While most travelers to Namibia head for the Skeleton Coast and world-highest sand dunes, Tim Johnson takes his chances on a trip along the Zambezi, Okavango, Kwando and Chobe rivers.
All was calm and peaceful—eerily quiet, you could say—before the hippos came for us. Sliding into the soft mud and tall grasses on the right bank of the Kwando River, a semicircle forms quietly, conspiratorially, the heads of these gray beasts lurking just above the water line.
Almost cartoonishly ill-tempered, hippos are huge, and irritable by nature. And these ones, a half-dozen or so in total, snorting and shooting water from their nostrils and yawning—all signs of aggression, according to our guide and boat-driver Higlee—are slowly closing the circle, striding toward us, their mighty, semi-aquatic legs unseen below the murky waters.
Earlier in the trip, right after we launched, someone asked him if a hippo could flip the boat. “Oh yes, they do,” Higlee responded, leaving open a couple of important, unsettling, and rather germane questions, including where, exactly—and how recently?
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Perhaps spotting the bubbles that I see fairly close off our port side, and almost certainly noting their steady advance, Higlee cranks up the motor and turns us back upriver, the hippos continuing after us, off the stern, one popping his head up above the surface with a sudden whoosh of the water, much closer than any of us had anticipated.
I’m running the rivers in northern Namibia, a southern African nation better known for its world-highest sand dunes and skeletal coasts, traveling along the Caprivi Strip. A strange historical and geographic quirk, the Caprivi is in many ways a hidden corner of the continent, sandwiched between several nations and running deep into the heart of Africa, all the way to the edge of Victoria Falls.
Forming the long northern arm of Namibia, it’s a thin strip of land surrounded by water. While bypassed by many mass safari tour operators, it’s an area rich in both wildlife and culture, a place where you can get up close and personal with all the natural inhabitants of this curious place.
At one village, near the Kwando, I learn how the people used to tip their spears with drops of venom from a puff adder or black mamba and hunt hippo, drawing it out of the water with a drumbeat.
I’m here for 10 days, flying first to Windhoek, the country’s capital, set high and arid on a rocky plateau not far from the Kalahari Desert. Boarding a one-hour commercial flight, I proceed over the Okavango Delta and land in a different world, lush and green, at a little airstrip at remote Katima Mulilo, the local waterways brimming and the vegetation flush, right at the end of rainy season.
Traveling with Blue Crane Safaris, a Namibian-owned-and-operated tour company, I’m here to trace the four famous rivers—the Zambezi, Okavango, Kwando and Chobe—that run through here, meeting the residents and learning how these waterways sustain life in this part of Africa.
I meet my guide and proceed by jeep to a lodge on the banks of the Zambezi River. Navigated by David Livingstone and running more than 2,500 kilometers, the Zambezi is one of the world’s great rivers; here I’m well above the crash and splendour of Victoria Falls, further inland.
Cruising out on a pontoon boat, the waters are swelled by the rainy season, and my local guide Joseph promises to seek out crocodiles and other toothy animals. “And before us, right here, we have snakes!” he says, and for a moment, I excitedly look over the side of the boat, anticipating a slithering mass before realizing that I haven’t quite gotten used to the accent. He’s actually offered me snacks.
These waterways aren’t plied only by pleasure craft. They sustain life, too, something I see as we proceed by road back toward Windhoek. At one village, near the Kwando, I learn how the people used to tip their spears with drops of venom from a puff adder or black mamba and hunt hippo, drawing it out of the water with a drumbeat that replicated its call. “We strip the meat, bring it back, and we celebrate and enjoy,” one man tells me.
With the animals closing in faster than expected, the engine on our boat thrums away and we motor downriver from the threat—only to encounter two elephants, white tusks flashing in the fading light.
At another, near the Okavango, residents gather and put on an impromptu show, pounding on drums and singing and dancing with passion and pure joy. They show us their homes, walls built from termite clay and roofs thatched with grass gathered at the river. When the water level drops, the men head to the river with poles, looking to hook a big catch.
There’s no television or video games or electricity—just solar panels to charge non-smart cell phones—but a local elder tells me that people find better ways to entertain themselves, anyway. “We sit around the fire and tell stories,” he says. “These, they were passed to us by our grandmothers and grandfathers.”
Later, we see villagers from the far side of the river. The Caprivi is a sort of crossroads of Africa, with Botswana and Zambia and Angola all nearby, and near Hakusemble Lodge, on another boat cruise, my local guide Bernard Shakanda notes that, with the closest shop more than 400 kilometers away on their side, Angolans routinely cross the river to shop here in Namibia. Soon we see one, a solitary man paddling a makoro—a dugout canoe—laid low in the water by his purchases, his kids excitedly receiving him (and perhaps a couple new toys) on that far side.
While it’s the first thought on my mind, Shakanda notes that people around here don’t fear the potentially dangerous wildlife. Growing up, he went for tiger fish with hand lines and took care of his father’s cows. His family bathed and washed clothes in the Okavango, and people still gather drinking water here too, boiling it over a fire before using it. “I even swam in the river,” he tells me. “I was not even thinking about the crocodiles.”
But back on the Kwando, hippos are definitely on my mind. With the animals closing in faster than expected, the engine on our boat thrums away and we motor downriver from the threat—only to encounter two elephants nearby, white tusks flashing in the fading light, moments later. “They are fighting for the womans,” says Higlee in imperfect English, explaining that we’re witnessing an alpha male protecting his territory, vanquishing a potential usurper.
We watch as the alpha vanquishes the upstart, the smaller elephant eventually making his way to the water’s edge, just a few meters from where we sit, wide-eyed, in our little tin boat. It’s all a bit amazing, although now, several days into my journey, this kind of thing has become commonplace—heading back to the lodge, the boat happily un-tipped by hippos, it’s just another night on the river.
The writer traveled with Blue Crane Safaris who offer a variety of guided tours all over Namibia, including this 10-day excursion along Namibia’s rivers.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson spends most of his days searching for a new story and a good adventure—he’s visited 135 countries on all seven continents, and written for CNN Travel, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and more.