Into the Wild – A Safari Story
In my last post, Planning an African Safari on a Budget, I shared how we stayed overnight in Zambia before our safari at Chobe National Park in Botswana. We booked a 2-day, 1-night safari with Kalahari Tours, who offered free pick-up from our hostel in Livingston, Zambia.
My alarm sounded at 6:30 am, signaling the start of my very first safari experience. I was so excited! I scrambled to pack my belongings and get ready for our 8 am pickup by Kalahari Tours from the hostel. Upon arrival, we took our seats in a large, air-conditioned bus and were shuttled to the Zambian border. Kalahari Tours coordinated a stress-free visa and border crossing into Botswana, which included various methods of transportation across borders and professional handling during the visa process.
In order to successfully cross the border from Zambia into Botswana however, we had to take a five minute boat ride across the Zambezi River.
The Zambezi River is the longest, east-flowing river in Africa and serves as a border to four countries: Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia. While we were crossing, we could see all four countries at once!
After docking in Botswana and passing another visa check-point, we were transported to open-air, safari vehicles and made our way towards Kalahari Tours’s headquarters for our first river safari and lunch.
The River Safari
After arriving at Kalahari Tours’s headquarters, we immediately boarded a twelve-seat river boat to see some of the most incredible wildlife along the Zambezi.
Because it was the rainy season, the river was full of both water and incredible wild-life.
We saw a variety of diverse animals along the river alone. It was a fantastic way to introduce us to the local wildlife and see so many animals in their natural habitats. Upon entering the river, we immediately saw hippos, crocodiles, water buffalo, and… elephants!
Just as our river guide was telling us that they haven’t seen elephants in two days, we saw a lone male elephant drinking water along the river. Our guide described Chobe National Park as a natural habitat for the animals. It is not a reserve nor an enclosed area, and animals are free to move in and out of the park as they please. You are not guaranteed to see any animals since the National Park allows them to live naturally and does not interfere with their daily lives. At this point, he was encouraging us not to get our hopes up and setting the stage for the next two days.
However, seeing that male elephant changed our perspective entirely! A wave of excitement washed over the boat and we were all wiggling in our seats to catch a glimpse of this incredible animal drinking water and washing himself along the river bank.
With the matriarch in the lead, baby elephants and other adults followed suit and slowly moved along the river bank. Our guide immediately turned off the boat engine and we sat in silence and admiration for these majestic animals.
As the elephants moved along the bank, we witnessed something incredible. One of the elephants trailing behind began trumpeting and suddenly charged at something.
After an assumption that the elephant was just playing in the dirt or water, a huge hippo emerged from the river bank! Now, we know that hippos are extremely territorial animals so it was an incredible site to see the hippo backing away from the elephant.
We cruised around the river a bit more and saw crocodiles, water buffalo and more elephants. When we docked back at Kalahari Tours headquarters after about an hour, lunch was served. We were provided a delicious buffet and Kalahari Tours was so kind to accommodate the vegetarian, vegan and gluten free individuals throughout the duration of the safari.
Our Afternoon Safari
After lunch, we hopped into two open-air safari vehicles to officially enter Chobe National Park by land.
Upon entering the National Park, we were briefed with safety protocol and were instructed to stay seated throughout the duration of the safari. Our driver, Leo, answered any questions we had (which I had many) and then we were on our way!
When we entered the national park, we were greeted by herds of impalas! For as far as the eye could see, impalas of all ages were casually grazing around the park. Babies jumped and played as adults stood watch.
I was a little taken aback by the terrain we were surrounded by. Having never been on a safari before, I expected barren plains with little vegetation and trees for coverage. Instead, Chobe National Park looked more like a jungle speckled with African brush and plains throughout.
After leaving the elephants to their washing and drove past the last few impalas, we spotted her. A female lion napping under one one of the bushes on an incline of a hill. She was uncomfortably close to the herd of impalas. However, our driver Leo informed us she was not on the hunt. When we asked why, he informed us that the impalas see her and will not let her out of their site. The moment she moves, they run.
Seeing my first lion in the wild was an adrenaline rush! We were so close to such a huge carnivorous animal. It was both exciting and frightening all at once.
Our driver reassured us that as long as we stayed seated in the vehicle, the animals will see us as one-large, non-threatening entity.
The rest of the day was very eventful, despite it being the rainy season. Our guide informed us that although the rainy season gives us an advantage of having a more private experience with less vehicles and tourists, it is much harder to see the wild animals because of the growing vegetation. Personally, I enjoyed the raw and wild aspect of the overgrown vegetation and think we got extremely lucky in seeing as many animal species as we did.
Throughout our game drive on Day 1, we saw everything the park had to offer with the exception of hyenas, wild dogs and a male lion. Unfortunately, there are no rhinos in Chobe National Park, but with the exception of the rhinoceros, we saw all Big Five animals. Which brings me to my next story…
“Leadfood Leo” & The Leopard
The afternoon brought buckets of rain (did I mention it was rainy season…?) We were given thick panchos to cover ourselves and our belongings. However, this was useless when the pooled water atop the tarp roof of our “open-air” safari vehicle completely drenched us on every turn!
As we were steadily cruising along the plains in the pouring rain, Leo received a radio call from another driver. There is an unusual sense of urgency in his voice. He was speaking the local language, so we couldn’t understand what was being discussed in such urgency. Then all of the sudden, Leo floors the gas and before we knew it, we were flying across the plains and back into the jungles of Chobe National Park.
Being thrown about with no context as to the urgency of the matter, we immediately began to hypothesize what could have happened. Because of the lack of context, we thought of the worst and that someone might’ve been hurt.
As we flew through the jungle at full speed with rain pelting our face, we had no idea what to expect! This thought was interrupted when our vehicle abruptly stopped next to a large bush. To our surprise, we saw the second half of our party waving at us silently, and pointing to the bush closest to our car. You could see bewilderment in their eyes.
I turned to my right to see what they were pointing at and immediately made eye contact with… a leopard! My heart dropped into my stomach as I scrambled for my camera underneath my wet pancho. The leopard was so close to us and within reach! It seemed that as soon as I broke eye contact with the leopard, she vanished back into the bush.
To add to the drama and intensity of the situation, it was pouring rain (which you can hear in the video!) And by pouring rain, I mean it was bucketing rain and we were all completely soaking wet from head to toe.
With adrenaline running high, Leo wiped the car around the bush and everyone turned off their engines to give this stealthy creature space and silence to emerge from the bush once again.
Leopards are extremely rare to spot, especially during the rainy season when they blend in so well with the lush vegetation. As we waited, the leopard repeatedly poked her head out of the bush but only to retreat back again. She repeated this about four times in the course of fifteen minutes until she mustered up the courage to leap out of the bush and disappear into another up ahead.
For the rest of the day, nothing topped that experience and it was the talk of the evening during our dinner at the campsite.
Dinner & The Campsite
Just like our delicious lunch, dinner was included by Kalahari Tours and the campsite was completely set up upon our arrival. Tents were pitched and dinner was served! We enjoyed our dinner and sat around the campfire chatting about the day’s events.
Not only was this my first safari experience, it was also my first camping experience. I couldn’t believe I was experiencing all of your traditional camping “firsts” while being in the wild surrounded by African wildlife!
After dinner, we were briefed about the safety protocol at the campsite. It was crucial to keep your tent closed at all times to prevent the intrusion of animals and bugs. We knew big predators were most active at night, so our guides emphasized not leaving your tent if you hear something. They reassured us that the animals typically don’t bother the tents, but some individuals were a little nervous regardless (including myself).
Needless to say, I barely slept. We “bathed” with body wipes and slept on floor mattresses, but it was definitely a once in a lifetime experience that I will cherish forever.
Morning Game Drive
Our 5 am wake up call was rewarded with a delicious breakfast. We packed up our overnight belongings and loaded the safari vehicles with our luggage and ponchos.
The sun was waking up as slowly as we were and it was so peaceful out. There was hardly anyone in the National Park due to it being the rainy season so we were one of the only cars out in the morning.
Our morning began with an exciting endeavor: tracking a hyena! Our driver pulled the safari jeep off to the side of the road to explain their unique footprints. He explained to us that hyena’s front paws are larger than their back paw, which was evident in both the size and depth of their tracks in the dampened dirt.
Our driver, Leo, traced the tracks with a stick, pointing out a few additional facts about hyenas before stating, “These are fresh! He isn’t far from here.” Thus, we were off!
Eventually, we found him lounging behind a bush fast asleep on the dirt floor. Every once in a while, he would lift his heavy head, look at the safari vehicles and drop it back down to continue his deep sleep. As he lay there still as stone, the only movement we saw was his tale swatting away all of the flies around his body.
Leo informed us that this male lion in his adolescence. Although he already had a thick mane surrounding his head, you could tell he was still growing. Surprisingly, we found out that male lions don’t reach maturity until around age three, and this lion was predicted to be around two years old.
As the sun began to set on the savanna, we wrapped up our last day at Chobe National Park and left with an overwhelming sense of bewilderment and awe. Going on safari was an incredible experience and I loved every bit of it! I do anticipate going on more in the future, as I would love to visit Kenya and Tanzania.
Depending on your personal preferences, safari’s can be pricey. However, if you’re on a budget and don’t mind camping comfortably for one night, check out Kalahari Tour’s 2-Day, 1-Night Safari Experience!
Kalahari Tours were incredibly accommodating and our entire group of twelve had the campsite and safari vehicles all to ourselves, which made for a more personalized and private experience.
If you’re curious about the exact cost and logistics, check-out my blog post, Planning an African Safari on a Budget, for more information on how to make your safari dreams a reality!
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