Photos and text by Annabelle Venter
Eight hours after leaving Windhoek in our Land Rover, we finally switch off the engine, open the doors and find ourselves magically transported into another world – the Caprivi.
It’s true – the landscape has gradually changed. The light has become softer, the trees higher and we’ve even spotted a couple of buffalo en route. But nothing has prepared us for that special feeling we experience when we step out into the Caprivi.
Here, from the moment of arrival, weary travellers are welcomed with soft yet vibrant sensory delights and promises of exciting new adventures. Soft light, tall trees, big animals and colourful birds – it’s all of these and ever so much more. And, of course, the droning of the engine has stopped!
Most of the Caprivi is close to water and provides a rich diversity of flora and fauna.
Firstly, the sounds are entirely different to anywhere else in Namibia. Having a subtropical climate, the region is home to a diversity of birds and animals not found down south. The white-browed (Hueglin’s) robin-chat- will probably be the first to catch your eye.
With its vast melodious repertoire, it is bound to get you out of bed at first light, and might well end a beautiful day. Its partner-in-crime may well be the swamp boubou, another early riser and highly vocal bird, and one that lets you know you’ve arrived in paradise, rendering a curious clicking call, usually in duet.
If you’re camped near a river, you’ll no doubt be serenaded by the iconic call of the African fish-eagle, underscored by the comforting honking of half-submerged hippos in the distance. Add to this the people who live here in harmony with the ebb and flow of nature, and it just feels right – majestic Africa as it has always been.
Because it never really gets as cold in the Caprivi as in the rest of Namibia (riverbanks can be chilly though), springtime seems to come somewhat earlier than elsewhere. By the time we arrive in late September, the stately knob-thorn (Acacia nigrescens) trees have finished flowering and are already sporting a fresh hairdo of little lime-green leaves.
The knob-thorn is quite prolific here, and like the silver terminalia (Terminalia sericea), is an easily recognisable species of the region.
But this is the land of large trees, so when you’re near the rivers, look out for one of my favourites, the huge sausage tree, Kigelia africana, which will now be in flower. To stand beneath one of these humming trees is pure delight, provided you’re not allergic to bees!
The deep maroon, velvety flowers the size of small soup bowls give off a pungent smell, some say akin to rotting flesh, but to me they symbolise springtime in subtropical Africa. While the bees worry the flowers frantically, enjoying the nectar, it is thought that bats actually do the pollination at night.
In any event, the bee activity combined with birds flitting around these giants causes the flowers to fall to the ground with a satisfying plop! These luscious flowers are then enjoyed by monkeys, baboons, antelope and warthogs, to name a few.
One of the reasons we do this annual trek, which often coincides with a birthday, is to admire and photograph the special birds of the region not found anywhere else in Namibia. Our destination is often eastern Caprivi and we usually head for Kalizo Fishing Lodge, which has one of our favourite campsites overlooking the mighty Zambezi River.
There are several other spots along Caprivi’s waterways where you can see nesting colonies of the magnificent carmine bee-eater, which some folk assure us arrive punctually on 22 August each year. I’ve not yet been there on that date to verify this!
Of course you will also be treated to viewing several other bee-eater species (white-fronted and little), as well as a host of other special inhabitants of the area. Occasionally we’ve seen large flocks of African openbill storks feeding in the shallows before doing a spectacular fly-past with twigs in their beaks en route to nesting grounds.
Apart from the riverfront camping, we particularly enjoy the intense sunsets while sipping G & Ts on the mukolo bench in front of the lodge after a hard day’s bird-watching. Smoke from fires in the Caprivi at this dry time of the year produces that soft coral light and some of the most spectacular sunsets.
The carmine bee-eaters generally nest in the riverbanks or on the top of the bank on the flat ground. A visit to the colony presents a busy, energetic vibe with flashes of red and sea-green swirling restlessly overhead and that distinctive soft calling of the flock as the birds take off once again.
This phenomenon has to be experienced to be appreciated, and it’s only in springtime and early summer that you will see it.
But this isn’t the only reason we’re here now. Springtime is also when the African skimmers come to nest on the exposed sandbanks in the river. The river is too high during the rest of the year. They lay their eggs in scraped-out hollows, two or three in a clutch, and by October the little ones may have already hatched.
Care should be taken not to disturb these sensitive breeders, especially when travelling in boats along the waterways, as backwash can swamp the nests. You can usually photograph them from a boat quite adequately with a long lens.
September, October and November are undoubtedly of the hottest months in Caprivi as the temperatures continue to rise, matched by unforgiving cloudless skies. By late November though, you might experience the first of the thunderstorms, and this month also heralds the arrival of other summer avian visitors.
You might also be lucky to see and hear the arrival of the first woodland kingfishers in November – those cheerful jewel-like characters with their trilling calls tell you that summer’s officially started. They arrive from central Africa to breed in the subtropical areas of Southern Africa, and Caprivi is probably the only place you’ll see them in Namibia.
Having said this, I once captured a stray one on video in Omaruru, many years ago! Also, listen out for the distinct call of the visiting cuckoos, especially the sombre black cuckoo’s call, “I’m so saaaad!”
Once the rains start in late November/early December, the springtime flush will be over for the time being and soaking rains will bring a new layer of lushness to this fascinating corner of Namibia. But come September next year, the promise of superb bird-watching, colour, vibrance and new beginnings will lure us back once again.
At this time of the year before the rains arrive it’s really dry and you’ll be able to see huge migratory herds of buffalo and elephant in national parks such as Bwabwata. The herds range between Angola, Namibia and Botswana in search of food, and this is a good time to travel through the area, as you will be less likely to become bogged down in wet mud. In recent years some of the areas in eastern Caprivi such as the Mamili Game Reserve have remained waterlogged well into the latter part of the year, so it’s best not to travel on your own in these remote parts.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 Travel News Namibia magazine edition. You can download the magazine as an app. Go to our homepage and click the download icon.