantic Ocean. The river cuts through the Namib Desert on the last long stretch, and the scenery changes from craggy walls to sand dunes.
The above description is no exaggeration, and some sections can only be attempted by teams of expert paddlers. The most serious sections are also extremely remote, and help will be very far away when it is needed.
Also keep in mind that the whole area is very undeveloped, scarcely populated, the roads are barely recognisable, and infrastructure in general is almost non-existent. Extreme heat can also be added to the list. This is true expedition stuff.
This river description is taken from my book “Run the Rivers of Southern Africa”.
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