Safari by boat: Canoeing in Ruckomechi next to elephants

Safari by Boat: A Different Perspective of African Wildlife

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Niarra Travel

When imagining an African safari, most people immediately picture the typical scene of an open 4x4 vehicle driving along a long and winding dirt road in the middle of the open savannah – or perhaps the more intrepid envision themselves on foot, walking on ancient wildlife paths through the wilderness. But there is another way to take in Africa’s remarkable landscapes that is often overlooked: by boat.

There are many benefits to wildlife viewing from the water and perhaps the most obvious one is that Africa’s rivers and lakes are a magnet to animals that come to drink or cool themselves down in the heat of the day. This means that instead of carefully tracking animals that may be hidden in thick bush or long grass, you can simply wait for them to come to you.

Another advantage, particularly when using non-motorised boats such as traditional canoes, is you can watch animals in complete silence. This style of boat safari results in a more serene wildlife-viewing experience for everyone – both humans and animals alike. You are also able to get far closer to animals that live in Africa’s rivers and lakes – hippos, crocodiles and an incredible array of birdlife from mighty fish eagles to flamingos and everything in between.

Mt Meru Game Lodge TZ Canoeing

Where to go on a boat safari

When it comes to selecting your destination for your water-based safari, you can be guided by the type of trip you are looking for. This can vary in terms of the level of adventure and how much time you would like to spend in the boat, whether it is just a couple of hours during your trip, or perhaps staying on a liveaboard for a few days.

These are some of the boat safari destinations that Niarra Travel recommends for those who are looking for a wildlife experience in African waters.

Safari by Canoeing at Selinda Explorers Camp


Arguably Africa’s most famous destination for water-based wildlife viewing is Botswana’s legendary waterway, the Okavango Delta. Spanning 16,000 sqkm when fully inundated by the annual floodwaters from May to October, the Delta’s channels are best explored by mokoro, a traditional dug-out canoe propelled by a poler who stands at the back and navigates through the waterways.

Transformed into a true wetland wonderland teeming with life, the experience is complemented by a large selection beautiful camps and lodges, making a luxury Botswana safari in the Okavango Delta or nearby Linyanti Reserve a truly unforgettable adventure. There are some places in the region where you can take mokoro trips year-round, while at others it is only possible at certain times of the year, so your Niarra Travel Researcher will guide you on the best choice for your specific preferences.

Another exciting destination for water-based safaris in Botswana is Chobe National Park, with the Chobe River flowing along the north-eastern border close to the Victoria Falls. Here you can enjoy all kinds of river cruises, from a few hours including lunch, to sunset cruises or even a stay on a luxurious houseboat from the Zambezi Queen Collection: a floating hotel complete with an onboard swimming pool.

Safari by boat: canoeing in Camp Okavango in Bostwana


In Zimbabwe, there are two popular choices for water-based safaris – Lake Kariba and the mighty Zambezi River.

Lake Kariba is the world’s largest artificial lake, spanning an incredible 5,500 sqkm and bordering Matusadona National Park. Houseboating is one of the best ways to take in the expanse of Kariba, which has a healthy population of crocodiles and hippos, and exceptional fishing opportunities for tilapia, catfish, and the world-famous tiger fish which is sure to keep keen anglers occupied.

For river-based safaris, the Zambezi forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia and cruising along its waters near the Victoria Falls is a timeless and iconic way to take in the landscape, perhaps stopping along the way at one of the little islands for a picnic or sundowners.

A more remote option is cruising the Zambezi from Mana Pools National Park, a remarkable part of Zimbabwe for predator-viewing, along with exceptional elephant encounters. For those seeking a luxury Zimbabwe holiday experience, you can choose from some exceptional lodges, but the brave can also choose to explore the Zambezi on a guided canoe trip. These waters are filled with crocodiles and hippos, so it is only recommended for those who are comfortable with an element of risk – and of course, the reward of being immersed in this landscape in such an unobtrusive way makes it well worth it.

Ruckomechi Camp Zimbabwe canoe


Continuing along the Zambezi River into Zambia, just opposite Mana Pools you will find the Lower Zambezi National Park, which in some ways offers a wider choice of water-based experiences than its neighbour on the other side. Unlike Mana Pools National Park, motorboats are permitted within the park, which is great for sunset cruising and catch-and-release fishing, while canoeing is offered on the many small channels that lead off of the Zambezi.

In the central region of Zambia, you will find Kafue National Park, which during the green season from April to June offers exceptional river-based experiences. The wide, glassy river overflows with life both great and small, especially in the mornings and early evenings.

Earlier in the year, from January through to April, the Luangwa River is in full flow – and is one of the only rivers in Africa that has not been dammed for hydropower, leaving it to continue its natural annual ebbs and flows. From this comes a thriving floodplain river system. This is the ideal time to explore landscape by boat as it is rendered largely inaccessible by road, and you will feel as though you have the vast area almost to yourself – along with the huge pods of hippos and herds of elephants that also seem to love Zambia’s ‘Emerald Season’.

Fishing on a safari by boat trip in Zambia


While Rwanda is most famous for gorilla and chimpanzee trekking, it is also home to no fewer than 28 sizable lakes, with the largest being Lake Kivu. Surrounded by mountains and hills, the lake has several sandy beaches and cool water, perfect for swimming as they are free from predators.

The Virunga volcanoes are also nearby, which means you can enjoy the spectacular biodiversity of the rainforest setting, rich in flora and birdlife. Guests can board a luxury expedition vessel, Mantis Kivu Queen uBuranga, for a multi-night itinerary that takes in every moment of the region’s splendour.

To the east, you will find Akagera National Park, the site of an ambitious restoration project of a vital wetland ecosystem which has seen the reintroduction of various species, including lions, thanks to the pioneering work of NGO, African Parks.

There are 10 lakes in the park, with most of the boat trips conducted on the biggest, Lake Ihema, which covers about 90 sqkm and is famously home to the highest concentration of hippos in all of East Africa. The birding is also exceptional, and if luck is on your side, you may even come across the rare shoebill stork which is found in the lake’s papyrus swamps.

Safari by boat in Akagera, Rwanda


While most people associate Tanzania with the wide open grassy plains of the Serengeti, in the south of the country you will find Nyerere National Park (previously known as Selous Game Reserve). This is the largest protected game reserve in Africa, covering an area of 54,600 sqkm and through it runs the River Rufiji which forms a network of swamps, channels and lakes and separates the north and south of the reserve.

Exploring the intricate waterways by boat is an unforgettable experience, and a laid-back safari where you can watch waterbirds on the shoreline and animals coming down to drink.

Another off-the-beaten track gem is Rubondo Island in Lake Victoria, surrounded by tropical forests home to troops of chimpanzees as well as other wildlife including elephants, sitatungas, giraffes and abundant birdlife. On a boat safari, along with the usual hippos and crocodiles, you can expect to see otters and monitor lizards, while the waters are perfect for catch-and-release fishing.

Catch and Release Fishing on Rubondo Island on a safari by boat experience

At Niarra Travel, we specialise in creating safari experiences that combine luxury and conservation. If you are ready to navigate Africa’s rivers and lakes and need help putting together the perfect trip, our team of Travel Researchers are standing by to help. Simply get in touch with our team on +44 (0) 20 3821 5994 (UK), +1 (833) 215 9353 (US), or at to start planning the boating safari of a lifetime.

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