Namibia’s Caprivi Strip has got to be one most interesting divergences of land on earth. It’s bordered by four countries, only 104 kilometres across at its widest point (and a mere 32 kilometres at its narrowest) and has a heart far bigger than its modest britches. It is home to some of the richest wildlife in Africa and, at the same time, some of the most impoverished communities on the globe. And it only exists because of an (uncharacteristic) error in judgement by the Germans. On this year’s Put Foot Rally I got to spend a little more time in the Caprivi. I fell in love with its history, its beauty and its people. Here’s a quick background:
The big swap
Back in 1890, when people played Risk with actual pieces of land, Namibia belonged to ze Germans. The administration at the time, under Leo Von Caprivi (no prizes for guessing where the name came from), had a cunning plan: give the islands of Zanzibar to the British in exchange for Heligoland (an archipelago just northwest of Hamburg) and the Caprivi Strip. Pound for pound, it was already a solid deal but what the Germans were most keen on were the waterways. On a map, the waterways around Caprivi ended at the Zambezi River, which would provide them with a trade route through Zambia and all the way to the Indian Ocean to what was then Germany’s East African territories (now Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi). The Germans forgot one thing: the 108-metre plunging thunder that is Victoria Falls. Woops …
And so, the Caprivi Strip (or ‘Caprivi Zipfel’ as it was known by the Germans) turned out to be useless for trade and, as far as minerals go, a vacuous hole in ze chancellor’s pocket. Since then it’s been ravaged by intense civil war, almost used as dumping ground by South Africa, and scarred by cultural isolation due to its position. However, during the two days that we spent in Caprivi (one of them at Ngepi Camp: Caprivi’s wackiest campsite – if you haven’t been, it’s a must) I discovered that the Caprivi possesses a quality that trumps its commercial shortcomings – beauty. Immense, unbridled beauty.
The strip is bordered by four perennial rivers – the Kwando, Linyanti, Chobe and the mighty Zambezi. Their banks are lined with hippos that sit, flop and bask in the sun like beached submarines. Their waterways support more bird species than you could identify in year (than I could, at least) and animals such as elephant, buffalo, kudu, sable, lechwe, reedbuck, impala and zebra are as common as a pimple on a teenager. And then there are the sunsets. The sunsets will kill you and make you feel alive at the same time. Every colour reminded me of somewhere I’d been and at the same time of somewhere that I was still hoping to go. I know it’s clichéd but for the first time since we had left Cape Town it made me feel like I was finally … in ‘Africa’.
Severe poverty, rich smiles
For all its outlying beauty, the Caprivi Strip is emaciated on the inside. And it’s becoming more and more difficult to blame it all on its past. Sure, there are still scars of war, but poor water supply, underdeveloped road networks and lack of modern infrastructure make the Caprivi Region the poorest in Namibia, and one of the poorest in Africa. Despite this, there is something magic that happens in the Caprivi. Among conditions that would make you and I weep at the lot we’ve been dealt, the kids of Caprivi smile. They smile so wide that their eyes wrinkle in the corners and their teeth light up in the sun. It’s incredible. We stopped along the road side and within a few minutes about 15 kids came running out from all angles to greet us. Before we knew it we were in the middle of an impromptu game of pick-a-side-any-side soccer. I don’t know who won. Nobody really cared.
Before we left, we gave all the kids beanies (it gets pretty cold up in the Caprivi at night) and some clothes we had brought along. To us things like these are inconsequential. To them it means the world. If ever you find yourself in the strip, do these kids (and yourself) a favour and stop. It’ll make you realise how lucky you are to have what you have, change the way you think and, most importantly, make you realise that doing something (however small) is better than doing nothing at all.
Despite its underdeveloped road network, the Caprivi Strip is highly accessible. You don’t need a 4×4 and can easily cruise through in a normal sedan, or even one of these cool Put Foot Rally cars. There are various campsites and lodges along in the region (find accommodation in Caprivi here).
If you’re not sure what to expect, or where exactly to go, check out Open Africa’s Caprivi Wetlands Paradise Route. They’ve got all that sussed, you won’t go wrong.