Thursday 3 July 2008 - Thursday 3 July 2008
After arriving in Kasane we made our way to our lodge, The Yawning Hippo. It was about 10 km outside of town, and not more than a km from the border crossing into Zambia. On our way there we passed a long line of semis parked on the highway waiting to get across the border into Zambia. Because of where Botswana is situated, Kasane is the only point where Botswana shares a border with Zambia, and the two are divided by the Zambezi river. To enter Zambia the semis must board a small ferry one or two at a time, depending on space. This, in addition to the paperwork and customs requirements, makes it very slow going. We were told by multiple people that the average semi waits 2-3 weeks to get across.
We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at our lodge. It was much, much cheaper than almost anything you can find in the area, but also very nice. It is owned by a South African couple who have been living in Botswana for over 20 years. The lodge consists of a couple of small cottages, and about 10-12 meru tents (large canvas tents) with beds inside and an eclosed but open-air bathroom/shower. There wasn't much to it, but it was situated in a beautiful setting along a river channel, shaded by orange and lemon trees, and was also very clean. Although, staying in a tent and showering in the open air (mostly in the evening and morning) meant it was freezing cold, so we spent a lot of the time sipping tea, coffee, and hot chocolate trying to warm up.
We had booked a game drive into Chobe National Park during our first full day there. Chobe is one of southern Africa's most diverse national parks, and has one of the highest concentrations of wildlife on the continent. It is situated on the border of the kalihari dessert, alongside the Chobe and Zambezi river fronts, which also include an area of floodplains. Away from the water it is very arid, the ground covered mostly in sand and scrub brush, near the water it was more lush with many green islands throughout the area. Winter is the dry season in southern africa, which means the animals stay close to these water ways during the heat of the day to drink, and return to the bush to graze and stay protected during the night time.
Our guide was a Botswana native named Leonard, and it became very clear that he has a deep knowledge of and respect for the park and local wildlife. He has been guiding for over 18 years, and now is a free-lance guide and contracts with the lodges to take guests into the park. We rode in the back of an open air pickup truck that had been rigged with two levels of tiered benches and a canvas cover to block the sun. It was extrememly cold when we left in the morning (around 40 F) but warmed up quickly around 10-11 in the morning. Upon entering the park we were almost immediately greeted by impala and guinea fowl. We pointed, squeeked and snapped pictures, at which point Leonard turned around as said "oh my god, this is your first time!?" Why- becauase we saw about a thousand guinea fowl and impala over the course of the day. They quickly lost their charm...
It was driving a little more into Chobe that we saw what was probably the first true panaramic view of the African landscape that we had seen thus far. We crossed a ridgeline and spread out before us was the river, the vast planes and rolling hills, Baobab and Acacia trees speckled across the horizon as far as you could see. It could have been taken right out of the movies, and it was even more stunning that I could have imagined. We also saw some of our first wildlife, hippos coming out of the water to sun themselves, elephants grazing, giraffe nibbling on trees, kudu, antelope, crocodiles, and many many birds (see Corrie for a full report of the flora and fauna). All were well in the distance, but it became clear what a diverse ecology that Africa hosts, and everything is so large, exotic and dramatic.
As we moved in a little further we came upon a herd of elephant (about 15-20) emerging from the bush. A couple of bulls, many females with babies struggling to keep up. Leonard pointed them out to us, and then turned around to drive up a hill. At the top he parked, led us a few meters to the edge of the hill and told us to wait while he "stepped behind the bush" to relieve himself. A few minutes later the herd of elephants emerged over the next hill up on their way to the water to drink. They were still a little ways away from us, but we were all speechless. We've seen countless wild elephants since we've been here, but I still never get tired of seeing them, and seeing them in the wild is a totally unique experience compared to the ones you see staring blankly ahead at the zoo. Absolutely mesmerizing. I wish you all could have been there.
A few hours later Leonard took us down to the beach were we met another herd of about 15-20 elephants drinking from the water and grazing on the nearby trees. At this point they became a bit curious and nearly surrounded our vehicle walking within a few feet of the truck. The sounds, smells, and sites were just incredible. Also a bit nerve racking considering that elephants kill many people in africa ever year, usually due to car crashes as they cross the roads, but also due to elephants charging to protect their young. The elephants in Chobe are very used to the vehicles in the park, but a person who leave the vehicle is more vulnerable because they seem more threatening. Even still, as we approached the elephants the mothers stepped between our vehicle and their babies to protect them, which was quite endearing. Another bull elephant standing about 3 feet from the truck noticed us moving and making noise in the vehicle and began to flap his ears, snort, and made a charging motion which he abruptly halted. We all flinched, especially Steve who was closest to the elephant (and was also suffering from multiple nights worth of insomnia). We consider this Steve's second confrontation with an animal (the baboon being his first) and, based on Leonard's analysis of the situation - "Oh, I think the boy is wanting to run", we're calling it elephant =1, Steve =0.
The remainder of the day was spent winding through the park, looking for animals, tracking their footprints in the sand, and looking for signs of where they had been and where they were going. There were hundreds, and almost all were within 20-50 feet of the truck: warthog, giraffes, hippos, kudu, springbock, sable, buffalo, crocodiles, baboons, vervet monkeys, etc. However, the highlight of the day was seeing a female lion hunting warthog. All of the big cats are very difficult to see as they are very shy, rare, and primarily nocturnal. Although, towards the end of the day we passed another truck which said they had just spotted a lioness. Leonard worked very hard, watching the behavior of the impala and looking for tracks to find out where she would go. Most of the other trucks raced ahead to the perimeter of the area where they thought she woudl re-emerge from the bush, while Leonard took is to a totally different spot and said we would wait here. About ten minutes later the lion walked out of the bush, directly in front of our truck, and down towards the water to follow her warthogs. She was beautiful, muscular and sleek. We watched her as she stalked her warthogs, slinking close to the ground. We followed her for about an hour, until she reached an open area where she would be unable to attack. From here she would wait for hours until her prey made mistake and came close to her where she could grab them. We could see that she was still producing milk for her cubs, which were likely hidden away in the bush, which explained why she was hunting during the day. A real treat!!