How can one not see 600,000t of heaving, grey animal flesh?

Botswana’s Chobe National Park is home to the world’s largest elephant population — up to 120,000 animals, weighing in at an average 5t each. So if you go there, you can’t miss them, right? Wrong. On a recent three-day trip, I didn’t see a single one.

That’s almost unheard of in an area where elephant images dominate marketing material. Even Sedudu Island, which sits in the middle of the Chobe river and usually hosts "the greatest density of wildlife of any river system in the world", was almost unoccupied, except by hippo and crocodile.

Timing, of course, is everything. Most of the year, animals are profusely visible. But when it’s raining hard, as it was when my party visited, they don’t need to come to the river.

That doesn’t mean we didn’t see plenty of wildlife. We did — just not what we expected. Foreign tourists, who provide most of the trade for lodges along the river, might have been disappointed at the absence of elephant and buffalo, but our group of South Africans, for whom these animals are not a novelty, wasn’t.

On boats and on safari vehicles, we got up close and (almost too) personal with huge crocodiles, were nearly within touching distance of fish eagles eating freshly caught catfish, and enjoyed frequent sightings of giraffe and nearly all the resident buck, including the puku, which is unique to the region. We even saw a pair of lionesses teaming up to hunt an impala.

Hippo, of course, were everywhere. One took up residence beneath my balcony to provide a painfully early wake-up call each morning. Bird life, too, was prolific.

We stayed at Chobe Water Villas, one of the newer riverfront developments, which opened in 2016. Villas, on stilts built into the riverbank, overlook Sedudu Island. The view is stunning. Service isn’t far behind. Not surprisingly, a daily per-person rate ranging from R5,830 out of season to R11,570 during peak periods attracts mostly foreign guests. Many are from Germany and the US, say staff. The rates cover everything: all meals and refreshments, including mini-bar, plus transfers to and from Kasane airport, across the river in Botswana.

Chobe Water Villas is in Namibia, so guests must pass through border controls to get there. But because the Chobe park is in Botswana, a second visit to the border post is necessary. However, it’s a minor imposition: a five-minute boat ride, a cheery hello, a passport stamp and it’s all over.

Rooms at the Water Villas have what you’d expect at the price: huge beds protected by mosquito nets, comfortable furniture, large bathrooms, plenty of cupboard space and a large outside deck for private sundowners.

Gloriously, there’s no TV. The communal guest area includes a restaurant, bar, library and pool.

Meals, while we were there, were well-prepared but simple. I welcomed this as I’m not a fan of elaborate culinary artwork.

There’s a small conference centre, but Chobe Water Villas is not a resort. It’s a very comfortable base from which to explore the river and game park, and to swap experiences afterwards over a cold drink. Isn’t that the point?

For more info, visit chobewatervillas.com

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