Namibia’s vast size means that most first-time visitors fail to reach the country’s northeast corner, encompassing the remote areas of Otjozondjupa, and the Kavango and Zambezi regions – which includes Namibia’s idiosyncratic panhandle. In so doing, they miss out on a great deal: a chance to experience the Kalahari through the eyes of the Ju|’hoansi San, and to explore Khaudum, one of the country’s most untamed national parks requiring good off-road skills and a sense of adventure; and a chance to immerse themselves in a lush subtropical environment. The five rivers – including the mighty Zambezi – are surrounded by a handful of small national parks, each promising abundant wildlife, including hippos, crocodiles and buffalo – the latter not in Namibia’s other parks – unparalleled birdwatching, serene boat trips and glorious sunsets.
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The vast area between Grootfontein and Rundu, to the east of the B8, is sparsely inhabited, home only to a couple of thousand of Ju|’hoansi, scattered across the flat sandveld of the Kalahari. Primarily they live in the Nyae-Nyae Conservancy, the 9000-square-kilometre area that was the former apartheid-designated Bushmanland, and is now part of the Otjozondjupa Region. Its isolated centre, Tsumkwe, sits at the end of the area’s only road out by the Botswana border. If you’re interested in learning more about San culture, both past and present, this is the place to do it; approached with sensitivity, it can be an informative and enriching experience.
Back on the B8, heading north, you enter Kavango East, though there’s still little evidence of human habitation: eighty percent of the region’s population live in the 10km strip by the Kavango River, which comes as a welcome relief after so many hours driving through arid landscapes. On a bluff above the river lies Rundu, the region’s rapidly growing capital, and the gateway to what was previously known as the Caprivi Strip, but which these days is shared between Kavango East and the Zambezi regions, and traversed by the Trans Zambezi Highway. The few visitors to Namibia who make it this far north, often consider this 500km sliver of land as a place to overnight between Etosha and Victoria Falls. Yet the region merits a much longer sojourn as it is unlike anywhere else in Namibia: verdant, humid and tropical, boasting mature forests, free-flowing rivers and swampland, home to large populations of elephant and buffalo and prolific birdlife.
Moving west to east from Rundu, well-equipped and experienced 4WD adventurers might divert southwards to undeveloped Khaudum National Park, where the sense of achievement from getting through the endless deep sand without incident should make up for any shortfall in animal sightings. For most, though, the first port of call is Popa Falls Reserve, a picturesque, if not spectacular, series of rapids on the Kavango River, which forms the western boundary of the Bwabwata National Park, the region’s largest and most diverse protected area, which extends right along the strip. Two sections are open to the public, giving access to wonderful wildlife-rich riverine environments: the Mahango Core Area and the Kwando Core Area, at the park’s eastern limit. From here the Kwando River meanders south to the region’s southernmost tip, providing opportunities for seeking out antelope and other large mammals and some colourful birds in Mudumu and Nkasa Rupara national parks. The latter comprises Namibia’s main wetland area, and it is here that the Kwando makes a ninety-degree turn eastwards, as the Linyanti, before heading into Botswana, where, as the Chobe River, it eventually flows into the Zambezi. Around 110km west of this confluence lies the bustling capital of the Zambezi Region, Katima Mulilo. After a browse round the town’s outstanding craft centre, most visitors head eastwards to the secluded riverside lodges and camps tucked along the leafy banks of the Zambezi. Note that malaria is endemic in the region year-round and appropriate preventive measures should be taken.