Conjure up an image of an African safari and chances are you’ll imagine dusty days spent rattling through the bush in a Land Rover, bumping down rutted roads in search of the "big five". After a few hours, you’ll feel like you’ve gone five rounds in the ring, and will head straight for the spa to try to massage out the kinks.
Aboard the Zambezi Queen, a five-star safari takes on an entirely different course, as you cruise serenely along a 25-kilometre stretch of the beautiful Chobe River in north-eastern Botswana.
The Chobe is one of Africa’s most famous waterways. From its source in the Angolan Highlands, it flows through the famed Linyanti Swamps to form the border between Botswana and Namibia, before joining the Zambezi River. A year-round source of water, it attracts vast numbers of herbivores, with thousands of elephants, buffaloes and hippos making their home here.
Few visits to the region are as memorable as those aboard the Zambezi Queen, the most luxurious houseboat in southern Africa. The vessel has plied the waters of the Chobe River since 2009, and was recently relaunched after a complete revamp. The new aesthetic is the work of interior designer Maurette van Eyssen, who let the organic colours and textures of the surrounding riverbanks guide the boat’s new aesthetic.
“Bringing nature into the design was very important, since I wanted to create a seamless sophisticated flow from indoors to outdoors,” says van Eyssen, who found myriad touch points to work with.
Nguni cowhides are a nod to the villagers that graze their cattle on the grassy shores, while natural textures and tones subtly reflect the lush Chobe landscape in Botswana. “The subtle colour palette of nature, the reeds growing along the river, the trees on the banks, the boldness of the building clouds before the storm, the bright designs on [local] printed skirts” were but some of the things van Eyssen drew upon.
That splash of colour carries through to the guest suites, which feature striking fabrics by Ardmore, an award-winning South African artists’ collective. The 14 suites are spread across the lower two decks of the Zambezi Queen, and offer more than enough room for your days aboard, with spacious bedrooms, ample bathrooms and generous showers. The pick of the lot is the four luxury suites at the bow, each with a wide private balcony and impressive views of the river unfurling ahead.
Upstairs, the top deck of the Zambezi Queen are communal areas, including a sun deck and splash pool. Step inside (the air-con is a gift on hot African afternoons) and you’ll find an airily elegant space that stretches the length of the ship, with a cosy dining area and intimate lounges facing onto sliding picture windows, allowing for effortless game viewing as the Queen cruises upstream.
But as tempting as it is to stay onboard, the real adventure begins when you step aboard the dedicated game-viewing speedboats. Much like a land-based safari lodge, days on the Zambezi Queen follow a familiar rhythm of morning and afternoon excursions, and the speedboat trips in search of wildlife are an unforgettable highlight of my time aboard.
The Chobe River is shared by Namibia and Botswana, and safari boats traverse the waters of both countries, cruising between the grassy islands of the Namibian shore and the forested banks of Botswana’s Chobe National Park.
The dry months of winter – roughly June to September – are the best time to visit. With the rainy season long gone, and the waterholes drying out, large herds of herbivores throng the banks, with adventurous elephants wading shoulder-deep to feed on juicy aquatic plants.
And while the birding is best in the rainy summer – January is peak season for twitchers – there was no shortage of sightings to keep us entertained, from white-faced whistling ducks in the grasslands to green wood hoopoes cackling in the branches of riverside jackalberry trees. Spend some time scanning the waterberry trees of Kakumba Island and you may be rewarded with a sighting of the rare Pel’s fishing owl too.
With minimal effort, it soon felt like we were ticking off a “greatest hits” of being on safari. To the left, a pied kingfisher sat with a tiny tilapia clamped within its razor-sharp beak. Deeper into the bush, two lions had paired off. To the right, a herd of buffalo eyed us warily as they chewed the cud. Up ahead? A herd of elephant sploshing in the shallows, throwing showers of water across their leathery skin. Above, delivering the soundtrack to it all, the unmistakable call of an African fish eagle.
Aside from the game viewing trips, guests can visit nearby villages for a glimpse of local culture, or set aside a few afternoon hours casting a line for tiger fish. These hard-fighting game fish are legendary in Africa, and the rapids downstream of Kasane town are an excellent place to catch them.
I try my luck on the last evening, as the sun dips low over the Zambezi. “Tiger fishing is best in July and August when the water is low,” says my guide Success Kachingo, as he baits my line. “But maybe we’ll be lucky.”
We certainly are, and it’s not long before my reel whines and a 2kg tiger fish is scooped aboard, a foot-long slab of muscle and angry teeth. We land a few more before the grunting of nearby hippo and the lowering sun remind us that it’s time to head back to the Zambezi Queen. While there may not be a campfire crackling, she rests quietly at anchor against a burnished orange sky. The queen of the river indeed.