The grey ribbon of the tar road carries an endless array of enormous trucks, crowded minibuses, pick-ups packed to capacity, donkey carts, bakkies, fancy limousines and four-wheel drive rental cars from west to east and back again. Nearly 500 kilometres of road are stretched out monotonously in front of the driver. In the shimmering heat the grey asphalt blurs with the horizon and forms a lake of molten metal, from which the oncoming vehicles emerge like an undefined drop, slowly at first and then at breakneck speed. Namibia’s highways seem to be busy everywhere, even here in the remote northeast. But that is a deceptive impression. The former Caprivi Strip, now much more appropriately called the Zambezi Region, is home to a wilderness and isolation not found anywhere else in the country. Here, the various shades of beige, brown, yellow and red, which are typical of the desert and prevail in the rest of Namibia, are overgrown by the colours of paradise. Everything is there, from lush dark green and fresh hues to delicate light green, sometimes covered with colourful subtropical flowers or dotted with the rainbow colours of the birds.
We leave the tar road and continue on small sandy paths to explore the region. Dense bush with tall trees surrounds us. Occasionally we come to a small village where tradition still reigns. Fish is sold, large herds of cattle cross the road, oxen pull wooden sledges loaded with logs.
The trees become more and more imposing, the leaves are getting still greener, the water reaches the roadside. The first distinctive calls of the Fish Eagle can be heard. Then the river appears, dark blue water slightly rippled by the wind. Great Egrets stand motionless in the shallow bend of the river and wait for the right opportunity to snatch a fish. The soft hum of the engine startles several White-faced whistling Ducks on the riverbank, but they immediately settle down again in the grass to continue their search for food with water lapping around them. The riverside is now lined with trees which stand in the water like mangroves. Lianas are picturesquely dangling from the branches and are used like swings by a group of boisterous baboons. Giant trees, which toppled over decades ago when the bank was hollowed out by the river, have become the perfect habitat for a variety of flowers and butterflies. The insects drink from small depressions in what is left of the bark, or from the small puddles which now appear in the road more frequently. Hundreds of butterflies rise in dense clouds as we drive past, then descend again.
Water gathers in the tyre tracks and the otherwise dusty car now acquires a pattern of mud. Then, behind the next bend we see them… elephants. A big herd has just arrived at the water and starts drinking, bathing and playing. The calves are difficult to spot between the legs of the mothers. But some venture from the shelter and start romping about. Water is splashing, trunks are swinging, sounds of joy are trumpeted. Several older bulls stand slightly apart and watch the families. Soon we reach the end of the path: it simply peters out in the shallow water between thick branches.
The next day when we leave the camp we head in a different direction. The river greets us with the grunts of hippos, the chirping and tweeting of Pied Kingfishers and sandbanks full of crocodiles. This idyllic and adventurous path takes us through wide floodplains, fertile alluvial land and deep fords. It ends at a small bay, a perfect spot for a sundowner.
We change from the car into a boat and drift gently with the current. Cormorants fly overhead, a tiny flash of blue shoots past and turns out to be Malachite Kingfisher when it sits on a papyrus stem. We glide past hundreds of holes, the nesting tunnels which Bank Martins dig into vertical parts of the riverbank that are hard to reach. The Martins fly around us and catch small insects that are hitching a ride with us. A dark cloud of dust against the clear sky leads us to a herd of buffalo. The bulky animals stop drinking and look at us inquisitively before they continue to quench their thirst. Some of those at the sides of the group enjoy a mud bath. Our boat is slowly drifting past them. Large monitor lizards on the riverbank soak up the last rays of sunshine. A spectacular sunset merges with its reflection in the smooth water, before we return to the camp.
In the coolness of the morning we set off for a safari on foot. A thin veil of fog lies over the alluvial land and is caught between the trees. Dew decorates the grasses with silvery stars but quickly evaporates as the sun rises.
We discover various animal tracks in the soft sand of the riverbank. Apart from the distinctive paths of hippo and elephant, a leopard spoor runs through the maze of antelope footprints. We follow the spoor all the way to the tree where the big cat sleeps. Its claw marks are clearly visible on the bark. It is a special feeling to get so close to this animal on foot.
A colony of Carmine Bee-eaters captivates us. Hundreds of the birds are digging their nesting tunnels into the sand and don’t mind us at all. They are buzzing around us like red darts, the air is filled by the typical chirping of this species.
The former Caprivi seems like a huge inland island, because it is completely surrounded by water. Rivers like the mighty Zambezi, the unique Okavango or the green Kwando – also called Linyanti or Chobe in other parts of the region – have been dominating nature and the people of the area for thousands of years, and they are shaping this extraordinary part of Namibia. If you want to explore the region, you have to travel across the water. All main roads lead across a body of water to enter this green, imaginary island.
In the west the tar road accompanies the Okavango at a respectful distance for a good 200 km until it crosses the river at a bridge. In the east a wide causeway carries traffic across the floodplains of the Chobe and welcomes travellers to the Zambezi Region with lush nature.
Due to its secluded location this region seems like a rediscovered natural jewel in the African crown of exceptional lands. It should top the bucket list of anyone travelling Namibia. Because in the Zambezi Region every view is worth a picture, a picture taken with the camera, an image cherished by the heart.
A green image in the soul.
Author: Lambert Heil