Southern Africa’s waters are endowed with an exceptionally rich marine environment, and safaris that include it are adding another element to the bush safari. Liesl Venter looks at marine and cruise safaris.

Be they on river or sea, water-based safaris are increasing in interest, says Jaco van der Westhuizen of BushTrails.

“One popular option for marine safaris is the Walvis Bay Lagoon in Namibia. The area has been proclaimed a World Heritage Site for marine life, and travellers not only see a variety of different dolphins, but from June to November could also see Humpback and Southern Right whales and sometimes even orcas and Mola mola (the sunfish). The birdlife is also amazing, with flamingos, pelicans and many more.”

In Zimbabwe, a different cruise safari is on offer from Bushtracks, which operates cruises on the Zambezi. “A cruise takes you where others want to go,” says Megan Conn, Marketing and Creative Director. “The boats are specially designed and jet propelled taking passengers into the very shallow water between the islands directly above the Victoria Falls. This gives a glimpse of the ‘Smoke That Thunders’, before and after it has rumbled over the edge of the Falls.”

When it comes to marine activities, says Henk Graaff, MD of SW Africa, little can beat high-adrenaline activities such as shark cage diving. “It creates a sense of achievement and accomplishment for travellers who love the feeling of having ‘braved a shark’,” he explains.



“At the same time the appeal and allure of whale watching is very similar to the allure of an open wildlife safari. On a marine safari, travellers enjoy seeing marine wildlife and creatures in their natural habitat, which is the ocean.”

But a challenge with marine safaris, says Van der Westhuizen, is their weather dependability.  “You can experience four seasons in just one day. However, even though the weather can definitely impact on the experience of a marine safari, the truth is that great sightings can be had in any kind of weather.”

According to Graaff, travellers wanting to go on marine safaris do need to have flexibility in their schedules. “The best advice is that tourists book the safari early in the holiday. That way, if the weather is bad, the marine part of the itinerary can be postponed until a later day during their stay.” However, it is also important for tourists to understand that if the weather is not favourable, the marine safari simply might not take place.

“A marine safari in South Africa can easily be combined with a Cape Town itinerary where travellers can visit the winelands or explore the city’s culture,” he says. “KZN also offers great combinations. A marine safari in Scottburgh or Umkomaas on the KZN South Coast, can be combined with either a beach holiday on the North and South Coasts of KZN, a stay in the Drakensberg and/or with a wildlife experience at, for example, the Hluhluwe iMfolozi National Park, or one of the many private game reserves such as Nambiti, Phinda or Thanda to name but a few.”

Comfort and close encounters

Cruise safaris, says Graaff, are often likened to an upmarket train trip. “It’s not necessarily a very active trip, and is more geared towards the luxury traveller,” he adds. 

“There is a strong demand and products such as houseboats on the Chobe River are often fully booked long in advance. The attraction could be the combination of comfort or even luxury, and exclusivity in pristine wilderness areas such as an African river, for those who do not want to spend hours driving around or walking around the bush.”

According to Van der Westhuizen, cruising allows travellers to engage in activities from a different perspective. Instead of fishing or game viewing from the side of a river, one does it from the boat. “At night, travellers stay on the boat: they just park on a sandbank in the evenings and spend the night on the river.”

“There are higher-end houseboats on the Zambezi and Chobe Rivers, such as the Zambezi Queen, which are floating hotels with Jacuzzis and five-star restaurants. These boats offer all the possible comforts and bells and whistles the luxury traveller enjoys,” comments Van der Westhuizen.

He says the greatest benefit of a cruise safari is that it allows travellers to get really close to the wildlife and photograph animals. “For example, on a cruise one can see elephants coming down to the river to drink and only be 10 metres away.”