There are two things you should never do when docking on a riverbank crawling with crocodiles: scream or tip the boat.
So what happens when our motorboat nuzzles up to a bask of 50-odd crocs on the muddy banks of Zimbabwe’s Gache Gache River? Half the passengers shriek and race to the back of the vessel, rocking it mightily as they cower around the captain. His eyes bug out in horror, not because he’s worried about reptiles jumping into his bark but because our collective hysteria is throwing it off balance.
I squeal, too, but I don’t run. Instead, I train my camera lens on a crocodile whose jaws are propped open like a pair of scissors. He sits still as a Rembrandt. As we inch closer, I notice a web of spidery netting crisscrossing his knife-blade teeth. Yet another casualty, our captain sighs, explaining that fishermen have been illegally netting these waters and leaving behind trashed lines. If the croc doesn’t get his fangs untangled soon, he’ll die.
This certainly isn’t the only animal encounter during my nine-day, four-country tour of Southern Africa, but it is the most poignant — the one where humanity’s strained coexistence with Mother Nature and all her creatures is most evident.
Led by CroisiEurope, France’s largest river cruise operator, this combination land-and-water safari program winds through a quartet of countries, plumbing two national parks and the world’s largest manmade reservoir along the way. It starts in Johannesburg with a greatest hits itinerary that whisks us past Nelson Mandela’s house and through the Apartheid Museum.
From there, we hop a flight to Kasane, Botswana, then transfer via boat to Cascades Lodge, a luxury inn perched on a private island in a Zambezi River tributary, just over the Namibian border. The sun is warm and dusky, streaming through the tall grass and dancing on the water. For the 45-minute ride, we keep our eyes peeled like oranges, scanning the riverbanks for photo-worthy sights. A Cape buffalo raises his horned head, thoroughly unimpressed with his approaching visitors. An African darter, wings as black and slick as petroleum, eyes us with suspicion. A crocodile bakes on the shoreline then flings himself into the water as our boat grows closer.
We’re zigging and zagging, going so deep into the bush that I begin to wonder if our captain is lost. He whips around one final corner and there it is: a dock obscured by common reeds. A long wooden boardwalk leads to the lodge, where the Cascades staff greets us with singing and drumming.
CroisiEurope’s first ground accommodations, the lodge is ideally situated for dramatic sunrises and sunsets, streaks of fiery magenta and Prince purple painting the sky like a Miami Vice landscape. There are just eight suites, each with its own plunge pool and outdoor shower. The interiors are done up in safari neutrals and decorated with handwoven baskets and black-and-white prints by acclaimed Joburg photographer David Ballam.
This is our base camp for numerous daily excursions. Our first game drive is in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, home to more than a quarter of Africa’s elephant population. On our way there, our 4WD stops for a troop of baboons crossing the road. Babies hitch rides on their mothers’ backs while males lope along alone. The scene is charming — that is, until a spunky young male tries to mount a mama baboon with a baby slung around her neck. The alpha male witnesses this, and all hell breaks loose. He lets out a guttural howl and chases the randy teen across the road, up a tree and through the scrubland. Dust is swirling, the juvie is screeching — it’s total chaos. Our group is shocked by the rawness of the scene: Is this baboon about to die? Our safari guide tsk-tsks the chap for his poor life decisions and decides now is a good time to go. (We’ll never know if he made it out alive.)
Chobe is a bit tamer by comparison, perhaps because the animals know they’re being watched. When one 4WD sees an animal, half a dozen other vehicles crowd around it. The spotting feels competitive, with everyone straining to catch a glimpse of a kooky kori bustard, an elegant Masai giraffe or a pride of lions lazing in the shade. During our first elephant sighting, it’s total silence save for the click-click-click of our shutters, with those on the wrong side of the vehicle silently cursing their lousy luck.
Compared to the busy park, I relish our alone time on the Chobe and Zambezi rivers. It’s here that we see crocodiles glide through the marshland like hot knives through butter and witness warthogs dart into the bush, their spindly tails shooting up as if they’ve stuck their snouts in an electrical socket. Pods of hippos watch us warily as we play a game of chicken, creeping closer and closer until they sink underwater. Our captain steers clear of the females guarding babies, as they’re understandably more defensive. “See that one?” he says, motioning with his chin. “She put a hole in a fishing boat last week!”
Having seen enough elephants, impalas and hippos to last a lifetime, I find myself newly interested in birdwatching as the speedy little buggers are often more elusive than land animals. I catch a gangly yellow-billed stork joggling through the reeds, an African fish eagle soaring with a fresh catch clutched in its talons and a debonair white egret posturing next to a mud-caked baby crocodile. But the real highlight is the lilac-breasted roller, whose fabulous good looks encapsulate every color of the rainbow; he’s the Jonathan Van Ness of the animal kingdom.
On another outing from Cascades, we take a short boat ride to Impalila Island and hoof it through a traditional Namibian village dotted with mopane, papaya and millennia-old baobab trees. The isolated isle is home to 46 villages and 2,000 people. There’s a school with some 375 students, a clinic with three nurses but no doctor (the nearest hospital is two hours by boat), a military base, and four churches. We meet women weaving papyrus mats from common reeds and pounding maize for pap, a cornmeal porridge that’s a staple in the Namibian diet. We pass a grave with fresh flowers on it. Our captain tells us it’s his uncle, who was attacked by a crocodile. This is serious nature out here, and man isn’t always the victor.
After bidding adieu to Cascades Lodge, we fly to Kariba, Zimbabwe, where we board the African Dream, an intimate affair with a mere eight cabins. The rooms are petite but stylish. More importantly, CroisiEurope is the only cruise line that offers overnight excursions on Lake Kariba, the world’s largest manmade reservoir at 139 miles long by 25 miles wide.
How this lake came into existence is a strange and wondrous tale. Back in the fifties, 10,000 men from Rhodesia (present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe) built the Kariba Dam, a massive hydroelectric power station. It was a remarkable engineering feat that also happened to flood the Zambezi Valley. Realizing that thousands of native animals would die in the rising waters, a heroic game ranger named Rupert Fothergill launched a mission to save them. Operation Noah lasted four years and rehomed thousands of endangered animals to Matusadona National Park, pioneering rescue techniques that wildlife vets still use today.
We spend the next few days exploring Kariba’s mystical flooded flatlands and submerged forests on the African Dream’s motorized tender boat. Heading down the Gache Gache, the waterscape looks like something out of a Tim Burton film with half-drowned trees rising like bony fingers out of the glassy water. Our daily excursions include fishing trips, where we haul in bream and squeakers, as well as a land safari through rugged Matusadona, now the fifth largest national park in Zimbabwe. It’s night and day from Chobe; not once do we find ourselves inhaling the dust of another safari vehicle. Our veteran guide is deeply knowledgeable, showing us hippo tracks and identifying animal dung. Under his expert guidance, we count at least 20 elephants as well as vervet monkeys, helmeted guinea fowl and a dazzle of zebras, which had thus far eluded us.
Each time we return to the African Dream, the all-smiles staff hands us cold drinks and describes in tantalizing detail the meal to come, usually some delicious spin on Francophile fare employing local ingredients. Zimbabwe’s tourism has taken a knocking over the past couple of decades, but now that Mugabe is gone, locals are hoping for a resurgence. To its credit, the staff doesn’t skirt difficult issues surrounding the country’s bloody history, from the devastating Gukurahundi genocide to its numerous economic collapses. Zimbabwe is a country in rebound, with all eyes fixed on the future.
After dinner each night, some guests head up to the top deck to try to photograph the Milky Way. Unable to figure out my camera settings, I’m content to just take mental pictures. Though the trip will end with a double rainbow sighting over thundering Victoria Falls, where the Zambezi River forms the widest waterfall in the world, nothing is more special than this moment right now, lying on a boat floating in an unspoiled lake in middle-of-nowhere Zimbabwe counting a zillion sparkling stars in a tarry-black sky.