MAUN, Botswana – âLook, look, she’s up. No, she’s coming here, âmy nephew Eric whispered, turning pale and squeezing my hand as the lioness we had observed – one of 11 dozing under a tree – stood up, yawned and walked in our direction.
âTake a picture, take a picture,â urged his sister, Sarah, next to my husband in the back seat of the Land Rover.
Intrepid, eager for adventure, she leaned forward to get a better look.
âSit still, sit very still and watch. They’re just curious, âsaid Moro, our tracker at Shinde Game Lodge, who had moved from his seat on the wing to a seat in the car. âYou are lucky to see such great, healthy pride. If they are not strong enough to hunt, they starve.
My family, traveling together on an African safari, were lucky enough to see so many lions. Fifty years ago, there were 200,000 in Africa; today, there are less than 15,000. As for African elephants, their numbers are worse. 90 years ago they were around 10 million on the continent, but four years ago they were only 350,000.
Poaching for skins or meat, loss of habitat and conflicts with farmers are the killers. But in recent years, a handful of 54 African countries have realized that wildlife has value, for tourism if not for cultural or ecological reasons. Parks and reserves save savannas and forests and wildlife conservation is taught in school. But success remains a question.
This is why my husband and I decided to offer our family an African safari to Botswana, South Africa and Zambia, three countries where wildlife conservation is at the center of public policies. We wanted the kids to experience the African bush as we did, while there is still time.
If you have thought about going there yourself, you probably have some questions. Are trips to Africa safe? Which countries have the most wildlife? What do game huts look like and how do they find the animals? Are you staying in a tent or a lodge and do they have sanitary facilities? What about visas, clothes, the weather? Where can you learn more about lodges and safaris?
Where to start looking
Since most safari lodges now have websites, it is easy to compare them. Treat yourself to a leisurely tour through Uyaphi.com and Go2Africa.com, travel and tourism agencies that book family, individual, group and personalized safaris. Websites are a treasure trove of photographs. Descriptions include locations, indoor and outdoor spaces, gardens, views and extras, from mokoro (canoe) rides to spas and swimming pools.
Prices per person per night vary widely as they include not only full-service gaming lodges, but area hotel rooms as well. When you find something you like, search the site for an email contact. The person answering you can answer questions, create a plan, and make reservations.
A “game drive” timeline
5:45 a.m .: You’ve slept your first night in your African hunting lodge, which serves as your base, when a member of staff knocks with a cup of tea and toast upon awakening. Dressed in your khaki-colored shorts, shirt, and hat (laundry is done every other day, free of charge, so two changes are enough), you rush to the main lodge. Your guide and tracker – and other guests – wait at the car, an open-top Land Rover, ready for the four-hour morning drive in search of lions, elephants, giraffes, and antelopes. A halfway stop includes a delicious breakfast.
10:30 am: As the sun rises in the sky and the animals seek shade, the group returns to the lodge. It’s your free time to take a guided walk, have lunch, write in your journal, visit the gift shop, or take a nap.
4.30 p.m .: Put on long pants and a light jacket, and add a layer of mosquito repellent, you join the afternoon route. As the sun begins to go down, the male lions wake up and stretch out, the leopards descend from the trees, and the antelopes come closer. At 6 pm, the guides park for a âsunsetâ stop, toasting wine, gin-tonic, crackers and cheese. A male lion roars and you shiver right down to your toes. A second lion responds. At the bottom of the water point, a thousand frogs sing at full volume, a supernatural chorus. If a leopard appears, you will follow it.
8:00 p.m .: Back at the lodge, shirt changed and hair done, you gather for a four-course dinner with wine, a feast usually served at long tables. The guests, numbering eight to 24, recount and recount their adventures and each new sighting.
10:30 p.m .: Bedtime, but as it is dark, an armed guide will accompany you back to your cabin. He will remind you of that now and every night, ever, ever walking alone in the dark without an escort. Once in your cabin, stay inside until morning. If you hear hissing or rustling, these are animals lurking around the camp, curious and probably hungry. Guests were killed while walking alone.
My favorite lodgings
My favorites in Botswana, all located in the Okavango Delta, are traditional lodges with eight to 10 spacious tent cabins bolted to wooden decks, following conservation regulations. Shinde is close to water and open plains; Kanana, near the water, adds mokoro (canoe rides) to the birding islands. Chiefs’ Camp and Stanley’s Camp explore a mix of forested islands and surrounding lagoons.
In the Kruger National Park, my favorite is Londolozi (www.londolozi.com), much loved and a sentimental destination. Now expanded and divided into four different lodges, it remains true to its origins as the country’s first leopard conservation project.
In the Sabi Sands Preserve, also in the Kruger National Park, Bush Camp (www.sabisabi.com) is a large, bustling lodge that would suit the resort category best. It has 25 luxury suites and is a great place to meet other travelers and their children. Activities include daily game drives, cultural community tours, swimming pools, spa, gym, children’s play center, gift shop and water point near the dining room, where customers sip tea while elephants come to drink.
In Zambia, the Bushcamp Company Group in South Luangwa River National Park is unique (www.BushcampCompany.com). The main lodge, with an open-air lounge, casual restaurant, and 12 adjoining cabins, is a 30-minute drive from Mfuwe Town, making it a convenient getaway for passing travelers and locals alike. who come to observe the elephants crossing the hall. More importantly, it is the headquarters of eight remote lodges, intimate, secluded, rustic huts that can accommodate no more than eight people. At the cozy Bilimungwe you will meet the elephant family. In Chamilandu, you can spend a morning in the “Hide”, as it is called, while waiting for the parade of animals which come daily to drink.
Why choose Southern Africa?
Not only do these countries have a lot of animals, but they use open-top 4×4 vehicles and bench seats for safaris. The open-air seating allows for unobstructed views and better photography while seated. In East Africa (Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya), most parks only allow minivans or closed cars with open tops, which limits viewing.
Reasons to book through a travel agency
It is possible to book your own airline flights, game lodge reservations and land connections. But many North American travelers prefer to spend more on a trip than they can plan over the phone with an experienced representative from a full-service travel agency. It’s a relief when a local employee meets you on arrival, helps you with your luggage, drives you to your hotel or lodge, gets you to the lodge or the next day’s flight, and helps you with visas, customs and local money.
A partial list of top rated companies includes Sanctuary Retreats (www.Sanctuaryretreats.com); Ker & Downey (www.Ker-downeyafrica.com); Wilderness Safaris (www.Wilderness-Safaris.com); Bushcamp Company in Zambia (www.BushcampCompany.com); Abercrombie & Kent (www.Abercrombie & Kent.com); and SabiSabi Company (www.Sabisabi.com).
Health and Safety Tips
If you are flying between fighter lodges, remember that light aircraft with high wings have space and weight restrictions. Pack light, no more than what you can fit in a 36 inch by 18 inch duffel bag, plus carry-on for your camera, money, passport, medication, and toiletries.
Mosquitoes are carriers of malaria but are rarely a threat during the dry months of southern Africa, from July to mid-October. Prevent bites with long-sleeved shirts and long pants in a light or khaki color and bug spray. Or use prophylactic medication from your doctor. We recommend travel and medical insurance, including emergency evacuation to South Africa.
When should we go
June to August (winter) are dry months, with cool nights and mild, sunny days. September and October are hotter and drier with less foliage on the trees, but they offer better game viewing because of it.