As our Himba guide, John, leads us along the peaceful banks of the Kunene River we see a sign that says, No Swimming-Crocodiles! “That sign doesn’t lie,” explains John. “Last year, an American tourist went swimming at this very spot. We found his body the next day. His right arm and left leg were missing. The croc must have had a good meal.”
John continues to list the gruesome misfortunes of people that swam in these waters, some local-others not. But his voice is soon overpowered by the sounds of nature. Hundreds of rosy-faced lovebirds sing overhead. Rupert’s parrots squawk as they do fly-bys along our path. This Eden is an oasis that splits through hot, parched Kaokoland- one of the wildest and least populated areas in Namibia. It took four hours on a graveled, washboard road to get here. My hands still shake from steering through ruts.
But it is all worth it. This river of palms is a verdant respite after 10 days of Namib desert. Towering makalani palms, some soaring to forty-foot heights (12 meters), line the banks of the Kunene. One side is Angola, a country trying to make a comeback after decades of brutal war. The other, Namibia, where Himba tribesmen have a small village across from our camp.
The makalani are native to subtropical, low-lying regions of southern Africa and they make this place special. I spend afternoon hours under them, shaded from the high-wattage sun. Birds flock here to feed upon the the female tree’s copious fruit, small round forms nearly the size of a cue ball. Up to 2,000 fruit may be found on a single tree.
But the river of palms really pays off just downstream from our campsite. From there, I see the mist rising.
The water roars. And the Kunene spills it aquatic soul 37 meters (120 feet) at the deepest point of Epupa Falls.
Epupa means foam in the language of the Herero people. I hike out to the end of a stone outcrop to feel the full force of the cataract. The water foams after the fall and bursts of mist come and go with the shifting winds. The sound is so overwhelming that nothing else can be heard. It is difficult to think. I see the mist part again only to reveal a dark ominous outcrop of black rock jutting out from the Angolan side.
It resembles the head and fore limbs of an enormous baboon, like some kind of bestial deity from an old Tarzan movie. The rock once again is enveloped in the mist and a rainbow takes its place.
I stay here much longer than expected. I am tranced. The only thing that draws me away is a group of baobab trees, my botanical obsession.
I can’t resist exploring each one, feeling each tree’s taunt skin, swollen trunk and gnarled branches. This place is mesmerizing. The Kunene River hemorrhages here at Epupa for nearly a mile. It is a collections of falls dotted with baobabs, shiny dark red rock and back dropped with a blue-green palette of makalani palms.
I briefly think about the bone-crunching road that I will face the next day. But the roar of the falls brings me back to aquatic utopia. I gaze again to the River of Palms, my river of dreams.