Africa’s Best Boat Safaris
By Philip Briggs | Updated August 27, 2021
Boat safaris provide a fresh perspective on the African bush. The dominant mammal in most aquatic habitats is the hippo, small pods of which grunt and cavort in the shallows, occasionally yawning open their 6ft-wide mouths to expose a terrifying pair of tusk-like incisors.
Africa’s aquatic mega-predator? That would be the Nile crocodile. This ruthless killer sometimes attains a length of 20ft, and it is often seen basking on sandbars and riverbanks, toothy mouth menacingly agape, looking every bit like the murderous relict from the Age of the Dinosaurs it actually is.
Gliding through the water, you might pass elephants playing in the shallows, buffalos basking in the mud, or giraffes drinking in a truly freakish display of natural engineering. Then there is the sheer delight of being out on a tropical waterway, and the opportunity to see a selection of Africa’s varied aquatic bird life.
The catch? Well, the fact is that most of Africa’s top safari hotspots – from Kruger and Etosha to the Serengeti and Maasai Mara – don’t actually offer boat safaris to visitors. But there are exceptions, and here we cherry pick some wildlife destinations where boat trips are integral to the experience.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
Okavango isn’t a conventional safari destination. True, this 5,800-square-mile inland delta is home to all the Big Five, but for many a bigger draw than the wildlife is the unique wetland landscape it inhabits. The most exciting way to explore the delta is in a wobbly mokoro dugout guided by an experienced local poler adept at skirting around hippos, crocodiles and other aquatic perils. It’s mesmerizing to glide slowly through this labyrinthine wilderness of palm-shaded channels, jungled islands, lily-covered pools and dense stands of swampy papyrus. Game viewing in the depths of the delta isn’t what it is in drier outlying areas, but you can expect to see elephant and buffalo, along with aquatic specialists such as otters, sitatunga and red lechwe antelope, and an exceptional variety of aquatic birds, from the delicate lily-trotting African jacana to the near-endemic slaty egret.
We almost chose: Were it not for the singularity of the Okavango experience, the river that gives its name to Chobe National Park would rank as Botswana’s top spot for boat safaris. It’s a magnet for thirsty elephants, buffalos and other wildlife, particularly towards the end of the dry season, while a long list of alluring birds includes African skimmer, African finfoot and half-collared kingfisher.
Nile River, Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda
Uganda’s largest national park is bisected by the Victoria Nile as it courses towards its delta with Lake Albert. En route, the river is channeled through a narrow cleft in the Rift Valley escarpment to form a cacophonous 140ft-high plume of foaming white water. A safari upriver from Paraa showcases Murchison Falls in all its explosive brutality, but this popular excursion also comes with a good chance of spotting elephant, buffalo, giraffe, buffalo and waterbuck in addition to the resident crocodiles and hippos. To see Murchison’s avian star, the shoebill, an enigmatic swamp-dweller named for its heavy clog-like bill, join a separate boat trip from Paraa downstream to the papyrus-lined Lake Albert delta.
We almost chose: Almost everybody who visits Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park joins one of the regular boat trips on the Kazinga Channel, a placid stretch of water that connects Lakes Edward and George. Although it lacks a natural punctuation mark to compare with Murchison Falls, the channel is home to plenty of hippos, and you can be confident of seeing elephant, buffalo and waterbuck. Over more than a dozen boat trips on Kazinga, I’ve also had a few truly memorable lucky sightings, including leopard (twice), lion and giant forest hog.
Zambezi River, Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
Although the Lower Zambezi can be explored on motorized game-viewing cruises, the specialty is undoubtedly self-propelled canoe safaris. This ranks among the most immersive of bush experiences, giving a wide berth to the hippos that lurk in the shallows as the flow pulls you along. Most of the time, canoeing along this lovely tropical waterway – skimming a few inches above the water, with no window in sight nor engine in earshot – is tranquility personified. Be ready for some unnerving moments too – we once canoed past a staring lion pride only a few meters from the bank, and on another occasion had to latch onto an overhanging branch to stall our progress as an elephant herd crossed the channel ahead.
We almost chose: The Zimbabwean counterpart to Lower Zambezi, Mana Pools National Park stands on the opposite side of the same stretch of Southern Africa’s largest and wildest waterway. It’s slightly less accessible than Lower Zambezi, and the focus is more on walking safaris, but it’s also a good base for boat trips.
Rufiji River, Nyerere National Park, Tanzania
When it comes to water-based game viewing, boats trips on the wide sluggish Rufiji as it bisects Tanzania’s largest national park (formerly Selous Game Reserve) are hard to beat. Expect dentist’s-eye encounters with monstrous crocodiles and one of Africa’s most impressive hippo populations, and a good possibility of giraffe, buffalo and elephant coming to drink. Avian highlights include palmnut vulture, African skimmer, and seasonal breeding colonies of carmine and white-fronted bee-eater. My favorite time to be on the Rufiji is late afternoon, when the tall riverside palms are silhouetted by the setting sun.
We almost chose: Malawi’s underrated Liwonde National Park is dominated by the magical Shire River as it flows south from Lake Malawi to its confluence with the Zambezi. Boat trips here offer a comparable experience to the Rufiji, with hippo and elephant being particularly conspicuous. The exceptional birdlife includes white-backed night heron, Bohm’s bee-eater and Pel’s fishing owl – the latter often seen hawking over the water shortly after dusk.
Pongola River, Pongola Game Reserve, South Africa
Every list of travel highlights needs its ‘best kept secret’, and the affordable boat trips that follow the meandering Pongola River as it flows into Pongolapoort Dam qualify as exactly that. Hippos and crocodiles can be taken for granted, as can a good selection of water-associated birds including large flocks of spur-winged goose and glossy ibis, and the more solitary likes of African fish-eagle, yellow-billed stork and purple heron. This is the only place I’ve ever seen white rhinos from a boat – not just one sighting, but four or five on a single excursion – and other conspicuous members of the Big Five include buffalo and to a lesser extent elephant and black rhino. Mammals are most active on an afternoon cruise, while the early morning is better for birds.
We almost chose: A boat cruise on Lake St Lucia is a highlight of South Africa’s iSimangaliso Wetland UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Big Five are unlikely, but you should see hippos, crocodile and plentiful birds, with kingfishers being particularly well represented. If wildlife viewing is slow, an onboard bar allows you to treat the excursion as a scenic booze cruise.
Separated from the mainland by a sheltered mile-wide channel, island-bound Kilwa Kisiwani was once the most important gold-trading centre on the Swahili Coast. In the 14th century, the globetrotter Ibn Buttata described it as ‘one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world’, and so it remained until 1505 when its decline was triggered by a brutal Portuguese naval assault. What remains, four centuries later, is a compelling inventory of mediaeval Swahili architecture. The exquisite domed Friday mosque stands out, but there are several other mosques and palaces, as well as an old well system that’s still used by the islanders, and a seafront fort dating to the Portuguese occupation. Kilwa was inscribed as Tanzania’s second UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, yet the haunted ruins still remain almost totally neglected by the travel industry. If you’re one of the fortunate few to make it there, do check out Kilwa Kivinje, a surreally time-warped mainland village that seems to sprout organically from the crumbling Omani and German mansions built during its 19th century heyday as the terminus of a slave caravan route to Lake Malawi.