Text Ron Swilling | Main photo ©Elzanne Erasmus
Text Ron Swilling | Main photo ©Elzanne Erasmus
T reasures abound in the Kavango and Zambezi (formerly the Caprivi) regions in the north-eastern part of the country. Travelling through this area provides an opportunity to meet people whose lives revolve around the rivers; to search for the abundant wildlife – elephants, buffalo and wild dog included; and to luxuriate on – or next to – verdant waterways with water lilies, bird life, hippos and, yes, crocs!
It’s the cherry on the top! The north-eastern corner complements and completes a trip around the rest of Namibia, adding a burst of greenery and filling all the gaps to provide a well-balanced, superlative journey.
TO DIVUNDU AND POPA FALLS
When you arrive in Rundu or, ideally, after breakfasting at your lodge on the banks of the Okavango River, the Kavango town is a good place to buy groceries, repair tyres, visit the banks and fill up with fuel before heading east. A bevy of shops and supermarkets line the main drag where travellers can pick up all they need for the road. The B8 or Trans-Caprivi Highway leads eastwards from here into the heart of Africa. It’s a tree-lined road, interspersed with small villages – a rural world of wattle and daub houses. Along the roadside bundles of wood are often for sale and butter-coloured thatching grass at certain times of the year. Larger villages may sport a shebeen or mini-market and it’s common to see a group of people chatting in the shade of a tree, children playing or women selling food out of bright plastic tubs. Slow down through the settlements and keep eyes open for children, cows and goats.
Divundu is the next stop for fuel, simple bathroom facilities and a chance to stock up on supplies and dry goods in the small supermarket. The best viewpoint of Popa Falls is reached from the turnoff to the N//goabaca community campsite soon after the bridge and the police checkpoint. Contrary to its name, Popa is not a waterfall at all, but a series of rapids across the Okavango River! The four kilometres gravel track takes you past the correctional services unit to the campsite where you are required to pay a small fee at the reception hut before continuing further down the road.
A PEOPLE’S PARK, A LIVING MUSEUM AND BASKETS GALORE
Back on the tar, you surprisingly find yourself in the Bwabwata National Park. And you will be even more surprised to see people and cows wandering about. Formerly the Caprivi Game Park, Bwabwata was established after independence when few animals and a large population remained in the area. The innovative solution was to create a multi-use area for people and wildlife, and core areas solely for wildlife. The 6100 km² national park extends all the way from the Okavango River in the west to the Kwando River in the east, i.e. Divundu to Kongola. Your heart might miss a beat when you notice your first elephant caution signs – and elephant dung on the roadside, and if lucky, you may spot these huge pachyderms amongst the trees. Your heart might miss another beat – or two – when you spot wild dog caution signs further along the road. Those fortunate enough to see one of Africa’s rarest carnivores are supremely blessed. Picnic tables under large trees are appealing places for leisurely lunch stops along this 200 km stretch, although you may have to compete with cows for the shady spots.
The new Susuwe office is the place to purchase permits for exploring Bwabwata’s core areas. (Horseshoe, the oxbow lake popular for elephant sightings, is reached along the 4×4 sandy track towards Nambwa Camp.) A bridge spanning the floodplains and a police checkpoint lie ahead, as well as the D3502 to Singalamwe and the Living Museum of the Mafwe, built in a grove of baobabs at the end of the road. It’s worth making a turn here to learn how to weave a mat, taste local fare or watch in awe as the Mafwe swing hips to lively drumbeats.
Kongola is a welcome stop for fuel, fresh bread at the KAZA-Kongola trading store – and souvenir shopping at Mashi Crafts on the opposite side of the road. Mashi Crafts is a treasure house of well-made goods from the surrounding conservancies. Pick up a carved walking stick, an expertly woven basket or a chair fit for a king.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
Although it is still another 163 km on the B8 to reach Katima, the slightly longer route along the C49 (MR125) has recently been tarred and is a tempting alternate route for overnighting on the Kwando River, visiting the smaller, more remote Zambezi National Parks, the Namushasha Heritage Centre, Sheshe Crafts and the Livingstone Museum.
If these pique your interest, veer right towards Sangwali and Linyanti. You are now in the Mashi Conservancy and homesteads line the road. Women and children with containers on their heads are a common sight as they make their way to the communal water pumps.
The turnoff to the Namushasha Heritage Centre is twenty kilometres along the C49. Built out of reeds and grasses from the area, it encircles the baobab that was once used to spot poachers attempting to cross the Kwando River. Information boards describe different facets of the Zambezi culture, including diverse topics such as musical instruments, pottery and witch doctors. Watch metal-work and basket-weaving displays before being treated to an energetic song and dance performance.
CRAFTS, THE SMALLEST MUSEUM IN AFRICA & REMOTE NATIONAL PARKS
If you have time on hand and a 4×4 vehicle, Mudumu National Park is reached from the Ngenda Park Station turnoff where permits can be purchased for the 1010 km² (101 000 hectare) expanse, characterised by mopane woodland and water.
There are several interesting places to stop along the road to Sangwali, further along the C49. Sheshe Crafts is first. A small craft shop displaying the well-made basketry and woodwork of the Zambezi craftsmen, Sheshe is an excellent spot to pick up authentic Namibian gifts, while supporting the local community. The tiny Livingstone Museum is next. Adolf Waidelich from Livingstone’s Camp will open the museum for you – by appointment – and regale you with the history of the famous explorer and anti-slavery advocate.
Unknown to most, Livingstone spent time in the Linyanti area in 1851 and befriended the local Makololo chief, Sebetwane. The museum was built by Linus Mukwata in memory of the tragic Helmore-Price mission and contains several artefacts as well as large maps of the routes taken by Livingstone, the Makololos and the Helmore-Price group. Bridges over the waterways, built by Adolf and Linus over the last six years, provide easy access for visitors.
This is also the route into Nkasa Rupara National Park. One of the smallest national parks, named after the two islands, Nkasa and Rupara, it is 80% waterlogged after seasons of good rainfall. Permits are purchased at the Shisinze Park Station. If you have a good sense of direction, a GPS, 4×4 expertise and are travelling in a convoy of at least two vehicles, this 320 km² water world may be for you.
Alternatively, continue to civilisation and a different sort of adventure at Katima Mulilo. Make a stop on your way in at Tutwa Tourism & Travel for a bite to eat, a cup of coffee and some tips on the town. Crafts, fishing on the Zambezi River and a stay in a houseboat – or a lodge nestled between four countries – await you, or simply a good shopping spree before heading into Zambia or Botswana.
Whatever your direction or intention, most importantly, enjoy the journey.
For more information on the Zambezi and Kavango Regions of north-eastern Namibia, visit the DESTINATIONS page on www.travelnewsnamibia.com
This article was first published in the Winter 2016 issue of Travel News Namibia.