And when the sun began to peep over the horizon, the birds started their morning show and the African landscape came to life.
I’d heard about the sheer volume of life on the plains of the Chobe National Park in Botswana, but in real life it is staggering. Buffalo, hippos, zebra, waterbuck, giraffe, warthogs and kudu make the grasslands their home.
And of course, that biggest and most impressive of beasts: the elephant.
Chobe is tusker country. Between 120 000 and 135 000 giants are known to roam the plains. And if you’ve ever heard that they have a certain magic at a distance, up close they are something else.
Just an hour’s drive from Kasane International Airport you’ll find yourself immersed in the bush, with animals all around. Ngoma Safari Lodge, my little piece of heaven during my time in Botswana, is situated within the Chobe forest reserve and overlooks the Chobe River and Caprivi floodplain.
Perched on the ridge, the luxurious boutique hotel is an extension of the tranquillity and space of the floodplains it overlooks. The lodge also overlooks a watering hole where many animals stop by for a drink offering you the ultimate armchair safari! The lodge’s central area includes a well-appointed sitting room, dining room and bar area as well as a plunge pool.
Eight suites with private plunge pools offer complete seclusion and stunning views. One of the perks of staying at an unfenced lodge is that animals are free to roam wherever they like so you may be surprised by animals walking past your suite or an ellie taking a sip out of your pool. And then, when the animals have had their fun, you can take a refreshing splash in your outdoor shower, relax in your king-size bed with the wide window views with Namibia in the distance, and just take it all in. Bliss.
After a scrumptious breakfast at the lodge, on a mid-morning cruise down labyrinthine lily-padded waterways on the Chobe River, there they were - the elephants. With heads held high, the gentle giants were out in full force. Rumbling masses of flapping ears and entwined trunks. Rubbing and spraying, they filled the air with a symphony of trumpets. Herds of elephants waded in front of us, the juveniles gambolled in the heat of the day.
Further down hippo laid submerged in the clear, cool water and an older buffalo who had removed itself from its herd relaxed on a sun-baked bank.
Birdlife in the lush river plains is abundant and the waterways attract a bevvy of wildlife. For birders, there are more than 450 bird species in the region. The area is vast and the density of animals and birds is staggering.
After a picnic lunch out on the water, we headed off into the park in the comfort of an open-sided 4WD vehicle. A young elephant ran alongside the vehicle, curious and trumpeting; baboons bullied monkeys; giraffes looked down upon us; and zebra and impala just hang out together.
The “Big Five” take the centre stage on a safari, but the smaller, less glamorous animals such as impalas, zebras and hyenas can be just as fun and exciting to see, all adding to an experience that magnifies the thudding of a heart and the clicking of a camera.
It is difficult to describe just how powerful a safari experience is, and how to articulate its full impact. It’s a feast for the senses. The stunning views, the sounds, the smells, are almost tangible. It’s a journey that makes you reconnect with the beauty of the little things and the loveliness of simplicity. At many points, during the trip I remember looking at something - a giraffe, the blue sky, a zebra, the stars - and thinking, this is enough.
Whether you’re an old hand, or on your first safari, it is something that will stir, emote and move your soul to joy. Africa will do that to you; make you feel in awe of life, amazed by nature, and somehow, deeply rooted. Because this is Africa.