As if standing on a rock just above Victoria Falls watching the great Zambezi River rush past and disappear over the edge — or jumping backwards off a cliff into a gorge, 177 feet below — wasn’t enough excitement for one weekend, we decided to spend Day 3 in Zambia by going to … Botswana.
Although not part of the original plan, we learned of an opportunity to take a day trip to the famous Chobe National Park, just an hour or so from Victoria Falls. Operating on the We May Never Have This Chance Again principle, we signed up.
Departing at 7:30, our small bus reached the Kazungula border post at 8:30. Along the way, we passed through small settlements with a hodgepodge of buildings: some tin, some stone, some mud and thatch. Pantless children stood behind wooden fences; women washed clothes in colorful plastic buckets; chickens and goats roamed the roadsides.
The Kazungula border crossing is one of the more unique in the world. It’s the only place on the planet where four independent nations meet. Though there is some debate as to where the mid-river borders actually are, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia all come together in one quadripoint in Kazungula where the Zambezi River and Chobe River intersect.
A reasonable person would expect to find a bridge spanning the river, allowing vehicular traffic (and cargo) to cross between countries efficiently. Unfortunately, Robert Mugabe is not a reasonable person. Zimbabwe still refuses to agree to any such construction, I suppose partially due to the fact that there is a bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia in nearby Victoria Falls. As a result, semis loaded with goods heading to or from the four states (or other places on the continent, like South Africa and the DRC), must wait their turn to be ferried across the river. One by one.
The queue of trucks on the Zambian side stretched for nearly a mile. Our guide said the drivers may be forced to wait for a week or more before their turn comes. Africa time.
We, however, jumped the queue.
With the blue ink of the EXIT stamps from Zambian immigration drying in our passports, we pushed through the crowd of people clustered inside the tall, metal gates and walked with blinders past the hawkers in their Chipolopolo jerseys. “Remember me. Peter! I am Peter! When you return, remember Peter. Copper bracelets. Big Five carvings. Peter!”
Mercifully, the drone of the speedboat we boarded at the river’s edge soon drowned out the hawkers’ cries, and within 60 seconds we were across to Botswana.
Standing on shore was our ranger and guide for the day, a fit, handsome man named Diane. Though pronounced more like de-YAN-ee, seeing the shiny, gold name badge with “Diane” on his greenish-khaki shirt was, at first, rather strange.
We rode in an open safari vehicle from the river to the border post, where we were quickly processed by Botswana immigration before stepping on a conspicuously dirty sponge mat ostensibly designed to clean our shoes of anything that could transmit foot-and-mouth disease. From the spongy block, we could see another queue of trucks waiting to cross the river.
After ten minutes by highway in the open vehicle, we reached Chobe Safari Lodge, our departure point for the first activity: a river safari.
It was truly amazing to see the animals from the water, and to see so many species of animals that live on or near the water. It’s a completely different feel from a traditional game drive.
We were pretty lucky that day. The sightings were nice, especially of hippos, crocs and birds.
We also spent some quality time with an older bull elephant who had crossed the deep river channel in order to munch on the soft green grasses of Sedudu Island.
If the day had ended here, we would have been extremely satisfied, but we were only halfway through. We still had a game drive after lunch!
After the buffet, a brief chat with a group of retirees from Iowa, and a bit of a torrential rainstorm, we donned ponchos and set out in the open vehicle to tour the land side of Chobe National Park. Within minutes, we saw a large troop of baboons, several hundred impala, some kudu and a marshland antelope called a puku.
Then, we saw the elephants.
Driving on a sandy dirt road parallel to the river, Diane spotted a small family of elephants ahead on the bank, drinking. He guided the truck onto a rutted path, angling towards the shoreline. He cut the engine and we coasted to a stop some 50 feet away from the herd. As soon as they spotted our vehicle, most of the elephants turned and waded into the water; one, a juvenile male, stayed behind and stared at us.
Eventually, they all crossed over and focused on other things, but not before another of the big creatures trumpeted at us in warning.
We could have spent hours watching them, but it was getting late – time for us to get started on our return journey.
But, wait! What’s this? Another ranger driving an open vehicle flagged us down and told Diane that a leopard had been spotted nearby. Let’s go!
Diane whipped the truck into the bush, executed a killer three-point turn and gunned it in the opposite direction. Our placid game drive was now a Ferrari Safari.
As we raced down the road, the truck’s tires skidded in the soft dirt. We rounded a corner and started scanning the bush and trees for signs of the big cat. Up a small incline we spotted an unusual set of tire tracks. The other vehicle must have stopped here to watch the leopard.
Diane halted abruptly. “There!” Indeed, there it was. High in a tree, roughly 100 feet from the road, was a male leopard.
Surveying the scene from high above, the leopard certainly had been watching the herd of impala grazing between the road and the river. They were gradually making their way inland, ever closer to the leopard’s perch. But, for now, he had his sights set squarely on us.
Quite an amazing ending to an incredible day – a day when we set foot in two countries, saw two more, and explored the Chobe River with a man named Diane.
Up next, Pt. 3: That time we crossed into Zimbabwe illegally