The Kavango and Zambezi regions (formerly the Caprivi Strip) offer Namibia’s most wild and least visited game parks. The parks in this area are unfenced, generally require a 4×4 vehicle and are packed with wildlife.
The parks border major rivers, making game driving very different from Etosha. Instead of driving between waterholes, the primary game distribution can be found in the wetlands and river areas.
The park in the central region is called Bwabwata National Park. It stretches from the Kavango River to the Kwando River and includes Buffalo and Kwando core areas (small parks, which we will discuss in this article). Most of the Bwabwata park is not really exciting – you will drive across it on the Trans-Caprivi highway and might see some elephants and a few people (it’s a mixed-use park for communities and wildlife). However, this entire region forms part of the larger Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA); in principle, this allows wildlife to roam freely between Namibia, Botswana, Angola, Zambia & Zimbabwe.
Elephants crossing the C49 in Mudumu Park
Sunrise over the Kavango River, Ndhovu Lodge
We will discuss the parks from east to west:
MAHANGO GAME RESERVE
Mahango park lies on the western border of the Kavango River (just before it leaves Namibia and becomes the Okavango Delta). It is the most mainstream of the parks and does not require a 4×4 vehicle to visit. It’s a great place to view hippos, crocodiles, herds of elephants and a remarkable number of baobab trees.
A significant drawback of the park is the need to travel through the villages of Divundu and Bagani, which are strewn with litter and plastic bags. However, there are also many lodges on the western banks of the Kavango, meaning Mahango feels less remote than the other parks in the region.
While Mahango is an introduction to the area’s parks, in our opinion, it’s not worth spending more than a ½ day here. And given a choice between Mahango and Buffalo (on the other side of the river), we would always choose to visit Buffalo.
Warthog seen in Buffalo Park
Impala in Buffalo Park
BUFFALO CORE AREA
The Buffalo Park is on the opposite bank of the Kavango River. Although it is only a few metres away from Mahango, in many ways it feels completely different and is definitely our pick of the Kavango River parks.
You will probably not be surprised to learn that the park is home to quite a few buffalo, and while it has many of the same game species as Mahango, the park is also well known for large herds of sable & roan antelope. In addition, large herds of elephants are often found drinking along the river.
While exploring the park, try to stick close to the river as it is where most of the action happens. While the roads are generally unmarked (a feature of all the parks in the area), follow any track that leads towards the river, and you can’t get very lost. The driving is relatively easy with no hazardous sandy patches but a 4×4 is definitely preferable.
Warthog in Buffalo Park
Kudu in Buffalo Park
The park is also home to an abandoned South African military base – a reminder of the area’s importance in the Namibian war of independence. Disappointingly there is also a private hunting camp in the park. We stumbled across this on our last visit, and it was in a disgraceful condition, littered with skulls and a terrible smell. That aside, the park is certainly worth a visit.
Buffalo does not have any lodges or campsites, but the lodges around Divundu are within an easy drive of the park. We usually stay at Riverdance, our favourite accommodation in the region. It’s a little further away – but we love the setting, hospitality and tranquillity it offers.
Elephants drinking, Kavango River
KWANDO CORE AREA
This is a great little park on the western bank of the Kwando River. The park has a slightly different feel from the rest of the parks in the Zambezi region. Although the wildlife is primarily the same, a few raised areas (tiny hills?) along the riverbank offer some fascinating increased views over the wetlands. Once again, this is a 4×4 only park – the tracks are a bit sandy and bumpy but are not normally too difficult to drive. As with all these parks, this can change dramatically in the wet season.
There are also three raised hides, each overlooking wetlands or the river. Although these are not well maintained (the shade netting is often ripped or missing entirely), they are still excellent places to leave your vehicle and watch the wildlife come to drink. This is also a perfect way to view the areas abundant birdlife. African fish eagles, bee-eaters, slaty egrets, and many other beautiful little birds and larger birds of prey abound. While I’m not much of a birder, even I can spend hours listening to and watching these beauties (I’m anticipating Rachael will add lots of bird pictures here – she knows way more about our feathered friends than I do!)
Endangered wattled crane, Nambwa
Elephants at Long Lagoon
The most famous part of the park is called The Horse Shoe. This is a large curved lagoon and is an immensely popular bathing and drinking place for elephants. The hide here is in good condition and there are also a few shade trees where you can park. We generally prefer spending our time at the Long Lagoon viewing platform, the first hide south of Nambwa Lodge. We have found wildlife activity happens a little closer than at the Horse Shoe hide.
The park has accommodation at the beautiful Nambwa Lodge, raised high above the river banks and linked by wooden walkways. We stayed here on a previous occasion and loved it, but we chose to stay at the Nambwa Campsite on our most recent visit. There are four beautiful, well-shaded campsites along the river (each with a small wooden deck jutting out over the Kwando). Guests at the campsite can join the lodge activities (if they are not too busy with lodge guests), and we recommend a boat cruise (morning or evening) as this gives a different, and less bumpy, perspective on the wildlife and birds of the area. The campsite is unfenced, and hippo, elephants and even lions can freely move through your camp. For example, one night, while we were having dinner, we were joined by a herd of elephants enjoying munching on the local trees only a few meters away.
Buffalo near Nambwa
The ‘entrance’ to Mudumu is slightly hidden; heading south from Kongola on the C49, you will find the unmanned park gates. However, there is an unmarked track to your right slightly BEFORE the gates. Follow it, and you will arrive at the park office. Here you can pay for your visit to the park and receive a map of the area. All the parks offer maps – some of these are beautifully printed, others are poorly photocopied. However, the common denominator is they should all be treated as a schematic representation of the parks; they are not hugely accurate but give you an idea of what to expect.
Mudumu is rather strange in that it is split by the main C49 road. However, there does not seem to be much happening to the east of this road, and the portion along the river offers better game viewing.
Impala in Mudumu Park
The wildlife is similar to that found in the other parks of the area. It includes elephant, lion, leopard, spotted hyena, cheetah, African wild dog, hippopotamus, Nile crocodile, sitatunga, meerkat, red lechwe, sable antelope, eland, giraffe, impala, plains zebra, blue wildebeest and spotted-necked otter.
Be warned that some of the sand along the river road is thick, and many visitors get stuck. Remember to deflate your tyres (we often go as low as 1 bar or slightly less in very thick sand), engage 4×4, and if you start to get stuck, STOP driving forward and engage reverse. Accelerating hard will only dig you deeper into the sand and result in hours of digging.
There are three campsites along the river and two private lodges have a concession to operate in the park. Our favourite accommodation in the area is situated outside the park – Camp Kwando.
Camp Kwando view over the river
Sandy track in Mudumu Park
NKASA RUPARA PARK
This park is the furthest south of the parks in this region and borders on the Linyanti River (which later becomes Chobe River). It’s the most fun of the parks to self-drive around, as it has more routes, obstacles and options.
The park is named after two islands, the Nkasa and Rupara islands, and the rest of the park is low lying wetlands and rivers. While the park’s northern reaches tend to be drier, the further south one heads, the more swampy it becomes.
Elephant in Nkasa Rupara Park
Lioness on a main track in Nkasa Rupara
There are numerous times when you have to drive through water. Depending on the time of year these can be pretty deep and muddy and we really do not advise doing this if you are travelling alone or are not prepared. On our most recent visit, we got pretty well stuck in one river crossing and had to be towed out by our friends. Luckily, we are reasonably experienced 4×4 drivers and have the necessary equipment to speedily and safely recover the vehicle. We were prepared to get stuck, knew the water was not deep enough to flood the engine and had a recovery plan in place! While our Hilux still smells like Linyanti swamp water, it was a pleasant little diversion from the monotony of all those lions we kept seeing!
Remember that this is not a park where anyone will come looking for you if you are stuck. Visitor numbers are low, so if you do get stuck, you may be in for a night alone in a hippo and crocodile-infested bog!