Chobe National Park borders the Chobe River to the north. This great river never runs dry in the winter and is a major reason for the fantastic game within the Chobe sanctuary. Previous articles have described the various land vehicle options for seeing the reserve; however, some of the best viewing is from the water.
A “must do” is to visit via water as sunset approaches for several reasons. First, the sun sets over the Caprivi Strip portion of Namibia, casting a beautiful golden light on land based wildlife. Secondly, on every evening I have been at Chobe, hundreds of elephants come down to the water to drink. Many more swim the Chobe River from Sedudu Island back to the mainland. The boats give one optimal view of these events. A favorite for many visitors is to take a “sundowner cruise” on a larger boat, typically a pontoon boat. These boats will be described in more detail later. Regardless of which type boat you take, try to convince the guide to keep the boat in the park as late as possible. The reason is expressed in a single term: SUNSET. You will never in your lifetime forget a Chobe sunset from the water.
I have also rented a smaller boat and guide for afternoon photo shoots. Specifically, for the afternoon trips I have used
“Out of Africa”, a boating concern organized in the lobby of the Mowana Lodge. These smaller boats are designed to accommodate 8 people. Four photographers can comfortably take a boat, having a full row per person. The advantage of these smaller boats is the ability to get even closer to wildlife, in shallower inlets than the pontoon boats can travel.
While have featured the great views of elephants in the afternoons, many other species will also be seen. In particular, make sure your guide takes you to the nesting areas of the beautiful Carmine Bee eater. You will also want to take this opportunity to get up close views of crocodiles. Since this is the wild, I cannot specifically note every great view you will see, I have had great water views of lions, giraffe, hippo, waterbok, and cape buffalo. Perhaps my best cape buffalo images have been from the unobstructed views one gets from the water, as they graze on the grasses of Sedudu Island or drink from the river.
Mornings on a boat are also very special. Typically, morning trips are best on the aluminum “bass boats” described in this article. In particular, morning trips give one a great chance to photograph the morning hunts of the numerous fish eagles. Another great morning view is the rookeries just downstream from the Mowana Lodge. These rookeries are hosts to nests for many breeds of heron, cormorants, darters and storks. In particular abundance are the yellow-billed storks. Additional birds found near the water will include Malachite Kingfishers, Open Billed Storks, Egyptian Geese, Sacred Ibis and beautiful blue trimmed Jacanas. At this point I must admit, on my first trip to Chobe, there were numerous “birders” in the group and I was worried about being bored when trying to accommodate their desires to see different bird species. This turned out not to be the case at all as there were so many interesting, often colorful birds along the water.
I have never gone fishing on the Chobe River, but numerous people from my safari groups have chosen this option. Most common is to fish for the renown tiger fish. One can go for a partial day trip or for a full day outing. It is my understanding that to “go for the big ones”; the full day is a better choice as the best waters are some distance from the Kasane docks.
The following is a brief summary of the boat options of which I am aware:
Smaller, aluminum (aluminium for African and South African enthusiasts) hull and bass boats – These boats are often chartered for fishing and are the preferred vessels if one wishes to photograph fish eagles or the rookeries mentioned above. Depending on design, they accommodate from 4 to 8 passengers plus guide. Since the boat is small, these morning trips are normally exclusive to you and your travel friends. Also, since these boats are more of a private charter, one has a lot of input to the guide as to where to position the boat to get the best photo light. The boats are low to the water line, so the angle for photography is incredible. Of course the captain/guide has the last say, so if he feels your desired positioning puts the vessel in and unsafe position, he will tell you. Since these are smaller boats, space is limited, so typically one should only take a camera and one to two lenses on the trip.
The boats can typically be arranged at any of the lodges in Kasane. In 2009, the per person rental rates varied from BWP (pula) 180 to BWP 270 per person. CAUTION: If you plan to take this option for an afternoon cruise, DO NOT tell the agent that you want a private trip as these incur a surcharge of approximately 700 pula. Do ask how many others have booked for your desired time and how many boats are scheduled out. Typical boarding time is for morning trips is around 7 a.m. until 10:30 and afternoon trips depart at 3 p.m. and return at sunset. Since these are smaller boats, times can sometimes be negotiated. While this may vary by provider, most of these afternoon boats provide bottled water and soft drinks at no additional charge.
Pontoon Boat – I am not sure the term “pontoon boat” is correct for Africa, but this is what this type vessel is called in the United States. Most pontoon boats on the Chobe have a “double deck” design, meaning there is a lower, near water level deck and also a raised, second floor deck. Each deck has movable chairs and, depending on boat size, will seat from 10 to 20 people per deck. Some pontoon charters go out onto the river in the mornings but most only go out for the afternoon, departing at 3 pm and returning at sunset. These ‘sundowner’ cruises are also known by some as a ‘booze cruise’ as many will bring liquor or wine on-board to drink. The tour provider also typically provides free bottled water and soft drinks as part of the trip fee. One can join a planned sunset cruise for (2009 rate) BWP 250 per person. On each of my trips, we have chartered one of these boats for a group of 14 to 18 with a total cost per person of ~190 pula per person. Be aware, these are negotiated prices.
If you take one of the former style trips, make sure you position yourself near a railing so you can get unobstructed photography. If you charter, obviously you have much more flexibility to more around with your photo equipment. On our charter trips, some use tripods. Personally, I feel this is another excellent opportunity to utilize a bean bag. There are advantages and disadvantages to either the upper deck or lower deck photo position. In an upcoming article, we will feature photos take of the same subject at the same time from both deck positions. As you will see in the article, when photographing close to the boat, the lower angle is far superior. Conversely, for shooting objects in the distance, the upper deck gives a greater vantage point. Pontoon boats are roomy, so it is easy to bring a camera bag with several lenses on board. If you have a charter with friends, you may also want to bring a larger lens such as a 500mm or 600mm.
Mokoro – Are you up for the ultimate challenge? A mokoro is a boat made of a hollowed out sausage tree or ebony tree. The boat is propelled by a guide using a long push pole. As you can image, this method of travel is the ultimate for getting into smaller water inlets and gives you a true hippo-eye view of the waterways.
I must admit, I have never traveled on a mokoro. I personally fear being tipped by a hippo or eaten by a large croc. That said, I have never heard a confirmed death aboard a mokoro and I know the local fishermen use these boats daily. Since I have never organized a mokoro trip, I cannot confirm the cost but I have heard that an all day trip for two is approximately BWP 460.
If you plan to visit the very wet Okavango Delta during your trip, I have read that the mokoro is very special morning trip in those waters.
House Boats – The ultimate in boat trips would be aboard a house boat. With a house boat, you practically have a mobile safari lodge at your disposal. These boats travel up both the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers. Huge herds of animals can be viewed from the elevated decks of the safari boat making for spectacular viewing. You can also go tiger fishing right off of the side of the boat. The house boat vantage may be the very best way to view the wonderful Chobe sunsets. These boats are typically arranged as a private charter and come with boat pilot and a small staff to serve guests. The boats vary in size but accommodate from 6 to 12 people based on double occupancy. While I have not yet taken a safari in this manor, I have looked at pricing and have found this option to be a reasonable alternative to traditional lodges. Most boats also have a smaller flat bottom boat which you can use to see smaller inlets, but you are disadvantaged in that you will not have access to a land vehicle. To overcome this, you can coordinate with one of the game drive companies serving Chobe to take you into the park on their vehicle if you tire of your water safari.
The summary for this article is easy: the water is a great way to see Chobe. While terrestrial vehicles are limited on viewing angles by roads, the water allows one to position themselves in a variety of great positions. The water will allow you to get closer to big game than via car or truck. If you enjoy bird viewing, you will see many more species on your trip by adding water travel to your itinerary. From my experience, I feel a zoom with a range of 100-400mm on a 1.6x crop sensor (such as Canon 50D) is a great combination for shots from the river, but there are also chances for smaller lenses. If you are on a pontoon boat, you can also take advantage of a larger focal length lens. Having taken numerous trips into the park via water and roadway, I can promise that every trip I have to Chobe will include at least one trip into the park on the water – and probably several.