Our beautifully green city of Windhoek always pleasantly surprises new visitors, who expect to plonk their feet into the desert sand once disembarking from the plane. For first time travellers this expectation will be rewarded as soon as they point their cars south or southwest. It is however the direction due North from Windhoek that takes you onto a whole other adventure, filled with flora, fauna and rich culture.
The drive may be 716 km long, but it takes you through a vast variety of scenery: from the garden town of Okahandja through the hills of Otjiwarongo onto the fertile lands of Otavi and Grootfontein. The first indication that will sharpen your sense of adventure is when the relatively flat landscape changes with the presence of groups of 18-meter-tall Makalani trees (Hyphaene petersiana) and their huge fan shaped leaves. Legend has it that migrating elephants strolled across from the Okavango Delta in Botswana towards Etosha in the West, and through their deposited dung, dispersed the seeds of this palm tree all along their path.
The Makalani announces your arrival in the North of Namibia, but only once you pass the veterinary fence gate of Mururani, you feel yourself transported to an authentic African experience. There are so many, much bigger varied species of trees and the landscape is dotted with true African homesteads with thatched huts and kraals. One of Namibia’s newer national parks, Mangetti, lies over the hills at your right.
The B1 is a true lifeline for many communities, as it brings supplies, development and employment to the area. There is a constant hustle and bustle up and down the road with school going children walking along with donkeys, cattle and dogs trotting on the side and the beautiful sight on Sundays of churchgoing communities all dressed in impeccable whites with their signature colour sash.
We are heading towards Rundu, capital city of the province of Kavango West but will veer off towards the west to visit Hakusembe River Lodge.
Photo courtesy of Danica Geldenhuys
The 5 communities that settled here between 1750 and 1800, originated from the lakes of East Africa and formed part of the Bantu ethnolinguistic group. Today, Rukwangali is spoken by the Hambukushu, Vagciriku, Vasambyu, Vambunza & Vakwangali tribes. As visible by the various woodwork craft products along the highway such as headrests, mahango pounding mortars with long wooden pestles, and mokoros (dugout canoes) as well as variety of pottery designs, they are immensely proud of their skills.
We turn off onto the gravel road and see a variety of small bridges placed in a seemingly dry area, until we realize that these are the floodplains of the river reaching far inland. The Okavango River originates from sandy highlands in Angola (where it is called Cubango) and forms part of Namibia's northern border until it continues across the Zambezi Region and into the Kalahari regions of northwestern Botswana, where it divides into streams and eventually ends into the Okavango Delta wetlands.
Hakusembe River Lodge
Arriving at the Lodge, we are welcomed by a soft trickling fountain heralding the arrival in a lush oasis. A beautiful, sprawling garden landscape greets us, together with a huge openhearted smile from the Hakusembe team members and their signature phrase: “welcome home”. Bright canna lilies grow lusciously under massive shady trees, and I pass the massive teak terrace that rims the restaurant area, before I cross the Indiana Jones suspended bridge to my room that is located on the water’s edge.
The room has a distinctive “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” feel to it, with its abundant use of wood, simple white, yellow and calming blue interior features. I chuckle at the magician’s trick of halving wooden hippos and the positioning of this décor all along the walls and in the bathrooms. Walking outside onto my wooden deck, the only thing that’s missing is a rocking chair.
Sitting on the magnificent wooden terrace with a pink gin in hand, I observe the calm and peaceful flow of the river, the river boats bobbling underneath and the laughter of children letting their Sanga cattle drink on the Angolan side of the river. This is such a precious source for the people of the region. They are farmers that grow crops and herd their cattle. However, as the sun is setting, you will see them in their watu dug out canoes crossing the invisible border many times and fishing for bream, tilapia & nembwe. The Lodge’s logo reflects their precious cattle and reads “Inspiring creativity”.
The peace is temporarily disturbed by the sound of the swooshing skirts on the hips of the resident Hakusembe choir down at the white sandy beach below. Their traditional attire made from leather back flaps and “mashamba” skirts made from root bark and mataka reeds are exotic together with their ‘thishukeka” headdresses consisting of loosely hanging plaits adorned with cowrie shells and glass beads. The men have made a bonfire on the beach and the girls start singing and clapping to the sound of the men’s expressive drums! In this incredible setting, the tribal sounds seem to touch my soul directly and it feels like time has stopped altogether. What a magical moment both for the people on the deck as well as the travellers that are about to arrive back at the beach after their sunset cruise. To me, this is Africa pure.
Photo courtesy of Astrid van Lill
Waking up with the sound of birds chirping in the reeds in front of my abode, I set foot onto the deck, only to surprisingly find a tray with fresh coffee and cookies awaiting me. The slow pace of life here along the river brings me utter contentment and whilst sipping my coffee, a malachite kingfisher hoovers above the water and then dives straight in. Do I imagine it, or did he pause slightly with the fish in his mouth, just to proudly show off his breakfast catch? Today I have planned a wonderful day for myself. I deliberately slow down, walking through the gardens, absorbing all the verdant greenery and the soothing reflection of the water.
Wait, did I just softly sing “Don’t worry, ‘bout a thing, every little thing is gonna be all right” from Bob Marley without realizing it? To me it feels like a real island vibe, and it certainly makes me be in the present and very chilled indeed.
The hand painted fabric tablecloths may be a modern approach to what is life all around me right now, but they will fit in any contemporary home décor.
Together with the fabric covered wire animals that stand together in a cluster on the wooden floor, only complementing this design. The keyrings with tiny drums most probably are more for children but after last night, I am going to take one home for when I feel like reliving that special moment.
After a quick swim and a blissful pampering treatment, I feel invigorated and ready for a lovely dinner. Tomorrow my journey continues East along the trans Kalahari highway, leaving behind the Okavango River at the town of Divundu, where it veers off and plunges down the famous Popa falls and flows further to Botswana.
Photo courtesy of Astrid van Lill
A beautiful day for driving through the previously called “Caprivi strip” guides me as the easy-going tarred highway is rimmed with lots of forests. I see an abundance of distinguished features of massive trees. From the large dark green Copal trees with their red fruits on long strings and seemingly burnt bark, to the very easily recognizable Zambezi teak that sprouts pink flowers when in season but has its velvety flag shaped fruits protruding from its dense crown, they are all so magnificent. Most striking at this time of the year though is the barren umbrella shaped Kiaat tree that shows off its fruit made in papery round discs that look like wings with a centre of coarse bristles on both sides. How did I become such a specialist on Namibian trees? Extremely easy! Thanks to the super entertaining book “The unbearable beauty of trees” from Helga Burger, everyone can. And with our rapidly diminishing forests in this area, I suggest you get yourself a copy before venturing into the Zambezi region, as it highly enriches your lengthy drive and walks at the Lodges.
Photo courtesy of Astrid van Lill
Entering Bwabwata National Park automatically through the Buffalo core area, it really feels like this part of Namibia has a plethora of animals and cultures different than what I have experienced before. Turning off at Kongola, it is a short drive until the tar makes way for soft white sand and small villages on both sides. Namushasha River Lodge is located on a high bank with a magical forest covering the area. The drive up to the area is literally graced with the giants of the forest, the baobab trees. The entrance to the Lodge sports its own massive “upside down” tree which even has fruits hanging now. Walking into Namushasha River Lodge is like walking into a painting. The view from the restaurant over the Kwando River, which divides up in a labyrinth of channels and flows right beneath you, is simply breathtaking. The marshlands below must be the best bird habitat ever but a boat ride with consecutive game drive into Bwabwata National Park will surely show us so much more, as August often is the best time of the year to see large herds of elephants.
The brand essence “riches of the river” is a good indication of what to expect; but reality surpassed my wildest imagination! Whilst the guide expertly swung the boat through various oxbow channels, he pointed out pods of hippos, lazily sunning crocodiles and the quick escape of a turtle from a sandbank. A special sight was that of the African Jacana bird that effortlessly walks over floating waterlilies and the jumping fish that nests between the papyrus vegetation. Sharing a story of how in their tradition young men still propose to their girls for marriage, the guide pulled a long waterlily from the water and gingerly made it into a beautiful necklace as used in this ceremony. The gesture touched me immensely and confirmed that the Zambezi people still are rooted and connected to their natural surroundings. The beautiful waterlily therefore is seen as the Lodge’s logo and must be one of the most photographed things in this marshy paradise.
Photo courtesy of Jens Viëtor
We disembarked from the boats to climb straight onto open game drive vehicles, to continue our quest into the Bwabwata National Park. It was my first-time seeing elephants bathing their sizeable bodies by literally dunking them in the river and coming back up with green water plants hanging from their tusks! Celebrating the end of the day with a beautiful sunset at the famous horseshoe bend in the company of a massive congregation of more elephants, we returned to our boats and cautiously navigated the waterways back to the lodge, careful not to disturb the many hippos along the way. Exhausted from all the experiences, I sit down for dinner right away as I seem to have the appetite of a lion. Once retreated to my room, I open all the gauze windows to let the fresh air enter and fall asleep by the exotic sound of the hippos honking below.
Photo courtesy of Astrid van Lill
The morning sun sends its soft rays to penetrate the forest I walk through on my way to breakfast. A blue vervet monkey jumps from one treetop to the other whilst looking at me curiously. I sit down on colourful cushions of waxcloth material and enjoy my breakfast with a splendid view and even more balanced mind set. To complement my stay, I set off for a visit to the Namushasha Heritage Center, which is just next door and for that, I scan the curio shop for a wax cloth “kitenge” cloth.Local custom requires you to wear a wrap over your clothing when visiting elderly and headmen in the village. The wonderful thing about kitenges is that back home, you can use them as a tablecloth, headwear or even at the beach. Here, traditional basket weaving has been spruced up with strips of this material being interwoven creating beautiful baskets, jewellery boxes and placemats.
There is a great forest walkway which takes you from the main Lodge along the waters' edge. You can pause and read all about this wonderful wetland on the information boards, as it tells you about the habitat and pathways of the hippos that you can clearly see exit the water to graze on the green campsites at night. It was a true eye opener learning that they “poop” in a messy way by rotating their tails and the proof was found on the ferns on the riverbank! Arriving at the Namushasha Heritage Center, a whole new perspective was opening up in front of me.
I learned about the cultural ways and meanings of various basketry in cooking, the details in the clothing, to the use of a variety of instruments. I was amazed by the instrument that mimics the sound of a honking hippo through a taut skin and a wooden stick. The huge wooden xylophone with the calabash hanging underneath is another masterpiece that has stood the test of time and is the center of the dance circle together with the drums. Living in this far corner of Namibia, the people are guided by their own tribal council (Khuta) comprising of the chiefs that represent their villages. Where previously I saw baskets and cloth as just souvenirs and interior items, I am so glad that I received this valuable insight into age old traditions with each item now meaning so much more to me. It gives the slogan “purchase with a purpose” proper meaning as I was able to support the communities and pay homage to their way of life. Namushasha River Lodge, in all its specialness, has captured my soul.
Written by: Sonia Noirfalise-Corsini