Namibia: The Caprivi Strip
Issue 3
Namibia's Caprivi Strip is an obscure finger of land stretching between Botswana and Zambia to reach Zimbabwe. Originally intended as a trade route, 'the Strip' is a lush, wet wilderness rich in flora and fauna. Chris McIntyre suggests it is well worth the visit.

Corridor of Colour

Driving northeast from Grootfontein, Namibia's vast open spaces surround you. But the Caprivi Strip comes as a shock. Just pass through a veterinary fence, and everything changes. The Okavango and Caprivi regions seem like a different country. Suddenly people appear. There are villages by the road, and animals on it.

For years this was part of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland. Then, at the turn of the century, when the colonial powers arranged their colonies at the Conference of Berlin, it was traded. Germany wanted access to the great Zambezi, and Britain wanted territory in East Africa. A deal was struck ceding a narrow corridor, the Caprivi Strip, to German South West Africa.

Access to the Zambezi didn't prove as useful as the Germans had hoped. The Victoria Falls blocked any river passage to the Indian Ocean. Nobody imagined that, a century later, a trans-Caprivi highway would make this Strip an important trade route.

Partly because of this, the main towns are growing rapidly. Katima Mulilo is already the de facto base for operations in western Zambia, and Rundu, Namibia's gateway to the Strip, gets bigger every year.

Travel east from Rundu to the start of the Strip proper, where alluring rapids at Popa Falls mark the Okavango River's passage over a geological fault. These cascades start the river's inexorable spread over the flat Kalahari to form the Okavango Delta.

Detour south and you enter Mahango, a greatly under-rated national park. Though it stands beside the Okavango, papyrus reedbeds block most river views. Belts of lush riverine forest and wild date palms separate it from the drier woods and grasslands beyond. This range of environments, from well-watered to tinder-dry, is typical of the Caprivi Strip. It is this variation which sustains such a variety of wildlife.

Mahango's game has flourished over the last few years and includes rarities like sitatunga, sable and roan antelope. Like the Caprivi's other parks, it has few roads. The main cross-border artery bisects the park north-south. A drive loops to the river bank, and another track (4WD-only) circles into the drier forests, through deep sand, following the occasional omuramba (old river course). Walking is allowed, but watch for large herds of elephant and buffalo which migrate between Botswana, Angola and Zambia.

Lion remain rare, leaving leopard, hyena, and the occasional wild dog as the main predators.

Heading east, cross the Okavango River at the tiny Divundu checkpoint to enter the long Caprivi Game Park, the "shaft" of the Caprivi Strip. A lack of game loops, rest camps or lodges betrays this as an unusual game park. During the liberation struggle, the bumpy golden highway linked a string of South African military bases, but these have vanished and the "park" is dotted with villages. A programme of conservation through development is trying to reconcile the needs of the people with the wildlife - based on lessons from nearby Mudumu.

Mamili and Mudumu were proclaimed National Parks as independence dawned in 1990. Almost adjacent, both are beside the Kwando River. Mamili protects the Linyanti Swamps, an important water source in the northern Kalahari, with a similar ecology to the Okavango Delta. Mudumu covers some of the Kwando's beautiful flood-plains: tall hardwood forests and lush undergrowth.

Like Mahango, both were home to a variety of wildlife, but every year saw fewer animals. Whole populations had been killed by uncontrolled hunting. Conservationists welcomed the proclamation, but local villagers did not. Their homes were moved outside the park, and the bitterness is still felt. The people had always battled for survival. Hippo and elephant ate and trampled crops, while lion took cattle. Hunting was part of the people's way of life.

There was little hope for these parks. Then Grant Burton and Marie Holstenstein arrived, leaving a successful camp in Botswana's Okavango Delta to seek a wilderness project in Namibia. They found Lianshulu, an old hunting camp in the heart of Mudumu and transformed it into an impressive bush lodge. Its buildings were renovated using natural materials and the skills of the local people.

Although villagers worked on this, many were unconvinced that protecting the wildlife would lead to prosperity. To encourage conservation, a community game guard scheme was introduced. Local headmen were empowered to appoint game guards, who would report poaching, and were paid for by aid agencies and guests at the lodge.

To capitalise on the passing trade, one community set up Lizauli Traditional Village as an attraction for visitors. Guests pay about £3 into a community fund to watch skills and crafts in action, and talk to the locals. Later they can buy craftwork. So far this has been successful. Hunting has reduced and the game has revived. Fortunately, the Caprivi's ecosystems are wet enough to recover quickly, and the bigger animals soon resumed their migrations across the Kwando River.

Similar schemes are now being set up all along the Strip, many accompanied by simple campsites, earning the local communities a direct income.

Leaving the Caprivi Game Park, you cross the Kwando River. Like the Okavango, the Kwando flows from its source in Angola into theKalahari. There it spreads into a mini-Delta, the Linyanti Swamps.

However, the Kwando's path is blocked by a fault, forcing it to divert northeast, as the Linyanti River, into Lake Liambezi. From the lake it flows east, as the Chobe River, which then drains into the Zambezi. At least, that's what used to happen. Now water levels are so low that Lake Liambezi has dried up completely and the Chobe risks becoming a side-channel of the Zambezi. The Linyanti scarcely flows, its swamps often dry. A year ago underground peat here caught fire, killing a herd of buffalo. Many fear that both these wetlands are gradually drying out.

At the eastern end of the Caprivi, around the confluence of the Chobe and the Zambezi Rivers, is a triangle of flood-plains, islands and channels linking the two rivers. It is home to a few thousand Lozi people whose lifestyle is seasonal. They move with the water, living next to the channels. When the water is low, they move their cattle onto the flood-plains and plant maize, sorghum and pumpkins. When it rises they retreat onto the islands.

The area is similar to the upper reaches of the Okavango Delta, with deep-water channels lined by reeds and floating papyrus. Tall trees dot the islands: water figs, mahoganies and the odd landmark baobab. Large mammals may be scarce, but birds are numerous and varied. Enthusiasts arrive seeking African skimmers, coppery-tailed coucals and rock pratincoles.

All is not peaceful though. The border between Botswana and Namibia was once defined by the Chobe River's deepest channel. Now, after the river's channels have silted and changed, so has the location of that deepest channel. The Botswana Defence Force has occupied what they call Sidulu Island, building hides as inconspicuous as elephants on a flood-plain. Yet Sidulu was once called Kasikili, and was Namibian soil. The dispute is currently at an international court in the Hague.

At the far eastern tip of this region is a large permanent island, Impalila. Here you can stand atop a baobab and see four countries with ease. A morning spent fishing and bird-watching was completed by an afternoon on the Chobe River, game-spotting in Botswana's national park.

Patrick Simwemba and his family own the land beneath one of the lodges, which they helped to build. He speaks Lozi and Sobia butisn't a nationalist, as his friends and relatives are divided amongst the surrounding countries. Having fished and farmed in this area since he was born, Patrick is pleased with his new income from tourism.

While elephants drank from the shallows behind our boat, he explained that guiding visitors was much easier than farming. Once he was worried about lions taking his cattle, but now he seeks them out - to please demanding guests. More wildlife means an easier life for him.

Gradually, as the sun started sinking towards the reeds, we left the elephants bathing and returned to the lodge, wondering what our next day on the Chobe River would bring.

Chris McIntyre has written a guide to Namibia & Botswana, is the author of Bradt Publications' Guide to Zambia and has had articles published in the travel press. He is a director of a leading UK independent tour operator.

CAPRIVI FACTFILE

Access: The Caprivi Strip is most commonly accessed as part of an itinerary to Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) and the Chobe National Park or Okavango Delta (Botswana). There are regular flights to Kasane or Katima Mulilo, from where your lodge will collect you. You can rent a car in Kasane or Maun, and you can also drive from Victoria Falls.

Accommodation: There are camping facilities in most of the game reserves and Kalizo Rest Camp at Katima Mulilo is particularly good.

By way of more established safari camps and lodges, there are several options:

Two kilometres from Katimo Mulilo is the Zambezi Lodge, probably the most developed hotel in the Caprivi. It boasts a floating bar and restaurant, gymnasium and sauna. The same owners have opened a 15-chalet camp, King's Den, on the Chobe River near Serondella, where they also moor their luxury riverboat, the Zambezi Queen, which can handle charters on the river. On Impalila Island, at the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers, there are two lodges: the more upmarket is the eight-chalet Impalila Island Lodge, while on the southern flank is Ichingo Chobe River Lodge, which is a tented camp (7 tents). The latter accepts children. The fishing at Impalila island is particularly good, as is the birdlife.

In the region of the Mudumu reserve, there are three safari camps: Lianshulu has eight reed-and-thatch chalets and a large leisure area all overlooking the Kwando River; Namushasha has 10 reed and thatch chalets and Mazambala Island Lodge, the latest addition, has four chalets but also offers camping.

For information on all properties, contact your African travel specialist.

Geography: An unusual aspect of the Caprivi is that no part is more than 47m higher than the rest. In years of high floods the water from the rivers on its flanks has been known to reverse and spill over into the Okavango delta system.

Published in Travel Africa Edition Three: Spring 1998. Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)

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