In Search of the Big 5: Looking for Lions in Chobe National Park

Although it might seem hard to believe, I still haven’t told you about the absolute best part of my Africa trip yet. It might seem hard to top bush camping in the Okavango Delta, searching for white and black rhinos, and visiting Victoria Falls, but I’m about to. The highlight of my trip to Africa was exploring Chobe National Park both by land and by water.

Chobe National Park is located in northern Botswana near the confluence of the Chobe River and the Zambezi River. The park is famous for its abundance of wildlife, and I wanted to see as much as possible while I was there. A couple of days before I was supposed to leave for my trip, I went to the G Adventures website to try and pre-book as many excursions as possible. Although I had been to the website many times, I had only ever seen two options – the Okavango Delta flight and a Zambezi River cruise.  I had every intention of booking both, but this time, I saw a new option – a photo safari on the Chobe River. The safari included the use of a DSLR camera with a telephoto lens and an 8 gb memory card that you would get to keep, and promised instruction from a professional photographer on how to take the best wildlife shots. Um, SIGN ME UP. Well, when I arrived in Africa and met the rest of my group, I realized that I was the only person on my tour who had had the opportunity to book the photo safari. I just lucked out! I felt kind of bad, but hey, right place, right time.

img_1942-1024x1024-1-4 A little preview of what is to come!

My guide convinced me that the sunset game cruise was the best option (the other possibility was doing a morning game drive), and I trusted that he knew what he was talking about. I got picked up from our campsite around 3:30 and we headed to the insanely beautiful hotel that our boat would leave from. (Note: if you want luxury in Africa, you can get it. The resorts there are absolutely insane. One night in that place probably cost the same as my entire trip.) Our small, 8-person boat had seats with specially fitted tripods and gigantic DSLR cameras with zoom lenses. I like to think that I have a pretty good camera, but nothing makes you question your choices faster than staring down the barrel of $5,000+ in gear.

img_1519-1024x768-1-4 Check out those fancy chair/tripod situations

Our guide on the boat was a professional photographer who has made his living photographing wildlife, so we were in good hands. Fortunately, there’s no possible way to take a bad picture with that type of camera, so with some simple instruction, we were off! I wasn’t sure what we could expect to see, but the first thing we found was a crocodile – our first of the trip!

img_2824-1024x683-1-4 My, what beautiful teeth you have (from the safety of my boat)

Our little boat enabled us to get really close to many of the animals, so although the zoom lens was insane, it also didn’t hurt that we weren’t too far away to begin with. Even though I don’t like birds (as you know), I don’t mind photographing them from a safe distance with a giant camera to protect my face.

img_2853-1024x683-1-4 This is objectively an attractive bird

We saw a lone bull elephant way off in the distance and headed over to see if we could get a good shot of him. Right as we pulled up, a whole herd of elephants came spilling out of the bush towards the river, including some babies! I couldn’t believe my eyes, as this was my first baby elephant sighting. I probably took a thousand pictures. Luckily for you, I will only show you two.

img_2974-1024x683-1-4 OMG so many sizes of elephants img_3027-1024x1024-1-4 Hi, little baby!

After the elephants, we headed off in search of hippos that frequented the area. We didn’t find any, but there was a group of elephants bathing in the water and reeds that were very close to the river. Although there were several large boats nearby (river cruises are popular but typically take place on larger pontoons), we were able to get super close to the elephants because our boat was so small! They continued peacefully grazing the entire time.

img_3259-1024x683-1-4 Hello, let’s be friends!

There was a small herd, with a baby elephant and several adults, and they were splashing and playing in the water and just having a grand old time. I couldn’t believe how close we were and the amazing detail I was able to capture in the photos. There was also a hippo mixed in among them, which is apparently quite rare – you don’t often find hippos and elephants together like that, I guess.

img_3289-1024x683-1-4 Wait for me, mom!

The sun started to set, but none of us were done taking pictures. The most incredible oranges and pinks were coming from the glowing sky, and the elephants in the foreground were making for some amazing pictures. It actually worked out beautifully that I had brought my own camera and my phone, because the zoom lens on the other camera actually prevented us from capturing the colors of the sunset. So, without further adieu – here’s my pride and joy, taken with my Sony a6000 right as the sun was going down (and thanks to the photographer on our boat, who taught me how best to capture the light).

3ad03f7a-f4bb-496d-b7fd-5712c7420fc4-1024x684-1-4 Probably the best photo I’ve ever taken. I’ll just quit now.

I mean, is that not insane? As the sun went down, I actually started tearing up because I just could not process the beauty of what I was seeing. Elephants are 10 feet away from me and THAT sunset is happening right now? It was almost too good to be true, and I never want to forget that moment. I stopped taking photos several times just to take it all in and absorb the moment.

img_1602-e1499297052260-1024x768-1-4 Just kidding, no I won’t. I think I took this one with my iPhone, btw.

On our way back to shore, we finally spotted the elusive hippos we had been seeking! It’s pretty crazy that they are so incredibly huge, but are actually very fast on both land and in the water, making them very dangerous. You’d never think that just by seeing their eyes pop up out of the water, though!

img_3295-1024x1024-1-4 Always with the sneaky face

Luckily, we got to see one out of the water, too, which was even better. I think I love hippos the most – they always look like they are doing something sneaky.

img_3293-1024x683-1-4 Don’t be fooled – this thing runs faster than both of us.

Oh, and we finished the night with a full moon, because of course we did.

img_3316-1024x683-1-4 Not a bad way to end the evening. Drop everything and go visit @thetrexrunner’s blog right now – you will not believe the photos from her safari! Click To Tweet

The next morning was a really big morning for me – at the time, it was to be my last game drive before heading home (I later ended up adding another rhino drive on to my tour). I was feeling a little stressed because I had not yet seen a lion, and I suddenly really wanted to. It’s funny – before leaving for the trip, I would have said I didn’t care what I saw as long as I saw something…and that was true until I saw everything else I wanted to see. By the end, I was dying for a lion! Still, sometimes you don’t realize how much you have left to see until you see it. For example, it didn’t even occur to me that we hadn’t seen a hyena yet until we saw one right at sunrise!

bf50f22d-ffff-4d09-bd0b-393369b4038a-1024x1024-1-4 Sorry I’m not sorry for all the exceptional sunrise/sunset photos in this post

There’s something so thrilling about safaris, and it is hard to explain. It’s like you go out there and you know you’re supposed to see animals, but you still jump out of your seat with excitement when you actually do. Maybe it’s just me, but I always had a very pessimistic idea about what was likely to happen on game drives and that just meant I was always pleasantly surprised.

16b11ea6-24d0-496f-a5b5-a45a21242555-1-1024x684-1-4 I’m kind of into hyenas, actually. They are cooler looking than I thought.

As we drove along near the river (where many animals would be coming to get their first drink of the day), we saw a large herd of cape buffalo. Cape buffalo are one of the Big Five, but to that point, we had only seen one lone male at a time. It was pretty crazy to see such a massive herd!

e9d18272-cb33-43f7-b6c8-bef2f03371e4-1024x684-1-4 Just another day at the river…until…

We were about 50 feet away from them, and suddenly, some of them started trotting towards the river. They started moving a bit faster, and I said to my friend Jon, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if a lion was chasing them or something?” AND THEN THERE WAS A FREAKING LION.

c276177a-f9f7-4741-a739-6f0720564c90-1024x684-1-4 OK EVERYBODY BE COOL

Thank goodness my camera was strapped around my neck or I would have probably thrown it out of the truck in shock and awe (PS, remember that phrase? A simpler time when our biggest problem was George W mispronouncing the word “nuclear” every day). Seriously, I lost it. I could not believe that I was actually seeing a lion. And I really could not believe it when another lion appeared and they started hunting!

ef99f3e9-7c42-4262-b68d-e3725e68942c-1024x684-1-4 Like the world’s most high stakes game of “Duck duck goose”

My heart was pounding as I vacillated between wanting to take a thousand pictures but also wanting to actually witness what was happening (the whole “look first with your eyes, then with the camera” thing). Everyone on our truck was absolutely freaking out and we were all trying not to squeal out of sheer excitement. Seriously, have you ever seen a lion hunt? Because I have.

7bebcf1a-548b-4573-a70b-0fd2a79581e7-1024x684-1-4 RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, BABY BUFFALO! SHE’S COMING!

In the end, the lionesses didn’t end up killing anything (although they gave it the old college try), which I was somehow both disappointed and relieved by. The buffalo proved to be a little too big for just the two of them, and all of the babies managed to escape. Close one!

233d73d8-1a19-4a32-bf86-735adca04472-1024x684-1-4 A disappointing day for some

Our group could not believe our luck, and it really was luck – only half our group had been able to see the lions hunting, because the other half had gone on a different route and didn’t get there in time. Safaris really are just the luck of the draw! Let’s all agree that I got really lucky in Chobe National Park.

We finished off our safari by getting super up close and personal with some baboons. You’re probably thinking what I was thinking, which was “Um, aren’t baboons really mean and dangerous and intent on throwing poop on you?” The answer is…apparently not in Africa?

4360069f-9a3a-4718-b669-99217c363a7d-1024x684-1-4 Plz don’t throw your poop at me, sir

All I know is that we pulled up to an area with bathrooms and it was surrounded by baboons. Our whole group just sat in the truck hesitantly, and our guide was like “Oh it’s fine, they’ll leave you alone.” So we literally walked just feet away from a whole herd (tribe? group? conglomerate?) of baboons, including moms and babies, and prayed to stay feces-free. Mission accomplished.

eed0bdca-fc8a-4e76-87f0-2fe85bed4dc2-1-1024x684-1-4 Hitchin’ a ride away from the lions

So yeah, you could say I saved the best for last, right? Chobe National Park not only defied my expectations, it defies explanation. I mean, sure, I just wrote 1800 words about it, but I also included about 20 pictures, and those are worth a thousand words each, as they say. I think you can see why.

LEAVE A COMMENT: What animal would you be most excited to see on safari?