Ties That Bind: Botswana

Travelling with her mother on safari was, for Sarah Marshall, a happy opportunity to spend time together, exploring familial bonds and seeing the natural world through different eyes.
November 2023

Bypassing a cluster of fresh leaves lovingly left by his mother, an elephant calf made a beeline instead for her belly. Almost three years old, he no longer needed milk. The action of suckling was simply for bonding.

Throughout the animal kingdom, the relationship between a mother and her child is remarkable. For some it only lasts a matter of months, but elephants commit to a lifetime. Regardless, it’s a connection stronger than steel, often defended until death.

Humans aren’t too dissimilar. For most of us, our mothers will always be the number one person in our lives. But as we get older, busier and priorities change, so too can family ties.

For the last few years, my mother and I had discussed booking a big holiday, exploring together but also setting aside time to enjoy each other’s company. Given we both love animals and consider David Attenborough a demigod, a safari was the obvious choice. Watching wildlife also requires patience, something blatantly lacking in our own relationship.

But where to go amidst Africa’s ample choice of safari locations? And what place would allow Mum and I time to properly reset, refresh and appreciate anew each other and the world around us? It seemed to me that Botswana was the obvious choice. The safari model there is highly regarded for its environmental approach to conservation and its commitment to low volume tourism. Camps and lodges are smaller and more ecologically minded, animals are in rich abundance and the experience is a slow paced one. Perfect for quality mother-daughter time.

Easing into the adventure, we started at Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero, set on the edge of Chobe National Park. A short drive from Kasane airport, the easily accessible camp was the ideal toe-dipping wilderness experience for my mum who had never been on a safari before. Electric fences kept predators out, but mongoose and bushbuck were still able to wander right up to the front of our suite.

Originating in the highlands of Angola, Chobe River is the focal point of the park. Welcoming us with a smile as sparkling as the late afternoon sunshine, guide Lets took us on a gentle boat ride. So still we almost missed it, a Nile crocodile lay motionless on the shore, lazily lifting one eye as we approached.

“The sunshine helps aid digestion,” explained Lets, detailing the reptile’s diet which – ominously – could include us. “He might look harmless, but he could kill you with a death roll.”

No longer a regurgitation of facts and figures snatched from Wikipedia, guiding has changed significantly in Africa, concentrating more on interpreting behaviour. Mum was instantly enamoured; she’d found her African Attenborough.

“He’s very knowledgeable, isn’t he?” she whispered, while carefully edging away from the croc.

A major water source, the Chobe River attracts 120,000 elephants –
the highest concentration in the world. Transfixed by the near silence of their mighty footsteps and low rumblings almost indecipherable to the human ear, being in the midst of a breeding herd was exceptionally calming. We watched them crossing the water, falling into line one after the other like a well-oiled military machine, the smallest trailing along behind.

Their nurturing behaviour appealed to my mother’s own maternal instinct. “Look how they care for the babies,” she cooed.

Falling in love with wildlife on safari is easy, but the logistics of moving around are a bit more complicated. At 75, with a history of slipped discs, getting in and out of a vehicle was challenging for my mother. But Lets and his team made sure everything ran smoothly, providing a stepladder along with a stash of blankets to keep her warm on chilly mornings. “I feel like the queen!”, she laughed as we set out on a game drive.

Chobe can be busy during peak season, demanding some clever planning. To avoid crowds, we left camp at 7am, slightly later than a normal morning drive would, and took one of the two new routes opened in the park this year.

In the past when I’ve been on safari, I’ve always been in a hurry to see the apex predators and with them a kill. But, inspired by the elephants, I was learning to slow down and take my time. Although I’ve seen hundreds of lilac-breasted rollers, and barely register run-of-the-mill impalas these days, mum’s wide-eyed enthusiasm made them shine in a new light. She learned to compromise too. After a couple of days and the tenth stop to look at a flock of guinea fowl, she’d perfected the art of taking iPhone photos in a moving vehicle as we zoomed along.

By the time we reached our second camp, we were both safari pros. A light aircraft flight (most of which, mum filmed) took us to Sanctuary Stanley’s Camp, one of two tented camps occupying a private concession on the border of Moremi National Park in the heart of the Okavango Delta.

Below-average rainfall in Angola meant the water-level downstream, that annually floods the Okavango, was surprisingly low, with more dry land than usual for animals to roam. Although it proved a little more challenging to locate wildlife, our guide, Temeo, triumphed on every drive.

“We’ll need to be patient,” he forewarned us, when we arrived at a lion’s den tucked behind thick croton bushes. Tiny lion cubs had been sighted several days previously, but we’d need their mothers to return if we wanted to catch a glimpse.

As we waited, I calculated I’d spent more time with my mum in the past few days than I had done in years. Yes, there were several things that annoyed me: her poor time keeping, dithering indecisiveness and the constant fiddling around with bags.

But the real root of these irritations was the realisation that I’m no different.

We see joy in the same things too. When the cubs finally emerged, rolling from the bushes and scampering on stumpy little legs, we sat transfixed until the sun went down.

The cycle of life is constantly turning in Africa’s wild spaces. Alongside new beginnings, there’s inevitably death. When Temeo spotted a baby elephant keeled over in the grass, we were all perplexed about what might have happened. Less than 24 hours later, we returned to find his final resting place empty. Following a trail of intestines, blood stains and a dead hyena, we found two male lions devouring the remains. Grimacing at the gore, mum concluded: “I think I prefer the baby animals.”

Wildlife is abundant across Botswana, but the highest concentration can be found on Chief’s Island in the heart of Moremi. When water levels rise, animals retreat to the largest island in the Delta, once the exclusive hunting grounds for the local chief.

Sharing 1000 square kilometres of mopane woodland and sandveld with only one other property, Sanctuary Chief’s Camp felt exhilaratingly exclusive. Aside from the apartment-sized suites with verandas overlooking a floodplain, the game viewing was first class.

Our guide, Skye, had a sixth sense for reading the landscape. Every birdcall, baboon squeal and impala snort were clues to finding a predator. We observed elephants shaking palms with their tusks pieces of cutlery for digging into the buffet.

Trailing a thousand buffalo was a highlight. In a cloud of dust and confusion, two elderly lionesses succeeded in bringing down a calf separated from the herd as two sub-adult male lions looked on.

“They might be old, but they have experience,” said, Skye, wistfully.

Glancing in my direction, mum smirked knowingly.

As the years pass, a role reversal between parent and child is inevitable. I may have made all the arrangements, carried the bags and completed various online digital check-ins for our holiday. But in the wilds of Africa, I’d learned a valuable lesson: at any age, a mother always knows best.

Contact one of our expert Journey Designers or talk to your travel advisor to learn more and start planning.



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