Wandering sole
Fran Sandham recently walked across Africa - starting out from Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. In this extract from his new book Traversa we find him tired and with sore feet as he enters the country’s Caprivi Strip.

 

Image Although many of the people I meet on this trip assume I’m reasonably brave, in fact I’m scared of most things, including dinosaurs. The truth is I’m worried about crossing the West Caprivi Game Reserve on foot, so I visit Rundu’s Nature Conservation Office to get some up-to-date information on lion attacks. The staff here are extremely helpful; we consult a map of the park, which covers an entire wall. ‘You will have to be careful over the last forty kilometres – all the reported lion incidents have been in that area,’ the officer tells me. I never realized before how sinister the word ‘incident’ can sound.


Statistically, the chances of getting eaten by a lion in Africa are pretty low. Yet someone has to get eaten once in a while for such statistics to exist. I have to remind myself repeatedly that most accidents happen at home – though not, admittedly, accidents involving lions.


Leaving Rundu, I head east towards the Caprivi Strip. Once known as ‘The Devil’s Finger’, this panhandle-shaped stretch of land once formed part of the German colony. It derives its un-African name from the even more un-African name of the nineteenth-century German chancellor, General Count Georg Leo von Caprivi di Caprara di Montecuccoli, thankfully shortened. Germany acquired the territory from the British in 1890 in exchange for Heligoland and Zanzibar, and were delighted with this strategically important link through the British colonies to German East Africa. In the First World War, however, it became the very first German territory to fall to the British. At the outbreak of hostilities, the unsuspecting German governor was dining with an equally unsuspecting British official from Rhodesia, the two men on the best of terms. The meal ended on a sour note when the British official’s aide passed him a letter announcing the start of the war – he immediately arrested the German governor and annexed the Caprivi Strip back to the British crown, all within the time it took to serve the brandy and cigars to the remaining diners.


I trek through the bushland along the Kavango, looking vaguely trainspotterish with my compass hanging on a string around my neck. This stretch of river resembles the Thames below Richmond Hill; even the trees look similar from a distance. Although heavily vegetated, with green fields and dense woodlands of teak, much of the Caprivi Strip is covered with Kalahari sand. The whole area was once a desert, but now it’s the most fertile region in Namibia. Caprivi is so lush I find it hard to imagine it’s part of the same country as the Namib Desert. So much of Namibia is arid: the country has enormous problems with water shortage, countless adverts proclaiming water as ‘our most precious resource’. Yet here in the north of the country the Okavango system alone has more water in it than all the rivers in South Africa put together. And when the region floods, it really floods – the vast Caprivi swamps are sometimes known as Namibia’s ‘water country’. Local people often travel by means of mokoro – dugout canoes skilfully propelled by long poles. ‘He who digs his pole too deep will be stuck forever,’ runs a local proverb.


My progress through the sand slows to a weary plod; as if to taunt me a flock of tiny black birds repeatedly whizz past at breathtaking speed, back and forth over my head, like miniature Red Arrows. I head back towards the main road and immediately make much better progress. By necessity I’ve become something of an expert on walking surfaces, judging which offer the firmest footing, which prove kinder to your feet, and above all which allow the least expenditure of energy. Rough gravel roads tend to tear sandals to ribbons; in some ways they’re worse than walking through the bush, especially when the road is a mixture of loose sand and sharp stones. Carrying a heavy pack, I sink up to my ankles in the sand while the sharp stones hurt my feet through my sandals.


A well-to-do black family stops and presents me with a can of ice-cold 7UP, which right now tastes more like the elixir of life. Later some less affluent locals fill my water bottle from the innards of their car, a gift just as welcome – although I suspect this last offering has something to do with my coming down with giardiasis later. The heat meanwhile turns my reading candles into wax bananas.

 

Before the entrance to the game reserve I stop for a day’s rest. I want to get moving through the West Caprivi Game Reserve as quickly as possible, rather than sitting around here worrying about lions up ahead, and I’m half-tempted to carry straight on. But I’ve just walked 200 kilometres from Rundu without a break to get here, and the road through the game reserve itself is the same distance again. It would be foolish to set out immediately when I’m already worn out; the lions can wait another day for their dinner.


I pitch my tent in the campsite beside Popa Falls. ‘Popa’ translates rather redundantly as ‘it is here’ – although you could say that about most places with some degree of confidence. The Kavango River is over one kilometre wide at this point, although the falls themselves are little more than rapids, and fail to entice the hordes of visitors away from the spectacular Victoria Falls downstream. But it’s a peaceful place, surrounded by forests of jackal berry and buffalo thorn; the noise of the river tumbling over the cascades is lovely in this heat, with plenty of shade around the thatched wooden bungalows. If this were Europe I’d be swimming by now – but there are too many crocodiles and hippos to make this a viable option, not to mention the bilharzia.


Instead I sit in a lodge bar a couple of kilometres downriver from Popa Falls, watching two crocodiles who in turn are showing a keen interest in a family of hippos. But the latter can look after themselves; hippos may appear to be peaceable creatures most of the time, but they kill more people than any other animal in Africa. Anyone reckless enough to place themselves between a hippo and its young – or even just the water – is likely to see it transformed into a three-ton engine of destruction, and a charging hippo can flatten most living things. They’re denser than water, so they can waddle on the floor of a lake or river with their lungs full of air; since they can manage this, I can’t understand how they can also float to swim, but they’ve obviously worked it out somewhere down the evolutionary line. Despite their size and weight they can also tiptoe through a campsite at night without snagging a single guyline.


Although Namibian law prohibits local people from trapping hippos in this area, it still goes on, the temptation of so much free meat inevitably proving irresistible. Livingstone was often impressed by the courage of hippopotamus hunters, especially the Makombwe on the Luangwa River. Often a wounded hippo would attack the hunter’s canoe and crunch it with its great jaws ‘as easily as a pig would a bunch of asparagus’. To escape with their lives the natives would swim frantically for the shore, keeping underwater while the angry hippo searched for them on the surface. ‘We have no sport, except perhaps Indian tiger shooting, requiring the courage and coolness this enterprise demands,’ Livingstone wrote. The moment the hippo’s blood is shed into the water ‘all the crocodiles below are immediately drawn up stream by the scent, and are ready to act the part of thieves in a London crowd, or worse’. He often saw ‘frightful gashes’ on the legs of people who had survived hippo attacks.


But it’s the lions rather than hippos that are causing me sleepless nights, and my anxiety about them is getting worse. Sitting watching hippos in a comfortable lodge with a cold beer in my hand isn’t helping me cross the game reserve in one piece. Rest or no rest, I’ve run out of plausible delaying tactics, and I simply have to get moving without any further stalling. Crossing the bridge over the Kavango River, I pass a police checkpoint then start the long trek through the game reserve.

 

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