Exploring the national parks of the Zambezi Region

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Text Sharri Whiting De Masi | Photos Paul van Schalkwyk

Imagine a pointing index finger, more than 500 kilometres long and 32 kilometres wide. This giant digit is attached to a huge fist, a landmass punctuated with soaring sand dunes and oceans of desert. Surround the finger with rivers— the mighty Zambezi, the Chobe, Linyanti—and you have the Zambezi Region, a water-rich extremity shooting from the north-eastern corner of Namibia like an arrow into the heart of Africa 

N amibia’s original German colonists wanted a way to reach the Zambezi River and in the 1890s negotiated a complicated treaty with the British for the land. But for generations, the former Caprivi was incredibly difficult to reach.  Access to this remote region of the German colony in the early years was via an arduous, roundabout route—overland from Windhoek to Swakopmund, then by ship to Cape Town, by train across South Africa and through the then western Rhodesia via Livingstone, and finally by river to Sesheke and the old capital at Schuckmannsburg.

Nowadays it’s possible to drive easily from Walvis Bay on the Atlantic Coast to join the 500-kilometre Trans-­Caprivi Highway, stopping off at the national parks in the Zambezi, and continuing to Victoria Falls and beyond. This road, which opened up trade across Southern Africa, also vastly expanded tourism to Namibia and its neighbours Zimbabwe, Angola, Zambia and Botswana.
There are five national parks and reserves in and adjacent to today’s Zambezi Region, each offering travellers the opportunity to see a different part of this fascina­ting area. The Zambezi Region is Namibia’s wetland paradise, as it embraces four perennial rivers—the Chobe, Kwando, Linyanti and Zambezi.

The Khaudum National Park on Namibia’s border with Botswana is a densely wooded ‘forgotten wilderness’ near the beginning of the Zambezi Region.  This 320 000-hectare park is home to more than 300 bird species and mammals such as elephant, giraffe, lion, leopard, hyaena, jackal and African wild dog. This is an important undisturbed conservation area and is challenging for adventure travellers. The best time to visit is during the dry winter months, June to October. A minimum of two four-wheel-drive vehicles must be used per party, and provisions for three days and 100 litres of water per vehicle per day must be taken. Fuel is available only at Bagani, Divundu, Mukwe and Rundu in the Kavango Region. There are two tourist camps with basic facilities in the park, as well as twelve artificial waterholes and two natural springs, all of which can be reached via the two-track roads that interlink the entire park. Most of the water­holes have hides, from which game can be viewed safely. A trip to the Khaudum can be combined with a visit to local Bushman settlements.

The former Mahango Game Reserve, which was incorporated into the game-rich Bwabwata National Park proclaimed in 2007, is located on the western bank of the perennial Okavango River, with the Popa Falls close by.

elephant
Elephants regularly migrate through the Khaudum National Park
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Bwabwata National Park is home to a variety of antelope, including kudu
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Over 430 species of birds have been sighted in the Mudumu National Park
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The tiger fish is a sought-after trophy in the Zambezi

The 25 400-hectare park is off the beaten track, and has a true wilderness feel. While year-round water ensures an abundance of game, during the dry winter months—April–November—your chance of seeing game is higher, as the animals seek out the river and waterholes. Mahango is home to a variety of antelope, including roan, sable, reedbuck, tsessebe, sitatunga, red lechwe, kudu, Chobe bushbuck, duiker and steenbok. In addition, there are elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog, hippopotamus, crocodile, warthog, baboon and vervet monkey. Large herds of elephants migrate through the park on a trek between Angola and the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Mammal sightings are best during the dry season (April–November), while the wet months (November–March) are ideal for bird-watching—there are more than 400 bird species in the Mahango. It is an undeveloped area and walking trips should be made only with experienced guides. There are few roads and visitors should be careful, as there are crocodiles and hippos in the river.

Well over 400 species of birds, almost seventy per cent of the species in Namibia, have been sighted in the Zambezi Region

Also incorporated into the Babwata National Park is the former Caprivi Game Park, located between Angola and Botswana and extending about 180 kilo­metres from the Okavango River in the west to the Kwando River in the east. The area consists primari­ly of woodlands dominated by varieties of teak, and is home to three-dozen small-game species, as well as elephant, roan antelope, kudu and buffalo. Almost 350 bird species have been sighted here. As the terrain is extremely sandy, 4×4 vehicles are recommended—there are 4×4 tracks running along the western bank of the Kwando River—and there are campsites and lodges close to the game park.

Located in eastern Zambezi, the Mudumu National Park is an expanse of dense savannah and mopane woodlands, with the Kwando River as its western border. The park offers a true African wilderness experience, with riverine forests, marshes, dense savannah and mopane woodland. Amazingly, 430 species of birds have been sighted here, almost seventy per cent of the species in Namibia. Game seen in the park includes buffalo, zebra, antelope, hippo and crocodile. There is one private lodge within the boundaries of the park, where guests are offered guided walks, nature drives, boating and bird watching. South of the lodge, the river becomes the labyrinth of channels that make up the Linyanti Swamp.

Fishing is one of the top activities while visiting the parks in the Zambezi Region, especially the challenge of catching that sought-after trophy, the tiger fish

Nkasa Rupara National Park is an untamed wilderness of 320 square kilometres that is rich in wildlife and wetlands similar to Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Nkasa Rupara, with its interconnected reed beds, lakes and islands, is the largest wetland with conservation protection in Namibia. The most important sites in the park are the two islands in the Kwando/Linyanti River, Nkasa and Lupala. During the dry season, huge herds of elephants congregate on the islands, which can then be reached by road; the islands are cut off from the mainland during most of the rainy season.

This park is for independent travellers—there are no luxury lodges or guided tours here. Visitors must be entirely self-sufficient, bringing their own food, water, fuel and other necessary supplies, as no facilities are provided at the campsites. Due to frequent flooding in the park in the rainy season, camping is inadvisable. Experienced drivers should proceed with caution, negotiating deep pools slowly and avoiding rivers, where crocodiles up to five metres in length have been seen. Families of hippopotamus also venture onto the floodplains at night to feed.

Craft-making has become a livelihood for many Zambezians, especially women, making a trip there an opportunity to find and appreciate pottery, baskets, woodcarvings, reed mats and much more. The best-known crafts can be purchased at Mashi Tourism Hub, which is a centre for selling crafts produced in the conservancies of the area.

Accommodation in the Zambezi Region ranges from community campsites near the national parks to luxury lodges along the Chobe, Kwando and Zambezi rivers. There are rental cars available in Katima Mulilo for those who fly into the airport there.

This article was first published in the Flamingo October 2010 issue. Information has been adapted accordingly.

Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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