Expert Reviews – Zambezi Region (Caprivi Strip)

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Calm, riverside scenery, dotted with tranquil lodges
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The odd-looking stretch of territory sticking out like a panhandle at the top right corner of the map is a place unlike any other in Namibia. Instead of dunes and plains, here you’ll find smallholdings, rivers, floodlands, lush woods and thousands of birds.

Wedged between Angola and Botswana and measuring around 500km by as little as 32km at its narrowest point, the Zambezi Region was a classic colonial construct. The German settlers acquired it in the late 19th century, thinking it would give them access to the Zambezi and thence into East Africa. Unfortunately for them, it was of limited use, as the eastward route along the Zambezi was blocked by Victoria Falls which lay just beyond the strip, in British territory.

Today, the Zambezi Region is rightly famous for birdwatching, which is at its best in the rainy season (November to April). I’ve heard of twitchers clocking up astonishing counts here. I’d also recommend the region to anyone who has already visited Namibia’s famous desert attractions and likes the idea of taking in some contrasting terrain. Local guides can introduce you to village communities for an insight into the way of life in this rather remote rural region.

A watery exception
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The Zambezi Region is like nowhere else in Namibia, with its well-watered mosaic of wetland and woodland habitats being more like an extension of northern Botswana than part of the arid country to the west. My visit was confined to Mahangu Game Reserve, which is the westernmost of several protected areas, and easily accessible by two-wheel drive vehicle on the main road from Maun to Caprivi. There are no overnight facilities here, but our short day visit and picnic beside the river produced several elephant herds, one of which had us scampering for the car as the beasts ambled through out picnic site, plus hippos, crocs, large herd of lechwe and excellent sightings of both roan and sable.

The area is famed for its birds: I saw such Caprivi specials as Dickinson’s kestrel, western banded snake eagle and coppery-tailed coucal, among a host of others. Other large game, including buffalo, lion and wild dog, is more easily seen in the larger, wilder, reserves further east, including Bwabwata, Mudumu and Nkasa Rupara – the last of these being flooded for much of the year. Lodges and houseboat safaris are available in these reserves, though a 4WD is required in most areas. Poppa Falls, a short drive from Mahango, protects an attractive, fast-flowing stretch of the Okavango River, where the elusive spotted-necked otter is often seen.

The fertile waterways of the pan-handle shaped Zambezi Region
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The Caprivi is a land of fertile, flat floodplains surrounded by perennial rivers. For me, the drive along the Caprivi Highway (B8) is a far cry from the arid lands of the Kalahari or the Namib-Naukluft and it always comes as an unexpected surprise to most visitors to Namibia. Birders get the greatest surprise; the region is home to some 430 species – that’s 70% of Namibia’s total bird count. The game parks – Mahango, Mudumu, Nkasa Rupara and Bwabwata – are known for their watery environments, riverine flora and range (if not profusion) of game. You only have to compare the appearance of the land on either side of the boundary lines (basic homesteads along the roadside and woodland cut down for fuel) to appreciate the importance and value of these parks. For me nothing beats a sunset river cruise in this region and the lodges make the most of their riverside settings.

Namibia’s Lush Green Heartland
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Namibia is famous for many things; however, lush green wilderness and abundant water are not usually amongst them. The lush watery environments and riverine habitat of the Caprivi are the very antithesis of the stereotypical Namibian desert safari. Rich in rivers, the Zambezi Region is Namibia’s tiny slither of delta-like wetlands. Superb lodges, unspoilt wilderness and rapidly rebounding wildlife mean that the Zambezi Region is deservedly clawing its way back onto the safari map. The place is well-worth exploring and I personally like to visit between September and November when wildlife-viewing is at its best and to be there when the first huge thunderstorms impressively unleash a deluge upon a grateful landscape.

The Zambezi Region: Wildlife’s Next Frontier
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It wasn’t that long ago that the Zambezi region (Caprivi Strip), that strangely shaped sliver of Namibian territory wedged between Zambia and Botswana, was a wildlife wasteland. On the tails of a short-lived, secessionist rebellion, guns flooded the region and poaching either wiped out the wildlife or drove it away into Botswana and beyond. With the return of peace and government control, coupled with a number of innovative conservation projects, wildlife has begun to return and the potential here is endless. The Zambezi Region borders some of the best wildlife country in southern Africa and the return of its wildlife greatly amplifies the wildlife-rich Okavango and Etosha regions. Lions, African wild dogs, elephants and fabulous birdlife diversity appear to be the first to take advantage of this new reality, and with safari infrastructure growing all the time, especially in Bwabwata and Nkasa Rupara national parks, the Zambezi Region could just be Southern Africa’s safari destination to watch.

Namibia’s watery wonderland
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If you think Namibia is all dunes and desert, think again. The Zambezi Region (formerly Caprivi Strip) is dominated by four mighty rivers – the Okavango, the Linyanti, the Chobe and the Zambezi – that give this place its character. Part of the bartering process of the colonial Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, it looks like an odd appendage to the country, jutting out like a skinny arm into neighbouring Angola, Botswana and Zambia.
And in truth, it has more in common with Botswana and Zambia, sharing much of its wildlife across their borders, including elephants, buffalo and big cats. But it was the birdlife that astounded me, particularly the seemingly thousands of carmine bee-eaters nesting in the riverbanks. Tourism here until recently was more the domain of South African self-drivers than Europeans. But when I researched the area for Bradt’s Namibia guidebook, I was astounded at the number of new and very lovely lodges in the region that work with local conservancies and are certainly attracting visitors from further afield.

An incongruously verdant oasis
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The Zambezi Region is a strange, thin appendage to the Namibian mainland. Compared to the arid landscapes that characterize most of Namibia, this lush, verdant region of perennial rivers and floodplains feels like an entirely different country. If you brush up on some colonial history, it actually should be.

The Zambezi Region comprises a number of pleasant and still underexplored game reserves, which boast an astonishing diversity of wildlife and birdlife, including a number of rare species, though densities of the bigger game don’t compare to the likes of Etosha, with the exception of elephants. This is the only area in Namibia you are likely to spot the critically-endangered African wild dog.

The Zambezi Region also has some spectacular, secluded riverside eco lodges and camps. My personal favourite is the quirky and bohemian Ngepi Camp, where I enjoyed a sunset mokoro (dugout canoe) trip along the languid Okavango River, while my guide regaled me with tales of the various close scrapes he’d had with the local hippo population.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.6/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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