From Etosha we headed northwards, first through Tsumeb and Grootfontein, and then on the B8 all the way to Rundu. As we passed the veterinary fence the private game, dairy and cattle farms disappeared, and ‘real Africa’ began. Small villages and homesteads were dotted along the side of the road with thatched huts and curio stands selling carved miniature mokoros (dug out canoes) and aeroplanes. This far north there is bovine tuberculosis and as such, no beef can be sold commercially. This means that substance farming takes over, we still saw plenty of cattle and goats, but they will all be for small scale consumption.
There was a definite change to a lusher, greener environment with tall swaying Makalani Palm trees. Just outside the town of Rundu is Hakusembe River Lodge, recently taken over by the Gondwana collection. The lodge overlooks the Kavango River and has 22 rooms set in lovely gardens. Twelve of these rooms are newly built, and the others are due for renovation in early 2014, once the Christmas holidays are over and the trucks full of supplies have got through the border. A new restaurant area overlooking the river will also be constructed. The late afternoon was spent on the river, although the clouds were building we couldn’t miss the opportunity, and we set off downriver with our guide. At this time of year the river is low and the hippos have moved away, they will be back around March or April after the rains have swollen the Kavango once again.
But the crocodiles are still there, we saw one lazing on the riverbank, hiding in the reeds. He, or she, looked be to around 3 metres long, and a little wide around the middle. Reason enough, I would think, not to wash or collect water from the river. But for the local rural community, especially across the Kavango in Angola, there is little choice and we saw plenty of them washing in the late afternoon sun, or fishing bare chested on the floodplain.
The birding along the river is excellent, we saw a copperytailed coucal, a blackcrowned night heron sitting motionless inside a tree, a group of openbilled storks, two black crakes and a beautiful pied kingfisher flitting from branch to branch. Unfortunately we didn’t have time for any fishing, that will have to come later in the holiday, but apparently the tiger fish are biting.
This was now mosquito territory, so after returning to the lodge we dutifully donned long sleeves and our attractive bright yellow insect repellant wristbands, a cloying cloud of citronella following us across the lawns to dinner.
The following morning we drove back to Rundu, and then onwards along the B8 via Divundu and into the Bwabwata National Park, part of the recently proclaimed Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. Beware of Elephants signs appeared regularly along the roadside, but all we saw were more cattle and goats, despite keeping our eyes peeled.
We had heard that the road from Kongola down to Mamili National Park was in a bad way, the roads authority have been ‘working on it’ for months now and although there is around 20km of tar, the rest is a muddy track which turns into a Top Gear rally track after a few drops of rain. We decided that, having bought a 4×4, we were going to test it. Nobody was going to accuse us of buying a soft 4×4, and if we did get stuck, we just wouldn’t admit it to anyone. An hour or so later we reached the Nkasa Lupala Lodge pick-up point and, feeling a bit gung-ho and smug at this point, decided to drive on by ourselves for the final 13km to the lodge. After another 40 minutes or so of bouncing around, excited boy-giggling from the driver, and cries of “where are the lions?” from the back, we arrived at this beautiful lodge.
Nkasa Lupala is located right on the Linyanti River, on the border of Mamili National Park, and offers 10 en-suite tents on stilts overlooking the winding channel. The owners, Simone and Laura with their little baby Hector, are extremely welcoming and informative, as is their very experienced assistant manager Erica. This lodge has just won a Gold award from the Hospitality Association of Namibia (HAN) for their superb work with sustainable energy, and training within the local community. 17 out of 22 staff working there at present come from the local village and are trained on site or in Windhoek/ South Africa. All of the lodge power is provided by solar panels; lighting, water heating, WiFi and fridge/ freezers. This is quite a feat, and especially on cloudy days such as the one we arrived on.
The tents are beautiful, and very comfortable, but guests should come prepared not to have some of the ‘luxuries’ that many places with mains electricity offer. There are no fans or air conditioning, no plugs inside the tents (those very necessary laptops, iPads, phones and camera batteries can all be charged in the bar for most of the day), dimmed LED lighting (bring a head torch if you choose to do your re-packing late at night) and no hairdryers 🙂 For us, keen to get away from any links to the office for a few days and just recharge our own batteries, this was perfect, and for me the simpler the better as there’s less to ‘faff’ about and more to enjoy.
That evening we ate dinner on the outside deck under the stars and listened to the lions in the distance. That sound never ceases to stand the hairs on the back of my neck up on end, it’s the ubiquitous nighttime symphony of being deep in the African bush and I love it. Early next morning we started out on a game drive and boat cruise combo, 5 hours of extensive traversing through the varied landscape of this region; woodland, savanna plains, swamps and open water. Like Etosha, the rains have dispersed the wildlife and the elephants in particular have moved away into Botswana, but we still saw a lot. Hippo grunting in the river, and because it was a cloudy day we were lucky enough to see them walking around and grazing as well. A small herd of Buffalo ‘dagga boys’, the young males full of testosterone and rubbish, antelope of drier areas – Impala – and their swamp cousins – reedbuck and red lechwe. We came across a herd of zebra and also some fascinating smaller species, including a few prehistoric looking water monitors who ran along the road in front of us flicking their front legs from side to side and wriggling their tails in a ridiculous display of comedy sprinting. The birdlife was fantastic, and this area reminded us so much of the Okavango Delta where we lived and worked for almost 4 years. This is the perfect place from which to enjoy the Delta environment without paying the high US$ rates to fly into the heart of that region, and in the dry season (June to October) there are elephants coming into camp almost daily which will add immensely to the experience.
Because water levels were fairly low, we cruised for just a short time on the motor boat, but had a lovely time watching the hippos, ears wriggling above the waterline before the huge heads erupted and a series of disgruntled snorts issued from their considerable girths. Reed frogs piped and African Jacanas stepped daintily from lilly pad to lilly pad. After a sneaky afternoon nap, and another fine dinner to expand our holiday waistlines ever further, we retired for the night, sinking underneath fluffy duvets and pricking up our ears for the sounds of the African night.