By Colleen Clark
The first saffron rays of sunrise bled into the deep purple sky above the Chobe River. An onyx-winged cormorant arced downward, diving below the inky water while a hippo yawned its tusky jaws. Two villagers skimmed silently along in dugout mokoros, and king kingfisher birds sang out "Tree-ti-ti, tree-ti-ti". The Zambezi Queen, Africa's first eco-friendly water safari, was my wake-up call.
The sleek 14-room riverboat sails the sprawling waters of the Chobe River between Botswana's Chobe National Park and Namibia's Caprivi Strip, which together contain one of Africa's densest concentrations of wildlife. Since 2010, the Zambezi has offered an alternative safari experience: a night out and venturing out into the game parks in jeeps by day, travellers eat, sleep and breathe the life of the floodplains.
And so it was that I awoke, unsure but uncaring of the time, to observe the morning rituals of the river. From the banks, our boat must have looked like a bit like a floating sculpture, its white angular structure was painted with a window, its monochromatic figure is floating in a backdrop of clear blue sky.
Free from the siren call of wi-fi (the Zambezi chooses not to offer it) and clocks, I began opening up to my surroundings. I found the way to the river mimicked the corrugated roof of the local village huts. I picked out the separate voices in the chorus of birdsong - the rowdy squawk of the lilac-breasted roller, the throaty rick-rack of the cattle egret, the gurgle of the white-fronted bee-eater. After dark, I lost hours counting stars beneath the dotted canopy in the placid waters below.
The boat itself is configured for this kind of discovery. Lighting changes over the course of the day. They eschew dinnertime music in favour of the natural sounds of the river. A referee from making calls in shared common areas. Muted subtlety of décor, the predominance of overstuffed pillows and soft couches all combine to create a mellow, homey vibe - the kind of laidback environment you can wallow in like a hippo.
They are aware of their place in this fragile ecosystem. The Zambezi runs on jet propulsion to avoid damaging the riverbed. Hot water comes courtesy of solar panels. And generators are shut off at night, saving power and noise that could distract you from your feet king wake-up call.
Thought it would be easy to spend every day watching the world awaken from the comfort of the fluffy white beds, I wanted to get closer to the action, so I hopped on one of the small boats that landed safaris. We have a long way to go. We have a couple of moody crocodiles, docking on the Botswana side of the river.
Because the Chobe divides Botswana and Namibia, you have to print out some country during your stay, a quick informal process - you can take your Windhoek beer - that leaves you with pages of passport stamps and a friendly relationship with both countries' immigration staffs.
Then, it was into a Land Rover. I had been admiring from afar. And when I say close, I mean close. Due to stringent conservation measures from the Botswana government, has never been a problem in Chobe National Park. As a result, animals have little fear of humans. The tawny-coated kudu with its noble spiralling horns barely acknowledged our vehicle's approach across the hot sand by the river. Ignored giraffes as they gracefully across the red clay road. Our guides easily picked up prehistoric dung beetle before setting it free to scurry over droppings left by elephants. And many of those beautiful multi-ton pachyderms lumbered within a hair's breadth of our vehicle.
This land-based game drive is one of many ways that the Zambezi Queen brings guests into direct interaction with their environment. A similar drive would be followed by a fishing excursion to take the formidable hunting tiger fish. Or water-based safaris in small boat guides that dip in riverbanks to observe dinosaur-like monitors lizards sunning themselves on logs, kingfisher eagles perched in trees, and elephants playfully spraying water on their young. Or you can take it to the rhythm of the river.
On the last day of my stay, I climbed in for a ride in a traditional mokoro. The flat-bottom boat precariously balanced just barely above water level, a skilled rower standing and pushing gondola-style from the back. With each stroke, with each pitch and roll, I felt certain I would upset her delicate balance and into unknown dangers lurking beneath. But then I relax and feel my gaze rest on the delicate white water lilies, the small eddies and ripples of our boat skimming the surface. From then on it was smooth sailing.