Chobe’s giants

This last trip to Chobe was unusual for a number of reasons. There is always a great variety of birds along the river but there were fewer birds than we normally see. This was partly due to the autumn season, where many of the migrants had already left. It could also be because the river was flooding which only suits certain species. Besides its prolific bird life, the Chobe National Park is known for its exceptionally large population of elephants. The estimates  vary between 60,000 and 120,000. During the dry season vast herds are drawn to the river to slake their thirst. By contrast on this trip there were noticeably few elephants, probably because there was enough water inland after the good rains and the elephants did not need to walk the extra distance to the Chobe river for that life saving drink of water. That said, there were still many giants patrolling Chobe’s banks.

“I have never seen a river that I could not love. Moving water…has a fascinating vitality. It has power and grace and associations. It has a thousand colors and a thousand shapes, yet it follows laws so definite that the tiniest streamlet is an exact replica of a great river.”

~ Roderick Haig Brown

The river was unusually high because of exceptional rains upstream. The Chobe is a big river even in the dry season. When flooding, the river bursts its banks, spreading over onto the grass floodplain, such that the river looks like a lake. Water deep enough on the floodplain allows access by boat to areas which you would normally not see.

“Travel is more than the seeing the sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent in the ideas of living.”

~Miriam Beard

Elephants just love water. It is their life saver, especially in winter and spring, but the buoyancy it gives their massive bodies seems to lighten their mood, inspiring them to play by rolling and diving under the water, and putting those large front legs on each other’s back and generally expressing their sheer joy of being in this wonderful, cool supportive medium.

A depth of field challenge. We have a large elephant, face on, playing in the water. The distance of its trunk to eyes was around three metres. It is easy to be beguiled by the spectacle of these wonderful creatures playing in the water in front of you such that you forget the root technical aspects of photography. 

“Real happiness comes from having an unassailable connection to the deep state of unbounded awareness at our core. This state of being is our own inner joy that expresses the exuberance and wonder of being alive at this moment; it is our own self-luminous essence made conscious of itself.”
~Deepak Chopra

That trunk is for drinking and for splashing.


Rejoicing in the fluidity and buoyancy. You can imagine what a wonderful feeling it must be to have the buoyancy in the water when you see these enormous animals playing with abandon.

It is easy to wander after your meal ticket on dry land, but this Cattle Egret just had to ride out the excursion into the water.

Buffaloes have a number of hangers-on. Cattle Egrets like to walk along side the browsing buffalo, when it is on dry land, as it can catch the insects stirred up by the buffalo’s hooves. A literal hanger-on, this Red-billed Oxpecker, was grooming its host for mites and dead skin. Looking at this buffalo’s eyes, it appeared to be in a trance in the warm morning sun while munching on the water-lily stems.

I have often marveled at a buffalo bull’s boss and at times the colouration on the boss looks as if it has gold flake inlays. Don’t be fooled these are serious weapons which they use ruthlessly. After what a buffalo’s horn did to Dereck and Beverley Joubert, I have even more respect for these powerful but unpredictable herbivores.

If the buffalo is considered one of the most dangerous animals in the bush, especially in long grass and when wounded, then the hippo takes the prize in and around water. Given a respectful distance, and reasonably deep water, this female seemed to be content to munch on hippo grass in the middle of the flooded waters. Eyes half closed just munching.

When food is abundant in the flooded waters these female hippos do not have to risk going onto land after sunset to forage. This helps when you have a very small calf to nurse.

This was an unusual sighting. I have never seen a hippo calf resting on its mothers back in the deep water. This youngster’s mother seemed quite at ease and did not sink so she probably was standing on the riverbed.

The hippo grass can be quite long especially when intertwined with water-lily stems. Steadily, this hippo munched and sucked in the grass as if it was extra long spaghetti. It was quite a mouthful and took quite a while to draw it all in.

“Life has a way of testing a person’s will, either by having nothing happen at all or everything happen at once.”

~Paulo Coelho

This hippo female decided that we were too close. We were minding our own business and slowly but steadily moving past her, giving the pod a respectful berth. She must have had a calf we did not see but suddenly she charged us. A hippo charge is deceptively fast even in deep water. They are quick on land despite their bulk but also quicker than you expect in water.

You can see from the eyes that this female was not in the mood for play. Our guide made sure we were not in any danger. When a hippo comes for the boat it is usually with the intention of turning it over or biting it. The aluminium railings on the side of the boat are but spaghetti to these massively powerful river horses. The guides know only too well that the bow wave created by the charging hippo is usually four to five metres behind the animal – so don’t be fooled!! In deep water, the hippo runs underwater and bounces off the river bottom with enough force to have its head and neck burst well above the water.

When the young hippos in a pod are playing they can create some quite dramatic displays.

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.”

~Khalil Gibran
You can see from the small teeth that these hippos were youngsters and were just sparring in the late afternoon light. 

Even with these self sharpening canines they are very gentle with each other when playing.

There are giants on land and giants in and under the water.

Another giant found in and along the Chobe is the Nile Crocodile. This was a particularly large crocodile, or “flat dog” as we like to call a crocodile. This character did not fuss about the boat passing close by him as he looked to be almost as long as our boat. You can see the size of the “croc” from its massive head. Its eyes were wide open and it just watched us as we passed by.

Drinking tripod. This giraffe splayed its front legs to be able to be able to reach the water for a drink. Some giraffe splay their legs, others bend their front legs, to get low enough to reach the water for a drink. For good reason, this giraffe was very wary when coming down to drink as it was vulnerable to predators in this splayed position, especially when there was thick bush behind it.

“Advice from a Giraffe
Stand tall.
Reach for new heights.
Don’t be afraid to stick your neck out.
Preserve wild places.
Eat fresh greens.
Be head and shoulders above the rest.
Keep your chin up!”

When a giraffe has finished drinking it usually lifts its head and flicks the water from its mouth forming an impressive “S” curve.

About a kilometre upstream of Elephant valley, we found this small family group of elephants quietly drinking in the late afternoon. This is one of those idyllic scenes, quiet and peaceful.

“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”

~Hermann Hesse

There is always something to see along the Chobe river, perhaps not always what you expect to see, but more often than not better!!

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,


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