Board a small river boat and set off on a fabulous Zambezi sunset cruise. Sip on sundowner drinks and nibble on snacks as you slowly thread your way between two countries – Zimbabwe on one side and Zambia on the other – spotting game along the way.
Our Zambezi River cruise was to be unlike any other I’d experienced. We arrived at the little dock on the bank of the river at 4.30pm. Many of these daily excursions are on large barges, but our Zambezi sunset cruise was to be on an exclusive, intimate boat fitted with a canopy. We stepped aboard and found seats.
‘Welcome aboard!,’ said Stephen, our guide and skipper. ‘Everybody ready to go?’
We were. The engines coughed to life, lines were cast off and we reversed away from the wooden jetty. Stephen turned the vessel towards the sinking sun and motored slowly upstream.
Just being on the Zambezi River (never mind the game viewing along its banks) was a welcome contrast to the dusty hours we’d spent on game-drive vehicles. The scenery was sublime: reed beds, picturesque islets and banks lined with magnificent hardwood trees, some of them of enormous proportions.
Out came the gourmet canapés and bubbly. We sat drinking and eating in companionable silence, watching the majesty of the Zambezi unfurl around us.
Just then, a herd of elephant emerged from the trees and rushed towards the water. Soon, they were drinking and playing in the shallows, the babies rolling about in the mud. There was much trumpeting and splashing in a delightful scene of pachyderm domestic bliss.
We approached a pod of hippo, which dived when we drew closer. They resurfaced in our wake and let out an uproarious honking that echoed off the banks and gave us all a good chuckle.
Much more sinister were the enormous Nile crocodile basking on the banks. If we got too near, there’d be an almighty flick of their tails and they’d splash into the stream. We kept a smart lookout for their eyes, which would pop up like sinister periscopes.
The riverine birdlife was spellbinding. I had fortunately packed my long lens and photographing the birds from the waterline was a delight. The sand banks, isles and channels were thronged with waterfowl of every kind.
My partner and I managed to spot a number of species of duck, goose, egret and crane, as well as delightful African spoonbills with their odd-shaped beaks. A flock of great white pelicans fished in the deeper water. Best of all was a pair of stately African fish eagles in a leadwood tree, scanning the river for their dinner. As we motored beneath them, they both let out their distinctive cry: the spine-tingling call of Africa.
‘The Zambezi is the continent’s fourth largest river system, after the Nile, Zaire and Niger,’ explained Stephen as he handed round another plate of delicious nibbles. ‘It flows through six countries on its journey from central Africa to the Indian Ocean. The Zambezi’s unique beauty lies in the fact that it’s far less developed than the other big rivers in terms of human settlement and many areas along the banks enjoy protected status.’
‘How long is the Zambezi?’ I asked.
‘About 2,500km. It begins its journey as a tiny spring in northwest Zambia. It bubbles up between the roots of a tree, very close to the border where Zambia, Angola and Zaire meet. The stretch we’re on right now – forming the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia – is perhaps the most beautiful, and most protected, section. ’
‘What’s the fishing like?’ I asked, being a bit of a flyfisher myself.
‘Oh it’s excellent!’ said Stephen. ‘The Zambezi is home to more than 75 species and is famous for bream and fighting tiger fish.’
It was a perfect evening, with the sounds of the river serenading us. I was watching one of the hippo as it circled the boat menacingly. Suddenly, it dived under the water. A few moments later, it burst to the surface about 50m from us, honking loudly. ‘Keep away!’ he warned.
Sipping our drinks and eating kebabs (made from crocodile meat!), we watched the swirling river. These mighty waters were the lifeblood at the heart of Africa and a focal point for animals and humans in this giant, pristine ecosystem. This was the aorta of Eden, I thought just then, taking another sip of bubbles.
Stephen switched off the outboard engine and let us drift silently back downstream. Gently spiralling on the current, we watched the scarlet riverbanks unfold and the sun dip its orb into the Zambezi. What a way to end the African day.