At the age of five, when we took our trip to see the Galapagos wildlife, my son knew already what the guide was explaining to the adults in the party. ‘Seeing it in the real’ at that young age, after learning about the wildlife at home, was a priceless gift.
Africa came when my son was seven. That’s the minimum age recommended for travel to Africa. It’s still the age of wonder, and an age when electronics haven’t become part and parcel of their day or week. Exploring the real world is still more attractive than gaming in fantastical worlds.
Even before we left for Africa, we had months of preparing. Visitors to these countries are required to have various immunizations, some of which require weeks between doses. We visited a travel doctor who checked what was needed for each country. We organised a mobile pharmacy and got documentation to allow us to carry medications with us. Luggage was also a consideration, as small aircraft typical in Africa require soft bags and impose limits on weight.
Clothing was a rather more interesting preparation issue for me, as it meant choosing a safari-oriented wardrobe! I imagined linen trousers of various khaki hues, classy sandy-coloured sandals and a matching wrinkled linen jacket for the cool evenings (anyone who’s seen Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky knows what I mean). In boring reality, practical clothes for Africa include quick dry socks, quick dry shirts and quick dry trousers. These can be washed in the evening then dried overnight. It complements the luggage weight restriction issue.
Last but not least, cash. Very close to departure I realized that American dollars in cash would be needed in large quantities to pay for a ‘visa’ from one country into the next. And it was not until I got there that I found, at the end of one’s stay in a lodge, tipping staff was encouraged (albeit in special envelopes to be left in the room). As most stays in any one lodge lasted from one to three nights, I ran out of small dollar bills pretty quickly.
The trip was arranged for us by Kate at the House of Travel in Havelock North and we also met with Jenny, the Africa specialist who, after listening to what we wanted to do, recommended the countries to visit, accommodation and the timing of the trip. Luckily, our school holidays coincided with the time of the great migration, and so our trip could be built around ‘the greatest spectacle in the animal kingdom’.
We flew from Napier to Nairobi. Gorgeous Eliziban, our contact person in Africa, met us at the airport and drove us on our first safari through Nairobi National Park to the Emakoko Lodge. Our first stop was a much anticipated visit to the David Sheldrick elephant orphanage, where as adoptive parents of a young elephant called Kainuk, we were able to walk around the compound, see the babies in their beds, the older ones come back from play, and feeding time. The following day, our adventure would start in earnest.
It had been suggested by Jenny that we stay in Samburu, in the north of Kenya at a lodge where the local Samburu young warriors spend time with children and teach them survival skills. All the staff came from the local community, and as with most lodges there was a symbiotic relationship between lodge and the surrounding area. Young warriors are young men who have been through a rite of passage, and who are expected to live away from home and develop their survival skills and their social placing. They took my son on outings to make fire, detect animal movement according to clues on the ground and in the trees, make a bow and arrows and practice shooting little dikdiks, which were, of course, too fast for him.
We travelled south, staying in the Masai Mara where we saw the great migration as hundreds of zebras attempted to cross the river to the side where the grass was plentiful. Mercifully the lounging crocodiles were not hungry (probably still digesting last year’s meal!) and left the zebras to swim across in peace. We saw warthogs being chased by a group of lionesses, hyenas threateningly watching carefree lion cubs scampering in the grass, a male impala guiding his harem and their young, a black rhinoceros and enormous water buffalos. We also had a very cute family of warthogs sleeping outside our tent.
Later, when we stayed in the Serengeti, we saw the wildebeest as they slowly moved towards the Mara, leaving the dry plains behind for the promise of grazing further north. One day, hours into our drive, we stopped to observe the animals heading for a river. A limping wildebeest met his unfortunate death when two previously lounging lions we had seen saw him as their next meal. The next day we saw one of the same lions, sitting quite content with an enormous, now-satisfied, belly.
The Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara were our last stop before flying to Dar-Es-Salam via Arusha in order to fly to Johannesburg and on to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Besides the Falls themselves, a highlight was riding an elephant called Hwange. These elephants were orphaned, and the money raised supported their keep and their minders.
The last country we visited was Botswana. We had the most amazing view from the Muchenje Safari Lodge of the Chobe River as it meandered through vast areas of flat land crowded with all sorts of animals who were attracted by the water. We visited the Chobe National Park and went on a peaceful boat trip down the river, spending a lot of time observing the hippos, crocodiles, elephants, birds, greater kudu and monitor lizards coexisting in and out of the water.
Our last few days were spent at the Okavango Delta, a 16,000 sq km floodplain fed by the Okavango River. At our last lodge in Nxabeha my son had a rather surprising encounter with a venomous snake, which, he takes every opportunity to remind me, could have bitten him. He adds that for that particular snake there is no known antidote. Which makes it a splendid lifetime story of imminent peril survived by a seven year old.
Every place we visited had something new to offer us. The landscape, the people, the animals, the temperature, the lodges, and the history differed from place to place. Our hosts shared their knowledge readily and were marvellous with children.
The recommended hotels and lodges were exceptional in every aspect: service, food, cleanliness, beauty, location, safari drives, and type of experience. At the lodges personal bodyguards with rifles took us to and from our rooms as wildlife roams freely in these places.
What made the trip a more-than resounding success was that everything went according to schedule. The flights were on time; the meet-and-greet people always showed up, and on time; the bookings were done; requests had been received. Considering the number of flights and airlines involved, the number of lodges, hotels and transfers arranged, it is actually surprising that all went according to plan.
Perhaps there was a bit of luck involved in that; on the other hand, it was clear that we had chosen an excellent travel agent and advisor, who not only knew their stuff but also had good working relationships with our hosts.