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Crossing the ‘Vet Fence’ into northern Namibia

In the event, virtually nobody appeared in Brian’s rear-view mirror. He and his wife had embarked on another long drive, this time along some of the most traffic-starved roads in the whole of Namibia. First there was that B1 again back to Tsumeb, then a forgotten stretch of the C42 that took them to a tiny place called Grootfontein, after which there was a road called the B8 that ran precisely northeast for 250 kilometres (and had been built by someone with access to a giant 250-kilometre-long ruler). And on all of these roads, vehicles were the exception rather than the rule. Brian found it all quite delightful.

There was, however, a particular point of interest on this B8 road, which Brian and Sandra encountered when they’d driven about one hundred kilometres beyond Grootfontein – and this was the “vet fence”.

This is a fence that stretches across the entire north of Namibia (and into Botswana) and was originally erected to protect cattle (to the south of the fence) from Foot and Mouth disease infection from buffalo (to its north). Since and despite its erection, the number of diseases that affect cattle and that have to be considered as veterinary control problems has increased exponentially. And therefore the future of this fence is assured, even though its negative impact on the current elephant range is profound.

But this clinical explanation of this barrier tells only half the story. For the vet fence, as Brian and Sandra were about to discover, separates two very different Namibias. To its south and all the way down to Windhoek and beyond, Namibia is an “ordered” place. Away from its deserts in the extreme south and on its coast, it is a land made up of a patchwork of enormous farms. Not farms as we would recognise them in Britain, but parcels of land measured in thousands of hectares, covered in scrub and housing just a scattering of cattle and other animals (some of them wild), and all contained within the bounds of huge wire fences. Therefore, even though it looks empty and beautifully desolate, what we have here is still essentially a “commercial” landscape – operated by big land owners and very much on a business-like basis. To the north of the fence, it is not like this at all.

Here, and starting just yards beyond the B8’s heavily manned gate in the fence, is another world, a world of concession lands, roadside mud-and-straw huts, wandering animals (as there are no fences to prevent them wandering), peasants (in the true sense of the word) and, if not acute poverty, then at least a degree of real hardship. It reminded Brian of only one thing: Africa – and the Africa that was normally depicted on the news, an Africa where development was minimal and where most people still just subsisted, growing what they could and rearing whatever animals their overworked land could sustain. Only the arrowstraight metalled B8 belied this impression. Where there should have been a red-sand dirt road winding its way into the distance, there was still this undeviating strip of tarmac, the sort of road that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Lower Saxony.

Well, that was not quite accurate, as it would be very surprising to find in Lower Saxony any thoroughfares that were so highly populated with goats and cows. They were everywhere here. And, as our travellers would in due course discover, wandering animals of both the domestic and the wild variety were now to become the established road hazard for the remainder of their expedition.

Indeed, when they had driven through Rundu (the fuelstop settlement at the head of that 250-kilometre straight line) and then turned due east towards the Caprivi Strip, this animal hazard grew significantly bigger – literally. For on this stretch of the B8 there were (wandering) elephant warnings all along its length. This was a little disconcerting, as Brian was well aware that a collision with an elephant could result in road-kill, but that the road-kill would probably not be the elephant. He therefore drove more cautiously than ever and, as he approached the very beginnings of the Caprivi Strip, he attempted to concentrate on his driving, and not on the peculiar nature and the peculiar origination of this slice of geographical nonsense…

If one looks at a map of Namibia, it looks at first glance as if the mapmaker has made a mistake. He’s got the bulk of the thing right: a coastline, a series of more or less straight lines separating the country from Angola to the north, Botswana to the east, and South Africa to the east and south – but then he’s cocked it. He’s put some sort of pot-handle on it, a thin strip of land that runs east from its extreme north-eastern corner right up to Zambia and nudging even Zimbabwe. It can’t be right. It must be a flight of fancy. Or maybe the mapmaker’s apprentice finished the job off and he just misread the instructions. Geographical protuberances of this sort and of this size simply do not happen.

Only, of course, they do – if they originated in the colonial past of Africa. Yes, up to 1890, this pot-handle was merely the very top slice of the British Bechuanaland Protectorate (most of which ended up as modern-day Botswana) and German South-West Africa (now Namibia) had no claim on it whatsoever. But then in that year Germany did lay claim to British-administered Zanzibar. Now, Zanzibar has very little connection with anywhere in southern Africa, and its seizure by Germany should have had no impact on this sliver of Bechuanaland. But it did. Because the British were a bit peeved at losing Zanzibar and demanded a conference with Germany to sort matters out. And matters were sorted out. In essence, Britain ended up with Zanzibar again – and a strip of German South-West Africa that was appended to Bechuanaland’s western edge – for which, in return, the Germans were granted the North Sea island of Heligoland – and a strip of northern Bechuanaland, now known as the Caprivi Strip. It was an exercise in land swapping on an epic scale that could only ever have been done under the auspices of colonial ignorance and its associated arrogance, and ultimately it went down very badly with the Lozi people. These were the poor saps who happened to be living in the Caprivi and who only discovered they were under German control some twenty years after the swap. (It wasn’t until 1908 that the German government dispatched an “Imperial Resident” to oversee the place.)

The Lozi’s reaction was to round up all the cattle they could find (including those of rival tribes) and then to drive them out of the area. The cattle were apparently eventually returned to their rightful owners, but the majority of the Lozi chose to remain in Angola or Zambia rather than to submit to German rule. Difficult to believe, but that’s quite definitely what happened.

So, not a great outcome for the Germans. They had not only upset the locals, but, of far more importance to them, their plans for the use of the Caprivi Strip had been frustrated by those perfidious Brits. Yes, their entire motivation for acquiring this stretch of real estate was to give them access from their South-West possession to the Zambezi River, and to provide them with a link to (German) Tanganyika and ultimately to the Indian Ocean. Good idea, but unfortunately (for them), Britain’s colonisation of Rhodesia stopped them well upstream of Victoria Falls, which proved a not insignificant barrier to navigation on the Zambezi. They were stuffed. And one only hopes that all those Lozi heard about the collapse of their grand scheme and had a jolly good laugh at their expense.

Extracted from David Fletcher’s latest book in his ‘Brian’ series, ‘Strip Pan Wrinkle‘.

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