Botswana: home of the great elephant

Water to water, from great gushing cascades to a sweet meandering flow, both under cloudless skies of cobalt blue.

The most peaceable river in old Africa, the river of the great elephant, presented a timeless scene at our destination, a safari camp called Chobe Chilwero – “the beholden view”.

Never was a wiser word chosen, for the beholder in the dry season (April to September) may experience a wondrous sight – herds of elephant swimming across the river at sunset.

The mood must take them, of course, but there is always a great congregation of these tusked giants on the banks ‘ up to 400 at any one time – and they mark Chobe which is the oldest national park in Botswana as the place to come for elephants as much as the Okavango for its water birds.

Chobe Chilwero, the exclusive camp overlooking the river, fed by rains high up in Angola, is sheer luxury within its spread of thatched bungalows. The bathrooms are all en suite and the dining room has a balcony view of the river. Drum beats summon the guests to the delicately-served meals, enjoyed at night by candlelight.

A visit to Chilwero is usually arranged for a two-day stay in a chain link with other wild life locations in Botswana, including the lyrical Okavango swamps which are usually reached by six-seater aircraft.

Nature conservationist Andre Martens, a former crocodile hunter, has always been interested in the predators. Within the Chobe domain he has seen owls swooping on snakes, a secretary bird killing a scrub hare, a giant eagle owl attacking a tawny eagle, cheetahs seizing warthogs.

But the bird life appears to be his special love… and there are more than 400 species at Chobe. “Migrating patterns are changing,” he says. “We now see birds that have never been here before.”

They are spotted and viewed by Chilwero guests from specially-adapted range cruisers or from motor boats on the river. A bewildering variety of eagles soar above the undulating landscape and kingfishers, from giant to brown and grey-hooded, can easily be spotted on the surrounding rocks.

Then there is the blacksmith plover on his elegant walk and the irresistibly beautiful lilac-breasted roller, knob-billed ducks in a waterhole and even the rare pygmy falcon. Weavers and hawks, shrikes and bee-eaters join sandpipers and coucals to make Chobe a whirling paradise.

The birds are a special element of this part of the world but the region is equally powerful in its wild life. I was very fortunate in having as my guide Alec Setswalo, a remarkable man brought up on a remote cattle station in the north of Botswana.

In his youth he hunted in the company of bushmen and something of their presence is in his character, particularly in his sense of humour.”Damned crooks, those lions …hiding again,” he says after a fruitless search for the king of beasts.

Ever alert, he names animals from afar that are just a blur to tourists and uncannily homes in on much that is of interest. Crocodiles, barely on the surface in a waterhole, forested herds of buffalo, hippos with their young, baboons full of antics, giraffes in stately pose against the blue horizon.

Chobe Chilwero offers one of the rarities of Africa today – no radio contact with other vehicles, the kind of action that brings squadrons of sightseers around a “kill” by lion or cheetah or wild dogs in Kenya. This heightens the sense of peace that represents Chobe, whose elephant population at the river is perfectly framed for the beholden view.

Crouching like a lion beside the Chobe River is another superb retreat, the Mowana Safari Lodge, all teak and mukwa and thatch. And free spirit.

It is part of the Cresta Hotel group that straddles Zimbabwe and Botswana. General manager John Gray says: “We are selling dreams, providing an experience based upon one of Africa’s oldest rivers. We take people’s expectations and fulfil them.”

The expectations are as big as the elephant, according to John. They have to be, he says, to compare with the Victoria Falls. But then Mowana is riding high, for this is the greatest elephant country in the world. They are the lords of the region, unchallenged in their supremacy and size.

One of the best ways to see them, especially swimming to the nearby papyrus islands, is during a river cruise either from a two-decker boat or six-seater motor boats. These cruises and the safari drives into the nearby national park are magical experiences.

With its draft of well under a metre, the river boat moves in dramatically close to colonies of hippo or crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks and passengers recently saw a leopard coming to drink. Fish are thrown to the diving fish eagle and there are beautiful sightings of the rare Puku antelope.

The river pilots often align the boat for a special panorama, even framing an elephant against the setting sun.

From across the river Mowana Lodge looks like an eastern temple, but as the snow-white egrets skim the waters before it at dusk you realise how deep the roots are in the African environment.

Its symbol is the baobab, located at the heart of the lodge. It is 800 years old and replaces an even older tree that was destroyed in a storm, shortly before the lodge was opened in 1993 by the then president of Botswana, Sir Ketimile Masiri.

Meanwhile, the elephant is immortalised at every turn in the lodge in heavy wood carved panels and even beneath the lamp shades of its 107 rooms. Virtually every country in Africa is represented in the design and decor and artefacts – the bar is especially worth a visit for such a superb ethnic array – harmonising with the colours and texture of nature.

Botswana is also the home of the mokoro – a long elegant canoe fashioned from a single tree. Livingstone was a great mokoro traveller, as illustrations of his explorations show, and any voyage on the Chobe River by this craft is like an expedition. Mowana offers a wonderful chance to glide silently among the lily trotters, otherwise known as the Jesus bird walking on water.

The river of the great elephant is indeed a timeless place. And it offers a simple message – take the road to Chobe and that other waterworld.

June 2006
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