Deepest Africa isn’t a place normally associated with cruising. But on a small stretch of the Chobe River, a sometimes mile-wide waterway forming part of the border between Namibia and Botswana, there’s an unexpected and thriving boutique riverboat operation, the elegant, 28-passenger Zambezi Queen.
Zambezi Queen is owned and operated by The Mantis Group, which has hotels and eco-lodges worldwide. The boat is also featured by U.S.-based river cruise line AmaWaterways, which sells four nights onboard as part of extended Africa packages. The vessel itself is stunning, all done up in tasteful neutrals with African artwork, zebra rugs and faux (of course)-leopardskin cushions. Smiling service, superb food, an open bar serving quality South African wines, abundant wildlife and dazzling sunsets are all part of the deal; in fact, what’s not to love?
Well, there are a few caveats associated with travel in Africa, where nothing is predictable. Here’s our need-to-know:
There are a LOT of border crossings. We flew into Zimbabwe (from Johannesburg) and spent a night at Stanley & Livingstone, the Mantis lodge at Victoria Falls. But there’s a $50 visa fee for Zimbabwe and another $50 if you enter Zambia, to visit Livingstone, on the other side of the Falls, where there are more luxury lodges that combine well with the boat. Also, every time we went ashore (the game drives and sunset game-viewing cruises are done in Chobe National Park, on the Botswana side, while the boat itself sails on the Namibian side), we had to exit Namibia, and enter Botswana on the opposite bank, repeating the process in reverse to get home. It wasn’t a hassle — a man in a hut simply stamps your passport — but it takes time, not to mention space in the passport.
Zambezi Queen doesn’t have air conditioning; each cabin has sliding shutters and mosquito screens, and comes with a fan. The whole upper deck lounge/dining area has mosquito screens, too, and is open to river breezes from end to end. At 10 p.m., the power switches to backup, the main lights go out and you fall asleep to the whirring of your fan, the noises of the African night and the occasional grunt of a hippo. Needless to say, with no lights for miles around, the stargazing is spectacular.
There are relatively few insects on the river (and the boat ties up to a buoy, rather than mooring ashore), but it is advised to take anti-malaria pills here. We didn’t get bitten at all, although I did have a moment of mild terror when a praying mantis flew straight into me.
Don’t expect a typical river cruise. The Zambezi Queen only sails a 15 mile stretch of the Chobe River and potters slowly between the same mid-river moorings all the time. There are no ports of call and no river traffic; there aren’t even any towns here apart from the nearby gateway of Kasane. Once you’re out on the river, it’s just vast expanses of open space.
You can do a two-night, three-night or four-night itinerary (AmaWaterways passengers do the four-nighter). I’d say three is ideal; Zambezi Queen is so relaxing and the river so beautiful that I could have done with an extra day onboard, just gazing at the scenery, as we were away from the boat on a morning game drive and a separate sunset cruise for most of our middle day. You see elephants, hippos, crocs and birds all the time from the mother ship and we even spotted two leopards coming down to the river to drink.
You have to slow down in Africa and adjust expectations of service, understanding your accent and so on. The 47 Namibian crew on Zambezi Queen have been expertly trained by Vicky Nel, the South African hotel manager and were outstandingly professional, but these are very gentle people with their own particular hierarchy and on or off the boat, you can’t speak fast, or get impatient, or bark orders, as you’ll draw a blank. It’s not as though winding down is difficult, in any case; I’m still amazed that this level of food, service and accommodation can be achieved in the middle of the African bush. The only hardship was leaving.
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