Those who merely see the ZAMBEZI REGION (formerly the Caprivi) as a place to stop over between Etosha and Victoria Falls are truly missing out. The region is unlike anywhere else in Namibia: lush, humid and tropical, boasting mature forests, free-flowing rivers and swampland, home to populations of elephant and buffalo and prolific birdlife. Its people too are distinct: seventy percent are Lozi and therefore culturally closer to Lozi populations in Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe than to most other Namibians. In fact, until the end of the nineteenth century, the area was known as Itenge, or Linyanti, and was part of the Lozi Kingdom of Barotseland, which covered a large chunk of present-day Zambia. The colonial wrangling that followed resulted in the curiously shaped 450km panhandle that stands out on maps of the region today. More reminiscent of a guitar head than a kitchen utensil, its forested 200km “neck” is only 20km wide, squeezed between Botswana and Angola, while its “headstock” fans out into lush wetlands that border Botswana and Zambia and are within easy striking distance of Zimbabwe.
The gateway to the region from the rest of Namibia is the Kavango East region, whose main centre is the hot and humid capital Rundu. Moving west to east from here, your first port of call should be the Popa Falls Reserve, a picturesque, if not spectacular, series of rapids on the Okavango 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 (formerly Mamili) 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 regional capital, 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.