After leaving Livingston, Zambia and the rain-deprived, but still splendorous Victoria Falls behind us, our Acacia Africa tour group crossed into Botswana via the Kazungula ferry and made our way to Kasane to explore Chobe National Park.
With nearly 12,000 square kilometers of protected area, the largest elephant population of any national park in Africa, and over 450 species of birds, the park is one of the more famous in southern Africa and proved an excellent jumping-off point for the wildlife extravaganza that ended up being our tour.
Pro tip: I’d highly recommend bringing along some sort of field guide when you visit Chobe National Park, to help you identify different animals you see during your adventure. I love the National Audobon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife, personally. I got this book when I was in grade school and read it with the same enthusiasm I read my Star Wars novels. All these years later, and I finally got to use it in the field!
Fish Eagle River Cruise on the Chobe River
We left a few hours before dusk from Thebe River Lodge, piling into a large truck to take us to the nearby dock where a giant pontoon boat awaited us. We would be doing a river cruise along the Chobe River until sunset, stopping along the way to see any wildlife which presented itself.
It didn’t take long, with a troop of baboons providing entertainment right off the bat. Olive baboons can be found in over 20 African countries and are an extremely common sight; we’d already seen a few around Kasane that day. This troop had a number of young ones, who rolled and tumbled around and over the adults. Occasionally, a female would get up and wrangle her belligerent offspring, which would feign contrition before scrambling back into the fray as soon as her attention wavered.
Further down, a herd of impala grazed among the trees and brush along the waterline, peeking furtively out as we passed. Impala have it rough, being a favorite snack for just about every large predator in Africa. Even so, there are several million living wild across the continent, so seeing them quickly becomes commonplace — like seeing deer along the turnpike in Jersey.
Things picked up quickly, however, when some keen-eyed members of our group spotted several rounded shapes moving about in the water — shapes which resolved themselves into eyes set on top of rounded heads, with small ears that flicked water away after whatever they were surfaced.
We’d found a pod of hippos. Their heads would break the surface of the river, take in their surroundings, then disappear with a swirl as the beasts submerged. Then, there’d be a flurry of activity as two scuffled, canine tusks bared as they jousted and tussled for supremacy.
Around the river bend from where the hippos still rumbled and thrashed in the shallows, an elongated shape lay still and hidden in the grass. Our driver pointed it out to us — a Nile crocodile sleeping in the midday sun. Mouth agape to regulate temperature, the crocodile’s eyes appeared to be closed. But close attention revealed the slow blink of a basking, but alert predator keeping watch for some unwary beast to stray just a little too close…
With the sun dropping lower in the horizon, we encountered the highlight of our cruise that day: a herd of elephants grazing on an island in one of the forks of the Chobe. The giant pachyderms plucked vegetation off the ground with dextrous trunks, whipping it against the ground to dislodge any clinging soil before stuffing it into their mouths. Their proximity to us was spell-binding, and we all stared raptly at the spectacle for as long as we were able.
We left the elephant herd behind and sailed along the Namibian shoreline towards our camp, where Pili Pili and Khumbu were preparing dinner. The sun dropped lower in the sky, a burning globe that turned the dust-hazed sky a brilliant hue of orange before it disappeared.
Game Drive through Chobe National Park
We started early the next day, as the hours just after dawn can be some of the best for spotting wildlife. Just like the evening before, we didn’t have to wait long before seeing animals, but the animals we saw this time were not the typical baboons and impalas so prevalent throughout Chobe National Park. No, we saw lions. And not just any lions. Lions lounging in the dust after feeding all night on the carcass of an elephant they’d brought down several days previously.
Several lionesses clustered together, while a litter of cubs licked their chops and yawned a short distance away. Further off, a solitary male was passed out under a bush. There was one lioness still eating, ripping flesh and muscle from the carcass as her lambent eyes watched the truckloads of tourists warily. The stench of rot was pervasive, but she ate, unperturbed.
Our next creature sighting wasn’t as awe-inspiring (or gag-inducing, depending on your temperment), but it was similarly exciting for fans of the Lion King. “Look, it’s Zazu!” our guide said, pointing at the red-billed hornbill which had just alighted on a nearby tree.
Our 4×4 vehicle bumped along the park road, churning up dust as we all peered into the surrounding bush for any signs of life. It was this alertness which led to someone shouting for the driver to stop, allowing us to see not one, but two new species: a Kori bustard and a black-backed jackal.
Kori bustards have the distinction of being the heaviest bird capable of flight, with an average weight of ~11 kg. We would get to see one of these in flight later, a spectacle which could never be described as graceful.
But the jackal is what had me excited, staring out from the truck as my inner child ran in circles squealing in glee. One of the most ancient species of canid still in existence, black-backed jackals are beautiful animals and immensely fun to watch as they roam the savanna — searching for small prey and fresh kills made by other, larger predators. They have a hilarious howl, as well, as long as you know it’s a jackal doing it. If you don’t, the sound may lead to a sleepless night under stars.
Our Lion King spottings in Chobe National Park weren’t finished for the day, and another grinding halt was called as we spotted several warthogs snuffling about in the soil just off the road. Unlike the lovable Pumba, common warthogs can hardly be described as cute, with leathery skin, scraggly hair, and razor-sharp tusks which could disembowel you quicker than you could scream, “Hakuna Matata”. That said, there’s something endearing about seeing them drop down on their knees to root in the soil, or trot away with tails stuck straight up in the air.
And no, other animals do not drop to the ground from the stench when that happens.
We continued on our drive, seeing countless more impala, several more groups of warthogs, and even a flock of vultures perched ominously on the leafless branches of trees. Perhaps they were waiting for the lions to finish with the elephant carcass, or perhaps they were waiting for another meal to become available.
Our drive was nearly finished when the elephants (live ones this time!) appeared, a small herd of them approaching the road from our right. There were young calves intermixed with the fully-grown females, playful and shy as the mass of them moved slowly towards us. We sat there, breathless, as they drew near — fully cognizant of the sheer size of them compared to us. They filed around our vehicle, to the front and back, impossibly quiet for such large animals. It was spell-binding.
When we returned, at last, to camp, there was a healthy buzz of excitement among the newcomers to the tour. It was the start of our third day, and we’d seen so much already. The tantalizing prospects of what lay ahead hung over us as we packed up camp and headed southwest towards Maun and the Okavango Delta.