By Chris Ryall
We step out of the safari vehicle to stretch our legs. Rusten, our safari guide, cautions us to be alert. We were open prey to lions, elephants and hippos as we wander near the riverbank’s edge in Bwabwata National Park located in northeastern Namibia bordering Angola in the north and Botswana in the south.
Casual conversation is suddenly interrupted with a distinct rustling sound emanating only a few metres away. In the riverbank’s weeds, we see a moving and menacing-looking head and outline of a full-size crocodile. Without hesitation and with hearts beating fast, we make a mad dash to the safety of our safari vehicle.
THE CALL OF THE WILD
Nature and Namibia are ever-present co-habitants and happy to be that way. Namibia takes nature seriously. Back in 2012, it was the first country in Africa and one of the first in the world to incorporate the protection of the environment into its Constitution. More than 40 percent of Namibia’s surface area is under conservation management.
Today’s residents and travellers to Namibia are the lucky recipients of this conservation management. Unlike other African nations, Namibia’s wildlife population is thriving with the world’s largest free-roaming population of black rhinos and cheetahs and the elephant and lion populations are making a comeback. Poaching is minimal.
I’ve been fortunate to experience many African safaris in countries like South Africa and Kenya. What makes Namibia so different? Crowds or lack thereof – when you see a lion, rhino or other large wildlife the word spreads and like a magnet a convoy of safari vehicles converge at that spot. In Namibia, the safari tracks are more covered with elephant dung then vehicles.
My fellow group of veteran travellers from U.S. and Canada are on a 10-day river and land safari with Blue Crane Safaris beginning in the German-influenced capital of Windhoek. Namibia claimed its independence in 1990 (then called Southwest Africa) and is seen as one of the safest, politically stable and more prosperous African countries. We take a short 90-minute flight to Namibia’s northeast corner and land at Katima Mulilo airport.
Though many people go on land safaris this trip was focusing on river safaris on Namibia’s four major rivers: Zambezi, Kwando, Chobe and Okavango. The Four Rivers Route bordering Botswana, Zambia and Angola features a distinct water ecosystem.
With more than 430 bird species prevalent throughout the Zambezi and Kavango region (formerly known as the Caprivi Strip), birders will delight in every chirp and trill while ticking sightings of slaty egret, wattled crane, soaring fish eagle, and the very colourful southern carmine bee-eater off their list. Unlike wildlife, best viewed in the dry season when they congregate to watering holes, the wet season months especially January to March is a birdwatcher’s paradise.
A wonderful tradition that became a habit on this trip was enjoying a refreshing sundowner while cruising the rivers and waterways. Danger though is always close at hand. Lurking below and near the boat, the river is teeming with hippos, crocodiles and Africa’s version of the piranha, the tiger fish with its oversized, razor-sharp teeth. It’s more than enough reason not to dip my hand into the deadly waters lest leave my pound of flesh in Namibia.
Along the riverbanks, we see occasional mokoros, the traditional dug-out canoes used frequently in the Okavango Delta. Local villagers fish as well as transport food and other supplies sometimes illegally as the two country’s borders can be as little as 25 metres apart. Our group persuaded the boat guide on different river excursions to go “to the other side” – which meant Botswana, Zambia or Angola. These were no passport/paperwork “entries” and when we reached a riverbank in Angola it was pointed out there were still thousands of live land mines leftover from the country’s civil wars. That prompted us not to overstay our visit!
The wondrous things about riding in boats are the feeling of open air and never knowing what we will see around each river bend. A sense of tranquillity I felt passing beds of waterlilies and papyrus was shattered when someone in our group yells out, “Two elephants.” In an instant, the silence is broken and we are now witnessing two male pachyderms battle to win the right to breed with a female elephant. Nature can be kind but also brutal.
On the Okavango river, we encounter a bloat of hippos. They usually congregate in families of ten to twenty. We are awestruck when one male hippo looks directly toward our boat perhaps thinking what a feast we would be and opens its massive mouth. A hippo can open its jaws an impressive 150 degrees – easily enough to chomp on our human body. As we keep our distance about 20 metres away in the boat with camera
shutters going off at record speed the hippo and his companions never take their eyes off us. We all know who rules this river and they aren’t drinking sundowners.
A visitor’s bonus when travelling in this region is the chance to visit the numerous traditional villages along or near the riverbanks. Most villages retain the construction of centuries past with sticks, logs, earth and thatch.
The cluster of huts are usually bee-hive or round-shaped and surrounded by wooden palisades. Many tribes live in the region including the Masubia, Mafwe and Mashi who farm maize, millet, melons and even pumpkins.
Westerners would find the living conditions primitive with no running water or electricity but sometimes a simple life can be the happiest one. They could teach us a thing or two about the importance of community and family. Smiles and waves are in abundance here. It was inspiring to see children playing not with an iPhone but with each other in a game of soccer or a popular game called Owela played with seeds, pebbles, marbles and stones.
Namibian river adventures cater to all styles of comfort from thatched tents literally on the riverbank’s edge to luxury lodges featuring Namibian-inspired furnishings and design.
This journey was a trip on the wild side but also the riverside. Safaris are not only on land. Explore Namibia’s Four Rivers route on a river cruise. Don’t be surprised if you start crooning, “Moon River” at sunset while enjoying a cool cocktail.
Chris is an avid traveller who loves immersing himself in local culture. He has been fortunate to do just that in more than 80 countries with Africa a favourite source of discovery and wonder. His camera focuses not only on stunning landscapes but on the smiling faces of local villagers. He loves nothing more than conversing, eating, drinking and dancing (even though he has no rhythm) with the locals. Chris has written for many publications including Dreamscapes Magazine, Toronto Star, WestJet Magazine, Yahoo.com, SpaLife, TravelindustryToday.com, Canadian Traveller, Travelweek and others. He is Wander Magazine’s Live Well Editor.