We’re almost an hour into Bwabwata National Park’s Mayuni Conservancy when we encounter the first traffic of the afternoon.
It’s a 50-strong herd of elephants taking the well-trodden route from Angola through Namibia and into Chobe National Park in Botswana.
They seem wary of our approach and turn to face us in arrow formation, trunks raised.
Juan, our guide from Namibia Experience, says the elephants would have passed through a number of villages since leaving Angola.
Their penchant for the farmers’ crops means they’re not always welcome visitors, so one can understand why they might be a little on edge by this stage.
A feisty young bull flaps his ears, saunters forward and sticks his trunk just inside the open vehicle. We sit dead still.
Failing to get a rise out of us, he turns back to his herd and they evaporate almost soundlessly into the dense, verdant bushveld.
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The world’s largest conservation area
After the arid landscapes we’ve traversed on our way northeast through Namibia, the green vegetation and river systems of Bwabwata and the Zambezi Region (formerly the Caprivi) feel like a different country.
If you look at a map and brush up on some colonial history, they should be.
Today, this strange appendage to the Namibian hinterland forms part of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), the world’s largest conservation area.
KAZA crosses five national borders and is roughly the size of France.
Situated in KAZA’s heart and sometimes referred to as “a people’s park,” Bwabwata is one of very few places in Africa where humans and animals coexist inside a national park.
The park was only established in 2007 and was created from the Caprivi Game Park and Mahango Game Reserve.
Bwabwata aims to use its substantial natural resources to empower the local rural communities.
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Return of the elephants
In the ’70s and ‘80s, the area’s wildlife populations were decimated by the so-called Border War and the rampant poaching that came with it. The conflict meant tourism was also virtually extinct.
But thanks to Namibia’s community-driven conservation efforts, the elephants, never too fazed by arbitrary national borders, are now returning to Bwabwata in droves.
And they’re not the only ones.
As we carry on through Mayuni, named after the visionary local chief who established the conservancy, we come to an open stretch of savannah plains aptly known as “Little Serengeti.”
The plains are covered with dense herds of different antelope species and zebra.
A wildlife survey conducted in 1978 counted just one breeding herd of 35 elephants, a single sable antelope, one hippo and one small herd of red lechwe.
There are now at least 277 sable, around 350 hippos, 142 red lechwe at the last count, and at least 340 herds of elephants and thousands more that pass through the region.
Then just 100 meters from Nambwa Tented Lodge, Juan stops abruptly and points to fresh lion tracks in the sand beside our wheels.
Nambwa Tented Lodge is one of the small handful of new and irresistibly exclusive eco-lodges that have opened up across Bwabwata’s various community-managed concessions.
It is the latest development from Welsh-South African entrepreneur Dusty Rodgers, who has been working in and around Bwabwata for more than twenty years.
“The area has certainly changed a lot,” he says.
In 2017, Rodgers is due to open a sister camp to Nambwa within Bwabwata, the Kazile Island Lodge, which will be perched on a small, private riverine island.
With a growing number of international tour operators beginning to add Bwabwata to their itineraries, Rodgers says that “the local communities have become much more aware of the significant benefits that the wildlife and the landscape holds for them.”
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But for now, much of the park’s appeal lies in the very fact that it remains largely underexplored and free of the tourist crowds that flock to Botswana’s Chobe.
Nambwa Tented Lodge certainly doesn’t undermine the feeling of wild isolation.
Its elevated wooden walkways, expansive main deck and chic tented suites are intricately woven into a riverside forest canopy, and leave ample room for elephants and other wildlife to move freely beneath.
We set up camp for the night at the rustic self-catering campsite next to the lodge, which sits directly on the edge of the languid Kwando River, a tributary of the Okavango.
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After a technicolor sunset, a hearty meal around the campfire and a few stiff gin and tonics, I walk towards the bathroom only to find my path blocked by a grazing hippo.
I remember that just two days earlier on a dugout canoe trip along the Okavango, which forms part of the western boundary of Bwabwata, our guide had pulled up his shorts to show us an impressive set of scars that resulted from a hippo attack.
Many who get too close to a hippo are not so lucky. I decide I can wait until morning for a shower, and head back to my tent.
The next day we continue further into the park along the Zambezi Region’s main tar road, passing occasional elephant herds and dazzles of zebra as we go.
When we stop at a petrol station, one of the attendants shows us a photo on his phone of a pack of critically endangered African wild dogs crossing the same main road in broad daylight some weeks ago.
Though sporadic poaching and human-wildlife conflict continue to be challenges to Bwabwata and the broader KAZA project, his photo encapsulates a feeling that’s been present throughout my brief time here: hope.
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Christopher Clark is a British freelance writer and wanderer based in Cape Town.