Most people, when they think of a safari, will picture themselves on a 4×4 safari vehicle, driving across the plains or down dusty tracks. However, there is another, and more unique, way to view the wildlife, and that is from aboard a boat from the middle of a river or waterway.
The main photographic opportunity this affords is the wholly different perspective of viewing the wildlife. From a vehicle, you are normally higher up and looking down onto the animal (unless of course you are watching a leopard in a tree with a kill!) – from a boat, you are on the same eyeline as the animal as it comes to the waters edge to drink. Also, from an aesthetic view too, you are facing the animal head on rather than viewing it from behind!
Houseboats on the Chobe River
The Chobe National Park is most famous for its elephant population – estimated at over 120,000 – which is believed to be the largest population of elephants found anywhere in the world. But it is not only elephants that live here in huge numbers – hippos are plentiful, and float lazily in the Chobe River during the day, emerging at dusk to graze along the river banks. The area is also renowned for its rich river birdlife, with over 450 species having been documented.
The Park itself, however, can get very busy – mostly with day visitors coming up from nearby Victoria Falls to do a river cruise, a game drive, then head back down to the Falls again in the late afternoon. The many lodges which are dotted along the Chobe River banks are also fairly large in terms of the number of rooms and therefore number of guests – so you have a lot of game vehicles and boats out during the morning and afternoon safari activity time.
This is where a stay on a houseboat wins hands down. During the day, the houseboats cruise slowly up and down the river and if you see something of interest on the shoreline, you call a member of staff, who launches the tender boat and off you go for a closer look.
Being on the river means as well that you can travel away from the masses – so while the game drive vehicles and the day tripper boat trips have to leave in order to get their people back in time for dinner – you stay out on the river – so for the early morning and the late afternoon again, you have the river to yourself.
Large houseboats such as the 14-suite Zambezi Queen offer comfortable 5* accommodation, suites with private balconies, and large public areas with plenty of space for all guests. Smaller houseboats, such as the Chobe Princess do not offer quite the same level of luxury, however they do have one advantage over the larger vessels – they can go into the shallower waters upriver to get you further away from the crowds.
Canoeing on the Lower Zambezi
The Lower Zambezi National Park is bordered along one entire side by the Lower Zambezi River, which acts as a natural boundary between Zambia and neighbouring Zimbabwe, which is immediately across the river in the guise of the Mana Pools Reserve.
There are no houseboats on this stretch of the Zambezi, however camps like the recently refurbished Sausage Tree Camp have river frontage with spectacular views from the public areas and guest rooms.
One of the most popular game activities is to hop into a two-man canoe and with your experienced guide, paddle silently along one of the many water ways for a few hours. If you are lucky, you may encounter large herds of elephants coming down to the waters edge to quench their thirst, or glide quietly past crocodiles basking on the river banks, or even a pride of lion on the sandy river banks sleeping off their nightly hunting excursions.
If this is possibly a bit too adventurous, there is the option to take a motorised game boat activity. Cruising in the main Zambezi River, you will pass again more herds of elephants, either on the river banks or even crossing the river onto one of the many islands in the centre of the river. Hippos will surface in front of the boat, only to submerge again when you get closer.
For birdwatchers, this is paradise – many water bird species can be spotted amongst the reeds, so a good pair of binoculars is recommended for anyone who is a particular orthologist.
Mokoro trips in the Okavango Delta
When in full flood during the months of July through to end September, the Okavango Delta is transformed into one massive waterway. Many lodges will offer motorised boat cruises, but the Delta is also unique in that it is one of the only places where you can take a mokoro trip.
A mokoro is traditionally made from strong wood from the jackalberry, ebony or sausage tree, but now more often than not, they are fashioned from fibreglass for environmental reasons – but this does not detract from the experience. Sitting one behind the other, a mokoko can take 2 guests. Instead of an oar, a poler stands at the back of the boat and poles you through the shallow waters. Gliding peacefully down narrow waterways lined with tall reeds, you spot many birds and the smaller Delta wildlife, such as the aptly named colourful reed frogs.
From such a low and quiet vantage point, every sound is magnified, even the splash splash of the pole going in and out of the water. Listen out for the pure sounds of the African bush – new bird calls, frog choruses, and maybe the occasional trumpet of a distant elephant.
Lodges such as the fabulous Jao Camp will offer a mokoro trip in the afternoon, and as the sun starts to set, you will pull up at a scenic spot where a member of staff will have thoughtfully arrived earlier and laid a table with drinks and snacks. After enjoying your drink of choice in this remote location, you will be taken back to the lodge by game vehicle.
Paul Campbell is a Co-founder and Managing Director at Travel Butlers. Travel Butlers are specialists in tailor-made safari and beach holidays to Africa and the Indian Ocean.
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