This southern African country usually conjures up images of arid deserts, so a visit to its Zambezi Region will come as a surprise. Here, at the junction of the Zambezi and Chobe rivers, lies a watery wonderland — with great game viewing opportunities, amazing birdlife and a host of land- and water-based adventures, says Fiona McIntosh.
Three African skimmers perform graceful swoops and pirouettes as we approach the lodge. Perfectly streamlined, with long, elegant, red beaks and legs, they look like dancers practising their routines. Hippos honk noisily as we disembark on the private island and settle in for tea on the deck. As squadrons of ducks, herons and other waterbirds fly home to roost, we too head ‘home’ to our spacious villas at Cascade Island Lodge — each with a huge bathroom, plunge pool, outdoor shower and deck hidden within the Chobe waterberry and jackalberry trees — for a bit of down time before regrouping for a sunset boat cruise.
The morning sees us rising early for a spot of tiger-fishing. We take a slow drive in the boat through the channels, stopping often to peer through binoculars at tiny, hovering kingfishers and long-legged African spoonbills sweeping the pools. It’s hard to tear ourselves away from the nearby heron colony. So far, I’ve ticked off 10 heron species, including green-backed and night herons, which I’ve never seen before.
Almost as soon as I cast, I get a bite. But by the time I start to reel it in, the fish has gone. Our host and owner of specialist travel firm Flame of Africa, Brett McDonald, coaches me patiently, efficiently tussling with a couple of small tiger-fish before bringing them to the boat. Half an hour later, I’m still without a prize but am so captivated by the birds that I throw in the towel. Movens, our guide, looks disappointed. The previous guests at the lodge caught 60 tiger-fish in three days, he informs us.
I redeem myself later on Impalila Island, a short boat journey from Cascade Island Lodge. Sitting at the point where three countries — Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe — meet (with the Zambian border only 100 or so metres away), the isle has an interesting past. Disembarking at Kaza Safari Lodge, we hop into an ox-drawn cart, fashioned from a clapped-out old Ford, for a tour.
We take a short stroll up to a hill where the island’s most famous feature, a 2000-year-old baobab, stands tall. The metal rungs hammered into its massive trunk form a rudimentary ladder that, during the Namibian struggle for independence, countless soldiers of the South African Defence Force climbed to an airy, strategic lookout. I can’t resist the challenge so shimmy up to the precarious perch using the rungs and natural pockets in the gnarled trunk. Polished smooth by the thousands of hands that have gone before me, they offer little purchase. As I glance down at the group, mere specks below me, Charles, our charismatic driver-guide, mutters an anxious, “Please be careful.”
From the top of the watchtower, eight storeys up, I can see for miles. Below me are the thatched homes and kraals of small villages, while around the island, the split channels of the Zambezi glisten in the sun. The outskirts of Kasane are visible on the southern, Botswanan bank of the river, but in every other direction, I can see only reed beds and channels. There’s something special about being surrounded by water; the rhythm, the calmness that a river invokes, the diversity of terrestrial and riverine wildlife. I feel the thrill, and privilege, of being out in this pristine wilderness.
Movens is impressed, and obviously relieved, when I return to terra firma. My incompetence with a hook and line is forgotten.
Mid-afternoon, we board the safari boat again for the journey to Chobe Water Villas. A transfer that should take less than a quarter of an hour soon becomes one of the best safaris I’ve ever experienced. It’s as if the wildlife has turned up on cue. There, right on the edge of Sedudu Island, are elephant galore; family groups with calves of every size and trumpeting bachelor herds trying to steal the show. Red lechwe lift their heads briefly as we approach, scores of buffalo graze contentedly, crocodiles that I hadn’t even spotted slink into the water, and a clump of massive grey rocks turns out to be a great pod of hippo — out in the middle of the day if you please. Of course, there are numerous egrets, herons and pied and malachite kingfishers, but they’re now supporting cast. It’s ridiculous. Movens is smiling. It’s no surprise to learn that this island, part of the Chobe National Park that our new accommodation overlooks, has the highest concentration of game anywhere in the world.
The thatched chalets are soon in sight, perched over the river and its floodplain. We’re still commenting on the unusual Maldives-style stilts when we reach the top of the steps from the jetty. The view stops us in our tracks. The modern architecture, garden terraces and massive infinity pool overlooking the river are seriously chic and different. Gazing through the open plan lounge and out over the sparkling water to the Chobe River I do a double take: at first glance, I thought I saw an enthusiastic individual risking his life swimming in the croc- and hippo-infested river!
After a late lunch, we’re back on the river for an afternoon cruise. Unlike most other boats, we don’t have to be out of the park by sunset so the trip has been cleverly scheduled to avoid the crowds. We take our time, enjoying the view onto life in the wetlands and channels from the raised vantage of our double-decker riverboat. “This is the only boat on the river with beer on tap,” the barman tells us, proudly pulling a pint. As scores of elephant enjoy their sundowner drink, we toast life in Africa with ours.
The immaculate choreographing continues to the grand finale. After a lazy breakfast the following morning, it’s a final trip along the edge of Sedudu Island and back into Botswana from where we’ll fly home. As the game viewing vehicle leaves town, four very chilled elephant bulls saunter across the road. “They’re on their way to the island,” our guide informs us.
Five minutes later, we’re in the park driving along the Chobe waterfront, from where, once we manage to lift our eyes from the teeming wildlife next to the sandy road, we gaze over the riverbanks and wetlands to the island and beyond that the Water Villas whence we came. Our guide has to work hard to impress: we’ve been so spoilt that sightings of elephant, hippo, buffalo, crocodile and countless impala and birds are almost passé. He finds five lions, countless puku, waterbuck and giraffe and even a herd of zebra, which, surprisingly, are quite unusual in these parts. A sighting of two rare sable antelope right next to the road has us all snapping away happily before it’s off to the airport for our flight back home.
It’s hard to believe that we’ve only been in the region for three nights. It feels like a week, not a long weekend — the slow pace of life has been the perfect antidote to my frenetic life in the city. And the journey has been a real eye-opener: we’ve been immersed in a very different part of Namibia to the stereotypical desert environments that most people associate with the country. For ease of access and sheer numbers and diversity of wildlife, there are few places that beat the Zambezi region.
Image Credit: Namibian Tourism Board