From my seat on the pontoon boat, I squeal in excitement at the splinter of gray I see in the distance. I almost missed it, despite the attempts of my fellow travelers to aim my gaze, but the flapping ears give him away.
Tucked up on the hill, deep in a green cluster of Zambezi teak trees, his telltale wrinkled grey skin and sturdy legs at first seemed like just another tree in the bush. But once those ears flap, there’s no denying the majesty of an African elephant.
From his perch at the front of the boat on the Chobe River, our guide and captain Emmanuel Maruza, doesn’t attempt to mask his own excitement. “Look at that,” he says, mostly to himself as he maneuvers the boat closer to shore. “Amazing. Amazing.”
It is day three of a nine-day unforgettable African river adventure. The ambitious CroisiEurope itinerary takes a maximum of 16 guests across four countries: South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. In each, we spend time on land with the people and animals. But in three of the four, there’s a bonus: time spent cruising the continents’ scenic and vital waterways.
Having the opportunity to explore from both land and water makes booking with CroisiEurope appealing, and it’s the European cruise company’s first foray into Africa. Most luxury African safari operators whisk guests away to a plush lodge and then offer twice-a-day open-jeep safari rollouts into the wild. CroisiEurope’s African Dream itinerary offers a similar lodge stay (it owns two lavish properties on the edge of the Zambezi River where Namibia borders Botswana), but takes it a step further with multiple trips out on water safaris and a three-night stay on one of two intimate houseboats in Zimbabwe. The advantages of exploring the countries by both land and water are almost immediately evident.
On the land tour of Chobe National Park in Botswana, animals are everywhere: Lions lazing in the tall grass on the roadside, giraffes gracefully crossing the savannah, warthogs bumbling past Cape buffalo who seem oblivious to the Oxpeckers on their own backs.
You don’t have to get on the water to see the wildlife. There are more than 50,000 elephants—my favorite wildlife sighting—that freely roam in and out of the fenceless Chobe National Park, alone. But there’s no question that cruising the region’s rivers will amplify the experience.
The rivers and lakes we traverse are calm. Small ripples across the glassy surface and the occasional bubbles around us are reminders that life—crocodiles and hippos mostly—lie beneath. Reeds and mangroves line the shores on the rides out from the lodge, barely moving in the absence of heavy breeze despite the birds nimbly balanced on their tips. And it’s not long before the gentle hum of the motor becomes almost meditative, and our small group settles into a quiet as we watch hippos yawn and grunt from the land and the water in reverent silence.
The animals look different from the water, too. The perspective change means that instead of looking down on them from the height of the jeep, you’re gazing up or across. Kudus seem larger, hippos more foreboding. And you’re encountering them in places that feel almost intimate: Elephants bathing in the shallows of the river amongst a field of water lilies, crocs sunning on the shore and then slithering into the water beneath the boat. You feel smaller on the water. More vulnerable.
It’s a feeling that stays with us when we eventually move to CroisiEurope’s luxury houseboat in Zimbabwe. There, we take turns boarding smaller boats, perfect for sundowner cruises, scooting up to reedy mounds to listen to the birds as the sun sets or zigzagging through sun-bleached Mopane trees on afternoon fishing jaunts. And with no other boats in sight, early risers share the morning with the animals as they start their day. I watch hippos shake the sleep off their backs and head back to the water, and elephant moms nurse their babies and meander the short grass just beyond the shore.
The trip is not all slow cruising and shoreline searching. In South Africa, we trace the life of Nelson Mandela through the Apartheid Museum, on Impalila Island in Namibia we walk the villages with a resident guide, and in Zimbabwe we take in the stunning Victoria Falls by foot and helicopter. Emotional moments abound on this trip and adrenaline is in no short supply.
The moments are all incredible in their own right, but for me the highlight remains that first glimpse on day three and the surprise that followed. As it turned out, the elephant I saw wasn’t alone.
The whistle of tree branches being pulled and broken gives them away. Three adult elephants and a few babies come forward toward us. Our boat backs up to give them space, but we remain close enough to hear them slurp and splash as they drink and dip in the water.
When it’s time to go, we erupt in a smattering of giggles and chatter. A shared moment on a trip where magic seems to flow as easily as the waters beneath us.