Botswana: Report from the plunge pool
Shelley Seid roughs it at a five-star lodge on the Chobe
In front of me is the Chobe River; in the distance, the vast Caprivi floodplain. It is a rare experience this, to be sitting in a plunge pool at the top of an escarpment, cocktail in hand, looking out onto a never-ending, panoramic view of wondrous Botswana.
I am at Ngoma Safari Lodge ready for a heady, game-filled weekend at a luxurious, five-star establishment on the western edge of the Chobe National Park.
We'd had a long drive from Zimbabwe up to the Kazungula border post, where we transferred to an open vehicle and went on an even longer, extremely hot drive to our destination in the middle of nowhere.
At last, there it was: Ngoma Lodge with its Cinemascope vista, a setting ideal for an epic remake of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The sweat, the thirst and the mouthful of insects faded into obscurity. Some of the group elected to go on a sunset drive; I had spied the plunge pool and the bar and could think of no better place to watch a sunset that promised to be biblical in its intensity.
The lodge is as intimate as it gets. Only eight suites (all river facing, all with indoor and outdoor showers, all - mercifully - with air-conditioning) means a maximum of 16 guests; service is friendly and faultless; the food, thanks to Chef Paddington, is innovative and appetising. It's the perfect place for R and R - and believe me, you are going to need it after the mother of all safaris because there's no messing about in Botswana.
Here they have supersized the game drive. It begins after breakfast and ends in the dark. If you don't spot enough from the vehicle, you'll get another chance on the boat. You will see game or die trying. With 120000 elephant wandering around, that's not likely to happen.
Chobe has the highest concentration of elephants in Africa. Larger than all others and with shorter tusks, they are known as Kalahari elephants and they are everywhere - drinking on river banks, sauntering across roads, pulling down trees - and just about every sighting includes babies tripping alongside their mothers, playing games with their siblings and creating endless "ag shame" moments.
The Chobe National Park covers 10566km², half the size of the Kruger. It feels more expansive though and it certainly is quieter. No road hogs, no log jams, just silence, stillness and solitude. The only exception was our very first encounter, less than 1km inside the park, with a troop of baboons. There was nothing restrained or refined about them, and it should have come as no surprise that one chose to sit on the roof of the vehicle and aim a violent stream of urine at the unlucky fellow in the front seat.
We rapidly moved on to more tranquil pastures. It was a day of discoveries, demonstrated by our rapidly ticking off names on the checklist provided by the lodge. I constantly spotted the same two birds while the birders in our group saw 37 other species. This sounded impressive until Synack, our guide, told us there were at least 450 in total. We saw the usual line-up of mammals - buffalo, impala, giraffe, waterbuck and zebra - and we also saw the less common sable, red lechwe and Burchell's zebra. And all this before lunch.
After lunch, a picnic in a pretty clearing in the veld, we made our way towards the jetty from where we would begin our cruise down the Chobe. The cruise gave us Nile crocodile, water monitors, hippo and, of course, elephants, albeit from a different perspective. The "cruise" occasionally took place at breakneck speed as our driver vied with other boats for the best viewing sites, almost banking the boat in his eagerness to give us up-close-and-personal photo ops. There was a lot more traffic on the river than on the roads, from pushy little eight-seaters to pontoons to the majestic Zambezi Queen houseboat, all carrying passengers astonished by the quantity of wildlife and the quality of the encounters. National Geographic couldn't have done it better. The cherry on top was the unparalleled Chobe River sunset, framed by large families of elephants just metres away.
It's hard to believe that Chobe, which became Botswana's first national park in 1967, didn't get a great deal of international tourism until Hollywood legends Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton remarried in the village of Kasane in 1975, then took a six-week honeymoon at Chobe. We had to pass through Kasane on our way back to Ngoma Safari Lodge. I failed to identify the local commissioner's office where they took their vows, but I toasted to their great taste in venues with a Diet Coke from Choppies supermarket.
Leaving Botswana is another experience worthy of a diary entry. We were driven to Kazungula, where we took a short ferry ride across the Zambezi to Zambia, from where our flight back to South Africa would depart. During this 10-minute ride four countries converge and you can, at the very same time, see Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia. That's when you need to close your eyes and make a wish to return.
Shelley Seid stayed at Ngoma Safari Lodge courtesy of Africa Albida Tourism and was flown as a guest of 1Time Airline.
If you go..
The low-cost carrier 1Time Airlines flies between Johannesburg and Livingstone, Zambia, four times per week on Monday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday.
What's on offer
Ngoma Safari Lodge offers road transfers from Kasane border post or Kasane Airport; accommodation on a full-board basis; all house beverages; up to four activities per day; park fees and community fees.
What it has:
Eight spacious river-facing suites with bath, inside and outside shower, overhead fans, air-conditioning, mini bar, tea/coffee facilities.
Things to do:
Early morning pre-breakfast guided game walks in the Chobe Forest Reserve.
Game drives in the Chobe Forest Reserve.
Morning and afternoon game drives into the Chobe National Park.
Night drives in the Chobe Forest Reserve.
Full-day safari including a cruise on the Chobe River, a game drive in the Chobe National Park and a picnic lunch. Depart after breakfast and return at approximately 6.30pm.
Access to the birding hide and platform just below the lodge.
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