When I arrived in Botswana just over a week ago, I came for the same reason everyone comes to Botswana: to see the animals. Fortunately, Kasane – the small town where I stayed – is only about an hour’s drive from the tourism hub of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and is also located at the doorstep of Chobe National Park, which encompasses a hefty slice of the riverfront from which is derives its name. It is that riverfront – more so than the game drives in the interior of the park – that granted my wish.
From the Kwalape Safari Lodge (nice accommodations/terrible service) we were brought by truck to a rickety floating dock where a flat-bottomed metal boat with fixed chairs and a canopy awaited our embarkation. This being the dry season, the waters were calm, stirred only by our outboard motor or a passing crocodile. After a brief stop to check in with the powers that be, we spent the next few hours circling a cluster of grassy islands topped with game and crisscrossing the imaginary border between Botswana and Namibia’s Caprivi Strip.
What makes the Chobe Riverfront such a draw is that instead of having to search for wildlife, such as on a game drive, which can often be hidden from view by trees, rocks or particularly large termite mounds, these mid-river islands are flat and open, leaving the many grazing animals who make the effort to swim out to them (watching elephants do this is an amazing sight) fully exposed to the sun, insects, and your camera lens.
Not surprisingly, elephants are the primary stars of the show. Clustered in herds of varying sizes, they’ll munch down on their grass rather indifferently as you point and stare from ten feet away. Seeing an elephant up close is always impressive. Seeing an elephant up close with an unobstructed view and the soft glow of waning sunlight is a photographer’s delight.
Peacefully residing among the elephants are the second member of the Big Five that regularly come calling – the Cape Buffalo. These massive beasts with the tell-tale curved horns seem less ornery than normal as they safely chew their grass out of the reach of predators (aside from the crocs when they swim across). Every once in a while you’ll see them roll in the mud in a fruitless attempt to lessen the annoyance of the clouds of flies that torment them constantly. In view of that, I guess you really can’t blame them for being ornery.
A variety of antelope are also out in full force: the ubiquitous impala, kudu with their coolest-antlers-imaginable crowns, and the hefty waterbuck, which sport an unfortunate white ring around their rear ends that looks way too much like a target. They’re safe here, and the peaceful herds are blissfully unconcerned as you float past. Every so often a pair of giraffe or troop of baboons would also make an appearance. I greeted them like all others – with my camera.
I don’t consider myself much of a bird enthusiast, but even I had to take notice of the flurry of avian activity. Cormorants dive and pose while African fish eagles watch from their perches. The colorful bee-eaters do their thing while kingfishers of all sorts dart out of their holes in the embankments on the hunt for food. I watched as a family of Egyptian geese trooped across the grassy shoreline and made snide remarks at the huge but unsightly storks mingling with the grazing animals and egrets. Somewhere, the Audobon Society is smiling.
Reptile enthusiasts will also find plenty to keep them interested. Monitor lizards bask on dead tree branches or crawl their way through the thick tussock. Crocodiles with green and yellow plating abound in a variety of lengths, with their menacing eyes peeking above the waterline, or as they laze in the sun on the riverbank. The latter allows for some close encounters but beware! That frozen act is just to lull you into thinking it’s safe to come that much closer…
While crocodiles are one of the few animals that truly frighten me, (since it seems that unlike other predators that only eat when they are hungry, crocs always seem favorable to killing you and saving you for later) they are not the most dangerous or feared animal Africa. That title goes to the hippopotamus, the aquatic Bohemoth commonly found in the Chobe River. They may look ungainly with their stubby legs, massive girth, and funny-looking ears. But do not under any circumstances piss one off. They are speedier than they look, and in water are quite agile and also quite capable of biting you in half should the need (or desire) arise. I noticed that our guide kept a respectable distance at all times, which seemed prudent considering that the hippos were certainly big enough to tip our boat.
As our safari cruises drew to an end, we were treated to a spectacle that is free of charge and available throughout the entire continent–the amazing African sunset. The sky turned all sorts of shades of orange and silhouetted the elephants, birds, and Namibian fishermen in a passing canoe in a scene worthy of a masterpiece. Add to that the perfect temperatures and cloudless skies and it is hard to image a more natural and desirable place to be on earth than a small boat on the Chobe Riverfront. I’m sure Botswana has plenty more to offer, but give me a seat waterside to watch the hippos splash and the sun set over Namibia and I’m good right here. Kudos, Botswana. Game well-played.