I've always fancied myself as a small, brown David Attenborough. But narrating the movements of next door's ginger cat didn't quite give me the excitement that I was looking for. I wanted to see real wild animals up close.
So, when we decided to move to Zambia, going on a safari was one of the first things we wanted to do. The question was - where should we do it? There were so many options: Kruger in South Africa, South Luangwa in Zambia, the Serengeti in Tanzania... but in the end we decided that we would go and visit Chobe National Park.
Why Visit Chobe?
Chobe National Park features 11,700km of pristine wilderness and is known for having one of the greatest concentrations of animals in all of Africa. It's also considered to be one of the best countries to do a safari in because there are limits on the number of visitors to the park each day. This low-density tourism model means that the park never gets crowded and you always feel like you are somewhere remote and undisturbed.
In terms of biodiversity, Chobe really does have it all: elephants, wildebeest, water buffalo, kudu, giraffe, warthog, zebra, impala, baboon, lions, wild dogs, hyenas...even the very elusive cheetah and leopard also roam the park. Down by the river, hippos and crocodiles share an uneasy truce in the water, whilst the skies and lily padded waterways are full of over 450 bird species.
We've been to Chobe twice - once for a day safari and on our second visit, we stayed overnight and camped under the stars in the national park. You can even stay for up to three nights in the park if you want to - it really depends on how much time you have got for your trip and of course, how deep your pockets are!
So if you are thinking about going on safari and you haven't quite yet decided where you might want to go, read on to find out if the Chobe safari experience is for you. (SPOILER ALERT! It really is where you want to go so just book it now!)
The Chobe Day Trip Experience
Our first safari experience in Chobe was during the rainy season in December. Everywhere was lush and green and I wondered whether we'd be lucky enough to see any animals, despite it not being the 'ideal' safari season.
The day started off early: we were picked up at 7am from our accommodation and driven for about an hour to the Kazungula border between Zambia and Bostwana. At the border we met our Botswanian guides and gave in our passports to be stamped and checked for entry into Botswana.
We were then taken by speedboat to Botswana - the boat crosses the Zambezi river at the point where Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia meet. Pretty cool, eh? Our guides then drove us by safari jeep for another 45 minutes to the Chobe National Park where we had to register.
The River Safari
After the formalities had been completed it was time for our first safari of the day: a three-hour boat cruise along the Chobe river.
We'd never even heard of a river safari before we embarked on this trip and so we weren't sure what to expect. Our guide told us that we could definitely expect to see large herds of elephants as well as a variety of bird species, lions, crocodiles and more and so we were really excited!
The river safari didn't disappoint - almost immediately we were treated to the sight of a crocodile basking on a small island in the middle of the river, surrounded by hippos and birds. Nearby was another one, mouth open, keeping cool in the steadily rising morning heat. This was stuff that was straight out of Nat Geo Wild.
Whilst the guide had told us that we could expect to see lots of animals, I didn't think spotting them would be this...easy. We had expected to see lots of bird life as the rainy season is the prime time for birdwatching but everywhere we looked seemed to be teeming with wildlife and not just the ornithological kind. Yes, there were fish eagles swooping down to catch their prey in front of you and African snakebirds displaying their huge wingspans, but there were also crocodiles, swimming right alongside the boat. Yes, really.
Which brings me to the next thing that amazed us about the river safari: how close we were able to get to some of the animals. Our guides were experts at steering the boats to a reasonably safe distance, so that we could observe the animals without crowding them. We also found that there were only a couple of other boats along the same stretch of river as us and often, for much of the river safari, we were the only boat there.
We even managed to get pretty close to a pod of hippos - that notoriously territorial animal that our guide explained is reported to actually kill around 3000 people in Africa every year. The hippo ain't no joke. As our boat gently chugged towards the pod, one of the hippos noticed us immediately and in response, our guide switched off the boat's murmuring engine. "I think we are close enough", he said.
Too close, it seemed, for the hippo. After staring us out and moving a bit closer as if to take a better look at these odd orange-lifejacket-clad-humans, it opened its chasm-like mouth in all its terrifying splendour. Hippos do this to signal their dominance and as a warning, before they charge.
And, just like that, it bowed it's head and started to move towards us, at a pace a lot faster than you'd expect for such a huge animal. Cue the boat's engine gurgling to life and much to our relief, we sped out of there. Although it was slightly scary, it was exciting to be able to observe this kind of territorial behaviour up close.
Our first sighting of elephants was also during our river safari - a herd of them were making their way down to the riverside for a drink. There was a tiny baby elephant in the herd and the adults were of course very protective around it. At this point, the temperature was sweltering, so we had an inkling of just how thirsty they might be - that river water was starting to look pretty good to us too! But as usual, our guides had thought of everything and there was an icebox with cool bottles of water for everyone.
Lunch and Time for A Game Drive
At midday, it was time to stretch our legs and head back to one of the safari lodges for a buffet lunch, which was included in the activity price. It was pretty good and included both vegetarian and meat options. We had about two hours to eat and relax before it was time for the three-hour afternoon game drive.
Our ride for the afternoon was a comfortable six-seater safari jeep. Other safari jeeps can hold up to eight people and we didn't see a larger group than this around the national park. Be prepared to keep a tight hold of your belongings and get ready for that 'African massage' because the road through the bush is pretty uneven and bumpy!
Once again we were astounded by the amount of wildlife that we saw on this part of the trip. We had only driven a short distance when we saw a group of giraffes, just hanging out and happily munching away on some leaves. I love giraffes - they are such strange animals to look at with their necks stretching upwards towards the sky, velvety eyes and long black tongues. Apparently, their tongues are black to protect them from sunburn when they are eating. The amazing power of evolution.
A bit further on and we came across a young male impala, quietly eating in the bushes. A couple of minutes later, he seemed to decide that he was ready to have his photograph taken and he settled down onto the grass in a picture perfect pose.
The afternoon brought with it the rumbling of thunder clouds and big swollen drops of rain. Despite this, our animal-spotting luck continued, with us seeing a few groups of elephants. One group that we could see in the distance were throwing sand over themselves by the water. And then, as the skies decided to well and truly open up, another group of young elephants ran by us suddenly on their way to some unknown but clearly important destination.
Whilst it's tempting to only write about the big game that we saw on safari, it would be remiss of me to not give a plug to the smaller insects and animals that we saw during our one-day tour that I would argue are equally as interesting. For instance, I'd only ever seen dung beetles on wildlife programmes narrated with David Attenborough's hushed but excited whisper. So to see these small insects in real life, doing their thang rolling dung, was actually pretty cool.
We also saw tortoises slowly making their way across the road. I always equate them as being people's pets, so again it was interesting to see them 'out in the wild'.
It also made me chuckle because it reminded me of when we'd picked up a tortoise that was right in the middle of the road a couple of weeks before. We had been on our way into the bush to run a session with one of the villages that we were working with and it was just there, in danger of being squashed by any passing car. I picked it up and had a look at it and then passed it to Vincent who was going to move it to the side of the road. At this point the tortoise, clearly fed up of being manhandled, decided to do a big poo all over Vincent that was actually in the shape of Africa. Talk about a dirty protest.
The rains were here and with us steadily losing the afternoon light, I dampened my hopes of seeing the King of the Beasts in the wild. We'd already seen so much, I couldn't really complain. But as our jeep started to make its way back to the park's headquarters, it suddenly halted and our guide pointed out a single lioness sitting in the undergrowth a few metres away from us. He turned off the jeep's idling engine and we sat there in silence, watching this majestic creature who was just watching us.
And then, ever so quietly, a young lion cub padded out of the bushes to join her. It always amazes (and scares) me how easily these golden coloured animals can simply blend into the bright green foliage. You would never ever know that they were there. Get out of the jeep at your peril!
With that, it was time to go home. Our jeep drove us to the Kazungula Border and we took the speedboat back to the Zambian side of the river, where our return transfer to our accommodation was waiting for us. It had been a long day (by the time we got back to our hotel it was around 6.30pm) and I was feeling tired but exhilarated. The safari at Chobe had far exceeded my expectations and I was already sad that it was over.
The Two-Day-One-Night (2D1N) Chobe Safari Experience
So of course, when we found out that Vincent's sister was coming to visit us in Zambia, we jumped at the chance of doing another Chobe safari experience and decided that we'd stay for a little longer this time. It also gave us the opportunity to see what a safari was like in the peak dry season. Would we see much more?
The first day of the 2D1N experience follows the same itinerary as the one-day trip. On both the river cruise and the game drive we immediately saw the difference in doing a safari in the dry season. The hot, dry weather draws the water dependent animals to the edge of the Chobe river, which basically equals some sensational animal sightings.
There were meerkats scampering on the waters' edge, perilously close to a crocodile that was sheltering from the sun under a fallen tree. Two giraffes strained their necks to reach the highest leaves of a tree they'd mostly stripped bare and gave free rides to the tick eating birds that were feasting off the bloodsuckers crawling on their yellowy coats. Fish eagles squawked and swooped overhead. Hippos submerged themselves in the cool water between the grassy islands on the river while herds of elephants came down to the river to bathe. Basically, loads of animals everywhere.
Speaking of elephants, Chobe is home to the largest concentration of African elephants in the world, with an estimated population of 130,000. Many of these animals have crossed into Chobe fleeing war, poaching and development in neighbouring countries. Botswana's heavy crackdown on illegal hunting and its status as one of the most stable countries in Africa has provided an accidental safe haven for these elephants and has allowed their numbers to sky rocket.
During the afternoon game drive on the first day, we saw more of these grey, hulking animals than we have seen anywhere. Ever. And they came surprisingly close to us...
The sun was starting to set on our first day on safari and as our jeep turned down the road towards our bush camp, we came across one lone giraffe, happily eating from some low lying bushes. To the side of us some vultures had started to settle down to roost on the gnarled branches of a bare tree.
The Safari Bush Camp
By the time we got back to our bush camp it was almost dark. In the steadily fading light, we could just about see the outline of a herd of elephants - our guide told us that a group about 100-strong were right near our camp! They weren't exaggerating when they said the experience was going to be camping under the stars and surrounded by nature.
The bush camp was comfortable but basic. There were several two-man tents (if you are travelling solo you will have to share with someone else in your group), with a mattress, sheet, duvet and pillow. Makeshift sinks were placed outside each tent and were filled with warm water so you could get washed up before bed (I might be on safari but I am still brushing my teeth, thanks) and were re-filled again in the morning. The toilet was a long drop (basically a hole), but let's face it, if you're expecting the polished porcelain of the Ritz, you are really in the wrong place.
The staff at the bush camp greeted us with some very welcome soft drinks and Mosi beers, which we had whilst sitting around a camp fire waiting for the cook and our guides to rustle up a delicious bush camp dinner. Despite having done nothing much apart from sitting in a boat and then a jeep for most of the day, I was absolutely starving! Animal watching must burn some serious calories! Luckily, a delicious buffet dinner and barbecue (again with stuff for both herbivores and carnivores) was soon laid out for us and we were able to tuck in.
As soon as it was dark the temperature dropped pretty quickly and I found myself wishing that I had brought more layers. Without them I basically had to stand as close to the camp fire as physically possible without actually going up in flames, whilst listening to the guide give us a safety briefing for the camp. Basically, we had to make sure that our tents were always zipped up when we were inside them and to always go to the toilet in pairs to reduce the risk of one of us being eaten.
With that comforting thought, it was time for bed, so we could get a few z's in before our 5.30am wake up call.
Apart from, we couldn't sleep. We could hear something scratching and grunting outside the tent. Warthog? It sounded big. Hippo? Whatever it was then actually brushed past the tent wall where I was lying down. We couldn't really sleep after that.
The next morning we were greeted with the sound of water being poured into our outdoor basins. Still freezing, I gratefully received my steaming hot cup of tea and helped myself to the delicious continental breakfast of pastries and fresh fruits. Our guides told us that hyenas had visited the camp overnight and he pointed to some tracks that were right next to our tent. Ah, so that's what it was. No biggie. However, we then found out that Vincent's sister had gone to the toilet by herself in the middle of the night as she didn't want to disturb her slumbering tent-mate. These Northerners are seriously hard.
When we were all fed and watered, it was time for our morning game drive. This would be the first of two game drives, the second being in the afternoon after which we would be dropped back to the border to take the speedboat back to Zambia.
Having seen so many animals the day before, we were full of anticipation as to what the chilly morning might have in store for us. The answer was...
...not very much apart from a few baboons. The other animals had clearly felt the morning chill and decided to stay asleep. I kind of wished I had done the same. Now I was getting the African road massage in the freezing cold, for what felt like no good reason. But this is how nature is - even with our guides to track them, animals won't just appear so we can gawk at them. And in a way, I was actually glad about that.
We returned to the camp around mid-morning to pack up our stuff and have a 'bush brush' which was basically a light brunch, before we set off again for our afternoon game drive. It had warmed up considerably by this point and now that I could remove my hoodie and scarf I was feeling more optimistic - we were definitely going to see more animals before we went home!
And indeed, the gods were in our favour that afternoon, leading us to see some animals we hadn't seen in the wild before. First off were some deer sightings - a female kudu looking a bit stunned at the sight of us and then a male kudu gazing intently out over the water, as if he had discovered something profound.
Then there was an angry looking water buffalo and some of his mates (sorry that should read 'and a herd of water buffalo' but writing 'herd of Y' and 'a X herd' gets a bit boring for me after a while, so indulge me). Buffalos are known to travel in groups numbering several hundreds or even thousands and can often be found down by the waters edge, which makes them extremely vulnerable to the predators that regularly patrol these popular watering holes.
A few warthogs and a monitor lizard later, we came across a group of zebras and we settled down to watch these hypnotically striped animals for a little while.
We drove on a little further and saw more elephants and giraffes. Seeing the world's largest land mammal and the world's tallest mammal several times over the space of two days was a real highlight for me! We suspected that one of the giraffes was the same guy that we had seen the evening before.
And then, as if on cue, out came a lioness and her three young cubs. Our jeep slowed to a stop as two crossed the road in front of us, with the other two walking down by the side of the jeep. They were completely unfazed by the humans who were maniacally taking photographs of them.
And then it was time to go back to Zambia. As our jeep drove down the main road back to the border, we were treated to a final sight of several giraffes just on the side of the road. I liked to think of it as them coming to see us off!
Accommodation and Costs of Doing a Safari at Chobe National Park
We arranged our first day trip to Chobe through our accommodation in Livingstone in Zambia, Fawlty Towers and at the time it cost us $160 per person. Our 2D1N trip to Chobe was arranged through Tabonina Guesthouse which is again in Livingstone and cost us $260 per person. Shop around before you book as some tour companies seem to be charging as much as $170-$180 per person for the day trip and up to $500 (!) per person for the 2D1N so if you are on a budget it's definitely worthwhile getting a few different quotes. The cost for both trips included the national park permits.
Our day trip price included lunch and refreshments during the boat cruise and game drive. The 2D1N price included lunch and dinner on the first day (plus beer and soft drinks with our meals), breakfast and lunch the following day and refreshments for all the game drives and the boat cruise. And obviously our tented accommodation! Dietary restrictions can usually be accommodated - just let your accommodation or tour operator know at the time of booking.
A tour operator that has great recommendations is Kalahari tours which provides quality safari tours at affordable prices: a day safari with them costs between $110-$160 per person (depending on whether you are picked up from within Botswana or from Livingstone/Victoria Falls Town in Zimbabwe) and $296/$320 per person for the 2D1N safari (prices are for low/high season). A slightly cheaper option from them is the 1D1N, at $240/$257 per person, which basically has one less game drive than the 2D1N experience.
If an organised tour is too expensive, you can choose to do a self drive tour of Chobe National park by hiring your own vehicle and also bringing camping equipment. This is a really a good option if you want to visit more than one national park in Botswana and if you are travelling with family. The guys at Adventure and Sunshine have written a great blog post about doing a self drive holiday in Botswana on a budget with their two children.
Alternatively, if you are really looking to splash some serious cash, you can stay in one of the luxury safari lodges that are located both inside and outside the park. They usually offer all inclusive packages and will make all your arrangements for you. Be aware that children under the age of 12 are not allowed to stay inside the park.
When to Visit Chobe
We've been told that there is no such thing as 'the best time' to visit Chobe. In our experience, we thought that we saw more animals during the dry season (May to November). It was also a fairly comfortable temperature for us - hot during the day but not too oppressive and cool at night. Apparently the hottest months (August-October) provide amazing game viewing, if you can cope with the heat. This is the most popular safari season, so accommodation and safari prices are higher at this time and you should try to book things in advance if possible.
However, if you can't travel during the dry season don't worry: Chobe is so rich with animal life, you are still pretty much guaranteed to see wildlife during the rainy season and you can end up paying less for the experience. We still had an amazing experience doing a safari in the rainy season and saw so much more than we expected! The wet season runs from December - April, with January and February being the wettest months. If you are a keen birdwatcher, a safari in the wet season is for you as that is when you are likely to see the greatest variety of birdlife. Prices for accommodation and safaris also tend to be lower during this season.
Before visiting Chobe National Park, please check whether you need a visa to enter Botswana. Free visas on arrival for a period of 30 days (that can be extended twice, up to a period of 90 days) are available to EU, US and Commonwealth citizens as well as South Africans and SADC (South African Development Community) passport holders. You can find a full list of countries that do not require a visa to visit Botswana here as well as further information about the visa application process for those requiring a visa. Make sure that you have at least six months validity left on your passport and some spare pages if you plan on travelling to neighbouring countries.
We travelled to Chobe from Livingstone in Zambia. If you want to do a one day trip to Chobe and return to Zambia afterwards, we would recommend that you apply for a KAZA visa as it allows you to enter Zambia and Zimbabwe multiple times and also covers day-trips to Botswana through the Kazungula border. The visa is available to people from around 40 countries and costs $50. It is valid for 30 days, cheaper than a double entry visa to Zambia (which costs $80) and you can visit Zimbabwe too! You can apply online and get an e-visa on arrival at Lusaka and Livingstone airports in Zambia or at Victoria Falls or Harare airports in Zimbabwe. It's also available at the Kazungula border to Botswana and at the Victoria Falls border to Zimbabwe.
If you want to do the 2D1N experience and also travel from Zambia, then we'd recommend that you get a double entry visa on arrival or apply for a multiple entry visa (also $80) from your local Zambian embassy before you travel. More information on the types of visa in Zambia can be found here.
Since May 2017 all visitors to Botswana must pay a US$30 Tourism Development Levy (TDL) upon arrival, which will help fund conservation.
Things to Make Sure You Take With You
When you book your trip, your accommodation or tour operator will usually tell you what you need to bring with you, but here's a basic list of what you need:
Camera and spare memory cards and a fully charged spare battery. (A camera with a decent zoom is recommended. We only had a small compact camera and it just about had enough zoom. I've since upgraded our camera equipment!). We didn't see anywhere to charge camera equipment on either of our trips so make sure you have enough spare batteries to last you for the duration of your trip. If you are staying at a safari lodge, charging your battery will not be a problem.
Binoculars if you have them.
Closed in comfortable walking shoes or running shoes.
Light coloured, loose-fitting clothing that dries quickly. Long trousers and long sleeved tops offer good protection from both mosquitoes and the sun.
Suncream, sunglasses and a hat.
Warm sweater, jacket, scarf and possibly a woolly hat if you really feel the cold. Temperatures plummet during the evening and in the early morning and you will feel the chill out on the morning game drive if you don't have enough layers.
A head lamp or torch if you are camping overnight.
Essential toiletries and sanitary products if you are staying overnight.
First aid kit and any medication you need to take with you.
Your excitement, because this is going to be fabulous!
Try to pack light as there is limited space in the safari jeeps for luggage. The animals don't care what you look like so it doesn't really matter if you wear the same clothing for a couple of days. Unless they smell of course. Don't be THAT safari companion.
The spectacular sunsets, vivid landscapes and amazing animal sightings at Chobe made it one of the most memorable experiences that we have ever had. So, don't hesitate - get your trip booked and go and experience the magic that is a safari at Chobe.
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