by Ben Ross, The Telegraph, June 27, 2018
I never know where to look. You’d imagine that going on safari would be about the animals, all those noble beasts thundering around their last redoubts of habitat. And of course, there’s plenty of that sort of thing going on: “Wow! There’s an elephant! And another! And over there – no, no there, where I’m pointing – a giraffe!” Botswana is the perfect destination for wildlife spotters keen to cram the maximum number of species into the shortest possible time.
But my eyes are constantly drawn back to the faces of my two sons, aged 15 and 12. The elder one is about to sit his GCSE mocks; his brother has a streaming test for maths in two weeks. Both spend the majority of their downtime glued to tech, their chins lit in the pale-blue glow of LED screens. Now, though, as they jolt and jar their way across the Okavango Delta in the back of a four-wheel drive (albeit a posh, well-upholstered four-wheel drive) they look years younger than their ages, and that city-strained, classroom-cowed tension has evaporated. Their faces are rapt, there’s colour in their cheeks; it’s all smiles, questions, excitement.
Holidays get both easier and harder as your children grow older. Yes, it’s nice not to have to lug a travel cot around any more, or worry about bottle-warming, nappies and the potential for restaurant-based tantrums. But in those early days you would say a good holiday was one where nothing had gone too badly wrong and you’d got a gurgle of appreciation from your toddler now and then. Everything bumbles along pretty well during the primary school years, too, when the inherent cuteness of your holiday snaps negates most travel-related turmoil. But once secondary school hits, and your children finally develop a sense of themselves and their relationship to you, everything changes. Time and cash permitting, it’s all about carving memories into their cerebellum like some deranged Daddy Frankenstein.
Suddenly each trip is recast as a developmental sugar rush: bigger adventures, a better experience, more exciting activities. Remember us all together, you are trying to say. Relish our time as a family unit. Maybe then, a tiny, sad voice quivers, you’ll still want to come and visit your dear old parents once you’ve left home.
In that respect, a visit to Botswana during October half term is job done before you even land. Have a quick squint at Google Maps. The Okavango Delta looks like the roots of a tree spreading down from the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. It’s here that the Okavango River, which rises in the mountains of Angola, finally marks the end of its 990-mile course southwards in dubious fashion. Going nowhere fast, it just dissolves back into the sand, delivering unique wildlife habitats in the process. There is, quite simply, nowhere like it on Earth.
October is the dry season, and from the windows of our tiny Cessna plane, flying 40 minutes north-west from the regional hub of Maun, the landscape was revealed as a Mandelbrot set of muddy puddles, coiled with blobs of green and trickles of blue. The higher territory, which forms islands during the wet season, was yellow; soupy swatches of grey-green marked the lowlands. It looked like an experiment performed by the gods, a vast Petri dish bursting with the mould of life. We watched two bull elephants flapping their grey ears near to a meandering stream; vivid stripes of red serge reeds added colour; a tower of galloping giraffes delivered a hint of comedy far below. But as far as experiences went, all that was almost irrelevant. The boys had never been on a tiny plane before; never seen a propeller whirl. They were already agog; animals and alien landscapes en route to our destination were an unlooked-for bonus.
Helpfully, there is no distracting Wi-Fi on a Cessna, just as there’s no Wi-Fi – or indeed phone signal – at Vumbura Plains Camp, which forms part of Wilderness Safaris’ Premier collection of safari lodges. We landed at the dusty yellow airstrip, were picked up by walking animal encyclopedia Emang and headed straight off for an encounter with a herd of sable antelope, their horns curving scimitars above the scrub. From the boys’ point of view there was no pausing to update feeds, or text, or tag. They just got on with it – until the 15-year-old decided he wanted to be in charge of our camera and set about documenting the adventure – with surprisingly artistic results. By the time we’d parked up for sundowners next to an ad hoc bush bar replete with various forms of exciting alcohol and tasty treats, I was ambitiously plotting a career for him as a wildlife photographer. And we hadn’t even checked in yet.
Vumbura Plains itself is a delight, 14 rooms divided into two satellite camps – north and south – looking out over the delta. A raised lounge is the focus for each, with plenty of rich wooden decking on show, a sheltered dining area and sweeping bar. The rooms? The word does them an injustice: these are pavilions of billowing fabric and polished floors held together by frames of netting, where outdoors and indoors have virtually no meaning and guests spend their time flitting skittishly between plunge pools, open-air showers and vast, absurdly comfortable beds. From an adult perspective, this is a heavenly, relaxing place to stay; for teenagers, it forms the gateway to an entirely new form of excitement.
Emang took the four of us across the unique landscape of the Vumbura Concession, which comprises about 150,000 acres in the northern part of the delta and appears to be almost equal parts water and sand. Animal encounters passed in a series of delightful snapshots: a leopard with her cubs peering through the long grass; elephants cooling themselves at a mud wallow; a lioness on the hunt; honey badgers scuttling behind termite mounds; more mongoose than seemed strictly sensible; buffalo, er, mating on the hoof; antelope of every size and shade; and birds with colours as vibrant as their names (including our favourite, the lilac-breasted roller, as common as it was delightful).
In the evening the grown-ups sipped sauvignon blanc next to the firepit (“See any eyes, guys?”) before we all consumed meals that were miracles of logistics as much as taste, as everything has to be flown in from Maun. We fell asleep to a delta breeze sifting through our tents, and the fizz and crackle of insects.
By the time our two nights were up we had tried fishing on the delta (to no avail), had mustered five game drives (“I think the only thing we haven’t seen yet is an ostrich, Emang … Oh, there’s one. Tick!”), been given a powerful evening presentation on the plight of the rhino, and charted the progress of a red-billed hornbill as it made its home in a tree next to our tent. None of us wanted to leave, but we’d already seen more than we could sensibly process.
We flew north-east to Kasane, then travelled by road to Ngoma safari lodge, close to the Chobe River. Compared to Vumbura Plains, this is a return to relative civilisation. Set on an escarpment with views of the flood plain – more of a squelchy pond during our dry-season visit – over to Namibia, the eight elegant adobe rooms are solid affairs with air-con and Wi-Fi, although apparently the outdoor plunge pools are regularly drained by passing elephants.
The thatched main lodge has an air of colonial country club rather than wilderness outpost, with tables scattered down towards the plain, a firepit and pool; in the distance a floodlit watering hole offers night-time game viewing. It’s all part of a joint community and privately funded project developed with the local conservation trust, whereby the lodge employs locals, who also benefit directly from each night booked.
Chobe National Park itself is just as carefully managed: 4x4s stay on marked paths, and there’s no sense of being alone in the landscape as it is in the delta. No matter, there’s still plenty of animal action to gawp at. Thinking big? Bevan, our guide, showed us a pair of young male lions sunning themselves under a tree. Small? We spotted a leopard tortoise (considerably less terrifying than its name) half buried in the sand.
Later, on a boat cruise along the Chobe, there was plenty more pointing to be done, with Bevan reeling off a lengthy list of bird species, buffalo, zebra, antelope – and our first encounter with hippos, loitering menacingly in the shallows.
And then the shutter speed of our journey was cranked up still further. A road transfer, a riverboat crossing into Zambia and a brief but glorious ride over a small set of Zambezi rapids led us to another of Wilderness Safaris’ lodges: Toka Leya. It occupies a suitably dramatic setting upriver of Victoria Falls, the main building set out on stilts, with colonial-style tents linked by boardwalks behind. In October, the Zambezi is at its lowest, and to see Victoria Falls in action we had to travel over to Zimbabwe, the border crossing as shambolic as it was fascinating. The waters still looked majestic to our eyes, and the falls were considerably less busy with tourists than they would be in high season.
Every day was brimful with one-off experiences that sent the boys abuzz: visiting the town of Livingstone and the museum dedicated to the Victorian explorer, stuffed with memorabilia; an hour spent in nearby Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, where 10 white rhino are guarded 24 hours a day by rangers with rifles; even learning to play nsolo (a type of board game) in the evening, where our guide Winston taught fiendish techniques to my younger son.
As an important counterweight, we also visited Sinde village, supported by Wilderness Safaris, where the realities of subsistence farming were brought home to us, along with the practicalities of living in real poverty. Lilian showed us round, explaining how the village elder apportioned land, and how the pump paid for by Wilderness Safaris saved hours of walking for her family every day. It was sobering stuff, and a real test for our boys, who require a fair bit of coaching in the need to ask questions, smile and participate even in the most familiar of surroundings.
It was as we sipped drinks from Winston’s boat that the Zambezi delivered the week’s last tableau. In one shining moment we found ourselves watching a family of elephants crossing the river, charcoal black from the water, while a skein of geese flew over our heads into a bright orange sunset. Behind us hippos revved like motorbikes, and close to the shore a crocodile slipped, a silent assassin, into the depths.
That’s the big reveal of a safari holiday: you think events will take place sedately, one after the other. But in fact everything is happening all at once, all the time. You won’t know where to look.
Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1266; rainbowtours.co.uk) offers a six-night itinerary for a family of four from £5,450 per adult and from £4,925 per child based on two adults and two children under 12 sharing, including flights with South African Airways into Maun and out of Livingstone; two nights at Wilderness Safaris Vumbura Plains (wilderness-safaris.com), two nights at Africa Albida Tourism Ngoma (africaalbidatourism.com) and two nights at Wilderness Safaris Toka Leya with accommodation in family rooms; light aircraft and transfers by private vehicles throughout.