While the sprawling savannahs are famed for traditional safaris, the riverbanks of Africa tell their own tales, ones that are often overlooked. However it’s on these very rivers where some of the most unexpected and breathtaking wildlife encounters unfold.
Here, we unearth five sightings you can enjoy along the Chobe River, an unspoilt slice of riverine wilderness in southern Africa intersecting Botswana and Namibia.
When the scorching sun casts its mighty rays upon Africa, the rivers turn into nature’s theatres. The banks of the Chobe River, in particular, alongside the Chobe National Park, are a testament to this. Imagine observing a pride of lions cautiously approaching the waters, wildebeest, zebra and giraffe tiptoeing for a sip, and the majestic elephants, in all their grandeur, showering and playing and swimming across the river right in front of your eyes.
Chobe River guides often recommend Chenku for wildlife sightings. It’s a popular grazing area for elephant, buffalo and several species of antelope, making it just the spot for game-viewing, especially in the drier season.
“I’ve been working for the Zambezi Queen Collection for approximately 25 years, says Guide Robert. “My most memorable experience took place at Sunset Bay. When we got there, there were five lions attacking one buffalo bull that was very close to the river’s edge. Our clients were very appreciative about that sighting, too!” And if you’re interested in what lies not only on the shore but above and beneath the river too, the local born and bred Zambezi Queen Collection (ZQC) guides know just the spots.
“My favourite spot in the river is the Kasai channel, including the deep water by the harbour, says Zambezi Queen Collection Guide Nico. “Birding and fishing is also very good here.” Guide Raphael has two favourite fishing spots: “The first spot is the deep water where we troll for tiger fish, and then the second is in the Kasai Channel where we fish using both spinning and trolling.”
The Gentle Giants’ River Playtime
The stars of the Chobe River show are the elephants. With over 120 000 elephants, the densest population in Africa, you’re spoiled for sightings of Africa’s gentlest giants. Despite their enormity, the gentle giants have moments of pure childlike joy by the river. Be it a mother teaching her calf to bathe or young tuskers playfully sparring, these scenes melt hearts and often become the highlight of any river voyage.
“What truly sets our Chobe River safaris apart are the various mooring spots,” says Kate Powell, General Manager of Marketing, Sales, and Reservations at the Zambezi Queen Collection. “Both the larger Zambezi Queen houseboat and our smaller Chobe Princess boats can moor at Leguva, a secluded docking site that takes you away from the ‘busier’ sections of the Chobe River, to give you unencumbered views of the Chobe National Park’s open plains.
“Our Chobe Princesses, being smaller, can also moor at Elephant Bay, a small island – aptly named! It faces one of the elephants’ favourite drinking sites, rewarding you with sightings of several herds drinking, playing and bathing in the river.” Despite seeing hundreds of elephants on a frequent basis, they remain a special sighting – even for the local guides.
“I like to watch the African elephants, especially when they are in a breeding herd, or they are crossing from Botswana to Namibia,” says Nico. “Playing in the water and applying mud on their bodies like sunscreen and then seeing them splashing and drinking in the water. The most special of all is when they play in the water with the babies and the young ones – they are really amazing.”
Midnight Mysteries: Nocturnal River Drama
The African night holds its own set of secrets. As the twilight fades, after the most showstopping sunsets you can imagine (Chobe River sunsets are legendary), the river sparkles under the moon’s silvery glow. This is when you witness the nocturnal ballet of predators and prey. And a houseboat, silently gliding through the calm Chobe waters, offers a front-row seat to this spectacle.
“There’s something unbelievably magical about being on one of our houseboats at night,” says Powell. “At night, when you’re the only ones on the river, with nothing else but the sounds of the river and the animals, is indescribable.” Just imagine yourself surrounded by the inky blackness, pierced only by the sounds of the wild, a galaxy of stars and the occasional splash – or roar.
Surprise Shore Visits
Just when you think the river’s tales are becoming predictable, the shores spring a surprise. There’s nothing quite like enjoying a serene river moment, only to have a lion make a surprise appearance or a group of mischievous monkeys create a ruckus on shore.
These moments, both heart-stopping and heart-warming, bridge the gap between man and nature in ways unimaginable. “My most special sighting on the river was a lion killing a buffalo close to the shore at Elephant Bay,” says Guide Success.
Raphael’s favourite shore moment also involves lions. “Sometimes we find them busy killing either one of the animals like buffaloes or impala. Sometimes during sunset at Elephant Bay, there is an area of plain (in Botswana, they call it Kolwezi, which means Big Water, kind of like a backwater) where the elephants, giraffes, buffalos, and sometimes even lions congregate, making for very special sightings.”
One of the best aspects of boat-based game watching versus more traditional land-based game viewing in a safari vehicle is that with the humans on the water, the animals are much more relaxed. The animals don’t feel intruded upon by boats that are fairly quiet so you’re much more likely to ‘sneak up on them unsuspectingly’ and observe them at ease in their natural habitats than on a noisy game vehicle.
Bird-Watching Bonanza from the River’s Perspective
Bird enthusiasts, brace yourselves. The Chobe River is nothing short of a feathered paradise with over 450 species recorded. The river becomes an avian spectacle from the striking African Fish Eagles marking their territory to vibrant kingfishers darting like arrows into the water.
“There’s something about observing birds from the river; it’s intimate, raw, and often, full of surprises,” remarks Powell. “Just like the animals, they’re much less disturbed by a quiet tender boat floating past, so birdwatchers are always delighted by how many lifers they can tick off their lists.”
“My favourite spot to go birding is at the top of the rapids where there’s a variety of different species of birds,” says Robert, a guide for the Zambezi Queen Collection of houseboats. “You can find birds like the African Spoonbill, the African Open-billed Stork, and Rock Pratincoles. These are special birds because they’re very rare, but during this time of the year, you can find them perched on the top of the rocks. When it’s the high water season, they migrate.”
10 Top Chobe River birds you’ll spot include: The White-backed night heron, the Goliath Heron, the Giant Kingfisher, the Southern Carmine Bee Eater, the African Wood Owl, African Skimmer, African Finfoot, Saddle-billed Stork, the African Fish Eagle and Rock Pratincoles.
The rivers of Africa aren’t just water bodies; they’re storytellers, weaving tales of the wild in their own unique way. And while traditional safaris have their own charm, a river-based wildlife encounter offers nuances and intricacies that are transformative – and put you right in the centre of the action.