Water-based safaris offer a very different experience to traditional game drives.
They allow you to reach areas not accessible by land and naturally focus on seeking out and getting close to water dwelling species. In addition, water-based activities nearly always offer a very scenic experience and are often much more relaxing and ‘calm’ than drives or walks (though there can be exceptions!). Sunsets on the water are typically stunning, whilst bird watching is also especially good around water.
The principal ways to explore by water include house boats, speedboats or motorised pontoons, canoes, kayaks and mekoros (traditional dug out canoes where you a ‘poled’ through shallow water).
Africa is blessed with several impressive rivers, lakes and wetland areas. The great rivers of ‘safari’ Africa include the Nile (Uganda), Akagera (Rwanda), Rujifi (Tanzania), Shire (Malawi), Luangwa and Kafue (Zambia), Zambezi (Zimbabwe/Zambia), Kunene (Namibia/Angola) and the Okavango, Kwando/Linyanti and Chobe (Botswana) to name but a few.
The famous Great Rift Valley lake system also slices from north to south through ‘safari’ Africa, from the wild shores of Lake Turkana (the ‘Jade Sea’) in northern Kenya to the submerged forests of man-made Lake Kariba in Zambia/Zimbabwe. Bogoria, Baringo, Nakuru, Naivasha, Natron, Manyara, Eyasi, Albert, Edward, George, Kivu, Victoria, Tanganyika, Malawi – a multitude of lakes which bring a multitude of experiences and opportunities.
There are also several areas of extensive wetlands, most notably the stunning Okavango Delta in Botswana and the Bangweulu wetlands in Zambia, and on a more seasonal basis the remote as Liuwa Plains in western Zambia.
Boat safaris are essentially game drives on the water and usually offer a blend of game viewing, birding, scenic exploration and relaxation. Fishing can often be an added experience for those who are interested. Species that are easiest to observe from boats include hippo, crocodiles, elephants and buffalo, otters (rare) and a plethora of birdlife – especially iconic species such as Shoebill and Pel’s fishing owl as well as more commonly seen species such as fish eagle, egret, heron, stork, African skimmer, kingfisher and various waders. In some areas you may be lucky enough to spot predators from boats, and it is not uncommon to see species like giraffe, zebra, baboon, vervet monkey and various antelopes, including rare species such as Sitatunga in limited areas.
On some of the larger rivers, elephant viewing can be spectacular from boats, notably on the Chobe River in Botswana’s Chobe National Park. For all round wonderful game viewing from boats, including elephants, many other fantastic options exist including on the Zambezi River which flows between Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools and Zambia’s Lower Zambezi national parks, the Okavango Delta in Botswana, the Rufiji River in the Nyerere National Park in Tanzania, The Nile River in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda and the Shire River in Liwonde National Park in Malawi. These are just a few of the best options, boat cruises exist in other areas too.
If you are looking for a relaxing safari experience then nothing beats a houseboat! Boats will generally cater for between 8 and 24 guests with en suite cabins, indoor living areas and a large outdoor viewing deck (sometimes including a small jacuzzi or plunge pool). Most boats will have a pretty social feel with communal meals and plenty of time to relax on board, and of course this is perfect for private groups of friends or extended family parties. Activities will usually focus on a combination of fishing and game viewing (and birding) from smaller tender boats, though occasionally walks are also possible.
The best known regions for houseboat safaris are the Matusadona National Park on Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe and the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip (these boats are usually accessed from Botswana’s Chobe National Park). A few other areas can offer them too, such as in the pan handle region of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. For an idea of what to expect from a houseboat safari, please see our short film on Houseboat safaris on the Chobe River.
Mokoro (Local Dug-out)
A ‘mokoro’ (or mekoro – plural) is a traditional dug-out canoe that is propelled through shallow water by a ‘poler’ standing at the back. Although used by locals in a few different wetland regions, mekoro excursions are mostly associated with Botswana’s Okavango Delta, where they are used to explore the shallow floodplains and channels of this wonderful wetland paradise. Many camps in the Okavango will offer mekoro excursions as a relaxed activity where you learn about some of the smaller aspects of the delta and appreciate the tranquillity of the environment.
You are generally unlikely to see a huge amount big game on a mokoro excursion (if you are lucky you can see elephants, giraffe, antelopes, buffalo etc.), but the experience of travelling silently across the floodplain is very relaxing, the scenery and bird watching superb, and you have the chance of seeing specialist species such as reed frogs, spotted-necked otters, sitatunga antelope and Pel’s fishing owl.
Canoeing and kayaking and possible on a number of Africa’s great lakes and rivers, sometimes as an activity from a permanent camp or lodge, and sometimes as a multi-day adventure trail.
The best canoeing safaris are found on the Zambezi River. Historically the Mana Pools (Zimbabwe) side of the river has been the very best destination to consider for a canoeing adventure and it is still possible to canoe the river with experienced guides. However, for various reasons the conditions for canoeing along this section of the river in more recent years have become more dangerous and we would therefore suggest that it is an activity only suitable for adventurous safari travellers and should not be considered unless you canoe with a qualified and experienced local guide that knows the river well. Across the river along the Zambian shores of the Lower Zambezi National Park, the river is deeper and we consider canoeing on this side of the river a little less adventurous.
Canoeing or kayaking (river, lake or sea) is also available in a few others spots in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, Tanzania and South Africa. You do not need to be experienced to undertake a canoeing or kayaking safari, though a little fitness for lake and sea kayaking will help and certain canoeing safaris are only recommended for adventurous travellers due to high concentrations of hippos and crocs.