Chobe – What’s The Buzz?

If you have an eye for natural beauty, you’ll know as soon as you reach the Chobe River, in north- eastern Botswana. It’s a wildlife lover and nature photographer’s dream.

For elephant lovers and safari fanatics, the great elephant concentrations on the Chobe River occur during the winter months. For birders, the wet summer months are the drawcard, when the migrant birds are in full colour, and antelope start dropping their young. Any time of the year, the Chobe provides the most spectacular sunsets.

Game viewing in the dry season pretty much guarantees excellent sightings, since animals have to visit the river to drink when all the watering holes dry up. And viewing game from the water is possibly the nicest way. And possibly the nicest way to do that is aboard Flame of Africa’s Chobe Explorer.

On board this triple decker, spacious, wood cladded river cruiser you have what my fellow “shipmates” described as their best Chobe experience ever- and between us we had had over 50 such experiences.

Skipper David Twembuchi, barman and charming front of house Ronald Rungwe, with Kabelano, Mercy and Malebogo running the kitchen, were warmly welcoming. Then, it was a short hop from the Flame of Africa jetty in the town of Kasane, Botswana, before the boat nudged in at the Chobe National Park offices to gain entry permit to the park (the cruise is on the Chobe River and there are happily no immigration formalities). After our welcome briefing and drinks from Ronny we were sedately on our way.

Drinks glasses became prism glass as guests reached for cameras when skipper David got us up surprisingly close and personal- especially considering the boat’s size- with a plethora of wildlife. One such involved a massive bull elephant swimming across a river channel and then taking a keen interest in the long grasses at the boat’s prow, causing an evacuation of the lower dining deck.

After 1 ½ glasses of Nederburg Brut bubbly, backing off from one sighting was a giddy delight as David spun the big vessel almost 360 degrees.

The dining deck is where we enjoyed a superb lunch: delicious Botswana beef steak, boerewors, chicken, various salads, potato bake with excellent freshly made bread- followed by a delightful dessert and accompanied by a selection of wine.

The five adults at our table- repeat visitors to the area and one a riverside resident- repeatedly exclaimed that this was their best Chobe River experience. Exclaimed may not be the correct term. We were too laidback for that, lulled by the sumptuousness and the pace. And it is the pace, together with the service and the space afforded, that sets the Chobe Explorer apart. Another plus is that you have a head start on the usual afternoon mass launch, seeing plenty of wildlife long before, without any jostling for photo opportunities.

Above the dining deck is the bar and lounge, with ample, comfortable couches which seemed even comfier post-lunch- and the top deck has a formation of suspended, luxurious loungers which really top off the show.

Gently swaying atop the boat is the dreamiest way to top off the day. And, having launched around 11 am, it was on the stroke of 6pm that we nudged up to the jetty again- pretty much the whole, glorious day.

I shamelessly plug Flame of Africa, simply because of my experience using them. It was a Google search for a transfer company that kicked it off and I have extensively used them for transfers between Kasane and Victoria Falls, 80 km distant, and/or Livingstone. I’ve also experienced lodges they market and activities they provide in the Chobe area.

Another recommended river outing, if all day is too long, is aboard the sumptuous Chobe Style- perhaps with lunch on The Raft. Flame of Africa owner, Brett McDonald, lives most of the time on the Chobe and constructed this unique 64-seater floating restaurant from scraps and throwaways.

A trip to the Chobe or the Zambezi would not be complete without trying your hand at fishing. These waters are home to the voracious, powerful tiger fish- a true thrill to every serious or amateur angler. Capture and release is the policy with tiger, while “hook and cook” is adopted for the delicious bream that frequent these waters.

Impalila Island is well worth a visit. It has a  colourful history and is uniquely positioned, straddling the intersection of four countries. Here you can enjoy a Zimbabwean Zambezi beer, a Botswana St Louis, a Zambian Mozi and a Namibian Tafel and know that the countries from whence they came are not more than 200 metres away.

Also try to make time for a visit away from Chobe- in particular to Victoria Falls, if you’ve never been. Even if you have, it never loses its awesomeness.

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve- something very special

Spring is sprung, but winter is coming- or have you not been following blockbuster series Game of Thrones? And when it does, I’d recommend heading to Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in the Western Cape. Yip, the Cape of Storms, in winter.

Luxurious Grootbos is a favourite for me and travellers return time and again to this botanical reserve above the town of Gansbaai. Their five-star rating is based on meticulous service, genuine hospitality, fine dining, accommodation in bespoke settings and a truly care filled conservation approach that benefits guests, the local communities and the planet.

My first day in winter was remarkably summery. After a delicious creamy Caesar salad with pork belly, free range poached egg and crispy anchovies on the Forest Lodge terrace, taking in the grandeur of the sweeping views across the slopes and over the wide Walker Bay to the mountain headlands above distant Hermanus, field guide Nashlin Groenewald, a local lad, took me hither and yonder on the balmy afternoon to experience one of Grootbos’ winter wonders- the endemic Erica irregularis. This pink blossom that turns the surrounding mountains pink, is so localised that 85 percent is only found on the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve.

You won’t find the Big Five here. What you will experience- and be moved by- are nature’s more subtle nuances in this eco reserve protecting 1768 hectares of the unique Cape Floral Kingdom, with over 750 species of indigenous plants. Since the establishment of the reserve, six fynbos species, new to science, have been discovered on Grootbos. The limestone sugarbush was also in showy bloom, as were other fynbos species.

We also explored the beaches of Walker Bay Reserve and the Klipgat Cave. I have spent half my life on beaches but now view them with appreciably more insight. I also learned how to make a fresh kelp potjie pot- and marvelled at the caves, the site of an important archaeological dig containing artifacts indicating man’s presence over 70 000 years ago.

We were joined by executive chef Benjamin Conradie and foraged for mussels, seaweed and other indigenous edibles such as succulents-samphire and dune spinach.

That was to be my dinner starter. I’ve always been a bit iffy about mussels but it was sublime- as was the rest of my meal. I could fill this space as much as I filled my tummy with the delightful menu options but I’ll skip to the must-have dessert, Grootbos’ fynbos honey ice cream.

That delicious creaminess warranted heading up the road to the Growing the Future Organic Farm, where I gained some insight into the workings of the meaningful Grootbos Foundation from hands on operations manager Lindsay Hannekom and farm manager Johann Strydom. It’s hands on for guests too and I donned beekeeping gear for a real education.

Honey is made here from fynbos and the Erica irregularis. You can collect your own eggs, pick fresh organic fruit and veggies and then head into the kitchen and explore the best ways to prepare your hoard- actually make it yourself- under the tutelage of Benjamin Conradie.

While I was making gnocchi the worst storm in 30 years was spectacularly raging, tossing the hardy fynbos, with giant swells alternately under squalls, then lit by bright shafts of sun. We took to admiring this from the comfort of the glass walled champagne bar. The gorgeous suites are equally great places for storm watching too and the only thing I missed out on was whales, which cavort in the bay in great numbers from June through November.

The name Grootbos, Afrikaans for Big Forest, comes from the Milkwood forests with their gnarled branches and mossy beards. Amongst these ancient forests Grootbos has artfully laid out their accommodation, with sweeping views across fynbos plains towards the sparkling ocean and distant headlands. These vistas dominate everything- whether viewed through the sliding doors in the lounge or bedroom with its huge canopied bed, from the vast bathroom or the lodge itself.

I can only imagine what the distant uber-exclusive villa, where Brad Pitt spent time recharging, must be like.

The exquisite freestanding suites have all the amenities and luxuries you might want- and then some, like the scarves that came in very handy in the storm.

Such touches are indicative of what makes Grootbos special. That, and the staff. In an industry where staff turnover is high, it speaks volumes about a place, when the executive chef and other key staff grow with the establishment over a decade and more- or have left to explore further shores and have been welcomed back.

Hence Grootbos has frequently returning guests like Germans Susan and Christoph Vornholdt, who jested about their “shareholder” status, referring not to their nine previous visits but to their support of the non-profit Grootbos Foundation which runs environmental and social development programmes.

 

There’s much more to tell, but best you find out for yourself. Visit, or at the very least, visit www.grootbos.com