A pod of six hippos is lounging amongst the lily pads on the Botswana side of Africa's Chobe River. Mostly submerged, they look comically similar to crocodiles, with only their nostrils, eyes and ears visible. I'm wishing the driver of our small tender would move closer for a better look when a young woman standing near me suddenly lets out a piercing scream.
We all turn in time to see a hippo seemingly suspended in the air beside us, mouth wide open, like something out of Jaws. Our driver quickly puts the flat-bottom, open-sided boat into reverse. While we've been watching the hippos close to shore through telephoto lenses, this one has sneaked up right beside us underwater. "They run along and push off from the bottom," our guide explains once the angry hippo has sunk back into the river and we're far enough away to laugh about it.
"One more minute and I thought he'd be in the boat," the screaming woman's mother confides when we're back on-board our mother ship, the Zambezi Queen, and reliving our day's adventures over a glass of wine as we cruise the river between Botswana and Namibia.
Courtesy of Mantis River
An African safari by river is unlike any you'll experience on land. The obvious difference, of course, is that instead of sitting in a Land Rover for hours on end, you're in the more spacious comfort of a boat. And instead of watching animals gather around a watering hole, you get to see them along the ultimate watering hole – a river that never dries up.
The Zambezi Queen – a luxury houseboat with just 14 rooms – welcomes guests on two- and three-day excursions up and down the Chobe, a shallow river with a complex network of channels and marshes. (You would expect that a boat named the Zambezi Queen would cruise the river of the same name, but the Zambezi proved too tricky for this three-storey vessel to navigate. Instead, it travels a 25-kilometre stretch of the Chobe River, not far from the Zambezi and close to Africa's "four corners," where Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe meet.)
From my bed the first morning I watch the African landscape glide past. Cows graze peacefully on the Namibian side, and occasionally we pass men fishing from mokoros – the traditional dugout canoe. On the Botswana side, red hills contain the river's vast flood plains, which – in May – are high and dry and bordered by dazzling displays of water lilies. The bird life here is remarkable, with more than 450 species. Just outside my balcony, I spot a smallish orange wader – the African jacana also known as "the Jesus bird" – striding from one lime-green lily pad to the next in search of food, its long legs and ridiculously long toes creating the impression that it's walking on water.
Courtesy of Mantis River
There's plenty of time for watching because we're in no hurry to get anywhere. The Zambezi Queen moves at a leisurely eight kilometres an hour. "Sometimes there could be 20 elephants crossing the river and we stop for them," one of the staff tells me. Our days are just as leisurely, beginning with a buffet breakfast on the upper deck. (In fact, all the meals, prepared by a talented Namibian chef and her team, are tasty and surprisingly sophisticated for being kilometres from a market or town. Dinners might include freshwater bream, grilled Namibian beef or even a filet of impala with a peppercorn sauce.)
A couple of times a day we board a small tender to get even closer to the Botswana side of the river, where Chobe National Park protects great herds of elephants and Cape buffalo, as well as a plethora of predators – lions, leopards and hyenas – and, of course, those pesky hippos.
Although it's far from the largest park in Africa, Chobe has one of the highest concentrations of game on the continent and is known for its huge population of elephants – more than 120,000. If you're partial to pachyderms, this is the place to come.
Courtesy of Mantis River
One afternoon, we watch a herd of "bachelor" elephants on the riverbank just metres from our tender. The bank is slightly higher than our boat, which makes for some rather interesting views. "That's what I call well-hung," pipes up a woman from South Africa when one elephant strolls past like he's on a model's runway, his manly parts dangling conspicuously before our eyes.
Soon, two bulls begin to duke it out in front of us. They use their strong, flexible trunks and their dangerously sharp tusks to push and prod each other. "The patriarch is saying 'Get out of my way,'" explains Bernard Suse, our guide, as we wonder how this shoving match is going to end. "There's a rank, just like soldiers," he adds.
A few minutes later, the junior elephant gives in and turns tail. But the patriarch gets in what must be a painful parting shot, using one of his tusks to give a literal "up yours!"
Courtesy of Mantis River
Female elephants have a hierarchy, too, we learn. The matriarch, who looks after a herd of about 60 elephants, even decides which male her herd will mate with. "She chooses the right bull, the right genes for the herd," Suse says. And the females can be as quarrelsome as the bulls, fighting to determine who gets to mate first. "They don't like to queue for sex!" laughs another South African in our group.
Before I boarded the Zambezi Queen I spent a week on safari in Botswana's Okavango Delta, and a couple of days on a private game reserve in neighbouring South Africa. Both were wonderful and we saw lots of wildlife, but our days had a different pace – up before dawn every morning to track elusive animals, back to the lodge for breakfast and rest, then out in the Land Rover again each evening. Rather than relaxing, it felt almost relentless.
Here, we feel in sync with the flow of the river, part of the natural rhythm of the African bush. We can hear the roar of a lion over dinner, and watch a herd of Cape buffalo from the plunge pool on the front deck. A fellow Canadian I meet on board is equally enamoured. "This is the best way to view game I've ever heard of," Chris Philips of Kelowna, B.C., tells me over coffee on our last morning. Then – with what appeared to be a slight grimace – he adds that he still has a land-based safari to come.
If you go
South African Airways offers non-stop daily flights year-round from New York to Johannesburg. From there, it flies daily to Kasane, Botswana, the closest airport to the Zambezi Queen. flysaa.com
The Zambezi Queen is a 42-metre long houseboat with 14 suites, each with air-conditioning and private balcony. WiFi is limited. Two-night cruises start at approximately $995 a person, with three-nights from about $1,500. Fares cover all meals, beverages (including local wine and beer), excursions and transfers. The Zambezi Queen Collection includes three smaller houseboats known as the Chobe Princesses that also operate on the Chobe River and are available for private charter. zqcollection.com
WHERE TO STAY
Victoria Falls is about a two-hour drive from Kasane and the Zambezi Queen can arrange your transfer (approximately $65 per person one way). For luxury on the bank of the Zambezi River, stay at the Royal Livingstone Hotel (from $1,190 a night), a 10-minute walk from the falls. With zebra freely roaming the grounds, you'll feel like you're still on safari.
The writer was a guest of Zambezi Queen. It did not review or approve this article.