Destination Guide

Stephen Bailey
The best itineraries for your elephant safari in Botswana
The best itineraries for your elephant safari in Botswana
Stephen Bailey

Can you picture an African elephant?

Imagine it flapping its ears and waving its trunk, as it marches through the forest.

Now try and picture 10 elephants — perhaps a young calf moving behind its mother, trunk swinging along.

Now let’s try 100 elephants. Can you picture that many? I struggle to think of 100 elephants — that’s a lot.

In the north of Botswana, in the area known as Chobe National Park, it’s estimated there are up to 100,000 elephants.

They migrate there during the dry season, for the water from the Chobe River. And with these numbers, elephants are everywhere. Going on safari there, I found it impossible to go 30 seconds without bumping into another 20 elephants. You turn around a clump of trees in the forest, and there’s another 50 elephants.

You see elephants using their trunks as snorkels as they playfully connect with each other in the river — elephants using their great big behinds to bash over some trees — elephants causing all the other animals to scatter.

Because Chobe is a place of immense wildlife — zebra, warthogs, antelope of different kinds. It’s possible to go on a boat safari on the river, and see hundreds of hippos forming giant pods, opening their jaws to reveal quite frightening teeth.

Chobe is the land of the big animals.

It’s also a very accessible safari destination, because you can visit Chobe on a day trip from Victoria Falls, just across the border in either Zimbabwe or Zambia.

In most safari destinations, whatever kind of safari you are doing, it’s best to do it in the coolest hours of the day, either around dawn or dusk. That’s because the cooler hours are when the animals are most active, so it’s when you’re most likely to encounter animals doing things rather than resting and hiding in the shade.

Chobe is different — because elephants are impossible to avoid. You don’t need to go searching for the elephants. They’re not an animal that needs to hide. So even if your safari is in the middle of the day, you are going to encounter big herds.

This is why it works to come on a day trip from nearby Zimbabwe or Zambia and get a safari experience with elephants.

The other animals you can’t miss are the hippos — and also the giraffe. The giraffe migrate to Chobe for the same reasons as the elephants — and there are thousands of them. For me, it seemed impossible to go a minute without more giraffe. There were unending giraffe loping around on the landscape.

And it’s so beautiful to see baby elephants, baby giraffe.

That’s what’s special about Chobe’s big animals — it’s not just looking for the biggest of them all, it’s finding the smaller ones, seeing the health of the animal populations told through the abundance of young babies. The herds — the giraffe towers — time the birth of their young to coincide with the abundance that is found in Chobe.

Chobe is a forest, so it’s difficult to see animals that hide.

It’s not a great destination if you’re desperate to see lions or leopards, cheetahs, even hyenas. These animals do exist in Chobe, but because it’s such dense forest, there are a lot of places for them to hide.

So there isn’t as much chance you will see them. If you’re on safari there for two or three days, you might glimpse one. If you are just coming for the day, no — the experience is going to be the hippos, the elephants, the giraffe, and those huge quantities.

But there are some great destinations nearby.

The north of Botswana is really blessed as a natural landscape destination. Close to Chobe there are the private concessions: Linyanti, Savute, Kwando. These are among the most exclusive, most expensive safari destinations in the whole of Africa. And not only are they exclusive in that there are only a few guests at a time, they’re very difficult to get to, so there is no encroachment from anybody else. Nobody is passing through.

And they are exceptional because they bring together a range of habitats into one.

Chobe is an elephant’s heaven. It’s got the exact type of trees that the elephants like, and it’s got fresh water all year round. That’s why you can get a hundred thousand elephants.

As for Savute, Linyanti, Kwando, that’s where the forest blends with marshland and with open grassland — habitats that are great for the grazers, which naturally attracts the predators.

They have also got year-round water, which attracts migratory species and collects a great diversity of wildlife.

A great trip to do is to go on a national park safari in Chobe for one or two days, and combine a game drive with a boat safari. This could be a small private boat safari, or it could be on a larger boat. I’d recommend a smaller boat because you can get closer to the banks — and to closer to the animals.

Picture an elephant herd playing, hooting, snorkelling in the river, just 10 meters from your boats. Then you turn around, and there are all the hippos. It’s just marvelous.

A national park safari means you’re going to have to share the land with other vehicles. But this is not that off-putting in Chobe, because the elephants are far more numerous than the vehicles. So you will always find a bit of privacy — find the place in the park where it’s just you.

After you do a combination of safaris in Chobe, go on to Linyanti, Kwando, or Savute, and do a more private safari. In those private concessions, you’re going to be able to do more activities. A canoe ride, a walking safari.

These are in fact fantastic walking safari destinations — but whether you can do them will depend on the animals nearby your camp.

Yes, they’re possible, but one day the guides might likely to say to you, that you can’t go out today walking because they know lions are within two miles of where we are. So your safari itinerary is always flexible, always changing, because you are surrounded by the very best of African wildlife.

As you go into these destinations, you have a more exclusive, more expensive, more intimate safari, and you get to encounter a wider variety of life.

This combo of destinations makes northern Botswana incredible. It’s just remarkable — both the quantity of life and its diversity. I’m not going to say it’s unparalleled, because you can get it also in northern Tanzania. But in southern Africa, it is unrivalled.

And if you want to take the safari further, travel south from the north of Botswana, so you come to the Okavango Delta.

A great combination is Chobe — where you’re in the forests — then the private concession safari — in marshland and grassland — then going into the Delta and having a water-based Safari. Especially, staying in a camp on the floodplains.

Or you can travel the other way round and finish in Chobe. Then go across the border, continue to Victoria Falls — and it’s easy to fly out from there.

But believe me — you will be wanting to fly in again as soon as you can.

By Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.

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