Trunk Call along the Chobe – a travel story you will love

Trunk Call along the Chobe by Carol Lazar – August 2007

The elephants came down to the water to drink. We were within touching distance. The great pachyderms dipped their trunks into the river and siphoned the water upwards, then curled their trunks into their mouth and drank.

Silently, we became part of their ritual. "They come once a day to drink," said Nicholas Simasiku, our ranger.

The Chobe is a wide, quintessentially African river that snakes between Namibia and Botswana, a natural geographic border. Just before Zimbabwe and Zambia, it becomes the Zambezi. The river is navigable for hundreds of kilometers inland by the locals in their narrow mokoros (dugouts). And it is upon the Zambezi and Chobe that the Nguni Zambezi Voyager sails leisurely up or down the river.

How does one explain the Nguni? It is a houseboat, but not just a houseboat. It is a most special floating lodge created by four young people with an almost impossible dream.

They wanted a houseboat small enough to be able to float silently through the narrowest channels, into the most secluded of cover, but large enough to accommodate 10 guests – the number they deemed not too few and not too many. It had to be spacious and extremely luxurious, yet not over the top or glitzy.

They wanted decks with cabins, a lounge, dining room and kitchen that might grace the most elegant yacht in Monaco, yet blend with the wildness of the bush in this unique part of Africa.

It’s a houseboat with a difference – So, Simon and Renee Parker, Haydn Williams and Peter Watson sat down and talked houseboats. Accomplished and talented, they’d worked for many years in the bush and more knowledgeable foursome would be difficult to find. Between them, they know the name of every animal, tree and bird. They are remarkably pragmatic and yet creatively artistic – an unusual blend.

The Nguni was the result. It took them two years to conceptualize, design and build. To say it’s breathtaking is an understatement.

We’d flown to Victoria Falls with SA Express on the launch flight of their new route to the small town bordering the seventh natural wonder of the world. We’d slept at Vic Falls, spent the morning there, then driven the hour’s distance to the border and crossed into Botswana.

After a hearty lunch at the Chobe Safari Lodge, we’d been fetched by Haydn and Nicholas. At this spot in Africa, three countries meet: Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. (A little further behind it is Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana that border each other.)

In a short space of time, we crossed three borders – but it all went smoothly in a typically hospitable African way with smiles and much courtesy. There are many First World countries that could take note.

A 10-minute ride up the Chobe and we turned a bend in the river and there was the Nguni. I hadn’t seen it at first, so well did it blend with the background in the bullrushed cove.

Typical African hospitality – Nearby, a small herd of elephants grazed on the Namibian side, while across the river in Botswana, a fish eagle called and two pied kingfishers hovered above the water, diving for delicious fish. We were shown to our cabins (here the word stateroom is far, far more appropriate), changed into shorts and T-shirts and sat on the open deck drinking iced beer.

The Nguni is spacious, but each cabin has its own tender with a guide, so should you feel like doing a spot of bird watching, game viewing or fishing, then you can go alone with your guide. Besides the five small tenders, there’s also a larger tender accommodating all 10 guests in comfort.

The Nguni is staffed by Namibian guides Nicholas, Crispin Samalumba and Charlie Kaiba, who have grown up in wildlife areas and are formidably knowledgeable. We opted for some game viewing, so Nicholas cast off the tender and took us lazily down the river.

That was where we found ourselves in the midst of the herd of ellies who’d come down to drink.

A huge water monitor lizard lay on the bank, also within touching distance had I stretched out my hand.

We could hear the rumbles of the elephants’ stomachs as the greenery they’d browsed fermented in their great bellies.

On the Chobe bank, we spotted the largest herd of impala I’d ever seen; there must have been thousands of them interspersed with lechwe, a Chobe bushbuck or three, kudu in the distance and tall roan antelope. It was a glorious sight.

Nicholas spotted bird after bird, yellow-billed storks by the bush full, hunting fish eagles, soaring bateleurs, pratincoles by the flock and more kingfishers than you could imagine – the malachite, pied and brown-hooded among them. It was a twitcher’s paradise.

Then, almost silently, we slowly motored back to the Nguni past locals fishing from their mokoros, waving in the spectacular sunset. There was a prize-winning photograph at every turn, the sun setting through acacias or stately baobabs and sometimes a lone fisherman, tall in his mokoro.

There are two chefs on board, Donna Coker, a diminutive South African who creates sumptuous feasts aided by Innocent Tebeho, an astonishing baker. His fresh bread steamed on the table and was irresistible.

After dinner, we sat on the deck with the Milky Way brighter than I’d seen it in years. The moon was sickled, so in the almost-darkness we watched a small herd of elephants cross the river from Botswana to Namibia, holding their trunks above them like snorkels. Endearingly, the mothers lifted the trunks of their calves aiding them in their crossing. We’d see a large black shape plus a calf swimming alongside, and a large and small snorkel together.

It was a most moving sight. Elephants are like whales, such mystical creatures.

Now I’m not a true fisherman though I’m keen. For fishing folk, the Nguni is equipped with serious fishing gear of every kind. Fly fishermen will be orgasmic as these are perfect conditions, and tiger fishing, in season, is known to be some of the best in Africa. I was keen to display my incompetence so Peter Watson, like Haydn, a fisherman of note, patiently baited my hook with chicken liver, a tempting delicacy for a barbel. Haydn, apparently, just whistles and the fish come. (Well, that’s the legend.)

Peter caught several giants. One was almost as large as me – okay, so that’s a little exaggeration, but eventually, after three hours, I managed to catch my own little fellow, 10kg, or was that 3kg? Perhaps 2kg. No matter, it was a fish. And for all those cynics out there who say a barbel is not a fish, take note, these barbel give a good fight. Ernest Hemingway would have been proud. I should mention that Peter caught bream and other more fishy fish, but it’s the thought that counts. Every fish caught is released, it’s part of the Nguni ethos. At 1am I showered under the Victorian-style showerhead, then fell into my delicious bed and dreamt of escaping barbel. Who says catfish are ugly?

Next morning, a herd of elephants came to graze in our little cove. My fishing attempts had exhausted me, so I slept through their visit but no matter, by the time I awoke, the sky was bright blue and even the traditionally brown Chobe River a greenish blue while the sun shone through the baobabs and giant jackalberry and sausage trees. This was heaven.

Lazily, the Nguni sailed up the Chobe towards Serondela, the legendary riverside spot in the Chobe National Park.

I must mention handbags. I saw handbags by the kilometers, the largest mobile croc-aspiring handbags you’d ever seen. One crocodile was so large that I reckoned he might have made at least 37 bags, and that was excluding his upper side.

Relax, I’m joking. Of course I think a croc’s skin looks better on it, than a handbag!

Along the Chobe the crocodiles, large and small, were magnificent. Huge, lazy and, I have to add, well fed. But then, why wouldn’t they be? Their dinner was munificent and spread everywhere.

Part-owner Renee Parker, herself a truly accomplished chef (she has studied in fine schools of cuisine), is responsible for the furnishings and decor aboard the Nguni and it is the attention to detail that makes it the superb and understated success it is.

Take the dining room chairs with Nguni skin-lined backs.

Nguni cattle are, of course, the traditional cattle of the area belonging to the proud Nguni people.

The hulking Peter Watson, the youngest of four brothers who have grown up fishing, diving, driving racing cars and doing every boy sport around, is an accomplished needle person and he has stitched together one of the beautiful Nguni skin mats aboard.

The more delicate one, I have to admit, was made by his mother.

The ultimate luxury is to frolic in a bubbling Jacuzzi and sip champagne or an iced beer or even orange juice, whatever your fancy, while watching elephants frolic in their Chobe version of a Jacuzzi. Yes, there is a Jacuzzi on board.

If you think this sounds decadent, it is, but in a most un-decadent way. And no, this is not an oxymoron, for even the Jacuzzi fits in. It would not surprise me if one day a guest finds herself sharing the Jacuzzi with a hippo, so natural and tempting is the idea.

The Nguni’s four owners are fierce conservationists with strong social community responsibilities and everything is planned to be part of the environment.

Up the Chobe, we floated effortlessly past a herd of 14 sable, black against the sandbank. I took at least 10 pictures to show my husband, whose perfect animal is the great sable bull.

Occasionally, we’d see folk in a 4×4 watching game on the bank, in fact, we glimpsed lion this way.

The lion were being watched by the folk in their vehicles and from the water we watched them being watched by the poor hot people in the cars.

It’s not that you feel superior drifting up river in such splendor. You are (for you are part of the river), a kind of river creature and the animals accept you.

After a memorable lunch, we anchored and Haydn took us for a walk on the Namibian side.

He’d mentioned a small fishing village, the home of Charlie, one of the rangers, and he wondered if we might like to visit. We responded with enthusiasm, and across a grassy plain we walked, with elephants in the distance and the river to our rear. Then, hiding behind bushes was the small village of iJambe.

Charlie introduced us to his friends and family and gave an impromptu talk on life in modest iJambe. The children gathered around and giggled. The villagers exist on fishing and growing crops and in a village of 60, there are several very elderly folk.

"My grandmother," said Charlie, "died last June. She was 137."

This was a remarkable trip for it was as if we were friends paying a visit.

Charlie asked if we would kindly be formally presented to the villagers and so we were. They encircled and welcomed us with a song and then danced and we were momentarily part of iJambe.

Perhaps the most moving moment was when Charlie took us to meet his very elderly father, the dignified headman Kennedy Kaibu, who sat outside his wattle-and-daub hut and welcomed us with such grace.

That night, we cruised up the Chobe and anchored in a hidden spot. The silence was intense, the stars bright and then the cacophony began.

The Chobe philharmonic orchestra – bass hippo grunts; trilling hyena; trumpeting elephant; deep, loud lion roars. And always, keeping perfect rhythm, the frogs.

The collective expression for hippos is a "raft" of hippos. Well, we saw flotillas of hippos.

Tiny and pink, massive and black or grey, they were in the water, on the banks, sunbathing, taking in the fresh air, competing with the crocs for water space. It was a remarkable scene.

On board, we’d sink into the couches and peer through Leica and Swarovsky binoculars (thoughtfully provided by the Nguni for guests who might not have their own). And that is one of the secrets of a journey aboard the Nguni.

Everything is so thoughtful yet unobtrusive. That night, dinner was a fish starter with a lamb main dish so succulent it melted in our mouths, accompanied by salads, fruit and a soufflé dessert to die for, doll.

The guys fished, and I tried with a little hand line, but my heart wasn’t in it, so I retreated to the upper deck and sat one a chaise longue, gazing at the stars and listening to the sounds. It was thrilling and yet so peaceful that I could have floated heavenward.

Next morning, we took a tender downriver, past elephants, kudu, crocodiles, hippos, and lechwe sometimes almost crimson against the rising sun.

The Nguni got smaller and then we turned the curve of the river and it had gone.


If you go…

* Visas: SA passport holders do not need a visa to enter Zimbabwe, Botswana or Namibia, but you will acquire many stamps on this excursion so ask the officials to place them on one page.

* Floating lodge: The Nguni Zambezi Voyager is a luxury floating lodge that sails between the Chobe River and approximately 130km of untouched Upper Zambezi River. Brunches, lunches and high teas are set up on the sandbanks with the African bush as a backdrop. You enjoy game cruises, walks in the floodplains and fantastic fishing.

* Getting there: We flew with South African Express to Vic Falls then transferred to Botswana by road and river to the Nguni. The flight is an hour-and-a-half but the border crossings take a little more time. You can also fly into Livingstone, then transfer to Botswana by ferry then meet the Nguni. The Zim option was perfect. It gave us a day at Vic Falls, optional but fab, and then two nights aboard the Nguni.


Special offer

Getaway Travel & Tours is offering a super package for Nguni Voyager deluxe safari package for three days for R4 990 person sharing.

The price includes:

* Return flights from and back to Johannesburg.

* Road transfers to Chobe and boat transfers to the Nguni.

* Two nights’ and three days’ accommodation in a twin cabin with breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks.

* Free water, soft drinks, beer and house wines.

* Unlimited game viewing, fishing, local fishing village walking tour and sundowners.

* It is important to note that the cruise is limited to a maximum of 10 passengers.

* If you want to stay for longer, extra nights will cost R1 800 per person sharing. And if you want to stay on at Victoria Falls, accommodation at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge will cost R690 per person.

* For more information, phone Getaway Travel & Tours on 0860-438-292 or check out www.getawaytravel.co.za

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