The Chobe Riverfront: Botswana’s Got Game

Cruising on the Chobe River, Botswana
Cruising on the Chobe River, Botswana

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.

Close encounters of the tusked kind
Close encounters of the tusked kind

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.

An alert waterbuck
An alert waterbuck

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.

Bee-eater on the prowl
Bee-eater on the prowl

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.

Waiting for a handout
Waiting for a handout

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…

Hungry, hungry hippo
Hungry, hungry hippo

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.

Sunset over Namibia
Sunset over Namibia

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.

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Zim or Zam? If you Understand the Question, you Can Appreciate the Answer

World Heritage Victoria Falls
World Heritage Victoria Falls

Zim and Zam of course refer to the two countries (Zimbabwe & Zambia) who share a border at the world-renown Victoria Falls World Heritage Site. The question alludes to which side you should visit in order to see them. The answer, in short, is both.

Full frontal scenery on the Zim side
Full frontal scenery on the Zim side

Why Zim?

The majority of the gorge that fronts the seemingly never-ending series of cataracts and spray is located on the Zimbabwean side of the mighty Zambezi. Trails follow the western curve near the so-called Devil’s Cataract at the westernmost side of the falls where a statue of David Livingstone–the first European to set eyes on the falls–overlooks the chasm from the side. Winding through a forest setting that is ever-green regardless of the season (thanks to the unending spray) the path traces the edge of the ravine with periodic overlook points. There are more lookout points than fences and the rocks can get slippery, so use caution. After more than half a mile of nonstop views, the trail ends in a promontory that is separated from the Zambian side by the churning Batoka Gorge. There’s really no place (aside from a helicopter ride, to be discussed at a later time) that allows for a view of the entire falls, but on the Zim side is where you’ll be able to see the majority of it.

Why Zam?

No filter needed on the Zambia side
No filter needed on the Zambia side

The entrance to the Mosi-Oa-Thunya (the original language name for Vic Falls) National Park is on the eastern side of the falls, almost immediately past the Zambian border post. Besides having their own statue of Livingstone, there are a few trails that take in the scenic Eastern Cataract, that is usually less torrential and thereby less inclined to be obscured by spray as the cataracts further down the line. Particularly amazing is the Knife Edge Island trail, which takes visitors via a slick metal bridge to the eastern side of the Batoka Gorge and a different perspective of the Zimbabwean side. During the dry season, in the early morning, stunning rainbows allow for photo opportunities that will have everyone questioning whether or not your pictures were Photoshopped.

Excursions

The only way to see it all if from above
The only way to see it all is from above

Why Zim? Helicopter flights (pricey but well worth it) from the Zimbabwe side not only offer views of the falls, but often take in parts of nearby Zambezi National Park, allowing for some aerial animal viewing. Tours of the historical (and scenically placed) Victoria Falls Bridge let visitors walk the catwalk and view the falls from both the Zim and Zam sides without having to buy a separate visa.

Playing with kitties in Zambia
Playing with kitties in Zambia

Why Zam? Excursions to centrally located Livingstone Island offer close-up view of the bulk of the falls and often include a dip in the Devil’s Pool–a calm patch of water right on the lip of the falls where adventurous visitors can soak in the Zambezi and peer down into the churning abyss. Also on the Zambian side is Makuni Big Five Safaris, which offer nature walks alongside elephants, lions and cheetahs–all with loads of animal interaction.

Where to Stay?

Unless you are staying in a posh hotel (like the Royal Livingstone) on the riverfront, my advice is to stay in Zim rather than Zam. Zim is a tourist-centric town, with a wide range of hotels, far more shopping opportunities than across the border, and a safer feel. Livingstone is a bustling city many times the size of Vic Falls, and other than some decent restaurants, doesn’t have the same feel. This is a gritty, ramshackle African semi-urban setting, which better reflects the actual state of affairs, but doesn’t make for the more comfortable vacation or natural connection most come to seek.

So, to sum up my answer to the question Zim or Zam: Stay in Zim. Play in Zam. And see the falls from both sides. And now that you understand the question, I hope that whether you Zim, Zam or both, the answer leads you to this magnificent part of the world.

One of Seven & the Big Six-Oh

Strong wifi is a bit of a rarity here in Zimbabwe. So while I’ve got it I thought I’d provide a brief update on my travels in lieu of the normal, full-fledged posts of witty, brilliant travel insight that I usually write.

Yesterday morning my wife and I visited Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world (I’ve been to three others as well: the Grand Canyon, Great Barrier Reef, & Harbor of Rio de Janiero). The face of the falls totals about a mile in length, so it is impossible to capture the whole thing in one shot, even if there wasn’t so much mist in the way. Like everything else I’ve experienced in Zimbabwe, this was far better than expected. My advice for seeing the Falls is the same as for seeing the country: just come.

After touring the falls, we took a tour of the Victoria Falls Bridge built some 109 years ago. To do this, we had to enter into Zambia which is now the 60th country I’ve visited so far. Walking the catwalk allowed us some more great views of the falls and the impressive Batoka Gorge which it straddles. Again, pictures just don’t do justice to what the scene is really like. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

So that’s it for now. This morning we’re off to Botswana because I’m ready for number 61.

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