Caprivi Strip

Caprivi Strip

Jutting out in the far north-east of Namibia is a peculiarly shaped stretch of land – the Caprivi Strip – that seems to defy any logical border definitions. Officially called the Zambezi Region since 2013 (although this name hasn’t really caught on yet), it’s sandwiched between Angola and Botswana and stretches to the borders of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

This lush tropical strip of land is both fringed and crossed by wide rivers, including the Zambezi, Kavango (Okavango), Chobe and Linyanti, whose very names conjure up images of lush green floodplains, herds of wildlife and ancient baobabs – a stark contrast to much of the rest of the country.

With so much water, the area supports a greater number of people than almost anywhere else in Namibia, and this in turn gives the Caprivi a very different feel to the rest of the country: in many ways more like parts of Zambia or Botswana. Villages spawn attendant goats, donkeys and cows grazing by the roadside, and stalls sell everything from wooden carvings to fresh fruit. Yet there are no large population centres. The Strip’s main town, Katima Mulilo, may serve as an entry point to Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, but it is still relatively small, with something of a frontier feel about it, typical of an African border town.

The Caprivi makes a fantastic addition to any Namibia safari, but perhaps is best suited to those on a return trip or a longer safari. Its national parks support good populations of some of Africa’s iconic species as well as several species largely absent from the rest of Namibia, such as Cape buffalo, sable and roan antelope. Added to this is the opportunity to get out on a boat, an enjoyable and often welcome contrast to sitting in a 4WD.

Typically accessed on a self-drive safari from the west via the town of Rundu, the Caprivi also serves as a great jumping-off point for the Okavango Panhandle or the Tsodilo Hills in Botswana’s North-west Kalahari, the elephant- and buffalo-rich Chobe National Park, and/or the world-famous Victoria Falls (from either Victoria Falls town in Zimbabwe or Livingstone in Zambia).

A brief history

As perhaps suggested by the region’s peculiar shape, the Caprivi has an interesting if relatively short history. The Lozi kings of what is now western Zambia ruled the area until the late 19th century when, in the Scramble for Africa, it came became part of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (Botswana).

In 1890 the German Empire disputed the British claim to the spice island of Zanzibar. Later that year the dispute was settled at the Berlin Conference with the signing of the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty, in which Germany gave up its claim to Zanzibar in exchange for the island of Heligoland in the North Sea, and a strip of land that gave the colony of German South-west Africa (now Namibia) access to the Zambezi River. Negotiated by German Chancellor Leo von Caprivi (the Strip’s namesake), the treaty aimed to provide a more direct link between Tanganyika (German East Africa) in modern day Tanzania and the south-western colony via the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately for the colonial German powers, this was made impossible by the British colonisation of Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) and the fact that the Zambezi River is impassable at Victoria Falls – a seemingly careless mistake.

During World War I, the Caprivi came back under British rule, although it was largely ignored and became something of a lawless frontier. Then in 1939 administration of the region was transferred to South Africa before its status changed once more, into a pseudo-independent region known as the Eastern Caprivi homeland. Only to have its administration moved to Windhoek following Namibian independence in 1990.

During this time the region also played key strategic roles in various conflicts including the Rhodesian Bush War (1965–1979), the African National Congress (ANC) struggles against the South African apartheid regime (1965–1994), the Angolan Civil War (1975–2002) and the Caprivi Conflict (1994–1999). Given such sustained periods of military action, the Caprivi remained well off the tourist map for many years, and as a result development of the region has lagged behind the rest of the country. Yet with some fantastic, remote wilderness areas to explore here, ever-increasing numbers of tourists are driving growth in this diverse and rewarding area.

National parks and reserves in the Caprivi Strip

As with much of the Caprivi, the reserves and parks have seen a lot of change in recent years. Today there are officially four protected areas, although most sources still talk about five, as listed below:

Popa Falls Reserve

Despite the name, the “falls” are essentially a series of rapids where the Kavango River breaks up and drops 2.5m over the first of five geological faults which ultimately form the iconic Okavango Delta: pretty rather than spectacular at high water, they are rather underwhelming when the water is lower. Even a warden at the entrance once admitted that many visitors are disappointed. Beyond the rapids, the Kavango crosses into Botswana, changes name and begins gradually to spread out across the Kalahari. It is worth noting that the river has three distinct names; the Kavango in Namibia, the Rio Cubango in Angola and the Okavango in Botswana.

The area by the riverside at Popa Rapids is thickly vegetated with tall riverine trees and lush green shrubs, which encourage waterbirds and a variety of small reptiles. Footbridges have been built between some of the islands, and it's worth an hour's stop to hop between the islands, or to walk upstream for a good view of the river before it plunges over the rapids. In a few hours you can see all of this tiny reserve, and have a good chance of spotting a leguvaan (water monitor), a snake or two, and many different frogs.

Bwabwata National Park

Bwabwata National Park (frequently pronounced "Babatwa" and formerly know as the Caprivi Game Park) covers a large chunk of the Caprivi Strip. This is a largely undeveloped park which, while home to much wildlife, has few facilities and little in the way of marked game-viewing side roads. All that you can usually see from the road are a few raptors aloft and the occasional elephant dropping on the road – but drive carefully in case something does appear unexpectedly.

Mahango Core Area

Formerly the Mahango National Park, this was officially combined with the Caprivi Game Park in 2007 to create Bwabwata National Park, although most sources still refer to the two separately.

The core area’s focus is the Kavango River, which forms its eastern boundary. Here the river forms channels between huge, permanent papyrus reedbeds adjacent to extensive floodplain areas, where you're quite likely to spot red lechwe or sable antelope.

Beside these, on the higher and drier land along the bank, are wide belts of wild date palm-forest, as well as the lush riverine vegetation that you'd expect. Further from the river are dry woodlands and acacia thickets, dotted with a few large baobabs. This rich variety of greenery attracts an impressive range of animals, including the water-loving buffalo, elephant, sable, reedbuck, bushbuck and waterbuck, and the more specialist red lechwe and sitatunga. Good numbers of hippo and crocodile are also present.

Mahango is a favourite of many birdwatchers; more species can be found here than in any other park in Namibia. This variation should come as no surprise, as the reserve has one of Namibia's few wetland habitats, adjacent to large stretches of pristine Kalahari sandveld. Thus many water-loving ducks, geese, herons, plovers, egrets, kingfishers and various waders occur here, along with the dry-country birds that you'll find in the rest of Namibia. Okavango specialities like the slaty egret can sometimes be spotted, too, and for many birds – including the lesser jacana, coppery-tailed coucal and racket-tailed roller – Mahango marks the western limit of their distributions.

Mudumu National Park

The more northerly of Eastern Caprivi's two reserves, Mudumu, covers 850km2 of riverine forest south of Kongola. Bordered to the west by the Kwando River, the reserve is notable for its buffalo, roan and sable antelope, as well as the water-loving lechwe and sitatunga. In the dry season (July to October) the park attracts large herds of elephant and there are good populations of birdlife throughout the year – although the migrants in the wet season (approx. September to March) are the highlight in this regard.

Nkasa Rupara National Park

Originally called Mamili National Park, before a brief spell as Nkasa Lupala National Park, this 350km2 conservation area lies in the south-west corner of the eastern Caprivi Strip, where the Kwando sharply changes direction to become the Linyanti. The park was declared shortly before Namibia's independence and consists largely of marshland, veined by a network of reed-lined channels. It includes two large islands: Nkasa and Lupala. Together with Mudumu National Park, it has the vast majority of Namibia's population of sitatunga, red lechwe and puku, as well as large herds of buffalo, and a recorded 430 bird species.

Historically there was little development within Nkasa Rupara, but this is changing rapidly as wildlife densities and the number of visitors increase..

Safaris in the Caprivi Strip

Speak to our team for more detail on the parks of the Caprivi and to start planning you tailor made safari into this varied and rewarding area. We also offer a selection of small-group camping and lodge safaris to Namibia, including some that visit the Caprivi, through our sister company - Wild about Africa.
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