Sue Watt, The Daily Telegraph, November 1, 2014
Most people picture Namibia as a parched golden landscape of dunes and desert rolling on to eternity, but the Zambezi region in its north-east corner, previously called the Caprivi Strip, is a complete contrast. Jutting out like an arm into neighbouring countries, this skinny 280-mile appendage is a legacy of the colonial Scramble for Africa, when Britain swapped a piece of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) for Germany’s Zanzibar during the Berlin Conference of 1890. Named after General Count George von Caprivi – the German Chancellor, who never set foot in Namibia – it was renamed Zambezi in 2013, reaffirming its African identity.
Dominated by mighty rivers, lush wetlands and vivid green savannahs, it is home to 430 species of bird, numerous small mammals and 35 large mammal species including buffalo, big cats and, most alluringly for me, elephant. At Long Lagoon, in Bwabwata National Park, we came across four elephants drinking peacefully, slurping water into their trunks and curling them to their mouths in perfect synchrony. As we watched them quietly from our Land Cruiser, a piercing scream shattered the silence. Just 20 yards away, one of the elephants glared at us, shaking her head and flapping her ears. She trumpeted again, warning us to stay away. My heart thumped as she shuffled closer, revealing the reason for her angry display. Between her legs stood the tiniest elephant I’ve seen.
“His ears are still pink,” our guide Beaven Kanzeka said, calmly driving away. “He’s probably only a week old.” Hiding under mum’s tummy and struggling to control a floppy, wayward trunk, this little character was as cute as they come. But he’s been born into an increasingly perilous world as ivory poaching reaches ever higher levels, causing 50,000 illegal elephant slaughters a year. Yet, there is hope for this young baby.
His home in the Zambezi lies at the heart of the new Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (Kaza), launched in March 2012. The world’s largest conservation area, it connects 110,833 square miles of protected regions in Botswana, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia, allowing wildlife to migrate freely across fenceless borders. Kaza, a Peace Parks initiative, helps local people benefit economically from natural resources, providing a tangible reason for protecting their wildlife. But empowering communities in this way is nothing new in Namibia.
In 1998, a local chief, Mayuni, had the foresight to establish one of the country’s first communal conservancies alongside Bwabwata National Park’s eastern border. A shrewd, perceptive man named Environmentalist of the Decade by the Namibia Nature Foundation in 2007, he broke new ground by creating innovative joint ventures between communities and lodges. These involve local people having ownership over land through the conservancy and leasing it to lodges, funding game scouts to protect wildlife and social projects benefitting the whole community in a win-win situation.
Crucial to this development was entrepreneur and lodge owner Dusty Rodgers. Born in Wales and brought up in South Africa, he first became known to the chief in 1998 during negotiations for building Susuwe Island Lodge, the region’s first joint venture.
“He’s a kind person,” the chief told me at the khuta, a neat terracotta-coloured brick building housing the traditional court. Local tradition dictated that, as we enter his office, we walk in on our knees with bowed head, clapping quietly. Dressed in a smart suit and tie, with a bright, engaging smile, he described his collaboration with Rodgers.
“Before we started on the lodge, Dusty said 'I’ll build a campsite for the community so that they can start benefitting from it.’ He invested 100,000 Namibian dollars in my community without taking it back. Then he started the first pilot scheme of compensation for people losing livestock to wildlife. Once this got onto national television, people countrywide started forming conservancies.”
Today, 20 per cent of Namibia’s rural population live in one of the 79 conservancies spread across the country. Of those, 12 are located in the relatively diminutive Zambezi province. Once the domain of South African self-drive travellers, the Zambezi is gaining popularity with German and British tour operators as communal conservancies blossom, wildlife increases, and new lodges and camps open across the region.
The newest of these, Nambwa Lodge, opens in November. It is Dusty Rodgers’s latest joint venture with the Mayuni Conservancy which, in an innovative move by the government, was granted tourism rights to property actually inside Bwabwata National Park. Rodgers has donated 15 per cent of shares in the lodge to the conservancy, along with a share of profits, skills training and employment.
The camp is pretty special. Wooden walkways lead to the 10 luxury suites and main deck, all high above the ground to make way for trees and wildlife below: they take precedence here and not a single tree has been uprooted during building work. Our vast tent had a calming décor of pale wood and creamy taupe furnishings, en-suite bathroom and a living area complete with sofas, coffee table and candles. The expansive main deck houses the bar, dining area and fire pit, all overlooking a floodplain with a waterhole where we watched elephants, kudu, waterbuck, reedbuck, impalas and warthogs supping their sustenance.
For contrast, I also stayed at one of the region’s longest-established properties – Susuwe Island Lodge. Located on a small island of the Kwando River, it has six thatched chalets with private plunge pools on wooden terraces. A three-storey observation deck provided great sightings of birdlife and elephants, while at night the tranquillity was broken by lions roaring so close it seemed they’d swum across the water.
Wildlife here had been severely depleted through uncontrolled hunting by South African defence forces and by local people poaching for the pot during Namibia’s struggle for independence, which concluded in 1990. In the past three years, however, the Millennium Challenge Account, a US government project to reduce poverty through tourism, has translocated some 1,500 animals to the Zambezi region. Dan Stephens, the British owner of Mavunje Camp (see "Five hot propeties in the Zambezi", below) told me: “This is how Chobe in Botswana was maybe 15 years ago, with all the wildlife but none of the crowds.”
The wildlife, and lack of tourists, was evident wherever we went. On a game drive from Nambwa to Little Serengeti, animals matching those of its Tanzanian namesake grazed the plain, including buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe and a solitary, ungainly ostrich. Lion prints proved that predators visit too.
Driving to Horseshoe Lagoon, a beautiful curving expanse of inky-blue water and beach, we were surprised to see a table set up, with Matthew Ihinda, Nambwa’s chef from the five-star Heinitzburg Hotel in Windhoek, and Lusken Mupulanga, the waiter, preparing canapés and drinks. Until now, Ihinda’s only experience of kudu, an elegant antelope, had been in Heinitzburg’s kitchen. and his wide-eyed look of awe, as a 50-strong elephant herd came to the water, was unforgettable.
On walks, we explored the finer details of the bush, like bugs and bushes, trees and tracks. And on a boat trip to Hippo Pool, we motored quietly through a labyrinth of river channels fringed by tall reeds and papyrus. Crocs slithered into the water and a baby hippo waddled on to its mother’s back as others bobbed up and down while we watched waterbucks and red lechwe grazing on the riverbank.
With the conservancy connection, this area is as much about people as wildlife. We visited Mashi Traditional Village, a cultural centre funded by Dusty to generate income for the community. Passionate traditional dancers wore skirts of wooden beads that rattled as they swayed to the tune of xylophones and drums, proudly re-enacting festival ceremonies. “Everything you see here is thanks to this man,” Bernhard Munembo, the elderly former conservancy chairman told me, enthusiastically hugging Rodgers.
On our last evening, sipping G&T sundowners in the company of 20 elephants drinking near our boat, I asked Dusty Rodgers what drew him here. “I just love it,” he replied. “I love the bush, the elephants, the wildlife… And I love the people.” The feeling is clearly mutual.
· Sue Watt travelled with Expert Africa (020 8232 9777; expertafrica.com ), which offers a four-night stay at Nambwa Lodge from £2,397 per person based on two sharing. The price includes return flights to Kasane with South African Airways, vehicle transfers to Nambwa, all meals and drinks (excluding premier brands), all activities, park fees and laundry.
Five hot properties in the Zambezi
RiverDance Lodge ( riverdance.com.na ) RiverDance opened last year with five imaginatively designed wood and glass-panelled chalets with private terraces above the Okavango River. Owned by Namibians Tino and Karin Punzul, whose staff all come from Mamono village, which shares 20 per cent of lodge profits. Perfect for sunset cruises, fishing and exploring Bwabwata. They also offer village visits with a real insight into local life.
Kayova River Lodge ( kayovariverlodge.com ) Kayova Community Development Foundation owns this friendly lodge, which opened in November 2012. All profits benefit the local Kavango community. Seventy miles east of Rundu, its eight thatched chalets and restaurant lie in pretty gardens near the Okavango River. With strong community links, the lodge shows guests authentic village life, with visits to schools, local handicraft businesses and churches.
Mavunje Campsite ( mashiriversafaris.com ) This modest tented camp focuses on private river-based safaris, walking and fly-camping, ideal for more intrepid travellers. For exclusive use only, Mavunje’s three simple tents share a kitchenette and bathroom. Campsites are also available. Located opposite Horseshoe Lagoon with plenty of wildlife, it’s a joint venture with Mashi Communal Conservancy. The knowledgeable British owner, Dan Stephens, leads safaris along with local guides.
Nkasa Lupala Tented Lodge ( nkasalupalalodge.com ) Just outside Nkasa Rupara National Park overlooking a channel of the Linyanti, this three-year old lodge, the only one in the area, is a joint venture between the Italian Micheletti family and Wuparo Community Conservancy. With 10 en-suite tents, the eco-lodge is entirely solar powered. Its central reception, bar and dining area spans three storeys overlooking the river and wetlands.
Kalizo Lodge ( kalizolodge.com ) Cherie & Johann Griffioen and Tony & Lara Farrow bought Kalizo in December 2012, and have transformed it into an elegant riverside lodge. Fifty miles from Botswana, Kalizo offers visits to Chobe, fishing on the Zambezi and birding trips to 5,000-strong carmine bee-eater colonies. The lodge works with Sikunga Conservancy on river and nesting-ground conservation, and with local schools through its Kalizo Cares Outreach Programme.
This article was written by Sue Watt from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.