Published: November 15th 2011November 8th 2011
“We will have to watch those two hippos,” explained the guide, closing the throttle of the small boat we were sitting in. “They are waiting to chase us.” We all looked forward to see the pair of large specimens eying us with what I presumed to be hippo malice. Only their eyes, snouts and comically-shaped ears were protruding above the water and then they went under, invisible. Instead of turning back, our driver told us to hang on tight and pushed the medal to the metal. Before we could yell at him to cease the madness, we were speeding through.
Three seconds later, instead of being mashed to death by hippos, or dragged to the depths by huge crocodiles, we were safe and sound, straining our necks to look behind. Sure enough, the hippos had reappeared and had been chasing us because of their new location. With twitching ears they looked for new prey. Our driver brought us to a stop and we began to watch the progress of the boat behind. After judging the whereabouts of the once more submerged water devils, its driver too put on full power and literally steamed his way through the patch, and as
he did so, one of the hippos surged towards the back of the boat, but was too clumsy to get anywhere neat it.
Chobe National Park ended up being amazing, much more than Angela and I could have hoped for; the amount of animals simply staggering to behold, and most of them so close. Our journey there began in Zambia, and after picking up two fellow passengers (a young married couple – Olivia from the UK, David from South Africa) we headed west towards Botswana.
The Zambian border formalities were a breeze and we were soon sat inside a small speed boat that acted as a ferry to cross a stretch of river toward the Botswana side. Lines of trucks were waiting to catch the Kazungula Ferry at both ends, making us wonder why they didn’t just build a bridge. As it stood, only one lorry could cross at a time, making the whole thing a costly time exercise. The Botswana customs was easy, especially since we didn’t need to pay for a visa, just a stamp and we were on our way.
Compared to the Zambian side, Botswana looked more affluent. The roads seemed newer, and
the buildings by the side looked better too, more modern and in a better state of repair. Even the Botswana flag we’d seen back at the border had an air of restrain about it, incorporating whites, blacks and a lot of pastel blue instead of the more usual reds, greens and yellows of its neighbours.
Botswana was actually one of the few African success stories. After gaining independence from Britain in 1966, it started out as one of the poorest countries in Africa. Even so it held fair and democratic elections from day one. The discovery of huge mineral deposits such as diamonds, gold and uranium turned the tables for the new nation. Massive profits started to roll in which the government invested cleverly. Instead of lining the pocket of the president (as happened in numerous other African countries) Botswana ploughed its new cash back into the welfare of its people, constructing school and hospitals and building an infrastructure usually associated with countries outside of Africa. Indeed, according to one study, Botswana has managed to elevate itself beyond the dreams of many in Africa, offering a standard of living comparable to Turkey or Mexico.
But all is not
good news for Botswana. The country has the second highest infection rate for HIV in the world, which according to a recent study, means that a quarter of its population have the virus. So bad is the infection rate, that unlike most of the world’s upward trend for life expectancy, the people of Botswana can expect to live ten years fewer than they would have twenty years previously.
After a short drive from the border we came to a small town that had a church, a bank and a supermarket but little else, and then turned abruptly right onto a side track. The river-front lodge we arrived at soon after was in a prime position for part one of our Chobe Day Trip – the river safari.
The four of us boarded a small boat and within minutes of setting off we spotted our first herd of elephants. They were wading into the crocodile infested River Chobe, heading towards a tiny island in the middle of the water. Our guide increased the throttle to get closer to them.
I honestly didn’t think we would be getting that to the animals. They were almost close enough to touch.
Thankfully though, the elephants were paying us no heed and merrily reached the island and began pulling up huge mouthfuls of grass and stuffing it into their oversized mouths. Kingfishers hovered overhead and beautiful white egrets sat among the reeds waiting for fish to appear. It was quite literally, an amazing sight.
“Hippos,” said our guide matter of factly. We had literally just left the elephants and now were heading to a trio of wallowing hippopotami, heads above the water with bulbous eyes staring at us. I already knew that hippos killed more people than any other form of wildlife in Africa, and so I was naturally wary of getting too close, but our guide slowed down and allowed us to watch them from a safe distance. From there they looked so harmless, and actually quite cuddly, especially one of them who was resting its giant head on the back of another.
“This is better than I thought it was going to be,” I said to Angela and we passed a monitor lizard, lazing on a tree branch. Overhead, eagles swooped, and on the river bank a mother and juvenile warthog trotted along, oblivious to the crocodiles lurking
along the edge. “It’s like being in a nature program.”
Everywhere we looked there were herds of elephants, gangs of hippos, troops of monkeys, multitudes of antelope and hundreds of water buffalo, not to mention all the birds. And this was the low season for tourists. I asked the guide about this.
“Yes, most tourists come in July and August and they will be lucky to see maybe two or three elephants,” he said, gesturing towards the masses of grey beasts everywhere to see. “And the reason is simple: this is the dry season and the animals are forced to come to the river for water. You are lucky to come this month.”
Just a few minutes later we had the episode with the hippos of terror. After we’d escaped them I turned to Angela. “If those hippos had sunk us, and we’d somehow managed to survive being chopped to pieces by their teeth, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because the crocs would’ve got us. Look at them all.” Scaly eyes and bulbous snouts were all over the riverbank and the guide told us that some of them could grow to 18ft long. I asked him how
the elephants and hippos could be in the water with so many crocodiles about.
“The crocodiles know not to attack something so big as an elephant or hippo - they know they would not stand a chance. Perhaps a juvenile one, yes, but an adult no. Instead the crocodile wait for the antelope or maybe the water buffalo to come to the water’s edge and then they will have them for dinner.”
After maybe two and a half hours on the river in was time to head back to the hotel but along the way our driver made a stop near an island. “Welcome to Namibia!” he said smiling. The four of us looked at where we were and saw that it looked just the same as any other part of the river chain. “This half of the channel belongs to Namibia and you are all illegal immigrants now. Please take a photo to record your time in a brand new country!”
Back at the hotel I had three quests to complete, a tradition I always undertook in any new country. At first this routine had irked Angela, but now, with the passage of time, and together
with the fact that she knew I wasn’t going to give it up, she had grown to accept it, to even embrace it.
The first job was to get some of the local currency, Pula, which I managed to do so at the lobby reception desk. Whenever I travel to a new country, I always take a sample of the currency back home with me as a memento. The second thing is to sample some local beer. To accomplish this I wandered to the hotel bar and purchased a bottle of Saint Louis beer, the brand of choice in Botswana. And finally there was stage three, and the one part I usually needed Angela’s help with - a short video clip of me drinking the beer. This done, I was most satisfied when the David from South Africa, looked at me in envy and went off to get some Pula of his own, closely followed by a bottle of beer. I grinned knowingly as his wife took a photo of him with it. A man after my own heart.
After lunch, where we learned that David and Olivia lived in the town of East London which was a
coastal town about 700km southwest of Durban. Zambia (and now Botswana) was their first holiday outside of South Africa since getting married a year previously. Like us, they were also amazed by the sheer amount of animals we’d all seen. Very soon though, it was time for the second segment of our Chobe Day Trip – the land safari.
Once aboard the open-sided truck we headed the short distance to the entrance point of Chobe National Park, heralded by a fine set of skulls, ranging from a warthog’s to a gigantic elephant’s. And then we were in, surrounded by scrubland and baobab trees, and of course lots of beasts. Our driver stopped to point out a dead impala, its body ravaged by predators, with only its head and horns recognisable. He said it had probably been attacked by wild dogs and not lions as we’d hoped.
Elephants crossed roads in front of us and antelope sat in the shade by bushes as we bumped along. A trio of giraffes made a timely appearance too, tottering about behind some trees in such a slovenly manner that we all had ample time to take lots of photos, and very quickly
the amount of animals on offer grew normal. The first time we’d spotted an elephant, all four of us had zoomed our lenses in as far as they would go, snapping off photo after photo. But now, and with elephants less than ten feet from us, we hardly picked up a camera. Not that we weren’t interested anymore, far from it, but there were literally so many animals that it was pointless trying to get a snap of all of them.
The tour finished an hour later and the four of is all agreed it had been amazing and well worth the $170 each we had paid for the trip. We headed back to Zambia content and uplifted that we had been afforded the opportunity to see some of Africa’s finest animals so close and so free. Strengths:
-The dazzling amount of animals
-The day trip tour is extremely well organised
-Proximity to Zambia (or Zimbabwe) Weaknesses:
There are more photos below