From Kasane, a tar road heads west past the airport to the Chobe National Park boundary notice and leads to the Sedudu entrance gate next to the road. Here all persons are required to check in and pay the park fees. Almost immediately after passing through the gate tall shady trees and ubiquitous baboons welcome visitors to the park. Four-wheel drive vehicles are essential, especially if the intention is to travel extensively into the park – deep sand in some areas tests the skill of the driver and the capabilities of the vehicle. However, most rewarding game viewing awaits.
Chobe, which is the second largest national park in Botswana, covers 10 566 square kilometres. The park is divided into four main focal points comprising the Chobe River front with floodplain and teak forest, the Savute Marsh in the west about fifty kilometres north of Mababe gate, the Linyanti Swamps in the northwest and the hot dry hinterland in between.
The original inhabitants of what is now the park were the San people, otherwise known in Botswana as the Basarwa. They were hunter-gatherers who lived by moving from one area to another in search of water, wild fruits and wild animals. The San were later joined by groups of the Basubiya people and later still, around 1911, by a group of Batawana led by Sekgoma. When the country was divided into various land tenure systems, late last century and early this century, the larger part of the area that is now the national park, was classified as crown land. In 1931 the idea of creating a national park in the area was first mooted, in order to protect the wildlife from extinction and to attract visitors. In 1932, an area of some 24 000 square kilometres in the Chobe district was declared a non-hunting area and the following year, the protected area was increased to 31 600 square kilometres. However, heavy tsetse fly infestations resulted in the whole idea lapsing in 1943. In 1957, the idea of a national park was raised again when an area of about 21 000 square kilometres was proposed as a game reserve and eventually a reduced area was gazetted in 1960 as Chobe Game Reserve. Later, in 1967, the reserve was declared a national park – the first national park in Botswana. There was a large settlement, based on the timber industry, at Serondela, some remains of which can still be seen today. This settlement was gradually moved out and the Chobe National Park was finally empty of human occupation in 1975. In 1980 and again in 1987, the boundaries were altered, increasing the park to the present size.
A major feature of Chobe National Park is its elephant population. First of all, the Chobe elephant comprise part of what is probably the largest surviving continuous elephant population. This population covers most of northern Botswana plus northwest Zimbabwe and is currently estimated at around 120 000. This elephant population has built up steadily from a few thousand since the early 1900s and has escaped the massive illegal off-take that has decimated other populations in the 1970s and 1980s. The Chobe elephant are migratory, making seasonal movements of up to 200 kilometres from the Chobe and Linyanti rivers, where they concentrate in the dry season, to the pans in the southeast of the park, to which they disperse in the rains. The Kalahari elephant, including Chobe, has the distinction of being the largest in body size of all living elephants, though the ivory is brittle and you will not see many huge tuskers among them.
Within the Chobe National Park, public camping grounds are situated at Ihaha, Savute and Linyanti where toilet and shower facilities are available. A gradual upgrading process is has been completed, and included the relocation of the Serondela campground to Ihaha and the complete rebuilding of Savute. The Linyanti campground is due for upgrading at in future, while provision of camping facilities in the Noghatsaa area are being planned. Each of these camping grounds has its own unique character and a visit to each is recommended – however, it is once again stressed that a four-wheel drive vehicle is essential. Visitors travelling through the park should remember that this is essentially a wilderness area and, as such, few services are available between Kasane and Maun. Because of this, it is wise to carry basic safety items such as water, food, fuel, torches, extra wheels, tools, jacks, pumps and so on.
Ihaha is situated overlooking the Chobe River some 35 kilometres west of the Kasane gate. This new camp has modern ablution facilities, an attractive reception office and is more remote in nature than the old Serondela site, which has been closed.
Savute now also has a new camping ground with modern ablution facilities and an attractive reception office. The camp has constructed such that damage by elephant is prevented as much as possible. In the area, new artificial water points have been developed to cater for the needs of wildlife, while further water points are being developed. Lying 172 kilometres southwest of Sedudu gate, Savute camping ground overlooks the Savute River channel, which is currently dry. The river system is characterised by long periods of inactivity, interspersed with occasional periods of flow. The present dry period started around 1982, after a flow period that started in the 1950s, with dry spells between 1964 and 1967 and again in 1973. Prior to that the channel had been dry since the late 1800s.
Linyanti has a small camping ground, 39 kilometres northwest of Savute, among tall riverine trees overlooking the perennial Linyanti River. This is generally a quieter camp as it is off the main tourist circuit, but for those seeking a remote and peaceful environment, with spectacular dry season concentrations of elephant, Linyanti is the place to go. Access is rough and sandy and only reliable 4×4 vehicles should attempt this journey.
Apart from the Sedudu entrance gate, there is the Ngoma gate near Namibia, which can be accessed by the public road that passes for 54 kilometres through the park. Ngoma is the entrance used by visitors from Namibia and those staying in the Chobe Enclave. The southern entrance to the park is at Mababe gate, along a route that connects with the Moremi Game Reserve. Mababe gate is some 56 kilometres south of Savute and many visitors enter at Sedudu, camp at Ihaha, and then at Savute, exit through Mababe and on through to Moremi – or the other way around.
Game viewing is at its best during the dry season, when the majority of natural pans have dried up, and it is wise to avoid the Chobe river front during the heavy rains from January to March. It is also wise to note that no fuel supplies are available within the park and visitors travelling between Kasane and Maun should ensure that they are self-contained for the entire journey. All drinking water should be boiled or chemically treated. Mosquitoes are prevalent throughout the park and visitors are strongly advised to take an anti-malarial prophylactic before, during and for four weeks after visiting the park, especially during the rainy season.
Chobe facilities at a glance: Public camping grounds at
- Ihaha: flush toilets, basins and showers with hot water
- Linyanti: limited flush toilets and showers with hot water
- Savute: flush toilets, basins and showers with hot water
- NO petrol or diesel available in the park or anywhere between Kasane and Maun
- NO food supplies available in the park.