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Ellies! Hippos! You’re on a “Zambezi Queen” River Cruise!

See the hippos!

Gilbert, our Zambezi Queen guide, points to a jumble of large round boulders in the mud flats.

One boulder moves.

We make out red-rimmed eyes and little piggy ears.

Sure enough, it’s a hippo.

It stands up, waddles sideways, and then plops down on top of other boulders, creating a grey ripple of hippo flesh.

You see hippos everywhere on this Chobe River safari on the Zambezi Queen!
You see hippos everywhere on this Chobe River safari on the Zambezi Queen!

You’ll see lots more hippos in the afternoon when they wake up to feed,” says Gilbert cheerfully.

Then he turns the boat toward a herd of long-tusked elephants on the riverbank, busy splattering mud over their bodies with their trunks.

Elephants on the Chobe River bathing and drinking
A herd of elephants enjoy bathing and drinking in the river

Zambezi Queen review

When it came time to write this Zambezi Queen review, it was the hippos and elephants that stood out the most for us.

An African river cruise boat can be lovely.

But what’s the point if you don’t get gob-smacking game viewing?

Zambezi Queen
The lovely Zambezi Queen offers unique African river safaris

We’d left our mother vessel, the Zambezi Queen, and were zipping along the Chobe River between Botswana and Namibia on a small aluminum boat.

We ducked into reedy shallows…

To watch an eight-foot Nile crocodile sleep in the sun (then leap into the river with a huge splash).

To see Egyptian geese, black-and-white kingfishers, white egrets and yellow-billed storks preening and fluttering about mauve water lilies.

To spot hippos and elephants.

The bird watching is as fabulous as the game viewing on a Zambezi Queen river safari
The bird watching is as fabulous as the game viewing on a Zambezi Queen river safari

These enthralling sights are just part of the rich game viewing and bird watching experienced on an African river cruise aboard the Zambezi Queen.

And the Zambezi Queen boat delivers all of this in style!

Zambezi Queen houseboat

Part of the Zambezi Queen Collection, the Zambezi Queen is 138 feet (42 meters) long.

The Zambezi Queen is more like a houseboat that floats on the river rather than a river cruise.
The Zambezi Queen is more like a houseboat that floats on the river rather than a river cruise

Built in the early 1990s, the luxury Chobe houseboat was taken over by the Mantis group in 2012 and reinvented for today’s river safari guests.

(The Mantis Group manages a collection of five-star boutique hotels, eco-lodges and yachts around the world.)

Two- and three-night Chobe river cruises can be booked on the Zambezi Queen. And it offers one of Africa’s most unique safari experiences.

On a Zambezi Queen river cruise, the ellie and hippo viewing is nothing short of amazing.
On a Zambezi Queen river cruise, the ellie and hippo viewing is nothing short of amazing

African safari river cruises

Normally on safari, you stay on land in a lodge or tent.

On the Zambezi Queen, however, you float on the water, soaking up the life of the floodplain.

Staterooms on this Chobe houseboat

Resembling a houseboat, the Zambezi Queen has 14 spacious staterooms on the lower two of its three decks.

Ten standard staterooms range from 215 sq. ft. (19 sq. meters) to 235 sq. ft. (218 sq. meters), while four master suites are a generous 300 sq. ft. (28 sq. meters).

They’re all lovely, with white walls decorated with sepia photographs of wild animals, gauzy curtains, small balconies and deliciously comfortable king-size beds with quality linens.

Ensuite bathrooms have faux wood floors and glass showers.

Zambezi Queen staterooms have balconies for sitting out and enjoying the views

All staterooms have air-conditioning to keep you cool at night too (but you don’t really need it between May and September).

The only thing you have to be careful about on this Chobe houseboat is closing your balcony doors and outside metal shutters when it gets dark.

(After leaving the doors open and lights on one evening, we returned to find a bug party in our cabin – hey, this is Africa. But the staff kindly cleaned our room all over again.)

At 10 pm, the main lights are turned off, and the boat’s power is switched to back-up.

Getting to the Zambezi Queen river boat

The journey to get to the Zambezi Queen is quite the adventure in itself.

The Zambezi Queen awaits in the Chobe River on the Namibia side of the river.

Even getting to the Zambezi Queen, moored in Namibia, is an adventure

Following our lion-oriented South African safari, we flew from Johannesburg to Livingstone, Zambia, where we were driven to the banks of the Zambezi River and ferried across to Kasane, Botswana.

You may fly directly into the new Kasane International Airport in Botswana.

After getting your passport stamped, you’re guided to a vehicle for transfer to the Kasane Immigration Office.

There, Zambezi Queen staff help you through passport control to exit Botswana and board a motor boat to cross the Chobe River to the Namibian Immigration Office.

Keep your eyes peeled, as you could spot ellies or other wildlife!

Giraffe drinking in Africa
Spot the animals on the way to the Zambezi Queen

After getting your passport stamped from the Namibian office, you clamber back into the boat for a high-speed ride to the Zambezi Queen.

Going through passport control and immigration has never been so much fun!

Welcome! An elegant Chobe river cruise boat

Once we were onboard, smiling Namibian staff (mostly women, wearing bright orange turbans and long dresses) greeted us with African songs.

Smiling staff welcomed us onboard the Zambezi Queen with African songs.
Smiling staff welcomed us onboard the Zambezi Queen with African songs

Then we were ushered upstairs to the top deck for a glass of champagne.

And what a view awaited us up there!

The entire top deck, consisting of the lounge, library and dining room, is one open room.

As it’s completely open on three sides, you have unobstructed views of the African scenery. (At night, staff roll down see-through screens and turn the air-conditioning on.)

Zambezi Queen
Great views can be had from this top deck lounge and restaurant

Sipping our champagne, while reclining against zebra-striped cushions on a cream sofa, we watched an amazing tableau of perhaps 20 elephants munching away on a grassy river island.

Occasionally, they’d splash each other with water.

The setting sun cast a golden glow over the scene, a refreshing breeze kept us cool and the travel rigors of the day just melted away.

Game viewing and more on the Zambezi Queen river cruise

Water-based excursions

We saw plenty more elephants on “water game drives” throughout our three-night African river cruise.

These small boat excursions brought us even closer to the river-based wildlife.

On a small boat excursion, we saw this baby elephant (mama wasn't too far away).
On a small boat excursion, we saw this baby elephant (mama wasn’t too far away)

Crocs, comical-looking warthogs drinking from the river, mother and baby elephants, hippos galore (as promised by Gilbert) and an Audubon-worthy abundance of birds that would make serious birdwatchers swoon – we reveled watching all.

Chobe National Park excursion

A half-day is also devoted to a game drive on land in Chobe National Park.

The second biggest park in Botswana, Chobe has one of the largest populations of wildlife on the African continent.

Climbing into a six-person open Land Cruiser with a shade roof, we set off along red-sand tracks through the park.

Monkeys, impala, giraffes… So many animals to see!

The dry ochre-colored savannah, pockmarked by enormous “upside-down” baobab trees and thorny shrubs, was quite a contrast to the lush green scenes of the river.

So were the animals we saw.

Gangly giraffes, their heads peering over acacia trees.

Baby baboons, chasing each other and hitching rides astride their mothers.

Graceful impala, bounding across the bushland.

A Cape buffalo (they're quite cranky creatures and can be dangerous)
The animals you see in Chobe National Park are different than the ones you see on water-based excursions

We kept an eye out for lions.

But we didn’t see any. (Lions usually sleep during the day and hunt at night.)

If you're lucky, you'll see lions too on your game drive in Chobe National Park.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see lions too on your game drive in Chobe National Park

Rural village visit

You also have the opportunity to visit the rural Namibian village from which the Zambezi Queen staff are hired.

You learn how the local people live in clay huts and cook on open fires, and you can buy hand-beaded jewelry, wood carvings and other souvenirs from them too.

Not much cruising on the Zambezi Queen cruise

Keeping eyes peeled for wildlife!
Keeping eyes peeled for wildlife!

With all the activities, the Zambezi Queen doesn’t do much actual cruising.

It mostly just glides along at a leisurely pace between two moorings about 15+ miles (25 kilometers) apart. In this sense, it’s more like a houseboat than a river cruise.

Indeed, we wished our Chobe river cruise was longer – so we could chill out more on a lounge chair or soak in the outdoor hot tub on the upper back deck, watching the wilderness scenery slowly unfold.

Dining onboard

Fine wines that complement those beautiful meals are included on a Zambezi Queen river cruise

We also still hanker for another slice of the heavenly lemon meringue pie served for dessert one day.

Focusing on quality not copious quantities, the food is delicious, with salads, quiches and fish for lunch and international specialties for dinner.

The lemon meringue pie is famous on the Zambezi Queen!
The lemon meringue pie is famous on the Zambezi Queen!

The last night is a special buffet of typical African foods – like spicy lamb stew and creamed spinach in peanut sauce and oxtail.

And the staff, dressed in grass skirts, coax all the guests to join them in traditional singing and dancing.

Still, for us, the river life stands out the most.

We couldn’t get enough of the elephants on the riverbanks, the rainbow-colored birds strutting in the grasses and the hippos, waking us up with their ho-ho-ho grunting – only in Africa…

The Chobe Princesses

The three Chobe Princesses are more intimate again than the Zambezi Queen
The three Chobe Princesses are more intimate again than the Zambezi Queen

If you prefer an even more intimate Chobe houseboat, you can book one of the three smaller Chobe Princesses.

After refurbishment, they joined the Zambezi Queen Collection in 2015.

They also underwent another facelift in 2019, with upgrades to the bathrooms and pool decks installation of new beds and furnishings.

Two of the Chobe Princesses are 60 feet (19 meters) long and have four staterooms.

The third Chobe Princess is slightly bigger and has five staterooms.

You won’t lack for comfort on a Chobe Princess

Like the Zambezi Queen, staterooms have king-size beds and air-conditioning.

Staterooms also have large sliding windows overlooking the ever-changing river views.

And each houseboat has a plunge pool too.

The Chobe Princesses also have their own smaller “tender” boats to take you out on daily river excursions.

Game viewing from the Chobe Princess
Game viewing from the Chobe Princess

Things to know about a Chobe River safari

The Zambezi Queen as part of a tour

Many guests take a Zambezi Queen cruise as part of a longer African safari tour packaged by AmaWaterways.

Booking on your own

If traveling independently, the Zambezi Queen and Chobe Princesses are typically booked for two or three nights.

Rates include all excursions, a premium selection of South African wines and boat transfers from the Kasane Immigration Office in Botswana.

Staggered transfer times are offered on the hour between 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm. If you take the 1:00 pm or 2:00 pm transfer, you’ll be greeted with lunch. (Snacks are offered if you take a later transfer.)

When to go

The best time to book this African river cruise is during the cooler, dry season from May to November.


Take anti-malarial precautions, as the Zambezi Queen and Chobe Princesses are in a malaria area.

Other Zambezi Queen reviews

We’re not the only ones who love the Zambezi Queen cruises.

The Zambezi Queen Collection won the award for “Africa’s Leading River Cruise Company” in the 2023 World Travel Awards.

Previously, it snapped up the same award in the 2022 World Travel Awards. And it’s won the award for the “World’s Leading Boutique Cruise” for several years in a row.

Booking your Zambezi Queen luxury African river safari

More information

For more information about the Zambezi Queen and Chobe Princesses, see the Zambezi Queen Collection website.

Also visit Victoria Falls

When in the area, be sure to also visit nearby Victoria Falls, one of the world’s seven natural wonders.

On the Zambia side of the falls, the top-rated Royal Livingstone Hotel is just a 10-minute walk from the thundering waterfalls.

On the Zimbabwe side, the lovely Victoria Falls Safari Club offers an exclusive hotel-within-a-hotel experience.

Check out more of Africa!

Walking safaris: Discover the best walking safaris in Africa. (Just beware the lions!)

Sabi Sands: What’s it like to go on a “Big Five” safari in Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa?

Safari in Chobe National Park: On a Chobe safari, you won’t believe all the animals in the Land of the Giants!

Our top travel tips and resources

Hotels: is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)

Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more.

Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)

Need more help planning your trip? Check out our travel tips and resources guide for airline booking tips, ways to save money, how to find great hotels and other crazy useful trip planning info.

Pssst! If you make a booking or purchase through our site, we may earn a small commission (at no cost to you). Thanks!

Photo credits: 4, 12, 14 to 16, 18 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | Remaining photos the Zambezi Queen Collection

About the authors

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!

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  1. Sally says:

    What a breathtakingly beautiful river safari! Must have been so special to see the elephants on the riverbank and the hippos popping their heads up! I’ve only been on a river safari once in Tanzania and found it so magical – I would love to explore this area one day!

    • It was incredibly special… Now your river safari in Tanzania sounds interesting ??

      • Sally says:

        Thank you! It was quite special – we were in Selous which is much less populated than the bigger safari areas like Serengeti – it was just so peaceful and we also spotted hippos and crocodiles whilst taking in the scenery – I think someone that day had spotted a leopard hiding on a rock on the banks but we weren’t quite as lucky with that! Still just magical though :)

  2. Heather says:

    This is was a wonderful read and had me smiling the entire time! I travel quite a lot, but have yet to make it to Africa. It is my hope to touch the continent next year and then return again when my husband gets out of the military (as they will not issue permission for him to go there at this time…gotta love the military). Thank you for such a great experience through your eyes!

  3. Leigh says:

    This looks beautiful – magical really. In 2008 I cycled from Tanzania to Victoria Falls – camping mostly so as a treat at the end I did a three night safari in Botswana at a beautiful lodge. I remember the ferry boat ride across the river – where Zimbabwe and Botswana share a border. Interesting to see that the wait was a week for the truck drivers. Truly a fantastic part of the world to visit.

  4. Anda says:

    I have always been attracted to far-away lands and countries with exotic resonance, like Botswana, or Namibia… Unfortunately I haven’t been able to travel to Africa so far. Your post sounds so intriguing and your photos are so inviting that I wish I could go there someday.

  5. Suzanne Fluhr says:

    I’m reading this in Cape Town, South Africa. We will be heading northeast to a game reserve near Kruger National Park later during our trip. The Zambezi Queen seems like a pretty awesome alternative to a land-based safari lodge and the price is actually comparable to some we’ve seen. However, I must confess that we have a bit of a visceral reaction to the idea of small boat touring in Botswana. The University of Pennsylvania where my husband works is associated with a teaching hospital in Botswana and quite a few Penn docs have done teaching rotations there. Unfortunately, one was pulled out of a small boat and eaten by a crocodile. Shudder. He might have had a hand in the water—-but still……..

  6. Anita and Richard says:

    Wow! Looks like a “dream come true” journey combining both luxury and amazing wildlife. We’ve yet to visit Africa but it’s on our radar and, with posts like this, our interest is increasing. Stunning photos.

  7. Laquel says:

    This trip looks amazing! I have yet to travel to Africa, but I really would love to see the wildlife like this! I’m curious if you’ve done any larger boat cruises in Africa? Or do you tend to like these smaller ones instead? Thanks!

    • This was the only “cruise” we’ve done in Africa (apart from Nile River cruises in Egypt). But we understand a few small cruise ships do some cruises calling in at Cape Town, Madagascar, the Seychelles and elsewhere. We could happily explore other places in Africa by cruise ship :-).

  8. Carole Terwilliger Meyers says:

    Your journey on the Zambezi Queen sounds intriguing. I see you can sign up for as few as two nights, which is what I would probably do since I’ve never been to Africa and definitely want to do the safari camp thing, too.

  9. katie says:

    This is incredible! Seeing this kind of wildlife is so high on my wishlist of things to do! How lucky you are to have experienced it!

  10. Betsy Wuebker says:

    This looks absolutely amazing! What a magnificent way to see incredible wildlife and scenery. Like an over the top luxury version of The African Queen. Wow!

  11. Alison Abbott says:

    Have to chime in and agree with everyone else’s opinions about how utterly amazing this sounds. What a different way to visit this part of the world and get up close to so many animals. The thought of gently gliding along on a small luxurious boat, as opposed to the bumpy jeep ride….Well I would happily take part in either, but you can guess where my first choice would be. Dreamy!

  12. Kathryn says:

    I’m not to keen on ocean cruises but this sounds fabulous, such a wonderful way to discover Africa’s wildlife. Would love to do this myself one day.

  13. Kristin Henning says:

    Oh my!!! I want to do this so much! What a fantastic experience.

  14. Linda Bibb says:

    I had to share this on social media. It’s such a cool alternative to the usual safari! Must go someday. I loved my Rhine river cruise and this looks even more relaxing.

  15. Marilyn Jones says:

    Oh, what a perfect way to go on safari! And your photos are awesome!!

  16. Anne Jahn says:

    I’m interested in a Zambezi river adventure without a single occupancy fee.

  17. Irene S. Levine says:

    What a fascinating way to take a safari! I never realized that you could do so over water.

  18. Dean Treichel says:

    Great review, I can’t wait for one of our clients to travel on this amazing way to see an incredible part of Africa. Thanks for the great preview.

  19. Muza-chan says:

    Great photos…

  20. Lily Lau says:

    What an exciting experience you two just had! What a lucky couple you are, I wish I had been there too :) Thanks for sharing this with us, at least we could live it through your eyes.

  21. Freya says:

    WoW what a unique experience. A safari has been high on my list for quite some time now and this river safari sounds perfect.

  22. Chaitanya Shah says:

    Wow. Luxury in a place you’d least expect. It’s fantastic that such ventures would support the locals economically. I’m sure it must be a great experience.

  23. Tammy Vig says:

    Have you actually been to the Royal Livingstone hotel? I haven’t, but read on another travel blog that it was a budget experience at 5 star prices and that they absolutely would not recommend it.

    • Yes, we stayed for several days at the Royal Livingstone Hotel. See our blog post. Don’t think of this as a budget experience – it’s definitely a top luxury resort! It’s a larger resort, however, not a small boutique hotel. We found it a great place to recharge (with all the convenient luxuries – air conditioning, plush bedding, lots of space, public swimming pool with lounge chairs by the river, restaurants, etc.) after one safari and before going into the bush in Zambia on another safari.