The two most impressive sights in Chobe National Park are the sheer vastness of the landscape and the numerous herds of elephants that live in, and wander through it.
© Smelling water, the elephants race towards the Chobe River
By far the best time to visit Chobe is during the dry season, just before the rains - October / November.
From the vantage point of a safari lodge such as Muchenje, which is perched on a high escarpment, and the last bit of high ground before the Chobe River, you will be presented with the panorama of the Chobe floodplains. Absolutely flat... a sea of grass and reeds with scattered clumps of riverine woods along the banks.
Being so flat and exposed, the landscape provides excellent opportunities for game sightings that can only possibly be equalled by the Serengeti or the Maasai Mara.
A visitor can be forgiven for assuming that Chobe River seems to be the main focus of elephant existence because on even the shortest boat trip along the river will guarantee elephant sightings. Small groups, large herds and always, there is the inevitable "lone bull".
The elephants are constantly on the move, and constantly grazing. When they are not they can be observed splashing around in the river, or rolling about in the many mud holes, coating their hides in an effort to use the mud as a kind of sunscreen against the harsh African sun.
At the end of a hot day, foraging away from the river, the elephants come to river to drink. The closer they get to the water, the faster they move, until they are virtually in a running competition. And the more they trumpet. Then there is the jostling for space as they spread out along the waters edge, and a few wade deeper into the river to get away from the crowd.
Buffalo also occur in huge herds, sometimes up to 2000 head of them, and it is not uncommon to see them strung out along the rivers edge at sunset. Talking of sunsets, you have to take a sunset safari on the Chobe River.
There are a number of ways to do this:
- The large double decked, twin pontooned river cruiser - which carries quite a number of people - suitable for large groups.
- The twin-hulled flat-bottomed boat which accommodates smaller groups.
- The small outboard motor skiff for small private groups or couples.
All are piloted by certified and experienced safari guides, who are also the hosts on your cruise.
The absolute silence, is occasionally broken by a bird call, the odd elephant trumpet or the grunts of hippo.
At this time of the evening you can see fishermen in mokoros setting out their nets for the nights fishing, and one wonders how they can be out there doing this when there are crocodiles and hippos lurking every where... but they must have that sussed.
The peace and quiet is a change from the daytime.
During the day, the river buzzes with activity. Motor launches taxi the local people, or ferry goods up and down the river.
Frequent high-powered police or army launches patrol the river looking for smugglers and such, as it forms the border between Botswana and Namibia.
Around Kasane and Kazangula where the borders of Zambia and Zimbabwe meet Namibia and Botswana, there is so much activity - one can be quite overwhelmed by the people, boats, vehicles, and trucks. Here is this whole commercial hub in the middle of nowhere - just because there are four borders.
Crossing to the Namibian side of the river is quite a jolly jaunt.
First you go through the thronging Botswana Customs check point. Do the paper work and then head on down to the river to board your skiff.
Then it's a quick 5 minutes to the Namibian Police Border Control. It was quite a hard slog up a rocky trail, for just a little paper work. I asked our pilot why the offices were so far from the river.
He told me that in the rainy season, the water is: "up to there", pointing way back up the trail to a point about 70 meters up the hill. Meaning the spot where we put in would be under about 4 or 5 metres of river. Hmmm...
But, back to our narrative.
The pods of hippo that you see generally comprise of the alpha bull, and his harem and possibly a few offspring. The single hippos you see are called "loosers". This is because they lost a bid for power against a dominant bull and have been chased out of the pod. Unless a looser can prevail against a dominant bull, he doesn't get to be the boss. Doesn't get the girls. Doesn't get to mate. End of the line for him!
Now the hippopotamus is an ill-tempered, mean spirited and ugly animal and should be given a wide berth when encountered.
The Latin term "gandulid lagoonus vicioso", or "vicious pond slob", is the most accurate description I have come across.
Unpredictable and aggressive, the hippo is responsible for a large number of human deaths across Africa.
Why am I telling you this? Hippo get freaked out and dangerous if you become between them and the water. Now since they come out of the river at night to graze, and since many of these fine game lodges are on the edge of the Chobe River, the chance is extremely high, that Hippo graze on the lawn right outside your chalet.
If you take the time to check out the river bank and the grass round the property where you are staying, you will actually see the places where Hippo come ashore, and the path ways they walk up to and across the lawns.
So when your hosts and your safari guides tell you "do not walk around the camp in the dark, without a guide" they really do mean it.
On a river safari, where it is safe, your safari guide will put ashore and you can stretch your legs, take pictures of the zebra or sable and roan antelope, giraffe and the many warthogs.
Enjoy a beer and some snacks and listen to the deafening silence of the setting sun before heading on back to your lodge, as the birds head of to where ever they roost at night.
Or as happened to us, enjoy the sight of a traveler from another boat, walk over to your cooler box and blag a beer from you without even asking.
The birds of Chobe are a mix of water and inland birds, and include both residents and migrants.
Migrant water birds can be observed in Chobe between October and March, when water and food are most abundant. But most difficult to photograph unless you have a professional film camera with a motor drive, or a digital camera which takes multiple frames - like up to 30 frames a second.
And you have a steady shoulder and a sure finger. Like hunting with a rifle. The pleasure is in the result. Not in the activity.Among the many birds seen in the Chobe region you will find...
- Fish Eagles
- Egyptian Geese