Lance Richardson discovers the waterways of Namibia, Zambia and Botswana are themselves characters in the continent's story.
There are no half-measures in Namibia. The Etosha salt pan is 120 kilometres of white dust, with few animals and fewer trees. Driving east towards the Caprivi Strip, which extends from the north-east corner of Namibia like an upraised arm, means seven hours of desert silence. Then comes the Kavango River, which confronts the traveller with a sudden rush of overstimulation.
The clouds are indigo and swollen with rain, as if the river has broken its banks and permeated the entire atmosphere. Women run alongside the road clutching pink umbrellas, past fields where boys play football in spite of lightning strikes. A herd of goats huddles under the awning of a church. Everything is luminous, thrown into relief by the strange light of the storm.
The Kavango is the first of three rivers I cross in less than a week in southern Africa, travelling from Namibia to Zambia to Botswana. Like the countries they separate, each is as unique as a fingerprint, with its own history and character. Rivers are geographical markers and trade routes, the causes of conflict and lines that divide life from death. A river, like water, can be elemental in the creation of a place.
The Kavango collects in Angola, where it is called the Cubango, crosses Namibia and terminates in Botswana as the Okavango Delta, an enormous landlocked swamp in the Kalahari Desert. More than 1600 kilometres long, the river acts as the northern Namibian border for more than 400 kilometres then cuts through the country at the mouth of the Caprivi Strip on its way south.
While rambling along the highway, this large-scale geography means very little. It is easy to understand how early explorers confused river sources and puzzled over where they ended. We drive past a turnoff to Botswana and pull into the concealed Ngepi Camp, setting up tents by a bank that has been steepened to discourage hippos from nocturnal visits.
The river stretches in both directions, mysterious and pink in the storm, and I notice a perilous-looking cage tethered to the shore by a small bridge. According to the camp literature, visitors to Ngepi can swim in "the world's first hippo and croc cage" in the Kavango. I never see a person put so much as a toe in the water. I do, however, wave to a small group of people as they disappear in canoes around a river bend, apparently unconcerned by rumours of recent hippo encounters. I prefer an open-air viewing platform built beside the water, where patrons eat kudu and eland, and warthogs can be seen running in circles on the opposite bank.
The Kavango is no stranger to controversy: along with tussles involving wildlife in the Okavango Delta, it has landed at the centre of an international conflict because of crippling drought. In the 1990s, Namibia proposed to divert a small percentage of its flow to alleviate the country's chronic water shortages. Botswana responded by predicting the ruin of citizens who relied on the river to fertilise large tracts of the Kalahari Desert downstream. Botswana is a country, after all, that prizes water so highly that its currency, the pula, is Setswana for "rain". Sitting by the Kavango, watching the first drops of what quickly becomes a deluge, it is difficult to imagine how this river - 1.5 kilometres wide in places - could run dry. But conflict defines the shape of modern Africa, as I am quickly reminded at my next port of call, and there is nothing more pressing than the need for water.
We could be in Florida's Everglades, speeding in a flat-bottom aluminium boat past tall reeds and giant reptiles. The storm followed us from the Kavango as we drove further east, and now the Kwando, our second river, has taken on an eerie stillness. Thousands of years ago, this smaller river merged with the Kavango down in Botswana; if we followed its length today, we would slide through a dense swamp and watch the water turn into the Chobe - where I'll drift on a sundowner cruise in another few days. The rivers of southern Africa swallow themselves in dizzying coils.
For now, the Kwando proves more intimate and adventurous than the Kavango. Lodges such as Camp Kwando offer a variety of activities, including trips to the nearby Mudumu Game Park, visits to a village school and "makoro" - travel in a traditional canoe through the river's narrow canals.
After a hair-raising spin on the aluminium boat, we transfer to an open truck and trace the bank past elephants and sausage trees. It is only during an evening drink, with everybody tensed for leopard sightings, that I realise our truck is a converted army transporter. This seems an appropriate vehicle for the Caprivi Strip, which is a thin piece of contested land bordered by the Kavango, Kwando, Chobe and Zambezi rivers.
When Namibia was under German rule in the 1800s, the chancellor of Germany, Leo von Caprivi, made a historic deal with Britain, trading Zanzibar (an island off Africa's east coast) for this strip of south-west countryside that leads to the Zambezi River. The idea was that the Germans would be able to navigate the Zambezi across southern Africa to Tanganyika (now Tanzania).
The rivers here are confusing, unpredictable and full of surprises - something the Germans never apparently realised, even in the face of surprising co-operation from the British. The local who tells me the story does so through his giant grin: the Germans, he says, found the river "pretty much impassable" for one giant reason ...
The Victoria Falls are enough to stop anybody in their tracks. Crossing into Zambia, there is no more impressive sight than the 1.7-kilometre waterfall with the traditional name of Mosi-oa-Tunya (the Smoke That Thunders). Australian traveller Erin Langworthy broke a bungy cord here on New Year's Eve, plunging into the Zambezi. She could scarcely have chosen a more dramatic backdrop for her death-defying miracle.
Natural wonder aside, the Victoria Falls are plagued by the same gift-shop mentality that is common around the world. For a moment, the river is obliterated by the falls; more permanently, however, it is becoming disguised behind a bazaar of hawkers. A more interesting perspective can be found further downstream.
I have crossed from Namibia to Zambia and now, changing direction, I am crossing from Zambia to Botswana, requiring the Zambezi to be bridged a short drive from Livingstone. But no bridges have been built. Instead, a long line of trucks is banked along the road. Drivers can wait here for a week, inching their cargo towards the Zambezi, where two ferries flutter back and forth over crocodile-infested waters in eternal relay. In lieu of a dock, smaller speedboats drive their prows directly into the bank, cleaving the mud for traction. Food stalls and feral dogs crowd around an immigration shack where people clutch passports made from scraps of paper.
It is a fascinating scene, completely different from the Kavango and Kwando rivers in Namibia. A guide is standing with me and I point out construction on the Botswana side. Is a bridge on the way? With a shake of the head, he tells me that as long as somebody makes money from the inefficiency, chaos will continue. Besides, the Chinese might be building a new road over there, but they built one in Mozambique and it washed away with the first rains. The decider of all things here is water.
"C'est la vie," he finishes, waving me on to the ferry with a hearty laugh.
Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of World Expeditions and Etihad Airways.
Etihad has a fare to Johannesburg from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2000 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Abu Dhabi (about 14hr), then to Johannesburg (8hr, 35min); see etihadairways.com. South African Airways flies from Johannesburg to Cape Town (2hr 10min) for about $270 return, including tax; see flysaa.com.
A 19-day Southern Africa Explorer journey from Cape Town to Namibia, Zambia and Botswana costs from $3190 a person, twin share. Price includes a guide and cook, all accommodation (campsite or hotel) and most meals. Phone 1300 720 000, see worldexpeditions.com.
namibiatourism.com.na; www.botswanatourism.co.bw; zambiatourism.com.