There’s cruising, then there’s cruising Africa-style—near the border of Botswana and Namibia.
Drifting along on a luxury safari cruise on the Chobe River is definitely the latter.
Forget everything you thought you knew about cruising, this is nothing like the massive cruise ships sailing the Caribbean or Mediterranean. It’s an altogether more intimate and luxurious affair.
A brief history of Chobe National Park
Chobe National Park, which was Botswana’s first, is the third largest park in the country at 11,700 square km (4,500 square miles). Located in the far north of Botswana, bordering Namibia and dominated by the Chobe River system, it has one of the largest elephant populations in Africa. It’s also home to four of the Big 5 – Elephant, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard (sadly, no more Rhinos).
There are several ways to enter the park, with most visitors entering via Kasane, but conditions vary according to the season and almost all of them are only accessible by 4×4 vehicles. A houseboat is, for me, one of the very best ways to explore this extraordinary piece of vanishing wilderness.
A luxury safari cruise on the Chobe River
Several companies offering houseboat cruises, or safaris, as some call them. We chose a privately operated boat, Pride of Zambezi, wanting the flexibility to stop, start and follow our own schedule.
Larger boats can only travel a fairly short distance upriver, but Pride of Zambezi, with its shallower draft, can travel much further upstream, which is where the wildlife is undisturbed and the surroundings are pristine.
Getting there is half the fun
The closest airports are at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Kasane in Botswana, both of which have regular flights to main centers like Johannesburg or Cape Town. From Vic Falls, a border crossing into Botswana and a transfer by road are required to reach Kasane, followed by another border crossing into Namibia. All of the houseboats on the Chobe are based in Namibia, which is on the opposite bank; something to do with Botswana laws, I was told.
Kasane, where your cruise will start and end, is located at the rapids, where the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers meet. While the Chobe River is navigable upstream, the rapids prevent cruising downstream.
It’s about 80 km along a decent tar road from Victoria Falls, but Kasane also has an international airport with regular flights to Johannesburg and other destinations.
Kasane’s local economy revolves around the river and tourism so it’s a good place to stock up on any last-minute necessities before clearing Botswana customs and boarding a tender boat for the trip across the river to the Namibian “border post” on the opposite bank. There’s a short walk up the hill through the bush to a lonely building, staffed by a single disinterested customs and immigration official who will stamp your passport and send you on your way.
From there it’s back into the tender boat for a short ride to where the houseboat awaits. And, if you are lucky, you might pass some local fishermen tending their nets from a mokoro (a canoe formed from a hollowed out tree trunk).
Relaxing on Pride of Zambezi
This had to be one of the most relaxing breaks ever, cruising gently up the river, beer or glass of wine in hand, watching Africa pass by.
While this might be a bit boring for young people, for a more mature traveler, it’s ideal, with staff that is both attentive and discreet, happy to attend to any request.
The boat has five luxury suites. If possible, I recommend booking the honeymoon suite. It’s on the highest deck of the boat, the only one on that level, with spectacular 360-degree views of the passing landscape and a private en-suite shower and bathroom.
On the first two nights of our voyage, we shared the boat with a lovely couple, about our own age, from the Channel Islands of Jersey. On the last night, we had the boat to ourselves and were thoroughly spoilt. Honestly, it felt a tiny bit lonely. Though I’m not a fan of crowds, I discovered that it is nice to have some company on a cruise like this. Even with other guests, there is ample room to have your own space and privacy isn’t an issue in the least.
We headed upstream towards the west for two days, cruising slowly during the day and anchoring overnight for dinner under the African sky, with plenty of stops along the way to get closer to the wildlife, of which there is plenty.
A tender boat is available for game viewing trips, where you can get even closer to the shore. Just ask the staff who are more than happy to drop anchor and head off.
Game is so abundant that it almost becomes a normal part of the day when passing another herd of elephants, buffalo or hippos munching on the water grass along the shoreline.
Sadly, we didn’t get to see any of the big cats this time, but I do believe that they are frequently seen. Next time for sure!
The food on this cruise wouldn’t be out of place in a 5-star restaurant in any world-class city. There’s a comfortable indoor lounge and dining room, with a fully-stocked bar, and there are also various decks and viewing platforms to chill out and watch Africa passing by.
Evenings, in particular, are a special affair with a sit-down dinner, candles, quality wines, gourmet starter, main course and delicious desserts—the works. I have no idea how the chef managed to put out such incredible dishes, literally in the middle of nowhere. As part of the booking process, we were asked about our food and drink preferences, so you will be eating and drinking according to your preferences. Vegetarians and those with special dietary needs are catered to, but be warned, in this part of the world the word vegetarian isn’t common.
Breakfast was another treat, taken in the open-sided dining room as the boat got underway for the day’s cruise. The menu includes pastries and eggs, any way you like them, with all the trimmings and fresh coffee. One other caveat: Your clothes are all likely to “shrink” somewhat by the time you get home.
All good things come to an end
Yes, they do, and all too soon. After a tender ride back to Kasane and a road transfer to the Kasane Airport, the time is quickly over. Watching the confluence of the mighty Zambezi and Chobe rivers and the green lung of the floodplain disappear beneath the wings as you turn south, back towards “civilization,” was an awe-inspiring sight.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- Travel arrangements such as airport transfers and the like are all pre-arranged by the various operators taking the hassle out of logistics.
- You can fly directly to Kasane, be picked up at the airport, and be on the houseboat within a little more than an hour.
- Special dietary requirements can be arranged beforehand.
- You’ll see a bucket-list part of the world that relatively few people visit, something unique and different.
- Botswana is a well-run country with excellent policing and high standards of tourism-related services.
- Houseboats are moored in Namibia, so there is a border crossing, and you will need passports to enter.
- This is a malaria area, so it’s a good idea to take the necessary prophylactic medication or make sure that arms and legs are covered at night, especially in the early evening. You should use the mosquito nets provided.
- The tender boat ride from Kasane to the houseboat isn’t rough, but it can get a little wet, so keep cameras and other valuables covered.
- The walk up to the border post in Namibia isn’t long, but it has no disabled access.
- Being on the boat minimizes the risk of contact with wildlife, but bear in mind that this is wild Africa and some of the animals in the area will gladly make a meal of you. On game viewing trips, stay in the boat and obey the instructions of your guide.
IF YOU GO
Be sure to get the whole scoop on Chris Corbet’s Chobe River Luxury Houseboat Cruise on A Travel Junkie.
All photo credits: Chris Corbet