My first evening on Botswana’s Chobe River was the stuff of dreams. I sat on the roof of a game drive vehicle and watched in open-mouthed wonder as herd after herd of elephants poured out of the surrounding forest and down to the river to drink. Many younger ones broke into a run, their trunks and ears flapping in excitement; the older ones usually managed to keep to a dignified pace – at least until the last few yards. The countless trampling feet sent dust billowing into the air, turning the setting sun into a huge, hanging orb of fire.
And we’d only just started our Chobe safari. Over the next week I saw things you’d expect to see only when you were comfy in front of the telly: hyenas fighting lions, wild dogs coursing after wide-eyed impalas, elephants caressing the old bones of one of their own. It was the Africa that I had always dreamed about in my childhood, reading old Nat Geos on a drizzly London day. I fell in love with the Chobe and ended up staying for five years.
Occupying a great woodland wilderness between the eponymous Chobe River and the fringes of the Okavango Delta, the Chobe National Park is one of Africa’s heavyweight reserves and a sanctuary for some of the continent’s healthiest populations of elephant, buffalo, lion, giraffe, and zebra – mega fauna … the big stuff. Diverse and dramatic enough to be enjoyed on its own, the Chobe also combines effortlessly with the Okavango Delta and Victoria Falls. Whatever itinerary you build around this superb destination, here’s what I consider to be the Chobe's 5 best experiences.
#1 The Big Thirst – Late Dry Season
If you really, really want to see as many wild African elephants as possible, it’s hard to think of a better destination than the Chobe River at the end of Botswana’s enervating dry season. The virtually rainless winter begins in May and by late August the almost all of the parks surface water has dried up. The resulting concentration of wildlife along the Chobe riverfront has to be seen to be believed. In the crushing heat of September and October, thousands of elephants arrive cheek-by-jowl with enormous buffalo herds, trailed by prides of sleek lions. Game drives and boat cruises take you into the centre of the action and the tell-tale rapid fire of cameras confirms that there is some seriously good up-close and fantastic photography to be shot.
Top Tip: For the best location, you can’t beat Chobe Game Lodge, the only riverside lodge within the park. For the best views, choose super-romantic Chobe Chilwero, set on a plateau overlooking a vista of river and flood plains.
#2 Water Delight – River Cruises
Another highlight of the Chobe River is that you can explore it by boat as well as land – the river is an ecosystem as productive as its floodplains and forests. Great rafts of snoozing hippos are easy to spot but keep an eye out for crocodiles – there are still some big ones here – and water monitors: six foot of bad tempered, whip-lash tailed lizard. The bird watching is excellent, and before you know it, you’re looking at the drinking elephant herds from the unique, river's-eye-view. From this perspective, you have the best chance of seeing elephants at play or a herd crossing the river, their trunks streched above the water like so many snorkels!
Top Tip: All lodges offer boat cruises, usually including snacks and drinks. I’d recommend saving it for the afternoon activity as early mornings are prime game viewing time best spent on a game drive. When it comes to late afternoon sundowner boat cruising, choose between the exclusivity and flexibility of a private, guided speedboat or the jovial atmosphere of a larger, shared boat. For a permanent river position, consider the luxurious Zambezi Queen.
#3 Predator City - Savuti
Savuti, Savute … however you spell it, it will always be Predator City to me. Set at the lonely heart of the Chobe National Park, the Savuti region is fed by a channel of clear water which attracts great concentrations of animals when the dry season's water shortages beign to bite. And that means plenty of hunters.
The San Bushmen knew it was good hunting in Savuti – they left paintings of their prey in the Ghoha Hills nearby. Although these First Peoples are long gone, Africa’s big predators are certainly still around. Cheetah, wild dog and leopard are often seen in Savuti, but it’s the legendary rivalry between the area’s lions and spotted hyenas that have made Savuti's predators so famous. Fights between the two species often erupt over territory and kills, especially at night, when their battles erupt into rumbles heard for miles around.
Deadly and dramatic in the dry season, hugely rewarding in the green summer months (a zebra migration arrives in time for Christmas), Savuti is a year-round destination. For the classic experience, stay at Savuti Bush Camp or Savute Safari Lodge.
#4 Canvas & Candlelight - Camping in Chobe
With all this talk of elephant herds and lion prides, you may feel that Chobe is a destination that doesn’t lend itself to being in a small, unprotected tent. But camping in Chobe means huge walk-in tents set under shady trees along with all the important luxuries: tinkling ice cubes in tall glasses, fresh bread from an underground oven and comforting linen. It’s Hemingway without all the shooting and shouting: it's romantic Africa.
Top Tip: A mobile camping safari is the most adventurous way to discover Chobe. You’ll stay in fully staffed, pre-erected camps with hot-water bucket showers and a silver service mess tent that would make old Hemingway rub his hands in glee. And your setting is unrivalled: private, unfenced sites away from all the other visitors in a prime position for game viewing – you’ll be the first one out exploring in the morning and the last back at night. For a deluxe camping experience I’d recommend Chobe under Canvas(best in the dry season) or Savuti under Canvas (best for a green season safari).
#5 Flocking Together – Chobe Bird Watching
Having recorded over 450 species of birds, the Chobe National Park is something of a birder’s paradise. The resident birds are exciting enough – fish-eagles and vultures, dazzling rollers and giant owls – but when the hordes of summer migrants arrive, it’s enough to make anyone reach for a pair of binoculars.
Top Tip; The Chobe River is a great birding destination year-round – combine game drives and boat cruises to see the maximum diversity. Savuti is pretty hard to beat in the green summer months when flocks of punk-coloured crimson bee-eaters patrol the grasslands, great numbers of raptors follow the swarming of termites, and once-dry waterholes host a soap opera of wildfowl and waders. As for accommodation – stay anywhere! Lodge gardens make for great armchair birding – you could knock off 20 species before you’ve had a chance to sit down properly - and then there’s a game drive with a specialist guide to complete the experience.