Refreshing way to see Africa's wildlife
Brian Jackman takes a stunning new tour of Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe
It was sundown by the time I reached Lake Kariba to discover the African Dream at her moorings. As I was ferried out to join her we passed a hippo at the entrance to the marina – a black silhouette outlined on a sandbar during the last hour of daylight.
The African Dream is a triple-decker houseboat owned by CroisiEurope, a France-based tour company best known for cruising on the Rhine and Danube and now breaking into Africa for the first time.
It was built in Harare for cruising on the Chobe River in Botswana, but its arrival at Kariba came just after president Mugabe was forced to step down. The new government was keen to keep it in Zimbabwe and so everything changed at the last minute.
A bottle of champagne was broken against the bows and on January 30 it set sail on its maiden voyage across Lake Kariba, straddling the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
To get there it was transported by road in three separate pieces, a 1,130km journey that took three months to complete.
Powered by two 600hp Volvo engines, the African Dream is a glamorous modern houseboat – all sleek lines and sliding picture windows, complete with state-of-the-art air conditioning and a hot tub on the sun deck.
Measuring nearly 33m from stem to stern, it can accommodate up to 16 guests at a time in eight luxurious en suite cabins, each decorated in cool shades of grey and cream offset by richly polished tropical hardwoods.
“She’s by far the best boat on Lake Kariba,” Stevie Litaba, her captain, said proudly.
To join the boat I had flown from Victoria Falls, a 90-minute trip along the length of the lake to the spot where the Zambezi – the fourth-longest river in Africa – was dammed in 1959 to supply 70% of Zimbabwe’s hydroelectric power. The result was a vast inland sea measuring 280km from end to end and twice as wide as the English Channel between Dover and Calais.
Its creation displaced 57,000 Batonga people who were moved from their ancestral lands and resettled on higher ground.
When the Zambezi flooded in 1958, causing massive damage, they vowed it was because the dam had upset Nyami-Nyami, their fish-headed, serpent-tailed river god.
The rising waters also put wildlife at risk, triggering Operation Noah, a massive rescue bid involving the capture of more than 5,000 animals – elephants, rhinos, even snakes – most of them released into the newly designated Matusadona National Park.
Waking at dawn on my first day on board I discovered we were already under way. Ahead lay wooded islands – the tops of drowned hills – floating like mirages along the horizon, flocks of whiskered terns adding to the illusion of being at sea.
“In October,” said Litaba, “when sudden storms blow up at the start of the rainy season, the lake can be as rough as the English Channel.” But now it was a polished mirror framed by faraway mountains.
By breakfast we had moored to a buoy off Matusadona with the summits of the hills raking the skyline like the teeth of a big cat. Here we were decanted into a tender and spirited into the mouth of the Gache Gache, the river forming the park’s eastern boundary.
We floated down its channels to find ourselves engulfed in a sunlit silence of reed beds and water lilies broken only by the cries of fish eagles.
It was the beginning of April – the end of the rainy season – and everything was impossibly green, from the grass on the river margins to the leafy canopies of the forest trees.
Wherever we looked there was life: crocodiles basking with jaws agape; herons stalking through the reeds; yellow weaverbirds fluttering around their nests. Dead trees rising from the water provided ideal perches for pied kingfishers and cormorants; and once we spotted a shy bushbuck watching us from the shadows.
The day was young when we disembarked for a safari, bumping in open Land Cruisers down dirt roads through woodlands coppiced to orchard height by generations of elephants. There are 2,000 elephants in the park, our guide informed us, as a family group with two calves crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the trees.
Later, back in the air-conditioned comfort of the African Dream, we lunched on a starter of pear with blue cheese and walnut, followed by grilled bream from the lake.
Supplies are trucked in from Harare every three days and the exemplary cuisine is prepared by a team who were taught their skills by MasterChef SA judge Pete Goffe-Wood.
In the afternoon we entered the Sanyati Gorge whose wooded sides fell in steep pleats all around us. As we continued towards Spurwing Island we passed three elephants belly-deep in the water. More were feeding along the shore as we moored for the night in Palm Bay.
Next day we flew back to Victoria Falls to be transferred by bus for the border crossing between Zimbabwe and Botswana en route to the eastern tip of Namibia’s Zambezi Region, the 450km long panhandle formerly known as the Caprivi Strip.
Making three different border crossings in an hour sounds complicated, but the customs formalities ran like clockwork. In no time we were zooming in power boats towards Impalila Island, the only place in the world where four countries meet (Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe).
The maze of channels with their ale-coloured water and pale mauve day lilies were a mirror image of the Okavango Panhandle, as were the mekoros (dugout canoes) moored under the riverside trees and the herons flying out of the papyrus as we sped past.
At last we came to a small private island where the Chobe meets the Zambezi within sight and sound of the Mambova Rapids. A floating boardwalk led us to the Cascades, a luxury lodge used exclusively by guests of CroisiEurope.
To call the eight-guest bungalows palatial is an understatement. Mine had a bathroom big enough for a political convention as well as its own private splash pool, open-air shower and a swing seat under the riverside trees.
Over the next two days we enjoyed a tour of Impalila, crossed into Botswana for a game drive around Chobe National Park and cruised along the Chobe river past the waterside lawns of Chobe Game Lodge where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor spent their second honeymoon in 1975.
Chobe is renowned for its elephants, estimated to be as many as 120,000, and they were all around as we drove through the park with our guide Moses. Other visitors saw lions and even a leopard up a tree.
For the grand finale of our tour we were transferred by road to Victoria Falls, the adrenaline capital of Africa, where hardy souls go bungee jumping off the bridge that spans the Zambezi Gorge or ride the rapids in rubber boats.
We chose the gentler alternatives: a booze cruise on the Zambezi, a 12-minute “Flight of Angels” helicopter joyride and then a visit to the falls themselves.
Be prepared for a drenching if you come here at the end of the rainy season when the river levels are at their highest and Mosi-oa-tunya – the “Smoke that Thunders” is at its most spectacular.
The constant clouds of rising spray will ensure not even a rented poncho will save you from being soaked to the skin; but it’s a small price to pay for coming face to face with one of Africa’s most stunning natural wonders. Brian Jackman travelled as a guest of CroisiEurope (croisieurope.co.uk). There are easy connecting flights from OR Tambo International Airport to the Victoria Falls and back. Zimbabwe is visa-free for South Africans with a valid passport for a stay up to 90 days. – The Telegraph