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Times of the Islands Magazine

UNDER AFRICAN SKIES: Idyllic sojourn on a houseboat up the Chobe River

Mar 09, 2021 07:03PM ● By TANYA HOCHSCHILD

My husband, Mike, and I land at Kasane International Airport in a single-engine plane. Don’t be fooled by the word “international.” Kasane is a small village situated in northern Botswana, where Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe border—hence the “international” label.

Kasane’s sparkling Chobe River attracts migrating herds and, as a result, tourists. We are here to meet our friends, Peter and Helen, who are driving from their home in Windhoek, Namibia, 1,300 miles away. We had planned to meet for a safari vacation on a houseboat, cruising 35 miles upriver.

The Chobe is a tributary of the Zambesi and home to the greatest concentration of elephants in Africa. The middle of the river marks undetermined borders of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, affectionately referred to by locals as Bots, Nam, Zam and Zim.

We celebrate our reunion that evening with drinks and dinner alongside the river. The next morning is a circus of international border crossings—African style. We drive to the river, where we join a crowd inching toward the border post.

There is ample time to enjoy the cacophony of the cluck and peck of chickens; the shouts and songs of people; the confident, serene demeanor of women who balance boxes on their heads, babies on their backs. Men guide wheelbarrows heavy with bags of sugar, sacks of corn and piles of vegetables onto boats.

We enter the one-room passport office and a friendly official stamps our books out of Botswana. We board a small motor boat, where our luggage has been placed. The skipper guns the motor and we race downriver over fields of waterlilies.

Our boat carves channels of water through tall grass and comes to rest on the far bank. We complete Namibian immigration—our houseboat, The Chobe Princess, is registered in Namibia. The skipper rockets us to The Chobe Princess, our home for the next four days.

Capt. Robert and his staff of six welcome their 10 guests aboard. He introduces the cook and the guides, and tells us unending rain the previous season had swelled the river. In nine years, he had not seen the river this wide. We are excited: Rain is precious in Africa and always welcome.

We enjoy a delicious lunch, after which the four of us spend the afternoon on our balcony mesmerized by the beauty of the wide river, a vast water world. Chobe National Game Park lies on both sides of the river. Crocodiles and hippos sun themselves on islands.

A familiar beloved treat is offered—4 p.m. tea and cakes—before the sunset cruise on one of the tenders. A second tender is equipped for photographers, having 360-degree swivel chairs and mounts for cameras. In contrast to bumpy rides in vehicles, the smooth ride over water in search of animals appeals.

The first afternoon we sight a young leopard. This beautiful creature walks along the riverbank, giving us all a fabulous viewing. The guide, Ephraim, tells us there are 420 species of birds to observe.

Initially, we see the obvious water birds and waders. We spot the stunning hues of lilac-breasted rollers, whose jewel colors look like sequins in the sky. Their aerial acrobatics allow us to trace shimmering purples, turquoise blues and emerald greens. Hugging the riverbank, we soon come upon a family of lions lapping the water. A wonderful first afternoon.

We enjoy sundowners in a field of water lilies, many closing for the day, while we appreciate a glorious orange-red sunset. Almost immediately, a curtain of darkness descends as we turn for home. The night sky showers a thousand and one stars onto our tiny tender. Our wake becomes a comet of flames.  

Each day includes “dawn patrol,” a sunrise tender ride, through pearly apricot mist. As our boat creases the still water, hippos downriver shake off sleep with deep grunts and snorts.        Flights of kingfishers and ospreys knife through the misty dawn. Water lilies open. Jacanas, with legs like thin twigs and their long-toed feet, step lightly from one water lily pad to the next. Baboons watch us from their perches on the branches as we putt-putt past them.

Then “home” to breakfast and a morning spent on deck as the houseboat chugs downriver. Guests read, others train binoculars on the banks, often shouting out: “Elephants!” “Buffalo!”  

After each meal, Cook gets rousing applause. We enjoy siestas followed by tea. The late afternoon tender ride awards us with animal sightings. We are able to drift for spectacular close-ups as the boat does not spook the animals.

Peter and Mike book a guide and a tender to troll for tigerfish, whose razor-sharp teeth and infamous speed attract sport fishermen from around the globe. Helen and I find two chaise lounges on the top deck and settle in to enjoy the river’s rhythm.  

We pass the lodge where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton celebrated their remarriage. A few miles downriver, we see an evacuated guest lodge. The water, having risen halfway up the doors, had drowned the main lodge. Of the guest bungalows, only the thatch roofs show. Developing so close to a riverbank with an unstable flood potential teaches a hard lesson.

One morning, we visit an African village that has lost homes because of the rising floodplain. Men and women are busy rebuilding their homes with mud and sticks.

We spy a cluster of 100 buffalo. On land, one never dares come close to these belligerent creatures; but having a stretch of water separating us, we find the experience heady.

All too soon our four-day idyllic sojourn on the river comes to an end. Our “boat family,” like rays of the rising sun, heads in different directions. Hardest of all is saying farewell to the elephants, who wave their trunks as we cruise past Elephant Bay.

Tanya Hochschild has been a freelance writer in South Africa, where she grew up, and in the U.S., her home since 1981. She is the author of a historical novel, a memoir, an anthology of poetry, and biographies of nonagenarian residents of Fort Myers-based Shell Point Retirement Community.