Front row hippo views: why the Caprivi Strip is more than a stop-over between Namibia & Botswana

Planning to go to Namibia or Botswana? Lucky you! Many travellers combine both destinations and since there are only a couple of border crossings, chances are high that you will be making the long drive up from or down to Maun via the Caprivi Strip. Not to worry, as the Caprivi Strip is a wonderful destination in itself. Read my travel story below, or if you just want to know where to stay for an amazing experience in a beautiful accommodation, click here to hop straight to the bottom of this page for practical information about your stay in the Caprivi Strip

Some ten minutes ago we left the asphalt road behind us and turned into a sand track. Just when we started to wonder if we really did follow up on the route instructions correctly, a signpost confirmed that we had. Driving onto the campsite, we again wonder if we are really on the right track. We are following a tree-lined sand path for some minutes now without a sight of the bamboo hut that is supposed to be our secluded home for the coming two days. But then again, we are on our way to a hidden spot to find some relaxation after a wonderful but exhausting road trip through Namibia. So what else could we expect?

The minute I spot our hut on the water’s edge, I am in love with its airy and natural design. But things are about to get even better. From the veranda I take a first glance at the Okavango river that reflects the colours of the sunlight. It takes only seconds for me to realize that a couple of ears are sticking out from the water. We have front row seats for a hippopotamus sighting!  

Front row seats for hippo viewing
Front row seats for hippo viewing

We excitedly watch the grey and chubby submarines slightly raise their heads above the water for a noisy catch of breath. Hurriedly, my partner takes out the camera from the car to make sure we can capture this moment. Hurry, however, turns out not to be a word that suits the vocabulary of hippos. Nor the vocabulary of Ngepi Camp, the campsite where we have just settled down for the coming few days.

This afternoon we could do anything we’d like; read a book, select photographs, play a card game. Instead, we sit down on the veranda and watch the world’s deadliest large land animal calmly splash water around. The hippos slowly move about in the same particular area, heads above the surface and then immersing themselves in the water again to escape the mid-day heat. A calf draws our specific attention, its tiny ears looking even cuter and its splashes more uncontrolled than those of its bigger companions. The small ears of hippopotami seem completely out of proportion with their otherwise huge heads and have me strangely attributing a high level of cuddliness to these giants. Until one opens its mouth. My own jaw drops as the hippo stretches its mouth open to what must be almost a metre wide. It shows off its pink palate and gigantic canine teeth and incisors that could easily pierce my body. Now that I see this, it is in fact not difficult to see how a seemingly peaceful grass eater can turn into an aggressor when need be.

Hours have passed by and the blinding reflection of the sunlight in the river has disappeared. The skies now have a pink hue matching the colour of the rosé in our wine glasses. We start cooking when darkness starts to fall and enjoy our meals with a hippo orchestra in the background. Since it is now pitch dark and the show is over, we finally start playing that card game. Some hours later we fall asleep wondering if we will we have front row seats for the show again tomorrow. And perhaps with a tiny bit of worry that our hut is just bamboo and might be in the way of these heavyweights looking for fresh grass in the cool night air.  

For the first time in I don’t even know how many days and weeks, I wake up to the warm feeling of sunlight on my face instead of from the sound of an alarm clock. Sun rays peek through the bamboo walls of our hut. I have barely opened my eyes when I already hear the gurgling and sniffing sound of a hippo. Apparently, the stars of yesterday’s show have decided to return for a morning recital. I wrap a towel around my body and walk out onto the veranda to greet them a good morning. Across the river, the sun is slowly making its way up in the skies from behind the forested fields. My partner joins me outdoors and wraps his arms around my waist. I expect him to whisper a comment about this beautiful spot in my ear, but instead he makes me jump up in reaction to an excited shout in my ear. “Isn’t that a water buffalo?!” Our moment of morning romance is over before it has even begun, as he turns around to get his camera with zoom lens and I grab the binoculars. “Yes it is a water buffalo!”

What a way to start the day, and what a wonderful feeling to know that another stretch of relaxing hours is patiently waiting for us to enjoy. No driving today, no stressing about the possibility of getting stuck in deep sand or river beds, no accommodation to be reached before darkness falls. Just us and this wonderful spot on the river front. And okay, we have one activity planned for the afternoon. But surely, a mokoro trip will be a tranquil experience as well?

Before we hop on the local version of a canoe we have to sign a waiver clearing Ngepi Camp from all responsibilities in case something would happen on the river given the fact that besides hippos, crocodiles also roam its waters. Right, relaxing.

Mokoro trip
Feeling slightly uncomfortable turning around in the unstable mokoro

The mokoro, traditionally a dug out tree trunk but nowadays made from fibre glass, is light, long and slim which makes it suitable to navigate tight channels but this also means it is quite unstable. We carefully follow the instructions of our poler to slowly sit down and avoid tipping over right away. He himself stands at the stern and uses a long pole to push us away from the small wooden landing stage. We smoothly glide through the water and I watch our poler scanning the river surface. Within two minutes of our departure, our mokoro and those of the other travellers joining the afternoon boat trip, lay still next to each other. The three guys are talking in their local language but it is clear they’re making a risk assessment, debating if it would be safer to go upstream or downstream. Now able to see the other side of the river, I see heads of hippos sticking out from the water in the distance. On the other side, I know, are our own backyard hippos. They choose the opposite direction of our hut and soon my imagination of a hippo easily tipping over our mokoro move to the background as the polars point out birds in the trees. I am glad I have my binoculars with me to make out all the features of a Kingfisher balancing on a branch above us. The colourful and small White-fronted bee-eater, with yellow, blue, green and red feathers is feast for the eye and my favourite. The most imposing bird we see on this trip though, the African fish eagle, is at least ten times its size.

White-fronted bee-eater
White-fronted bee-eater

Once we’ve passed the small corridor between the river bank and tall reeds, one of the polers points out that we have just passed a hippo at a short distance. I now realize that while our veranda offers front row seats at the balcony, the mokoro is at stalles level. A bit too close to the stage for my preference. When we disembark for a stretch of the legs on an islet in the river some minutes later, I am not entirely at ease. Footprints of hippos are clearly visible in grassy sand surface. Besides that, it also looks like the perfect resting spot for a crocodile.

The others don’t really seem to be aware of that notion though and since there is nothing I can do in this moment to minimize the risk in any way, I ask for a bottle opener and say cheers. Sipping my beer, I look at the monkeys running around on the other side of the river and take in the last Namibian sunset of our trip. Tomorrow will be yet another drive, this time into Botswana. What I already hoped was confirmed in these two days: the Caprivi Strip is not just a necessary stop-over en route between Namibia and Botswana, but a wonderful destination in its own right. As if to strengthen this conclusion, an elephant appears on the river bank while we slide through the water, back to the campsite where the hippos will hopefully seek the spotlight again tomorrow morning.

Poler at sunset

Create your own adventure! Tips to make the most out of your time in the Caprivi Strip & practical advice to have an easy border crossing between Namibia and Botswana.

Where to stay in the Caprivi Strip?

Let me be honest with you up front. I was lucky enough to have this accommodation recommended to me by a friend and was then invited to stay at Ngepi Camp as part of a SYTNA collaboration. My recommendation to you is based on this wonderful stay I had at Ngepi Camp, swapping our 4×4 for a self catering hut for two nights.

The campsites at Ngepi Camp are spacious and private, but not all of them are on the river front. Be sure to ask for a site with a view if you want to have a chance to see the hippos from your campsite. The toilets and outdoor showers are wonderful, the most original and funniest I have ever seen on a campsite (see the pictures below for a sneak preview).

If you can treat yourself to an upgrade for a night (or two), I would highly recommend a river front hut. The huts are romantic, have their own outdoor shower and a veranda from which – if you’re lucky – you can enjoy your own private hippo viewing.

There’s a river pool which means that a cage has been sunk into the river which separates you from the hippos and crocs that call the river their home. The owners refer to it as the first cage dive with crocs and hippos in the world, but just be aware that there’s also the potential risk of getting Bilharzia (schistosomiasis) from the parasites that are found in the waters in the Caprivi Strip, before you decide to take a dip.

What to do in the Caprivi Strip?

The Caprivi Strip is a narrow appendage in the northeast of Namibia, and offers a completely different landscape than the more barren mainland. No less then four rivers find their way through the Caprivi Strip, making it a popular habitat for hippos, crocs, elephants and other wildlife.

The strip is home to the Bwabwata National Park that helps to rehabilitate local wildlife after years of poaching and conflict. In contrast to Etosha, Chobe and Moremi, visitor numbers are still small here. But then, so is the wildlife. We decided not to drive into the park as we had planned one more week of safari in Botswana, but during our mokoro ride along the park we did see lots of birds, monkeys and an elephant.

Coming from the Epupa Falls and going to the Victoria Falls, we decided to skip the small Popa Falls near Bagani. I still want to mention them here, as you might want to take a look at the rapids since you’re there anyway.

Rivers mean boat rides and there are plenty on offer. The campsites and lodges along the river bank offer sundowner boat rides and mokoro trips. A mokoro trip definitely is more exciting, but keep in mind that since motorized boats are on the river at the same time as you are, it might not be the silent experiences you have seen in travel programmes on television.

All you need to know about a mokoro trip

Experiencing a mokoro trip is a must when visiting the Caprivi Strip or Okavango Panhandle. My wish was to go for a multi-day trip in the Okavango Delta itself but water levels made it impossible to do so. Instead, we have been on a mokoro trip in the Caprivi Strip and Chobe National Park.

Like all safari experiences, mokoro trips are expensive. Ngepi Camp however gives you a taste of the experience for a reasonable price. I have to admit that it did not have the magic of gliding along a narrow waterway in complete silence between tall reeds in Chobe because of the motorboats that were passing by, but it certainly was exciting.

Mekoro are unstable, which means you have to be very careful when getting in and out (stay low as long as possible) and it is probably less convenient to bring children along.

Traditionally, mekoro were made from tall straight trees, but nowadays the canoe-like boats are made from fibre-glass. Be aware that mekoro that show signs of wear might cause an itchy rash when you lean on them with your bare skin. If that happens, avoid scratching and instead rinse the irritating spot with warm water and soap to remove the tiny glass fibers.

Bring along a waterproof bag (or waterproof camera), put on your sunglasses and loads of sunscreen. I loved having my binoculars with me as it was perfect for bird watching and identifying wildlife on the river bank.

The seats of a mokoro are – obviously – very basic. To prevent the backrest pressing into your skin on a longer trip, you might want to bring along a scarf or sweater to lean against.

How to cross the border between Namibia and Botswana?

If you’re reading this you’re probably planning to combine destinations in Namibia with visiting Botswana’s Chobe National Park / Okavango Delta. The Caprivi Strip will be your easiest gateway.

The Mahango – Mohembo border is about 12 km after the entrypoint to the Mahango Game Reserve (Namibia). The closest towns to the border crossing are Divindu in Nambia and Shakawe in Botswana.

Access to the Mahango Game Reserve is free of charge if you stick to the main road that goes straight to the border control offices. At the entrance gate, you will find a register on a table next to the boom in which you have to fill out date, time, name, license plate and destination.

On our way through the park we got to see two elephants from up close, so take care when driving the dirt road and enjoy!

Bring your vehicle entry card along to the immigration desk (at the time of writing we just had to place it on the pile of other vehicle entry cards), fill in a departure card and have your passport stamped. An additional control post might ask you to stop over and show your passport once more to prove it got stamped and then you’re on the other side. There you fill in an arrival card and add another stamp to the collection in your passport.

Entering Botswana, you also have to fill out an extensive registration book for your vehicle, including for instance the series number of your car. Your rental car company has probably included this in the folder with your contract, so bring this along. You now have to pay for a road permit and insurance, but even though guide books will tell you that all currencies are accepted, we found that Botswana Pula were not accepted. So make sure you still have South African Rand or Namibian Dollars left. At the time of writing the cost of the road permit and insurance was N$190.

Driving in Botswana vs driving in Namibia

Having driven across Namibia for four weeks, we thought we had seen it all in terms of road conditions, but Botswana still took us by surprise.

Botswana has many asphalt roads but once you see them you’ll wish they had remained dirt roads. The asphalt has many, many potholes that will make you incredibly thankful for the strength of your 4×4 rental car. The speed limit is definitely not adjusted to the current road conditions, so be aware and drive carefully. Make sure to also focus on the oncoming traffic, as cars and trucks will zigzag the road to avoid the potholes.

Namibia has perfect asphalt roads and bumpy dirt roads, but all are wide and can be managed without a 4×4. Unless you’re planning to venture out off road into the desert or the Skeleton Coast.

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