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The Circle of Life, Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta, Botswana

On our journey we regularly find ourselves in awe of our surroundings. Such was the case in Botswana when we visited Chobe National Park. We saw things that I had never thought about before and that I didn’t know I was missing.

Until I saw an elephant swimming, I had never thought about an elephant swimming. How had I never thought about an elephant swimming?

Elephants are not only graceful on land, but it turns out that they are just as beautiful in the water. It is incredible to see them go under water and completely submerge. It is as though they completely disappear until the tip of their trunk pops up above the water. With their built in snorkel, they move as easily as ducks in water.

Chobe National Park is Botswana’s first national park and it’s third largest. It has one of the largest concentration of game in all of Africa. We were visiting the Serondela area of the park located in the northeast corner of Botswana. It is the most visited section of the park, due to its proximity to Victoria Falls.

I couldn’t believe our luck, we visited at the beginning of the dry season. This made it easier to see wildlife along the Chobe River which flows along the northeast corner of the park.

The wildlife areas we visited in Botswana were flood plains. As a precaution Ol and I started taking preventative malaria medicine. We were also planning to spend over three weeks in Kruger National Park in northern South Africa which is also in a malaria zone.

We were almost two months into our road trip across southern Africa in our 2WD car. So far we hadn’t had any real problems other than one flat tire and our lost driver’s licenses. After a short trip to Victoria Falls, we arrived back at our little lodge in Kasane, Botswana.

Kasane is the small gateway town to Chobe National Park. Tourist accommodations include luxury lodges and safari outfitters. It is also a border town to several countries, and lines of big semi trucks often line the roads as they wait for border crossings.

Our lodge was centrally located near several five star lodges. Our host was nice enough to store our car while we were in Victoria Falls. Now that we were back, he upgraded us to a huge suite. He also washed our car (badly needed) and set up several tours of Chobe Park for us over the next few days.

Chobe is a park that would be difficult to self drive even with a 4WD vehicle. The roads are rough with ruts and sand which make it easy to get bogged. We were more than happy to take a few more days off and let someone else do the driving.

Our first game drive was a full day affair. We spent the morning on a boat on the Chobe river and then took a game drive in a 4WD vehicle and watched the sunset over the Zambezi river. The entire day was magical.

As our boat made its way down the river into the park, we saw an abundance of animals. We saw large crocodiles sunning themselves on the shore, along elephants, buffalo, and water buck grazing on little islands out in the river.

Our guide was experienced, and when he pulled up to a large group of male elephants, he told us to be patient and just watch as they were about to swim out to their grazing ground out on the islands. Elephants swimming will put a smile on anyones face!

Chobe is known for its large Kalahari elephant population estimated to be at over 50,000, the largest in size of all elephant populations. By the end of the day, Ol and I felt like we had seen the most diverse group of game in one area thus far.

When we made it back to our lodge we were glad to rest. Our lodge owner suggested that we should visit a watering hole with a viewing platform in the morning. In the afternoon he booked us a sunset river safari.

After breakfast we downloaded instructions to what we thought was a watering hole just up the road. We were told to leave after 10 am so they had time to grade the road. Even with the grading, I really didn’t think our little car was going to make it. The road was just a steep climb up a private road comprised of deep sand.

When we arrived we realized that we were at a small luxury tented lodge. It was not just a simple water hole, it was luxury accommodations! Our host told us to mention his name when we arrived. As soon as we did we were ushered into the private lodge. Once again I was in awe of our surroundings.

The view was stunning, the service great. We had at least five people waiting on us in the luxurious surroundings. When I googled the rate, I wasn’t surprised to find it was way out of our budget. But that didn’t stop us from enjoying all of the facilities! We were the only ones there. Apparently the guests were out on game drives.

We ordered a bottle of wine and lounged by the pool, watching elephants nearby. When lunch rolled around we enjoyed the buffet with the few lodge guests. After visiting with a group of Italians, we discovered they too were going on an afternoon game drive and sundowner cruise. We asked the front desk about the possibility of joining them. Surprisingly the cost was less than the tour we had already booked.

We called our lodge, cancelled our tour, and climbed into the game drive vehicle of our adopted resort. We had a wonderful game drive as we made our way down to the river. The boat safari was on a whole other level. Not only were we served our cocktails of choice but our small fast boat was able to maneuver to places the larger boats couldn’t get to.

With the speed of the boat, we were able to go much farther into the park. Along the river bank we saw a sight that few see. We were amazed to see a downed elephant being torn apart, with lions on one end and a group of crocodiles on the other. We were close enough to hear the carnage of this “circle of life” tug of war.

When we returned to the luxury lodge, we were invited to dinner but politely declined. I really didn’t want to leave, but we were afraid that we wouldn’t make it back to our lodge. It was already dark and we weren’t sure that we would make it out of the long sandy drive, made for 4x4’s. Plus, it is never safe to drive in this part of Africa after dark.

When we made it back to our lodge, we decided to add “impersonating guests at 5 star boutique lodges” to our travel hacks. We spent less than a $100 and had an amazing day.

The next day, it was time to get back on the road again. We headed south to the Okavango Delta in Botswana. The Delta was named one of the natural Seven Wonders of Africa, and in 2014 became the 1,000th site in the world to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The roads were nice until we were just a few hours away from our lodge in Maun. It was by far the worst road we faced on our journey. Driving off road, just off the shoulder, was better than the 2-3 foot wide deep craters that composed the road. The imposing baobab trees that lined the highway kept us entertained.

Our visit to this vast area was going to be short. We were only spending three days so we hit the ground running the next morning. We booked a guided safari by a local Wayeyi tribesman.

The next morning, a driver picked us up at our lodge and drove us a few hours out into the Delta in an open air game vehicle. Along the way we watched elephants and an abundance of small game. When we finally reached the receding waters we were handed over to our Wayeyi tribesman who would be our private river guide.

Ol and I were loaded into the traditional dugout canoe and our guide began poling. He made sure to stay near the edge of the reeds where we could see large crocodiles sunning themselves. In the middle a large pool of hippos kept their eyes on us. It was a little unnerving when they submerged. It would be so easy to capsize us.

We spent the next few hours poling through narrow game trails in the tall grasses. The birdlife was abundant and occasionally we would run into a grazing elephant on the side of the canal.

The Okavango is produced by seasonal flooding. The Delta was formed approximately 50,000 years ago when an earthquake caused the Okavango river to spill out into the desert.

Seasonal flooding in January and February surge down from the Angola Highlands. The water spreads over this 155 by 93 square mile area over the months of March-June. Again our timing was perfect. We were in the delta when the dry season helps the Delta attracts animals from miles around, creating one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife.

Our guide told us to wear our hiking boots, but I didn’t expect to do any real hiking. So when we pulled up onto one of the Deltas larger islands for our picnic lunch I was a little surprised to find that we would be going on our first game walk.

I had booked a few walking tours for our upcoming visit to Kruger National Park, but we were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by predators, with a tall skinny twenty-something year old guide, who only had a two inch pocket knife on his belt.

In Kruger, I had read that two armed rangers accompany all walking safaris. So with some knowledge of the practice, I started quizzing our guide. Every concern or worry that I raised was met with the same answer “The animals are my friends” or “I know all of these animals”.

Our guide was from a nomadic tribe that lives near the water and moves with the seasons. They move when the floods come and then follow the water when it recedes.

When I asked about lions, our guide with a serious look said that we were to “freeze, make ourselves tall, remove our sunglasses, and stand our ground.” He said that the lions might approach us. If so, he said that they will stop a few feet in front of us and that they would stare at us. When they realize that we are not intimidated and not prey, they will retreat. That was his advice!

If we hadn’t been on safari for over a month I probably would have hyperventilated or passed out, but I was surprisingly okay with this! I think that I was even a little excited! From everything that I had read, I knew that it was difficult to get close to game on foot, because when animals hear and smell humans, they usually flee.

So after a few more instructions we walked single file into the bush. I noticed that our guide was constantly checking the wind and tracks as we moved. We walked for over an hour. Occasionally we climbed atop huge termite mounds to get an overview of the surroundings.

We saw herds of zebra, giraffe, and lots of elephants. Thankfully, we never came upon any lions. When we did made it back to the canoe, I made the mistake of asking how often our guide runs into the lions. The answer “every day” caused the hair on my neck to rise!

On the way back, we asked our driver to pull over so that we could hand out lollipops to the children along the road. These nomadic people still live the way of their ancestors, and a simple treat like a lollipop brought amazing smiles to the the faces of these children.

The next day, we scheduled a charter flight to see the Delta by air. Flying over the Delta in a small plane helped us grasp how vast it was. We were also able to see many animals from the air, but not quite the numbers that I had envisioned.

After a great few days, we headed back down the terrible road again. This time we decided to stop for lunch at “Planet Baobab” a quirky lodge set in an ancient Baobab grove and surrounded by these giant trees.

We had a nice lunch, but an even better tour. An elderly local tribesman shared his knowledge of these centuries old trees. The trees reminded us of the “Tree of Life” at Disney world, only they were real, and alive. It felt like we were in our own private lesson with an old wise man. I imagined that we could ask him anything and he would have the answer to all of life’s mysteries. He shared with us how the fruit of the baobab is eaten and told us the medicinal uses for the bark, roots, and leaves. We learned how each tree appears to be connected to the other. More importantly, we learned how important we all we were to the circle of life.

When our Baobab tour ended we returned to our car with a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all living things. We drove the remaining few hours to the Botswana border with South Africa contemplating our week long drive through this amazing country. After driving through Botswana, we felt as though we had a much deeper and better understanding of Africa, the people, the animals, and this amazing land.

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