Chobe Game Lodge – elephants and eco-initiatives

There is just SO much to love about Chobe Game Lodge… the luxurious rooms and comfy lounge areas, the coolness of the swimming pool and the scrumptious food – from delicious breakfasts, the yummiest cappuccinos and cocktails (served with paper straws), to the finest of dining and most decadent of desserts.

Then there are the towering trees alive with bird sounds, the 250m long elevated boardwalk and deck made from recycled plastic, and the expansive views over the Chobe River. And the fabulous safari experiences from the fleet to electrically-powered vehicles and boats.

And there’s no better way of experiencing elephants on the Chobe River than an electrically powered boat!  With an estimated population of around 120,000 it’s not surprising that Chobe National Park is famous for its elephants, easily seen during the dry season when impressive herds gather in the vicinity of the Chobe River.

During our dry season visit we had elephants crossing roads in front of- and behind us, sometimes all around us. We watched as they browsed the dry trees and bush looking for sustenance or quenching their thirst in the river and taking mud baths. But an absolute highlight was watching them swim across the Chobe – not just once, but numerous times.

One of these was nothing short of spectacular as a huge herd, perhaps spooked by the presence of man, crossed from the Namibian side with much urgency. Our guide Kgomotso, one of 16 in the all-female guiding team, was quick to notice that a huge herd of elephant was rushing towards the banks of the river from the Namibian side and skillfully manoeuvered the boat so that we were in the best spot to experience the crossing… and oh my, experience it we did!!

One of the benefits of the electric boats is that they are relatively silent enabling you to get much closer to birds and other wildlife from the water – a definite bonus for photographers.

An African open-bill barely noticed us, continuing its search for molluscs and a pair of yellow-billed storks maintained their vigilant search for fish, oblivious of our presence. We watched crocs fishing in the shallows for barbel, while a herd of puku watched on from the shore.

On another occasion we were gliding along the slow and ponderous Chobe River to where it changed direction to loop around the puku flats, a vast flood plain opposite Chobe Savanna Lodge. Along the banks of this loop were elephant almost as far as the eye could see, moving from the southern bank towards the lush vegetation on the flood plain.

They were crossing in relatively small ‘family groups’, with one of the elephant clearly taking the lead and ‘testing’ the waters for safety. A large croc with a very full belly was sunning itself while elephants crossed behind it and a group of wild dog ran out from the cover of the bush, clearly on a mission and covering the distance quickly.

What better way to end a successful afternoon of game viewing than with G&T’s and a spectacular sunset!

At Chobe Game Lodge when talking ‘electric-powered’, you aren’t just talking boats. Most of the game viewing vehicles now boast ‘eco’ internals, having had their diesel engines replaced with what looked like a mish-mash of electronics (from my non-technical point of view) and a ‘boat-load’ of batteries. All of which makes for fabulously silent game drives which we got to experience early one morning.

We hear leaves rustling as a gentle breeze moves through the trees, and bird calls punctuate the still of the morning.  A carmine bee-eater watches from a nearby twig and we pause for a herd of elephants to cross the track in front of us.

We watch a pair of jackals scavenge from a very old elephant carcass which had died from natural causes. With barely a snack available they soon gave up and slunk back into the bush.  And this was all within the first half hour!!

Gobe, another member of the female guiding team, slows the vehicle… ‘guests saw leopard here last night’ she says as she scans the trees. Despite being well camouflaged by bushes she spots a young leopard which, as desirable sightings often do, decided to head further into the bushes.

Silently she manoeuvered the Land Rover to the other side just as the young male leopard emerges and flops down in full view of us – not bothered by our presence and certainly appreciating the quiet of our vehicle. Excitement reigned, and cameras clicked, especially as his brother soon joined him.

We see more elephant, loads of them. And the biggest herd of buffalo I have ever seen, estimates were that it was a herd of approximately 400 – but in perfect ‘fisherman’s tale’ fashion, the number grew exponentially. We follow lion spoor, but to no avail but get to watch a herd of elephants quench their thirst and enjoy swishing glistening charcoal mud over their bulk.

This idea of ‘eco’ vehicles started in 2010 when Chobe Game Lodge became one of the first properties in Botswana to be fully ecotourism-certified. Jump four years and they became the first electric-powered safari operator in Africa.

Johan Bruwer, General Manager of Chobe Game Lodge, told us that this was at a huge cost, especially in the early days when the technology was still new – but thankfully it is a little cheaper now and the next few years will see the last of the fleet (both game vehicles and boats) being converted from diesel to electric.  ‘But it’s not about the cost’ he says, ‘it’s about doing the right thing’.

Johan takes us on a behind the scene tour of Chobe Game Lodge’s eco-initiatives, and from the start it is clear there are many ‘things’ that they are doing ‘right’. From the rigorous Environmental Management Plan (EMP) that measures all aspects of operations – from energy consumption (fuel, generator, electricity as well as biogas and LPG), water consumption and grey water output as well as waste management (food waste, recycling and municipal waste) to the sourcing of local products, suppliers and even staff.

Johan tells us that most of their staff are recruited locally to ensure additional benefits to the community of Kasane. He adds that Chobe Game Lodge is committed to employing female staff, especially in the Guiding Department, offering them opportunities to work and excel in a predominantly male dominated field.

The 600 square meters of solar panels on the back-of-house roofs generate 104 Kwh of electricity at peak performance are supplemented by electricity from Kasane’s main grid which is fed by power generated by the Victoria Falls hydro-electric power scheme – a clean sustainable energy source. It’s good to know that the yummy omelette and delicious cappuccino I had for breakfast were prepared using ‘clean’ energy.

It’s also good to know that the awesome shower in my room is heated by solar water heater panels and that the waste water captured by the closed septic tanks and then treated in the Lodge’s own above ground sewage treatment plant. The grey water is treated by a natural anaerobic process that purifies and cleans up the grey water, which then flows into ozone tanks where any harmful bacteria that remain are killed. This fully processed water is then mixed with river water to irrigate the gardens. No wonder they look so lush and green!

At the recycling centre we watched glass being prepped for the glass pulveriser, where it would be reduced to the consistency of course sand and then used to make bricks for use in building projects.

There were blocks of crushed cans awaiting recycling and bags of plastic water bottles awaiting collection by Aquarite, their mineral water supplier, to be recycled and re-used. Cardboard boxes and polystyrene punnets were separated and cleaned ready to be returned to Ron’s Fresh Produce, their main fresh and frozen goods supplier.

Food waste from the kitchen is bagged and then sent to the onsite Biogas Plant where it is processed and fed into the two biogas reactors to produce methane gas which is used for cooking in the staff canteen. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see it in operation as its currently out of operation. Due to the size of the project – one of the biggest in the country – it has been a bit of a test project and needs refining which they currently doing. So, it should be back online soon. Any combustible materials that cannot be re-used or recycled are incinerated onsite and the ash used as a fertiliser for the lawns.

These initiatives resulted in Chobe Game Lodge being one of the first lodges in Botswana to be fully Eco Tourism certified. Which is no mean feat in a building that was built in the 1970s.

Its distinctly Moorish architecture with impressive arches and expansive interiors is testament to the fact that bricks and mortar was the building method of choice back then, way before sustainability became a catch-phrase. Once completed it was one of the first 5-star luxury lodges in Botswana. The lodge was closed in 1977 due the Rhodesian bush war and reopened in 1984 after being purchased by business partners Jonathan Gibson and Ian Green. Fast forward numerous decades and this beautifully refurbished and eco-friendly Chobe Game Lodge is what we see today.

That evening we dine on the deck surrounded by indigenous trees and beneath a canopy of stars. Immersed in the night sounds along the Chobe River we almost miss a lone elephant bull as he saunters below along the river bank. For me that one moment encapsulated the ethos of Chobe Game Lodge – nature, nurture and a wonderfully natural aesthetic.

This trip was hosted as part of the Desert & Delta #ThisIsChobe social media campaign to capture the essence and abundance of the Chobe region.

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