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A massive Nile crocodile, with jaws full of razor sharp teeth, swam straight towards our blow-up raft before being scared away by the slap of a paddle, sinking slowly beneath the surface… 

The Kunene River flows from the Angola highlands through the desert to the Atlantic ocean.
The Kunene River flows from the Angola highlands through the desert to the Atlantic ocean.

Our trusty Land Cruiser was filled with dust as we drove across the rocky mountains of the Kunene Region, as far North in Namibia as we could go. We passed through the last town, Opuwo (meaning ‘the end’ in Herero), and deep into what used to known as Kaokoland or faraway land, then all the way up to the Angolan border. At Epupa the lush Kunene River appeared in front of us like a mirage. A palm-fringed oasis in the middle of the desert.

The rafting trip on the Kunene River on the rapids above Epupa Falls.
The rafting trip takes place on the Kunene River rapids above Epupa Falls.

Shaded by Makalani palms and umbrellas, we cooled off by taking a refreshing dip in the plunge pool at Epupa Camp, rather than braving the crocodile-infested river. Feeling revived, we hiked up into surrounding hills to see the river winding its way through the rock-strewn valley until it dropped out of sight at Epupa Falls.

With our guide, Ernest Chuma, at the wheel, we drove along a rutted track in an open top safari vehicle to the river rafting drop-off point. On a sandy beach, we strapped ourselves into life jackets and helmets and jumped into the boats, pushing off into the slow-moving current. Upstream, the rocky gorges below Ruacana Falls create rapids with names like Corkscrew, Fizz Pop and Shake Rattle and Roll, but here the pace was gentler.

Taking a break from paddling on a gentle stretch of the river to look at the desert scenery.
Taking a break from paddling on a gentle stretch of the river to look at the desert scenery.

We paddled leisurely down the river past Nile crocodiles sunning themselves on the sandbanks with their jaws wide-open. We had a few hair-raising moments in the rocky rapids, but most of the time we just cruised along with the current, soaking up the tranquil beauty of the river and desert. Lost in thought, we nearly fell out of the boat when Ernest suddenly swung his paddle down right next to our raft: “Just scaring away that croc”, he told us.

kunene-crocodiles
The waters of the Kunene are full of these deadly reptiles lying in wait on the river’s edge.

Pulling ashore, we left the rafts behind and walked downstream to watch the sunset at Epupa falls. Dusty from the well-trodden trails, we thought about washing off in one of the natural pools at the top of the falls, where the danger lies more in being swept over rather than crocodile attacks. The rock pools looked enticing, but we’d had enough excitement for one day and settled for sundowners on a hilltop above the waterfall.

epupa-falls
The name Epupa is the Herero word for the foam created by the falling water of the falls. 
The Kunene river at sunset was a sight to behold.
The Kunene river at sunset was a sight to behold.
Getting ready to set off on a gentle cruise down the Kunene River with guide, Ernest Chuma.
Getting ready to set off on a gentle cruise down the Kunene River with guide, Ernest Chuma.
Bird watching from the boat on a calm bend in the river.
Bird watching from the boat on a calm bend in the river.
Stepping foot into Angola for the first time where the Kunene River forms a natural border.
Stepping foot into Angola for the first time where the Kunene River forms a natural border.
epupa-falls
Swimming in the natural pools at the top of Epupa Falls washes off the dust of the desert.
epupa-camp
Sitting down to a candlelit dinner at the riverfront under the palm trees.
Relaxing by the fire as night falls over the Kunene River and the desert stars come out.
Relaxing by the fire as night falls over the Kunene River and the desert stars come out.
Ndumu River Lodge
Marcus & Kate

Marcus and Kate are a freelance writer/photographer team, contributing stories on travel, conservation and human interest from across east and southern Africa. They just completed a year in Kenya's Masai Mara where they conducted a research project on wildlife tourism and community-based conservation, including working on projects such as Elephant Voices and Living with Lions. They are a Swedish-Australian couple with itchy feet and a love for Africa, adventure and discovery. To see more photos from Marcus and Kate, visit their website or follow them on Facebook.