We were up early next morning in time for another spectacular sunrise before our day trip to Chobe National Park. We could have taken a day trip to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe but we had one spare day only and I was swayed by the fact that Chobe has one of the largest populations of elephants in Africa. Chobe also offered the opportunity to take both a land and a river safari in one place so it had my vote.
So we set off with our guide, Pamela from Zim Safaris, around 7.30am and headed off down the long, dusty road to the Zimbabwe/Botswana border. It is about an hour and a half drive to the border but it seemed to go fast as Pamela shared her extensive knowledge about Zimbabwe and we scoured the bushland looking for wild animals.
the drive to botswana
About an hour or so into our journey, Pamela explained to us that the one animal we did not want to see on the road was a wild elephant. Unlike those in the national park, elephants living around the roads and in the towns were aggressive and caused a lot of damage to properties. The locals wanted them to be culled because they would charge through fences and break everything in their way. We learned that the elephants in this area and in Chobe were Kalahari elephants which are the largest of all elephant populations and a little car with 4 people would be no match for an angry elephant of this size!
It was only a matter of minutes after discussing the need to stay away from elephants on the road that we sped past a wild elephant coming down the road towards us on the other side. Ignoring everything that Pamela had just told us, we begged her to turn the car around so that we could see this elephant up close.
our first wild elephant!
Reluctantly, she agreed with the proviso that we should stay at a safe distance behind the elephant. So we followed this elephant walking down the road on his way back towards Victoria Falls with vehicles coming in the opposite direction towards him.
As we watched, Pamela pointed out that the elephant’s ears were flapping wildly, a clear sign of aggression. She explained that this elephant was a fairly young male who had probably been pushed out of the herd. Apparently male elephants often leave the herd at around the age of 13 to 14 years and go off on their own. Judging by his flapping ears, this one was going off in a huff!
On our return trip, we came across this elephant again, this time fighting tusk to tusk with another elephant. We weren’t able to get any clear photos as they battled each other into the darkness of the bush, but it was an amazing sight to witness!
getting through border control
After leaving the elephant to head off down the road, we continued to the Botswana/Zimbabwe border. Border control between African countries is strict so you must bring your passport and go through the process of having it stamped to leave Zimbabwe at one custom’s window and then stamped again for entry into Botswana when you move to the next window.
It is vital that you get both stamps – at the end of our day, we were waiting for a couple of tourists who were supposed to be coming back to Victoria Falls in our vehicle but they got stuck in Botswana customs. Apparently, they had only got their passports stamped to leave Zimbabwe and had bypassed the Botswana window. With no evidence of their entry into Botswana, it took them a long time to get approval to cross back into Zimbabwe. Believe me, getting stuck in an African customs office is not what you want to experience at the end of a long safari so listen to the guides and follow exactly what they say.
In truth, customs on the border of Botswana was a bit unnerving as it was just like a scene out of Mad Max! As well as being dry, barren and dusty, the grounds were filled with hundreds of abandoned cars, many of which were prestige brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz. We were told that people would bring these cars to the border and then realise that the tax to take these cars into Zimbabwe was so high that they had no choice but to leave them in the parking lot in Botswana. After a while, Botswana customs would then claim the vehicles and sell them off. It looked like a great place to pick up a bargain!
After getting through the border, we had to wait a while in the dusty parking lot until our Botswana driver arrived. Pamela stayed on the Zimbabwe side and we had another driver to take us to where our guide would pick us up. We got a glimpse of real life in Botswana as we drove to our meeting point, Mowana Safari Resort in Kasane.
arriving in chobe
Once we arrived, we again had some waiting to do until our guide arrived. Everything seemed to go at quite a slow pace but we were on our own and not being herded into a large group of tourists which was nice.
It was unexpectedly cold though. The weather forecast was around 27 degrees C so both Karl and Sam scoffed at me when I said that it would be a good idea to take a hoodie or sweat top in case it got a little cold. We were all wearing shorts and tee shirts but I was the only one who bothered to bring a long sleeved top. As we waited, Karl and Sam shivered a little but the worst was yet to come!
Our guide eventually arrived and we climbed into an open-sided landcruiser for our drive to the gates of Chobe National Park. I noticed that people in another landcruiser had some blankets so I asked tentatively whether there were any for us in our vehicle as well. Our guide was very obliging and soon we were wrapped up in blankets ready for our drive.
We were all SO glad I asked for the blankets! The wind was so bitter as we sped down the fast roads on the way to the park. We literally tucked the blankets under our feet and covered our whole bodies, including our faces, from the biting winds. Without the blankets, the trip would have been an absolute torture!
finally on our first safari!
We eventually arrived at the Chobe National Park gate and were given a cup of coffee and biscuits to warm up while we waited for a lovely Japanese couple to join us. Our guide then checked us through at the entrance and we were off on our first safari!
There is something very exciting about seeing your first animal on a safari. It doesn’t matter what the animal is, it is just amazing to spot anything at all at first.
The first animals we spotted were a group of beautifully elegant puku antelopes near the side of the road. We took loads of photos before heading off toward the wetlands where we discovered many more as well as our first cape buffalo in the far distance. The view was spectacular with its vast flatlands with hardly a tree in sight.
As we made our way along the road, we soon came across our first close up cape buffalo lazily enjoying the sun just metres from us. Being on safari was now starting to feel real and every minute was getting more exciting!
It wasn’t long before we saw the one animal we were longing to see on safari – the elephant. Through the low bushes, a large elephant made his way towards us, stopping to feed on the surrounding vegetation. Even though we had of course seen many elephants in zoos, we were surprised by how large and impressive he was in real life, just metres from our vehicle.
Heading off again down closer to the lake, we had our first sight of hippos in the wild! Seeing hippos on the Zambezi River was on my bucket list for the next day but I had little knowledge about them in Chobe. I didn’t realise that here they slumped together in large groups on the banks of the river for hours on end, basking in the sun. Apparently this isn’t normal in other areas of Africa where hippos stay out of the sun during the day. In Chobe, however, the competition for food is extremely high with 70,000 elephants and thousands of impala, water buffalo and many other animals so the hippos have had to come out during the day for food. Certainly, we noticed that in the Serengeti, the hippos spent their time during the day in the water and not lying on the river banks.
We knew that hippos were considered the most dangerous land mammal in the world with their massive jaws, sharp teeth and people-crushing weight of up to 2,750kg! Our guide told us that if we came across an elephant on our own, we should back off slowly – however, if we came across a hippo, we should just run!!!
As we drove around the dusty roads of Chobe, there were hundreds of animals all around. We soon saw our first giraffe, standing magnificently tall and proud way above the low bushes. It felt surreal just watching him saunter elegantly past our vehicle.
unmissable river safari
Our land safari took us until lunchtime and was filled with more elephants, giraffes, buffaloes, impala, antelopes, hippos and more. We didn’t see any lions but that was okay because Seregenti and Ngorongoro Crater were on our itineraries so we were confident we wouldn’t miss out on seeing big cats at some stage during our trip.
Around midday, we were taken back to Mowana Safari Resort where we enjoyed a tasty buffet lunch. Our Japanese travellers then left us and we were taken on our own on boat safari down the Chobe River.
Our boat was just a small powered runaround but it proved to be perfect. While other travellers were on large groups in bigger boats, our small boat was able to get right up close to the banks to see crocodiles, hippos and birdlife up close, We were also able to get really close to the edge of the banks where elephants were walking along the watersedge. It\t was so amazing being in the boat right below these powerful beasts instead of having to view them at a distance from the shore!
We had the same guide from Zim Travel as on our land safari and he was excellent. We bombarded him with questions and he enthusiastically shared his expertise on all of the flora and flauna of Chobe. I strongly suggest you engage with your guides as their knowledge is usually fascinating. Our guide actually thanked us for asking questions at the end of our safari, saying many people didn’t want to talk. Imagine missing out on that once in a lifetime opportunity to learn from the expertise of your expert guide!
We totally loved our river safari. It was hot and the boys had no protection from the sun so we should have brought sunscreen and a light top but that was the only negative. the view was incredible, we saw so much wildlife on the banks of the river and in the water.
hippos, crocs, birds & more
At one point, our guide stopped our boat as we were going through a channel and backed up a little. Then with a quick warning to ‘hold on’, he sped the boat at high speed through to the other side. He then explained that he had seen a hippo in front spot us and then submerge itself slowly beneath the water in wait. If we had slowly glided over the hippo, our guide explained, the hippo would have thrown its massive weight up under our boat which would have sent us all flying! We discovered then that it was more than a little handy to have a guide who instinctively knew the dangers on the river! Apparently hippos kill around 500 people in Africa each year and we were glad not to end up a number on that unenviable list.
We were surprised by how much we enjoyed learning about the birdlife as well as the animal life in Africa. Chobe has an amazing array of herons, egrets, storks, fish eagles, plovers, kingfishers, swallows and more. There are over 500 species of birds in Chobe, many of which are native to Botswana and the surrounding area. If you take the time to listen to your guide, you will spot many more than you are likely to notice on your own.
Our safari ended around 4.30pm, after which we made our way back to the border. The queue to cross back over the border was long, it was hot and we were tired but within 20 minutes or so, we were through and back in the car. As mentioned above, we had to wait for the two unfortunate travellers who had missed having their passports stamped but eventually Pamela got permission to take us back alone as it was incredibly hot and uncomfortable waiting in the car.
Our trip back was uneventful other than the wonderful experience already mentioned of seeing the two elephants fighting tusk to tusk! We packed when we returned as we were leaving for Rwanda the next day and I had booked us on a breakfast cruise on the Zambezi River. We enjoyed our last dinner at Ilala Lodge, vowing to come back one day to this lovely lodge and beautiful country.