Into Chobe National Park - On Safari in Botswana
For some reason, my mind just couldn't wrap around the fact that I was in the African wilderness. Looking around me, the environment just seemed too surreal! It was like somebody had plucked and dropped me into a BBC documentary. The warm morning sun glowed a deep pink color, rising to greet us each day, and it really looked like it was the first scene in Disney's The Lion King! But no, this wasn't a dream, I was really sitting in the middle of an all-terrain safari Range Rover surrounded by animals that I thought I would never get to see in my life.
Those are the words of my 12-year-old self describing what it felt like to be in Chobe National Park. Boasting one of the largest concentrations of wildlife in all of continental Africa, it is the ultimate safari destination and we were lucky to be able to experience it for ourselves. Located in Botswana, Chobe National Park is famous for its massive herds of elephants, hundreds of Cape buffalo, and vibrant birdlife. Of course, it is also home to the rest of Africa's most iconic animals including zebras, giraffes, hyenas, and majestic prides of lions. With all that it has to offer, Chobe National Park truly left me awestruck by the untouched nature it preserves. Strapped into a 4x4 Range Rover, we spent the next three days on game drives delving into the unparalleled wildlife of Chobe.
Chobe was established in 1968 and was Botswana's first national park. It lies in the northeastern corner of Botswana where its border meets Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. Covering an incredible 11,700 square kilometers, Chobe National Park is the country's third-largest reserve.
The exceptional density and diversity of animals found within the park are perhaps due in part to its namesake and lifeline, the Chobe River. With its crystal blue waters winding along the park's northern border, the river is a year-round water source that vitalizes the surrounding marshes and grasslands. This becomes clear from the moment you arrive on the Chobe Riverfront, and you can immediately tell that it is bursting with life. As 12-year-old me wrote:
It wasn't hard to find some wildlife to observe, and my finger almost never left my camera's shutter button!
The Chobe Riverfront
Arriving at the banks of the Chobe River was a shock to the system. As high as they already were, my expectations were exceeded in an instant.
Tip: Chobe's dry season lasts from May to November and without the rain, animals congregate in large numbers at the banks of the Chobe River. This time of year is the best time to visit the park, and it was certainly clear why when we visited in June.
Left, right, and center, elephants were everywhere! From the old to the young, elephants of all kinds had come to the banks of the Chobe River to escape the afternoon heat. While their large ears radiated excess heat, the elephants used their flexible trunks to throw sand and mud, a natural sunblock, over their backs. Some sucked the cool river water with their trunks and sprayed themselves or lifted it to their mouths to drink. Others simply dove straight in! Gleefully thrashing their trunks and splashing water at each other, you could see the pure sense of joy they had.
As much fun as it was to watch the elephants frolic in the Chobe River, some of the most memorable times we had were when we watched elephant families simply being families. While young and adult males tend to lead solitary lives, African elephant females and their young live in herds that are led by a matriarch, typically the oldest and largest female. These matriarchal herds span across generations including calves, mothers, and even grandmothers, and it is a truly rewarding experience to watch the dynamics of these tight-knit family units.
The smallest of calves still had baby hair, a golden-brown fuzz, atop their heads and they would play with just about anything that came across their paths. Whether it was loose grass, mud, or even each other, they scampered here and there curiously investigating the world with their little trunks. Bigger calves, who had perhaps grown out of having so much energy, more obediently followed the adults who towered above them all. Compared to the small calves, the grown elephants were almost like massive trees, their ears calmly flapping as they provided protection and guidance to their young. Seeing them in person, it's no wonder why people consider them "wise" animals. With their regal stature, there is so much behind their empathetic eyes that we may never be able to fully comprehend.
The majestic elephants weren't the only ones enjoying the Chobe Riverfront. Massive herds of Cape buffalo grazed in the marshes. While they may seem docile as they sleepily chew on grass, they are not to be underestimated. Along with elephants, lions, rhinos, and leopards, Cape buffalo are among the "Big Five" of African wildlife, a term that originally identified the five most difficult animals to hunt. Although today, it is more of a reference to the top 5 big, bucket list animals to see on an African safari, Cape buffalo can still be unpredictable and powerful creatures that must be respected. It was incredible to be able to see them—from a safe distance!—in huge herds that could number in the hundreds.
Apart from the already hundreds of elephants and buffalo on the banks of the Chobe River, there was even more wildlife to be spotted. From hippos and Nile crocodiles to a vibrant array of birds, the Chobe Riverfront was bursting with activity.
Into the Bush
As if Chobe hadn't already shown us enough, there was still more to explore farther inland in the grassy plains away from the Chobe River. A common sight here is small herds of impala, a medium-sized antelope, as they browse the vegetation. Impalas are swift and agile animals, and can leap distances of up to 3 meters high and 9 meters long to evade predators!
Of course, there were also giraffes and zebras, icons of the African savanna. Famously the tallest mammals on Earth, the giraffes grazed on vegetation both up high and down low. Standing below them were often herds of zebra, creating a mosaic of patterned coats unique to each animal. As to why giraffes and zebra are spotted and striped in the ways that they are, there are many competing theories. Some suggest giraffes' spots help them camouflage or thermoregulate while zebras' stripes may help them evade flies or even predators. Regardless, the order and structure of their coats are always a striking contrast to the disorder and chaos of the African bush.
Beyond these famously recognizable animals, just as intriguing to see was lesser-known wildlife including banded mongooses, chacma baboons, pukus, and black-backed jackals. It was humbling to be in the midst of this natural environment and witness all the members, both big and small, of this interconnected ecosystem.