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.
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.
Bwabwata National Park
Only re-declared a national park in 2007, following the years of conflict and unrest in the region, the Bwabwata National Park is still in its infancy, with facilities virtually non-existent, yet its scenic riverine environments are wonderful for wildlife viewing. Though the protected area stretches 200km along the entire neck of the Zambezi Region, the only two areas open to tourists lie at either end of the strip: at the western end, the Mahango Core Area borders the Kavango River, while at the eastern end, the Kwando Core Area borders the river of the same name. Despite being part of the same national park, these two reserves require separate permits. In between these two areas, yet still within the national park boundaries, the tarred B8 – the main artery that traverses the whole region – is punctuated with traditional villages of reed-thatched rondavels, from where cattle and goats occasionally wander onto the highway.
Kwando Core Area
Unlike its western counterpart, this eastern section of Bwabwata National Park, the Kwando Core Area, is only accessible by 4WD. It consists of low-lying vegetated sand dunes covered in deciduous woodlands of wild syringa, Zambezi teak and copalwood, as well as areas thick with acacia and combretum species. The main, poorly signed sandy track twists and turns for several kilometres before reaching the wetland areas, where your efforts are most likely to be rewarded. And the rewards can be substantial, especially along the banks of the Kwando River – where stunning carmine bee-eaters nest (Aug–Nov) – and at Horseshoe Bend, an oxbow lake that lies some 10km into the park. Here, resident hippos snort and wiggle their ears while vast herds of elephants can be seen converging on the water in the afternoon, to bathe, drink and play. Buffalo and impala are also present in large concentrations in the reserve, alongside roan and sable antelope, while the elusive sitatunga – a strange swamp-dwelling antelope – can also be spotted. You’d have to be very lucky, though, to encounter wild dogs; though the park is one of the last refuges in Namibia for these endangered animals, only a handful are estimated to inhabit the area. You may also catch occasional glimpses of leopard, lion and hyena.
Mahango Core Area
The main entrance to the Mahango Core Area lies on the through gravel road to the Botswana border, which cuts through the park. Visitors to the reserve proper can choose between two circuits. The shorter 15km river route, to the east, runs along a decent dirt road (accessible in a saloon car) and is preferred by most visitors, as the more open grasslands, floodplains and stretches of the Kavango River afford more varied scenery – including a couple of giant baobabs – and better wildlife-viewing opportunities, especially in the dry season. Hippos and crocodiles lurk in the river, with elephant and buffalo regular visitors in the heat of the day. You’re likely to spot sable and roan antelope grazing alongside the more commonly sighted antelope, while tsessebe and wildebeest are also present. The two “picnic sites,” where you are allowed to get out of your vehicle and stretch your legs, lack benches and tables.
The longer 30km meander west of the main road is only for 4WD, and takes you through denser broad-leaved woodland, where it’s harder to spot animals, though in the dry season, the Thingwerengwere waterhole can attract thirsty visitors. The park is a favourite with bird-lovers, with over 450 species recorded – more than any other park in Namibia.
At the confluence of the Zambezi and the Chobe rivers, over 100km southeast of Katima, sits Impalila Island, which marks the easternmost tip of Namibia. Its unique and enviable position, overlooking both scenic waterways, and within easy striking distance of Chobe National Park in Botswana, and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Zambia, makes it the perfect spot for high-end wilderness lodges. Captivating scenery and glorious sunsets abound, and superlative wildlife safaris can be conducted on water as well as on land – in a motorboat or a mokoro (the traditional dugout canoe), or even from the deck of a houseboat.
The island's location, within sight of three of Namibia’s neighbouring countries, also justified the island’s former strategic importance as a military base for the SADF during the 1980s. Though the base has long gone and the barracks now house a school, the tarred airstrip remains to bring in lodge visitors to Impalila – the only way to access the island without going into Botswana.
Surrounded by lush forest, overlooking the majestic Zambezi, tropical Katima Mulilo – usually shortened to Katima, and meaning “to quench the fire” in SiLozi, referring to some nearby rapids – has more in common with towns in Zambia and Zimbabwe than most of Namibia. Indeed, located 1200km away by road from Windhoek, Katima is nearer to the neighbouring capital cities of Lusaka and Harare than to its own, a view soon confirmed by a wander round the vibrant open market and the sandy short cuts between buildings, where women in chitenges crouch over makeshift stalls selling fruit, cloth, comics and sweets, and competing Sungura and Zed beat rhythms waft out onto the street.
The town centre, such as it is, primarily centres on Hage Geingob Street and its junction with Hospital Road, where there are several large supermarkets, banks and a seemingly never-ending collection of strip malls. While here, be sure to call in at the Zambezi Arts and Cultural Association to browse their excellent selection of crafts.
Should you find yourself anywhere near the suburb, and former township, of Ngweze, make sure you seek out the “toilet tree” outside the SWAPO office – a giant baobab, which has been hollowed out to accommodate said toilet.
Once the multi-million-dollar Zambezi Waterfront Park finally opens, Katima may finally make the most of its lovely waterside setting. For the moment, to fully experience the magic of the Zambezi, you need to head to the Protea Hotel Zambezi River Lodge, or stay at one of the lodges out of town.
Lake Liambezi and Ngoma
From Katima a decent, tarred road heads 70km southeast past a string of tidy, well-swept settlements and wandering cattle to the Botswana border at the village of Ngoma, home primarily to the Masubia, and the location of a cheerfully painted roadside community craft shop. Around 38km from Katima, there’s a sign off down the D3507 (around 25km) to Lake Liambezi, a curious and constantly changing lake, worth swinging by if you’ve time. Created in the late 1950s from a major flooding of the Zambezi, it was reduced to a dustbowl for many years in the mid-1980s, possibly due to the large-scale poaching of hippos, which used to keep the water channels open by trampling through them. Heavy rains for several years after 2009 allowed it to replenish, prompting a profitable seasonal fishing industry to mushroom round its edges, with villagers sending off their catch of tilapia, bream and catfish to neighbouring countries and even as far away as the DRC. Hippo and crocs too have now repopulated the lake, which also attracts good birdlife, though at the time of going to press, following several years of drought, the Liambezi was in danger of drying up once more.
Mudumu National Park
The small, flat Mudumu National Park covers the eastern riverbank and floodplains of a meandering channel of the Kwando River. Signposting is virtually non-existent and there is only a handful of sandy tracks – some of which peter out into bush – that weave their way through mopane, wild syringa, leadwood and mangosteen, nearly all within the strip of land between the main road and the river itself. That said, you’re likely to have the place to yourself – apart from the police, who occupy a small outpost to keep a watchful eye on cross-border activity – especially if you spend the night in one of the three bush camps.
Birdwatching in the park is particularly rewarding; while dawdling along the river, watch out for African skimmers, cranes, storks, jacanas and ibis, while western-banded snake eagles can be sighted wheeling above. The water attracts larger visitors too: elephant and buffalo come to drink in large numbers, and roan and sable antelope and eland are also present. If you’re lucky, you might catch sight of a spotted-necked otter in the shallows. Consider also visiting the nearby Lizauli Traditional Village – well signposted off the main road to the north of the park – to learn more about Lozi traditional culture; it’s also an opportunity to purchase genuine local crafts.
Nkasa Rupara National Park
The many channels of water of the Kwando-Linyanti river system comprise Namibia’s largest protected wetland, Nkasa Rupara National Park (formerly Mamili), a mix of marshland, high reed beds and woodland savannah that collectively offer visitors an area rich in birdlife, with over 430 species. Elephant, buffalo – over one thousand – red lechwe, reedbuck and puku wade or jump through the reeds, while huge crocodiles, hippos and water monitor lizards occupy the shallows. Lions are also very much in evidence. The park is mostly inaccessible as many of its “tracks” are filled with water, and much of the area is flooded during the wettest months of the year – usually February and March – and when the floodwaters arrive from the Angolan highlands (which can be weeks later), and so is a true wilderness.
Crafts in the Zambezi Region
The Zambezi Region, like the neighbouring Kavango region, is renowned for its crafts, especially woodcarving and basketry. Over the last few years several centres have been established to showcase these skills and sell the fruits of the artisans’ labours as souvenirs to tourists. These have been encouraged by government as a means of sustainable development, though with varying degrees of success. However, the overall rise in visitor numbers to Namibia has increased the demand for crafts, resulting in more mass-produced items and fewer genuine, high-quality individually crafted pieces. Indeed, the selection varies little from place to place: walking sticks, wooden animals, baskets, clay pots, soapstone carvings and tie-dye textiles abound, with a smattering of jewellery across the craft shops. Designs often reflect the surrounding environment, also incorporating themes and techniques brought over from Zambia and Zimbabwe, while some items are straight imports from these neighbouring countries.
The northern Kalahari
Namibia’s slice of the northern Kalahari is very different to the southern Kalahari east of Mariental and Keetmanshoop: there, a series of linear red dunes ripples towards the border, receiving an average annual rainfall of less than 250mm, which results in shorter, scrubbier and sparser vegetation, typically grey camelthorn and shepherd’s tree. In contrast, as you move up into central and northern areas of the semi-desert, the duneveld gives way to flatter, paler sandveld, with more savannah grassland and a greater coverage of acacia trees and shrubs. Even further northwards and eastwards, the increase in rainfall – albeit erratic and localized – is aided by a network of omiramba (water courses) and a smattering of pans to create a landscape of taller trees and a denser canopy. There are also more broad-leaved species, such as purplepod terminalia, wild teak, wild syringa, mopane or marula. While some visitors are here to tackle this inhospitable environment – usually in convoys of 4WD vehicles armed with GPS, satellite phones and all manner of equipment to get you out of a scrape – most come to interact with the semi-desert’s most resilient inhabitants, the Ju|’hoansi San.
Khaudum National Park
A wild, unruly reserve, undeveloped for tourism, Khaudum National Park is probably the least frequented of Namibia’s protected areas – outside the Skeleton Coast Wilderness Area – visited more by elephants than people; just the place if you want a real wilderness adventure. Clinging to the Botswana border, this 3,842-square-kilometre expanse of Kalahari sandveld is, for the most part, a dense tangle of tree and shrub savannah, streaked with omiramba. These life-giving sandy valleys generally run west to east across the park, feeding into the Okavango in Botswana. It is along the two main omiramba that you’ve the best chance of seeing wildlife, from late August to October – once water has dried up in the clay pans and before the rains have started. There are twelve artificial waterholes and two natural springs, many of which have hides, where you can wait in safety for the animals to show up.
Hosting a wide variety of trees, in addition to the ubiquitous camelthorn and other acacias, Khaudum boasts substantial teak forests, patches of evergreen false mopane, leadwood, wild syringa and the occasional unmistakeable baobab. The thickness of the vegetation, however, makes wildlife-viewing tricky, though the occasional grassy clearing can be particularly rewarding as huge numbers of large mammals – including elephant (with a reputation for aggression) but also the less common roan antelope, eland and tsessebe – inhabit the area. Khaudum is also rich in predators, with plenty of leopard, lion and even wild dogs, though catching sight of them is a wholly different matter.
Birdlife is similarly prolific, with over 320 species: look out for colourful racket-tailed rollers, the russet belly of the African hobby falcon or the extraordinary turkey-size ground hornbill; further brightly coloured delights arrive in summer (Nov–April), including African golden orioles and carmine and blue-cheeked bee-eaters.
Progress through the park is glacially slow, as you have to force your way through deep sand the whole way – or mud if it has rained – probably having to clear away trees that have blown down or been uprooted by elephant. Khaudum is also heavy on fuel. Only if you are experienced at driving in these conditions, and you are fully armed with a GPS (and preferably a Tracks 4 Africa map and satellite phone) and are travelling in convoy with plenty of fuel, water and food, should you consider driving here. If all the above seems like too much work, or beyond your skills level or comfort zone, consider visiting on an excursion from Nhoma Camp or Tsumkwe Country Lodge.
After driving on autopilot along the C44, a seemingly interminable gravel road, for a full 220km, it’s easy to drive right through Tsumkwe before you even realize you’ve arrived. You certainly expect the place to be more substantial than the glorified crossroads that it is – enhanced by a short stretch of asphalt – though possibly no less forlorn. It’s a place where you do your business as fast as possible, then get out into the far more appealing surroundings. The main reason tourists trek all the way out here is to interact with the Ju|’hoansi (San), though for some it’s a stopover on the way to Khaudum National Park. Yet there are also a couple of scenic attractions in the area, too.
The Nyae-Nyae Conservancy Office, which should be your first port of call, is hidden behind a chain-link fence and a large tree on the right-hand side as you approach the crossroads, the ersatz village centre. Next to the office, G!hunku Crafts sells jewellery and artefacts from various settlements, and is worth supporting. Demand for Ju ostrich-shell jewellery is now so great that the conservancy has to import most of its ostrich shells from a farm in South Africa.
Despite having a fluctuating population of 500–800, Tsumkwe possesses a secondary school, which serves the 1500–2000 wider conservancy population, though few of the Ju|’hoansi complete their education. A couple of thinly stocked stores, a petrol station, a courthouse, police station, clinic, a handful of churches and shebeens, and a sprinkling of houses make up the rest of Tsumkwe.
Visiting a Ju|’hoansi community
There are several ways to visit a Ju|’hoansi community as an independent traveller. A major consideration is language. Within the Nyae-Nyae Conservancy, only three communities currently have English-speaking guides: at Doupos and Mountain Pos, around 8km and 12km south of Tsumkwe, respectively, as well as at the Little Hunter’s Living Museum in ||Xa||oba, 23km north of Tsumkwe. The conservancy office can give you directions. In addition, the living museum near Grashoek, off the C44 by the veterinary fence, was the first such set-up to be established in Namibia, in 2004, and so is used to receiving visitors. The living museums both have set prices for activities, given on their website, such as N$150 for a bushwalk, or N$200 for a whole four or more hours of mixed activities, which will generally be carried out in traditional animal skin clothing. Activities can include tracking, learning about medicinal plants, setting snares, hunting, making ostrich-shell jewellery, preparing food, storytelling and dancing. You’ll get the most out of your visit by being willing to join in and by learning at least a couple of phrases in Ju|’hoan from your hosts. Each museum has a “demonstration village” with the kind of “beehive” grass-covered wooden domed huts the San constructed when they practised a nomadic lifestyle, though if you stay a night or two, you may also be invited to their modern settlement. Be prepared for jeans and T-shirts, and makeshift shelters from sheets of plastic, as well as clay bricks, or breezeblocks and empty Coca-Cola bottles. Each of the living museums has a few nicely located campsites with well-maintained long-drop toilets, a tap, bucket showers and a fireplace. For both these places, you need no prior reservation.
Alternatively, you can stay at Nhoma Camp, where the lodge owners have lived and worked among the N||hoq’ma community for many years, and the experience is organized much more around the rhythm of the Ju|’Hoansi’s daily activities, rather than tourists picking and choosing what to do from a menu. There is no demonstration village and residents wear their normal everyday clothes.
In addition, several villages in the Nyae-Nyae conservancy have established community campsites – a couple under giant baobabs – though some have absolutely no facilities, not even a latrine. On arrival, you should ask permission to camp from one of the community elders. Traditionally the Ju|’Hoansi’s non-hierarchical social structure does not entail a headman, though pressure from outsiders wanting to negotiate with leaders has, over time, pushed some into these leadership positions. Establish what the camping rate is in advance (usually N$60–80/person). Note that wild camping is forbidden. Many of these settlements (which may only consist of around 20–25 people) with campsites are also beginning to invite tourists to join in foraging, hunting, cooking or craft-making activities. Women do the foraging, whereas men hunt. There may not, however, be anyone in the village who speaks English, so unless you have some Afrikaans, which some of the older Ju|’hoansi can speak, you’ll be reduced to sign language, though you could make enquires about engaging an interpreter at the conservancy office in Tsumkwe in advance. The conservancy has given the villages general guidelines about payment, which generally relates to fees for groups: N$1000 for a day’s activities, N$750 for a half-day.
When camping at a community site, make sure you take all rubbish away with you. You should also bring sufficient water, and preferably firewood, with you, as they may not be available, or cook on gas. Where there is a tap, be sparing with the water, and if wood is not available for purchase, you should not collect it from their precious supply. Alcohol is another sensitive issue; be discreet if you’re having a beer and do not drink in the presence of your hosts, as alcohol dependency is a problem in many Ju|’hoansi communities. All services and activities currently need to be paid for in cash; that said, bringing some food to share with your hosts, such as nuts, dried or fresh fruit, is welcome. Sweets are not helpful, given the lack of dental care available, though you’ll find sugar, tea and tobacco are common purchases in the general store. Excessive tipping is also ill-advised as it disturbs the economic equilibrium within and among communities, creating jealousies and raising expectations that subsequent visitors may not be able to fulfil. Photography is another delicate topic; if you want to take photographs, make sure you ask about the etiquette before you bring out your camera.
A visit to almost any community almost always concludes with an invitation to purchase some crafts; these usually have labels with fair, set prices; haggling is not customary. Choose from exquisitely made ostrich-shell necklaces and bracelets, as well as bows, quivers and arrows, small leather pouches decorated with more shells and, best of all, love bows – these miniature blunt arrows are traditionally fired at a young woman’s buttocks by an aspiring suitor, and she indicates her response either by picking up the arrow and clasping it to her bosom, or letting it lie in the dust.
The origin of Namibia’s panhandle: the Caprivi Strip
The reason the anomalous Zambezi Region or Caprivi Strip belongs to Namibia goes back to a colonial barter in 1890, in which Germany persuaded Britain to accept the islands of Zanzibar and Heligoland (a small archipelago off northern Germany) in exchange for this sliver of land, which was then part of Bechuanaland (present-day Botswana). Keen to gain access to the Zambezi and create a riverine trade route that would connect with the Indian Ocean, the Germans seemingly overlooked the very substantial obstacle to such a plan: the Victoria Falls. This stumbling block, however, turned out to be irrelevant, since defeat in World War I meant the Germans had scarcely set foot in the area before they were forced to hand it over to South Africa – though not before naming the strip of land after the then German Chancellor, General Count Georg Leo von Caprivi di Caprara di Montecuccoli, which was mercifully shortened to Caprivi.
The strip’s strategic potential, given its location at the confluence of five countries, repeatedly put it at the forefront of a succession of conflicts, and led to the development of the region’s eventual capital, Katima Mulilo, which soon became a garrison town. In 1964, in opposition to South Africa’s apartheid policies, the Caprivi African National Union (CANU) – a movement pushing for Caprivi self-governance – joined forces with SWAPO to fight for Namibian independence with the proviso (so they say) that once it was secured, Caprivi could itself be independent – a deal that SWAPO vehemently denies. Discontent about alleged discrimination against Caprivians and repeated calls for Caprivi self-rule simmered throughout the independence struggle and beyond, though matters didn’t boil over into full-scale conflict until 1999, when an attack on Katima by the Caprivi Liberation Army (CLA) – the military wing of the secessionist movement – provoked intervention by the security forces. Several deaths resulted, abuses were committed by both sides, and many civilians were forced to flee. In the end, 121 separatists were arrested and put on trial for treason – a trial that dragged on for around 12 years and which received much criticism from human rights groups. A verdict was finally reached at the end of 2015; the final tally was: 79 not guilty, 30 guilty, while 12 had died in custody. Most of those found guilty have appealed against their sentencing to the Supreme Court, while the Namibian state, in turn, intends to appeal against the acquittals, which is rather ironic given their lack of interest in pursuing similar crimes committed during the independence struggle.
In the meantime, Caprivi has controversially been renamed Zambezi, arguably part of the ongoing erasure of colonial names, though opponents of the name change argued that it was another attempt by SWAPO to undermine Caprivi identity and stifle any further secessionist ambitions.
Popa Falls Reserve
If you’ve come from Victoria Falls, or even Epupa in northwest Namibia, you’re likely to be underwhelmed by the Popa Falls Reserve – essentially a series of rapids on the Kavango River that gush over quartzite rocks and scurry their way round banks of reeds and papyrus. Moreover, the reserve is small: it can be explored in under half an hour on foot via raised wooden walkways and viewpoints, unless you book yourself on a river cruise. For all that, Popa Falls is a scenic spot, where the cascading water stretches almost 1km across at its widest, and is set in lush riverine forest frequented by hippos, crocs and a host of water birds. It is also a convenient place to break the journey between Rundu and Katima Mulilo, and a popular stopover for travellers heading to or from the Okavango Delta in Botswana. The varied accommodation in and around the falls also makes the area a good base for exploring the nearby, easily accessible Mahango section of the Bwabwata National Park.
Beware of the hippos and crocs
Hippos and crocs annually vie for the dubious distinction of being the animal responsible for the largest number of deaths in Africa (the mosquito aside). The bottom line is that both are very dangerous, and are plentiful in the rivers and wetlands of the Zambezi Region. In particular, hippos wander freely through many camps at night. Though herbivores, they can be particularly aggressive both in the water and on land when they come out to graze, usually at night. If you happen to encounter one, make sure you are not between them and water. Males on average weigh in at 1.5 tonnes, and they can reach speeds of almost 30kph, so don’t try to outrun one. Nile crocodiles, on the other hand, are carnivores and see humans as legitimate food. Remain vigilant when walking along riverbanks, giving areas of long grass a wide berth.
The Kavango–Zambezi transfrontier conservation area
The recently formed Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area is now the world’s largest transboundary reserve, encompassing the Zambezi and Kavango river basins, and spanning five countries, namely Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Incorporating around 36 protected areas, including the Okavango Delta, Chobe National Park and Victoria Falls, it aims to open up traditional wildlife migration routes. Many fences have already been taken down, allowing the 250,000–300,000 elephants in the region, for example, to wander freely – all the more reason for taking care at dawn and dusk when driving along the Trans Caprivi Highway. Through improved and regionally coordinated conservation efforts and greater community engagement, it is hoped that communities will derive greater benefit from the anticipated increase in tourism opportunities. In the meantime, however, there remain tensions between conservationists and some villages, which are losing increasing numbers of inadequately protected livestock, prompting them to kill the predators responsible.
Rundu and around
Sprawling along a bluff above the Kavango River, subtropical RUNDU’s rapidly expanding population – an estimated eighty thousand – has doubled over the last fifteen years. With the Trans Caprivi Highway speeding east to Zambia, and improving links with Angola, the town is developing as a commercial and transport hub, prompting the municipal website to declare optimistically that it is “much more than a refuelling stop”. Most tourists, however, have yet to be convinced, rarely spending more than a few hours, or a night, here en route to somewhere else. Yet outside the town, along the river, there are several relatively inexpensive lodges where you can unwind for a couple of days, though the setting and wildlife are not as spectacular as that offered by some accommodation further east. Their main appeal is the chance get on the water in a boat, watching the birds flit along the riverbank and soaking up the glorious sunsets. Take note, though, that at the height of the dry season (Sept–Nov), there’s rarely enough water in the river to float a rubber duck, never mind a motorboat.
Rundu itself has little in the way of tourist sights, and is trying hard to shrug off its frontier-town feel: hawkers have been banned from flogging their wares along the pavements – though some are defiantly resisting the “clean-up” – and a fairly swanky new shopping mall, with the predictable South African chain stores, has now replaced the older shops on the main street.
For more local flavour, wander round the open market, laden with fruit and vegetables, on Usivi Road. Or call in at the Mbangura Woodcarvers Cooperative, next door to the Spar supermarket – the Kavango inhabitants of the region are renowned for their woodcarving and here you can see artisans at work. Down at the river, Rundu Beach is another community focal point, where folk wash, play in the water, and party to loud music on the sand.
Mbunza and Mafwe living museums
Two active “living museum” communities give insight into some of the past and present practices of Kavango and Mafwe cultures respectively. On the shores of Lake Samsitu, the Mbunza Living Museum (daily 8am–5pm) offers tours of varying lengths, allowing you to learn about and experience traditional fishing and agricultural techniques, and a whole host of skills, from basketry and mat-weaving to drum-making. Indeed, if crafts are your main interest, you can undertake a craft workshop and focus on making an item to take away with you. The village is located 14km west of Rundu, signposted off the road to Hakusembe Lodge.
The Mafwe Living Museum (daily 8am–5pm), located on a hillside overlooking the scenic Kwando River, offers a similar interactive programme: you can learn how to use an animal trap or weave a fishing net, or go on a bushwalk. The village is signposted north off the B8 just west of Kongola, and is located 19km along the D3509, close to where the Namibian, Angolan and Zambian borders converge.
Tours for both communities cost from N$150/person for a 1hr 30min programme, but you’ll get more out of the experience by committing to the full-day programme (actually only four hours) for N$280. You’ll also find a range of well-made crafts for sale at both locations.
The eastern wetlands
Whereas the larger Zambezi flows inevitably eastwards towards Victoria Falls and ultimately the Indian Ocean, the Chobe River occasionally exhibits a curious phenomenon: on the rare occasions when the upper Zambezi floods, you can witness the Chobe River’s flow being temporarily reversed, as it is forced to run westwards, as well as pushing water into Lake Liambezi, until the floodwaters recede and it resumes its usual course once more, sliding into the Zambezi.
Between the two rivers, west of Impalila, their swampy floodplains extend, laced with deep channels of water lined with high reeds and clumps of papyrus. The area is more populated than you might imagine, with over two thousand Lozi making a living from subsistence farming, hunting and fishing, leading a semi-nomadic existence as they move with the rise and fall of the river levels, seeking higher land when the floodwaters swell (generally from March onwards). Significant quantities of large mammals are returning to the region, and the prolific birdlife is a further draw.