Want to see elephants, giraffes, zebra and hippos in their natural habitat? Take a river cruise on the wild side, says Sue Bryant

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Singing echoed across the water as we puttered over the Chobe River in the shimmering afternoon sun. A beautiful African melody, becoming clearer as we neared our new home, the Zambezi Queen riverboat. The Namibian crew members were lined up to greet us with beaming smiles, swaying and clapping. Crocodiles basked lazily on nearby sandbanks. Huge dragonflies in iridescent colours buzzed the boat. On the opposite bank were hundreds of elephants, heading down to the river to bathe. Later we’d sit, drink in hand, and watch them, under a blazing sunset that left streaks of burnt orange across the sky until the first stars appeared.

Since Africa isn’t normally associated with river cruising, the 30-passenger Zambezi Queen experience feels more like a stay on a houseboat than an actual cruise. To confuse matters, it doesn’t even sail on the Zambezi. The boat plies a 25km stretch of the Chobe River, a sometimes mile-wide waterway forming part of the border between Namibia and Botswana. It potters slowly between the same mid-river moorings and there are no ports of call and no river traffic; there aren’t even any towns here apart from the nearby community of Kasane. Once you’re out on the river, it’s just expanses of open space, which is part of the charm.

The vessel is stunning, done up in tasteful neutrals with African artwork, zebra rugs and faux-(of course) leopard-skin cushions. It is managed by Wayne and Vicky Nel, a charismatic South African couple. We quickly got the measure of Captain Wayne at his informal safety briefing: “In the event of an emergency, do not jump into the water. We run an eco-friendly operation here and the lifejackets play havoc with the crocs’ digestive systems.”

The pair do everything from sailing the vessel to arranging the game viewing, catering and overseeing the Namibian crew, all of whom come from local villages and return to their accommodation on the riverbank after dinner. “We support 47 Namibian families,” said Wayne proudly. Rightly so, as this is an area of extreme poverty.

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Our stay was only short, but the days quickly settled into a pattern of early breakfast in the bright, airy dining room on the top deck, open to the river breezes, followed by game viewing ashore in the Chobe National Park. We spotted dazzling birds, zebras, giraffes, antelopes and elephants; with 70,000 of them in the park, estimated to be the greatest concentration anywhere in Africa, you can’t miss them.

One frustrating aspect of this cruise is the endless border crossings, but you just have to treat them as part of the adventure. The boat sails in the Namibian channel of the Chobe but all the game viewing, both in the park and from specially- adapted boats on the water, is done in the Botswana channel. So to go ashore, we’d have to take a tender to the river bank, exit Namibia, cross the river and enter Botswana, repeating the process to get back on board. It wasn’t a hassle – a man in a hut simply stamps your passport –but it takes time.

After lunch on board, it was siesta time. Each cabin has sliding doors that open an entire wall to the river breezes (screens prevent unwelcome insects) and we’d lie listening to the hippos grunting in the afternoon stillness.

For me, evening game viewing from the small tender boat was the best. We got so close to the riverbanks, where hundreds of elephants emerged from the bush in the late afternoon and frolicked in the water, oblivious to our little boat. Some had babies; our guides estimated one infant to be a week old, standing shyly under its mother’s belly.

Sunsets this far south in Africa are breathtaking and once dark had fallen, we’d feast on Vicky’s amazing African-fusion dishes, not least the best lemon meringue pie I’ve ever tasted, washed down with chilled South African wines.

Dinner conversation was always lively; our companions included a honeymoon couple and a senior member of the African National Congress, on holiday with his family. Bedtime was at 10pm; the main generator is switched off and, after some stargazing on deck, most people retire, dozing off to the sounds of the African night.

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I asked Wayne if working in such a remote spot and on such a small boat ever got boring. “There’s no time to get bored,” he said. “Over and above being skipper, I’m chaplain, medic, first aider and life counsellor. There are challenges all the time. But these Namibian people have no idea how much they’ve taught me.”

By the final morning, I was sad that we still hadn’t seen any big cats. Suddenly, one of the guides grabbed a pair of binoculars, focusing on the riverbank, and everybody gasped as two leopards made their way stealthily down the muddy bank to drink from the river. We scrambled into the tender boat and quietly positioned it close to the bank, where we sat gazing in wonder at their sleek beauty.

Boarding the tenders that would take us back to the border, the crew lined up, singing a haunting Namibian goodbye song. There wasn’t a dry eye among us. How difficult it was to be leaving Zambezi Queen.

GETTING THERE: A two-night cruise on Zambezi Queen, all-incusive, costs £600pp, 01483 425465, zambeziqueen.com. Combine this with a stay at the Stanley and Livingstone Private Game reserve: stanleyandlivingstone.com, +27 (0) 21 715 2412.

Read Julie Peasgood’s review of a cruise in Africa.

Read expert tips on cruising in Africa.

Whether you’re looking for a cultural holiday or relaxing break, find your perfect cruise here.