Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Wild Chobe River of Botswana

A Malachite Kingfisher rests and looks for little fish on the bank of the Chobe River in Botswana.

We drove north out of the isolated farmlands of Pandamatenga in northern Botswana and came through a wide open grassland where groups of elephants were crossing this lonely road in a northeast direction towards Zimbabwe. Like ships on the ocean, the grand beasts floated over the grasses, their long legs lost in a sea of green. A small family herd at first headed towards us then veered off and loitered about two hundred meters away, waiting for us to clear out before crossing the road.

This stretch of highway links the populated south with the more empty north, and during the height of Zimbabwe’s political crisis in 2008 it became the main thoroughfare for traffic into Zambia, Malawi and Congo. The road surface was never meant to carry hundreds of thousands of huge trucks, and is now a potholed mess. The government of Botswana is building a new road next to the old one, which further slows our progress from a gallop to a trot that is much more fitting to the scenery and the animals.

A large, slightly annoyed hippo on the banks of the Chobe River, painted up to look like a skunk.

Stopping often to see Lappetfaced Vultures, elephants, and the occasional giraffe, we stopped short of town and drove into a small forest reserve. There in the dying light of day, the sun had set and the night was looming on the eastern horizon. A big black beast broke cover, his white mask and huge scimitar horns unmistakable. It was a Sable antelope, one of the largest ones I have ever seen, and one of the rarest kinds in Africa. I had only seen one once before, on this same road, in 1997. The idea that this magnificent animal might be the same one or a distant relative, and had remained safe here with little official protection comforted me as we pushed deep into the bush under a large tree and made our camp.

The next morning we made our way to the riverside town of Kasane, at the heart of the planned Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, or KAZA (read more about this trip and project here) in the Hog, my Toyota Landcruiser.

In Kasane we made contact with a local tour company I have used before and hired a small flat-bottomed riverboat for our small team. At three in the afternoon we boarded the boat and cruised up the Chobe River, into Chobe National Park. This is an amazing experience for anyone with a love for nature. Our little boat was small enough to pull right up onto the bank and we came face to face with many animals that are usually seen only at a great distance. A huge male hippo dressed up in wet mud down his back like a skunk was grazing on the land, and although he threatened us a little, he seemed remarkably relaxed with us only a few meters away, standing in the boat taking photos of him.

We sidled ever-so-slowly up to a tiny little Malachite Kingfisher, one of the most beautiful and shy birds in Africa. With my 400mm lens on my still camera I managed to get an almost perfect portrait of him, only two arm lengths away. He was still resting there as we motored away, further up river.

Sunset on the Chobe River

Giraffe’s bent to drink silhouetted by the setting sun while a fish eagle bided his time on a broken old tree, waiting for fish to rise so he could enjoy his evening meal. Elephants were everywhere, some of the 140,000 of them that call this area home. The sun set through an old tree by river bank while i clicked away, enjoying every moment of this incredible evening.

We forged further into the park, way past the time when we could still see through the fading light of the equatorial day. Our guide stopped us, engine off, next a group of male elephants grazing in the tall grass right next to us. We could feel their exhalations, smell their big muddy bodies, and hear their breathing and quiet munchings right over us. It was a profound moment, the light of day a distant band in the west, the stars shining down, and the intimate sounds of the grandest beasts to walk the earth all around us.

There are an estimated 140,000 elephants in the Chobe River complex, these ones are drinking by the Chobe River at dusk.

The Chobe National Park is the benchmark for much of the planned KAZA park, and after a few days of exploring the town of Kasane and the countryside, we headed off over the Kazangula Ferry and into Zambia, where the lessons of Botswana are being implemented, and the grandest part of the KAZA is starting to take shape in fits and starts.

Sunset over the Namibian side of the Chobe River, near Kasane, Botswana.

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