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