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Exploring the Zambezi River floodplains in full flood

Towards the end of March 2020 we heard the surprising news about Covid-19 but didn’t actually realise the extent of the impact on Tourism and the local communities like Impalila Island.
Locals living on Impalila had to take a local mokoro or taxi boats to Katima to source their weekly supplies but at a high cost too.

ABOUT IMPALILA AND ITS FLOODPLAINS


Impalila is an island at the far eastern tip of Namibia, bounded on the north by the waters of the Zambezi river and on the south by the Chobe River and home to 3000+ people spread between 25 small villages. Every year, Africa’s Zambezi and Chobe rivers swell with seasonal rain, causing the rivers to overflow into broad floodplains. 2020 was no exception. Huge areas in the eastern Zambezi region were under water as the Zambezi burst over its banks and flooded low-lying areas. The people living in these areas now become islanders as hundreds of square kilometres are covered in water. Some communities had to evacuate as their homes flooded, cattle herded to safer areas until the water drains again.

SO WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU ARE STRANDED ON AN ISLAND LIKE IMPALILA?

We were actually quite fortunate to explore the shortcuts the floodplains opened up for us, through the Kazika & Kasaii Channels, giving us access right into the Zambezi River. We had access to a privately owned barge which was used to transport vehicles and building materials from Kasane to the island regularly. Before sunrise we would venture down to the harbour with our camping chairs, weber braai, gazebo, food & refreshments and even a porta potty and get ready for a full day of floating down the Zambezi/Chobe river. The abundance of wildlife was a special treat as animals slowly started coming out without the threat of tourists around. We went places that most tourists would never see during their holidays, sunrises and sunsets proved more spectacular by the day. Water lillies bloomed like never before, whilst hippos chomped happily on their mass cuisine. Elephants played in the water a few metres away from our boat, some attempting deeper waters with only their “snorkels” sticking out. Crocodiles basked lazily in the sun and photographic opportunities became more frequent than before.

Elephant Bay at Chobe National Park became a playground for many animals, monkeys teasing antelope, playfully romping with each other, baboons overseeing the activities and baby elephants being brought safely to the water’s edge for a drink, water buffalo roaming closely by. The cry of the fish eagle perched high up on a tree, secretary birds nestling in trees in the middle of the Chobe River.

We also managed to get up close to see the construction of the new Kazungula Bridge – a road and rail bridge over the Zambezi river between the countries of Zambia and Botswana which will replace the existing ferry.

During the rainy season the flow of the Zambezi River pushes upstream to make the Chobe River flow West. The fish breed in shallow water during the delta’s May to August flood season, returning to the main channels from September to March and every effort is made to preserve the ecosystem. Sadly, we noticed local residents use small nets in the conservancies to catch the juvenile tigerfish which tourists would normally come to catch and release later in the year.

One Sunday we decided to do a game drive on the actual island. Measuring only 12 kilometers long and 6 kilometers wide, it is here where it is possible to stand and see four countries – Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana. Elephants cross the Chobe River from Kasane regularly and on this day we were treated to a parade of elephants and witnessed the devastation they cause to the trees when moving around. Several times we had to reverse to get away from a group blocking the roads and squeeze between smaller trees to get away. Locals also had to divert many times when walking on the island.

Flood levels rose considerably and we had to monitor the levels at the lodge daily, but fortunately it reached a happy level just above the previous flood level marked. However, a resident hippo made use of the rising level to lay on an embankment below one of the tents every afternoon which made for good entertainment as he eyed us out lazily.
By mid-July we decided to try to get off the island with a vehicle as the floodplains slowly showed signs of drying. We put a vehicle on the barge and headed towards the Kasika Conservancy where the usual road to Katima was normally accessed. An ill-fated decision to take a shortcut managed to get us stuck in the deepest mud for 9 hours whilst we tried to find 2 tractors to eventually pull us out of the mess. We decided to go back to the lodge and try again 2 weeks later. Eventually we put our vehicle on a barge at 4am one morning and sailed slowly down the Zambezi River to Katima, freedom after almost 5 months!

Where to stay on Impalila Island
Kaza Safari Lodge – a stunning, recently renovated lodge placed protectively under the branches of an ancient giant baobab tree. En-suite chalets each with their own private splash pool overlooking the world famous Mambova rapids on the Zambezi river.

Chobe Water Villas – offering water villas on the river with the most spectacular game viewing

Ichingo Chobe River Lodge – safari tents nestled between the forests with access to tiger fishing and game viewing

Caprivi Houseboats on the banks of the Zambezi River offer a rooftop tent on a houseboat with your own private skipper/chef. Board in Katima and drift all the way to the Chobe National Park for the ultimate game viewing experience. They also offer a beautiful camp site, restaurant & wifi available. Curt and his son are most hospitable too.

Vision – hopefully the future plans allow better access for locals during the flood season by completing the air strip on the island which will allow supplies to be dropped off. A central Co-Operative needs to be built on the island where the communities can purchase their daily supplies instead of having to pay taxis charging exhorbitant fees. To see these locals suffering during these Covid-19 and flood times is heartbreaking.

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