• TANYA KOVARSKY tests the waters on a river safari and experiences a supreme big five – good service, food, location, activities and game spotting


    On seeing several herds of elephant, totalling more than 150, converge on the banks of the Chobe River in Botswana, frolicking in the water, drinking and feeding, I knew that it was one of those special game experiences of a lifetime. Add to this the vantage point of a very comfortable houseboat, a gin and tonic in hand, and some good company with whom to marvel at this sighting,and it was a special getaway experience too.

    The getaway aboard Ichobezi’s luxury safari boat followed a stay at its sister, Ichobezi Ichingo River Lodge on Impalila Island, which is itself a geographical marvel. Impalila Island lies at the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers, and is the meeting place of four African countries – Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe; it’s the only phenomenon of its kind in the world.

    You realise how astounding the set-up is when you make your way from Zambia to Botswana via tender (motorised) boat, and the operator eagerly points out the four countries that you don’t even have to crane or swivel around to see. Getting to Impalila isn’t too arduous, but from Livingstone Airport in Zambia you need to cross through three border posts before reaching the island via land and water travel (apparently there are plans afoot to have just one border stop at Impalila in the future).

    But once your passport is tucked away, bureaucracy has been put aside and you’re making your way by tender boat to the lodge or houseboat, it just takes a close sighting of a hippo – as in our case – to remind you that this is what it is all about, and any prior stress is literally water under the bridge.You are encouraged to experience stays at both Ichobezi Ichingo River Lodge and either of Ichobezi’s houseboats as they are complementary, and possess their own strengths and high points.

    The lodge, which has recently been refurbished, is situated on the banks of the Chobe River,and you can see the rapids that lead to the Zambezi. From the thatched dining, lounge and bar areas you might be able to see crocs, hippos and spectacular bird life (some avid bird-watching guests in our party were thrilled by their sightings around the lodge and recorded several “lifers” – first-time bird viewings).

    There are eight spacious tented suites with en-suite bathrooms, and from the lodge you can enjoy “breakaway” activities such as game viewing, birding and fishing by tender boat, and guided walks. They’re tailored so that you can choose what you want to do – you’re not bound by the other guests’ decisions. We enjoyed a fishing excursion and a game-viewing ride, and while the former didn’t offer a bite, the latter provided us with fantastic elephant, buffalo, bird and more hippo sightings.

    Lion and leopard are often spotted along the river banks too. Aside from the occasional boat that goes past, there are virtually no obstacles here and you can see huge expanses of bush and water in every direction. And herein lies another X-factor to this water safari experience – the vastness and seemingly endless scenery.

    While in the bush you know that there might be expansive vistas around you,here you see them, in every direction. After a stay at the lodge we moved to one of the two houseboats, known as the Ichobezi Moli and the Ichobezi Mukwae. Each houseboat has four cabins, accommodating eight people sharing; it’s ideal for a group of friends or family.

    Each cabin has its own bathroom and a large sliding window, so you can do some scenic river and game viewing from your own vantage point, and even from the comfort of your bed. The upstairs wooden deck has a bar, lounge area and dining table, as well as a few pairs of binoculars that come in handy for some sharp animal viewing.

    The menu on the houseboats mirrors those at the lodge each day – it’s easier to co-ordinate the ingredients, plus it ensures that guests won’t have to repeat any dishes,though we wouldn’t have minded and would eagerly have lapped up the stand-out offerings such as gazpacho, smoked salmon with watercress mayonnaise, Roman lamb, chicken stuffed with apricots and nuts, and apple pie with custard again.

    And as 70 percent of the lodge’s guests are return visitors there are extensive menu options to enable them to experience as much as possible. The food is certainly a highlight here, and is fresh and flavourful. We loved the daily freshly baked bread and rolls, and the fact that most of the vegetables are grown on the island – owner Dawn Oxenham provides seeds to the locals, and then later buys the ready-to-eat veggies back from them. This is another of the establishment’s strengths, the fact that it’s owner-run by Dawn and her husband Ralph.

    One doesn’t really need to explain the elevated level of service and general standards when the owner of a business is around, and here you not only get this, but a whole lot of personality too. It’s the type of set-up that yields quality and warmth, and Dawn and Ralph are not only humorous and great storytellers, but highly knowledgeable about the region too.

    The added beauty is that they make a stay at the lodge and boat homely and comfortable, but at the same time you still feel like a pampered guest. It all makes for a soul safari, one in which even the elephants seem to play along for your benefit.

    • The lodge has wireless internet facilities and cellphone reception.
    • The region is a malaria area, so it’s advisable to take precautions.
    • SAA, BA and Nationwide fly from OR Tambo International Airport to Livingstone Airport in Zambia. Transfers then take place through Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana to Impalila. Private charters also regularly fly directly to Impalila Island, where there is an airstrip.
    • The daytime temperature in the area ranges from 28°C to 35°C in summer. Evening temperatures vary and can be cool in winter. Rainfall is mainly between February and April.Rates at the lodge and on the boat are R2 460