Ruacana Falls and our close call with Angola

After Khaudum NP, our second goal in Namibia was to visit the massive waterfalls that sit on the Angola border – Ruacana and Epupa Falls. We had done a prior Namibia road trip which hit the main tourist attractions, so with this trip we were hitting the more remote areas of northern Namibia. Ruacana Falls is much larger – one of the largest waterfalls in Africa (or at least it used to be until they built a dam). The dam effectively dried up the waterfall and it only flows during the wet season or during rare times when they open the sluice gates.

Angola had received so much rain in April and May 2018 that we heard the falls were at full force and the gates had been opened. However when we reached it we found the levels had already gone back down so it was only at half force.

We couldn’t make it all the way from Khaudum to Ruacana in one day and had to stop halfway in Ondagwa. We stayed at Fantasia Guest house which we found on tracks4africa just as we pulled into town after dark. It was a nice lodge which allowed us to camp in front. They had a restaurant with wifi- YAY. The food was good, the ablutions were well kept and they had hot showers. We were happy! The place was run by a very nice and helpful south African guy.

the first viewpoint to the falls by the powerplant

Ruacana falls are right next to a power plant. It was not very clear how you actually get to a viewing point for the falls. There were no signs and no one else around. We pulled up to the power plant because this was the only place with a clearly obvious road and parking area. We walked around until we found a great view point fo the falls. Some employees were looking at us funny but another car came to look at the falls so we figured we weren’t totally off. We decided to fly our drone which felt like a really bad idea. There was a sign that warned against photography of the power plant. You definitely aren’t allow to fly drones around big governmental buildings. Its also risky to fly around windy watery areas like waterfalls. But we couldn’t resist the urge so did it fast and got out of there.

flying our drone by the powerplant….not advisable

I had read that to properly see Ruacana falls you have to actually leave Namibia and go into Angola….so we drove to the Namibian border post right next to the falls. I pulled up and asked if we could drive past to see the falls and they said no problem. So we technically exited Namibia and drove past the Angolan border post to get closer to the falls. We found a dead end where you could walk down to an even better view point right below the falls. There were even some small pools you could swim in. There were some locals having a braai and beer bottles thrown everywhere! Finally we had found the right place. 

You are allowed to drive past the Angolan border to get to the waterfall viewpoint…only!

We joked that this was the closest we would ever get to getting into Angola. Then Garrett said he wanted to just go up to the border post and see if they would let us in. I knew this was a BAD idea but didn’t think there was much harm in trying. The border was just right there and we would be driving past it anyway. All I wanted was to get a picture of Boomie (our landy) in front of the Angola sign. We drove in and it was pretty empty. Only a fat security guard who immediately came up and asked what we were doing. We said we wanted to see if we could get a day visa. Pretty sure he didn’t understand but he was very nice and said we could try talking to another gentleman.

well at least we got what we came for!!

He led us inside and told us to wait. It was an empty building and I really felt like we needed to get out of there asap! Why were we wasting time waiting for what we knew would be a hard “No.” Garrett was in one of those very optimistic overly confident moods and thought he could convince the guy to just stamp our passports. Finally a guy showed up to the desk and seemed really bewildered at our request. However, he did not say no and immediately kick us out. He said he would need to call his supervisor.

I was like OMG NO LETS GO but Garrett just kept smiling along. Then the guy took our passports and was leafing through them talking on the phone.  I really started to sweat. He started asking why we didn’t have an exit stamp from Namibia. I knew this was BAD NEWS and my stomach sunk.

Inside the Angolan border post…we should have gotten out of there at this point….

We waited while he talked. I tried to pull back the passport but he held them tight. After he got off the phone he said there was no way to enter and added that he didn’t understand what we were even doing. We need to go back to the Namibian border post. Uh oh. Again I tried to take back our passports and he would not relinquish them. Now we were in serious trouble!

We entered the Namibian post and the Angolan guy asked the Namibian border official if he knew us. The Namibian guy shook his head and was like – What are you guys doing! My mind was racing with potential outcomes – huge fines, days of being held while our passports were confiscated, not being allowed back into Namibia…..arrested! I was not going to let that happen! I kicked into high gear to figure out how the heck to get us out of the situation. I was able to get Garrett out of the room and talk to them alone, which I knew was my best bet. 

The Angolan guy started to get angry saying “Why did you do this, you have committed a crime, we could hold you prisoner, we could fine you any amount of money we want!” I knew my best chance was to act dumb, apologize profusely and play to their egos. I said we were just trying to ask a question at the gate of the border and never intended to go in, that the police guard misunderstood and told us to go inside, that it was a big mistake, we were really lost, so sorry etc… I was very kind and apologized so many times. I had learned that African men have a soft spot for distressed women so I pushed myself almost to tears in order to pull at their heart-strings. THANK GOD IT WORKED!

The Namibian border guy was key – he definitely believed me and felt bad. He smoothed things over with the Angolan guy and said “ Its okay we all make mistakes. I know it can be hard to navigate things sometimes.” That was so awesome and definitely not a common mindset in African officials. I quickly reclaimed the passports and we got the heck out of there! If these men hadn’t spoken English – this situation would have escalated quickly and I don’t know what could have happened. This was really such a stupid stupid move on our part. I think we had gotten too cocky after living in Botswana, where you can basically talk or pay your way out of any trouble. We also had navigated dealing with police and getting ourselves out of trouble in South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia – so we were just overconfident and needed this incident to knock us back down to our senses!!

For our next stop, we made the decision to go against advice from other travelers and skipped visiting Epupa falls. Everyone had said, “You MUST do Epupa, you can’t skip that.” But we often skip the mainstream advice of others because they are looking for different things than we are. When pushed for reasons why we needed to see Epupa, people said…”oh its such a beautiful waterfall, you will be so close so you should see both.” But that wasn’t good enough of a reason for me. It would have meant an extra day driving in each direction just to see some waterfalls that are smaller than Ruacana. For me, getting to spend more time in Kaokoland and on the coast was much more important.

So onward we went to Opuwo – the gateway to Kaokoland!

This trip took place in May 2018.

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