We wake up to the beautiful view of the Chobe river from our cabin on the Zambezi Queen. Today we are going on a water-based game drive. After a few minutes in the tenders our driver and guide, Bernard, cuts the engine and we float towards the grassy embankment, where a huge Nile crocodile is resting on the shore. “This is why we do not swim in the Chobe river” Bernard tells us.
The Nile crocodile is Africa’s largest crocodile and the second largest existing reptile in the world, reaching up to six metres long and 730 kilograms in weight. They are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the Nile Basin and Madagascar in rivers, freshwater marshes, and mangrove swamps. These huge beasts mainly feed on fish but they will attack anything in their paths, including people. The figures are very sketchy but it is estimated that around 200 people per year die in the jaws of a Nile crocodile.
Nearby there is something moving in the grass. It is a monitor lizard, probably looking for eggs. Monitor lizards will tear open the crocodile’s nest to get to the incubating eggs if they have a chance. Crocodiles however, are very protective parents and both the mother and the father ferociously guard their eggs.
A bird swoops at the monitor lizard, squawking – it must have a nest nearby. The monitor lizard turns around and slowly heads off along the riverbank. The bird swoops down one more time to be sure and then flies off
Between the crocodile and the monitor lizard are many different species of birds, seemingly unperturbed by the presence of such vicious predators. A cattle egret sits on a nearby branch, while some blacksmith lapwings peck at the ground. An African jacana passes by. Like the wattled jacana (the African jacana’s South American counterpart), these birds can wade across floating vegetation with their long toes. This ability to ‘walk on water’ gained them the nickname of ‘JC birds’ or ‘Jesus bird’.
This bird actually has a far more interesting trait than its ability to hop across floating lilies. The female is known to be very promiscuous and will mate with a male (who must first build a floating nest) and lay three or four eggs a few days later. Once the eggs have been laid the female takes off and repeats this process with another male. The male will incubate the eggs, folding his wings around them to lift them off the damp nest. When the eggs hatch the chicks are very independent and hardly need any care at all – they have the long toes to allow them to walk on floating vegetation and can already feed themselves by pecking at aquatic invertebrates. The male remains very protective of the chicks however and if they are in danger he will scoop them up under his wing and run off with them. “Around here” says Bernard, “we call them the prostitute bird because the men usually end up bringing up chicks that are not theirs when the female has already moved on to someone else”.
We continue down the river and pass a few pods of hippos. Soon we come across a flock of African openbills. These birds have a very distinctive bill that does not quite close. They feed mostly on large, aquatic snails and freshwater mussels and their bills allow them to extract the mollusk from its shell.
On a sandy bank we see a herd of young, male impalas. As we approach one of the herd challenges the dominant male, who will have worked his way up through the hierarchy of this bachelor group. The two impalas approach each other slowly for a horn duel. This is how the dominant male will eventually challenge a territorial male once he has left the bachelor group. At a sign, such as swiveling of the eyeball to show the white of the eyes or a nodding of the head, the impalas rush at each other and clash horns. After just a few seconds the challenging male retreats and joins the rest of the herd.
Further along the river we see another Nile crocodile, basking on the sandy shore. As we get closer the croc opens its mouth, an action referred to as ‘mouth gaping’, in order to keep cool. We can see the ‘valve’ at the back of the throat that allows the mouth to be open to catch and hold prey underwater without water entering the throat.
We pass a safari lodge with a treetop walkway and viewpoints. On the banks of the river are some small boats, pulled onto the shore. Suddenly we spot something on the grassy embankment – it is a male warthog. We get closer and he completely ignores us. Warthogs are very sturdy animals and males can weigh over 110 kilograms. They are distinguished by the large, disproportionate ‘warts’ on either side of the head. These ‘warts’ are in fact thick protective pads. The warthog has two long upper tusks that form a semi circle and two lower tusks that are worn to a sharp-cutting edge. To graze on short grass warthogs have developed the practice of kneeling on their calloused, padded knees and they use their snouts to dig for bulbs and roots. We watch as the warthog comes towards us, grazing on the grass and digging its snout into the dirt. Without even seeming to notice us he continues on his way and disappears into the thicket.
Suddenly Bernard starts the engine and we take off. After a few minutes we spot an elephant at the top of a sandy hill. It slowly walks down towards the water. Behind it is another, and another. One by one the herd of 12 elephants reach the water and begin to drink.
As we make our way back to the Zambezi Queen we spot a hamerkop sitting on a log near its nest. These birds build nests from pile of sticks in the shape of an inverted pyramid with a ‘V’ notch in the front for the entrance tunnel. The hamerkop, often referred to as the hammerhead or hammerhead stork, is classified between storks and herons, having features of both and enough justification for being a family of their own. Apparently, the hamerkop features prominently in African legend and folklore and some indigenous tribes believe that if a hamerkop flies over a hut that hut must be demolished immediately.
We arrive back at the Zambezi Queen and enjoy lunch on the upperdeck with wonderful views of the river. After lunch we retire to the aft-deck and the Captain, Wayne, tells us that he found a baby bat on the deck a few days ago. It is time to feed the bat and so he brings it out to show us. Wayne has been collecting crickets and holds a cricket on a toothpick by the bat’s mouth. After a few seconds the bat takes hold of it and begins to suck the juices.
The bat probably fell from its mother, as it will have clung to her belly and underarm when she was flying. During the early weeks the mother carries her young every night on her expeditions to find food and sometimes, sadly, accidents occur. Baby bats share a very close bond with their mothers and are completely dependent on them. Luckily, this one has been found and is quickly re-gaining strength.
CRUISE: Zambezi Queen 4 night Christmas itinerary