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  • Writer's pictureEryn

Into Chobe National Park - On Safari in Botswana

Eryn facing away as she sits in a safari jeep, holding a camera as she takes a photo of an elephant herd in the distance at sunset in Chobe National Park, 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.


Eryn sitting in a safari jeep facing a resting lion in the background as she takes a photo of it in Chobe National Park, Botswana
Safari game drives give you the incredible opportunity to see wildlife not only up close, but also in their natural environments

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!

A marsh made up of grassland and watering holes with a grazing Cape buffalo herd in the distance under a cloudy blue sky in Chobe National Park
The marshes surrounding the Chobe River. Can you spot the hundreds of Cape buffalo in the distance?

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.

An African elephant standing at the edge of the Chobe River as it sprays water from its trunk in front of grassland and trees in the distance

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.


Black-and-white photography of an elephant with its trunk in the air as it throws mud onto its back and walks away with smaller elephants following it in Chobe National Park, Botswana
Elephants of all sizes come to the Chobe Riverbank to escape the heat
Black-and-white photography of an elephant lifting its trunk full of sand leaving a trail of sand falling to the ground in Chobe National Park, Botswana
An elephant using sand as a natural sunblock
Black-and-white photography of an African elephant with its ears spread out as it makes splashes while crossing the shallows of the Chobe River

Black-and-white photography of an African elephant playing with its head raised above the surface of the Chobe River and its trunk curled up into a ball
This elephant was completely submerged in the Chobe River!
Black-and-white photography of the side of an African elephant lifting water into its mouth with its trunk as it stands in the Chobe River

Black-and-white photography of an African elephant making splashes as it walks into the shallows of the Chobe River

Black-and-white photography of an African swinging its trunk into the water to make a big splash in the Chobe River
The elephants swung their trunks around, making big splashes in the Chobe River!
Black-and-white photography of an African elephant raising its head above the surface of the water as it plays in the Chobe River

Black-and-white photography of an elephant throwing its trunk into the water to make a big splash in the Chobe River

An African elephant crossing the Chobe River in the distance with a hill covered in grass, shrubs, and trees in the background

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.


An adult and baby African elephant walking side by side in the marshes of Chobe National Park with a herd of Cape buffalo in the distance

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.


Black-and-white photography of a baby African elephant running to the right beside the legs of adult elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A baby elephant stands as it twirls a twig in its trunk while another calf lies down beside it in Chobe National Park, Botswana

Black-and-white photography of the textured face of an African elephant in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A close-up of the textured forehead of an African elephant with its dark eyes and eyelashes on either side of its face
The details of an African elephant
A close-up of the mouth and tusk of an African elephant as it puts its trunk in its mouth

A close-up of the side of an African elephant's face including its eyes, eyelashes, and the beginning of its trunk and tusk

A black-and-white close-up of an elephant's tusk, the upper part of its trunk, and the hairs on its chin in Chobe National Park, Botswana

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.


A close-up of the face of a Cape buffalo with large curved horns in Chobe National Park, Botswana

High-key black-and-white photography of a Cape buffalo bending down to graze in the Chobe River with its blurred reflection in the water
A Cape buffalo grazing in the shallows of the Chobe River
A Cape buffalo with large horns standing in front of a young calf as they both turn their heads to face forward in Chobe National Park, Botswana
A Cape buffalo mother and her young calf
High-key black-and-white photography of a Cape buffalo wading into the Chobe River

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.


A hippo bending down to graze at the banks of the Chobe River with a white egret landing on its back and another egret standing beside it
A hippo accompanied by great egrets as it grazes in the Chobe River
A white egret flying over the Chobe River with its reflection in the water below

High-key black-and-white photography of a warthog bending down to graze in the waters of the Chobe River
A warthog grazing by the Chobe River
High-key black-and-white photography of a male waterbuck standing at the banks of the Chobe River
A male waterbuck at the Chobe Riverbank
A portrait of a male waterbuck with long horns

A waterbuck bends down to drink at the muddy shores of the Chobe River with its reflection in the white water

A lilac breasted roller sitting on a dry tree branch with the marshes of the Chobe River blurred in the background
A colorful lilac-breasted roller
A white-faced whistling duck flying with the blue water of the Chobe River in the background
A white-faced whistling duck

A white-faced whistling duck with its mouth open and wings spread vertically across attempting to land in the Chobe River among a group of other ducks floating at the surface
White-faced whistling ducks fighting for space in the Chobe River
A gray heron stands on one leg in the shallows the Chobe River with white-faced whistling ducks standing beside it on either side
A gray heron among the ducks. The variety of bird life in Chobe is truly amazing.
The back of a Nile crocodile as it swims away at the surface of the Chobe River
Nile crocodiles are elusive—hidden in the water or camouflaged on the ground, you might just miss them!
A close-up of the scales a part of a Nile crocodile's back in the Chobe River

A Nile crocodile partially submerged in the water of the Chobe River
The back of an Ayre's hawk-eagle sitting on a tree trunk with red meat in its claw in front of the blue water of the Chobe River
An Ayre's hawk-eagle with its freshly caught meal
An African fish-eagle stands among the trunks of trees in front of the blue water of the Chobe River
An African fish-eagle

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!


A herd of impala enjoying the shade of a massive tree in the grasslands of Chobe
Six female impalas stand together in the pale beige grass in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A close-up of the face of a male impala with horns in Chobe National Park, Botswana

Two impala heads in the distance poke out from the pale beige grasses and scattered green shrubs in Chobe National Park, Botswana

Two impalas jumping to the right among the light beige grasses and scattered shrubs in Chobe National Park, Botswana
Impalas in motion

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.


Two giraffes stand together under a tree behind a row of grazing zebra below them in the grasslands of Chobe National Park, Botswana

Three giraffes stand in a row among the dry grasses and scattered shrubs under a bright blue sky in Chobe National Park, Botswana

An adult and baby zebra turn their heads forward while standing in a row with three other zebra facing right behind them in Chobe National Park, Botswana

Two giraffes stand beside each other facing opposite directions among the trees and shrubs in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A zebra standing among grass that is almost white in the bright sunlight with scattered shrubs among the grassland in the distance in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A zebra lifting one leg and standing among grass that is almost white in the bright sunlight in Chobe National Park, Botswana

Six sebra graze on the short grass among scattered shrubs under a large tree in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A giraffe in the distance stands on the left while a blurred elephant on the right walks toward the giraffe in Chobe National Park, Botswana

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.


A male puku with horns standing among the tall grass in Chobe National Park, Botswana
A puku, a medium-sized antelope and resident of the wet grasslands of Southern Africa
A banded mongoose standing in the grass and shrubs in Chobe National Park, Botswana
A banded mongoose foraging in the soil
A banded mongoose standing among the grass and shrubs in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A baby chacma baboon sitting on a tree trunk as it bites one hand in Chobe National Park, Botswana
A baby baboon who hasn't seemed to grow into his huge ears yet!
The portrait of a chacma baboon among the dried twigs and leaves of a shrub in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A black-backed jackal standing among the dry grass and shrubs in Chobe National Park, Botswana
A black-backed jackal
A black-backed jackal standing among the dry shrubs on the ground as another jackal blurred in the foreground walks towards it in Chobe National Park, Botswana

Sometimes, we were even lucky enough to see spotted hyenas on our game drives. Typically nocturnal, hyenas are savvy scavengers that feed on leftover carcasses but can also hunt antelope and other smaller animals themselves. Hidden in the bushes, they peeked out from time to time to check us out before resuming their meal.


The head of a hyena among the shrubs peeking out from behind the head of another hyena facing to the left in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A hyena looking out as it is partially covered by the blurred leaves of a bush in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A portrait of a hyena among shrubs as the top of its head is illuminated by golden sunset light in Chobe National Park, Botswana

Along with all of the incredible mammals you'll get to observe in Chobe, you can't forget the colorful birdlife you'll see along the way! One of the most colorful birds of them all is the lilac-breasted roller. As it sits atop branches and bushes, it's already hard to count the colors that are splashed across its feathers. But when it spreads its wings and takes flight, you'll find yourself even more struck by the unforgettable shades of vibrant turquoise and electric blue.


A lilac-breasted roller sitting on the branch of a shrub against a bright blue sky in Chobe National Park, Botswana
The colors of a lilac-breasted roller are unparalleled
A lilac-breasted roller flying over the branches of a shrub against a bright blue sky in Chobe National Park, Botswana

The back of a lilac-breasted roller as it lands with its head peeking out from behind its spread wings in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A lilac-breasted roller sitting on top of the branch of a shrub in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A lilac-breasted roller taking off from the branches of a shrub against a bright blue sky in Chobe National Park, Botswana

Apart from the roller, majestic birds of prey and other vibrant birds can be found, including the southern red-billed hornbill, the inspiration for the Lion King's Zazu!


An African fish-eagle sitting on a leafless tree branch against a blue sky in Chobe National Park, Botswana
An African fish-eagle
A white-crowned lapwing standing among blades of grass and soil in Chobe National Park, Botswana
A white-crowned lapwing
A gray go-away-bird sitting on top of a shrub against a bright blue sky in Chobe National Park, Botswana
A gray go-away-bird, named for its calls that sound like, "Go away!"
A southern red-billed hornbill peaking out from behind a tree
A dark chanting goshawk turning its head as it sits on a leafless branch against a grey sky in Chobe National Park, Botswana
A dark chanting goshawk
A southern carmine bee-eater sitting on the branch of a shrub in Chobe National Park, Botswana
A striking southern carmine bee-eater
Two southern carmine bee-eaters standing on a thin branch against a blue sky in Chobe National Park, Botswana

An African fish-eagle sitting on a leafless tree branch against a grey sky in Chobe National Park, Botswana

An African fish-eagle standing on a leafless tree branch against a bright blue sky in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A white-backed vulture sitting on a leafless tree branch against a white background in Chobe National Park, Botswana
You'll often see white-backed vultures eerily perched atop tall trees, looking out for their next meal

Among the different birds we saw, the red-billed oxpecker was a familiar face we kept seeing again and again during our trip. As their name suggests, they have distinctive bright red bills and although they don't quite peck oxen, they are a friendly face to many hoofed mammals in Chobe.


You'll often find red-billed oxpeckers perched upon impala, zebra, giraffes, or buffalo as the birds search for ticks and other hidden parasites to remove from their fur. As well as being excellent groomers, the oxpeckers even serve as an extra pair of eyes and will make warning calls when a predator is nearby. With all the help they provide, the large mammals let the oxpeckers quite literally hang around on their heads, ears, necks, and backs which makes for hilarious photo opportunities!


A portrait of an impala's face with a red-billed oxpecker poking out at the top of its head in Chobe National Park, Botswana

An impala with two red-billed oxpeckers sitting on its back in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A close-up of a red-billed oxpecker as it stands on the hind leg of an impala in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A portrait of a giraffe's face with a red-billed oxpecker perched under its right ear in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A close-up of a red-billed oxpecker standing on a giraffe's head between its horns and ear in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A close-up of a giraffes' head bending down to eat from a shrub as a red-billed oxpecker stands on top of it in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A close-up of three red-billed oxpeckers standing in a row on the neck of a giraffe in Chobe National Park, Botswana

Despite all the incredible wildlife we were lucky to be able to see in Chobe National Park, an African safari would simply not be complete without the king of the savanna, the African lion. Lions are the only big cats on Earth that live in groups called prides. They usually contain a few males, several females, and their cubs, and we got to see their family dynamics from just a few meters away! Lions sleep for up to 20 hours a day, so we often watched as the adults snoozed in the shade and the cubs playfully wrestled in the sand.


A close-up of a lion cub lying down sideways as half of its face is covered by another cub upside down in front of it in Chobe National Park, Botswana

The back of three lion cub heads in a row with their spotted black ears in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A close-up of a lion cub looking down at the heads of two lion cubs lying upside down in the grass in Chobe National Park, Botswana

One day as we pulled into a shaded area in the bush, we found the pride huddled around an elephant carcass just on the side of the dirt road! Lions are a keystone species and apex predator in the savanna ecosystem. By managing the populations of large herbivores that then eat the surrounding vegetation, they help maintain the health of their environment and ensure that it remains in balance. According to our guide, the elephant that this pride was feasting on was likely old so the lions were truly demonstrating their vital ecological role.


A lion cub growls and raises one paw to the chest of an adult lion laying down in Chobe National Park, Botswana
A cub playing with a young male as the rest of the pride eats

As the lionesses and cubs ate, it wasn't difficult to see who was in charge. Having already eaten first, the biggest male sat surveying his territory, keeping a watchful eye over his pride with his thick dark mane. As the lionesses finished their meal, they each greeted him as they walked past, rubbing their faces against his while their cubs scampered along at their feet. The big male's face was battered with the battle scars of a seasoned veteran and amid the cordial family interactions, we unexpectedly got to see him spring into action!


A close-up of a male lion's face as he sits in the golden grass in Chobe National Park, Botswana
The biggest, dominant male of the pride
Black-and-white photography of a male lion with a dark mane rubbing cheeks with a lioness as she raises one paw to his neck in Chobe National Park, Botswana
A loving greeting between the big male and a lioness
A lion cubs stands and turns its head in front of the backs of other lions walking away over a dirt-covered hill in Chobe National Park, Botswana
The cubs of the pride obediently trailing behind the adults

There was a younger male in the pride whose mane was just barely coming in around his cheeks and his neck. In a show of his dominance, the big male was roaring when the young lion suddenly made a move at him. In a flurry of flying paws and chaotic yowls, blows were thrown until the young male quickly rolled onto his back and surrendered. The scuffle ended as quickly as it started, but we were all left stunned at what had just unfolded meters before our eyes! While the big male walked away unscathed, the young lion limped away with an injured paw and his injured pride. This young male will probably think twice before he tries challenging the social order next time.


A large male lion with a dark mane jumps onto its hind legs with its mouth open as it fights a crouching young male lion with its mouth open in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A close-up of a young male lion with a small light-colored mane beginning to grow at its cheeks and neck in Chobe National Park, Botswana
The young male lion fresh after defeat
A black-and-white portrait of a young male lion resting in the bushes in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A young male lion without a mane and some blood on its paw lays down as it lifts its head to yawn in Chobe National Park, Botswana
The young male lets out a yawn as he nurses his injured paw

As the dust settled and each day's excitement came to a close, our safaris in Chobe always went out with a bang. As the sun sinks lower and lower in the sky, it's almost as if the savanna is set on fire. The air turns cool and the grass slowly turns into gold. Before you know it, everything is ablaze in a bright orange glow, and you soon come to understand Chobe's magic.


A dead tree with white bark and crooked branches in front of dense woodland illuminated at sunset in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A shorter giraffe stands in front of a taller one so that their heads appear to be stacked on top of one body in Chobe National Park, Botswana

Two giraffes stand together as they bend their necks to the left in the yellow sunset light in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A close-up of a giraffe reaching up to touch the another taller giraffe's chin with its nose in the sunset glow in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A close-up of a giraffe's face as it extends its neck horizontally while interlocked with the neck of another giraffe at sunset in Chobe National Park, Botswana
Two male giraffes practice sparring in the sunset glow
A large curving tree standing over shrubs and a grazing zebra on the ground in the yellow sunset light in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A close-up of two zebras standing with their heads together in the orange sunset light in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A portrait of a zebra turning its head in the sunset glow in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A hyena partly covered in shadows and the sunset light turning to look to the right as a stream of drool hangs from its mouth in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A hyena facing forward as it stands in the middle bushes and shrubs at sunset in Chobe National Park, Botswana

The face of a hyena partly covered by shadows and illuminated by light as looks out from behind a bush in Chobe National Park, Botswana

The Chobe River extending into the horizon as it reflects the cloudy sunset sky with Cape buffalo grazing along it in the distance

A zebra walking to the right along the banks of the Chobe River in the background as it reflects the yellow sunset sky

A lion cub climbing forwards over the legs of a sleeping lioness in the sunset light in Chobe National Park, Botswana

A close-up of the face of a lioness illuminated by the orange-tinted glow of the sunset light in Chobe National Park, Botswana

The silhouette of a giraffe against a red sky as it bends its neck down to the left so that its head is in front of the setting sun in Chobe National Park

Chobe is one of those rare places left on Earth where you feel so far away from human civilization and so immersed in untouched nature. Even though we were often just a few meters away, it was almost like we were completely invisible to the wildlife. Watching animals living in their natural habitats as mere spectators to their daily lives is truly one of the most rewarding experiences travel can bring. Although Chobe National Park is far from being unthreatened, it is a reminder to appreciate the natural world we must strive to protect.


The sun setting on the silhouette of the tree line on the horizon as the Chobe River in the foreground reflects the colors and clouds in the sky in Botswana

The silhouettes of an elephant walking towards the right between two leafless trees in front of the Chobe River reflecting the purple sky at twilight

The silhouette of the left half of a large tree over the shrub-covered ground as the sun sets close to the horizon against a dark purple-blue sky in Chobe National Park, Botswana

Sources:


We visited Chobe National Park in 2017 during our year-long trip around the world. Click on the link to read more!



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