That feeling you get just before you board a flight to your safari destination is tough to put down on black and white. It’s tough to put down in any colour for that matter.
That rush of irrepressible excitement, the tingling goosebumps and the feeling that you most definitely forgot something at home all go hand in hand before your departure.
So you quickly open your camera bag, because that is obviously all that really matters on a photo safari, and triple check that all is in order. All matters seem in place then but your suspicions are confirmed only once you get to bed at night and you realised that you forgot to pack your toothpaste. That does not really matter as much because you now find yourself in one of Africa’s most beautiful wildlife destinations and your memory card is filled with action-packed images.
I met two of my guests at the airport, and they were as ready and rearing to get to the Chobe River as I was. Well almost. One of the guys had been on safari with me before. We spent a few days in Mana Pools last year, and he is one terrific bloke. He happens to be a pilot as well, a very charming one. Naturally.
Our plane set its sights to the north and off we went, to the Chobe and beyond.
We met up with another very interesting couple at Kasane International. They were from Germany and were on the road in South Eastern Africa for just over five months. They had now reached the half-way mark and decided a break from the dusty Kalahari Desert was desperately needed, and that the cool waters of the Chobe would do just perfectly. They both work for Doctors Without Borders and have a sincere passion for this great big continent of ours. We left their weathered Toyota (the only real car for Africa, by the way) behind and after passing through mundane immigration offices in Botswana and Namibia, headed out to Ichingo Lodge on the Namibian side.
We were greeted by warm and welcoming faces and showed to our rooms. It was early afternoon and even though they had kindly prepared a scrumptious lunch for us, we had other plans in mind. All we wanted to do was to jump on that custom-made photographic boat and head on out to photograph Chobe’s incredible wildlife.
The lodge quickly wipped up some amazing sandwiches and mouth-watering chocoloate brownies. We hoofed them down in seconds and set sail to the west, camera’s in hand and the white of our teeth in full glow. We could not be happier. (Or so we thought)
Each and every safari, regardless of the destination, will conjure up something new and different. That’s the beauty of being out here, the allure of the unexpected. It’s around every corner, behind every tree. This is what keeps us coming back time and time again. I can’t say I have met many people who would not return after their first visit here.
My charming pilot guest is even considering moving here. All he has to do is convince his lovely wife back home, who will in all likelyhood read this post. There you go Vince, I started the conversation for you my friend. Don’t mention it 😉
Our first afternoon on the river was fantastic! Stunning birds, bathing elephants and as always and on cue, a true Chobe sunset. Our safari started on a wonderful note and we were excited at what the next day would hold.
Once back at the lodge we had a lovely dinner and as per usual, joined by Dawn. Her and her husband started this company more than 16 years ago. She has a charming sense of humour and a wealth of knowledge, it’s always entertaining listening to all the stories she has to tell. Ralph, her husband was away on business.
The great thing about these safaris is that you become more than simply fellow travelers. Africa has a way of uniting people and as we sat around the dinner table on our first night the kindred spirits in all of us brought us together and lasting friendships were in the making.
I love waking early way before anyone else does. I think 8 years of solid lodge-based guiding and very early mornings have prepared me for it. Sitting down on the main deck with a warm cup of coffee in hand, listening to the sounds around you and seeing how the rising sun transforms the colours of the night is special to me. It reminds me of where I am and how fortunate and privileged I am.
We left the lodge for good as we set out on safari and to eventually join up with the Ichobezi Houseboat for our last 3 nights, a stunning way of experiencing the charm of the river.
From the houseboat one can explore areas of the river at will and there’s no need for a long distance drive back to the city or to the area where most of the lodges are located. As we sat around chatting after dinners, we would occasionally be disturbed by a barking jackal, a whooping hyena or even by the king of the jungle himself. We heard lions every single night and there’s little more distinctly “Africa”, than the sound of that booming roar. The mere thought of it sends chills down my spine.
That said, there seems to be one solitary African who disagrees with me.
Chris, one of my guests on this trip seems to place one animal’s call (if you can call it that) above even that of a massive male lion. The grumpy hippo. Obviously we all utterly disagreed with him. How on this beautiful earth of ours can a hippo’s garish grunt be mentioned in the same sentence as that of a lion’s roar? Absolutely preposterous I believe! He stuck to his beliefs no matter how much we tried to sway him and I have to be honest, I think he lost a little regard from his fellow photographic comrades. Things between us just could not be the same again.
All our mornings were spent in search of predators. Lion, leopard and hyena far prefer drinking in the cool of dawn than later in the day. They are mostly nocturnal and you have to be out at first light to find them active and up and about. That said, we had absolutely no luck in this department. Even though we heard lions calling pretty close to the river’s bank, we had no luck in finding them. Reports from the mainland is that the local pride had killed a buffalo and had no intentions of moving to the river.
During summer time there’s ample water on the mainland. Seasonal rains fill up both permanent and temporary waterholes on the mainland and animals need not travel all the way to the river in order to quench their thirst. For general game it’s also deemed safer to drink from a small pan, or more so than sticking your soft little nose into the croc-infested water of the Chobe. As the seasons progress and the mainland waters dissipates, they are left with no choice but to drink from the dangerous river.
I will be back here in September to experience exactly this. Click HERE for more information.
That said, any animal could come and drink at any time, and often its merely being in the right place at the right time. Penny Robartes had a great encounter two months ago, photographing a lioness and cubs feeding on a kudu bull. Click HERE to see a photo.
We had the most incredible time photographing waterbirds. The boat is mostly silent and we often “dock” into a patch of lilies and within no time, the birds adjust to our presence and continue with their business. African Jacana, Squacco Heron, White-fronted Bee-eaters and Black-crowned Night Herons are a few of the photographic highlights.
Egyptian Geese, Great and Little Egrets, Blacksmith Lapwings and many more could be found daily and could also be approached with relative ease. Although often seen, the pairs of African Pygmy Geese gave us a real hard time. These stunning little birds are incredibly shy and hard to approach!
If you are a lover of the African Fish Eagle this is undoubtedly the place for you to be. Many of the eagles were nesting and were in search of food on a regular basis. The sightings of these birds left as in awe of their speed and power. Nests are typically placed 400 to 600 meters apart, a very high density.
Being on the custom-made photographic boat is a great experience in itself. It is aimed to look after every need of a wildlife photographer, and the silent movement of the boat meant that we could get real close to many of our photographic subjects.
The local Lesser-striped Swallows would also attempt to build their characteristic mud-houses on the roof of the boat. This is less than ideal for them as we would always move on leaving them with a house-on-the-move. Seeing them collect mud is a special experience though.
Impala, buffalo and baboons are regulars on the shores of the river. They would spend their days feeding within close proximity to the waters edge, and the large buffalo bulls showed little concern for crocodiles as they wallowed in the cool waters. Being a mere meter or two from an animal with the not-so-friendly reputation as a Cape buffalo is certainly something to be experienced. When the flies from a buffalo fly up and land on your nose, you know you are pretty darn close!!
A certain highlight was seeing a lone Sable bull along the rivers bank. We spotted it drinking but were a little too far out to get any photographs. It was one of those moment better enjoyed.
Elephants were the highlight of the safari for sure. There are not many other places in Africa where you see so many of them and are able to get so close as well. As the sun heats up the surrounding landscape, elephants trundle down to the water not only for a drink, but also to bathe, play and engage with the other herds and solitary bulls.
I am convinced we had more than 100 elephants around us on our second afternoon. They simply kept pouring out of the woodland and straight into the river!
It almost seems at times like a big family reunion. Elephants are such long-lived creatures and have superb memories. The older elephants all know one another well and it is evident in the way they treat one another; gently and respectfully. The young calves have a taste for life and living it to the full. They will play as long as they can, bounding through the shallow waters, splashing and spraying as they go.
A clear favourite pastime was to torment the locals geese and ducks on the islands. The young elephants as well as the younger bulls would time after time chase after their feathered friends in rather dramatic fashion. Geese would fly for their lives as they aimed to avoid the 2-ton mammal in their slipstream, at times looking rather comical themselves.
We would sit for hours simply watching and enjoying the life of these elephants, sometimes as close as four meters from us. Believe me, when you are sitting low down in a little boat, an elephant looks rather imposing at this short distance. What a show we played witness to!
It is always sad to leave a place like Chobe behind. The wildlife in itself is something you always enjoy and undoubtedly will return to, but the friendship you have formed over a few cold beers and some incredible dinners is something to treasure too. After a successful morning or afternoon on the river, there’s always the delightful drive back to the houseboat. It’s an opportunity to chat about the happenings of the day all whilst the sun colours the sky in a way only it can!
I can in all honestly say that the Chobe River has something very unique about it, a quality and power that’s very hard to describe. When someone asks about it the words seem to sit at the tip of your tongue, yet they just don’t seem adequate enough.
They will never do this special part of Africa any justice.
It can not be explained, it can only be experienced…
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Marlon du Toit