I have a new favourite cocktail bar and it’s on a boat in the middle of the Chobe River in northern Botswana. There are no hipsters, just hippos, and no craftsman concoctions, just G & Ts, straight up, mixed expertly by safari guide Chika with one hand as he guides our canopied vessel with the other.
The broad Chobe River separates Namibia from Botswana and here cocktail bars are scarcer than a guinea fowl’s teeth, but elephants are abundant. Indeed this region is home to Africa’s largest permanent population of jumbos. And from the front terrace of Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero lodge on the Botswana side, a long and almost prehistoric view unfurls across the plains, marshlands and shallow channels, beetling with hundreds of elephants and great herds of buffalo.
We’ve tipped up in time for afternoon tea and in high anticipation of the afternoon game drive but there’s plenty of action right here on the lodge lawn. Bushbucks, warthogs and a troop (although the collective noun belligerence is more apropos) of baboons are picking daintily through elephant scat. It’s enough (almost) to put you off your scones.
And if I had any doubt there were a lot of elephants hereabouts I’m woken in my snug, thatched cottage at 4am by a loud rustling just outside the window. Barely visible in the still-dark morning is the shadowy outline of a large bull elephant eating the trees shading my little veranda; it’s a neat spot of pruning, Chobe style.
I remain very still. He looks at me. We are less than a metre apart, with only a pane of glass to separate us. I look back at him. He continues eating; I tiptoe across to bed.
Close encounters of this thrilling kind are common at Chilwero. The lodge is protected by a tall, electric fence but elephants are smart and they’ve developed all sorts of ruses, including dropping branches on to the wires, to get a taste of the leafy trees sheltering the 14 guest cottages.
On night two I’m woken again and this time it’s the very loud and turbulent ructions of the elephant’s tummy that stir me from slumber. A ranger materialises to move Mr Heffalump on, or there’d be precious little left of the lodge’s trees and lawns (and to think that at home I complain about rabbits in my garden).
Every morning, after being woken (again) by the rumble of hippos rolling up from the river (or a hornbill tapping at the window), we set out with Chika in our safari vehicle, armed with blankets and Thermoses, into the neighbouring Chobe National Park.
Chika is a brilliant guide, having learnt tracking skills from his father who once farmed on the river in what is now national park, and on our first morning we pass the bush grave of his grandfather as well as several large rangers’ camps (Botswana’s government takes poaching very seriously). Dusty, bumpy paths wind through dense stands of acacia that shelter impala, giraffe, roan antelope and elephants. We track vultures to a slain buffalo where a lioness guards her kill, calling her cubs from the bush to cut their teeth on an oversized bone.
Down by the river the density of wildlife is incredible; great herds of elephants and buffalo wade out into the marshes, crocodiles doze on the banks, hippos loll in the deeper pools, lions lurk menacingly.
After four hours or so of “Attenboroughing” (perfect new verb, don’t you think) we return to the lodge for lunch followed by a dip in the garden pool, or a doze. Each cottage makes an eminently comfortable and private retreat, generously provisioned with complimentary minibar, dressing room and large ensuite with indoor and outdoor showers. There’s some nice detailing, such as African art and statues, but Sanctuary Retreats will undertake a refresh of the decor next year.
Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero, Kasane, Botswana. More: sanctuaryretreats.com; abercrombiekent.com.au.
TARIFF: From $US590 ($792) a person twin-share, including all meals, beverages, laundry and game drives. Abercrombie & Kent’s eight-day African Waterways includes two nights at Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero, two nights at Sanctuary Stanley’s or Baines Camp and three nights at the newly reopened Sanctuary Chief’s Camp, all in the Okavango Delta, with all-inclusive prices from $7995 a person twin-share.
GETTING THERE: The lodge is a short drive from Kasane airport. South African Airways flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane with codeshare partner Virgin Australia via Perth to Johannesburg, with onward connections to Botswana. More: flysaa.com.
CHECKING IN: nomads.
Couples, families and adventurous grey
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No.
BEDTIME READING: The Double Comfort Safari Club Alexander McCall Smith. by
STEPPING OUT: I wouldn’t walk any further than the lodge’s day spa, the most impressive on the Botswana safari circuit with chic treatment rooms, one in the tree tops, and a range of relaxing apres-safari treatments.
BRICKBATS: Could someone please turn off that hornbill? Its persistent tapping at the cottage window wakes me from a fitful nap on five occasions to answer the door.
BOUQUETS: Kudos to the wonderful lodge team and in particular to Chika, guide par excellence; hearty and unstinting food at all meals and in hampers on safari drives and cruises.
Evening drinks at Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero, above; young elephant at play, above right; guest cottage, left