By Brett Atkinson – Stuff
We’re still devouring our freshly-baked banana bread when we see our first elephants. Just two minutes drive from andBeyond’s Chobe Under Canvas tented camp, the half-light of dawn lifts surprisingly quickly to reveal a family of elephants grazing amid the gentle grasslands of Botswana’s Chobe National Park.
The youngest of the herd is just one month old, barely a metre-tall and almost concealed amid the protective natural thicket of his aunties’ stout legs. Markedly more confident than the youngest of the group, another baby elephant is running around in playful circles.
According to our guide KD Jeremiah, he’s just six months old, but already acting like a star amid Chobe National Park’s huge population of more than 80,000 elephants. Soundtracked by Botswana birdlife and infused with the sweetish musky aroma of Africa’s red dirt, our pre-dawn 5.30am breakfast rendezvous is now making perfect sense.
Chobe’s elephants can be a well-travelled bunch with this region of Botswana part of the massive five-nation Kava-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) the passport-free pachyderms have unrestricted access to.
From Chobe National Park, this means crossing the Chobe River north to Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, sometimes putting the elephants in conflict with local farmers by eating crops and digging up water pipes. This friction between species also increases the potential for poaching, but within the safer confines of the national park, rising elephant numbers cement Chobe’s reputation as one of Africa’s best places to see the giant animals.
For three nights Chobe Under Canvas is our base to explore the national park. Five spacious guest tents, complete with ensuite bathrooms and hot-water bucket showers, frame campsites that are rotated on a regular basis around a variety of bush clearings.
Harnessing just a simple camp oven, the versatile kitchen team turn out everything from scrambled eggs and hash browns for breakfast, through to gourmet wraps and pasta for dinners shared with other guests and guides. Sundowner drinks include South African Chardonnay, frosty St Louis beer from Botswana and just maybe the bush’s best gin and tonics.
Chobe Under Canvas is also one of the only accommodation options within the national park’s boundaries. Guests at most other lodges can only enter when the park opens at sunrise and must depart at sunset, providing us with an hour’s additional game viewing both morning and night. Equipped with KD’s warmth and experience – he’s been officially lauded as one of Botswana’s best guides – it’s often during these cooler, quieter times that the Chobe magic really happens.
Elephants are not the only stars in Chobe National Park, and KD produces ongoing surprises on our morning and afternoon game drives. Struggling hopelessly to be concealed behind spiky camel thorn acacia trees, giraffes prove no other animal can touch them as the world’s worst in playing hide and seek, while abundant numbers of impalas often crowd the park’s meandering network of red dirt roads.
Massive breeding herds of Cape buffalo are surprisingly relaxed, allowing us to drive carefully through them as if we’re negotiating a flock of sheep in rural New Zealand, while lesser-known species like brooding Marabou storks, quizzical bushbuck antelopes and braying hyaenas means there more to life in Chobe than the traditional ‘Big Five’ safari combo of leopards, rhinos, elephants, buffalos and lions.
After a brief but intense thunderstorm, we set off with KD’s promise of “When it rains on safari, it’s a blessing”, and in the afternoon’s cooler weather, animal numbers are indeed magnified. Following the calls of a spooked group of baboons, we discover a pair of lioness sisters and their cubs padding carefully along the flood plain of the Chobe River.
In the hour approaching sunset, vehicles from other lodges are forced to leave the national park as darkness approaches, and along with one other Chobe Under Canvas Land Cruiser we soon have the big cat cameo all to ourselves. Just after dawn the following day, we also have exclusive front row seats as the same lions feast on a rather unlucky impala.
Bookending our sighting of elephants on the first morning, our most intense Chobe experience comes on our final day. Steering a careful riverine route with Pangolin Photo Safaris, the boat’s setup of individual cameras with super-effective zoom lenses allows us to capture birdlife, hippos and monitor lizards.
When a few hundred of Chobe’s 80,000 elephants start crossing the river just metres away, we put down our cameras to take in the scene we’re suddenly surrounded by.
On the Botswana side, energetic toddlers are rolling gleefully in a riverside mud bath, while approaching the riverbank nearer the Namibian side, the smallest and most vulnerable of the herd are given a final heave ho push up onto dry land.
When I ask KD if elephants are still his favourite animal, the broadest of grins says all I need to know.
GETTING THERE South African Airways links to Kasane airport near Botswana’s Chobe National Park via Johannesburg.
Another option is to fly from Johannesburg or Cape Town to Victoria Falls in nearby Zimbabwe. Combine a visit to the spectacular falls and a stay at the historic Victoria Falls Hotel before continuing overland to Kasane and Chobe National Park (around 90 minutes drive).
TOURING THERE For tailor-made safaris and small group escorted tours in Africa, contact the Africa experts at World Journeys; phone 0800 11731; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or head to worldjourneys.co.nz/africa.
STAYING THERE Three-night safari experiences at andBeyond’s Chobe Under Canvas start from $ 2585 per person including accommodation, all meals and drinks and scheduled safari activities. See andbeyond.com.
The writer was a guest of andBeyond and World Journeys.