In the parched African bush, water is life, and the banks of the Chobe River teem with an awe-inspiring abundance of wildlife. This is the “Land of the Giants” — so-named because it’s home to Africa’s largest number of elephants (more than 120,000). On a boat ride, we see them in the shallow water, yanking out reeds and grass with their trunks, waving their magnificent tusks as they shake the clumps clean to pop into their mouths. Sometimes the elephants are so close we can imagine reaching out and touching their wrinkly skin.
The wonder of the place — better known as Chobe National Park — is that animals besides elephants are also found here in prolific numbers. The unfenced 11,600-square-kilometer park in Northern Botswana is also famous for its huge herds of Cape buffalo, large prides of lions, countless antelope, giraffes and pretty well every other African animal imaginable. Indeed, Chobe has one of the greatest year-round concentrations of wildlife in all of Africa. The only one of the “Big Five” (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) hard to spot is the rare rhinoceros.
Setting off on a full-day’s game drive in an open Land Rover, we bounce along red-sand tracks criss-crossing the scrubby bush by the river. Large Chacma baboons swinging through the trees catch our attention. Then a dazzle of zebras. (Don’t you love the name for a group of zebras? Their black and white stripes are certainly dazzling!) We pass a bull elephant giving himself a dust bath with his trunk, his ears flapping. When two male giraffes circle each other in what looks like a curious dance, we stop to watch; after each circle, they curl their sinewy necks down and bump the other’s body with their heads — playfighting, we’re told.
We can’t wait to see lions. And we do! We drive up close, observing four lions resting in the shade, and we’re amazed yet again at how close the animals allow us to get. (Most safari viewing in Africa occurs on game drives, and the animals are habituated to the sight and sound of people sitting in open vehicles.)
And, oh, the birds! African fish eagle, ground hornbills, sacred ibis? Check. The most beautiful is the lilac-breasted roller — in flight, the tips of its turquoise wing feathers look like they’ve been dipped in royal blue ink.
So many animals and birds rotate through this kaleidoscope of nature that our necks get sore swivelling from right to left. It’s a marvel they can live together in harmony.
With their tusked snouts, comical warthogs dig up mud that baboons then pick through with their nimble fingers, plucking out juicy bulbs to eat. Antelope even prance around near the lions! At night, yes, the cats hunt. But in the light of day, it’s all one peaceful scene.
Still, it’s the elephants we gaze at later in the day in the river that give us the most joy. Globally, their numbers are declining. But here in “The Land of the Giants,” they are safe for future generations to witness. And that is a blessing.
Ngoma Safari Lodge
We stayed at the intimate Ngoma Safari Lodge near Chobe National Park’s less-visited west gate. It was built in association with a trust that
helps support the local community. Strung along an escarpment with staggering views of the Chobe River floodplain, its eight bush-chic chalets each have a private plunge pool. The thatched-roof restaurant, placed amongst centuries-old baobab trees, overlooks a waterhole where elephants, giraffes and zebras drink. Sometimes, thirsty elephants even drain the pool on your chalet deck. Meals are delicious; herbs are supplied by the local village, and breads and pastries are baked fresh each meal in Ngoma’s kitchen. Following artisanal gin-and-tonics at sunset, candlelight dinners are three-course affairs and might include Botswana prime beef with red wine jus or South African kingklip fish in a coconut sauce.
Game drives occur in small groups (perhaps only two couples per vehicle), and vehicles explore different areas of the park, so you may not see other people for long stretches of time. The full-day game drive and river boat excursion — with an elegant picnic lunch in the wild — is a highlight.
If you visit
The dry season, from May to early November, is the best time to visit Chobe National Park (September is the hottest month). Many waterholes dry up in the bush then, so the animals congregate around the Chobe River floodplain and are thus easier to spot. Ngoma Safari Lodge is about an hour’s drive from Kasane, Botswana. It’s easy to get to from Victoria Falls, another popular stop on Africa’s southern safari circuit.
Ngoma Safari Lodge: Rates include all meals, drinks and game drives.
English Text by Janice & George Mucalov