Certainly one of the game viewing highlights of the entire Southern Safaris tour was the Chobe River Sunset Cruise. This cruise is a travelers’ institution not to be missed if one visits ChobeNational Park in Botswana. In fact, the reputation, and therefore the expectation of this excursion is so lofty, I had some concerns that I might have “oversold” it to my travelers. I need not have worried. What a wonderful, rich experience! It was one of those fantastic events that words and even images will never sufficiently describe how truly wonderful it was. But I shall endeavor to do so.
After a lovely and leisurely afternoon around the swimming pool of Kwalape Lodge we loaded up for our transfer to the river. After our drivers had lugged aboard an iced cooler full of beer, soft drinks, and water we boarded a medium-sized pontoon boat, just right for our group of 24. The boat, more of a floating platform, had open sides for unobstructed viewing and photography. Our captain gave the commands and we pushed off into the slowly flowing river.
At first he felt compelled to visit the shore for every animal spotting opportunity – impala, small lizards, monkeys, etc. But eventually I was able to convince him that we’d been on safari for several days and we wanted to see only the best of the wildlife. But before we churned upriver in earnest we did see some brightly colored birds whose nests were mere holes in the mudbank of the river. Pretty interesting. We also saw Wildebeast, Cape Buffalo, Warthogs, and a couple of nice Kudu on the shore.
But very soon more impressive sightings began. We came across a fairly good-sized crocodile sunning himself on the riverbank – or perhaps he was merely waiting stealthily for unsuspecting prey to venture within “snapping” range. We had seen many crocs, but few so large and none so close.
Next we spotted the largest monitor lizard encountered on the tour. This fella was probably 4 to 4.5 feet long.
However, the clear favorites of the evening came after we’d been underway for some time. It seems that everyone loves elephants and hippos – I suspect it’s the shear scale of these lumbering yet graceful beasts. Certainly it was true for us. First we came across a very young elephant at the riverside for his evening drink.
Clearly, he was used to humans and cruise boats because our pilot brought us to within a few feet and we were able to interact, at least photographically, in an “up close and personal” way. I positioned myself in the bow, armed with my camcorder and filmed from no more than 8-10 feet away. Even a youngster seemed dangerous and I was a bit intimidated and nervous. But our captain seemed to know what was safe and the experience was exhilarating.
I won’t say we saw hippos next, because we were seeing isolated hippos all along the way. But after 30-40 minutes of motoring, we arrived at hippo central. What had looked like a large collection of rocks from the shore were in fact a goodly sized herd of the great water horses. I’d say we saw something on the order of 30-35 lounging together mid-stream. We spent quite a bit of time drifting lazily close by, opportunities to snap photos of the great hippo “yawns” periodically presenting themselves. Wow, what a show. Several in our group got great shots.
The highlight of the evening was an elephant that had chosen to make its way out into the middle of the river for its dinner. Out in the middle of a great swath of reeds, right where we could come very near, she tore up great bundles of vegetation with her prehensile trunk and enjoyed a massive, watery salad for dinner. Another great show. She obviously relished both the meal and the shear pleasure of being in the water. There was lots of splashing, snorkeling, and crunching. We spent quite a long time enjoying her enjoyment, recording it with our cameras.
After our fauna encounters, which could only be described as magical, we started heading back to our riverside landing. But the last show of the night remained. As impressive as the animals are on the river, nothing takes a back seat to the sunsets. Great, billowing clouds created the fiery backdrop to an African sunset none will soon forget. The tranquil waters of the river provided the reflective, electric foreground. We’d seen some impressive sunsets on our African travels, but this one took the prize. We drifted at a snails pace, accompanied by the sound of whirring camera shutters and the contented oohs and ahhs of our group. Hushed but animated conversation seemed imbued with a low-grade electricity as we marveled at nature’s beauty. The smiles on everyone’s faces, themselves illuminated by the yellow-orange of the day’s last rays, bespoke the success of the excursion. It was a fitting end to another great day in Africa.