The hidden magic of Namibia’s north-east

02 July 2018 | Tourism

Whether you prefer to go on a relaxing or more adventurous holiday, the Kavango East and Zambezi regions, with their rivers and abundance of beautiful sights and sounds, hold something for everybody’s taste.

Access to these areas is warranted by tar roads, which are in pretty good condition. Once there, you can still leave these main access roads and turn off onto plenty of winding and sometimes tricky 4x4 tracks. So whichever you prefer, going to the North-East is a great destination for all.

Join our itinerary and get a feel of what you can do:

Day 1: Arriving at the Okavango River

We spent the first night at Ngepi Camp on the Okavango River, where we were immediately treated to a cascade of birds and insects, whose noise became so much more conspicuous once we switched off the engine. A subtle reminder of the river’s power as a giver of life.

Ngepi has been around since 1987, making it a well-established tourist destination, which can rely on a very loyal client base that returns time and again to enjoy the rustic and laid-back river atmosphere. To add some spice, the visitor can look forward to some quirky sign posts, with beautiful camping spots and ablutions situated right next to the river. Trust me, the ablutions are an art exhibition - and probably offer the only 'self-guided' ablution tour in Namibia.

Having arrived late in the afternoon we set up camp and almost immediately got treated to the sound of hippos snorting, grunting and splashing unseen behind a sandbank. A sound we soon got very used to. As an added welcome we heard the trumpeting of elephants just before sunset and we were just able to make out the shape of one animal walking towards the water on the opposite river bank, before darkness fell. With the sound of elephants playing in the water interspersed with trumpeting and their unique, deep rumbling emanating from across the water in the cool night air as we prepared our braai, we immediately transcended into a different zone, far removed from the daily grind typical of Windhoek.

Day 2: Mahango and Buffalo Core Areas

Waking up on the first morning the entire river was blanketed in a thick fog arising from the difference in temperatures of the cold air and the much warmer river water. The onlooker is treated to a fairy book-like atmosphere, when looking at the foggy river and surrounding lush vegetation, while the bright, orange sun starts rising and its red rays start bouncing off the fog particles, thus creating a warm glow. The fog gradually disappears around eight o’clock when the sun musters up enough heat to win the battle between the two.

The bank of the Okavango River south of Divundu not only offers great accommodation with its various lodges situated in this general area, but also serves as great starting point, for visitors going further east into the long stretch of the Zambezi Region (previously known as Caprivi). It also holds its own in terms of spectacular wildlife, particularly in the Mahango and Buffalo Core Areas, which form part of Bwabwata National Park and are set on opposite sides of the river. Although both core areas are small and can easily be visited in a day, visitors will enjoy better sightings, the more time they spend here. In one day we were fortunate enough to view roan, bushbuck, red lechwe, leopard, hippo and loads of elephants, apart from the more regular game. Both core areas also extend inland, but most game will be seen on the tracks that follow the river. Be sure to take your time as patience is rewarded more often than not, resulting in you spotting game. On one occasion we sat viewing elephants, which were drinking water, when an entire herd of lechwes exited from behind some bushes and passed right in front of the car approaching the water, providing us with some prime photo opportunities.

Close to the water life is abundant and it goes without saying that apart from seeing a variety and large number of game, the area can be described as “birding paradise”. More than 450 bird species have been recorded in the Mahango Game Park (this representing almost half of the number of species in the whole of southern Africa). Visitors are permanently bombarded by the various sounds of birds from everywhere and every so often the majestic call of the king of the river, the fish eagle.

Day 3: Popa Falls

The second night at the river was just as rewarding as the first. Apart from the calls of hippos and elephants, we heard the call of hyenas and even the deep, blood-curdling roar of a lion as we cuddled in our warm sleeping bags, away from the cold of the early morning hours.

With the temperature dipping to 4°Celsius at dawn, it’s not easy getting out of bed, but the busy hissing of the gas burner heating up the kettle - the joy of travelling with someone, who is willing do get up before you -, has you looking forward to some hot coffee and makes getting up worthwhile. Soon the temperature rose and we spent the morning sipping coffee and watching hippos through binoculars, sunning themselves on the sandbank opposite our campsite.

Once properly defrosted, we packed up quickly and headed for the Popa Falls Game Park a short distance away. Namibia’s smallest game park only covers 0.25 km². The actual Popa Falls are probably better described as larger type rapids, but they remain the park’s biggest attraction, apart from the fact that it also houses the NWR Popa Falls Resort. So, while the name may give the four metre high series of rapids a bit more credit than is due, they remain a “must see”. The falls formation is attributable to a quartzite ledge that dissects river-bed, thereby creating the rapids. To get the best view of these rapids, go the resort’s jetty bar that overlooks the falls and enjoy the sight and sound while enjoying a relaxing drink.

Bwabwata National Park

From here we set out further east towards the town of Kongola. The drive takes you through the Bwabwata Park for almost 200 km, passing through its game exclusive core areas as well as the multiple-use areas, where villagers live and make a living in this protected area. One of the main accomplishments of the park and specifically the multiple-use areas, are that its human and wildlife residents are able to cohabitate. The status quo allows for both conservation as well as rural community development, the idea being that the long term conservation initiatives provide quality of life to the local residents and thus result in a strong relationship between the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and local conservancies, who serve as joint managers.

After a rather uneventful drive through the park (we were hoping to spot some African wild dog) we arrived at one of the campsites that is lesser known, but definitely one of the best along the Kwando River. Situated about 12 km south of Kongola on the C49 an unassuming sign indicates the turn-off to the Mavunje camp. Following a rather conspicuous small track - which makes you wonder if you are heading in the right direction - the road suddenly ends at a sign, which prompts you to “hoot 3 times”. It says: “If no one appears after 5 minutes, open a beer and go for a walk.” However, we did not have to wait that long and were shown to our campsite. Mavunje only has three campsites but each is situated on the bank of the river with stunning views of the flood plains. Each site has its kitchen, dining area, and ablutions. The underground of the fire area and each building comprises of superb white-washed river sand, this serving as the floor. Staying here offers a real authentic and intimate bush experience.

Day 4: Kwando Core Area

We woke up, to find that our three-legged Potjie, which we had left standing full of yummy lamb at the end of the previous evening, overturned and empty, with the culprit remaining unknown. We struggled to find any tracks of a bigger animal or even that of a jackal. Instead we only found tiny cat-like prints. Not so much annoyed than impressed by the strength of this tiny creature, we packed up and left for the Kwando Core Area, which is also part of Bwabwata.

The Kwando core area lies along the Kwando floodplains. Driving along the river over its ancient vegetated sand dunes allows for beautiful sights of the complex river system and the animals grazing in the marshy area. The park is rich in fauna and flora and apart from rare animals such as the African wild dog, reedbuck, sitatunga and puku, it also prides itself of being home to nearly 200 different kinds of plants, shrubs and trees.

We were lucky enough to see three large crocodiles lazily soaking up the sun's rays on a chilly morning. Not much further along the track we noticed a fish eagle lying uncomfortably on the water. Intrigued by this sight we observed it through our binoculars. Instead of flying away, it started swimming towards the river bank. To our surprise, as it reached dry ground it flew for about a meter onto higher ground, holding on to a huge fish with its talons.

Impressed by our mornings sightings, we had a quick lunch at the well-known “horse shoe”, which is a bend in the river akin to that shape, before we headed back to the east side of the river and onwards to Mudumu National Park.

Mudumu National Park

Mudumu is situated roughly 30km south of Kongola and lies across the main road that leads to Sangwali. It is nestled between the Mashi and Balyerwa conservancies. The landscape is completely flat which provides for great game viewing over the floodplain and its grasslands as well as the river on the eastern border. The Mopane woodland which runs through the park is a further impressive feature with these Mopane trees being different to the usual sight, especially if compared to those of the Kunene region: Tall and thin, they look like a different species.

We camped there for the night. With its three simple campsites all overlooking the river, this is one of the best places to camp in Namibia. The campsites are unfenced and far apart from one another allowing one to fully experience the wilderness. This is wild camping at its perfection. Be aware that there are no facilities at these campsites and therefore you will have to be self-reliant in all provisions. The only existing facility is a scary-looking pit toilet that one is probably well advised to stay clear off. Also remember that this area literally running over with dangerous wildlife, so the visitor needs to be wary at all times. But it is something that truly appeals to the more adventurous amongst us. In our case, we were treated to a large heard of more than 30 elephants drinking from the river just a few hundred metres from our campsite.

Day5: Boat Cruise on the Zambezi

Keen to get out on the water we go on a boat cruise with Caprivi Adventures. Basically a one-stop shop for activities in and around Katima Mulilo as well as the wider region. Caprivi Adventures offer activities that range from birding, fishing and sightseeing cruises, game drives, walks and camping, going as far as offering day trips to Victoria Falls and other attractions in the greater, adjacent area.

We drove along the C49 to get to Katima Mulilo, where we got on the boat and acquainted ourselves with our skipper and excellent guide, Jurie. Once out on the water, Jurie pointed out birds and other wildlife in the Zambezi River and along its banks. In that manner he also presented the typical bee-eater nests which the little birds construct in the vertical sand banks of the river.

The best part of the cruise was the braai, which was skilfully prepared on the boat. Having lunch on the Zambezi is definitely an experience that will not soon be forgotten. With bellies full of deliciously braaied meat, we headed back along the C49, heading towards our last night’s stay at Rupara Campsite. The campsite is situated on the bank of one of the channels in the Kwando-Linyanti river system and just 3 km outside the Nkasa Rupara National Park, which makes it a great place to stay at when exploring the park.

Day 6: Nkasa Rupara National Park

We made sure that we arrived at the park reception of Nkasa Rupara at first light. While paying our park fees we were told by the ranger, that only Rupara Island is accessible at the moment due to deep channels blocking the track to Nkasa Island. This is true more often than not and the whole park is only accessible during very dry periods. The area here is so flat that up to 80% of the park is flooded at the height of the Kwando’s annual flood.

Nkasa Rupara used to be known as Mamili National Park and was renamed in 2012. The park comprises of some of Namibia’s most extensive wetlands and most of the park consists of channels, reed beds, lagoons and the two main islands of Nkasa and Rupara, which gave the park its new name. This is the point at which the Kwando River becomes the Linyanti River. Much investment, both in terms of infrastructure as well as integrated park management systems, has been placed into this park and other parks in the area, thanks to the Namparks project of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism in partnership with the German Development Corporation (GIZ).

Our drive around Rupara island offered an exciting sighting of elephants, loads of impala and lechwe and even the elusive sititunga, which was a great parting gift before setting off on our return journey to Windhoek.

Although you get to experience a lot in six days, it is advisable to spend more time in the area to fully explore this part of Namibia as well as having time to appreciate the smaller things that are often overlooked when on a tight schedule. Returning back home from the north-east you might be surprised by the fact that the ever-present noises related to the river, when turning in in the evenings - especially the sound of the hippos splashing and grunting close-by - is what you miss most, when suddenly you cannot hear them anymore.

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