Splendour of the North-east

Photo: Chloe Durr

Splendour of the North-east

12 August 2019 | Tourism

After spending the majority of my life having muzzled the free-spirited artist in me, who loves spontaneous adventure, while living in smog-smudged London, Johannesburg and Cape Town, where I had to conform to rigid, social constructs and cut-throat pressure, I found myself desperately seeking peace and greener pastures when I joined my family in nature-soaked Namibia.

By Chloe Durr

I was even more delighted, when I was recently able to spend time in a region that is enticingly different from the rest of Namibia - that strip, jutting out towards central Africa in the far north-eastern region of Namibia. Nestled between Angola and Botswana and joining borders with Zambia and Zimbabwe, I have come to understand it as a friendly finger pointing at the lush Kavango and Zambezi regions (the latter formerly known as the Caprivi). A water-rich area, offering spectacular views of- and across some of the mightiest rivers in Africa, including the Okavango-, Chobe-, Zambezi- and Kwando-Rivers. The area is teeming with birdlife, wildlife, fish, and boasts with quite spectacular sunsets.

The region is steeped in history and traditional culture, which can be experienced and admired while the villagers continue with daily life unabated. This “wetland paradise” encompassed and interspersed by a complex network of perennial rivers, riverine forests, swamps, expansive floodplains, which are all protected as part of five National Parks, is the perfect place for specialist travelers and adventure-seekers alike.

I have learned the importance of understanding a country by connecting with the people from the grass roots level first and I spent hours communicating with the community literally aided by sign language and in very broken English, in order to understand their traditions and daily lives. They received me graciously into their villages and homes set along the roadsides and rivers. I spent memorable moments dancing in the dust with the children, attempting to carry a bucket of water on my head, knocking off and eating Monkey Brain Fruit from the trees nearby, and running alongside the children as they raced their handmade wire cars along the dust paths. The happy laughter of these children was piercing against the often harsh reality of poverty hidden behind the façades of quaint grass huts.

Day 1 - “Scatterlings of Africa”

Enduring the crisp cold of a Windhoek predawn winter departure, before being warmed by the sound of Johnny Clegg’s “Scatterlings of Africa” on the radio, we travelled for eight hours through ever-changing landscapes along the B8 main road to Rundu, stopping only to view the Hoba Meteorite and refueling at Grootfontein.

The local folk - the Kavango - are friendly people, so at the sight of settlements close to Rundu, the biggest town in the Kavango region, our journey turned into an extended photographic expedition as we waited for cattle and goats to amble across the road, stopped to greet enthusiastic children on their way home from school and paused to view stalls selling wood carvings, handmade clay pots, woven baskets, sheaths of thatching straw and bundles of firewood that are the main sources of domestic income in this region. I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place as I admired the talented craftsmanship whilst trying to turn a blind eye to the obvious destruction and deforestation of the area. But then it needs to be remembered that these people have always lived off the land with their limited consumption never having had a detrimental impact on the woods.

After missing our turnoff, almost running out of fuel and getting lost on the dust road we were received by the warm, welcoming smile of Niko, the manager of the idyllically situated and peaceful Hakusembe River Lodge.

Day 2 - Well Rested

Disoriented by Angolan day light saving, we awoke to the gentle lapping of the Okavango River on the neatly swept white “beach” at Hakusembe River Lodge. Encased in green lawns the thatched cottages nestle alongside otters paddling in the river and diving fish eagles catching fish. Hearing the gentle hum of Angolan voices from across the river reminds one of the rich and diverse cultures living alongside each other in this part of Namibia. As the other guests drifted off in canoes, on fishing trips and on boat cruises, we said our fond farewells and headed to the Mbunza Living Museum eager to learn more about the Kavango culture. It was here that the true signs of the recent drought became apparent. After spending time learning how to weave baskets, pound Mahangu (millet), play on traditional music instruments and trying my hand at shooting a bow and arrow, I sat on an overturned Mokoro on dry land at the edge of what would usually have been the Samsitu Lake, whilst listening to the voices of the Mbuza people dancing and praying for rain.

When driving from Rundu to Divundu there are two routes to choose from - the Kavango Open Africa Route (KOAR) along the gravel road (D3402) or the tar main road (B8). The former is the longer, more scenic route along the Okavango River, offering further perspectives of rural life and expansive views. We decided to save the scenic route for the journey home (which did not disappoint) and travelled along the B8 to Rundu.

(Tip: Refuel in Rundu as fuel in Divundu is sporadic).

On our journey to Divundu we were captivated by the changing styles of fringed huts, the lifestyle and the villagers living in rural settlements. We couldn’t resist stopping to talk to a group of adults taking a literacy class under a Baobab tree and chatting to groups of children balancing buckets of water on their tiny heads. I found myself constantly having to remind myself that I was in Namibia as the changing landscape brought back fleeting memories of time spent in Kenya, Mozambique, Zambia and in Zimbabwe.

There are many lodges, bungalow establishments and campsites dotted along the northern rivers, most of which offer sundowner boat cruises, fishing expeditions, canoeing, and other ways to experience the waterways. We stayed at the Popa Falls Resort of Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR), where we luxuriated in the sunset-reflections on the Okavango River from our private deck and fell asleep to the sound of the Popa Rapids cascading almost on our doorstep. Another magical day in Africa!

Day 3 - “Paradise Found”

I woke up before sunrise, camera in hand, ready to explore the bridges and trails leading to the Popa Falls and found myself unknowingly meandering in a riverine forest on a hippo track.

After a head-on meeting with a hippo I took a cruise to the Popa Falls to relax my nerves. The captain of the boat, Kapinga, also known as Klaus (which name was given to him by the German priest on the day of his baptism), was a fountain of knowledge. He pointed out spectacular birds and Popa trees, used in the Hambushu culture to heal sore eyes, to stop bleeding noses and to rid one of bad spirits, and he discussed the military landmarks of the border war of the past.

After taking a game drive, late afternoon being the best time, through the Buffalo Core Area of the Bwabwata National Park and exploring the overgrown ruins of the 32 Battalion army base, we arrived in Katima Mulilo- the capitol of the Zambezi Region. We visited Major Trollop’s Baobab-Tree-Prison with water-flushing toilet and explored the Katima Mulilo Open Market. Other than views of the Great Zambezi River, Katima Mulilo is more a fuel-and-supply-stop than a destination. That being said, there are accommodation options in the area that offer spectacular birding opportunities, sunset views and are a great stop over en-route to Victoria Falls and the Impalila Islands.

Traveling 24km east of Katima Mulilo we saw villagers, draped in local fabrics, diligently tending their neatly planted crops along the river’s edge. We arrived at Caprivi Mutoya Lodge, on the banks of the Zambezi backwaters, to rest under large indigenous trees filled with a menagerie of birds and hundreds of Starlings. We were met by Zina, the Lodge owner, who upon welcoming us handed us life vests and ushered us to the river to enjoy a sunset canoe trip. Cautious of the hippo we hugged the water’s edge and paddled gently alongside the reeds. The water looked like satin and the sunset was at its glorious best as we watched African Jacana tiptoeing on blooming water lily pads and gazed at kingfishers flying over our heads, whilst cows grazed lazily on the water’s edge with their clinking cow bells echoing into the distance. Silhouettes of villagers fishing in their Mokoros (hollowed out tree stumps shaped into canoes) surrounded us as their fishing nets glistened like golden threads on the water. We floated home pointing the canoe towards the flickering light of the Mutoya campfire and the aroma of home-cooked food. We had found paradise, the opportunity of a fishing expedition, a day trip to see the wildlife of Chobe, all crowned by excellent, personal service.

Day 4 - “I will go anywhere, provided it be forward” (David Livingstone)

After a restful sleep I strapped my camera to the handlebars of a bicycle and set off on an early morning ride to explore the forest and the surrounding villages. I found myself drawn to the river once more to assist the locals in watering their crops. Whilst gesticulating wildly I slipped on a muddy bank and landed face first in the mud and I realized then, that all communication barriers disappear when laughing together.

We arrived at nightfall at Livingstone’s Camp on the edge of Nkasa Rupara National Park where we met the manager, Jörg. We arrived unannounced on his veranda, whilst he was sipping a cocktail and surveying the wetland pans for game, but he welcomed us with open arms and a Namibian beer. We were unable to immediately settle into our elephant-riddled campsite and so spent time next to a crackling pizza oven fire listening to stories about David Livingstone’s adventures in the area. Eventually we were able to go to our well-equipped campsite, too exhausted to do more than pitch our tent, when Jörg arrived out of the pitch darkness with a homemade pizza in hand announcing: “Your starters have arrived!”

Day 5 - A driving lesson

In the morning we unzipped our tent to unveil a peaceful expanse of the golden wetland pan that lay before us and sat in perfect peace watching Lechwe basking in the morning sun. Livingstone campsite is one of the classiest campsites I have visited; porcelain sinks, brass taps and immaculately clean private ablution facilities. We picked Jörgs brain to gain wisdom from the wealth of his tour-guide knowledge-bank, and learned that the best way to travel the Zambezi region is by word of mouth. Jörg furnished us with a list of contacts and sent us on our way. To learn more about Livingstone’s travels in the region visit the Livingstone museum not far from the Livingstone Campsite.

I’ve accepted that I am not a good driver, but travelling off-road to the Mashi River Swamps, whilst forgetting to put the car in all-wheel drive, is my most embarrassing driving experience yet. I got the truck wheels submerged in the sand and after digging, pushing, and fruitlessly trying out the equipment at hand I had to walk through game-infested territory to find help. I returned after one hour with savior Dan Stephens in tow.

We reached Mavunje Campsite long before schedule but decided to unwind and enjoy the well-designed and comfortable camping site. Dan Stephens is renowned for his Mashi River Safari Cruise and it was the most exhilarating wildlife experience I have ever had - a highlight of my Caprivi experience. We saw breeding herds of elephant swimming meters away from our boat, large pods of Hippopotami charging into the water and a wealth of exquisite birds. Dan’s understanding of the river and animal behavior kept us all at perfect ease. He is the perfect example of how living out one’s passion in a career makes for a successful business, and I look forward to joining him on a River Safari in the future.

Mavunje Campsite was our base for two nights as we spent time exploring the Kwando/Suswe Core area of the Bwabwata National Park, teeming with game, savoring banana cake and coffee at the Roadside Coffee Shop in Kongola, visiting Living Museums and admiring the crafts for sale at Mashi Craft Centre. The handmade products available are of superior quality and created by craftspeople from the area earning from the sale of their work.

Day 6: A Gift for my Mama

Returning back home, my surprise gift to my mother and unscheduled stay at Riverdance Lodge was the perfect way to spend the last night in the erstwhile Caprivi Strip. Pascale and Chris, a Swiss couple, have recently bought the lodge and have turned it into the perfect “Home in Africa” experience. From a massage enjoyed on the banks of the river, sunrise Yoga, tasty meals and a wonderfully comfortable room with a bathtub open to the tree canopy hanging over the dancing Okavango River, it was a heavenly stay.

The lesson I have learned whilst travelling the Zambezi Region (Caprivi) is that one needs time: Time in the National Parks to travel the expanses and to enjoy the wildlife sightings - time to travel the waterways and enjoy the birdlife - time to wait patiently on the rivers to fully experience the changing light and wait for the tiger fish to bite - time to visit the Living Museums and the Craft Centers - time to engage with the locals to fully appreciate the depth of their traditions and culture - time to travel from destination to destination on sandy roads regularly crossed by herds of goats and cattle or even wildlife. Time to enjoy the heartbeat of the Caprivi, which is governed by nature only.

Whether during the rainy season or in times of drought, the Kavango and Zambezi Regions offer a canvas of experiences: wildlife viewing, birding, fishing, boating, cruising and a gamut of accommodation options to choose from. And it offers the perfect stopovers on your route to neighboring countries.

Note to Self:

- Continue to dream about the Riverdance Swiss chocolate cake

- White shirts are not conducive to the accident-prone - wear black

- Carry cash - international credit cards don’t always work

- Drink water without advice and suffer the consequences

- Say goodbye to the formerly faithful Google Maps - you will be directed through huge rivers and illegal border crossings

- Avoid getting disorientated by Angolan daylight saving - set your cell’s service provider manually

- Practice self-restraint and stick to the limit of purchasing a maximum of five wooden sculptures, as they will end up being confiscated at a checkpoint

- If you find yourself lost at Rundu beach, grab a bite to eat from Tambuti Lodge- they also know a thing or two about giving directions

- Next visit be sure to fit in a Breakfast Boat cruise at Mahango Lodge (book in advance)

- Keep a constant vigilance on the petrol gauge- not all towns sell fuel

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