Exploring the world’s largest transfrontier park
haped like a giant butterfly spreading its wings across southern Africa, the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) is one of the continent’s most biodiverse and enticing tourism regions. At its heart lies the irresistible Victoria Falls – a magnet to adrenaline junkies. But take a short hop north, east, south or west and you could find yourself in one of KAZA’s equally exciting national parks, reserves or wilderness areas.
Using Victoria Falls or Livingstone as a hub, discover how to combine ‘the Smoke that Thunders’ with other highlights in KAZA – from the mini-Serengeti of Zambia’s Busanga Plains to the mesmerising salt pans of the Kalahari; from water-wonderlands like the Okavango and Kariba to wildlife strongholds like Chobe and Hwange. Covering an area the size of Spain, KAZA also includes remote, little-visited places like Namibia’s Khaudum National Park and vast swathes of southeast Angola where conservation tourism is still in its infancy.
KAZA in context
The world’s largest terrestrial conservation area (covering an area of nearly 520,000 sq km), KAZA will have your safari bucket list overflowing in no time.
Nearly 75 per cent of southern Africa’s elephants are found within its borders, half of them in Botswana and Zimbabwe. KAZA is also home to nearly a quarter of the continent’s remaining population of African wild dog — and if your wish list contains other rarities like sable, roan, sitatunga or Pel’s fishing owl, get a pencil ready to mark them ‘seen’ in one of KAZA’s 36 national parks and protected areas.
You can also tick off three World Heritage sites — Victoria Falls, Tsodilo Hills and the Okavango Delta — and plan safaris to Chobe, Hwange, Makgadikgadi Pans, Kafue, Lake Kariba or Matusadona. Using Victoria Falls or Livingstone as a springboard into the KAZA region, there’s a plethora of opportunities to satisfy the wildlife lover and eco-conscious traveller.
Living with elephants
The KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA) mandate is to practice best conservation and tourism models for the benefit of communities and wildlife, especially where they come into conflict. It is in many respects a model of how multiple neighbouring countries can work together for the greater good of people and wildlife, even if by its nature it is bureaucratic.
Big cats eating your cattle while you sleep or elephants raiding your vegetable garden are not everyday problems for most of us, but human-wildlife conflict is a major concern in many rural areas in Africa. KAZA supports numerous projects that aim to make people’s lives better.
In Botswana’s Okavango panhandle, in an area roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park, 15,000 elephants compete with the same number of people for water, food and land. The NGO Ecoexist helps farmers improve their yields by varying crop types and introducing sustainable intensification practices on their fields, which are clustered and electrically-fenced to keep elephants at bay. Locating these away from the 13 known elephant pathways criss-crossing the region addresses one of the key causes of the conflict, but requires important long-term participation of all stakeholders.
Ecoexist also helps communities benefit from wildlife through an ‘elephant economy’; elephant branded tourism, food and handicraft products. Chilli infused into a smoking elephant dung bomb is often used as an elephant deterrent, so take home some hot and spicy ‘elephant pepper’ to remind you of your holiday.
Innovative solutions to age-old problems are popping up all over KAZA — like using hanging beehives on trip wires around the new Sijwa Project permaculture garden, soon to be planted along the Kavango River of Namibia. A bee up the trunk is anathema to an elephant and when the swaying hives strung around the farm are disturbed, the bees come out and the elephants buzz off. It’s a win-win for sustainable vegetable growing, pollination and honey production.
Chief Mayuni, who lords over a vast swathe of this Zambezi Region, is right behind this initiative by African Monarch Lodges and their ambitious plans to recycle lodge and community waste into arts and crafts. Sijwa will take a couple of years to get going, but look out for road signs and swing by to have a look.
The border issue
KAZA’s success will be measured not over 3-5 years, but over 3-5 decades. Its designation began in the slightly conflicting context of collaboration and sovereignty involving four countries (Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana) with a fifth — Angola — entering into the fold as it emerged from a lengthy civil war. By the time the Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2006, KAZA’s boundaries had already expanded and perhaps will continue to do so in the future, to include areas fundamental to free movement of wildlife. For example, the Zimbabwean side of Lake Kariba is part of KAZA, while the Zambian portion is not.
Animals do not respect such boundaries and soon travellers will have an easier time of crossing borders too, once the KAZA UniVisa is adopted by all five countries. Currently, one visa costing US$50 is all you need to cross between Zimbabwe and Zambia, with a 24-hour excursion into Botswana allowable. Recently Botswana pledged to commit fully to the UniVisa, although when that might take effect is uncertain. Meanwhile, talks continue to enlist all five but without an official timeframe it could be another three years until the new UniVisa is unveiled.
One cause for optimism is that Phase III of funding to KAZA is allocated specifically to facilitating Wildlife Dispersal Areas (WDA’s). Six corridors critical to existing and historical migration routes have been identified. When animals are no longer constrained by fences and veterinary exclusion cordons, and when there are more effective anti-poaching methods, there will be the same potential for cross-border movement for elephant, buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, wild dog and even lion, answering their instinctive call for migration, denied for generations.
Zebra have demonstrated that despite never having migrated — due to the Nxai Pan veterinary fence installed to stop the spread of foot and mouth from buffalo to cattle — their genetic memory kicked in once the fences were taken down after 38 years in 2006. The zebras’ 300km return journey from Chobe south to the Makgadikgadi-Nxai Pan area is greater in distance than even the Serengeti migration.
More and more ‘green season’ tours are being offered specifically to witness some of these great gatherings of animals that follow the rains to greener pastures. The Hwange-Makgadikgadi-Nxai Pan Wildlife Dispersal Area from Zimbabwe to Botswana is being funded to the tune of US$11,745,000, so it is likely that the Makgadikgadi migration will only gain in numbers.
The German Development Bank KfW funds KAZA because of long-term German-SADC development cooperation supporting transboundary conservation, rural economic development, poverty reduction and a state of peace in the area. All European countries give financial support to developing countries, and with considerable numbers of German tourists visiting KAZA, it makes sense to support the area.
Regardless of political machinations, the fact remains that KAZA contains some of the jewels of African tourism and provides a framework to protect and preserve its environment and communities. This all makes it a highly attractive option for your next holiday.
Putting KAZA on the map
Delve into our map highlighting the mighty Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area and 16 must-visit destinations – including the central hub and gateway towns of Victoria Falls and Livingstone. By Carrie Hampton
SIOMA NGWEZI NATIONAL PARK, ZAMBIA
Catch yourself a tiger
Getting there: A 200km, 3.5hr drive from Livingstone to Sesheke (with a notorious 83km stretch of potholes) followed by 12km of good tar road to Sioma HQ.
Don’t miss: The fishing. Monster tiger fish lurk in the deep water beneath Ngonye Falls and some of the gentler cascades in this far-flung park. There are few roads and skittish game, but if you’re looking for feisty fishing, remote wilderness and few other visitors, it doesn’t get much wilder than this.
Where to stay: Nowhere inside the park, but there’s a lodge and campsites nearby.
KHAUDUM NATIONAL PARK, NAMIBIA
True wilderness for 4×4 fans
Getting there: On the 140km drive from Popa Falls at the western end of Bwabwata National Park, expect challenging off-roading in deep sand.
Don’t miss: Tackling wild and wooded country in a 4×4. Khaudum is remote and untamed with no facilities – you’re required to travel in a self-sufficient convoy of at least two vehicles. The rewards? Solitude, wilderness and and sightings of elephant, zebra, giraffe – and maybe lion, cheetah and wild dog – all to yourself.
Where to stay: The Khaudum Campsite offers shade and little else.
BWABWATA NP, NAMIBIA
Between two rivers
Getting there: Allow a 3hr drive from Livingstone to Katima Mulilo, across a couple of rivers.
Don’t miss: This little-visited park of floodplain and woodland is bookended by the Okavango and Kwando rivers – the birdwatching is excellent, particularly when summer migrants arrive, There are plenty of hippos, crocs, elephant, red lechwe and, if you’re lucky, lion and wild dog.
Where to stay: There are a couple of luxury tented lodges along the Kwando River and a riverside campsite for self-drivers.
ZAMBEZI-CHOBE RIVER CONFLUENCE, NAMIBIA
Getting there: From Victoria Falls it’s an hour or so by road to Kasane, followed by a boat ride downriver for around 40 minutes, with two border crossings en-route.
Don’t miss: Impalila Island – located at the meeting point of two of Africa’s greatest rivers, it’s a prime spot for birdwatching, fishing, boat trips, relaxing at a waterfront lodge or visiting one of the local villages.
Where to stay: The KAZA Collection includes Kaza Safari Lodge and Cascade Island Lodge.
OKAVANGO DELTA, BOTSWANA
Watery wilderness of the Kalahari
Getting there: Maun is the stepping-off point for the Okavango. A 1½hr flight (or 7½hr road trip) from Victoria Falls, it offers charter flights and road transfers to lodges in Moremi Game Reserve or private concessions.
Don’t miss: The wet and the dry. Nourished by life-giving waters from the Angolan highlands, the Okavango is a green-fingered mosaic of channels, lagoons, reedbeds and islands where different camps and lodges offer everything from game drives and bush walks to mokoro rides and boat trips depending on their location and the seasonal ebb and flow of floodwaters. Wildlife abounds in this utopia – from swamp-dwelling lions to jewel-like reed frogs.
OKAVANGO PANHANDLE, BOTSWANA
Paradise for birders and anglers
Getting there: A full day’s drive from Victoria Falls or Livingstone through Namibia’s Zambezi Region, crossing three rivers and borders.
Don’t miss: The wildlife and the fishing. Just before the Okavango River spills out into the delta, it flows through the panhandle’s floodplains and papyrus-choked lagoons where birders can set their sights on fishing owls, bee-eaters and African skimmers, and anglers can try their luck with tiger fish and bream. A drier diversion to the south, Tsodilo Hills World Heritage Site is daubed with Bushman rock art.
Where to stay: As well as affordable houseboats, the region has several campsites and lodges.
Gateway to the KAZA region and Victoria Falls
Getting there: The new Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport is a hub for local and international flights.
Don’t miss: Chilling out at a riverside lodge on the Upper Zambezi or staying overnight at a more rustic island camp – the birdwatching, canoeing and sundowner boat trips are legendary. Upping the adrenaline levels, book yourself onto a ‘Flight of the Angels’ flip over Mosi-oa-Tunya, or sign up for whitewater rafting, quad biking or a bungee jump off Victoria Falls Bridge. There’s also great curio shopping, as well as local village visits. Don’t miss the Livingstone Museum. See also pages 72-73.
Where to stay: Take your pick from camping or self-catering chalets to five-star lodges.
See also pages 60-61
MAKGADIKGADI-NXAI NP, BOTSWANA
Where nothing means everything
Getting there: It’s a long day’s drive from Victoria Falls. Or a 30-minute charter flight or 3-hour road transfer from Maun.
Don’t miss: The vast nothingness. Drive into the endless salt pans to witness the uncluttered curve of the earth, visit Kubu Island and feast your eyes on the bright rash of the Milky Way. Witness a little-known zebra migration, explore by quad bike or sit while a wild meerkat uses your head as a lookout.
Where to stay: There’s a spattering of top-end camps on the northwest fringes of the pans, while well-equipped self-drivers can camp at Kubu Island.
KAFUE NATIONAL PARK, ZAMBIA
Land of the antelope
Getting there: Drive a little over three hours from Livingstone or fly into one of several airstrips close to lodges.
Don’t miss: The antelopes. Kafue is renowned for its diversity, from lumbering eland to fleet-footed duikers. Head to the Busanga Plains in the far north of the park where thousands of red lechwe splash across vast, rolling floodplains under the attentive gaze of lion, leopard and cheetah. Swamp-dwelling sitatunga are also found here, along with avian A-listers like Pel’s fishing owl and African finfoot.
Where to stay: Scattering of seasonal bushcamps in Busanga; permanent lodges in the south.
KAZUMA PAN NATIONAL PARK, ZIMBABWE
Wild plains for intrepid travellers
Remote and difficult to access, this is a park for self-sufficient bush fanatics. Good hunting territory for lion, cheetah and wild dog, its open grassland supports large herds of buffalo and elephant, while the system of pans attracts a wide range of water birds.
CHIZARIRA NATIONAL PARK, ZIMBABWE
Stepping out in the wilderness
Remote and rarely visited, with no permanent tourist accommodation currently available, Chizarira rewards well-equipped travellers with rugged scenery that’s particularly good for walking safaris. Wildlife includes klipspringer, greater kudu, roan, elephant, buffalo, lion and spotted hyena.
VICTORIA FALLS, ZIMBABWE
KAZA’s other hub, south of the river
Getting there: The recently upgraded Victoria Falls International Airport has capacity to move around two million people per year on local and international flights.
Don’t miss: Victoria Falls and Zambezi National Parks – one gives you misty-eyed, close-up views of the great waterfall from rainforest-cloaked footpaths, while the other is big five country. The town of Vic Falls, meanwhile, is booming; hotels are expanding, there’s a cool food scene and it’s buzzing with energy.
Where to stay: Like Livingstone, Vic Falls is awash with options, from campsites to lodges.
LAKE KARIBA, ZIMBABWE
Messing about in boats
Getting there: Mlibisi is roughly a 3hr drive from Victoria Falls, while Safari Logistics and Executive Air can fly you to Kariba Town.
Don’t miss: A full moon overnight voyage sleeping on the ferry from Mlibisi to Kariba – it will fill you with ‘Kariba magic’. Sprawling over 280km, this man-made lake is a mecca for anyone with a love of fishing, birding or watersports.
Where to stay: Get afloat on a houseboat for a unique and very special experience.
HWANGE NATIONAL PARK, ZIMBABWE
Zim’s ultimate big game country
See page 76
CHOBE NATIONAL PARK, BOTSWANA
See pages 86-90