By John van de Ruit
When it was agreed that my second trip for The Intrepid Explorer would include two nights on a luxury houseboat, Zambezi Queen, adrift on the Chobe River, there was a certain degree of uncertainty.
My first ever foray onto a houseboat took place a decade ago on Lake Kariba in northern Zimbabwe. Fired up with youthful bravado and a vast quantity of Bollinger beer, I and some friends suffered the rare and unfortunate occurrence of a capsized houseboat while attempting to sail through a terrific African thunderstorm. The boat sank, and there followed my brief Chad le Clos impersonation through crocodile-infested waters – wearing only a bad necklace and a pair of unflattering underpants.
Ever since that fateful day on 19 January 2002, I have harboured (if you will permit me) a healthy suspicion of freshwater vessels with sleeping facilities, crocodiles and Bollinger beer.
I was repeatedly assured by my intrepid partner, Jules, that the Zambezi Queen would offer the most luxurious, safe and idyllic experience of the mythical Chobe River. As such, I hauled out my backpack, chased a few angry spiders around the study, and manned up for an unforgettable 5-star African odyssey.
Landing by turbulent air in Victoria Falls, we embarked on an immigration tango through three countries in a mere 102 minutes. A 70-kilometre drive westward saw us pass through a largely uninhabited national park with no apparent name. Our driver wasn’t deterred by the lack of any animals, nor my probing questions about poaching and conservation, and proudly pointed out numerous piles of elephant dung as conclusive proof that all was well in Zimbabwe’s national parks.
We arrived at the Botswanan border where we were briefly ushered over a foot-and-mouth-disease sterilisation carpet. Above the border post, the telephone lines were littered with Carmine Bee-eaters. In truth, I found it hard to walk straight.
After a brief but highly enjoyable 10 minutes in Botswana, we boarded a speedboat and were whisked across the Chobe River to the western bank where a small sand dune and a rudimentary shack signalled our entry into Namibian territory. A mangy yellow dog officially welcomed us to the country, with a tired growl and an absent-minded scratch of his rump. The dog’s owner and Namibian immigration official staggered into the shack some time later with sleepy eyes and unfastened pants before issuing us with our umpteenth stamp of the afternoon. The immigration tango made little sense, but then Africa was never meant to be understood in straight lines.
Our speedboat raced up the splintered waterways of the Chobe where elephants bathed and wallowed in the shallows and water birds of every description flew, perched and preened.
The expanse of wild nature extended in every direction as the balmy air blasted our faces and tugged at our clothes. To the east lay Botswana and the immense Chobe National Park; to the west, endless Namibian floodplains, the far-reaching finger of the Caprivi Strip.
The speedboat burst around yet another island and throttled back in respect and deference to the statuesque Zambezi Queen that materialised before us. This was no houseboat – this was a boutique floating hotel of note.
Our cabin was deceptively spacious, with a private balcony from where one could gaze out at the natural abundance that abounds wherever you settle your eyes. If the upper deck which houses the lounge, bar and restaurant is unashamedly luxurious, the plunge pool on the stern is downright audacious.
Upon boarding, we were immediately offered drinks and a delicious cheese platter by our hosts, Wayne and Vicky, and their friendly staff, before being ushered into a waiting tender boat for a late-afternoon game drive around the many islands that divide the Chobe River into a maze of channels and waterways.
The Chobe comes alive in the late afternoon. As the sun sinks into the western sky, casting arrows of orange and silver across the meandering water, wildlife stirs itself – as do a multitude of birds and catfish that swirl and plop around the boat. Pied Kingfishers as well as the impossibly beautiful Malachite Kingfishers stalk the banks, and it seems that almost every reed is being danced on by the ungainly Squacco Heron. Countless crocodiles ripple their way across the surface and ominously disappear as our slow-moving boat sidles on into the fading light.
Evenings on the Chobe are hypnotic. There is something about the African sunset that tangles the emotions and floods the brain with questions about civilisation and the very lives we choose to lead. The naked, beautiful simplicity of it all can be unbearably euphoric.
The following morning we elected to undertake a spot of tiger-fishing instead of a game drive in the Chobe National Park. Tigerfish were scarce as the water levels were high, and the visibility poor – although drifting our baits through the reed-fringed channels and rapids was enormous fun.
An ambitious yet wayward cast into the reeds produced arguably the sighting of the day when a mischievous Cape clawless otter surfaced, intent on devouring my bait. Much to the relief of our river guide, Stanley, mad reeling and heaving on the line saw me escape what might well have turned into a minor international ecological incident.
After dinner our host, Wayne, entertained guests with a story of Georg Leo von Caprivi, the noble yet misguided Prussian major general who swopped this thin strip of land with England in return for the island of Zanzibar. Caprivi figured this was a masterstroke, as Germany could then access the Zambezi from the west and cross the entire continent to the east without the bother of circling the Cape. How his face must have fallen when he first heard about a rather alarming obstacle called the Victoria Falls. I confess that I have found it difficult to take the Caprivi Strip seriously after hearing this story.
The end came far too soon as we found ourselves waving goodbye to the crew, who sang us off with a rousing rendition of “We will not forget you”. I plan to return next year to test them.
The reverse round of the immigration tango began without incident. Thankfully, the Namibian officer had his pants on as he strode purposefully into his immigration shack, holding a large and aromatic dead catfish in his hands. Before getting down to some serious administration, he kindly wiped his greasy hands on the wall before sliming up and stamping our passports.
The balance of the return immigration tango ran smoothly, apart from the Zimbabwean official who ordered us to stand in aisle 1 until we reached the front of the queue. The smiling villain then proceeded to inform us that we were in the wrong queue entirely, and directed us to aisle 3, where the queue snaked ominously out of the door and halfway back to the Chobe.
Our good humour returned upon laying eyes on the fabulous Stanley and Livingstone Hotel, situated 10km from Victoria Falls, nestled in its own private game reserve. Seventeen beautifully appointed suites overlook wild African savannah and a cleverly placed waterhole.
Lush planted gardens with fruiting trees attracted birds in their numbers, and I grew highly excited during breakfast the following morning upon sighting the rare Meyer’s Parrot. The Norwegians at the next table leapt up with a shout, assuming that I had spotted a leopard – which only made the Italian family at table 6 flee in fright to the safety of the lobby.
There is something incredibly opulent about The Stanley and Livingstone when considering the humble nature of the country that surrounds it. It must be said, however, that lolling in a private Jacuzzi overlooking Mother Nature at her finest, with a cocktail in one hand and binoculars in the other, does come highly recommended.
Nothing can prepare you for the sensory experience that is the Victoria Falls in the rainy season. If the sight of the spray rising up over the town doesn’t set your heart pulsing, then you’re most probably a psychopath or an alien.
Our driver advised us to hire ponchos, as he assured us we were certain to be drenched by ‘the smoke that thunders’. After renting a $1 orange poncho for $3, Jules and I set off along the path toward one of the world’s great natural wonders.
Livingstone’s statue greets all visitors, and it seems that despite his colonial motives, he is widely loved and celebrated in Zimbabwe. While analysing the proud statue, I wondered what the first words would have been that tumbled out of his mouth as his eyes fell upon the magnificence of the falls. I finally settled on “By Jove!” as a probability, “Good gracious!” as a possibility, and “Crikey!” as a rank outsider.
No words do the Victoria Falls justice, and neither does any photograph. Yes, it’s a visual feast, but the roaring cacophony and the pelting spray that descends on you as a driving rain only heightens the experience, rendering you almost breathless with excitement. I found myself jabbering away uncontrollably, momentarily rendered mad by the magnificence of it all. No wonder Zimbos are all insane.
We staggered away, drenched and elated; despite still being morning, we found ourselves drawn as if by magnet to the nearest watering hole: The Victoria Falls Hotel. Muddy and bedraggled, I hailed a waiter with as much dignity as a drunken skelm at 3.35am on a Sunday morning. “Two Bollingers, please.” What else could I order?
Returning to the soft embrace of The Stanley and Livingstone, the precious hours of our southern African adventure ticked away. Swimming a few lengths of the pool in the late afternoon, I paused and gazed at an unnaturally large lime tree as a male waterbuck strolled up to the waterhole for an untroubled drink. The sun sank low for the traditional African happy hour, sound-tracked by an unruly mob of Arrow-marked Babblers. I ceased my exercise and floated on my back, looking out at wild Africa as it was years ago, as it is now, and as it will always be.
Source: The Intrepid Explorer