I’d been told that there was an incredible diversity and volume of wildlife in the country of Botswana, so on my last full day in Zimbabwe I elected to do a day safari in Chobe National Park, which is located in Botswana, just an hour’s drive from Victoria Falls. In this part of Africa, four countries come together along the banks of the Zambezi River: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia, and it is quite easy to go back and forth between them.
For the entire hour drive to the Zimbabwe-Botswana border the transport jeep traveled through the Zambezi National Park. I kept my eyes peeled for wildlife, if only to hone my spotting skills for the day’s safari, and I was not disappointed. I spied the occasional elephant or two hiding in the brush just off the road and then began to see trees full of vultures. Suddenly, a very fat, sleek spotted hyena darted across the road in front of us. The driver said this was an auspicious sign – spotted hyena are rarely seen in the daylight as they are night hunters. With the vast number of vultures and other birds of prey that were gathering in the surrounding trees he speculated that there was a fresh kill nearby and sure enough, a bit further along the road we came upon a skull in the middle of the road. The driver stopped and kicked it around but it was so mangled that he couldn’t tell what kind of an animal it had been. Whatever the species, it was big, and the raw meat hanging off it confirmed the recent kill.
At the Botswana border I passed through Immigration, getting my passport stamped before walking over the border at a small dip in the road that was full of what appeared to be rainwater. I was instructed to step on a saturated foam pad that sat on the curbside, wetting the soles of my shoes. I walked along the curb while the jeep drove through the pit of water. This is a treatment to guard against bringing Hoof and Mouth Disease into Botswana, which I found truly ridiculous – they sanitized the soles of my shoes but my pants have been dragging around in the Zimbabwean soil for a couple of days.
Upon arrival at the safari company there was some confusion – I was alone and they seemed to not know what to do with me. Eventually it was decided that I would join another group of nine people from the U.S. who had been on a mission for the past two weeks, working with orphans in the third largest city in Zimbabwe. Although they thought they had booked a private tour for their group alone, they welcomed me with open arms. For the first half-day of the safari we boarded a flat-bottomed pontoon boat and cruised the Chobe River, just upriver of where it joins the mighty Zambezi. It wasn’t long before the safari lived up to its promise of seeing vast numbers and types of animals, beginning with incredible birds, some of which are pictured below.
Also easy to spot along the shoreline was this crocodile with bird feathers from a recent kill still sticking out of its mouth:
The most elusive were the distant herds of water buffalo, which are perhaps the most dangerous animals in the bush. Although rare to see one up close, we were surprised to find one lone water buffalo lying in the tall grasses along the shore, peacefully chewing its cud and seemingly unconcerned that we motored within a few feet of his position.
A bit further down the river we spotted a cloud of dust rising above the trees and watched as a herd of elephant tore out of the bush and dashed down to the riverbank. While the female elephants drank their fill the babies rolled in the mud, the herd surrounding them protectively. Throughout the day we watched elephants bathe, heard them trumpet, crept along behind them in a jeep as they lumbered down the road, and each spotting was more fascinating that the previous. Perhaps the most spectacular view of the elephants was from a small rise overlooking the Chobe River, where we witnessed hundreds of elephant and giraffe grazing in the plain below.
After a delicious lunch at a nearby safari lodge we transferred to an open-air jeep for the afternoon portion of the safari. For four hours we traversed a sere, desert landscape that looked as if it couldn’t support a rodent, yet everywhere there were animals.
We saw numerous giraffes who would only let us get so close before they loped away on impossibly long, graceful legs:
Another large animal that was easily spotted were the Kudu; the male with their long curly horns and the females sans-horns, their big eyes and ears giving them a doe-like appearance:
At one point a herd of black antelope thundered in front of our vehicle, bound for the river’s edge to drink. Our guide said we were lucky to see them, as the black antelope are skittish and do not usually show themselves. They were obviously nervous, raising their heads en masse at the slightest movement and skittering away until they once again deemed it safe enough to come back to the water’s edge:
The highlight of the safari came late in the afternoon, when our guide drove up next to a pride of four female lions, lazily napping under a tree in the midday heat. We were no more than 15 feet away from them, but they paid us no mind. That was a good thing, because we were, after all, in an unprotected, open-air vehicle. We asked whether they ever attacked humans and were told we were safe as long as we stayed in the jeep – the moment we got out the lions would go into attack mode. It was astonishing to think that this park has no fences – the animals can come and go as they please. It is not a zoo, it is their natural wild habitat; it was an amazing display of what nature has to offer.
The day was so special not only because of the amazing wildlife, but also because of the amazing people with whom I shared this experience. Perhaps our group formed such a strong bond that day because several of us were passionate photographers and/or birders. More likely we bonded because my fellow safari partners were absolutely wonderful people. As we headed back to the safari camp I heard someone say that I had been their special blessing for the day. They got it SO wrong. Chris, Cathy, Shanita, Courtney, Jimmy, Cindy, Bobbi Jo, Ryan, and Laura – if you are reading this (and I suspect you are), thank you, thank you, for welcoming me and making me a part of your group. You were MY very special blessing and I hope to stay in touch. I am looking forward to joining you on a future mission to the orphanage in Zimbabwe. Much love to you all.