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Messing about in boats… a safari with a difference

There are more than 150 tripoints in the world but only one international quadripoint, and here we were, perched precariously, in the top of a 2,000 year old baobab tree, looking out over the only place in the world where four countries meet and two great African rivers join. We were on Impalila Island, on the banks of the Chobe River, at the eastern tip of the Caprivi Strip, a small slither of land that belongs to Namibia. From our vantage point at the top of the tree, we could see Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia, as well as the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers. If I thought climbing up had been a bit of a hair raising experience, getting down from the tree had my knees wobbling like jelly, and it was only by almost falling, rather ungracefully, onto our guide’s shoulder, as he stood waiting patiently at the base of the tree, that I finally managed to get back onto terra firma! I quite envied my husband, who being a little prone to vertigo, had stayed on solid ground, watching as our kids had scampered up like seasoned mountaineers and I’d laboriously heaved myself up the metal rungs, placed just a little bit too far apart for my legs to stretch between comfortably. Impalila Island, flanked to the north by the Zambezi River and to the south by the gushing rapids of the Chobe River, is home to around 2,500 people, in 25 small villages. It was also home to my family, for a couple of magical days. Feet firmly on the ground, we headed back to Ichingo Chobe River Lodge. ‘Ichingo’ means spearhead, the name coming from the triangular shape of Impalila Island. Found on the south side of the island, the lodge is a birding and fishing paradise, so well camouflaged by the riverine forest that you wouldn’t even know it was there, if not for the motor boats tethered neatly on the bank below. The area around the lodge is an incredible maze of waterways, floodplains and bush. Over 450 species of birds have been recorded here, including some rarer species like the Pels Fishing Owl, rock pratincole, African skimmers, and Pygmy geese. The tiny reed islands opposite the lodge were densely populated by weaver bird’s nests and their constant chatter and activity continued whenever there was daylight. Nestled under huge Jackalberry trees was our ‘tent’, and I use the term advisedly, as we had proper beds, tables, chairs, an ensuite bathroom and even air-conditioning. From our private deck we had lovely views of the river, and at night we went to sleep with the sound of the rushing water ringing in our dreams. My family seem to be of the general opinion that no trip to a river is complete without trying your hand at fishing. Not one to stand in their way, but not sharing their thoughts on fishing, I happily waved them off with their rods, and plenty of refreshments, to try their luck. Each tent has its own assigned tender boat and personal guide, and with access to over 100km of prime fishing waters I was sure they wouldn’t come back empty handed. I relaxed by the pool, with my book, to await their return. Several hours later they were back. The waters around the lodge are home to the sought after, ferocious tiger fish, as well as tilapia, African Pike and Zambezi Yellowfish. Despite this, my husband and sons between them, had only managed to hook a solitary tiger, which had apparently managed to jump off the line, taking the lodge’s policy of ‘catch and release’ a little too literally! They returned to the lodge with all the usual fisherman’s excuses about how it was the “wrong time of day”, or the “wrong time of year”, or wrong time of “something or other”… I personally think it was too much talking, and probably too many beers! Leaving Ichingo and travelling a few kilometers upstream on the Chobe River we ‘upsized’ our boat experience, and exchanged our sleek fishing motorboats for a 45m long luxury houseboat, the Zambezi Queen. A ‘boat safari’, on a floating boutique hotel, is an entirely different experience from a traditional land-based safari. This is a luxury vessel, with three floors and only fourteen cabins, so no more than 28 passengers at a time. Classic elegance with modern comforts, a five star experience in a wild environment. Navigating roughly 25km of the Chobe River, the Zambezi Queen allows you to explore the river and the land from a different vantage point. Watching the landscape constantly unfolding and changing before your eyes. There is something very special about drifting along a river with wildlife at eye level and almost within arm’s reach. Drinking herds of elephants, temperamental looking buffaloes, yawning pods of hippos and solitary, stealthy crocodiles that basked on sandbanks in the morning sun. Staying on board the Zambezi Queen is like being on a permanent game drive, but with a much higher comfort factor. This is a fantastic way to see wildlife from a completely different angle. The boat cruises slowly down the river, the Caprivi Strip on one side and Chobe National Park on the other, allowing you plenty of time to soak up the scenery. The first evening, moored in Namibian waters as the sun went down, we sat back, glass of wine in hand. Admiring the scenery and the dramatic colours of the sky and watching as the glowing orange sun slipped below the horizon. From the top deck, a large open space that houses the bar, lounge and dining area, huge windows opened onto uninterrupted views of the river, as twilight covered the land beyond. The soft lapping of water, the muffled grunts of hippos and the chirping of swallows nesting in the eves just outside my window, woke me the next morning. Opening the curtains, before returning to the comfort of a luxurious bed, we watched the Chobe River waking up before our eyes. A couple of hippos bobbed up and down in the water. A small herd of buffalo stared balefully and directly at us. Swaying grass on the bank revealed glimpses of camouflaged impala. The beauty of the scene left us speechless. The male members of my family opted for a pre-breakfast trip to try their hand at fishing again. I chose a more sedate bird-watching trip.  Gallinules, rails, crakes, herons and more flew amongst the floating reed bed islets. Dozens of smaller birds flitted through the undergrowth, their bright iridescent colours flashing against the foliage. Jacanas strode across rafts of waterlily leaves, each leaf the size of a dinner plate. The slow drift of our tender boat meant we didn’t disturb the peace and we could get right up close to the birdlife. After breakfast back on the boat we relaxed the morning away, a pair of binoculars close at hand, to take a closer look at anything that drew our attention as we drifted past. Leaving the ‘mother ship’ that afternoon, again by tender boat, we went out to get even closer to the wildlife. The dark blue colour of the river contrasted with the greens and browns of the bank. Birds swooped past us. Baboon families came down to the water’s edge to drink beside herds of impala and puku. We drifted past elephants, trunks in the water like giant straws, who paused mid ‘sip’ to watch our progress. Kingfishers hovered and plunged in the river, hunting for fish. There was something mesmerising about the river that afternoon. Another optional activity from the Zambezi Queen is to travel by tender boat to a local village on the floodplains of Namibia’s’ Caprivi Strip, where you meet the villagers and elders of the Subiya tribe and learn how the inhabitants of this 100-year old village live, and some of their traditions. You can purchase woven baskets, some jewellery, or perhaps a carved wooden animal, to take home as a memento of your holiday. If you want to, there is also an opportunity to give the children useful gifts like school stationery, books, etc. To finish off your visit, you can watch (and even join in) a display of traditional dancing and singing. Our final dinner on board. Glasses and cutlery glistened in the warm glow of the dining cabin. This was an African-themed dinner with a variety of traditional dishes. Waiters kept glasses full. Several trips were made by my various family members, back and forth to replenish their plates from the numerous desert offerings.  The entire Zambezi Queen cast and crew sang a selection of songs to farewell us before our early morning departure the following day. A memorable journey, a wonderful way to experience this stretch of the Chobe River. Our journey reminded me of Kenneth Grahame’s line in The Wind in the Willows… “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats”. Getting there The Zambezi Queen is ideally located for those wanting to visit the famous Victoria Falls or Chobe National Park. The Zambezi Queen is accessed by flying into Kasane International Airport, from where it is a 20 minute road transfer to the Botswana Immigration Post and then boat trip of around 15 minutes, via Namibian Immigration on the other side of the river, to the Zambezi Queen. A road transfer from Livingstone and Victoria Falls is a journey of two to three hours. When to go The Zambezi Queen sails on scheduled weekly departures every Monday (two-nights or four-nights), Wednesday (two-nights) and Friday (three-nights). Game viewing on the Chobe River is at its best from March to November when the weather is drier and the animals are more mobile as they search for food and water. Summer and spring also offer unique opportunities though, as you watch the landscape burst into life after the first rains of the season Birding season starts in September, when the first migrants arrive, boosting the bird population sometimes by 20% compared to the winter months. From December through to March birdlife on the Chobe is extremely busy and the colourful breeding plumage on display is an extraordinary sight. Fishing safaris can be done all year round, a good time is from the annual floods starting in March to the feeding frenzies in the winter months. Eco credentials Several environmentally friendly standards have been set on the Zambezi Queen. They run the latest, most fuel efficient and lowest emission generators during the day. After 22h00, the entire boat switches over to the battery power through the night. Hot water is provided by a solar heating system on-board the vessel and energy-saving lights are installed through the vessel. All cleaning detergents and amenities on the houseboats are biodegradable, and they use an eight-stage river water purification plant for water in showers, taps and the pool. A water jet propulsion system replaces the conventional propeller system causing no damage to the riverbed and/or fauna and flora.

Sarah Kingdom

Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, before moving to Africa at the age of 21, Sarah Kingdom is a mountain climber and guide, travel writer, yoga teacher, trail runner, and mother of two. When she is not climbing or traveling she lives on a cattle ranch in central Zambia. She guides trips regularly in India, Nepal, Tibet, Russia, and Ethiopia, and takes climbers up Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro numerous times a year.

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    1. Hi Carolyn, I highly recommend it! 😊 and what works really well is that you can go out in the tender boats for game viewing, bird watching, fishing, cultural visits etc, so aside from seeing so much from the Zambezi Queen you aren’t stuck on the big boat you’ve got other options open to you.

      Also it’s well located to tie in with visiting Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park.

  1. Sara, it’s an amazing experience, it’s almost tempting to just lie there in bed with a cup of coffee and just watch the world float past for hours. 😊

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