Expert Reviews – Bwabwata NP

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Bwabwata: The Zambezi Region’s Heartland
Overall rating

Of all the parks in the Zambezi Region (Caprivi Strip), in Namibia’s extreme northeast that have made a comeback in recent years, it is relatively new Bwabwata that has grown most in stature. Lion sightings are common, there was a pack of African wild dogs in residence last time I was there, elephants were common, and you’re almost guaranteed to see sable antelope. There’s also some pretty country around here, from the riverine area along the Kwando River where elephants are also almost guaranteed, to the terrific birding along the reedy channels at the park’s eastern fringe. Bwabwata also has a number of zones that take in different habitats and it’s increasingly a hugely significant extension to the wildlife-rich ecosystem and corridors that range all the way from Chobe and the Okavango to Khaudum National Park and beyond to Angola and Zambia.

“Like Chobe was maybe 15 years ago…”
Overall rating

Bwabwata is very much an understated park, overshadowed by the country’s big hitters like Etosha and the Skeleton Coast. Part of the Zambezi Region, it is very different to the rest of Namibia, a vividly lush landscape of rivers and wetlands.

Wildlife here had been decimated through hunting and poaching during Namibia’s struggle for independence, so I wasn’t expecting much, but ended up being totally surprised by what we saw. At a waterhole by Nambwa Lodge, we watched elephants, kudu, waterbuck, reedbuck, impalas and warthogs, while on a plain appropriately called Little Serengeti we came across buffalo, wildebeest, zebra and giraffe.

My favourite place was Horseshoe Lagoon, a beautiful curving expanse of inky-blue water and beach where we watched around 80 elephants coming to the water. A comment by the owner of nearby Muvanje Camp summed up this park perfectly: “It’s like Chobe in Botswana was maybe 15 years ago,” he told me, “with all the wildlife but none of the crowds.”

The new jewel in Namibia’s conservation crown
Overall rating

Bwabwata is at the heart of the world’s largest conservation area, the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). Still raw but bursting with potential, this verdant park feels a little like Botswana’s Chobe minus the crowds.

Sometimes referred to as “the people’s park”, Bwabwata is one of very few places in Africa where humans and animals coexist inside a national park. It’s an ambitious community-driven conservation project that has seen animal populations once decimated by rampant poaching and the so-called Border War of the 70s and 80s, returning in their droves.

The park is particularly well-known for its elephants, and on a recent visit I saw more than 100 in a single game drive. The aptly-named Little Serengeti in the park’s Mayuni Conservancy was bursting with plains game. I wasn’t so lucky with predators, but fresh lion spoor suggested they were around. Meanwhile, a petrol attendant at a local gas station showed me a picture he’d taken with his cell phone of wild dogs crossing the main tar road that runs through the park.

Community-run tourism amid lush river scenery
Overall rating

In Bwabwata National Park, the interests of people and wildlife are both given due attention. The locals take an active role in conservation and tourism by operating campsites, ecotourism businesses and a game guard programme. If you’re interested in community-managed tourism, I’d highly recommend a visit – perhaps combined with a trip to the Kunene region.

Sadly, this part of the Zambezi Region was badly poached during the Angolan civil war, but recent efforts to rehabilitate the environment seem to be paying off. Elephants are pretty easy to see, waterbucks and tsessebes have been re-introduced and elusive antelopes such as sitatungas, sables and red lechwes are also present.

The park has three conservation zones, Mahango (excellent for birdwatching, with well over 400 species), Buffalo (with large herds of, you guessed it, buffalo) and Kwando (which includes a wildlife-rich stretch of the Kwando River). Elsewhere in the park, land is given over to villages, grazing lands and smallholdings. Popa Falls, on the Okavango River at the western edge of the park, is a popular and pleasant spot – but before you get too excited, it’s worth mentioning that these falls are actually rapids; they’re broad, but not high.

An Exciting Park for the Future
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The recently proclaimed Bwabwata National Park is Namibia’s newest wildlife sanctuary, protecting a precious chunk of wilderness sandwiched between the Kavango and Kwando rivers. Moulded from an amalgamation of the old West Caprivi Game Park and Mahango National Park, it now forms the Caprivi’s largest conservation area. The park is still littered with the remnants of the bush war and game drives regularly pass by discarded military equipment: harsh reminders of a torrid time in the park’s history. The trans-Caprivi highway also bisects this park. Still in its infancy and with some way to go before it will rival Southern Africa’s finest safari destinations, I was nonetheless impressed by its raw potential. After-all, any park that contains two of Southern Africa’s premier rivers is definitely destined for future greatness. All the main wildlife and feline species are found here, but it will take some time for their numbers to build up and the animals to become more habituated to tourists. On my most recent visit, as we drove past Horseshoe Bend towards the sound of grunting hippos from neighbouring Pelican Pan, a leopard slipped across the track ahead. In the instant I glimpsed Africa’s elusive feline, I was overcome by a feeling that nature was rebounding and reclaiming her realm.

The Return of Bwabwata
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During the troubles in Angola, the animal population in this park was in freefall as poaching was pursued unabated. Now that peace has returned to Angola, protection has returned to Bwabwata. There are five main sectors to the park - I suggest heading to Mahango Game Reserve. Made up of a large floodplain it is a magnet for elephants and I saw plenty splashing about in the water when I dropped by.

Wedged between Zambia and Botswana and accessible from both, Bwabwata would take a long time to explore if you wanted to tackle the whole park - but there are some good camping options. The benefit of spending time here is that you are off the tourist radar. Don’t expect to see all the Big 5 though, rehabilitation of animal populations will take time.

An easy drive through a reserve wedged between Angola and Botswana
Overall rating

With an identical habitat of floodplains and riverine woodlands to the other Caprivi parks, the difference of Bwabwata is that it straddles the Caprivi Highway (B8), which runs through the entire length of the park. I’ve never seen much game, but the park is part of the Zambezi Region ‘drive’ and it makes the dead straight road a little more interesting knowing that there may be animals within a few metres of the tar. Roan antelope and buffalo are not uncommon and in the dry season fairly large herds of elephant have been known to use the uncluttered highway as a route to the permanent water source of the Kwando River. Like the rest of the Caprivi region, it’s good for bird-watching. It’s also possible to deviate off the B8 at the eastern end of the park where there are a few four-wheel-drive tracks and some riverside lodges and campsites.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.3/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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