Are you looking for a really unique travel experience? What about combining a 3-day African wildlife safari with a luxury riverboat cruise? If that sounds intriguing, let me introduce the 28-passenger “Zambezi Queen” which cruises the Chobe River between Botswana & Namibia.
This award-winning, 42-metre-long “boutique houseboat” has 14 suites – all with outer decks. As it slowly plies a 25km (15 mile) stretch of the river alongside Botswana’s elephant-packed Chobe National Park, you can view wildlife and beautiful African scenery from the relaxing comfort of your riverboat home.
A Zambezi Queen wildlife cruise makes a great itinerary “add-on” if you’re planning a visit to Southern Africa. In this blog post, I will share experiences from my three delightful days (and nights) on the Queen. I hope to give you a flavor of what to expect & why you might consider paying a visit to the Queen too! No curtsies needed…
The Origin of My Africa Trip
When I was invited to join my good friends Fran & Don on an African bucket list trip for Fran’s 60th birthday, I immediately said YES! Being a savvy travel agent, Fran put together an incredible 2-week trip for 24 friends to Southern Africa, taking in all the region’s best highlights.
The January 2014 tour started in Cape Town, South Africa and ended at Zimbabwe’s spectacular Victoria Falls. In between, we enjoyed two very different wildlife safaris in Botswana – one being the Zambezi Queen and the other a land-based safari camp in the Okavango Delta.
So how did we get to the Queen? We flew to Johannesburg, where we caught a 1 ¾ hour flight to Kasane – Botswana’s gateway town to the Chobe National Park (map below). We were transferred to Kasane’s boat dock on the Chobe River, where two tender boats (photo, upper right) were waiting to take us to the Queen.
The Chobe River is the dividing line between Botswana and Namibia. We needed to officially “exit” Botswana (in Kasane) so that we could “enter” Namibia where the boat was officially anchored and registered. And despite its name, the Zambezi Queen cruises the Chobe River, not the nearby Zambezi River (see map below right).
The Zambezi Queen
Once we cleared immigration, it was a short boat ride to the Zambezi Queen. Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted by Wayne (lower right) and four local women staff singing a welcome song. We then headed upstairs for a welcome drink before being shown to our rooms.
Wayne & Vicky, the boat’s general managers, are a charismatic South African couple. Excluding them and the boat pilot, the rest of the 28-person crew were local Namibians from the surrounding villages. And what kind, sweet and gentle people they were!
The vessel’s interiors were beautiful. The Zambezi Queen went through a major renovation in 2008/09, and was furnished in tasteful neutrals with African artwork, zebra rugs and faux leopard-skin cushions. The 3rd floor public space includes the lounge, bar and dining area – all from which you could watch the African landscape leisurely pass by.
My friend Carol & I had one of the “standard suites” which was lovely (photo above). All 14 of the suites featured a private balcony. Plus, the rooms had air conditioning – which was a big help in the high heat and humidity of the day.
Cruising for Wildlife Along Botswana’s Chobe National Park
The Chobe River forms the northern boundary of Chobe National Park, which is Botswana’s second largest national park. In fact, Chobe boasts one of the densest populations of elephants on the African continent – currently estimated at over 120,000!
The Zambezi Queen would slowly cruise up and down the Chobe River, allowing us to view the wildlife and scenery from the comfort of the lounge or deck areas. Often, we’d head out to the front deck with our binoculars and cameras for the thrill of game spotting.
We enjoyed frequent views of elephants coming down from within the Park to the river to drink. Sometimes, it was a herd of mothers with cute babies and young children in tow (upper right).
Small Boat Game Excursions
The Zambezi Queen’s two tender boats were used for daily excursions. These smaller boats allowed us to get very close to the riverbanks – and thus to the elephants and other wildlife. Martin & Gibson were our very personable & knowledgeable wildlife guides and boat drivers.
We’d go out once or twice a day for these fun & relaxed water-based “game drives.” We saw loads of elephants down at the water, drinking, bathing and playing. We also spotted warthogs, small groups of baboons, and a couple small Nile crocodiles lounging on the shore. I guess river swimming is not a good idea here in the Chobe!
We also passed by a large herd of African buffalo in the grasslands. One day, in tall river grasses, we tracked a large male hippo (below right). Our guide told us he was nicknamed the “lawn mower” and had possibly been kicked out of the herd. Hmm… perhaps, he had been a bad boy back home?
We would come back from the morning excursion and a delicious buffet lunch would be served. Then there was free time to relax & chill on the boat before the afternoon outing. Of course, all excursions are optional on the Queen.
The later afternoon excursions became “sundowner” cruises with a choice of wine or gin & tonic served by our guides turned bartender (photo, top right). Giddily, we toasted the grand African adventure we were so lucky to be sharing!
Village Cultural Tour – Namibia
One morning, we took a tour of a local Namibian village, home to some of the boat staff. On foreign travel, it’s always interesting to do “village visits” to get a glimpse into the real lives of the local people.
We visited Jambwe, a 100-year-old village with a population of 65 people (from the Masubia ethnic group). Victor, who spoke very good English, was our charming local guide (below left). He toured us around the village and showed us some typical homes – mud huts with a thatched roof and wood floor. The village had a bore hole for water and I noticed a solar panel sitting on the ground for electricity.
We then gathered in the village’s enclosed common area to enjoy some local entertainment – with traditional drumming, singing and dancing. Then came the shopping! The local women laid out their various handicrafts for sale – a mix of jewelry, woven baskets, and wooden bowls & other carvings. They made perfect souvenirs and a great way for us to support the local community.
We really enjoyed meeting the sweet villagers & their adorable children. I bought a painted teak wood bowl from the lovely young woman (above, right) – and learned she had finished 10th grade. Our guide Victor shared that people can’t marry within their own village. In fact, his girlfriend is from the next village and they have two children.
The Food / Fran’s African Birthday Bash
We ate very well on the Queen. The meals, including the delectable deserts, were definitely gourmet. General manager Vicky, with a strong culinary background, oversaw the boat’s food operations. She brings in most of the food from South Africa, with some products like beef and vegetables coming from Botswana.
As mentioned, the Zambezi Queen employs all local Namibian staff. Vicky has personally trained two of the women to be her talented chefs. Wayne & Vicky (and the Mantis company) are committed to continuous training of the local staff to empower them to better their own circumstances, as well as their families and local community. It is a lovely tourism win-win that we all felt good about!
One evening before dinner, Vicky introduced the dining staff (above left), including the two chefs. It was a great opportunity to applaud and show our appreciation for all their hard work. Brenda, a beautiful Namibian woman with a radiant smile (photo, above right), was one of our favorite servers.
The second night on the boat, we celebrated Fran’s special birthday – and it was done in pure African style. Dinner was a traditional African meal – including pumpkin, sweet potato, corn, lamb stew, oxtail, chicken, milk pudding, and chocolate cake.
The meal was followed by delightful entertainment provided by the staff. They drummed, sang and danced for us. Then it was time for us Westerners to join in the dancing, led by the birthday girl. There really is a special spirit in the African people – they love to sing and dance and it’s totally infectious.
Our Land Safari in Botswana’s Chobe National Park
One of the days, Fran had arranged for our group to take a half-day, land-based safari within Chobe National Park. (Note: this is not a standard offering by the Zambezi Queen.) We went by tender to Kasane, where we met our four guides in their 6-passenger Kalahari Travel safari vehicles.
From Kasane, it was a 5-10-minute drive on the main road to Chobe’s park headquarters. We spent three fascinating hours on safari, exploring the “Chobe Riverfront” (also called Serondela) with its mix of lush flood plains and dense woodlands.
We observed graceful looking impalas (above right), a waterbuck, and three Pukus (a less common type of antelope). We also passed a warthog driving into the park & stopped to snap a photo (above). They’re so ugly, they’re kinda cute!
We spotted a solo Cape buffalo (also called African buffalo), a herd of zebras, and hippos lounging in the water. We also saw baboons (including a baby riding “bare back” on his mom) and a large monitor lizard (below left).
Chobe National Park is also known as a birdwatcher’s paradise with over 450 species. We saw a fish eagle in a tree, a black heron, a cattle egret (hanging by his buffalo), and lots of Maribou storks (which are relatively ugly).
Of course, we saw many majestic elephants, often heading down to the river for their drink. I never tire of wildlife safaris, because you don’t know what fascinating creature you will run across next!
Saying Our Tearful Goodbyes
Sadly, it came time to depart the Zambezi Queen. It had only been three days, but we had all fallen in love with this relaxing African lifestyle & the lovely staff who had become our friends and taken such great care of us. They gathered on the lower deck to sing their goodbyes as we headed out to the tender boats for our final boat trip back to Kasane.
More About the Zambezi Queen
- The Zambezi Queen has 14 tasteful & luxurious suites – 10 standard and 4 master suites.
- The Zambezi Queen offers 2-night and 3-night itineraries that depart every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
- In 2017, the Zambezi Queen was named World’s Leading Boutique Cruise at the World Travel Awards.
- It is owned by Mantis, a collection of luxury hotels, eco-escapes and lifestyle resorts around the world.
- The Zambezi Queen is part of the Zambezi Queen Collection.
- Since 2014, the following have been added to the ZQ collection: 3 Chobe Princesses (smaller, perfectly crafted houseboats with 4-5 cabins) and the land-based Ichingo Chobe River Lodge.
- Our boat’s wonderful general managers, Wayne & Vicky Nel, are now managing the Lion Camp lodge (as of May 2018). They joined Mantis in 2011 to launch the Zambezi Queen, which grew into a set of 4 luxury houseboats on the Chobe River. They have since been involved in several Mantis development projects culminating in the new Lion Camp.
- * PHOTO CREDIT (top header photo): Zambezi Queen
Travel Info – Botswana’s Chobe National Park / Chobe River / Victoria Falls
- Kasane (in northeast Botswana) is the gateway town for Chobe National Park & the Zambezi Queen. There are flights to Kasane from Johannesburg, South Africa.
- (per the website) Game viewing on the Chobe River is at its most exceptional from March to November when the weather is drier and the animals are more mobile as they search for food and water. Summer and spring also offer unique opportunities as you witness the landscape burst into life after the first rains of the season.
- While it has water all year round, the Chobe River rises significantly from February to May, after the rains in Angola that start in November.
- The awe-inspiring Victoria Falls is a short distance from Kasane. Once you cross the nearby Botswana border into Zimbabwe, it’s only about an hour drive to the town of Victoria Falls.
- So, as you’re planning your Southern Africa itinerary, you’ll want to make sure Victoria Falls is included. It is one of the World’s 7 Natural Wonders – and for good reason!
To learn more about Victoria Falls, check out my blog post: Fly Like An Angel Over Africa’s Spectacular Victoria Falls
COMMENTS: Have you taken a safari in Botswana or wildlife cruise like this? How was your experience? Does the Zambezi Queen look like an experience you’d really enjoy?