As a well-traveled Frommer’s Guide writer says, “Chobe is all about the river”. She says this is where the best, most varied sightings are, and yes, it’s home to the densest concentrations of game, perfect for safari. This is especially true in winter when the sapphire blue Chobe offers a ribbon of opportunity for game to come to drink deeply and cool off, making visibility better than ever.
Forest and floodplains line the Chobe River, and besides some semi-permanent pans further south in the park and the Linyanti River, there’s not much other water to be had in the dry season. This is where the main action takes place. It’s a magnet for elephants – sometimes, they dot the floodplain for as far as the eye can see.
Lucky guests cruising along the river on a houseboat safari can see lions on the banks and hippos slumber and wallow in the shallows. Every so often, a croc will be seen basking in the sun like all reptiles love to do. Chobe is also virtually the only place in Botswana to find Puku antelope and the Chobe bushbuck.
The riverside is also close to the most accessible point of entry to the park, the town of Kasane, and is popular with families, couples, and solo travelers alike.
Lodges and accommodation are scattered along the Chobe River. Most establishments are not within the boundaries of the park itself, and a couple are even on the other side of the river, in neighboring Namibia.
There is also the option of a tented or mobile safari. Operators set up camp – some a lot more luxurious than you might expect – in a private space within the park, which means no rush for the gate on the early morning game drive.
The Chobe River is also where the distinctive houseboats moor and river safaris take place in slipper-shaped craft. This area (also sometimes called Serondela) is a megatick for birders year-round. Author of Birds of Botswana, Peter Hancock, recommends the Kasane Rapids to keen birders for a birding safari.
“This is the best place in Botswana to see African Finfoot, Half-collared Kingfisher, and Rock Pratincole [which nest here]. It is also a good place to see Pel’s Fishing Owl. In addition, there is a large, active heronry at the rapids where significant numbers of Yellow-billed Storks nest annually.”
Highlights of the Chobe Riverside
A Safari Boat Cruise
Few parks in Africa can offer this Chobe staple. Languid safaris, safely afloat on the blue river, get close to numerous herds and birds. A languid sunset cruise in one of the nimble riverboats that ply the watercourse is an excellent contrast to rocking about the plains in a vehicle.
Elephants by the hundred can be seen during their social drinks hour, hosing themselves down, applying soothing mud to the skin, and interacting in endlessly fascinating ways. Crocs, buffalo, hippos, and water birds such as spoonbills and kingfishers add to the show.
The Chobe is home to over 90 fish species, but the king of them all is the tigerfish, the fastest freshwater fish in Africa. This vigorous striped predator has an average weight of 10 to 12kg/26lbs (the record is a 70kg/154lbs monster) and likes to fight back. The Chobe is also home to gigantic catfish, bream, and Zambezi yellow fish. Most lodges practice ‘catch and release’ fishing.
Photographic safaris are another Chobe Riverside specialty, featuring specially kitted-out safari boats for photographers. Photo boats come with swivel seats and arms upon which experts can mount their gear; some of the better outfits even provide the camera and lenses. Guides know both river and photo opportunities intimately and will share their technical knowledge, so snappers have the freedom to concentrate on the shots.
Dedicated photo trips that combine time on the plains (in a vehicle with bean bag mounts) can also be booked.
All things great and small besides umpteen elephants, spotted hyena, impala, bushbuck, sable, wildebeest, kudu, and giraffe can be seen. In 2017, Travel Africa magazine noted that 40 lions in four prides hunted along the Chobe Riverside.
Bird specials (some of which are summer migrants) include osprey, African skimmers, and that leopard of the bird world, Pel’s fishing owl, making a birding safari fun and eventful.
Surprises may include water lilies in the river, the size of the ants, bushbabies in the trees, and the eerie squeaks and whistles of Peter’s Epauletted Fruit Bat. Also remarkable are the Great White pelicans that “commute” almost daily from the Chobe River 300km (186mi) south to feed fish to their chicks on Sua Pan.
A houseboat trip is one of the best ways to experience the Chobe. Happiness is floating about at night, the deck washed with starlight, hippos honking, and hyenas whooping in the distance.
River and game safaris can be arranged from these floating lodgings. These are generally all-inclusive experiences, popular with families and honeymooners.
Meals are of good quality, although check whether Halaal and Kosher requirements can be met. The itineraries are relaxed and tailor-made. As some of the craft operate from Namibian waters, there can be some extra paperwork, but your tour operator will steer you in the right direction.
Good to Know about the Chobe Riverside
The kick-off point for most Chobe adventures is the growing town of Kasane, where warthogs cross the main street and residents have found elephants munching through their flowerbeds.
Chobe is not fenced; all the better to allow natural migration routes and patterns to play out. Kasane is not the frontier town it once was; the gravel airstrip is now an international airport, and you can get just about anything you might need. Most guests will fly here from Johannesburg, South Africa, or via Botswana’s capital city Gaborone, and it is perfectly possible to drive the 1,200km (746mi) in an ordinary car. However, not everyone would be up for such a long trip.
Just past Kasane, the Chobe River spills into the Zambezi, at the confluence of four countries: Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. Its waters travel all the way from its original source in Angola, where it is called the Cuando River; it later becomes the Linyanti and then, at Ngoma, the Chobe.
At this point, the Chobe is a convoluted, wide channel dotted with islands and swampy areas. A ferry crosses the Zambezi at Kazungula. Opposite Kasane is Impalila Island (Namibian territory), where David Livingstone once camped before pressing on to Victoria Falls.
Guests can walk through local villages to see an ancient baobab tree, alive when the Romans were still around. While eastern Chobe Riverside’s proximity to town may not be a plus for everyone, it does add an extra layer of possibilities to a trip, which is good for families that need to break up the game-watching regime.
Practical Advice for the Chobe Riverside
- Many lodges in Chobe – the more luxurious offer private plunge pools and voluminous rooms – charge all-inclusive rates, as do mobile and guided safaris. This includes all meals and standard drinks, park fees, and a couple of daily activities, such as guided game drives or cruises. This makes the total less alarming than it may seem at first.
- There is only one permanent lodge in the park itself at Chobe Riverside (and some mobile outfits), so most game drive vehicles in this area travel to Sedudu Gate for access – and must leave by dark. Being in the park is advantageous as one can linger longer and be first on the scene at dawn.
- Different lodges cater to varying needs for families, couples seeking romance, and solo travelers. Note that not all accept children, and tots may not be allowed on game drives. Ask your Discover Africa expert about child-friendly accommodations.
- The area closest to Kasane gets super busy in the high season. To try and manage high season congestion at opening time, officials at Sedudu Gate allow tour operators entry for the first hour, followed by day visitors. Guidebook writer and journalist Gill Staden says she “always stays at the western end of the Riverside. That end is quiet.” Gate times from 1 April to 30 September are 06h00 to 18h30; from 1 October to 31 March, they open at 05h30 and close at 19h00.
- The park’s very sandy and slippery clay roads require a 4×4 vehicle. Petrol is only available at Kasane – or Maun. Take a good map, ask about road conditions, and factor in much higher fuel consumption in deep sand, says guidebook author and occasional guide Mike Main.
- More adventurous overland, mobile safari participants and some self-drivers will camp. There is only one public campsite in this area, unfenced Ihaha (GPS: S 17 50. 19; E 24 52. 40). It has ten sites (avoid the tempting #2 as baboons like to sleep in that shady tree) and simple ablutions with hot showers and flushing toilets. These sites get booked up fast, especially during local school holidays. The DWNP has outsourced the campsite to Kwalate Safaris to run. Contact them at +267 686-1448 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The old picnic site on the Chobe, known as Serondela, has since closed, but it is Botswana-based author Mike Main’s favorite spot in the park. “Not only is it very beautiful,” he says, “but it was here, in the 1930s, that the Susman brothers, foresters who had concessions in Western Zambia, cut timber and hauled it to the crest of the escarpment overlooking the Chobe River. It was loaded onto carts that ran on a wooden railway line down the riverbank.” Main’s African Adventurer’s Guide to Botswana is a valuable resource for self-drivers.
- Tiger fishing permits can be obtained from the Department of Wildlife & National Parks, Kasane, +267 625-0486.
- Kasane International Airport (+267 625-0133) is the main transit point for Chobe National Park.