Words by Patrick Cruywagen Pictures by Patrick Cruywagen and Ali Cole
If I asked you to name the four national parks of Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, would you be able to? Probably not hey! Both virgin and veteran Nam travellers normally head for the Fish River Canyon, Sossusvlei, Etosha National Park or the big dunes of the Namib Naukluft Park. Not the Caprivi Strip.
Say the word Namibia and I think of wide open spaces, monster dunes, the cold Atlantic Ocean, stinky seals, creamy oysters and gemsbok steaks. Say the word Caprivi and I think of lush green vegetation, more water and flowing rivers than the rest of Namibia put together, massive herds of wild animals and most of all solitude – more often than not you have the place to yourself, especially if you’re visiting in the rainy season, just after Christmas as we did.
Let me try and put the solitude thing in perspective for you. How often do you visit four national parks in a row and on each occasion you’re the only paying customer in the park? It’s like having your own personal park. Well, you have to pay 30 bucks to get in, but that’s the most nominal of fee for such a great wildlife experience.
When I meet new people and they hear what I do the most commonly asked question is what’s been my best trip or where’s my favourite place. When I answer that I don’t have a favourite, they’re always disappointed. To me travel is about memorable encounters or experiences. I hate crowds, traffic and queues so I became an African travel journalist. I love open spaces, the bush, driving a 4×4 and a cold beer at the end of the day. Our evening camping at Nambwa, a 4×4-only community campsite situated on the western bank of the Kwando River, is one such memorable travel experience. We’d just returned from a game drive in the Bwabwata East NP where we sat somewhere along the banks of the famous horseshoe lagoon. You don’t have to go looking for animals there – they come to you. Just as the sun was about to greet us the weather turned.
Fluffy white clouds turned a nasty, heavy grey and millions of litres of water headed earthwards so we headed back to the campsite. No-one wanted to climb out of our comfortable Jeep Grand Cherokee but I had to in order to secure my tent, which I hadn’t secured properly, and which as a result was threatening to end up in the Kwando River. The rain continued all night long but we still made a fire, cooked a delicious meal on it and enjoyed the lovely setting.
Many city dwellers would cringe at the prospect of camping in the rain, never mind trying to cook on a fire at the same time. Never complain about the rain, especially when you live on such a dry continent. Okay, the fact that we had decent waterproof tents helped a little. The roaring fire, good food and company, sounds of the animals and cold beer made us immune to the rain drops.
The next morning I woke to the sunrise over the river and a troop of vervet monkeys trying to find some food in our empty rice pot. They were naughty buggers, peeing and pooping on our tents and chairs. As I looked about at the damage caused by the night’s storm I noticed hippo tracks everywhere, some only a few feet from one of the tents. Namibia’s Caprivi Strip has a fascinating history. Most 40-something South African males remember it for the army bases located there during the bush war. These include Fort Doppies and 32BN’s infamous Buffalo Base. The history of the unusual looking pointy bit of land that pokes out of the NE corner of Namibia stretches back a lot further than that though. When Germany annexed Namibia (known as South West Africa back then) in 1884 the British feared that they would openly support the Boers and so the Brits proclaimed the Protectorate of Bechuanaland – present-day Botswana. During the 1890 Berlin Conference, Britain and Germany reorganised their African interests. Britain chopped the Caprivi Strip off Bechuanaland and gave it to the Germans in exchange for Zanzibar. A game of ping-pong ensued after WW1 when Britain again took control of it before returning it to South West Africa in 1929, which was by then under South African rule. During the 90s the Namibian government’s open support for and housing of Angola’s MPLA destabilised the region and it all came to a head in 1999 when some French tourists were killed in the Caprivi.
Today the area is peaceful again, so much so that animal numbers in the region’s four national parks are increasing steadily. We entered the Caprivi via the panhandle of the Delta, crossing from the Botswana into Namibia at the Mohembo border post. Straight away you know you’re in a special place as the tar stops and you’re on Namibian gravel, which is better than most tar roads in Africa.
The international border is also the border of the first of the four parks which we plan to visit, namely the Mahango National Park. Road signs warn of elephants and warthog, confirming that this is a wildlife area. There are two drives one can do in the park – the western one is longer and 4×4-only but I listen to the advice of the park receptionist to whom we paid our R30 per person fee and R10 for the Jeep. “Don’t do the whole of the western track as there are no animals there and you’ll just waste your petrol. If you want to do a part of it only go as far as the water hole and come back along the same section. Yesterday someone saw a lion on the main track,” she informs us. Within seconds of taking the 4×4 track we’re confronted by black cotton soil and mud, but we’re able to take the chicken runs and avoid getting stuck. The receptionist has it all wrong as we’re greeted by a herd of wildebeest and zebra.
A few male kudus are hiding behind a bush and a little further down the track we find the females. After about 40 minutes we reach the waterhole and there are no animals here, which is to be expected with all the rain about. Instead of turning back we explore the rest of the 4×4 track – it’s overgrown, full of holes, sandy in sections and muddy in others. We’re on our own and decide against driving the whole thing, opting to return towards the main road. The other drive is the 2WD-friendly eastern road which runs all along the Okavango River, making it the more popular of the two. A large herd of red lechwe have decided to sit down next to the water and they barely budge as we crawl by.
I can see why this is the more popular of the tracks as between the lush riverine vegetation are papyrus-lined channels, just like one gets in Botswana’s Delta. The kind of terrain that all types of antelope, hippo, crocs and elephants just love to hang out in. Before reaching our lunchtime picnic spot we stop at the massive baobab tree which is marked on the map they give you at reception. Here the kettle comes out and we make a hot pot of tea while taking a look around. On the other side of the river we see two hippos that have left the water to get some food.
During our stay in the western sector of the Caprivi we based ourselves at the very popular Ngepi Camp for two nights. I’ve have stayed here in the past and just love the sense of humour evidenced on all the signage; what’s more the ablution facilities are among the best in Africa. Much thought and love has gone into the construction of this place, to preserve the natural look and feel. They have a rather long stretch of river frontage so no matter which accommodation option you decide on, you’ll have your own little stretch of river to enjoy. From Ngepi you can do game drives to Mahango National Park or visit the nearby Popa Falls. There are also several activities on offer, such as mokorro trips, fishing trips and toilet tours – enough to keep you busy for a few days. Once across the Okavango River we head east along the B8, a tar road. We allow ourselves a quick stop at the old 32BN base which today falls within the Bwabwata West National Park. This side of the park is ironically known as Buffalo, which was the name of the old base and also the nickname of the battalion. The base has been knocked down, but some ruins remain. One local scribbled the following advice on the walls: “No education, no development. Come to school to find it. Make your mind awaken.” Ngepi, where we’ve just come from, lies on the other side of the river; while we were there we were told that they often they see the animals from Buffalo, especially in the evenings and early morning.
We’re unable to drive from one side of the park to the other so we have to backtrack to the main road again to make our way to the eastern side of the park and our campsite at Nambwa where we spent the most memorable night on the banks of the Kwando River. We leave here and head for the eastern side of the Kwando River, where we base ourselves at the popular Camp Kwando, from where we hope to launch our assault on the area’s final two parks. There has been much rain but still we try and head to Mudumu National Park which has the Kwando River as its western boundary. It’s a small park known for its buffalo, roan and sable antelope. Buffalo, as you know, are not very common in Namibia so we’re excited. This excitement is short-lived as just reaching the scout camp at Nakatwa is tough going; we have to cross lots of water and mud but we make it in the end.
On the wall in the little office where we pay our entry fees I see a sign that says that during their recent animal count they recorded 12 lion; another reason not to get stuck in the mud – walking to get help won’t be fun. They can’t tell me about road conditions and water levels but suggest we nevertheless try to drive to Nakatwa’s Island. Within minutes of leaving the reception area and hitting the trail I realise that trying to drive through big water on one’s own isn’t the smartest thing to do so we head back to the main track. There’s still one park to go, Mamili, where many a South African has gotten stuck or even lost an engine to the big water.
I decide to ask Johan Liebenberg, one of the owners of Camp Kwando, for some help. Johan has done dozens of recoveries in the park and knows the place better than most; he’s been coming to Mamili for over a decade and has noticed how it has changed over time. “Today only about a third of the park is accessible by 4×4. After the big floods of 2009, massive parts of the park have been covered in water so you need a boat to access them,” explains Johan. We decide to give our Jeep a break and take Johan’s vehicle instead. Getting into the park has been made a whole lot easier since my last visit; the two old mopani pole bridges have been replaced by proper steel ones. Mamili is one of the lesser-known parks of Africa and Namibia and it was only a few years ago that they were receiving around 100 visitors a year.
However the area has enjoyed lots of press of late and visitor numbers are starting to pick up. This spot enjoys the reputation of being a wild and adventurous place to visit, one where if you find a good spot to camp, you may do just that. From May onwards the place starts to dry a little; from then till the summer rains start again is the best time to visit. I glance at my GPS to see if the road we are on is on Tracks4Africa; it isn’t – a good sign! This is the rainy season and there is water all about so Johan has to guide us along the driest route. “The downside about this time of the year is that you don’t see a lot of game. Still there is a magic and uniqueness to it,” says Johan. We still manage to see a massive herd of buffalo and what I call the usual game such as zebra, impala, kudu and some red lechwe.
The park is home to over 430 species of bird and we are very fortunate to spot three Wattled Cranes, which are severely under threat and known to visit these areas during the wet season. Johan points out the spot where two male hippos fought to the death a few months ago, over ladies of course. We can still smell the rotting carcasses and move on to avoid the stench. I make a mental note to come back to Mamili during the dry season and spend a week here so that Johan can take me to the watery parts of the park via boat, so that I can camp in the wild and see more of the massive herds of elephant, red lechwe and buffalo. Just like during a good night out in Las Vegas, we’re running out of strip so our last stop is just outside of Katima Mulilo, where we find another great river, the Zambezi.
This time we take to the water on what they call a houseboat but what I call a floating 4×4 as it has two rooftop tents. If we had a week we would float all the way down to the Chobe National Park and spend a few days there, but we’ll only be spending one night on the water so we find a nice white beach on which to run aground and make a fire. We might not be in a national park but the hippo tracks remind us that this is still a wilderness area. As the mopani wood fire crackles away that night it’s time to reflect on what’s been an epic crossing of the Caprivi, during which we visited four affordable parks. We poled, paddled and powered our way down some great rivers: the Okavango, Kwando, Linyanti and the Zambezi. At other times we just parked off alongside the big water and watched the lightning or the ever-changing sky. Pass me another Windhoek please honey, I’ve developed a thirst for this paradise.