Safari by Boat

Kat Thatcher

The skiff sped through twisting waterways, morning sunlight dancing across the ripples and breezes ruffling our hair. Tall, plumed papyrus lined the banks, and small, brilliantly colored birds flitted down the water like flying gems. Encountering a pool of hippos, the guide warned us to hang on tight — we had to cross full-speed, as surfacing hippos can flip a boat. Our hearts pounded, thinking of the many crocodiles lazing on the riverbanks and the size of the hippo teeth we’d seen as they grunted.  We gripped the boat, held our breath, and sped across the pool. What were we doing? We were on safari. In a boat. Yes, safari by boat. Moremi Game Reserve in the Delta and Chobe National Park on the Chobe River bordering Namibia are new adventures compared to jeep-only safaris of drier areas, including Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa.

The Delta is a swampy grassland 6,000 square miles wide, fed by water from the Angolan highlands, and does not drain into a river or sea. It has areas of savannah and over 150,000 islands. Both here and Chobe are inhabited by typical safari game — elephant, lion, hyena, wild dog, leopard, cheetah, baboons, foxes, crocs, hippos, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, buffalo, and antelopes, including lechwe, sitatunga, reedbuck, bushbuck, impala, and tsessebe. It took a standard flight from Joburg — two five-seat bush planes flights — and a boat to get to our remote destination, Xugana Island Lodge. Glamorous, fully decked out British Colonial safari “huts” awaited, as well as a lovely dining area situated on a deck overlooking the lagoon. At breakfast, one might see splashing hippos, while after dark, around the fire pit, it seemed stars were on fire above in the dark Delta night sky.

This was a contrast to our next destination — the larger hotel-style Chobe Lodge in the National Park. Equally romantic, it's exotically decorated in Moroccan tables, kilim couches, and lanterns. Overlooking the river, it has electric safari pontoon boats and jeeps and female guides (a rarity in this male-dominated industry). Both resorts serve three-course gourmet meals. In Chobe, huge herds of elephants prance like an unstoppable party parade, rolling in mud holes, trumpeting, grazing, and even swimming. We were mesmerized by their humorous river crossings — fully submerged save trunks like periscopes, with babies sandwiched between hefty adults for safety. Spectacular, dramatic summer downpours brought vibrant rainbows with the unique site of grazing hippos beneath. We watched in suspense as a pair of lionesses stalked warthogs. They charged but missed, bringing mixed feelings of relief for the warthogs but the sad realization that lions and cubs might go hungry. Pairs of white-headed African fish eagles line the river like sentinels.  Houseboat safaris cruise, allowing guests to awake and watch from the water. We fell in love with the region and realized the waterways are the lifeblood of Northern Botswana.

Silverleaf resident Kat Thatcher is an art consultant who writes monthly articles on art and antiques and a travel writer, having visited over 70 countries.