Join Us on Our Cruise up the Chobe
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN SOUTH AFRICA
WE ARE sitting in a boat on the Chobe River in the heart of southern Africa. The highlight of our vacation has arrived. We listen to the water lapping gently against the boat as other passengers embark. On the bank, reeds sway in a welcome breeze. We are grateful for the clouds that shield us from the hot African sun.
“I hope the elephants come for their usual afternoon drink,” says Jill, the public relations manageress of the hotel that arranges this cruise. We hope so too. The Chobe River is renowned for its elephants. The north of Botswana, which borders on the Chobe River, has an estimated 45,000 elephants—the largest concentration in southern Africa. “But,” cautions Jill, “because of the recent rains, we haven’t seen elephants for three days.”
However, the Chobe River has plenty of other attractions. On a tray in the boat, we see four dead fish. “We always find fish eagles waiting for fish to be thrown into the water,” says Rainford, our Botswana boat captain. Will we succeed in photographing one of these birds as it swoops down to pick up a meal? Our excitement builds up as another tourist boat, named The Fish Eagle, passes by. Our boat is named Mosi-Oa-Tunya, an African name for the Victoria Falls. The Chobe River joins up with the mighty Zambezi to plunge over the famous falls, which are about an hour’s drive from here.
Believe it or not, soon after the Mosi pulls away, we sight elephants through binoculars. But, alas, while we are still far off, they return to the bush. “Until three weeks ago,” recalls Sandy, our tour guide, “we were sighting herds of hundreds.” Next, our attention is attracted to six kudu staring at us from the bank. When approached by a motor vehicle, these antelope usually scamper off. “They seem less afraid of a boat on the river,” says Sandy.
The soft cooing of doves is soon broken by a piercing cry. What bird is that? “The distinctive ringing call of the African fish eagle is a constant feature of the Chobe River,” explains Dr. Anthony Hall-Martin in the book Elephants of Africa. Four of these magnificent birds are watching us from trees lining the river. We quickly adjust our cameras as Sandy throws a fish. On cue, the first bird leaves its perch and glides toward us. Next, we hear a splash as the fish is clasped firmly in the bird’s talons. Then, with a flap of its majestic wings, it rises from the water, letting out a victorious cry—WHOW-kayow-kwow. We are struck with awe at the coordination of eyes, talons, voice, and wings directed from the eagle’s small brain. On board there is a hushed silence, except for the clicking of cameras, as this impressive performance is repeated three more times.
As the boat moves on, we spot a herd of 26 elephants, including babies, playing in the water. Watching them brings to mind the words of Bruce Aiken in his book The Lions and Elephants of the Chobe: “Once immediate thirsts are slaked, adults use their trunks to leisurely spray the cool water all over themselves. Some, especially sub-adults and bulls, are likely to venture out into the river and playfully swim and romp around, often with only the tips of their trunks visible above the surface to act as snorkels. None, however, enjoy themselves as much as the calves. This is the beginning of playtime, and they ceaselessly cavort and chase each other about . . . Thirsts quenched, it is time for the next and undoubtedly favourite activity, the mudbath. . . . Too soon, the old spoilsport cows whose word is law, decide it is time to move off.”
Sadly, the approach of our large double-decker boat makes the “spoilsport cows” feel uneasy, and they lead the herd away but not before we have taken some photos.
The day has not ended, and the Chobe River has other surprises. Because of the dust from the surrounding Kalahari Desert, sunsets across the river are spectacular. Evening is also the time when lazy hippos begin to stir as they prepare to leave the water on their nocturnal eating spree. Here the security of our large boat is a decided advantage. “You can get close to the hippo without being scared,” says Rainford.
A sonorous, deep honking signals our arrival at a hippo pool situated alongside an island in the river. One after another, large heads of submerged hippos appear on either side of us. Suddenly, two hippos lunge at each other with wide-open mouths—mouths large enough for a human to squat inside. Then, from the shallow waters near the island, another hippo walks straight toward us—so close that his massive body fills the lens of our camera. As the water gets deeper, his head submerges, leaving his large backside sticking up in the air. Then, by deflating his lungs, down the gigantic body goes.
We are surprised to learn that in spite of weighing up to four tons, a hippo has great agility in the water. “It can swim faster than many fish despite its ungainly body and can often be seen in clear water swimming swiftly just under the surface,” says Bradley Smith in his book The Life of the Hippopotamus. Or if they prefer, hippos use their powerful legs to dance across the bed of a deep river. It is just as man’s Creator says:
“Here, now, is hippopotamus that I have made as well as you. Green grass it eats just as a bull does. Here, now, its power is in its hips, and its dynamic energy in the tendons of its belly. If the river acts violently, it does not run in panic. It is confident, although the Jordan [River] should burst forth against its mouth.” (Job 40:15, 16, 23, Reference Bible, footnote) Surrounded, as we are, with these fearsome examples of “dynamic energy,” we realize the greater need to show respect for the One who made them. “Before its eyes can anyone take it? With snares can anyone bore its nose?” asks Jehovah God, reminding us of our human limitations.—Job 40:24.
Torn between watching a glorious sunset and the hippo, we are reluctant to leave as the time comes for our boat to return. Later, from our thatched hut beside the river, we watch in amazement as the sky turns pink and orange, with the colors beautifully reflected in the water. We muse on the exciting things we have seen and heard. “If you really want to get close to the wildlife,” Sandy advises us, “you should use a small motorboat.” We decide to take her advice and hire one for the next afternoon.
This time we indeed get a closer look at the wildlife, except for the dangerous hippo, and can even touch the reeds and water lilies. We watch pied kingfishers as they hover motionlessly above the water in search of small fish. Other colorful birds fly around us, brownhooded kingfishers, whitefronted bee eaters, and lesser striped swallows. Then, there are the larger birds that enjoy the safety of the river islands—Egyptian geese, jacanas, cormorants, and herons, to name a few. We pass a half-submerged tree adorned with some of these birds.
Eventually, we arrive at the spot where we had seen the herd of elephants the previous day. This time we find a lone bull who ignores us and continues drinking and eating. Then, as we start to move off, a mother with little ones suddenly appears from the bush. She hesitates on seeing us. We hold our breath in hope. Will she still come or not? Thankfully, she decides to risk letting her little ones into our presence. What a sight to watch mother, youngster, and baby run toward us!
Aiken makes this further comment in his book on lions and elephants: “It is easy to imagine the thirst these huge animals must feel each day . . . as they complete the long hot journey to the river. Walking eagerly and as fast as possible, a herd will emerge from the bush and make straight for a drinking place, often covering the last fifty or a hundred metres in an abandoned run as they smell the lifegiving water.” Indeed, we watch in wonderment as the three stand in a line and drink, with baby protected in the middle. But it is getting late, and we must return before dark.
Besides elephants, we see buffalo, crocodiles, pukus, kudu, waterbuck, impalas, baboons, and warthogs. We cannot help feeling a deep admiration for the One who created this stunning variety of wildlife and who made them exist in such lovely surroundings. In the dry season, birds and animals converge on the river in great concentrations, and even lions, leopards, and rhino can be seen.
You may live far from this remote part of Africa, but we hope that by joining us on our cruise, you now have a better idea of the magnificent sights that await those who travel up the Chobe.
[Picture Credit Line on page 18]
All wood engravings: Animals: 1419 Copyright-Free Illustrations of Mammals, Birds, Fish, Insects, etc. by Jim Harter