Cruising Botswana's Chobe on a photographic houseboat safari

2016-12-06 21:01 - Christopher Clark
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Photo: Christopher Clarke

Botswana - Just as we were settling in for our sundowners on the top deck of the houseboat, Nicolas, our tall and softly-spoken ship captain, came rushing up the stairs, pointing at the river bank opposite us. “Lions!” he said in hushed excitement.

Sure enough, three lionesses had appeared out of the bush and were lounging lackadaisically by the river’s edge.

We grabbed our G&Ts and jumped onto the eight-man photo boat that was tied to the back of the houseboat, unpacking our cameras and lenses and fixing them to the boat’s mounts as Nicolas started the engine and roared across the river.

When we drew close, Nicolas cut the engine and we drifted soundlessly towards the bank.

As we sat in front of the lions with our cameras clicking away, a cocky young bull elephant who’d been walking along the river’s edge towards the lions decided that instead of skirting the potential danger, he was going to pick a fight with the lionesses. He stormed right into their midst with loud trumpeting sounds and flapping ears.

But after the lionesses had initially scampered out of harm’s way, they realized they had a numerical advantage and began to encircle the elephant, who quickly saw his error and turned tail. The lionesses gave chase, and the frontrunner leapt onto the elephant’s backside and dug her claws in.

She managed to hitch a ride for a few seconds before giving up and jumping back down to the ground, but the elephant had surely learnt its lesson. The three lionesses sauntered down to the water’s edge and drank, not more than ten metres away from our open boat. 

Darkness began to descend and with the setting sun turning the river a deep pink we turned back to the houseboat for dinner, still without another boat or car in sight. 

Such is life aboard the beautiful Pangolin Voyager, which is permitted to moor at various secluded spots along the life-giving Chobe River for the duration of the four-day advanced wildlife photography workshop that a small group of us had been invited to “test out” (it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it). 

The houseboat was such a special way to experience the Chobe that after a couple of days on board, we found ourselves scoffing dismissively at the lowly game drivers we occasionally spotted from the river, forgetting that this was usually us.

But in our defence, it’s difficult not to feel rather disconnected from your usual reality aboard this magnificent three-storey boat. I wish I could say I spend every day eating a delectable brunch cruising along one of Africa’s great rivers with a 100-strong herd of elephants splashing in the water on one side of me and an even larger herd of buffalo on the lush green riverine island on the other, but that would be a lie.

At such moments, I forgot about my camera altogether and just marveled at the magic and majesty of the Chobe, in no doubt that the Pangolin Voyager was the ultimate way to experience it.

The houseboat consists of five comfortable cabins on the bottom level, including both doubles and twins; on the middle level is the spacious lounge, dining and bar area, with floor to ceiling glass windows and sliding glass doors on all sides; then the sun deck with its staggering 360 degree panoramic views sits on top of the boat. 

The boat is also a winner from an environmental perspective, with solar geysers and solar-powered air conditioning. The showers also pump water directly from the river, to where it returns after you’ve showered; organic body wash and shampoo are provided.

Aside from the various excellent meals and our ongoing attempts to deplete the well-stocked self-service bar, our four days on board the Voyager were spent exploring the river and working on new photography tips and tricks with Gerhard ‘Guts’ Swanepoel, Pangolin’s co-founder, and a larger than life character who most certainly belongs in a good book. 

Whilst out on the water with Guts we enjoyed the usual Chobe celebs. There were so many fish eagles, kingfishers and bee-eaters putting on a good show throughout the day that I almost began to wonder if someone had paid them off in advance. 

The elephants that Chobe is particularly famous for certainly didn’t disappoint either. On one of our evening photo boat excursions, a lone bull swam across the river so close to us that I could almost have reached out of the boat and touched his head. He seemed entirely unperturbed by our presence, as did most of the game we saw during our stay for that matter.

All the while, we played around with different exposures, shutter speeds, apertures, angles and perspectives, with Guts ever encouraging us to get out of our photographic comfort zones. Every so often, a sighting was so irresistible that he too would grab his camera and it would fire away for a few moments like a machine gun. Rather depressingly, Guts’ shots were always better than mine. But if anything, that only steeled my resolve to come back again, as if I needed an excuse.

In the evenings, after dinner Guts would take us through some Powerpoint presentations about advanced wildlife photography, and also share some of his own spectacular work from his varied photographic career.

Before he turned his talents to wildlife photography, Guts was a reconnaissance photographer for NATO and the UN, taking images from various war zones all over the world. When I asked why he changed careers, he said: “I was sick of taking pictures of ugly things. I decided from now on I was only going to take pictures of beautiful things.”

There certainly seemed nowhere better to live out that decision than on the Chobe River aboard the Pangolin Voyager.

(Photos by: Christopher Clarke)

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