Their trunks are twisted around each other, two teenage elephants knee-deep in water, tugging and pulling before letting go and continuing the jostling with their foreheads.
Soon, another male joins this play fight and all three are piled up, bodies together, legs and proboscises akimbo, roughhousing in the Chobe River in the afternoon sun.
These prepubescent males hold me transfixed, as does the rest of their family, as I watch from a small boat a short distance away. There’s the matriarch alongside the other adult females in the group, plus the three teenagers and two babies, all at the edge of the river, drinking, floating, scratching themselves on the ebony and jackalberry trees, playing and swimming, taking delight in the fact that here in the water their bodyweight is reduced by half by the buoyancy in their bellies.
The babies mostly find shelter under the legs or the trunks of the females, but sometimes they stand alone, tentatively working out what this trunk thing does — up until they’re a year old elephants can only use their mouths to drink water but when they’re fully grown they can take in eight litres with one big snort. These babies are a comical sight — with big moon faces and fuzzy hair on their heads — and as I marvel at them, the tiny elephant singing ‘in a military style’ during Colonel Hathi’s March in The Jungle Book springs to mind. And so, gazing at the largest animals in Africa going about their daily business, I hear the refrain ‘hup, two, three, four’ and ‘We’re a crackerjack brigade. On a pachyderm parade. But we’d rather stroll to a water hole. For a furlough in the shade.’
Chobe National Park, in Northern Botswana, has one of the largest concentrations of game in Africa, and the Serondela area — effectively the Chobe riverfront — is the prime spot for viewing Kalahari elephants, whose large, flapping ears are said to resemble the shape of the African continent. On a very good day you can see hundreds of pachyderms as they come down the red hills in a diagonal line towards the water, where they might remain for some hours. Today is a good day. Some tentatively skirt the edge of the river, while others plunge right in and splash water behind their ears to cool their veins. Others mix sand with water to make a sort-of mud bath that helps them suffocate biting parasites as well as reduce their temperature. Babies trip over their own feet, or those of others, or hang on to their mother’s trunks or legs for stability. The whole thing is such an utterly breathtaking spectacle I well up at the privilege of seeing it.
“Here in the water is when you see that the true colour of the elephant is not in fact grey or brown but a charcoal black,” says Isaac, my captain and guide. As he tries to keep the boat steady, he tells me that elephants live in social structures but also split up into a breeding herd that’s led by the grandmother, the matriarch, and a bachelor herd led by a patriarch, who instils discipline in the young, marauding boys. He points to the rough-playing teenagers. “When those naughty boys are in puberty — between the ages of 12 and 18 — the matriarch kicks them out to try to avoid interbreeding.”
Further along the Chobe, we come across a solitary male, standing in marsh grass in the middle of the river, tugging up great tufts of green, swishing them around and beating them a bit, before putting this in his mouth. He’s out here on his own because he’s older and prefers solitude to the fighting and power struggles among younger adult males. “Solitary bulls have had enough of the young men in the breed so they keep to themselves,” Isaac explains. “They shake the grass to take care of their molars.
They have six sets in their lifespan of 65 years so they need to slow down the flattening of this last set or they won’t be able to chew grass and will suffer from malnutrition.”
As we putter along the Chobe, the abundance of birdlife is astonishing — over 450 species of bird call this place home. I see kingfishers (malachite and pied), pygmy geese, helmeted guineafowl (‘Chobe chicken’), and beautiful southern carmine bee-eaters — their plumage bright in breeding colours — flying in and out of nest chambers as they excavate. Sitting on the skeleton of a tree is an African cormorant, its red throat slightly puffed up as it lazily spreads its wings so that it can dry off after the rains, cleaning itself with its own natural oils before it’s able to fly away. Further down the river, up on another tree, are a pair of fish eagles — I watch as one swoops down and pulls its prey out of the water with its talons before returning to share the spoils with its monogamous partner.
Along the water’s edge, impala and lechwe lick mineral salt from the dirt to help neutralise the high levels of tannins in the leaves they’ve eaten from the acacia tree. There are Cape buffalo — accompanied by little oxpeckers, quietly picking away at ticks and scabs on the body of the animal — considered the most aggressive of the Big Five. “In Southern Africa, buffalo are nicknamed ‘the dagger boys’,” says Isaac. “And in East Africa, they’re known as the Black Death.”
We rise at dawn the next day for a game drive out from Chobe Safari Lodge into the park. A pride of lions has been seen and we’re going to track them down. The low morning sun begins to rise and dust whips up around our viewing vehicle but our guide finally spots spoor — lion footprints. He scans the land with binoculars. We wait. And then they come — five of them, nonchalantly crossing the red road in front of us. Just as quickly, they’re gone.
I hoped that as well as following in a few of Livingstone’s footsteps (he’s believed to have travelled 29,000 miles in his lifetime) I might see some of the poor specimens I’d seen caged as a child living free in the wild. My first stop was Victoria Falls, or, in the Losi language, Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning ‘the smoke that thunders’. As the first recorded European to discover the Zambezi and the falls, Livingstone wrote, ‘Scenes like this must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.’ And they’re truly exhilarating scenes. On my first visit, the sky is many shades of threatening grey. I’d expected the magical mist that sprays from the falls when crossing the famous Knife Edge Bridge, but when the skies open with torrential rain, it’s overwhelming — especially when an almost circular rainbow lands at my feet. I’m utterly drenched and unspeakably happy. I return the following morning in different light and under different skies to take in more.
From Zambia, I cross by ferry to Botswana at Kalangula. We stop at a point in the river where Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe meet (there’s a post sticking out of the water) and from there we head to the town of Kasane to the base for our Chobe adventure. But it’s when I take a single-prop aircraft from Kasane airport that I learn to appreciate the wide Botswana sky and the colours of the land. Vast tracts of uninhabited wilderness unfold below me — I watch the umber tones of the earth change to a salty white and follow the watery trails of the Okavango Delta.
We land at a tiny, basic airstrip, where I’m met by two men driving a big red tractor with a trailer attached carrying a chair for yours truly. The men introduce themselves: Shakapira, the guide for my stay at Moremi Crossing, and Shooting, his deputy, a trainee guide who shadows his mentor to learn more about the wildlife and the landscape around us.
The waters of the Boro River and its channels are low on my visit so our activities are confined to slow, gentle excursions both on foot and in a mokoro — a traditional canoe once dug out of ebony but now less regally carved from fibreglass. First we head out in the poled mokoro, brushing past reeds and waterlilies, accompanied by bright-red dragonflies skimming the water’s surface and a plopping soundtrack of catfish plunging into the shallows looking for bugs. We see fish eagles as well as saddle-billed and marabou storks.
But it’s not long before we stop. Shakapira — who’s poling — is suddenly cautious. “Hippo,” he says. There are a tail of small crafts behind us and Shakapira takes to his radio and warns the other guides that he’s seen a hippo in the long grass. But they go on. We stay where we are and then suddenly the hippo, which has slipped unseen into the water, breaches baring its enormous fat teeth and starts charging towards us. Quickly the little boats turn and make haste the other way, amid peels of laughter, masking the underlying fear of a close encounter.
“I don’t like hippo,” explains Shakapira. “When I was 14, I went fishing with my friends. We caught a lot of fish in our two mokoro and suddenly I realised that my mokoro was on top of a hippo. Then the hippo kicked my mokoro — luckily my bag of fish flew out and landed on the bank. I swam to the edge and went up on the sandbank and watched the hippo fight with the mokoro. He trashed it. That is why I don’t like them. Whenever I see a hippo, I tell the guys we should turn back or take a different route.”
And so it is that the hippo stalls us time and time again. Three times we turn around, and take to the bank — Shakapira, me, then Shooting, walking amid palms, leadwood, knobthorn and sausage trees (named after its huge, hanging fruits, which, should you wish to keep your head, it’s important to avoid). All the time we’re accompanied by the call of the Cape turtle dove — which Southern Africans like to say is them singing, ‘work harder’ and ‘drink lager’ — and the grey lourie, a creature known locally as the go-away bird, which emits a nasal call that sounds like ‘g’way’.
As we walk, Shakapira stoops to examine tracks for freshness. “Elephants have three pads on the back,” he explains. “Cats keep their nails retracted and only put them out when they’re attacking.” We brush past heavily aromatic sage and wild basil, with butterflies all around us. We see zebras, wildebeest and ostriches. Side-striped jackal. A python. A lonely bull elephant spots us and starts shaking his ears. Shakapira whispers us away. From the top of a termite hill, we look out and view a group of hippos frolicking, some yawning, all revelling in the muddy water blithely ignoring the tremulous sound of thunder and their three human observers.
Back at our tented camp at Moremi Crossing, Shakapira, Shooting and I sit on the deck overlooking the delta, listening to the torrential rain (known as pula, which is also the name of the local currency) drumming on the thatched roof and making the hippo grass dance under its weight. Shooting has a guide exam in less than a week and I’m keen to sit in on the lesson. The student points out the kudus grazing on the other bank, then helps me identify mangosteen, learn the difference between pampas and hippo grass and discern the call of the cucka bird.
Shakapira and Shooting ask about my country, Scotland, which they think is in England, and smile when I tell them I’m from Livingstone’s country. “Dr David Livingstone would be proud of us,” says Shakapira. “Since we got independence we’ve never been in a war and we have a good democracy. My best lieutenant in my life is Seretse Khama [Botswana’s first president] — he gave us everything. And now our people believe in sitting in parliament talking, not shooting people with guns. I love Botswana. I love my country.”
Before independence in 1962, Botswana was a British protectorate known as Bechuanaland. Since taking hold of its own reins, it’s become the most politically stable country in Africa, and its first president, Sir Seretse Goitsebeng Maphiri Khama, is a national hero. His son, Ian Seretse Khama, is the country’s current president and has spearheaded the drive towards the preservation of wildlife with a vigorous anti-poaching strategy — most particularly with regard to rhinos — that’s helped to make Botswana the wildlife haven it is today.
A saddle-billed stork flies over an elephant, over on the other side of the channel; the pula continues to batter on the roof and I take a moment to ponder my location. In Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels set in Botswana, the lady detective, Mma Precious Ramotswe, says, ‘I am just a tiny person in Africa, but there is a place for me, and for everybody, to sit down on this earth and touch it and call it their own.’ This country is not my own, but the Batswana have welcomed me like they did Dr David Livingstone. I can see why my countryman chose to make this country his own.
Getting there & around
British Airways flies from Heathrow to Livingstone via Johannesburg. Onward travel is with Comair. South African Airways has daily flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg, and one daily onward flight to Livingstone.
Catch a mini bus/taxi from Livingstone to the border at Kazungula, and cross by ferry to Botswana. It’s a short distance from there to Kasane, on the edge of the Chobe National Park. Most hotels offer private transfers. A number of companies have light aircraft flights between safari camps across Botswana, including Moremi Air and Wilderness Air.
How to do it
Saga Travel offers the 12-night In the Footsteps of Livingstone tour of Zambia and Botswana, from £3,199 per person, departing 10 January 2017. The tour combines a visit to Victoria Falls with stays in Zambia and Botswana at the edge of Chobe National Park. An add-on trip to the Okavango Delta is extra. Includes accommodation, 20 meals, flights and transfers, the services of a Saga tour manager and porterage at all hotels.
The AVANI Victoria Falls Hotel is located near Victoria Falls.
Published in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)