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Trip Report Trip Report: The Best Family Friendy Trip to Botswana & Zimbabwe

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We are a family of four (with boys 10 and 5 yrs) and recently got back from our two week trip to Southern Africa (July/Aug 2015). I know it is difficult to plan and decide on trips to Africa on your own (especially with kids), so I thought it would be good to document our experience. We have friends with experience in Southern Africa, so they influenced our choices. I do not like travelling with groups or strangers, so that was a big influence in planning the trip. We like to travel independently typically, but with Africa, unless you are a local, you usually have to find someone to connect the stages of the trip and offer advice. Initially I looked into Kruger, Namibia, Victoria Falls, Hwange, the Okavango Delta, Mana Pools and Tuli in South Botswana. I wanted a variety of landscapes and places. This was too much, so I limited the trip to Vic Falls and Botswana (north and south). Namibia we will definitely do later!

We flew into Johannesburg and took a short connecting flight to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We chose Zimbabwe instead of Zambia. Both countries have activities around the falls, but I am glad we chose Zim. The town of Vic Falls had lots of craft shops and is right next to the falls, Livingstone town in Zambia is further away from the falls. We stayed at Illala Lodge because they had adjoining rooms for the kids. It was also not a big resort, so more quiet, which is what I like. It had a lovely pool, outdoor dining and bar. Illala was on the expensive side but good first choice for us. We did go to the Vic Falls Hotel for a view of the bridge over the falls and a dinner performance with an exotic African menu (as well as options for the less adventurous). That is also a lovely hotel if you want to splurge. For activities we did the helicopter tour, which was 15mins for $150 per person. Very expensive for a family, great to see the falls from the air, but we wouldn't need to do that again. For a cheaper family activity I must recommend the 'canopy tour' with Wild Horizons. With kids, it wasn't crazy scary. The canopy tour was 9 smaller zip wires along the edge of the canyon. Over trees and with great views of the bridge, canyon and river. For $52pp for a 1.5hr activity it was great (kids 1/2 price) Our littlest boy happily zipped with one of the guides. We also walked in the park to view the falls from Zim side; this is a must to do. The water going over the falls was on the low side, so your view was less spoiled by spray. I can imagine at high water times in April the spray would make photos very difficult. You must go to the Cataracts Falls on one end to Devils Point on the other end of the park. To get a complete view, you shouldn't miss either extreme of the park walk. What we didn't do which if we had more time we would have is a sunset boat cruise (still really want to do that) and go on the Zambia side to go on Livingstone Island (didn't look as good because can't see the falls). On the Zambia side there also is a Devils Pool right on the edge of the falls which I viewed from the other side. That looked like fun. I was glad we didn't endure the hassle of border crossing between Zim and Zam and just kept to the Zim side. We were only there two nights, so we had to skip some activities.

From Vic Falls were got a road transfer to Kasane on the banks of the Chobe River in Botswana. We did a quick private guided boat safari with Kalahari Tours. We saw loads of elephant groups going to the river for a drink and some crossing water to get to islands, crocs of every size, hippos in and out of water, buffalo, water buck, monitor lizard and fish eagles. That area is a well known good area for birders. That was a nice tour that was setup with Letaka Safaris (see below).

After that we were picked up in Kasane by our guide for the next 7 days, Shadreck with Letaka Mobile Safaris. We chose Letaka instead of various lodges because I found most lodges in Northern Botswana do not really accept children, especially one that is 5yrs old. The lodges are for couples either wanting a relaxing stay or serious about safaris. I am 'serious' about safaris, but I know my children are not always considerate of others. I understand this, but after weeks of searching and calling, I went with Letaka. They can do private safaris so our kids don't upset other guests, they had a family tent setup with two tents attached with a shielded shower/toilet in between, and I could choose which areas in Botswana to go to. Letaka can reserve private campsites that other self drivers can't use. I chose places that were distinctly different in landscape and feel. Letaka was flexible for us and cheaper than the lodges I was considering. I would recommend booking them as early as possible to get the best campsites. In addition to our guide, we had a chef and 2 camp hands (who greeted us after every game drive with a tray of drinks). You can specify your food preferences as well. Our chef, Dukes, managed a soufflé, crepes, cheesecake, pizza, cakes, all with just a fire for cooking. They had all our drinks preferences as well. It was all inclusive meals, drinks, accommodation, drives, road transfers, etc. We did two nights in Savuti, 3 nights in Khwai Community Area and 2 nights on a island to ourselves in the Okavango Delta. Letaka can also do Moremi and Kalahari and anything else in Botswana, but we didn't have time. Another point about Botswana is that the places we went to are totally wild with no fences to keep animals in or out, animals don't have collars (so what you see is what is around, poaching is strictly a no-no, and you can't even pick up a skull souvenir). If my limited experience this is a true safari. We drove thru parts of South Africa where there is hunting and fenced-in reserves with animals managed and bred. It is not like that in Botswana. The animals do not fear you and run off because they don't see people as hunters. Everything is casual. You would think that the chances for seeing the game you want is more at risk in Botswana, but the point is FIND THE BEST GUIDE. Letaka won 'best mobile safari operator' in the 2015 from the Safari Awards. Shadreck, our guide, had been guiding since 1996. From what I gather, a guide has to have 1) great wildlife/bird/plant knowledge, 2) know the roads/tracks/river crossings like the back of his hand, 3) be an excellent off road driver in a variety of conditions, 4) go to various parks frequently enough to know what are recent happenings, 5) speaks well and knows other guides, 6) chooses different driving routes to show the guest the variety in the area, 7) keeps in mind the guests interests (we had kids who could be noisy so he didn't put us in harms way), 8) knows the noise signals animals make, 9) can read situations/animal behaviour well, 10) can track and read recent animal movements with footprints, 11) have a keen eyesight to perform a night game drive with torch/flashlight while driving in less than perfect tracks,12) be an excellent camp host and dinner companion and lastly 13) experience... Shadreck had all these and more, He is a local; he took us on walking tours (with and without a gun), and he meandered the maze of water channels in the Okavango Delta with the Letaka boat.

First was Savuti. The drive from Kasane to Savuti was long, but the weather was fine and we were fresh with excitement. It was paved for 1/2 and sandy track for the other half. I was amazed Shadreck could expertly position the land cruiser so we never got stuck during the entire trip. The Letaka Land Cruiser we had was open on the sides with a canvas top, so it can be breezy and dusty. If traveling in winter (June/July) bring warm/tight hat and gloves / scarves / coat / face protection. Letaka supplies heavy blankets, but ask for hot water bottles in the car if you think you will be especially cold. We got to Savuti near sunset, so had to get to camp relatively quickly (but we had had the Chobe River boat cruise that morning so it had been a long day). After Shadreck radioed that we were near, the camp staff was waiting for us with smiles (Dukes the amazing chef, Madesa the attentive camp waiter/helper, & Mo the newby who would tell us what we really heard at night), with a silver tray of drinks, and lovely lanterns scattered around the camp. It was absolutely lovely and it was all private and just for us. The camp had an eating tent, and fire pit area, and our guest tents, as well as Dukes kitchen area and the Letaka staff tents on the side. Our family tents were back to back with a 'bathroom' in between. I was nervous about the bathroom and am not historically a happy camper. But Letaka's setup was fine for us. You can't expect flushing toilets, but they had warm water bowls or sinks for each of us, the toilet was a hole in the ground but with a hooded seat over it and a small bucket of ash to cover up your business. The shower was a bucket of warm water they hoisted up high and had a shower head with a valve. It was dusty on safari so showers were unavoidable, but we managed and had fun with it and I got some hilarious pictures.

A typical day was morning wakeup before sunrise (although you can dictate what you want since it is private), quick breakfast and then pile in for a game drive. Our morning drive was from 6:30ish to 11, depending on what we saw. There would be a morning stop during the drive for tea, coffee and biscuits. Shadreck knew to show us different areas of the park on different drives. I can describe Savuti in July as a mostly dry river bed as a backbone of the area, then occasional red rocky isolated outcrops (small buttes with small trees and bushes). The were areas of the riverbed still with water, areas with small trees, a big open grassland (which flood and become marsh in wet season), then areas were a mixture dotted with trees and rocks, and some flat salty looking areas. So it was the driest landscape we saw. The grasslands were great for seeing cheetah and a large lion pride. You could see long distances in the grassland with groups of wildebeest and impala. The thin and hungry looking lion pride was shadowing them. The tree areas had loads of elephants (70,000 elephants lived in the Chobe National Park which includes Savuti), a huge herd of buffalo, loads of giraffe, zebra, etc, etc. Shadreck knew the area so when we saw a mating pair of lions he knew that the female had left the pride and found a lone male that had been trouble to farmers and had walked from his original relocation place near the Kasane side of Chobe Park to Savuti in the last few years (with another male). He had been known to charge and he did it when he thought other cars were getting too close to his lady. Shadreck had good knowledge of the lion history and behaviour. The female had two teenager cubs from a previous year who we also saw in the grassland away from the pride trying to find her. Midday was spent with lunch, relaxing, napping (although we didn't because our kids wouldn't and instead explored the campsite), and showering. Then the afternoon drive would start around 3:30-4pm until sunset at 6:30. No night drives are allowed at Savuti. At night in the camp in Savuti was crazy active. I didn't sleep much because of all the night noises. It was scary but exhilarating. I wasn't always sure to identify the noises, but they felt they were right outside the tent! Due to this my husband and I each shared a tent with one of our children. But we could whisper to each other during the night, I was too scared to visit the bathroom area between the tents. We definitely had lions (tracks around the site), hyenas, and a breeding herd of elephants walked by one night close by. Nighttime was great.

Then after two nights and a morning drive we drove to our second camp at Khwai Community Area. The Letaka guys packed up the campsite and tents and followed us. We had a prepackaged lunch at Machaba gate leaving Chobe Park. Khwai Community area is on the other side of the River Khwai from the Moremi Park. Khwai allows walking safaris, off road driving and night safaris which I don't think not allowed in Moremi. Khwai was different from Savuti in that the river was flowing with side channels, lagoons, marsh and islands. So the area was more lush and green, with taller trees. The elephants we saw there were more male bachelor groups, eating roots at the rivers edge. Lots of hippos right near the camp (and I could hear them slowly chomping and grazing on grass at night from my tent), jackels, sable, and giraffes again. We also went to a wild dog den and got there just in time for their morning wake up and greetings and then off to start their hunting. We saw no lions, but instead we saw leopards (4 to be exact). Another mating pair of leopards was found by Letaka staff Badesa by chance on an errand to Khwai village. On a night drive Shadreck found a leopard very interested in a nearby group of impala/kudu (who gave routine warning calls) but instead occupied herself harassing the guinea fowl in trees. We watched her alone and completely without other groups. After a while we left her alone to do her business. On the night drives I was amazed at Shadreck's ability to manage sweeping the flashlight side to side, steering and driving in first gear, and listen and spot night time wildlife. In addition to the leopards, we saw the diminutive serval and African wild cat and lots of hyena inspecting the sight of a leopard kill earlier in the day. Thanks to Dukes delicious lamb dinner, a group of 3-4 hyena kept visiting our camp one night. The campsite was totally private with tall shading trees and a side channel of water on one side and a shallow pool in front. Another Letaka group in Moremi had a kudu bull killed by a leopard right outside their tent. Although I am jealous, I think that may have been too much for the kiddies. We also did a walking safari where the boys stretched their legs and we learned about the smaller things in the Khwai area. Oh, and Shadreck got us the best location for a sundowner drinks overlooking a lovely lagoon.

So after three nights there we moved again. Since our last campsite was in the Okavango Delta, they set it us separately for us. After a very cold morning and a dusty and breezy but straight and easy drive to Maun, we transferred to the Letaka boat at Maun. Shadreck adjusted from driving a land cruiser to boat navigating. Our new campsite was a not-insignificant island to ourselves near Chiefs Island just inside the Moremi Park area. Since we were limited to a boat, the game sighting was limited to waterside, but the scenery of the delta is amazing. There we saw the best sunsets, tiny islands with palm trees, reflections in the water, the water reeds closing into the channel in areas, and the boat experience made up for less wildlife. I think if you fly over the delta you see much more wildlife, but we didn't do that (more $$$). The bird life was totally different from the other areas. It was surprising to see giraffes, hyenas, lions and such on tiny islands but the water is shallow enough to allow movement. As usual the wildlife at night was highly vocal and entertaining.

After two nights in the delta we went back to Maun for a flight to the last portion of our trip at Tuli in southern Botswana. This is much less travelled area of Botswana but well worth the effort and much less expensive. The Tuli Safari lodge was a welcome luxury after days camping. The tented suites were huge and amazing, just built a few years ago. We had the best bed ever (two double together I think), separate wings in the tent for the kids beds, a soaking tub and wet room shower and all the electrical outlets we desired to charge up our equipment! The lodge is on the banks of the Limpopo River on the southern border of Botswana with South Africa on the other side. The river was dry at the time, but the lodge grounds have extensive gardens, a pool and lawns. It was all very green and lovely. Just away from the river there are rocky red outcrops in the area and impossibly stacked boulders that to me looked like northern Arizona. As in northern Botswana, there are no fences at Tuli and the wildlife is free to move and is not tracked. Even with this beyond the numerous elephants, rock dassie, giraffe (like 'cows' there) and a whole slew of birds totally different from the rest of the trip, we saw our only cheetah at Tuli and found an active hyena den. Every evening sundowners and dinner was at a different viewing location. On a walk they showed us their prehistoric rock art and a sharpening stone. The Tuli staff choir also gave us a lovely performance for our last breakfast in Africa. It was a very needed pampering place to end the trip with.

Hopefully my long descriptions will give you an insight to different areas in Botswana and planning your own trip and finding on a way to travel and have a safari with kids. A trip to Botswana and Zimbabwe can be planned with kids and doesn't have to be crazy expensive and give you all the game viewing, variety in scenery adventure and activities you can handle. Don't forget to end it with a bit of relaxing and luxury at Tuli....

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