“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’ll see lots more in the afternoon when they wake up to feed,” says Gilbert cheerfully, as he turns the boat toward a herd of long-tusked elephants on the riverbank, busy splattering mud over their bodies with their trunks.
We’re on a small aluminum boat, zipping along the Chobe River between Botswana and Namibia – ducking into reedy shallows to watch an eight-foot Nile crocodile sleep in the sun (then leap into the river with a huge splash), see Egyptian geese, black-and-white kingfishers, white egrets and yellow-billed storks preening and fluttering about mauve water lilies, and spot hippos and elephants.
These enthralling sights are just part of the rich game viewing and bird watching experienced on an African river cruise aboard the Zambezi Queen.
Zambezi Queen houseboat
Part of the Zambezi Queen Collection, the Zambezi Queen is 138 feet (42 meters) long.
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.
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.
And ever since it arrived on the cruise scene, the Zambezi Queen has been a hit!
It once again won the honor of “World’s Leading Boutique Cruise” in the 2017 World Travel Awards.
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.
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
The journey to get to the Zambezi Queen is quite the adventure in itself.
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. Zambezi Queen staff took us in a small boat across the Chobe River to Namibia.
From there, we trudged through desert sand to a simple border hut. That was an entertaining immigration check.
Have you ever had to search for the immigration officer – and find him sleeping under a tree?
After getting our passports stamped, we clambered back into the boat for a high-speed ride to the Zambezi Queen.
Welcome! An elegant Chobe river cruise boat
Onboard, smiling Namibian staff (mostly women, wearing bright orange turbans and long dresses) greeted us 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.)
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 drives and village excursion
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.
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.
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.
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.
We kept an eye out for lions, but we didn’t see any (they usually sleep during the day and hunt at night).
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
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.
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.
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 onboard is delicious, with salads, quiches and fish for lunch and international specialties for dinner.
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
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.
Each has their own smaller “tender” boats to take you out on daily river excursions.
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.
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.
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.
See the Zambezi Queen Collection website.
Must-do 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.
Photos that aren’t ours are courtesy the Zambezi Queen Collection
Our magazine and newspaper articles on the Zambezi Queen
A version of this story was first published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles magazine. Click on the image below to read a PDF of this travel feature:
Postscript June 30, 2016
We’re thrilled! We won two major travel writing awards for this Cruise & Travel Lifestyles story: A “2nd Place” in the 2015 Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC) annual travel writing competition and a “Finalist” award in the 2014 North American Travel Journalists (NATJA) awards competition.
Update May 10, 2017: This post has been updated and additional content added.
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We’re Janice and George Mucalov, professional award-winning travel writers, sharing tales of luxury travel with a twist of adventure.