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Nature takes over Chobe and Vic Falls

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BY DEBBIE STONE
Special to the Monitor

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I am both repelled and fascinated by crocodiles. Their fearsome reputation precedes them and the fact that they outlived the dinosaurs has given their species legendary respect. No one wants to mess with a croc, but many people will seize the opportunity to view one up close, particularly within its natural habitat.

Prior to my trip to Botswana, I had only seen these primordial creatures in enclosed nature centers, where I felt removed from them. So, when the boat I was riding in started inching closer to the banks of the Chobe River, where a croc was sun bathing, the experience suddenly became, shall I say, too close for comfort. I could actually discern the individual scales on its shiny, mottled skin.

Despite the excited voices and camera noises from all the paparazzi onboard jockeying for position, the croc appeared to be comatose. But, then, it opened one reptilian eye and appeared to train its gaze directly on me. I nervously chuckled, while instinctively moving further back into the boat to gain some physical distance. After a few unsettling minutes, which were accompanied by our guide’s litany of daunting facts about crocs regarding their size (up to 20 feet), bite strength (up to 3,000 pounds per square inch) and ability to overpower much larger prey (via the “death roll” maneuver), I averted my eyes and graciously allowed the cold-blooded creature to win this unnerving staring contest.

During my Chobe River safari, I saw many more crocs, from babies to full-grown adults, along with an assortment of other magnificent wildlife. The river acts as the northern boundary of Chobe National Park, Botswana’s first national park, and joins four countries: Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia. It’s the region’s heartbeat – a year-round, life-giving source of water.

Created in 1967, Chobe National Park occupies a diverse landscape, encompassing floodplains, swamps, grasslands, thick scrub and woodland. The multitude of habitats offer shelter for one of the greatest concentrations of game on the African continent. This world-renowned Eden is home to nearly 120,000 African elephants who dominate the park.

Buffalo are equally numerous, along with a healthy population of lions in residence.

Most visitors to Chobe do a traditional jeep game drive in the park in order to spot the Big Five: lion, elephant, giraffe, buffalo and rhino, though the latter are increasingly difficult to find. It’s not uncommon to see a herd of elephants crossing the road in front of your vehicle, on their way to the river. In linear fashion, led by the matriarch, these creatures move with a one-track mission, gaining in speed the nearer they get to the water’s edge. You can feel the ground shake as they thunder past and their enormous mass is a thing of awe.

The African elephant can be identified by its ears. Extended, they are shaped like the African continent. Though their skin is thick, it is sensitive to the sun. In order to protect it, these creatures will cover themselves in mud or dust, typically after they’ve cooled off in the water. Observing elephants during one of these refreshment recesses was a constant source of amusement for me. They were so playful, especially the young ones, who would mimic the behavior of their mothers as they showered themselves with water and then rolled in the dirt.

It was heart-warming to see how the adult females or cows took care of the calves. They were constantly vigilant, taking turns serving as lookouts at the watering hole and positioning themselves in the front and rear of the herd when it was on the move. And if they sensed any threat, they quickly formed a circle around the calves to protect them.

There was also obvious respect for the elder matriarchs, shown by the deference of the others in regards to their leadership. It was a special treat to view this closely-knit society in action up close.

During the drive, I was only able to spot a few lions, as they were well-camouflaged. With their golden-colored coats, they easily blended into the surrounding vegetation. Their kin, the leopards, are also known for being inconspicuous. I felt very fortunate to see not one, but two of these handsome cats. The first appeared to be napping, while draped languidly over a branch, making it a challenge to separate the animal from the tree limb. The other, however, lay on the ground in all its photogenic glory, confident in its star power and stature.

I was also lucky to see a pack of African wild dogs sitting by the road. The wild dog is one of the world’s most endangered mammals. This species’ population has been rapidly declining due to hunting and loss of habitat. The pack our group observed numbered about ten. We took note of the dogs’ mottled coats, which had blotches of different colors, alluding to the animal’s Latin name meaning “painted dog.” Though the pack was quiet, our guide told us not to be fooled by the dogs’ sedentary-like behavior. These fierce hunters are always on high alert and can sprint up to 45 mph in pursuit of prey.

Giraffes are fairly easy to locate for obvious reasons, as are zebras and the ubiquitous antelope that roam within the park, such as springbok, eland and impala. When you head to the river, though, wildlife sightings become even more frequent, as the water attracts an almost unbelievable density of game. In a boat, you’ll experience the park and its creatures from another vantage point. Herds of buffalo, countless hippos and crocs share the river and its lush, grassy banks and islands with elephants, aquatic antelope, such as the near-threatened red lechwe, and a mind-boggling array of birds.

Buffalos and hippos are given a wide berth in Africa, as both are deemed aggressive and dangerous. The buffalo, in particular, has a reputation for its unpredictable nature, and in a herd, these animals act as a unit with a mob mentality when it comes to dispensing with any kind of threat. For causing more human deaths a year, the notoriety goes to the hippo. These creatures are extremely territorial and will defend their section of the river from perceived intruders, such as fishermen. And despite their short, fat legs, they can run faster than a human.

Our guide provided many other interesting facts about hippos, as we observed them on land and in the water. I was surprised to learn they don’t actually swim, but rather walk underwater. They enjoy resting in cool water and can let themselves float or sink by controlling their breathing and body position. Once sunk, they walk along the bottom until they reach shallow water. Cows will hide their male calves from the fathers for fear they will be eaten.

We watched a pair of hippos sparring with one another in the water. Though they appeared intent on achieving dominance, our guide told us this was merely a warm-up to gauge strength. When they are ready to really go at it, the animals will fight to the death.

There’s a wealth of birdlife on Chobe River with over 450 recorded species. My head was whipping back and forth at warp speed trying to keep up with all the sightings. We spotted African spoonbill, cormorant, yellow-billed stork, African skimmers, kingfisher, ibis, African fish eagle and African jacana, and more. The fish eagle has such a familiar and clear call that is often known as the “Voice of Africa,” whereas, the jacana is called the “Jesus Bird” because it can walk on water.

Everyone who visits Chobe is intent on seeing the Big Five, but there’s also the Ugly Five to add to the list. This group includes the vulture, hyena, warthog, baboon and marabou. Baboons roam the landscape in hierarchical, male-dominated troops and there are warnings posted everywhere about their combative and confrontational behavior. And beware those terrifying teeth! These animals are so obsessed with status that they are always on a hair-trigger for aggression, and they’re constantly duking it out with each other. They’re also consummate thieves, with amazing adeptness.

Creepiest of the Ugly Five, in my opinion, are the vultures and hyenas – an attitude most likely developed from too many viewings of the “Lion King” with my kids years ago. This impression, though, was cemented in living color, as I watched both creatures greedily scavenge off the carcass of an elderly elephant on the river banks. The disturbing scene was akin to something out of a nightmare, but, it was, as our guide reminded me, just part of the circle of life.

The prize for most homely, yet weirdly wonderful, goes to the marabou, a ginormous stork with a massive conical bill and a long, reddish pouch hanging from its neck. This bird has been dubbed “the undertaker” because of its appearance. When seen from behind, its back and wings appear cloak-like. Standing an average of 60 inches tall and weighing about 20 pounds, the marabou’s wingspan of eleven feet is among the largest of any bird that is alive today.

A carnivorous scavenger, it too was participating in the feeding frenzy of the deceased elephant, alongside the vultures and hyena.

As the sun began to set on the river, my focus changed from wildlife to the sublime colors of the landscape. Streaks of red, yellow, pink and purple flashed against the darkening sky, reflecting on the cobalt water. The colors spread like an African bushfire with a Midas touch.

Many people spend a few days in Chobe due to the profusion of wildlife; others, come for a day trip from nearby Victoria Falls. One of the Seven Natural Wonders, the falls are located on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Statistically speaking, it is the largest waterfall in the world. This claim to fame comes from combining the height and width of the falls together to create the largest single sheet of flowing water.

The name Victoria Falls is credited to the Scottish explorer Dr. David Livingstone, who gave this impressive marvel its moniker in honor of the reigning queen at the time. He was the first European to set eyes on the falls back in 1885 and there is a statue of him at the western end of the chasm. The locals, however, called the falls Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning “smoke that thunders.” Many people still refer to this name today, as it is such a vivid descriptor. 

The falls are part of two national parks, Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in Zambia and Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe. Though the majority of trails to access the falls occur on the Zambian side, the Zimbabwean side provides visitors with the greater panoramic view and is the more popular of the two entrances. The edge of the falls is reached through the tunnels of a rainforest, a fairyland of exotic plants thriving in a humid, misty environment. As you walk the pathways, there are designated spots where you can admire the different sections of the falls.

One of my favorite viewpoints is “Chain Walk,” where you can look into the Devils Cataract, a powerful main stream of the falls. You’ll hear the water pounding and witness the vapor rising, with perhaps a dazzling rainbow or two to complete the glorious scene. And yes, you’ll probably get a bit wet from the spray. During high season (February to May), the falls is a roaring machine and visitors usually rent raincoats, as they undoubtedly get drenched.

When you reach Danger Point, the furthest spot on the trail, you can look across into Zambia. And from there, a short walk takes you to a view of the Victoria Falls Bridge. The bridge crosses the Zambezi River and is built over the second gorge of the falls. It links Zimbabwe and Zambia, and has border posts on the approaches to both ends. Taking just 14 months to build, the bridge was officially opened in 1905 by Charles Darwin’s son, Professor George Darwin. It is listed as an historic civil engineering landmark.

You can walk across the bridge to get a closer look at its construction, as well as at the scenic vistas. Occasionally, you will see whitewater rafters preparing for their trips in the gorge below and high-octane adventurers doing the Shearwater bungee jump or bungee swing from the bridge. Adrenaline junkies also enjoy sky diving, zip lining, hiking down into the gorge and swimming in the Devil’s Pool on the edge of the falls.

If heart-thumping activities aren’t your thing, rest assured, you can choose from a menu of experiences that include African cultural and heritage tours, fishing and birding trips and helicopter and horseback rides. And there’s always retail therapy at the craft market or many shops in town, where you’ll find unique, locally-made items.