Caprivi | When the Caprivi is flooded
It’s midsummer. Namibia is wet. The floods have been heavy over the past few weeks. Every newspaper here is filled with images of large bodies of water washing over parts of the north of the country.
And the newspapers are full of stories of people’s hardships too. Some 40 people have already drowned and hundreds have had to evacuate their homes.
The north is part of the route my fiancée, Alison Wright, and I have planned to drive over two months on as many of Namibia’s isolated tracks as we could.
First we were in the south, at Sossusvlei, and thereafter north through Damaraland, through a drenched Caprivi with a quick whizz through Botswana, and then south again through a desolate Khaudum and Bushmanland.
Here’s the story of the wet Caprivi.
We refuel at Grootfontein. The photographs of the floodwaters on the newspapers’ front pages don’t bode well.
I phone the Ngepi Lodge on the Okavango River in the Caprivi to find out how things are. “Not to worry,” says a friendly woman, “there’s lots of water here, but we’re open.”
The first stop after Grootfontein is Rundu. The Okavango is in flood and no camping space is available here. Eventually we sleep in a rather musty motel. Close by, a little mongrel yaps all night.
We’re relieved to see the back of Rundu early in the morning. After turning off the B8 tar road, we follow the dirt road running parallel to it and winding along the river. Everywhere houses and farmlands are flooded.
At the Popa Falls Resort the stands are deep under water and even the power points are submerged. We pitch our tent on a beautiful green lawn under giant shade trees near the overnight huts.
The floodwater’s edge is about 20 paces from the tent.
I insert some marker sticks into the lawn at the water’s edge to monitor whether the water is rising.
The water is so high and flowing so strongly that we can’t walk across to see the Popa Falls. The island that has to be crossed to reach the waterfall is submerged.
We plan to stay here for a few days while exploring the Mahango Game Reserve, 25 km to the south. This small reserve lies on a thoroughfare to Botswana through the Mohembo border post and it has no overnight accommodation.
We immediately make tracks for Mahango and explore the drier, western route. It’s a long circular road through dense bush and thick sand. Although we see little game, we do encounter some elephants.
Back on the main road, a fish eagle clutching a big barbel flies over a pan of water.
At the resort the water has risen by 3 cm and crept a yard closer to the tent. We’ll have to sleep with one eye open, but it’s such a special camping spot we decide to take the risk.
While braaiing that night, two small lights slowly float past us on the edge of the floodwaters. By the time we’ve twigged and shone a torch in its direction, a crocodile scoots off into the reeds!
The next morning the camping area is covered in orange and golden leaves, and we immediately decide to stay for as long as the water level will allow us.
Back in Mahango we take the other trail to the river and pans. We drive through water, past elephants grazing in knee-deep water, unfazed by our proximity.
We also see a herd of red lechwe in the water. In Namibia, they only occur in the Caprivi. It’s a first sighting for us.
On our way back to camp we explore the trails to the other river camps. Ngepi Lodge is closed, apparently for the first time in 20 years. The wide Okavango River is flowing strongly across the road to the lodge – you can only cross it by boat. At Rundu, someone says, the Okavango is already 8 m above its normal level. (And that mass of water is still heading this way …)
Over the next few days we explore Mahango. Eventually, when the water at the drift that we have to cross every day flows over the windshield, we decide to move on.
Pg 2 | What atmosphere?
From the Popa Falls, the panhandle of the Okavango Delta in Botswana is so close we simply have to visit it. We leave our meat in the resort’s freezer and dart through the border post.
Drotsky’s Cabins, 10 km south of Shakawe near the border, are on the banks of the Okavango Delta’s panhandle. The stands at this immaculate rest camp are under massive trees.
One morning we drive the 60 km to the Tsodilo Hills, the Mountain of the Gods. The four hills, an ancient sacred site and a Unesco World Heritage Site, have more than 4 000 remarkable rock art paintings. You’ll see rhino, lion and even a whale.
A guide accompanies us to the nearby “Father” hill. The paintings are well preserved, and we can see why Sir Laurens van der Post in his The Lost World of the Kalahari called it the Louvre of the desert.
Sadly, the place has been neglected. The entrance gate has slid off its railing and is hanging lopsidedly. Cows, goats and donkeys wander around. It is difficult to experience the spirituality.
Sir Laurens’ “great and ancient temple” is becoming just another mountain with rock art. Maybe the area should have remained undeveloped and without an easy access route …
Back at Drotsky’s, a guide takes us out on a boat on the brimming river. The current is flowing strongly, and apparently the river is at its highest level since 1963. The broad river is largely covered with floating papyrus islands.
An able boatsman, Roger takes us close to colourful river birds such as the southern carmine bee-eater. He instantly identifies each species.
It’s sunset when we cruise back into camp. A remarkable day in a remarkable place.
Back in the Caprivi, just beyond the Popa Falls, we first turn off to visit the 32 Battalion’s Buffalo Base Camp. Steel skeletons of buildings and old Samag trucks remain, moaning and groaning and clattering in the wind. It sounds like a lament for… Well, it probably depends on which side of the debate you find yourself.
Nevertheless, it’s a sad place, and I find myself standing silently and humbly. (This base will apparently be removed soon. Only the cemetery will remain.)
Bellowing, blowing an
d some charging …
From the Popa Falls we take the long, long road east through the Caprivi Strip. Nearly the entire strip consists of the Bwabwata Reserve, and there are many signs warning against elephants.
We’re aiming for the Susuwe triangle in the east of the Bwabwata East Reserve.
From the B8 highway, 8 km before Kongola, we first turn left onto a sandy track to get permits from the Susuwe conservation office. It takes us past the Bum Hill Camp on the banks of the Kwando River, where you can sleep on platforms in the trees.
We push on, back across the highway to the Nambwa Community Camp on the banks of the Kwando River. The route takes you past still more old SA army bases like Fort Doppies, now largely overrun by the bush.
From Nambwa we thoroughly explore the Susuwe triangle, and encounter elephants quite a few times, sometimes too close for comfort.
Our next spot for a break is the Mudumu National Park southeast from here. Some 1 010 km² in size, it lies east of the Kwando River, but only a small part of it is normally explored. Once again the only visitors, we pitch our tent in the most secluded campsite, Hippo Pools.
We soon understand why it’s called Hippo Pools − at sunset the hippos move downstream and want to get out just where we’re camping. They bellow and blow and watch us with dismayed little eyes.
We move the tent to clear their usual path, but eventually they get out a bit further anyway. This happens every night, and each time they let us know exactly how they feel about our presence.
At night we hear them grazing all around the camp and we move around beady-eyed.
In the bush we often encounter herds of elephant and loads of other game. In one spot, a 1.5m long crocodile lies dead still in the grass next to the road. I get out to take a photograph.
He doesn’t move and I move closer. The next moment his jaws snap like a gunshot and he races off in a cloud of dust to the water 100m away. If he were hungrier, I would have been toast…
We explore every trail in the reserve. One path leads us through increasingly thick bush for kilometres, past old hunters’ huts. Eventually, we drive along an increasingly overgrown cutline.
After some distance, it seems as if the cutters had also thrown in the towel, and we turn back. As we drive through the high grass, an astounding variety of insects, especially stick insects, collect on the windshield.
Pg 3 | Step by step
Step by step
The Mamili National Park, also known Nkasa Rupara, is known for four things: deep rivers, getting stuck, bad roads and unspoilt nature.
It sits at the bottom end of the Caprivi.
The eastern route is closed because of the floods, so we decide to rather try the western access route past Sangwili.
Some distance before the reserve we come up against the first waters.
The pool is 50 m wide, and after we’ve checked things out properly, we push through with the Cruiser.
Two kilometres further, we come to the Rupara wooden bridge, which is submerged. A warning sign advises that the maximum allowable weight is 3 500 kg. Sure, when the bridge is dry and above water, I think to myself.
So we turn around and go back through the big pool that we just crossed.
A woman at a craft shop tells us there’s no need to worry because people drive across the bridge all the time, whether it’s under water or not. She doesn’t really know where they’re heading, but they drive across …
So we decide to go back through the first waters and give the Rupara bridge a shot.
I first wade across to check the bridge. The cross-poles are bound to the long side struts with wire only – they literally hang by a thread.
The poles are loose and slippery, and move around under my feet, and, even worse, there are gaps. The water is ankle deep on the one side and knee deep on the other. And underneath the 80 m long bridge I estimate the water to be 2-3 m deep.
First I look around for crocodiles and hippos, but see nothing. I start at one end and repair the bridge pole by pole.
At last I’m reasonably satisfied, and place the winch’s rope extensions within easy reach. We get back into the vehicle, open all the windows and make sure that our seatbelts are not fastened. I switch on the front and back diff locks for as much grip as possible. Here we go …
Slowly we hobble across the bridge – it cracks and creaks, and the Cruiser sways on the uneven surface.
Near the end it gets deeper and suddenly the Cruiser’s rear dips.
I accelerate slightly and the vehicle manages to climb out of the gap and edges ahead and onto dry ground.
We breathe a sigh of relief, but also know we have to return the same way.
The Rupara bridge is a toll bridge, but there’s no sign of toll collectors. Neither is there any sign of maintenance.
Shortly hereafter, we reach a similar bridge – also submerged. At least the water here is shallower, and by now I know the drill – walk across, repair the bridge and drive over. A third bridge is above the water and mud. This makes it easier to repair, and driving across is a cinch.
I spy with my eye
Numerous roads in the park end in pans and mud. Slowly and patiently we drive past or through the water. Armed with a stick against crocodiles, I get out each time and walk through to test the depth and the bottom.
Mamili is really a massive floodplain, and large parts are regularly submerged. We set up our first camp next to a pan where some Meyer’s parrots screech in the treetops and a flock of feeding wattled cranes takes no notice of us.
The next morning we continue exploring.
We plan to reach Mamili Camp #1, also known as the Linyanti Camp.
We drive through a herd of about 80 buffalo, but they don’t hang around to be admired. Further along, some lone elephants keep us company.
But what impresses us most is the watery landscape.
We continuously need to guard against getting seriously stuck, since we’re on our own.
Eventually we’re stopped by a deep stretch of water, 800 m from the Linyanti.
There’s no way to get through.
An old mokoro lies next to the water and we paddle around for a while, but it’s heavy and it leaks so we cut the ride short.
It’s hot . We reckon it is safe to swim, since we haven’t seen any crocs or hippos in all our time next to the pool. So I jump in and Alison follows. She sinks deep down and comes up slowly.
Two small eyes are staring at her, just above the water.
It takes her a second to register what she’s looking at, and the next moment she’s running to the edge − on the water.
The hippo checks out this “natural wonder” before silently slipping back into the depths. Right, that’s enough swimming for today.
It’s around noon and we find an inviting shady spot near the water where we plan to set up camp. The grass under the tree is ankle high.
We shuffle through the grass to make sure there aren’t any thorns that’ll rupture our mattress. Satisfied, at last, we stand back to look at our handiwork.
A puff adder as thick as my arm snakes in between us. Goodness knows where it’s been while we were stomping around. The snake disappears into the grass where the tent is su
pposed to go. I chuck a stick in its direction, but instead of fleeing, it advances.
Alison dishes out free advice from the top of the Cruiser’s roof rack (how and when did she get up there?).
I spray the snake with water and it backs off into the grass again. After a while we reckon it’s safe, and pitch the tent. We never saw it again, but in the confusion I miscalculated the sun’s trajectory, and after an hour the tent stands in blazing sunshine. Oh well …
An unlucky toll day
The next morning we hear an engine. Shortly afterwards a Land Rover Forward Control appears through the bush with a guide driving it and two German tourists in the back. The guide is Keith Rooken-Smith – probably the only person who comes to the Mamili often. He brings tourists on walking safaris, surely the best way to explore the Mamili.
In the previous year, Keith says, only some 20 vehicles had driven over the Rupara bridge, of which four either fell through or off it. Apparently, one vehicle had lain in the water for weeks before it could be recovered.
The Mamili offers a remarkable experience, but it’s not the place to venture into without the appropriate knowledge, experience and vehicle.
Due to the risk, Keith doesn’t cross the bridge and leaves a vehicle on either side. (The tourists walk across.)
For safety’s sake, we drive over the Rupara bridge with Keith and his guests present. The toll collectors have now rocked up. N$50, please.
From Mamili we head for Katima Mulilo. By now the Zambezi, which has a different catchment area than the Okavango River, is also in flood.
When we reach the Zambezi River Lodge to stop for a burger and a beer, the water is right up against the hotel.
After our meal we head on to Keith’s Caprivi River Lodge outside town – also partially submerged.
The vehicles park about 200 m away and you’re transported to the lodge, which is now on an island, with a canoe or mokoro. The water is lapping against the cabins’ steps and now and again a fish wriggles across the lawn.
The next day Alison and I tackle the Zambezi with canoes. As we’re not experienced paddlers at all, I first do a practice run in the shallows.
Keith suggests that we row the 5 or 8 km to Hippo Island, but after fighting against the strong stream and whirlpools, and repeatedly ending up in tree tops, we give it up.
Rather give us a flooded road, any day.
Pg 4 | I want to go too!
In summer, afternoon thunderstorms occur, and access roads can be flooded; the bush is also denser. In winter it’s cooler and drier, and game is easier to spot as the bush is less dense.
Stay at least: Two weeks
Three idyllic rivers – the Okavango, Kwando/Linyanti and Zam¬bezi – make the Caprivi what it is.
Cape Town ± 2 500km; Johannesburg ± 1 500km
Don’t confuse the Popa Falls, a series of rapids in the Okavango River, with the Epupa Falls in the Kunene River.
I want to go too!
The Mamili National Park, especially with all its water and resulting challenges.
What are the must-sees?
The Susuwe triangle and the Okavango panhandle, just across the border in Botswana.
How long should I stay?
At least two weeks. Rather stay a bit longer in one area and explore it thoroughly. Don’t be caught off guard by the long distances – it’s 650 km from Rundu to Kasane.
4×4 or 4×2?
Definitely 4×4, especially if you want to turn off the highway.
What must I take along?
Everything you need for camping. You can buy supplies in the larger towns and essentials at small shops along the way. For some variety, there are luxury lodges.
Where can I stay?
The Caprivi has loads of places to stay of all standards: from basic to luxury. Only the Mahango Wilderness Reserve doesn’t have accommodation,
Only the natural hazards that walk, crawl, sting, bite and charge. And the danger that you’ll never want to go home again.
The Bradt guide Namibia by Chris McKintyre is indispensible.
We advise 4×4 drivers to avoid entering the Mamili National Park in the next few months without getting the local authorities’ permission.
Since last year’s flood the Kwando/Linyanti River is still very high. Mamili could remain inaccessible for years. – Ed