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A Bucket-List Cruise Tour in Africa: Just Back From CroisiEurope’s Zimbabwean Dream

Jayne Clark

Last updated
Apr 11, 2023

Read time
7 min read

“I think I’m over hippos,” I announced on the sixth day of our CroisiEurope cruise safari in southern Africa.

By then, the abundance of those other-worldly creatures had reduced hippos, in my mind anyway, to been-there-done-that status. We’d heard their grunts from the veranda of our river lodge. We’d watched from boats as their bulbous heads occasionally broke the water’s surface. It was like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole, except with cameras, not mallets.

Early on, we’d seen herds of lumbering elephants; watched a crocodile slither into a river; thrilled at impalas’ balletic leaps through waist-high grass; ogled a group of graceful giraffes; laughed as vervet monkeys skittered up trees; and eyed enough other exotic creatures to sate the most jaded safari goer.

The logistics of this bucket-list cruise tour would be difficult – if not impossible – for independent travelers to negotiate. It involves taking a commercial flight from South Africa to Botswana and two additional flights aboard private aircraft. Another upside to this itinerary: The two national parks we visited, Chobe and Matusadona, were teeming with animals, but few other safari vehicles. And our time spent on Lake Kariba and other waterways, both aboard the Zimbabwean Dream and smaller launches, brought us within close proximity of the afore-mentioned hippos, crocodiles and countless bird species.

CroisiEurope's Africa River Cruise Safaris Trips Tackle Four Countries, a Variety of Experiences

CroisiEurope isn’t the only line to offer cruise safaris. What sets this one apart is the variety of venues and experiences offered on the itinerary. The nine-day jaunt touches down in four countries, with three nights on the new RV Zimbabwean Dream and three nights at the Croisi-owned Kaza Lodge on Namibia’s Zambezi River. Throw in game drives in two national parks, a stroll through local villages, a tour of Johannesburg, and a final night at Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, and the shear variety of the trip makes it seem as if you’ve taken multiple journeys.

This tour gives passports a workout. CroisiEurope advises clients to have at least five blank pages in their passport to accommodate the required border stamps. We embarked from Johannesburg, flew to Botswana, then ping-ponged between Namibia, site of our lodge, and Botswana’s Chobe National Park. Then we flew to Zimbabwe to board the boat on Lake Kariba. Note to over packers: The small plane transport means strict baggage limits.

Though CroisiEurope operates 55 river ships and six canal barges, the company has a relatively low profile among U.S. cruisers. About 80 percent of its African cruise safari customers are French. Given the small-group nature of the trips -- about 16 passengers -- it’d be wise to ask the reservationist what language will predominate (or get a group together and charter the entire vessel.)

French Touches, African Experiences Onboard and On Land

The French origins of the family-owned company are reflected in the food – most notably the flaky croissants, almost as big and fluffy as throw pillows. But the decor is quintessentially African. The RV Zimbabwean Dream, built in 2020 (and sister ship to the African Dream, launched in 2018), is chock full of lovely indigenous carvings, bead work and fabrics. The beating of an African drum summons passengers to meals.

At 108 feet long and 26 feet wide, the Zimbabwean Dream is a compact vessel with just eight cabins. But those cabins, whose king beds face a wall of windows, are well designed. The boat’s main lounge has multiple seating areas and a small bar. Forward is a patio with outdoor tables. At the rear of the main deck, our group of twelve dined at a single long table. Behind the restaurant is a hot tub-size pool and chaises. And on the top observation deck, there’s plenty of comfy seating and space to spread out and enjoy the view.

The eight thatched-roofed bungalows at luxury Kaza Lodge have been redesigned by CroisiEurope. What hasn’t changed is the magnificent 700-year-old baobab tree at its entrance. Bungalows all have private terraces with dipping pools. Plus, there’s an infinity-edged pool, accessible via boardwalk. The main lodge, with its soaring thatched roof, clubby lounge and indoor/outdoor dining areas, is rendered in classic safari style.

Days are Hectic, But Packed With Bucket List Sights

Day one began in Johannesburg with a city tour and visit to the Apartheid Museum. Opened in 2001, it chronicles South Africa’s 20th century system of racial segregation in a nation that was more than 75% non-White by the time of majority rule in 1994. We also toured Soweto. The township, 30 minutes west of Johannesburg, played a pivotal role in abolishing apartheid. Nelson Mandela’s former home on lively Vilakazi Street is now a museum.

Day two began with a 1.5-hour commercial flight to Kasane, Botswana, near Africa’s “Four Corners,” where Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe meet.  We shuttled via small launch to Kaza Lodge on the banks of the Zambezi River. The staff greeted us with a song and cold drinks before we settled in for the night.

Day three took us back across the river to Botswana for a jeep safari in Chobe National Park, home to a quarter of Africa’s elephant population. And yes, we saw plenty of the beasts. But we also sighted giraffes, cape buffaloes, zebras, crocodiles, myriad bird species and even a group of lionesses – a rarer sight in this park.

Day four was dubbed “culture day” on Impalila Island, site of Kaza Lodge, and home to more than two dozen tiny villages, four Christian churches, a school and a clinic. We strolled a mile or so down a dirt trail to a collection of mud and stick huts. There, two women demonstrated how they pulverize sorghum with heavy wooden poles. In another village, a group of village elders clad in colorful flouncy dresses and head scarves performed dances and songs. The songs, our guide related, address local perils we could only imagine, like hyenas and crocodiles.

On day five we embarked on a morning water safari on the Chobe River before boarding a 45-minute small-plane flight to Zimbabwe. The pilot invited us to help ourselves to snacks and leftover champagne from a previous flight. His safety instructions were brief: There are two emergency exits, he said. And if they fail, there’s a hatchet behind the pilot’s seat.

Onboard Time is More Relaxed, With Plenty of Wildlife Sightings

Arriving at Lake Kariba in late afternoon, we boarded the Zimbabwean Dream and settled in for a three-night stay. At 137 miles by 25 miles, the lake bordering Zambia and Zimbabwe is the world’s largest manmade reservoir.

Day six had us sailing among the drowned treetops that poke like brittle bones from the surface of Lake Kariba. Elephants fed so close to the shore we could hear them munching grass. A crocodile slid off the bank into the river. In the local vernacular, quipped our guide, crocs come in three sizes: bite me, eat me and swallow me.

The lake was created between 1955 and 1959 with the damming of the Zambezi River to supply hydroelectric energy. A five-year rescue effort, dubbed Operation Noah, relocated 6,000-plus large mammals in the process.

The Zimbabwean Dream is elegant, but relaxed. But beyond eating and sleeping, we didn’t spend a lot of time on board. The spacious main lounge has a bar (drinks are included in the fare), board games and a big-screen TV. (There are also TVs in the cabins.)  A small library of DVDs has Africa-centric titles, like The African Queen and Invictus. Not that there was much time for games or movie-watching. The itinerary is jam-packed with water safaris that took us off the lake in smaller boats to rivers and inlets, and game drives in the parks. I skipped one sunset sail to relax on the sprawling Observation Deck with a book.  I had the place to myself.

Day seven brought us to Zimbabwe’s Matusadona National Park, whose rolling grasslands on the shores of Lake Kariba harbor a wealth of wildlife.  In 2019, the nonprofit African Parks joined Zimbabwe in managing the area. The result is an increase in enforcement aimed at thwarting poachers. A recent census tallied 4,000 impalas, 700 elephants, 400 cape buffalos and 80 lions, plus there are more than 240 bird species.

Prime time animal viewing is in the dry season, from May through September. But there was plenty of action in early April. Within minutes, we’d spotted, elephants, a lone baboon, a trio of jackals and herds of impalas. And tons of hippos. The species has had an astounding comeback in Matusadona, from about 250 in the 1980s to 2,100, per a recent survey.

Last Day, One Last Wonder: Victoria Falls

Disembarking the ship on day eight, we made a brief stop at the Kariba dam before flying by small plane to Victoria Falls. After lunch on a barge restaurant on the Zambezi River upstream from the world’s largest waterfall, we ventured into Victoria Falls National Park. Here, paths meander through the forest leading to various overlooks. In the local language, the falls are called Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders”.

The moniker is an understatement.  Heading down a path, we stopped, thunderstruck at the sight of a shimmering multi-colored arch spanning the falls. We had come to the end of the rainbow.

I was disappointed to reach it. We spent our last night at a safari lodge outside Victoria Falls National Park. But the game-viewing wasn’t over. At sunset, a herd of elephants and impalas gathered at a watering hole in the near distance of the hotel.

Nor were we done with superlative sights. On day nine, we were up early to board helicopters (an optional excursion) for a birds-eye view of one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Gazing down at that endless gush of water, it occurred to me the falls are a sort of  metaphor for this cruise safari: Its breadth is so vast. Then it’s over in a flash.

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