Chobe National Park, Botswana’s oldest game reserve, offers quite a bit of diversity. It stretches from the Chobe River in the north, with thick woodlands and large herds of animals attracted by the water, to the Savuti marshlands – which are pretty dry these days. The Savuti marsh is fed by the Savuti canal (channel) that dries up periodically and now resembles a salt pan more than an inland lake.

The game reserve is about 11,000 km² (about one-fifth the size of the CKGR) and stretches from Mababe in the south to the Chobe River (and the border with Namibia) in the north, and then east to the Zimbabwean border. The Chobe Forest Reserve cuts into this area from Ghoha gate up to Ngoma, therefore you leave the park and reenter in the north (for the stretch to Kasane).

There aren’t many accommodation options in Chobe if you are on a self-drive expedition. Savuti Camp is one of the few options, with the largest gathering of tented camps, lodges and campsites. You can also choose other safari camps, but these are privately accessed through safari companies (and frankly in a different price bracket for a different demographic).

From the Mababe Gate in the south, it is about 70 kilometres to the camp, if you take the Sandridge Road. Or you can take the cutline, which is longer but may present a more engaging drive, for those of us who love even more of a challenge than the already soft sand. However, local intel spoke of lions potentially being on Marsh Road, so headed that way.

As mentioned, this area is extremely flat, and open, stretching to the horizon. There isn’t much in the form of vegetation, and it is really dry (the Savuti canal is not very reliable). You can find some of the elephants here when conditions allow (like some good rain), but unlike last time we came to Chobe, there are hardly any animals to be found.

Cheetahs!

The game sighting of the whole trip – for me – was a couple of cheetahs lounging under a tree. They looked like two males and were in very good condition. We spent quite some time sitting there and observing as they took shelter from the heat under an acacia tree before disappearing into a mopane bush. This was an amazing twenty minutes! You don’t find these cats very easily and they seemed unconcerned by our presence.

Further along the track, we found big herds of zebras grazing the savanna and impalas sheltering from the sun. This is, of course, the main reason we couldn’t find the wildlife, they are much cleverer than we are in this weather. It was now about midday, so the heat was full on!

The Marsh Road is preferable to the Sandridge Road in my opinion (if it isn’t raining and then unpassable). The road is quite remote (there aren’t many side tracks), but offers variety in vegetation from the savannas to thick bush and new Mopani growth. The going is alternately soft sand and some firmer dirt road. Still a challenge in the ever-bouncy Hiluxes! But the distance isn’t extreme and you will find yourself at Savuti camp in the mid-afternoon.

Savuti Camp

This is the main camp in the Chobe National Park, with many options for accommodation from safari tents, to lodges, to the camping areas. There is a tuck shop, a curio shop and a large reception area. The area is spread out and like a little village in some ways. Campsites are quite far apart and you don’t have the feeling of being overcrowded.

We had campsite CV4 which is on the Savuti canal. You look out over a small grass area into the thick bush. As mentioned it is dry around here, so there is no water flow (in more ways than one) and the whole camp is unfenced. This campsite is also enormous with a large open area of sand and a central tree. The sand is like beach sand, very soft, but also easy to dig to get your vehicle level. The area must be 60 x 60 metres and the next pitch is another fifty metres away. Rather nice and spacious!

There is a braai area and a ‘fireplace’ (a concrete slab) and that’s it. Nothing else but to take some shelter from the heat. The toilets and showers are a good hundred-metre walk away. All in the open, but with this amount of people around (the campsites were fully booked, and you have to have a booking before you’re allowed into the park) I doubted we would run into any stray wild animals.

primitive facilities?

What was a point to note is that the ablution block is quite small. There are only two toilets and two showers on each side. Not very big to service all these people, although what was big was the big elephant-proof wall surrounding it.

So there was a queue for the showers that evening… And no water the next morning! No water from the taps – an interesting surprise. It was a reminder of the dry conditions in Botswana, and an argument could be made that this is unacceptable considering what you pay for the night, and we could offer up exhibit A: the water truck in the Kalahari. But it is just part of the African experience. Go with the flow!

A Small Drive out of camp

That afternoon we drove out to Quarry Hill but declined to climb up due to the low clearance of the (rental) vehicles and the steep approach angle. It was deemed better to preserve our cars for the rest of the adventure and forego the view from up top.

We did manage to find the Baobab Forest (Gallery) with its feeling of mystical energy. This is a collection of about ten trees on a small rocky outcrop, that looks a little out of place. But if you consider that these trees are one thousand years old, perhaps it is us that is out of place.

On the way back we passed Harvey’s Pans, a collection of open water pans that were devoid of wildlife, due to there being no water. I think during the rainy season it is a different story – and arguably more of a challenge to get here as well.

sensory deprivation

At night you are on your own. And in more ways than one. The distance to the other campers is quite far, and after dinner time the commotion and laughter die down. What you have is then absolute silence. An absolute lack of light. It is pitch black with no movement at all, no bird calls, no rustling of leaves. And no wind either – luckily it has cooled down from the 45-degree heat of the day. If you’ve ever been in a sensory deprivation tank, this is about the same -or even more surreal, being in the middle of Africa!

back on the road

By five a.m. things start to stir (Africa is always up early). Bird calls sound out, and some intrepid travellers are already breaking camp in hushed tones. The idea here is to beat the heat, of course. And early morning is also best for animal sightings. Our destination is Kasane, and the Chobe Safari Lodge so we don’t have very far to go, but the routine kicks in and we start packing things away over coffee.

The road out to Ghoha gate is pretty soft sand (what else?) and beyond the gate, the cutline is a further seventy kilometres of the soft stuff. This is the same kind of bouncy ride we had in the Kalahari, a balance of enough speed through the sand versus bottoming out on the suspension. It makes for slow progress, but we are trying to do some game viewing as well. And a lucky passing of a leopard makes our day. Just slowly walking over the road in front of us and disappearing into the bushes just a few metres later. Luck is part of the vocabulary out here. If the animals want to be seen you’re in luck, if not, forget it.

Halfway to Ngoma, we encounter something we haven’t seen for a while – tarmac. How smooth is this? How effortless! What an invention – this could change motoring forever! At Ngoma, you re-enter the Chobe National Park. You can then choose to follow the efficient tarmac road to Kasane and be there in an hour. Or follow the River Loop (as I’m going to call it).

Chobe River Loop

This road follows the Chobe River edge all the way to Sedudu Gate (which is right near Kasane). You will have to sign into the park again, but it is well worth it, and also the extra two hours you will be en route to the lodge. We don’t see many other vehicles, which feels even more special, and the number of wildlife is amazing. There is obviously perennial water here at the Chobe River, which attracts any number of animals.

Numerous herds of elephants with tiny (relatively) newborn calves barely a metre high. Herds of giraffes in all shapes and sizes, many large ones spreadeagled trying to drink from the river. Zebras, wildebeest, very chilled impalas. Buffalo, marabou storks, and even hippos graze in the sun (apparently they have to because of the competition from the elephants and buffalo for the amount of grazing available).

We manage to get very close to some of the herds, with barely a few metres from the elephants in the water. The wildlife seems quite relaxed as we drive past, probably used to having game viewers from the lodges in Kasane, in the vicinity. If you would like to get some game viewing in, this is the road to come and do it. And look out over the river to the sunset cruise boats doing the same from the water.

I mentioned elsewhere that I thought Moremi was a better option for wildlife compared to Chobe. This isn’t entirely true as although Moremi has the Okavango Delta, Chobe has the River, and a huge elephant population (that disappears into the bush rather too easily).

You also need to be a little prepared, with enough water and food supplies to get you to Kasane – if you’ve spent some time in Moremi and Khwai along the route as well. And Maun (the centre of the universe) is a whole day’s drive away – distances aren’t huge, but the going is very slow. Chobe National Park is well worth a visit, it has a charm to it, it is quite big and remote, and you spend some time in the car to get there. And, once again, the privilege to be here cannot be overstated.