Best Safari? Botswana.

13 May

While hippos spend most of their time in the water, they can easily outrun humans on dry land.  (Photograph by Rainer Jenss)

This year, my wife and I will be marking our 20th wedding anniversary – a fact to which our kids excitingly wanted to know, “where are we going to celebrate?”

Becoming an expert on family travel has pretty much mandated that we vacation with the children at every opportunity. Not that I’m complaining, but Carol and I haven’t traveled together without the kids along in quite some time. This occasion would be an exception – or so I thought.

“You can’t go without us,” the kids protested. “We were with you on your 15th anniversary!” (Five years ago, our family traveled around the world for more than a year.) Touché, boys.

Whenever people ask me to name the best place we’ve ever traveled to, I’m quick to rephrase the question to where is the one spot we’d most want to go back to. And that’s Botswana, hands down. So we decided to ditch the bucket list this year, and – yes, together as a family – honor our anniversary by going back to Botswana and some of our other favorite places.

Zebras migrate twice each year in Botswana. (Photograph by Rainer Jenss)

Zebras migrate twice each year in Botswana. (Photograph by Rainer Jenss)

Why Botswana?

One word: Safari. We sampled a wide variety of safaris throughout southern and eastern Africa in the course of our yearlong trip. Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, and Namibia all have terrific wildlife-viewing options with plenty of outstanding family-friendly programs. But if you asked me which country offers the best and most authentic overall experience, I’d say Botswana.

For starters, most of the camps and lodges are only accessible by air. Yes, this makes the journey to and from more cumbersome (and expensive), but the thrill of flying over the African plains is unforgettable. And if it feels like you’ve landed in the middle of nowhere, you have! Savor it. The animals and sheer beauty of the African bush are guaranteed to hold your kids’ attention — even without WiFi access.

Is Botswana Child-Friendly?

If there’s one thing most kids have in common, it’s their love of animals. Have you been to a zoo lately? But what’s the appropriate age for taking your children all the way to Africa? Most outfitters that cater to families (not all do) suggest waiting until they’re at least 8 years old. If you’ve had experience traveling as a family, this age is definitely ideal. This is probably when kids are at the peak of curiosity, so everything will interest them.

Where to Go?

Even the fastest land mammals on Earth slow down from time to time.  (Photograph by Rainer Jenss)

One of Africa’s fiercest predators takes a rest before hunting for her next meal. (Photograph by Rainer Jenss)

There are about a half dozen regions in Botswana that offer unique safari experiences. The Okavango Delta is easily the most popular, thanks to an abundant year-round water supply that attracts wildlife like a giant magnet. During the dry season (May to October), giant herds of elephant, antelope, buffalo, and zebra migrate to these permanent watering holes. For a fun change of pace from the traditional four-wheel drives, you can explore the Delta’s lily-covered channels in an old-style dugout canoe called a mokoro.

For something completely different, there’s the Kalahari Desert. The animals that reside here — including healthy populations of lion, cheetah, and jackals — seem to have adapted quite well to the  semi-arid environment.  These vast plains of central Botswana are also home to the San Bushman, local guides who can take you on a bush walk or tour to find rock paintings that date back thousands of years.

When to Go?

If you plan to visit Botswana when the kids are off from school, remember that June through October is the “high and dry season.” It’s also winter in the southern hemisphere, so nights can be quite cold. Their summer, or  ”green season” might be a good bet if you’re on a tighter budget and can get away during the holidays or over winter recess.

Where to Stay?

A ranger from the Little Kwara Camp showing our group an elephant skull. (Photograph by Rainer Jenss)

A ranger from the Little Kwara Camp showing our group an elephant skull. (Photograph by Rainer Jenss)

All safaris are not created equal. There are several different environments, accommodations, and activities to choose from. Lodging options range from permanent luxury camps to tented mobile safaris.

For a good mix of comfort and adventure, I would recommend Kwando Safaris, a company that has camps in the Okavango Delta, Linyanti wetlands, Nxai Pan National Park and the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. In addition to offering a nice variety of environments and family-friendly activities, the staff is especially welcoming to children. The rangers are terrific storytellers who make finding elusive predators almost look easy.

More Information?

Planning an African family safari might seem daunting, but don’t let that dissuade you. I always suggest contacting a country’s tourism board directly. And while an initial web search is a good way to start, don’t be afraid to make some phone calls.

Do you have tips for planning a safari? Share them with the Intelligent Travel community by leaving a comment!

Best Safari? Botswana.

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