Trumpeting like a brass orchestra, a herd of some 30 or more rambunctious elephants trampled their way down to the banks of the great Chobe River for their mid-afternoon splash about. It was a beautiful if not somewhat noisy scene. The young ones stomped and rolled around in the shallows like children on a seaside outing; adolescent males played at sparring; elders eased themselves into the depths to soak sore feet and escape the African sun.
The ‘normal’ calmness that is the Chobe (a serenity of flowing water, fluttering dragonflies, and stalking storks) was all of a sudden plunged into chaos. Mud was flung and the silence was shattered. “This is the highlight of an elephant’s day” my guide informed me as we watched the exciting scene unfold from the safety of our open-sided safari vehicle “It’s a time to relax and play”
We were parked mere meters away from the beasts, in the magnificent Chobe National Park in Northern Botswana. On the other side, across a swath of swaying reeds and silver water lay Namibia, and to the North and North East, Zimbabwe and Zambia were but a stone’s skim away.
The confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers are at a great African crossroads where residents of small towns and villages such as Kasane and Kazangula share their high streets with safari tourists, warthogs and great big elephants.
The Park itself, which is in Botswana, is a huge 11.700 square kilometer wilderness where the densest population of pachyderms in the world are known to gather. “We reckon there are around 120000 in the park” said my guide “And most of them end up here on the banks of the River during the driest months of the year.” It wasn’t dry at all when I visited, there was water and rain clouds and greenery all over. Yet still, the quantity of elephants I had so far seen had been staggering. Wherever I turned my head there were titans with tusks and trumpeting trunks. “You should come back for another holiday when the river is low” said my guide “Sometimes there are so many elephants clogging up the water that we cant get the Zambezi Queen past them”.
All aboard the Zambezi Queen
An African safari is always an experience to remember. One typically stays in a lodge or a camp deep in the African bush, and from there, one takes early morning and late afternoon excursions by vehicle or on foot in search of untamed beasties. But I wasn’t staying in a typical lodge. My accommodation, The Zambezi Queen, was an ultra-modern five-star boat with all the trimmings (beautiful rooms, highly trained wildlife guides, fine wines and great food)
Designed with the beauty of the river in mind, most of the onboard space is open and airy and affords commanding views of the river and the wildlife that lives there. The cabins (of which there are 14) have the option to be open fronted courtesy of sliding blinds and meshed screens, so whilst you slumber or siesta, you can watch the river drift by from the comfort of your bed.
The bar area is open on all sides, the splash pool on the upper deck has tremendous views and even the dining hall has a fresh outdoorsy feel to it. Throughout the day the Queen slowly but surely meanders up and down the river alongside the Chobe National Park, affording an ever-changing view for her passengers.
On my first day aboard, I sat down to a snack of fresh fruits and sparkling wine, and was just about to tuck in when the captain announced that elephants and hippos would delay us for a while. I and the other guests abandoned our food in favour of gathering at the bow where we were treated to a spectacle that was to become commonplace over the next three days (the typical duration of a stay).
A low and narrow reedy island in the middle of the river had attracted dozens upon dozens of holidaying elephants. The peripheral shallows were occupied by noisy hippos and crocodiles, whilst the grass verges were being patrolled by all manner of herons, ducks, geese, cormorants and kingfishers. In a copse of trees upon the far bank, a troop of baboons shouted warning barks in response to the distant thundering of a pair of unseen lions. A beautiful scene indeed, and one which was repeated numerous times during my stay aboard the Zambezi Queen.
Lions and Tigers
Just like a traditional Safari lodge, the Zambezi Queen offers all manner of side excursions ranging from jeep trips into the park to boat outings to local villages where tribes will teach you drumming skills. The most enjoyable of these forays for me was an expedition by smaller boat into the winding papyrus and reed channels that meander for miles and miles away from the main river itself.
Here we encountered partially submerged fields of pretty flowers amongst which African Jacana birds were seen tiptoeing atop a floating mat lily pads. More than 400 bird species have been recorded in the area, making the Chobe River a birder’s hot spot of note.
We also encountered hippos (always an exciting event when you are in a small boat) as well as crocodiles (ditto) fish eagles, monkeys and, of course, the ubiquitous elephants. Again, we heard the distant sound of roaring of lions.
The following morning, after a buffet breakfast and yet more sightings of elephants taking a swim, I ventured once again by small boat into the river’s winding channels, only this time it was Tigers (not Lions) that we were after. “At the right time of year when the river is low, you will catch many tiger fish here” said my Chobe born boat driver and guide. A Tiger, although not a tasty fish (too many bones) has a reputation amongst fishermen for putting up a good fight, but alas I never got to test my mettle.
I cast my lure on many a river bend only to succeed in bagging a jumble of lily roots. “At the right time of year” repeated the guide diplomatically “You would not fail to catch one” of course. Despite my lack of fishing prowess, I nonetheless enjoyed every minute afloat the magnificent and wild Chobe River with its elephants and hippos and absent Tigers.
And as the folk song goes… With the wind in your face, there is no finer place, than messing about on a river. I’m sure Chobe’s elephants would never beg to differ.
Story By Dale Morris