Africa isn't the first place that comes to mind when you hear the words "river cruising." Yet river cruising is alive and well on Botswana's Chobe River, a sometimes mile-wide waterway forming part of the border between Namibia and Botswana.
Cruisers who go for this stretch of water usually do so because of the easy access to the wildlife reserve of Chobe National Park. Like with other exotic river cruises, your time on the water is usually only a part of a larger land tour that often encompasses a safari or time in neighboring countries such as South Africa.
(Your other river cruising options in Africa include the Nile, in Egypt; for more on these cruises, read our Nile River Cruise Tips. There's also the Bou El Mogdad, a ferry that runs weeklong cruises on the Senegal River between colonial St. Louis on the Atlantic and Podor in the desert. For more, read Africa Cruise Tips).
Whether you're on the Zambezi Queen (an upscale vessel often chartered by companies such as AmaWaterways or Abercrombie & Kent) or the Pride of the Zambezi (a luxury houseboat), smiling service, superb food and South African wines, abundant wildlife and dazzling sunsets are all part of the deal. Unfortunately, there are a few caveats associated with travel in Africa, where nothing is predictable.
Here are six practical things you should know about river cruising in Africa:
There are a LOT of border crossings -- and some fees that go along with them, depending on your pre- and post-cruise plans. If you spend the night at Victoria Falls, for example, there is 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 you go 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), you'll have to exit Namibia and enter Botswana on the opposite bank, repeating the process in reverse to get home. It's not usually a hassle -- a man in a hut simply stamps your passport -- but it takes time, not to mention space in the passport; make sure you have several empty pages.
A ship such as 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.
Don't expect a typical river cruise, at least on the Chobe. The Zambezi Queen only sails a 15-mile stretch of the Chobe River and putters 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.
If you book Zambezi Queen or Pride of Zambezi, you can do a two-night, three-night or four-night itinerary. (AmaWaterways passengers do the four-nighter.) We say three is ideal; with the activities that take place, you'll need the extra time just to be able to gaze at the scenery. Look for elephants, hippos, crocs and birds, maybe even a leopard coming down to the river to drink.
You have to slow down in Africa and adjust expectations of service, especially as crew members might have trouble understanding your accent (and vice versa). On or off the boat, you can't speak fast, get impatient or bark orders, as you'll draw a blank. It's not as though winding down is difficult, in any case; you will be amazed that a high level of food, service and accommodation can be achieved in the middle of the African bush. The only hardship might be leaving.