Botswana is a land of undeniable beauty, pristine wilderness and glorious wildlife. It is a country that is a leader in conservation, with more than 25% of land set aside for parks and reserves. We spent a week exploring 3 of these magnificent areas on a family safari.
It was Darren and Travis’s first bush flight. The excitement was undeniable. We were about to fly from Maun to Camp Okavango in the Okavango Delta. Darren was up front next to the pilot, grinning from ear to ear with his camera on the ready. Travis and I strapped into the seats behind. There was a bit of air traffic at the tiny airport and we had a bit of a wait on the tarmac. We got onto the runway and waited for our turn to take to the skies. As we started to taxi, I turned to Travis to say “here we go!” To my horror, he was fast asleep! I guess the excitement was too much for my 6-year-old. He slept the entire 30 min flight, not even waking upon landing! And so, began our Botswana Family Safari Adventure!
We have been on many safaris, but I will admit I was a tad concerned about taking my young’un into the wild for 6 whole nights. We packed his iPad for the international flights, airport layovers and emergencies, but it was a case of no television for over a week and very little in the line of entertainment for him. My worries were completely unjustified.
On arriving at the airstrip, we met Tau who was our guide for the next 2 days. The first things I look for in any safari guide is complete professionalism and a respect for nature. Tick! I need to be able to trust my guide and his ability to handle any situation that may arise. This need quadruples when I am with my family. It can be knowing when it is not safe to get too close to an elephant, to sensing when it is time for a drink stop because someone is starting to get antsy! (This could refer to either Travis or me!) Tick. I also expect him to have outstanding knowledge of every animal, bird and plant in the bush and a sense of humour. Tick. Tick. Tick! If you haven’t heard me say it before, listen up because this is so important. A guide can make or break your entire safari experience. It doesn’t matter how lush the lodge is, or even how excellent the game viewing is. I base total enjoyment of the safari on the quality of the guide. No pressure then! Tau was my perfect guide. He became fast friends with Trav and ensured he had a supply of Fanta Orange to keep him happy. This made me love him even more!
After we checked out our over-sized family suite, complete with 2 en-suite bathrooms, each with massive double showers, we made our way along the raised wooden walkway to the main dining area for a spot of high tea. If you are unfamiliar with the food situation when on safari, my advice is to take your elasticated pants! We then headed down to the jetty for our first game experience by private motorboat. Camp Okavango is on an island in the Delta and offers only water-based activities or walking. Tau was an expert at navigating the intricate network of winding channels and it was a relaxing start to our safari for Darren and I, and at the same time exciting for Travis. We moored at another island where we set up our sundowner spot under some giant ebony trees. It was the perfect position from which to watch the wildlife a short distance away, while we enjoyed a drink and some snacks. Impala, Kudu and Red Lechwe grazed nearby and a troop of inquisitive baboons were checking us out while making their way to their sleeping spot for the night. We witnessed our first African sunset of the trip; no photograph can ever do it justice.
The other water-based activity one can do is boating in a dugout canoe, known as a mokoro. It is “powered” through the waterways by a guide with a pole. These days the mokoros are fibreglass as opposed to wooden and take two people. Immediately my mummy instincts set in. I wondered if Travis would be able to sit still or would capsize the vessel and feed us to the hippos or crocs. Based on this, I decided it would be best if he went in Darren’s mokoro! Speaking of crocs, this was the animal Travis told Tau he most wanted to see. Not my most favourite of creatures, but, being the excellent guide he is, Tau obliged. I am still not sure how he even spotted this gigantic reptile, lying on a bank under some bushes “sleeping”. (Fine I admit I may have trust issues when it comes to crocodiles!) My maternal intuition reared its head once more, okay it was pure fear, so I questioned our proximity to the beast. Tau assured me it wouldn’t move and that we were safe, but I let out a sigh of relief when we moved away and let sleeping croc lie! Travis was super chuffed to have seen one. As was I that we could tick it off our list and concentrate on less intimidating animals!
On the last morning, we a took a short boat ride to Buffalo Island to do a walking safari. Darren had been on one the previous day, which lasted a good couple of hours. We decided a short 30-minute amble would be the order of the day as neither of us wanted to lug a 24kg child through the bush. I was yet again surprised and impressed by how well Travis behaved. We are clearly doing something right when it comes to this parenting thing! Visions of him running through the wilds shouting at the top of his lungs did go through my head! But he followed Tau, stayed in single file as instructed and didn’t complain. We saw some lions in the distance, and a herd of buffalo had been in the area too. Tau and Darren proceeded on to get a closer look, while Trav and I moseyed back to the boat with the other guide. This is definitely one of the advantages of being on a private safari. You have a much greater degree of flexibility in what you do and when.
We couldn’t believe it was time to bid farewell to all the incredible staff at Camp O and catch the flight to our next lodge. Although 2 nights at a lodge is enough I recommend 3 nights at each if you have the time! A quick 10 min flight and we were in the middle of the world-renowned Moremi Game Reserve. Travis did manage to stay awake for this one. It was a 30-minute game drive to our home for the next two nights. The recently refurbished and reopened Camp Moremi. Once again, we were staying in the decadent thatched family tent. It actually makes me chuckle to even call it a tent, but the canvas walls deem it so. Our new guide, Gwist, was as passionate, friendly and knowledgeable as Tau. He had the even more difficult task of spotting a snake for Travis, which at the 11th hour as we were leaving he did! My concern is that on our next safari my son is going to request to see a pangolin! Guides beware!
We arrived in time for brunch and had some downtime at the pool before high tea and our afternoon game drive. Lazy Lions, hungry hippos, mischievous monkeys, enormous elephants, crusty crocs and boisterous baboons were some of the fabulous fauna we got to observe in their natural habitat. Not to mention the assortment of antelope and the profusion of birds. I failed to mention we are a bunch of twitchers! The calibre of wildlife was top-notch and diverse enough to pique the interest of Travis. Because let’s face it, 3 to 4 hours on a game vehicle can be boring for a kid if all you are seeing is grass and trees!
The next morning, we were up and at it again. This time with very welcome blankets and hot water bottles to keep us toasty in the crisp morning air! As if the day before wasn’t exciting enough, we tracked 2 leopard who were fighting for territory. We also saw a pair of honey badgers, a first for us as they are pretty elusive, and spotted a side striped jackal, which is nocturnal, and rarer to find than its cousin, the black-backed jackal. Not a bad way to start the day! My little animal checklist booklet was being put to very good use! The rest of the day we spent eating, relaxing and enjoying quality family time – no wi-fi required! If you think you are not capable of unplugging for a week, go to Botswana, you will forget you even have a smartphone!
Chobe was up next, and a 1-and-a-half-hour flight from Moremi. It was strange to arrive at an airport with a terminal building and to drive on a tarmac road with other vehicles to the park entrance. But we were soon back on gravel roads for the 30-minute drive to Chobe Game Lodge. I love this property even though it is completely different from its counterparts in the collection. The décor is Moroccan with an African twist so that gets my vote of approval. But there are so many other unique aspects that set it apart. It is the only permanent lodge inside the Chobe National Park. All the rangers are women. They operate electric vehicles and boats – the first of their kind in Africa. There is a raised wooden boardwalk spanning the length of the property along the Chobe River. It has welcoming seating areas set up in the little nooks for private dining or chilling. The gardeners are real live warthogs. It is ecotourism certified and offers a “back of house’ eco-tour. This showcases their responsible tourism initiatives and is a great way to educate kids on the importance of looking after the environment. In fact, on a trip like this, learning is the order of the day, every day, but in the most fun way and for all members of the family. Travis had also received a kiddie backpack full of cool safari related gear. He particularly liked the wildlife book which had its own checklist. In the evenings, he would pour over the pages recounting which birds we had spotted. I even heard him and Darren arguing over whether it was the yellow or red hornbills we had been seeing!
With all this going on it’s a wonder we ever left the lodge to go on our activities. And once I discovered the spa I almost didn’t. But I was keen to experience a game drive in an electric vehicle. I found it to be quieter and a much smoother ride so it definitely gets the thumbs up from me! We continued to enjoy amazing wildlife sightings including lion feasting on a buffalo and some of the many elephants for which the park is acclaimed.
Bam! And just like that, our week-long safari had come to an end. We were going home with gazillions of photographs taken by all 3 of us, and a bucket-load of memories. Our experiences brought us closer together as a family and we were damn tight-knit to start with! At times it was hard to gauge how much Travis was enjoying himself. But on more than one occasion since we have been home he has remarked that he wishes we were back in Botswana on safari. He reminisces about the monkeys causing havoc or the snake he spotted from the Chobe deck! Or how about that time mum mistook a Fish Eagles’ nest for an actual Fish Eagle. He was very quick to correct me on my gaffe and I am never going to live it down!
How to ensure young children get the most out of a safari
- You know your child best. Game drives can be long, very hot or very cold and pretty uncomfortable! Looking for animals requires a lot of patience and for the majority of the time, you need to be very quiet. A feat in itself for most adults to accomplish, so it is understandable kids may get restless. If you don’t think your child is ready, you are probably right. There is no harm waiting till they are a bit older to ensure complete enjoyment for the whole family.
- Go private. I cannot stress what a difference this makes. Not having to apologise to other guests when junior gets in the way of them taking a photo of the elusive Pel’s Fishing Owl or needs a “comfort” break yet again! You decide as a family what activity you would like to do, at what time and for how long under the expert advice of your ranger.
- If it is their first time on a safari, prepare them as much as possible beforehand. Build excitement, find out what they are most looking forward to and even what they may be afraid of. Finding out your child is petrified of ants when you are already in the bush could be a tad problematic. You may laugh, but we had to overcome this very fear before we left the sanctuary of our own home!
- Choose a lodge that offers a variety of activities and be aware of the minimum age requirements to participate. Those with dedicated kids’ programmes will be the most likely to embrace children as opposed to tolerating them. Remember they are still kids who need to play, discover and explore. They may need a break from game drives and the freedom to run around, swim and relax.
- Spending longer at each lodge is better than trying to cram in as many different places as possible. It gives children enough time to form bonds with the guides and other staff which in turn leads to a more meaningful experience and a greater chance of learning. Shyer children won’t have the opportunity to come out of their shell if they are being introduced to new people every day and are not given the chance to build trusting relationships. I have been privy to Travis becoming mute and trying to crawl under my skirt to avoid making eye contact with someone he has just met. But I witnessed him walking off confidently hand in hand with both Tau and Gwist as they took him to show him something interesting, and its these moments that are priceless.