Ho Ho Hot! Christmas in the Desert with Kids

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Ever since breaking with the traditional pattern of child friendly holidays (you know: developed countries where tap water is clean, the risk of food poisoning is low and access to first world healthcare is on hand) and taking the children to Morocco a few years ago, we have been particularly rubbish about having a repeat adventure.

So when the very rare opportunity came up for my husband Andrew and I to have 3 weeks off work at the same time, we vowed to make it a memorable holiday. Chilean Patagonia and the Okavango Delta have long been on my bucket list and so why let 2 kids get in the way? On enquiry with travel agents, I found that a 3 week trip to Patagonia was going to set the family back 24k (!!!) which swiftly put paid to that idea. The problem being that Christmas is summer in the southern hemisphere making the climate just perfect for long hikes along glaciers, thus peak tourist season in Patagonia. Sooooo…what about the Okavango Delta and Namibia? Guess what? Peak summer in the Delta and Desert means baking heat, no water, no tourists and cheap(er) season! Bargain. They say that mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, well, my family fit the bill there!

I can confess to having not one hand in the arrangements of the mega-trip and am very grateful to Andrew who did all the necessary bookings and arrangements. He, being South African, had long harboured plans of bombing around Africa in a land rover so he was in his element, but even I thought his 4000km drive plans were rather ambitious. Never-the-less we were up for the challenge and had the most amazing experience, the highlights I share with you to encourage more families to have their own adventures!

Okavango Delta, Botswana

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We flew overnight from London to Cape Town which is a very manageable flight with children aged 8 and 10 years who plug straight into the movies and watch until they eventually fall asleep (we are told that Molly managed to watch 4 movies in a row – which is a record even for her!). The only downside is that this is an extremely popular family flight at Christmas time and I had to bite my tongue several times to stop myself from telling other people to “control their children” and to inform them that their baby’s crying was disturbing my mindless romcom. How quickly we forget that we were once those desperate parents earnestly insisting that our near-2 year old was in fact just a big boned 10-monther and really needed a basinette.

We flew from the Cape to Maun, Botswana, where we boarded a tiny 5 seater plane which took us to our base in the Okavango: Delta Camp. This is one of the oldest (and most reasonably priced) accommodations in the Delta. You’ll find that the majority of accommodation in the Delta is extremely high end and expensive, which has been a purposeful strategy by the government of Botswana to limit tourism in the area to preserve the unique environment. The downside is clearly on your wallet, but once you arrive in the Delta, you’ll see that you gain in terms of a very peaceful environment. If you go off season, like we did, you’ll probably be the only guests at your residence (like we were) and in fact, it was only on our 5th and final day on walking safari in the Delta that we had our most significant animal sighting: another tourist.

The downside of off-season visits to the Delta is the lack of water which is still awaiting the rain in the mountains of Angola. In and after the rainy season, the Delta is renowned for being an animal magnet as the water traps animals on land-locked islands and tourists can sail by very close to them safely on traditional wood carved boats called mekoros. As there was hardly any water when we went, our mekoro outings were limited to 10 minute rides and we required to do the majority of our safaris on foot.

Every day, we had two walks accompanied by 2 guides which was a luxury as they told us that in peak season, the 2 guides would accompany groups of 10-15 people. There was a long 2-3 hour walk in the early morning and a shorter 2 hour walk in the late afternoon to avoid being out in the heat. As the sensible animals also did the same, we were able to see a wide variety and abundance of animals going about their daily business. One benefit of tourism in the dry season is that where there is a water source, all the animals congregate there: at one watering hole we found around 15 hippos jostling for space in the tub and 5 elephants having a drink. As we were on foot, we were able to get very close to animals and as, Botswana has banned hunting, the majority of animals are not fearful or aggressive to humans that pay them respect. Indeed, our guides were unarmed. Initially this gave alarm, but as the days went by, we realised that their experience was enough to keep us out of trouble. There was just enough “danger element” (a grumpy buffalo that was making up his mind about charging us leading to our retreat up a termite mound, a trumpeting elephant protecting its baby and a hippo that emerged from behind us taking us by surprise) to allow us, and the children to feel that we were “having an adventure”, but insufficient danger to cause any real anxiety (even to a worry-prone parent like me). The guides were knowledgeable and child friendly: when the guides realised that D (like many small boys) had a poo fetish, they set about showing him all the animal excrement such that by the end we all got quite good at discerning giraffe poo from warthog. If anyone came across white poo, we could all howl “Of, course that’s hyena poo because the white comes from the calcium it gets from chewing bones!”. They also taught D how to make a rope from the bark of a baobab tree. The food was plentiful and hearty and much enjoyed after our long walks. The communal spaces which we had all to ourselves were open to animals walking by and the occasional monkey dropping in. The bedrooms were characterful and open to the wild, including the alfresco showers which even Molly got used to after we convinced her that the elephants really didn’t mind seeing her naked! We opted to split into 2 parties of adult and child so that we could take turns staying in a romantic tree house for 2 atop a tree overlooking the delta. It was absolutely magical.

Best of Namibia

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On return to Maun by tiny plane we picked up our trusty tented 4×4 which was to be our transport for our drive back to Cape Town and our accommodation in between various booked hotels. This vehicle is literally a 4×4 with 2 pull down tents perched on top and you sleep on the roof of your car (thereby avoiding being eaten by animals who can’t climb ladders). The back of the 4×4 is a storage hold equipped with bedding, table and 4 chairs, a massive tank of water, a fridge and all your cooking equipment and utensils. Being a great fan of George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, I was in love. Having been dubious of the vehicle when planning the trip from London, we had only planned on 4 days of camping as interim accommodation between hotels, but it was so comfy and fun, I could definitely have done more camping. The tents were easy to put up and down and after the first day, this job was assigned to the children who fought over who was going to do it (luckily there was one tent for each of them) so it really was incredibly easy. We stayed on the main roads where we could, which are straight and good and we drove through some amazing scenery. You won’t believe how many versions and colours of “desert” that there are, and there were not infrequent unplanned stops for passing goats, cows, baboons and oryx. Spitzkoppe and the coastal region are only accessible by dirt road but this was more than manageable in the 4×4. We only had one flat tyre on the journey and luckily this was swiftly changed by 5 men who leapt out to help at a petrol station.

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Here were the best bits of our trip to Namibia:

Spitzkoppe: This is a striking range of mountains in the middle of the Namibian desert. We camped in a campsite here which was again practically empty which made the experience feel fantastically adventurous. There are good hikes to be done if you come when it is cooler and some amazing cavemen paintings which are between 2000-4000 years old. Due to the heat, we only managed a few short walks and to see the cavemen drawings near ground level, but even those were quite amazing. During the heat of the afternoon, we literally hid under rocks and read books and watched movies on the DVD player. At night time, the skies come alive and toasting marshmallows on an open fire looking up at stars and galaxies as far as the eye can see with just your family and no one else around for miles was superb.

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Swakopmund: This is a characterful ex-German town on the coast of Namibia just south of the skeleton coast. It has a nice beach and good restaurants. Molly swears the chocolate fondant at “The Tug” is the best she has ever tasted, and sushi dinner at The Jetty perched out in the sea is decent sushi in a superb location, although I was the only family member strong enough not to weep at their “green dragon” sushi (sushi rolled in a layer of wasabi). Although we were pre-warned by the over-zealous travel clinic NEVER to touch raw seafood abroad; oysters are a Namibian specialty at the coast and we indulged and they were great. They even formed part of the breakfast buffet at The Delight, the hotel which we stayed at and I can recommend. We went for a morning sand surfing session organised from the hotel which you can imagine was a hit with the kids. Barrelling down a sand dune on a piece of cardboard is surprisingly fun!

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Sossusvlei: This is depicted on the cover of every Namibia guidebook. Red sand dunes under a blue sky, sometimes with the black of a dead tree in the foreground. It’s spectacular and a photographer’s dream. Equipped with only an extremely dated cannon point and click circa last decade I was still able to get really lovely photos because the scenery was actually THAT GOOD. We did a balloon safari from nearby Solitaire with Samawati: http://www.hotairballooning-safari.com which was the most affordable that we could find and quite an experience for the children.

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Fish River Canyon and the Orange River: On either side of the Namibia-South Africa border, we stopped at both of these areas and they are worth a visit, even though we were unable to hike at Fish River (closed to hiking in the summer due to heat) and didn’t have time to take a kayak out on the Orange River. We stayed in a lovely campsite at the Orange River (The Growcery) on Christmas eve, and swam in the beautiful orange river. The scenery in both places is spectacular.

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And more…

Beyond the beautiful scenery and sense of adventure, my motivation to take my children to less developed countries is to give them a better sense of the world. Growing up in a nice area in London, one can easily become complacent and entitled and that is something that I really don’t want my children to become. Although I do not want to be a “poverty” tourist, going through Namibia and Botswana, it is impossible to avoid seeing poverty and the moment that made the trip absolutely worthwhile for me was at Spitzkoppe. In this extremely remote area, two orphan girls of similar age to Molly started talking to her, asking her to come to their brother’s roadside stall that sold rocks. Although they were asking for custom, they did also seem amazed and interested to see Molly as although tourists pass through the area regularly, they are usually adults and they were so happy to see a girl of similar age to them. Children have that open curiosity to ask questions, speak openly to each other about their lives and connect uninhibitedly that for some reason we lose as adults. They were cheerful, smiley, chatty girls who Molly instantly connected with. We said that we would visit the stall the next day and in the meantime, we rummaged in our car for tins of beans and bread that we could give them. They went away very happy with our “excess”. Molly was tearful afterwards. “They are just like me, but they have nothing” she said. “I want to give them more.” That night she went through her clothes and set aside some of her clothes to give the girls. “What more can I do?” she asked.

“That’s why I brought you here.” I said. “There is nothing more you can do now Molly. But one day, when you are older, you can remember and you can make a real difference if you want.”

Recommendations: 

Delta Camp, Botswana

4×4 Hire

Campsite in Windhoek

Campsite at the Orange River

Hotel in Swakopmund

The Tug Restaurant in Swakopmund

The Jetty Restaurant in Swakopmund

Before you go:

Many people are put off more adventurous travel destinations with children by the long list of travel vaccines, and yes, it can be quite off-putting, but once you have bitten the bullet and had the children vaccinated, most of the vaccines are good for many years and so it means that you are good for many other travel destinations thereafter. Many travel vaccinations are available for free from the GP, and others are readily accessible from travel clinics or pharmacies. Malaria prophylaxis was required for the Okavango Delta, but for Namibia, areas south of the capital Windhoek are out of the Malaria area. Banker and I did not get vaccinated for rabies but after scare stories from the over-zealous travel clinic and their handouts stating: “If you are bitten by a rabies infected animal there is 100% chance of death” we opted to vaccinate the children. We chose Malarone as malaria prophylaxis which requires starting 2 days prior to entry to a malaria area and continuation for 1 week after exit. The children found Malarone no problem in terms of side effects. The generic is cheaper than the branded drug.

For long drives, travel prepared: we had over 70 hours of children’s audiobooks available. Screens in the form of a DVD player and assortment of DVDs and Nintendo 2DS were periodically doled out as rewards and as pre-emptive measures to prevent meltdowns after long days.

We found both Botswana and Namibia to be safe and had no problems to this regard on our holiday. In fact, the only time our vehicle was broken into was when we finally arrived in Cape Town. Of course, we stayed on main roads and are also careful  and considerate travellers.

 

 

 

 

3 comments

  1. Laura

    Brilliant suggestions. We’ll be in Namibia with our two children in August camping, with a few nights staying in B&Bs.
    What mosquito nets did you use in the tents? Are they supplied, or it it safer to bring them from Ireland? Also, re the food and camping equipment. Is it worth bringing anything from home?
    Thank you.

    • Shrinkgrowskids

      Hi Laura. The tents had mosquito mesh in the windows and the trucks came with everything we needed. We didn’t bring anything except lots of sun block and mosquito repellent. There weren’t many mosquitos when we went thankfully but I don’t know about August. Have an amazing time!!

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