Late afternoon to an approaching sunset on Botswana’s Chobe River. As I leaned back in one of the director’s chairs on the deck of our boat, I had what I might refer to as a “Pale Blue Dot”* moment.
“What’s a Pale Blue Dot moment?” you might ask.
Allow me to explain the circumstance, the reference and the connection as best and briefly as I can. Then we'll go into the experiences in the area that led up to this.
A “Pale Blue Dot” moment is one where you regard a powerful experience you’re having, overlay it onto the canvas of your life, then consider it in the vastness of the universe. Not small stuff, admittedly.
Simultaneously, your immediate surroundings draw your attention to the emotional magnitude of the sensations at hand — in this case: the glass-like surface of the river, the birds of prey aloft, the gradient of a setting sun. Then, just as I found myself on the emotional brink, a family of elephants bounded down over a hill to take the day’s final drink on the bank of the river.
This moment would serve as a fitting conclusion to the sum of our experience in Chobe over the previous four days. If I didn’t know any better, I might imagine someone scripting it all, playing me for the choked-up fool I was about to become.
Certain contexts in life seem to catalyze such Pale Blue Dot moments. Chobe, in all its dimensions, was one of them. The landscape, the humanity, the scores of other living inhabitants — in concert with the cycle of the rising and setting sun across the Chobe River — struck simultaneous chords of admiration and concern.
I relished the beauty of what was at hand. It reminded me that we have something special on our planet, something I myself admit to occasionally taking for granted. Additionally, I feel that if we are not more mindful, that beauty is among which we stand to lose.
In the words of Carl Sagan:
“To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”
It’s likely that you’ll visit Chobe, an area in northern Botswana with a national park and river of the same name, motivated primarily by the draw of game drives and the cycle of wildlife along the river’s edge. However, thanks to some select activities we not only had a unique safari experience, but we also emerged with a sense of Botswana’s history and a deep taste of its local culture.
To help plan your trip we created this experiential travel guide to Chobe. Our intent is to offer some diverse inspiration and practical advice to plan your Chobe itinerary by adding new experiences to an existing trip or to help you sculpt one if you happen to be assembling one from scratch.
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1. Watch a Family of Elephants Take a Sundown Drink From the Chobe River
Admiring elephants from our boat felt more intimate than other elephant sightings we’d previously experienced. Perhaps because we were less intrusive to the elephants on the water than we might have been to them on land, they seemed to go about their work and play without paying us any mind. Meanwhile, we'd had what felt like a front row seat.
Their agility and playfulness often seem to defy their size — most of the time, that is — until you witness a baby elephant doing a face plant.
2. Enjoy a Local Feast, Including Baobab Yogurt
Botswana’s cuisine reflects the local land, and features a focus on staples that perform well in the seasonal semi-arid climate: maize, sorghum and cattle. In addition to Botswanan standards such as seswaa (pounded beef), samp (maize) and morogo (greens, bean leaves) our home-cooked feast also included treats like tswii (water lily with beef), mabele (sorghum porridge), mopane (worms – in full disclosure, we had a hard time getting these down, but you must try them at least once), madila (sour milk yogurt), and for the grand finale, a sweet-tart yogurt made from the fruit of the baobab tree.
We enjoyed all of this in the village of Kachikau in the Chobe Enklave (near to Chobe National Park). We gathered — in a pleasant, informal environment — under the shade of a tree outside the home of Mma Mercy, our host for the afternoon. As we floated questions about food, conversation topics naturally drifted to family, community, weddings and how, or if, traditional knowledge and ways are being lost in the transition to the “new” generation. This last bit, we've found in our travels the world over, serves as an item of universal debate.
Note: This experience is a component of the Chobe Game Lodge cultural exploration day.
3. Hop In An Electric Vehicle and Enjoy a Game Drive…In Silence
Electric cruisers: not only good for the environment, but also better for the game drive experience.
Why? Animals appreciate the silence, too. You’ll really notice it the next time you’re in or next to a gasoline or diesel powered Land Cruiser (or similar 4×4), particularly after its engine starts. The sounds of an engine, cranks and roars, can sometimes startle the animals.
4. Learn About Chobe’s Past, Present and Future from a Local Legend
“I remember Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor when they were here for their honeymoon (in 1975). Their plane had a rough landing; he was particularly shaken up. Rumors are that’s why they decided to get married again so soon,” Albert explained.
Having grown up in a nearby village that was resettled after the Chobe National Park was established, Albert has seen it all. He possesses a deep well of local knowledge and pairs it with a remarkable ability to connect the past, present and future with a dash of a good story or two.
Albert was a member of the original construction crew at Chobe Game Lodge when it was first erected in 1971-72. Today, he gives eco-tours of the lodge’s sustainability initiatives, from chronicling the lodge's efforts to reduce its environmental footprint to how it provides environmental education and job training to youth in the nearby town of Kasane.
To provide perspective on all that has changed in the lodge these last years, Albert goes on: “We used to dig big holes and bury the garbage in the ground. The baboons would always dig it all up. The next day it would all be spread around. They’d throw bottles at each other, and at us.”
He gazed over at the bio-gas system, incinerator, and recycling operations: “This is much better. Nothing wasted. And no baboons.”
5. Enjoy a 17-Lion Morning
“What time do you need to return? I’ve just heard there’s a large pride of lions nearby. Shall we go?” Lynn asked.
Would we like to see more lions?!
Yes, more lions please.
Our morning up until that point was remarkable enough. We’d earlier seen a pride of five lions that included a mother and four cubs. We took in plenty of fabulous new bird species. In other words, we would have returned to the lodge more than satisfied.
But, an additional pride of 12 lions, including some very playful juveniles, really put a notable and unexpected touch on our morning game drive experience.
What a morning, indeed. A 17-lion morning.
6. Watch the Sun Rise Over the Chobe River from the Deck
Although we don't usually consider ourselves early risers, the early morning canvas of life on the river gave us plenty of reason to change our ways. Most guests are on early morning game drives — or under the covers — so if you go out to the deck at sunrise you'll likely have the area to yourself. Only the grunts of the hippos below may break the silence of first light.
7. Get a Different Perspective from an All-Female Guiding Team
“I am always learning. That’s what I like about this job. Things happen in nature here that you can’t read about in books. And I get to share this with visitors from around the world and learn from them,” Lynn explained.
As unusual as it was to have a female guide in Africa, it was even more so that Lynn was one of an entirely female guiding team of 16 women at Chobe Game Lodge. As we learned about the hunting habits of the fish eagle, how long lionesses care for their cubs and why Secretary Birds are called as such, Lynn also shared with us her journey of becoming a guide as a Botswanan woman – including the challenges, and also the support she’s received along the way from her family, fellow guides, and guests.
8. Watch the Elusive Honey Badger Dart Away in the Early Morning
Visitors are all about the big game: elephants, giraffes, and the big cats. It’s natural. Don't forget the small game, lesser known animals you might otherwise overlook.
Take, for example, the elusive honey badger. They are considered one of the fiercest animals around. It even earned itself several entries in the Urban Dictionary. My personal favorite is “The Chuck Norris of the animal kingdom.”
Sadly, we have no photo. He dashed away before we could catch him in the frame.
9. Try Your Hand at Basket Weaving
Ever watch something you've never given particular notice to before and think, “Looks simple enough”?
That is basket weaving. There's a reason for the liberal arts college cliché of a basket weaving course: it's exceptionally difficult.
Audrey attentively watched Lillian perform her work. Her hands moved the reeds, straightening and weaving them together in a forever battle of close-up work. From a distance, the steps looked pretty straightforward. There was even a 2-year old child next to her who seemed to have picked it up.
Then it was Audrey's turn. Lillian patiently gave her a crash course in how to use the tiny awl, at the same time keeping the reeds wet so they could bend. Pull them tight, follow the two-colored pattern.
Easy? Not so. I couldn't bring myself to the embarrassment of trying. Let’s just say I have a whole new respect for these traditional baskets — and the women weaving them — as I now know firsthand what goes into their creation.
10. Ride a Bicycle to the Four Corners Where Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana Meet
We have a soft spot for memorable land border crossings. There’s a thrill of possibility and unknown when you pass between two nations on foot, or in this case, by bicycle.
Our bicycle ride to the Four Corners began at Bakwena Lodge on the edge of the town of Kasane. After a pedal through a quiet village, we reached the main road where trucks were lined up for as long as the eye could see.
“Sometimes they wait here for weeks, sometimes a month, to cross the Zambezi River into Zambia. The truck drivers can’t leave their trucks. If they lose their spot they won't get it back. All they can do is wait,” Steve, our guide, explained. Movement of goods across borders in this part of the world: glacial.
Fortunately, for the rest of us on foot, bicycle or car, you can board the ferry with little wait. During our quick ride across to the Zambia side, we attempted to note which country was where, pointing accordingly. Even the experienced among us seemed challenged by the task.
Full Disclosure: There is a 100-meter gap between the borders of Zimbabwe and Namibia.
Note: Bakwena Lodge organized our bicycle trip to the four corners. They offer cycling day trips to nearby villages as well.
11. Watch Birds Steal the Show
We hadn’t expected birds to be such a significant component of our experience at Chobe. However, from our first boat ride on the river to our final game drive in the park, they played a critical role in the show.
Birds are easy to overlook in the shadow of big game, but don't let their size fool you. They are gorgeous, varied, vocal and most of all, absolutely crucial to the ecosystem.
Stop, look around, and listen. And, your senses will be heightened to the birds and their song.
From giant birds like eagles, storks and cranes…
to the small like rollers, swifts, and bee-eaters.
Big thanks to Lynn for helping us to appreciate the beauty of the small, including Chobe's birds. She was a master of bird knowledge — not only their names, but their behaviors, calls, and migration patterns. Really remarkable.
12. Drink Sorghum Beer the Local Way
Beer. It's universal. In Botswana, the traditional brew is made from sorghum. To drink it properly means to politely slurp (gulp?) from a big clay pot and pass it around the circle to everyone in the group. Sip without spilling. Not easy for this novice.
How did it taste? Slightly sweet, yeasty, and mildly effervescent. Refreshing on a hot day, but also deceiving, as it is often more potent than the flavor suggests.
13. Enjoy a 100-Giraffe Afternoon
Watch a giraffe walk across the plain, carrying its lanky body in this oddly graceful stride that seems to demand its own theme music. Try to keep a straight face. Then watch a herd of them. Harder still. Behold one of the most artistically rendered, yet gawky safari animals around.
But don't get me wrong. I appreciate the giraffe.
If your afternoon game drive piles on the giraffes, you begin to count. Then you reach 100 giraffe, and you start to lose count. Does that constitute peak giraffe?
14. Learn the Meaning Behind the Design
Yes, it turns out even baskets can tell a story.
“Tears of giraffe, head of a zebra, running ostrich.” Mma Mercy sorted through the baskets on the ground, indicating the meaning of each traditional design.
We looked for a basket to take home with us. One in particular stood out.
“Tortoise knees,” Mma Mercy said as we held up our basket. We looked at her, confused. She went on to explain, offering a physical demonstration of how tortoise’s legs and knees work. “I don’t know why they call it this, but this is what our grandparents told us. And we carry on the tradition.”
Now, I can’t look at our basket — one we now use for holding sliced bread in Berlin — without seeing those tortoise knees and recalling Mma Mercy’s laugh as she pantomimed her version of a tortoise.
Lesson: The opportunity to tell a story is never wasted. Next time you buy a basket — or anything, really — ask if there’s a story.
15. Listen to the Call of the Jackal
Listen to the call of each of the animals. Visitors are often understandably focused on taking photographs and watching wildlife, but it's just as satisfying to put the camera down and simply listen, separating the various animal calls. Notice also how an animal call may change depending upon its purpose: to connect with others socially, to alert and warn others of danger, or to indicate interest during mating season.
One morning, we learned that the jackal issues forth a beautiful bark when he wishes to make contact with other jackals nearby. Communication is universal in the animal world.
16. Pay an Impromptu Visit to a Family Farmstead
Since sorghum had been such an integral ingredient of our Botswanan feast, it was fitting to pay an impromptu visit to a local family farm on our way back to the lodge. Harvest season had just passed, so the family was drying, separating and sorting the pods to prepare them for sale and for use at home.
The visit also illustrated how work is divided in rural Botswana. Women usually take control of agriculture as men take control of the animals. On this farm we met three generations of women working together and saw just how the baskets we had seen earlier in the crafts shop get used in their traditional and intended way.
17. Find the Sable Antelope Through the Tall Grass
If it weren't for Lynn, we would never have spotted a small herd of sable antelope hanging out in the tall grass on the edge of the road. She warned us that they are skittish and might run when we pulled up to take a closer look. Most of them took flight, but the male pictured here watched us just as we watched him.
It's probably fair to say that antelopes aren't as appreciated as other wildlife on game drives. They are beautiful creatures, however. And the sable is one of the more unusual among them.
17. Count the Stripes on Botswana's National Animal
After your eyes recover from seeing so many zebra at once, look again and you'll realize that no two zebras share the same markings…or number of stripes.
One might imagine the elephant to be Botswana's national animal, given their numbers in the country. Why then the zebra? Several Batswana told us that it was chosen as the national animal because, like the black and white bands on the national flag, the zebra's stripes symbolize racial harmony and the diversity of the nation.
18. Spot the Ancient Predator at the River's Edge
After all the scenes of animals drinking from the Chobe River, a crocodile on its shores reminds us that the animal world also knows its cycle of life and death, of predator and prey. Whether it's apparent or not, most animals are on constant lookout to avoid being eaten by predators. At the same time, predators spend most of their hungry, waking lives pondering and seeking their next meal. Such is life in the wild.
19. Let the Mongoose and Warthogs Take Care of Your Lawn
Although it can be a bit startling at first to exit one's room and witness a sounder of warthogs (yes, that's the collective noun — oh, the joys of a travel writer writing of his safari) munching the grass and packs of mongoose (I so wish they were called mongeese) wondering what their purpose is, there's good reason to also appreciate their presence and their function. Think of them as natural lawn mowers and pest control. They are pretty cute, too.
20. Have a Drink During a Sundowner on the Chobe River
For a safari-goer in southern Africa, the sundowner is the defining ritual to mark the end of the day. The defining prop: a gin and tonic or glass of wine in hand.
As deep shades of red and orange take over the sky and reflect off the water, a quiet descends and engulfs our electric boat. We float as the sky transforms into something almost molten, then retreats to the deepest ends of the color spectrum.
Some moments later, Mother Nature’s show is over. However, the peace and serenity of the moment remains.
Note: Chobe Game Lodge is the only lodge located inside Chobe National Park. As a result, its boats can remain on the river longer at sundown because they do not have to spend time leaving the park before its official closing time.
Practical Details for Visiting Chobe
When to Visit Chobe
We visited in early June. It was still relatively early in the dry season, which typically lasts from May to October and just on the edge of Botswana's high tourist season (July-October). We were impressed with the volume and diversity of wildlife we saw, but we’ve been told that as the dry season wears on, the concentration of animals along the Chobe River increases as it becomes the only available water source.
We’ve also heard that the rainy season (November – April) can be an excellent time to visit, as the area is green and lush. Don’t let the “rainy” part deter you, as we’ve been told the rain typically lasts only for an hour or two every three or four days. Additionally, you can often find discounts during this time.
Note: Botswana is in the southern hemisphere, so May through July is winter.
What to Pack for a trip to Chobe National Park
The Chobe area is on a dry, desert plain. It's often cool in the morning and night, while the weather warms up during the day. Temperatures vary depending on whether you visit in June (winter) or September (summer), but layers and sun protection ought to be your focus.
- Fleece Jacket: Nice to have a warm layer for the early mornings and late nights. If you visit during the winter consider bringing a windbreaker as well.
- Long-sleeved shirt: Good for sun protection and warmth. Keeps the mosquitos away in the early evening, too.
- Trousers: Comfortable and light. We're partial to these his and hers Clothing Arts travel pants. We wore them daily.
- Hats: A hat is always a good idea as the desert sun is powerful. If you visit during Botswana’s winter then a warm cap or [easyazon_link keywords=”beanie” locale=”US” tag=”uncormarke-20″]beanie[/easyazon_link] will do wonders to keep you toasty warm on breezy early morning game drives.
- Sunscreen: The higher the SPF, the better.
- Lip balm: The dry desert environment can do a number on your lips. Carry plenty of lip balm with you.
Do not worry about bringing lots of clothes as the lodges usually offer laundry service free of charge.
If your trip to Botswana includes taking a bush flight to some of the more remote camps, be sure to bring a duffel bag or backpack (we carried our Eagle Creek backpacks so we could enclose the straps in a zippered cover). Suitcases with wheels are not allowed on bush planes. Also, the maximum weight per person on these small aircraft is 20kg per person total, not only for checked baggage.
Medical Considerations for Chobe
If the time of year of your visit coincides with the wet season, you may want to consider taking or carrying anti-malarial medicine. Since our visit (in June) coincided with the dry season, we opted not to. If you have any doubts, consult the lodge and/or your local travel clinic prior to your visit.
How to Get to Chobe
If you're flying then the easiest options is to arrive at Kasane International Airport. It is a 30-minute drive from the entrance to Chobe National Park and is also a good jumping off point for visiting Victoria Falls in neighboring Zambia and Zimbabwe. There are several flights per day from within Botswana, as well as from nearby countries. Our route took us to Johannesburg on South African Airways and then on Airlink to Kasane.
Alternatively, you can cross by land (or ferry) from neighboring Zambia, Namibia, or Zimbabwe.
Visa and Money
Most visitors to Botswana do not need a visa prior to entering the country. For the official word, consult this Botswana tourism visa page which includes a list of countries whose citizens can visit Botswana visa-free. The length of a standard tourist visa is 90 days.
The national currency of Botswana is the Pula. If you anticipate staying in lodges where food and transport are inclusive, it may not be necessary to change money. Most lodges accept U.S. dollars and to a lesser extent, Euros. Credit cards are also often accepted. It is recommended to bring $USD cash for staff and guide tips and other incidentals.