Waterside game viewing – from a canoe or sundowner cruise – has always been my favourite way to see wildlife in Africa. You get a whole different perspective on the animals coming to drink at the river or lake than you do when you’re on a game drive vehicle, and you often get to come fairly close to them. You also get to see an amazing array of bird species – and there’s nothing that beats that quintessential safari sound of the haunting cry of an African fish eagle as it hunts for prey over water.
Usually when you’re on safari, your water-based viewing consists of a few hours at most, sandwiched between the usual game drives. I wanted more. The answer to my water safari dream came in the form of a floating hotel: a luxury houseboat called the Zambezi Queen, which cruises a section of the Chobe River between Botswana and Namibia.
Just getting there was part of the adventure: after flying to Livingstone in Zambia, I travelled by road to the Kazangula border, where I crossed into Botswana and then went across the Chobe River into Namibia. This was the only time in my travels that I’ve had three passport stamps in one day!
After a hot journey, embarking on the Zambezi Queen by way of tender boat (on which ice-cold Namibian Windhoek beers were served) was a wonderful reward. Welcomed onboard (with champagne this time) to singing by the entire assembled staff, I headed up to the top deck just before the sun went down to see the view of what would be home for the next few days: a totally unspoilt stretch of river populated with herds of elephant having a sundowner drink.
Then it was time to explore the boat. The Zambezi Queen is super modern – with no trace of the standard colonial safari lodge look. Instead it reminded me of the interior of a chic and glamourous city hotel, with minimalist monochromatic furniture, clean lines and gleaming black surfaces. A spacious lounge, bar and dining room area and the outdoor terrace are on the top deck, while cabins occupy the middle and lower decks. There are just 14 suites – 10 with balconies and four with private decks. I had a corner room, so I had views from both sides of the boat and a lovely breeze. My room was luxurious (though a bit on the small side), with a big bed, an ensuite bathroom stocked with organic baobab products and floor-to-ceiling windows to make the most of the river vistas.
After a dinner of cream of mushroom soup, bream and roast vegetables, an Amarula panna cotta and some excellent South African wine (a fabulous introduction to the gourmet cuisine served onboard), I tucked myself in to bed in my cabin, lulled to sleep by the gentle movement of the boat and the sound of water lapping against the hull.
Activities are included in the rates, and over the next few days I tried out everything that was on offer. The highlights were the sunrise and sunset cruises on tender boats to see the wildlife of the Chobe National Park, which lies on the Botswanan side of the river. I saw kudu, baboons, dozens of species of birds, snorting pods of hippos and loads of elephants – just some of the 120 000 grey leviathans that call the park home. It was amazing viewing game from a small boat, and we had some memorable close encounters – without the animals seeming to mind at all. My best sighting was a large elephant herd taking a dip in the river just a few metres away from our boat. Then there was tiger fishing excursions and game drives in Chobe National Park (requiring another Botswana passport stamp), which were not uneventful in terms of game viewing, but didn’t quite match up to the thrill of seeing animals from the water.
Despite a busy schedule, there are plenty of opportunities to relax on the boat and do nothing at all, other than read a book on a lounger, looking up often to take in the spectacular river setting and make sure you’re not missing the occasional no-effort-required wildlife sighting. This was the true magic of staying on the Zambezi Queen – this 360-degree unobstructed viewing (minus the soundtrack of game drive vehicles) of the riverside ecosystem of one of the wildest places in Africa. Being on a boat in the midst of it all felt like a much more immersive experience than staying in a lodge behind four walls and glass.
Just when I had started to get accustomed to this life of water-based luxury, it was time to go. I had a warm farewell song from the staff as I took off on a tender boat, checking out of Namibia – a border post consisting of a tiny room on a sandy bank – back into Botswana on the other side of the river, and then across the river again into Zambia. As if I’d ever forget the Zambezi Queen, I have two full pages of my passport filled with stamps from Zambia, Namibia and Botswana to remind me!
Tip: Plan your stay at the Zambezi Queen to add in a few days at Livingstone in Zambia or Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe to see the magnificent Victoria Falls and try out some of the adventure activities on offer around the falls area, such as white water rafting, bungee jumping or flying in a microlight. Victoria Falls is 90 minutes’ drive from Kasane in Botswana, where staff from the Zambezi Queen can pick you up to transfer you to the boat.