Botswana has always been known as an exclusive safari destination, home to the endless Kalahari Desert and the beautiful wetlands of the Okavango Delta. But how suitable is it for a family safari adventure?
Whilst my family has been to Africa a couple of times, we were also travelling with my brother-in-law and his family, who were taking their first foray into Africa. We were a group of nine, including five kids ranging in age from 16 to 12 years old.
As a destination, Botswana offers a slightly more varied and wild safari experience compared to more traditional destinations such as South Africa or Kenya. Although one of the ‘flattest’ countries on earth, the landscapes of Botswana vary enormously and the contrasts between the driest and the wettest areas are staggering.
With diverse landscapes come different wildlife experiences, and on the numerous private concessions which are the basis for Botswana ‘exclusive’ reputation, the variety of activities on offer are virtually unlimited. This was very much our theme for the safari – to explore contrasting landscapes, to enjoy many different experiences together, and of course to see plenty of varied wildlife. As we set out from Maun on our week-long family adventure, our excitement was palpable.
Our first destination was the Makgadikgadi Pans in the Kalahari Desert. Whilst you can reach the pans by light aircraft in about an hour, we had opted to travel by road. Leaving the bustling streets of Maun behind, we followed the tar road east for nearly three hours before jumping on an open safari vehicle and heading south for an hour or so into the desert wilderness.
The wildlife sightings began about half an hour outside Maun, first seeing some ostrich and wildebeest, but once we entered the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park we were quickly spoilt with elephant, giraffe and zebra sightings along the roadside as they came to drink from various water points.
The pans themselves are a unique safari destination and offer several experiences you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else. During our action-packed couple of days we enjoyed game viewing by vehicle (both by day and on rewarding night drives), walking with San bushmen, sitting with and observing a habituated (but fully wild) meerkat family, speeding across the pans by quadbike, and watching the sunrise and sunset over the desolate pans where you can witness the curvature of the earth.
Game viewing in this area has traditionally been quite specialist. However, due to a series of pumped water holes that now support wildlife year round, we were able to see a wide range of animals including lots of springbok, wildebeest, zebra and lion. Night drives were extremely productive, including an aardvark, bat-eared foxes, black-backed jackals, genet, African wild cat, porcupine, spring hare, lions on a kill and quite remarkably, a very shy black-footed cat. Sadly no brown hyena, though this is one of the best places in Africa to find this shy creature!
The Makgadikgadi Pans have real ‘wow factor’ in landscape terms, and from a family perspective the activities and experiences are brilliant for kids of all ages, fully engaging them and giving you as a family unique memories and photo opportunities.
From the Kalahari we took a 50 minute light aircraft flight to the game-rich Moremi Game Reserve in the heart of the Okavango Delta region. In many ways, this was the start of our more traditional big game safari, and within 10 minutes of arrival we had come across two big male lions resting by the side of the road, and 10 minutes further on some elephant bulls crossed the road right in front of us, almost within touching distance. On both occasions everyone sat silently in awe, perhaps surprised by how close it is possible to get to these magnificent creatures. Welcome to Moremi!
Being a gazetted game reserve, Moremi does not offer quite the same flexibility or exclusivity as the many private concessions that make up the Okavango Delta region (there is no walking or night drives), however the game viewing is superb and there is direct access to the permanent channels of the delta allowing for wonderful boat excursions. Our full day really made the most of our destination, with a thrilling morning game drive (two beautiful leopard sightings, lionesses roaring all around our vehicle, an elephant herd, buffalo herd, pelicans circling around us and much more) followed by a relaxing afternoon boat cruise.
We were wonderfully looked after at the permanent Okuti Camp, a great option for families, with lovely two-bedroomed family units and a pool. It is worth mentioning, however, that for families seeking extra adventure and exclusivity we highly recommend considering a private mobile safari in Moremi that gives you even more of a personal experience and 100% immersion in the wilderness.
Our final safari location was the Kanana Concession in the south-west Okavango Delta, a private concession offering the full range of activities and superb game viewing. Departing Moremi we enjoyed thrilling helicopter transfers over the delta, stopping en route at the super Elephant Havens conservation initiative. Here we were able to learn about elephant conservation in Botswana and then meet and feed some young, orphaned elephants who had been rescued from difficult circumstances and were being prepared for release back into the wild.
We had given ourselves three nights at Kanana as without this the safari was in danger of becoming too rushed and not relaxing enough (getting the balance between experiences and relaxation is unique for every family on holiday, and especially on safari!) and our time here was idyllic. Game viewing was superb, with a couple of incredible leopard encounters, a big pride of lions on a kill and a lone cheetah stalking and chasing prey on our final evening. We were very lucky to have several excellent honey badger sightings and to be able to watch numerous hippo out of the water during the day, which is unusual.
We enjoyed a serene mekoro excursion on the flood waters of the Okavango (sadly boating wasn’t possible as water levels were lower than normal this year), and night drives were fun and successful, with civet, side-striped jackal, aardwolf, Pel’s fishing owl and large grey mongoose added to the safari’s sightings list. The kids also spent an afternoon fishing, catching a couple of monster catfish!
Whilst the wildlife is always the main focus for any safari, many lovely memories were made enjoying the more subtle experiences beyond the wildlife encounters. At both Okuti Camp and Kanana we were so incredibly well looked after by lovely, friendly and charismatic staff. They sang for us at both camps, both on arrival and often in the evenings before dinner, and one occasion in particular was very moving as we sat around a camp fire at Kanana with the Milky Way stretched out above us listening to the their beautiful voices. Each evening in the bush the sunset was incredible with relaxing sunset drinks out in the bush, or on the water, giving a chance to chat and have a bit of fun, with some interesting photo moments.
We also enjoyed various bush meals – a picnic lunch in Moremi, a sit-down bush lunch overlooking a lagoon full of hippo at Kanana, and my wife Jane and I were treated to a private dinner at Okuti to celebrate our anniversary.
Throughout the safari the guides were excellent and really engaged with us. De Clerk and Gee in the Kalahari were a great double act, managing the kids brilliantly. One of our funny memories is finding out just how difficult it is to walk in a straight line when blind-folded out on the middle of the pans! At least one of us (?) walked in a complete circle ending up back where we started!
In the Okavango Delta, our guide Robby stayed with us at both Okuti and Kanana and was joined by Cautious at Okuti and Oti at Kanana. They were all great, achieving a good balance between looking after us all, having fun with the kids and finding the awesome wildlife sightings. Kids remember guides as much as some of the wildlife sightings, and the relationship between your guide and your family is crucial to the deeper enjoyment of your holiday.
All in all, Botswana was a huge success for a family safari. The diversity of experiences available is a real winner, especially for active families, and the wildlife encounters can be very varied too. The hospitality was superb, with most of our safari feeling very exclusive and flexible. Botswana can be expensive, especially during peak season periods, so that is definitely a consideration, but there is no doubt the destination offers what could potentially be labelled the ultimate family safari adventure!
To watch a short film on this family adventure, click on the video below.