Sunset on Kwando river = Amy Schoeman

A piece of a different Africa, a verdant land of woodlands and flood plains where rivers never run dry, lies in the north-east Kalahari. Known historically as the Caprivi Zipfel or Caprivi Strip, it is a panhandle that joins Namibia to four other countries, across an extraordinary convergence of rivers.

Only 32km wide at its narrowest and 100km at its broadest, the Caprivi* extends eastward for 450km, roughly from the Okavango River to the Zambezi. With an area of 20 000km², equal to 2,4% of Namibia, it lies about midway between the equator and the southern tip of Africa, as well as midway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian.

*References to the Caprivi denote the Caprivi Strip rather than the political region of the same name at its eastern end. Its western border follows the 18ÍŠ line of longitude and incorporates part of the Kavango region.

Its odd shape and location are attributable to the machinations of European powers in the nineteenth century. It was originally envisaged that the Caprivi would form part of a corridor for passage between German South West Africa and Tanganyika in German East Africa. To that end Germany wanted territorial access to the Zambezi, a river that ran from the middle of the continent to the east coast.

Because the area formed part of the British sphere of interest at the time, Germany had to negotiate with Britain for the necessary rights. It secured them in 1890 in exchange for rights on the island of Zanzibar off East Africa. As part of the deal, Britain also got territory on the East African mainland and in return gave up control of Heligoland, an island in the North Sea off the German coast.

The strip of land that started it all, the Zipfel between the Okavango River and the Zambezi, was later named after Georg Leo Graf (Count) von Caprivi, the Chancellor of Germany from 1890 to 1894. Unfortunately for Germany the Zambezi, because of the rugged terrain through which it passes, proved to be unsuitable for large riverboats.

The Zambezi is the largest of three rivers that flow into the Caprivi from countries to the north. The others are the Kwando and the Okavango. Another two rivers in the Caprivi, the Chobe and Linyanti, are not rivers in their own right. They are interconnected extensions of the Zambezi and the Kwando respectively and run between the two.

The only one that eventually reaches the sea is the Zambezi, the largest river in southern Africa, with a catchment that extends into eight countries. With headwaters in Angola and Zambia, its basin drains 1,4 million km².

The river is 2 650km long and forms part of the border between Namibia and Zambia for about 100km of its length in the north-eastern Caprivi. Where it leaves the Caprivi, it also forms a short border with Zimbabwe, really only a point on the map. The rivers that join the Zambezi to the Kwando, the Linyanti and Chobe, form a border with Botswana to the south. The Okavango River at the opposite end of the Caprivi rises in highlands in Angola. With a total length of 1 100km, it follows the border between Angola and Namibia for 415km before it turns south-east, crosses the Caprivi and inundates its inland delta in Botswana.

In combination with the highest rainfall in Namibia, 500-700mm per year, the rivers give large parts of the Caprivi a tropical character. Open water and flood plains with palm trees, reeds and papyrus cover about a fifth of the area. Forests on the riverbanks and woodlands elsewhere in Caprivi largely hold broadleaved trees.

The wildlife

Three river parks are situated in the Caprivi, the Mahango Game Reserve (245km²) on the Okavango, the Mudumu National Park (1 000km²) on the Kwando and the Mamili National Park (320km²) in the Linyanti swamps. Except for a lodge in Mudumu, they lack tourist infrastructure. A 4x4 is required to negotiate tracks in all the parks.

Wildlife is typical of central Africa rather than southern Africa. It includes African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), common impala (Aepyceros melampus), red lechwe (Kobus leche), roan (Hippotragus equinus), sable (Hippotragus niger), sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekei) and tsessebe (Damaliscus lunatus). Sometimes puku (Kobus vardonii), reedbuck (Redunca arundinum) and waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) are seen.

Hippo cow and calf = Johan JoosteElephant roam the Caprivi in large numbers, perhaps as many as 6 000 at times, a number that fluctuates seasonally. They are part of a broader population that moves between Namibia, Angola, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In the dry season they congregate close to the rivers.

The wild dog (Lycaon pictus), a critically endangered species, still survives in the Caprivi. Fewer than 5 000 remain in the whole of Africa.

The only hippopotamus (H. amphibius) in Namibia and Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) in substantial numbers are found in the Caprivi. The rivers also hold over 70 species of fish, among them tiger fish, bream and sharptooth catfish.

Prolific birdlife is attracted to the waterways and woodlands, with over 400 species recorded, a diverse mixture of wetland and passerine species. The protected areas are particularly rich, with the highest diversity in Mahango. The swamps and floodplains provide breeding sites for waterbirds with a limited range elsewhere in southern Africa. They include the rufousbellied heron (Butorides rufiventris), saddlebilled stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis), slaty egret (Egretta vinaceigula), wattled crane (Bugeranus carunculatus) and whitecrowned plover (Vanellus albiceps).

Water lilies = Amy SchoemanThe reed and bulrush beds support chirping cisticolas (Cisticola pipiens), copperytailed coucals (Centropus cupreicaudus), greater swamp warblers (Acrocephalus rufescens), Hartlaub's babblers (Turdoides hartlaubii) and swamp boubous (Laniarius bicolor) among other tropical birds at the southern limit of their range. The densest vegetation along riverbanks holds Pel's fishing owls (Scotopelia peli), African finfoots (Podica senegalensis) and whitebacked night herons (Gorsachius leuconotus). The African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer), another bird of prey, is often seen along the rivers. In a sense its haunting cry defines the inland waters.

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