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Chobe River, Okavango Delta, & Kalahari Desert

Botswana is all about the animals.  Seriously, 68% of the country are national parks, with strict laws about conservation, tourism, and poaching.  Much of the remaining land is dedicated to mining – diamonds and other minerals. The country, a little smaller than Texas with a population of 2.3 million people, is landlocked and located north of South Africa.  It gained its independence from Britain in 1966 and discovered its diamond mines shortly after. By African standards, it is a stable and relatively healthy economy. 

We arrived in Kasane, Botswana for our Pangolin Photo Safari by way of a taxi from Livingstone, Zambia, about a 1-hour drive.  We crossed the border over a beautiful new cable stay bridge where the Zambezi and Chobe rivers merge and where the four countries of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia all meet. Immigration is pretty straightforward – present your paperwork and stamp your feet on a mat to prevent transmission of hoof and mouth disease and off you go.

We were to have 2 safaris a day, early morning, and late afternoon for 3 days in 3 different parts of Botswana/Namibia, beginning with the Chobe River in the far north of the country, followed by the Okavango Delta, a little west and south, and finally the more central Kalahari Desert.  Each area presented a very different ecosystem with many different animals – lots of picture opportunities!

We were to have 2 safaris a day, early morning, and late afternoon for 3 days in 3 different parts of Botswana/Namibia, beginning with the Chobe River in the far north of the country, followed by the Okavango Delta, a little west and south, and finally the more central Kalahari Desert.  Each area presented a very different ecosystem with many different animals – lots of picture opportunities!

Our merry band was made up of 5 photographers including us, our intrepid professional photo host Will Steel, and an eagle-eyed local guide for each of our locations.  Mark borrowed a great DSLR with a big lens from Pangolin and rediscovered his skills.  He really does have a great eye! With Will’s guidance and encouragement, our great shots got better and more prolific every day. 

 

Our guides, whose primary responsibility was to find the animals and put us in the best position to photograph them, changed with locations but each of them was amazing.  They identified all the animals including the many, many birds providing lots of information about each as we traveled along. Their navigational skills were incredible. 

On the river we had a skiff but, in the delta, and desert we had converted Land Cruisers that could go almost anywhere.  Remember, no roads, no signs in the middle of the delta or the desert!  Each location was beautiful beyond words - abundant life on the Chobe, pastoral lush green flood plains in the Delta and dry, desert vegetation in the Kalahari. We felt quite privileged to experience this amazing, isolated part of our world.

The little river town of Kasane was the kickoff point for the next 10 days, starting with 3 days on a houseboat on the Chobe River. First, though, is another immigration point because while Pangolin Hotel is in Botswana, the houseboat we would be living on was docked less than ½ mile away in Namibia.  We would be cruising the waters in both countries.  The immigration experience was unlike any other - a hut by the river with 1 person and a stamp.  It was a little slow considering,  but definitely the most relaxed border crossing ever.

 The houseboat – Pangolin Voyager, had 5 beautiful sleeping cabins, a lovely lounge with a dining area upstairs and incredible views all around.  We had heard in advance about the food – it was fabulous –  abundant, fresh and creative!  We were certainly not going to starve over the next 10 days!  The plan was to head up the river to even more remote locations, tie the houseboat up to shore, then use the attached skiff customized for photographers for our actual safaris. 

The Chobe River flows all year, the levels rising and falling with the rains.  The wildlife is abundant year-round, but at this time of year, even more so because many of the water holes in the bush have dried up.  There is green along the river but away from the water’s edge, the vegetation is sparse making visibility easier.  Elephants in large numbers came to the river’s edge to drink and play.  Twice, we had to wait on the houseboat before heading out as a few hundred swam across the river in front of us and played in the mud on the banks.  The mud serves as sunscreen and insect deterrent besides just plain fun for them to roll around in.  Hippos snorted and spouted or yawned as a sign of aggression.  Crocodiles, looking quite prehistoric, sunned themselves on the riverbank or cruised the river with only their eyes and tip of their snout above the water. Giraffes and zebras wandered inland. A troupe of baboons literally hung from the trees in the mornings and played along the beach. And the birds! King fishers of multiple varieties, fish eagles, African darters, skimmers and more kept our cameras snapping. 

Stories about each of the animals abound.  I’ll only share a few.  We came across a fish trap – a pool created as the river previously flooded water receded.  The fish trap will attract hundreds of birds to feed on the landlocked fish until they are all gone. We counted 24+ different species of birds arriving continuously looking for an easy meal.  Our guide told us the trap would only last a day or two until the fish were all gone and the land dried up. 

 

One evening, we stopped along the coast in our skiff to watch the African sunset for our ‘sundowner’ when on the horizon a small herd of elephants appeared silhouetted by the orange sky. On our last morning on the Chobe, as we were setting out for our morning safari, our guide spotted a pride of lions across the water on the banks of the river.  We cruised over to see several females and cubs waking up for the day.  A small herd of impala were 300 yards away heading unbeknownst of the lions.  Eventually one of the lions caught a whiff, halfheartedly stalked an impala that came too close but gave up as the other lions continued to just lounge around.  They must not have been too hungry!