A photographic safari in this famous area of Botswana has the double reward of great game and hugely diverse bird life.
Words and Pictures: Peter Chadwick
As the plane banked to the left, an expanse of Chobe River came into view, where large herds of African elephant and Cape buffalo grazed on the islands that dotted the river. A few moments later we landed in this magical part of Africa. Chobe. One of the last areas in Africa where vast herds of game and hugely diverse birdlife make it a wildlife photographer’s paradise.
It was precisely what drew me to a four-day Better Wildlife Photography Course in Chobe with Pangolin Safaris. Gerhard Swanepoel, otherwise known as ‘Guts’, the co-owner of Pangolin Safaris, met participants at Kasane Airport and quickly briefed us on what to expect during the photographic course and the boat cruise up Chobe River that afternoon.
I had chosen to join Pangolin as their riverboats have been specially designed for wildlife photographers. Each boat has eight comfortable, swivelling chairs with gimbal camera mounts that allow photography in a 360° arc. Aimed at clients with a reasonable understanding of digital photography, the courses are held once a month and allow access to the fabulous Chobe River and Chobe National Park.
“The most important devices in a wildlife photographer’s toolbox are patience, and respect for your environment at all times,” said the colourful and exceptionally pleasant Guts as we headed upriver. It was to become a mantra during the course. His respect for the wildlife and its home, plus his giant knowledge of wildlife photography that he gave out so readily, was inspirational. As a result, we came away with fantastic images.
On that first afternoon, we soon realised the benefit of the boat as we drifted quietly by, witnessing countless wildlife interactions. African Fish Eagles (1 on the checklist below) perched on dead tree stumps as Pied Kingfisher families plunged into the water to catch small fish. African Openbills (3) waded past snoozing Marabou Storks (2). They pulled up freshwater mussels as African Skimmers (5) swept along the river surface, their elongated lower mandible cutting open the water open like a high-tech can-opener. In the reed beds we caught fleeting glimpses of Coppery-tailed Coucals (9), while flocks of eye-catchingly beautiful Carmine Bee-eaters (10) swooped above the waterway, plucking insects from the sky.
But as dusk settled it was the herds of elephant that held us enthralled. Among the islands in the Chobe, we watched large elephant bulls tug out the long grasses and munch on them. As photographic subjects they were perfect, their large shapes silhouetted against the sun. Hippos grunted as we neared, bellowed as we passed. African Fish Eagles threw back their heads and called. It was the perfect African bush scene.
“Look over there,” shouted Guts, pointing at a huge Nile crocodile that must easily have topped four metres in length. “Always focus on the eye,” he reminded us quietly, as we cautiously approached. In front of us, the croc raised itself out of the water to shake the carcass of a red lechwe in a tremendous flash of water to loosen the flesh, before it disappeared beneath the surface. Darkness was approaching and reluctantly we took in our last view of Black Herons (4), Squacco Herons, Great Egrets and African Spoonbills (8) searching the waterlogged grasses for dinner.
Next morning I was up and about at the chorus of scolding, chattering Chacma baboons and the beautiful calls of White-browed Robin-Chats. Out on the deck with my coffee, I watched two old Cape buffalo bulls and a small herd of elephant grazing on the lawn. Indeed a very fine start to the day.
Shortly afterwards we were back on the river, Guts guiding the boat downstream into some gentle rapids. Rock Pratincoles (7), one of the area’s real specials, rested on small rocky outcrops. A spotted-necked otter popped up next to the boat and had us all scrambling for our cameras in the hope of getting a shot of a rarely sighted mammal.
Yellow-billed Storks (6) at their nests in the large trees on the islands made great photographic subjects, but we all battled to track extremely agile Yellow-billed Kites that swooped down to the water to snatch up food.
Coinciding with our visit to Chobe, the Botswana leg of the globally coordinated March for Elephant and Rhino was taking place in Kasane. The march aims to raise awareness of the plight of elephant and rhino in the face of increased poaching. As photographers, we were asked to document it, and what a privilege it was to ‘march’ alongside laughing children, serious soldiers and singing men and women, all with a unified purpose. At the close of the event, the severity of the poaching situation was brought home as an army helicopter flew overhead with a team of soldiers on their next anti-poaching patrol.
To top this, our final boat cruise on the Chobe River coincided with several hundred elephants swimming from the mainland to the islands. Carefully the elders protected the very young during their crossing, while the larger animals bathed and played alongside the boat. It was one of the greatest photographic opportunities I’ve had with elephant.
Season & Weather
Summer months are extremely hot and humid and afternoon thundershowers can be expected. Note that this is a malaria area. Winter weather is more pleasant with cool temperatures and more stable weather patterns.
The Chobe National Park comprises terrestrial arid areas where mopane trees and scrubveld dominate. Along the river’s edge, large mopane trees form a riparian band. Grass-covered islands are found throughout the Chobe River.
- Large herds of African elephant
- Red lechwe
- African Skimmer
- Rock Pratincole
- Coppery-tailed Coucal
Birding Checklist: 10 specials to try and spot in Chobe
Most vocal at dawn, the African Fish Eagle (Visarend) spends about 90 per cent of daylight hours perched in a tree overlooking water. It hunts from the perch, swooping on fish usually up to 1kg, sometimes as heavy as 3kg.
The Marabou Stork (Maraboe) is a gregarious bird that largely scavenges for food. It has the strange habit of defecating on its legs that, as a result, appear white in color.
The Black Heron (Swartreier) is best known for its habit of opening its wings forward over its head to form an umbrella when feeding. The foot is then stirred in the shallow water to attract small fish under the shadowed area and these are quickly snapped up by the bill.
The global population of the African Skimmer (Waterploeër) is about 10 000 of which 1 000 occur in Southern Africa, where its conservation status is near-threatened. It is dependent on large healthy rivers and lake systems with exposed sandbanks where it roosts and breeds.
The Yellow-billed Stork (Nimmersat) is a colonial nester that breeds from August to October in Botswana. It builds a 1m-diameter platform of sticks in large trees. Incubation takes about 30 days, and nestlings remain in the nest for at least 55 days.
The Rock Pratincole (Withalsprinkaanvoël) is a breeding migrant from tropical Africa, occurring in Botswana between July and January when water levels drop. A clutch of one or two eggs is laid in a depression of rock that lies midstream.
The African Spoonbill (Lepelaar) forages by wading slowly in the shallows, scything its bill that is kept slightly open in a side-to-side motion to catch small fish and insects.
With a limited Southern African distribution along the Caprivi, northern Botswana and around Victoria Falls, the Coppery-tailed Coucal (Grootvleiloerie) is a fairly common resident, but is rarely seen except when sunning. It inhabits swamps with reeds and other tall growth.
Highly gregarious, the Carmine Bee-eater (Rooiborsbyvreter) roosts in huge flocks of hundreds of birds. During the day it scatters widely to feed, hawking flying insects from a perch usually over water.
Accommodation & Activities
The town of Kasane provides a number of accommodation options, from the large caravan and campsite to luxury lodges on the banks of the Chobe River. Apart from the photographic safaris run by Pangolin Safaris, day drives into the Chobe National Park are possible and these may be guided or self-drive. Fishing in the Chobe is also a popular pastime and a variety of tour operators offer boat trips for this.
Airlink is the regional feeder airline that connects you daily between Johannesburg and Kasane (Chobe). These flights are always timed to connect with other flights to and from Johannesburg. www.flyairlink.com