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“The bar is open,” announces our guide Pepe as the small safari boat glides across Lake Kariba under a cloudless African sky.

Beneath the shady canopy he opens a cooler, mixes gin and tonics and hands them around. There’s an almost imperceptible ripple as a crocodile raises its eyes just above the water level to take a sly look at us as we sip our sundowners slightly ahead of time.

When it’s time for a refill, the cerise blush of sunset is starting to stain the surface of the lake and we pass a group of wallowing hippos. Again, the curiosity appears to be mutual as they silently turn in our direction, their small round ears seemingly focused on the simultaneous chink of ice cubes and click of camera shutters.

Rewind a few days and none of us would ever have imagined we’d be seeing wildlife at such close quarters. I now realise why the tour escort chuckled politely when a member of the group asked about the likelihood of seeing elephants in Chobe National Park. As the reserve has no fences, we see our first pair nonchalantly ambling on the grass alongside the main road leading to the park, oblivious to passing cars, and once inside we’re rewarded with the spectacle of an entire family group of females, from the large matriarch to small babies gambolling with their trunks held high.

If you love cruising and the chance of seeing Africa’s Big Five – lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo – you can combine the two, and much more, on CroisiEurope’s unique southern African land- and water-based safari. The company is the only river line that sails on Lake Kariba and offers an itinerary that traverses the ‘Four Corners’ of Africa – where the borders of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe meet – and culminates with a day at Victoria Falls and the option to take a helicopter ride over the thundering cascades.

Our journey begins with a day in Johannesburg, including visits to the township of Soweto, where the former South African president Nelson Mandela lived, and the thought-provoking Apartheid Museum. The following morning’s flight in a small propeller plane adds to the palpable excitement. After touching down in Botswana, we climb aboard a small boat for the short transfer over the border into Namibia to reach CroisiEurope’s Cascades Lodge, built on a lush private island in the middle of the Zambezi River.

Eight secluded bungalows nestle on the waterside and some of us spot hippos as we freshen up in the secluded plunge pools attached to each dwelling, or in the vast tubs in the super-sized bathrooms. Later, I join fellow guests for cocktails and a convivial al fresco dinner on the terrace.

The next day the real ‘out of Africa experience’ gets underway with the game drive in Chobe National Park, which we discover supports one of the world’s biggest elephant populations; hence our guide’s initial amusement. While the Big Five is never guaranteed (and over the coming days we see them all apart from leopard), it’s a virtual given that you’ll see the park’s largest inhabitants, along with many other creatures.

Rwendo, our guide in Chobe, points to a group of bald vulture-like birds picking their way along the river bank. “They are marabou storks,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter how ugly they are, it is the responsibility they have that matters. They are the park’s eco-warriors, as they eat dead things and clean up the environment. That’s why you only see white bones and there are no smells or flies.”

He’s right, and over the ensuing days, on both land and water-borne tours, which also take in an insightful walk through a village, we fully appreciate the diversity of the flora, fauna and lives of the people who live along the banks of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers.

Day five brings another exhilarating small plane ride to reach Zimbabwe’s Lake Kariba, where we board Zimbabwean Dream, which sails on the lake with CroisiEurope’s sister vessel African Dream. The ship is bright, comfortable and decorated with local artwork. Crew members beat atmospheric African drums to summon us to dinner, and afterwards some of us move up to the sun deck to sip a nightcap beneath a carpet of stars in the endless sweep of inky sky.

Hippo in Salad Botswana Chobe National Park

Next morning, we set off on our first expedition aboard Zimbabwean Dream’s safari vessel. Our helmsman skilfully navigates through Kariba’s extraordinary waterscape, a semi submerged forest of dead trees. Created by a controversial hydro-electric dam built in the 1950s, it is the world’s largest artificial lake at 223 kilometres long and 40 kilometres wide. Native Batonga tribes were displaced and thousands of animals threatened during the construction process. Pepe tells us that in 1958 Rupert Fothergill, the chief game ranger of what was then Rhodesia, launched Operation Noah. Using the most basic equipment, and with little thought for their own safety, Fothergill and his team moved 6,000 animals to higher ground in an extraordinary rescue operation. Many of those we see in Matusadona National Park, which borders the lake, are their descendants.

Still rooted to the spot is the ghostly forest of trees, completely frozen in time. Their bare branches are now used as prime roosting and lookout spots for the lake’s plentiful birdlife, including jewel-bright lilac-breasted rollers, white cormorants, wire-tailed swallows and, most magnificent of all, Zimbabwe’s national bird; cream, brown and black African fish eagles with 1.8-metre wingspans.

On the way back to Zimbabwean Dream, a local fisherman waves us over to the bank and proudly shows us a large tiger fish he’s just caught. Its glistening silver scales are lined with black stripes and its open mouth reveals ferociously sharp teeth. Respected for their speed and strength, tiger fish attract many anglers to Lake Kariba. That afternoon, on another tranquil sunset cruise, our helmsman hands out fishing rods for anyone that wants to have
a go. A couple of small fish take the bite and are duly admired and released back into the water. By the end of dinner that night, and enhanced by the free-flowing wine included in the fare, their imagined size reaches hugely overblown proportions.

The embellished tales of fishing prowess, though, are the only things exaggerated on this epic and unusual trip filled with jumbo sights and incredible experiences.

Cruise-only fares start from AUD $8,360; croisieurope.travel.