I last set eyes on this slow-flowing, lazy river over 20 years ago as a cash-strapped student, breathless with the prospect of adventure that lay before me. Happy memories flooded back as we puttered lazily up the Chobe from the village of Kasane in Botswana to a Namibian customs office across the river, in the middle of nowhere.
This time, I was returning as a guest of the Mantis Collection for a multilayered experience: five South Africans (one, an ex-Zimbabwean), in four countries, for five days on an opulent escape that began with the Zambezi Queen.
A luxury ‘floatel’, she rose quietly before our transfer boat in the heat of the afternoon, stately in her tranquil domain. Botswana’s Chobe National Park with its green flood plains and fat, contented game stretched out on one side. On the other, the Caprivi Strip’s golden grasses swayed gently as far as the eye could see, peppered with the ubiquitous umbrella thorn trees that characterise the bushveld.
The stillness was punctured with a smiling song of welcome by the Namibian staff as we boarded – cool, scented facecloths in hand and, soon after, glasses of chilled bubbly to accelerate instant relaxation. Hello, nirvana.
Helmsman of the sophisticated vessel for this week was young hotelier Ian le Roux. He plied us, and the 10-strong posse of discerning Mexican widows who arrived hot on our heels, with a gracious hospitality that belied his age. We would be 30 guests in total over the next three days.
After settling into tastefully appointed suites – 14 in all – we sank gratefully into the plunge pool on deck, while Moses and Moses, the bar duo, took care of our refreshments. As we wallowed in the tannin-rich water, Ian explained the daily triple-phase water filtration process to us, in keeping with the Queen’s strict eco policy: no added chemicals means no river pollution.
The park was bulging with herds of elephant and Cape buffalo, antelope and giraffe. Sun-drunk crocodiles plopped into the cool water while ‘hippopotameyes’ surveyed us from the middle of the river. Earlier, I’d wryly observed the signs advising us of the availability of life jackets: if you’re unfortunate enough to tip overboard, you’ll have to outswim the inhabitants. Or at least your shipmates. Hippos, with their comical wiggly ears, rank among the most dangerous animals in Africa, followed closely by buffalo.
Our first taste of true African sunsets didn’t disappoint: towering cumulonimbus clouds delivered a dramatic backdrop to the fading vermilion of the sun. A superb three-course dinner, prepared from scratch, was a sublime ending to the day as Ian went off to mediate a case of lost luggage and a not-so-merry Mexican widow. Chef Josephine’s famous lemon meringue was a hit: stalwart anti-dessert queens crumbled in the face of this delectable creation.
We woke to the cries of fish eagles as the sun rose above the Namibian horizon. After breakfast, safari scouts Gilbert and Felix took us out on a tender boat for an up-close-and-personal encounter with the wildlife we’d spied from the mothership. We witnessed raptors vying for a kill, while storks, herons and kingfishers hovered in search of unsuspecting fish. African jacanas – named ‘Jesus birds’ – appeared to walk on water as they hopped on and off floating vegetation with their ridiculously long-toed large feet. A forlorn buffalo nursed a lion-inflicted wound (and its dignity) with the help of an oxpecker. Tsessebe, puku, kudu and waterbuck swelled the ranks of the antelope population.
Just metres from us, a couple of elephant herds cooled off in the mud on the shore, and we watched enthralled as a matriarch deliberated over whether to lead her charges across the river to Namibia or not. As they took the plunge, babies were wedged between adults for protection against predators, and gently assisted through the exertion of the swim. We wondered how the flood plains would transform in a few weeks’ time as the anticipated November rains expanded the Chobe’s banks.
Late-afternoon rain clouds gathered in a pregnant sky as we sipped quality South African wines in the understated elegance of the airy, open-plan upper deck, with its modern neutrals. The staff put on an interactive show with local songs and dance, even enticing the Latin ladies who were celebrating the return of the elusive suitcase with a game of canasta.
After dinner, we took in a sky studded with stars from our private balconies – to the sound of soft hippo grunts and the muted splashing of fish. I marvelled at the incongruity of a passing fisherman in his mokoro (a wooden dugout), face illuminated by the eerie glow of a cellphone as he navigated the waterway.
Bidding a reluctant farewell to the Zambezi Queen the next morning, we were ferried back to Kasane, and headed for our next stop, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, about an hour’s bus trip away. A hand with a fistful of notes stuck itself through our bus door: ‘Hello, 10 trillion dollars?’ Welcome to Zimbabwe.
If we thought we’d already died and gone to heaven, the universe had other plans. Just 10 minutes from the falls, the 6 000-acre Stanley and Livingstone Private Game Reserve immediately conjured up images of Karen Blixen’s Africa and its accompanying colonial grandeur. Named for intrepid English explorers Henry Morton Stanley and Dr David Livingstone, the gracious establishment with its air-conditioned suites offered welcome respite from the October heat.
An afternoon swim, presided over by a feathered racket of weavers in a large fever tree, was followed by an afternoon game drive. For four hours, our guide Orpheus entertained us with dry humour and nuggets of information on the rich wildlife of the reserve in which the lodge is located. We could easily expect the Big Five, he said, and three of those duly presented themselves in the form of buffalo, elephant and a crash of seven black rhino, fiercely protected by the park’s anti-poaching unit. We watched a newborn zebra calf nursing while Orpheus explained how his mother kept him apart from the herd until he became stronger and could stand up to dominant zebra males and other predators.
The park, tinderbox-dry in anticipation of the wet season, would soon become a tangle of green teakland. We could smell rain long before the heavens opened and, by the time we arrived at our dinner venue, a lapa in the bush, we’d been introduced to our first proper thunderstorm.
Though we hadn’t seen a lion kill, halfway through our meal, the chefs ran wide-eyed out of the kitchen. Suspended in the thatch roof was a python, devouring its supper. We could just see the unfortunate victim’s tail and feet sticking out of its mouth.
Over breakfast on the veranda overlooking the reserve’s main waterhole and its early-morning visitors, we opted to take a trip to nearby Victoria Falls. Though the Zambezi was flowing at its lowest, Mosi-oa-Tunya (‘the smoke that thunders’), at 1 708m wide and 108m high, is a sight to behold. Its cool spray is at times visible from up to 48km away.
From our picture-perfect lookout points along the path through the rain-forested gorge edge, we watched adventure seekers plunge into the Devil’s Pool on the Zambian side of the falls. It was our turn the next day. And so to our fifth country in as many days: an easy border crossing took us over the bridge that separates the two nations. We’d watched bungee jumpers launch from it as we’d sipped rock shandies sedately on the patio of the famous Victoria Falls Hotel on the previous afternoon.
After a quick whizz in a motorboat to tiny Livingstone Island, expertly trained guides swam with us through fast-moving channels to the pool. We sat, white-knuckled, hearts thudding as unseen fish nibbled on our knees at the edge of paradise, watching incredulous tourists on the other side through shimmering rainbows. This was life-enhancing joy in its purest form.
Back at the lodge that evening, our gamedrive host Nkosi related anecdotes about close shaves with elephants and hysterical tourists to a spectacular sunset, as giraffe, kudu, eland and sable antelope mooched past. We savoured our good fortune and swapped travel tales as winged creatures fought bravely against the veranda lights.
I appreciated, once again, the extraordinary mix of colourful and complex fibres that together weave the fabric that is Africa: sun, sky, scapes, scents, people and animals. Together they offer a heady assault on the senses and a depth of existence that is, well, like no other.
This article was originally featured in the January/February 2014 issue of House and Leisure.