Elephants were everywhere and as far as the eye could see. Next to us they looked huge as small herds made their way past us to the river for an evening drink. In front of us they looked smaller and glistened black in the late afternoon sun as adults and babies frolicked blissfully in the mud using their trunks to spray water on themselves. Further away they looked like tiny toy elephants as they receded toward the horizon. If Africa’s national parks were a network of train stations then Chobe would be Elephant Grand Central.
Over a decade earlier when I was working at Ulusaba Private Game Reserve in Sabi Sand we’d often sit around at night drinking beers as I’d listen eagerly to my South African colleagues swap bush stories. Many of these centered around experiences with elephants and Botswana was spoken of almost reverently as the home of the largest and most angry elephants in Africa. Poaching was in full swing so that Botswana was home to elephants who didn’t just fear humans but were downright angry with them. My colleagues would recount stories of not just charges but full-on chases resulting from encounters with people.
As I’ve written about earlier, prior experience had left me with a fear of these lovely animals so as we entered Chobe National Park on this trip in 2016 I was feeling a little apprehensive. In the years since I listened to those stories the government of Botswana has stepped up its anti-poaching measures and today there are estimated to be around 55,000 elephants in Chobe, probably the highest concentration in Africa. Many say it is the last safe place for them and thus why so many have been driven here.
Elephants are so prevalent that the trees can’t keep pace with their feeding habits so that the woodlands are slowly being destroyed. The government toyed with the idea of an elephant cull but similar measures in Kruger National Park proved extremely controversial so for now the idea has been abandoned. They say that elephants never forget so my biggest concern at that point wasn’t the trees but whether the elephants of Chobe would remember how badly humans had treated them. It turned out that I should have been more worried about human behaviour in the Park which upset me far more than anything an elephant could ever do.
Our group left Maun early the previous morning to make the 7-hour drive to Kasane, a busy town in near Africa’s ‘Four Corners’ where the borders of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe meet on the Zambezi River. Kasane is on the banks of the lovely Chobe River and is the gateway to the national park of the same name.
We left as the sun rose over the Kalahari Basin and were soon driving between Nxai Pan National Park and Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. These feature the largest salt pans in the world that were created around 10,000 years ago when a super lake dried up leaving salt-crusted lake beds behind. It was the dry season so we didn’t see much other than the odd giraffe as we drove past but the wet season here fills the lakes triggering a large wildebeest and zebra migration as well as drawing all kinds of animals and birds to the water. Not far past these parks near the village of Gweta we pulled over next to a giant aardvark that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Further research has not explained its presence but it made for an interesting break.
Eventually we reached the town of Nata and made a sharp left turn to head north on the final stretch to Kasane. I consulted my map and found that we were loosely following the border with Zimbabwe. On the Botswana side we were traveling through a series of private or government wildlife areas and on the Zimbabwe side there were national parks. This made for some good game viewing from our truck with several sightings of elephant feeding from trees on the roadside.
We arrived in Kasane mid-afternoon and found it to be a busy and colourful town. Most of the group took an optional river cruise to view elephant and hippo but I opted to stay behind to go shopping along with the newly arrived Australian group. I’ve written in my previous post about growing tensions between them and the original group I had been traveling with since Cape Town. I’d thought the long day in the truck had been a good bonding experience but things were about to take a turn for the worse.
The new group had a stressful time before they joined us and it was starting to show. There was a lot of nit-picking coming from them that was mostly directed at our Kenyan crew, something that upset us as we adored them. The worst of this was a suggestion that our tour leader was charging above the odds for optional activities such as the river cruise and accommodation upgrades then pocketing the difference for himself. This was entirely untrue and left this very conscientious man upset for weeks. An e-mail complaint was even fired off to his head office a few days later. The whole thing was incredibly upsetting for the crew and difficult for us to watch. It divided the entire group so much that by the time we arrived in Victoria Falls a few days later the two sides were barely speaking and the Australians departed without saying goodbye.
I’m not going to cover this off in any more detail and the only reason I am mentioning it at all is because I think it is of interest to people who will take similar trips themselves. It is worth spending time beforehand thinking through how you as an individual will handle things like this so that you can not only keep enjoying yourself but also ensure that you do your best to keep a group cohesive which is a key part of your own enjoyment. Although I was seething with anger over the accusations I attempted to keep things calm that evening by offering everyone a homemade hand scrub. We all needed it after the bush camping in the Okavango Delta and I thought it might be a nice bonding session. I mixed together brown sugar, olive oil and honey I had bought at the supermarket then spent an hour or so scrubbing 21 pairs of hands of various sizes, shapes and colors. I’m not sure if it helped with team bonding but I did score a lot of free drinks and by the end of the evening I had the smoothest hands of them all.
Most of the next day was free as our Chobe trip wouldn’t depart until late-afternoon. Eventually a truck arrived to pick up our gear and our tents. That crew would find a site within the National Park to set up our camp whilst we boarded another open truck to head out on safari. Most of my tripmates hadn’t been on a guided game drive before and apart from our trip through Etosha many hadn’t been on safari at all. I always volunteered to take the worst seats in a vehicle so that they had the best positions for experiencing an animal sighting and getting photos. I’d been fortunate to have several incredible safari experiences in Sabi Sand Reserve when I worked for Ulusaba and as much as I adore game viewing that wasn’t why I was on this trip. I was here to see the landscape and the people.
For that reason I found myself in the middle of a bench seat at the very back of the truck. I knew this was the bumpiest place to sit but I wasn’t prepared for just how awful it would be because I wasn’t expecting such terrible driving on behalf of our guide. The roads in Chobe are in bad shape because of the mud and sand but mainly because (in my opinion) the park is overused. There are just way too many vehicles and they all seem to be going way too fast. A really good way to make a bad road worse is to drive lots of heavy vehicles over it at high speed which was exactly what had been happening here.
The other problem with driving so fast is that it scares the animals and for some reason I can’t explain nobody in Chobe seems to be controlling that. In fact our driver deliberately drove toward animals at high-speed, cutting off whatever path they were taking before slamming on the brakes at the last second. This made for some great photos as animals ran either towards us in anger or away in fear so I presume that was the purpose but it was extremely upsetting to witness and physically uncomfortable to experience.
On the way to our campsite we had some potentially wonderful sightings of elephant and giraffe along with a pride of lions with three cubs. But for me they were all ruined by the incessant stopping and starting of the jeep, the fear the animals were experiencing and also the fact that I wasn’t entirely sure we wouldn’t run over the lion cubs when we went looking for them, something that can happen in Africa as a result of careless driving. As we drove the final leg to camp during a spectacular sunset I felt angry and uncomfortable.
The final incident of the day happened right as we were driving into the campsite. A beautiful bull giraffe was about to cross our path. Normally a guide would slow right down and eventually stop the vehicle to allow the giraffe to pass in front so that all on board could enjoy the spectacular sight of it ambling past without the giraffe getting upset. But not this driver. Not only did he not slow down but he sped up to cut the giraffe off so that at one point I thought we would hit it yet he thankfully galloped off in another direction at the last moment with a look of terror on his face. I was utterly disgusted.
Because the others hadn’t been on a guided game drive before they didn’t seem to realise how bad this all was. None of them especially liked the giraffe experience nor an earlier one when we cut off a lone bull elephant in the same way, but they had loved the animal sightings and I didn’t want to ruin that for them so after a few grumblings I decided to shut up and enjoy camping in the bush. We sat around the campfire that night watching various pairs of eyes look out at us from the darkness surrounding us, I brought along some marshmallows for us to cook on sticks and overall it was a pleasant evening, topped off by the special experience of falling asleep to the sound of lions roaring, hyenas laughing and hippos grunting.
We were up before dawn the next morning so that we could take an early game drive on our way back to Kasane. Those of us who had experienced the back row the night before were now nursing sore backs and got some nice people to trade places with us so that we were in the front row where things were significantly less bouncy. The sunrise over the Chobe River was stunning and we found the lions again from the night before with full bellies from an overnight kill. Not far away were a group of hyena who had stolen another lion kill and true to form our driver nearly ran over one of them whilst scattering the rest in confusion. It takes a lot to scare a hyena but our driver somehow managed it. I’m normally pretty stoic in public but this was too much and I was having an extremely hard time hiding my tears.
Going on safari is normally a beautiful and moving experience. In Sabi Sand for example there are strict rules that everyone has to follow. For this reason you get very close to animals and stay in sightings for a long time. It is all very peaceful and intimate with the animals barely noticing your presence letalone being scared of the vehicle. It is not uncommon to sit for 20-minutes among a pride of lions or a herd of elephants with perhaps only one or two other vehicles quietly nearby. Passengers are not allowed to stand up and largely must remain silent. As a result the animals eventually come close to the vehicle as they pass by which leads to wonderful photos and experiences. The object is to immerse yourself and to learn, not to snap as many photos as you can then move on to the next animal like you would in a zoo.
I was coming to realise that I had been spoiled on previous game drives and was wondering if that was as good as safaris get. For whatever reason that was deeply upsetting and I still have difficulty remembering that morning when the hyenas scattered in fear, some losing the food they were eating in the process, or the night before when a normally placid giraffe minding his own business was treated so badly and was so terrified as a result.
It seemed an interesting coincidence that my camera broke during that trip, almost like it was insulted that photography was the reason the animals were being treated so dismissively so decided to nope on out of there. It would still take photos but the LCD screen had died so I was just kind of pointing it in the general direction of the sunrise or the animals in the hope that I was getting some good shots. The end result was some fairly comical pictures along with the odd surprisingly good one.
I want to point out that there is definitely wonderful game viewing to be had in Chobe National Park and it is a stunningly beautiful place. I don’t want to discourage people from the experience, particularly from seeing the wonderful sight of hundreds of elephants peacefully roaming by the water. I would encourage you to research your safari company carefully. You want an operator who places the quality of sightings over quantity. Although more expensive the best way to do this is to hire a private guide then give them a list of things you want to see in order of most important. Any safari is best if you can really focus on experiencing one or two animals during each drive.
I did pass on my concerns to our crew who in turn spoke to the safari operator. We subsequently found out that our guide is notorious for his bad driving. I truly hope he was an anomaly but I still believe that there are too many vehicles in Chobe (private and commercial) and not enough being done to regulate their speed. I also think that some basic rules need to be strictly enforced when it comes to animal sightings. Perhaps if more people complain some changes will eventually be made.