Windhoek - “Be careful,” cautions a voice from below. Balanced on a couple of rusty, metal stakes I make the mistake of looking down.
From this precarious perch, ten metres up the trunk of a massive baobab tree, my friends look small. And anxious. I reach out for the next hold, a natural pocket in the gnarled trunk. Polished smooth by the millions of hands that have gone before me it offers little purchase.
Too much reflection. I’m suddenly gripped with fear. My hands sweat in the midday heat. “Get a grip,” I mutter. With no rope or safety net, this is not a place to panic. A few deep breaths later I’ve stopped shaking and am able to move carefully on up. But at the first big fork I decide that discretion is the better part of valour; after taking in the view I’ll head on down.
And what a view. I can see for miles. Situated on top of a hill on Namibia’s Impalila Island, this 2000-year-old forest giant stands tall above the surrounding mopane trees that we’d walked through to its base. Below me are the thatched homes and kraals of small villages, while around the island the split channels of the Zambezi glisten in the sun.
The outskirts of Kasane are visible on the southern, Botswanan bank of the river, but in every other direction I can see only reed beds and channels. There’s something special about being surrounded by water; the rhythm, the calmness that a river invokes, the diversity of terrestrial and riverine wildlife. I feel the thrill, and privilege, of being out in this pristine wilderness.
Safely down we amble back to Kaza lodge from where we started our tour of the island. From here it’s a two-minute boat ride back to Cascades Lodge, where we’re staying, but the sight of two African fish eagles in a tree delays us. Three African skimmers provide further distraction as they perform graceful swoops and pirouettes. Perfectly streamlined, with long, elegant red beaks and legs they look like dancers practising their routines.
As squadrons of ducks, herons and other waterbirds fly home to roost, we too head “home” to our spacious villas - each with its huge bathroom, plunge pool, outdoor shower and deck hidden within the trees - for a bit of down time before regrouping for a sunset boat cruise.
Our third day sees us rising early for a spot of tiger fishing. We take a slow drive in the boat through the channels, stopping often to peer through binoculars at tiny hovering kingfishers and long-legged African spoonbills sweeping the pools. So far I’ve ticked off ten heron species including Greenback and Night Herons, which I’ve never seen before.
Almost as soon as I cast get a bite. But by the time I start to reel in the fish has gone. Half an hour later we’re still without a prize, but I’m so captivated by the birds that I throw in the towel.
Our guide looks disappointed. The previous guests at the lodge caught 60 tiger fish in three days he informs us.
In the afternoon we board the safari boat again for a transfer to the newly opened Chobe Water Villas, picking up a few more guests at the jetty outside the Botswana Immigration post. A transfer that should take less than a quarter of an hour soon becomes one of the best safaris I’ve ever experienced. There, right on the edge of Sedudu Island, are elephant galore; family groups with calves of every size and trumpeting bachelor herds trying to steal the show. Red lechwe lift their heads briefly as we approach, scores of buffalo graze contentedly, crocodiles that I hadn’t even spotted slink into the water and a clump of massive grey rocks turns out to be a great pod of hippo - out in the middle of the day if you please.
Of course there are numerous egrets, herons and Pied and Malachite Kingfishers, but they’re now supporting cast.
It’s no surprise to learn that this island, part of the Chobe National Park, has the highest concentration of game anywhere in the world.
The thatched chalets of Chobe Water Villas are soon in sight, perched over the river and its floodplain.
We’re still commenting on the unusual Maldives-style stilts when we reach top of the steps from the jetty. Wow. The view stops us in our tracks.
The modern architecture, garden terraces and massive rim flow pool overlooking the river is seriously chic and different. This sure ain’t your average African bush lodge!
As we check in under a chandelier that represents The African Sun we take in aspects of decor that capture some of the quintessential elements of Namibia, and in particular its Zambezi region. The design is both creative and quirky combining the best of the bush with the comforts of a top-notch hotel.
After a late lunch we’re back on the river for an afternoon cruise. Unlike most other boats, we don’t have to be out of the park by sunset so the trip has been wonderfully choreographed to avoid the crowds. We take our time, enjoying the view onto life in the wetlands and channels from the raised vantage of our double-decker riverboat. “This is the only boat on the river with beer on tap,” the barman tells us, proudly pulling a pint. As scores of elephant enjoy their sundowner drink, we toast life in Africa with ours.
The immaculate choreographing continues to the grand finale. The following morning it’s one last trip along the edge of Sedudu Island and back into Botswana. As we leave town four very chilled elephant bulls saunter across the road. “They’re on their way to the island” our guide informs us.
Five minutes later we’re in the Park driving along the Chobe Waterfront, from where, once we manage to lift our eyes from the teeming game next to the sandy road, we gaze over the riverbanks and wetlands to the island and beyond that the water villas whence we came.
Our guide has to work hard to impress: we’ve been so spoilt that sightings of elephant, hippo, buffalo, crocodile and countless impala and birds are almost passe. He finds five lions, countless puku, waterbuck and giraffe and even a herd of zebra, which, surprisingly are quite rare in these parts, then it’s back to the airport for our early afternoon flight back home.
I’m blown away. For the varied environments and experiences, the sheer numbers and diversity of wildlife and the ease of access, I doubt there’s anywhere in the world to beat the Zambezi Region.
* Flame of Africa: 031 762 2424, e-mail [email protected], www.flameofafrica.com, Airlink fly daily from OR Tambo to Kasane in Botswana, 011 978 1111, www.flyairlink.com