Holidays Travel

Why a safari with my 75-year-old mum in Botswana was a journey of discovery in so many ways

Africa, Botswana, Sanctuary Stanley’s Camp (A&K/PA)
Africa, Botswana, Sanctuary Stanley’s Camp (A&K/PA)

In every mother and daughter relationship, there’s a turning point, a moment when the balance shifts and responsibilities change. To call it a role reversal would be too extreme, but it’s certainly a realisation that dependency is no longer one way.

This sudden awakening can strike at any point in adulthood. For me, it happens in the Botswanan bush.

“What do I do?” asks my 75-year-old mum, Gabriella, while clutching a toilet roll and a brown paper bag.

Staring back at her blankly, I pause for a few minutes. Attempting to explain the most basic of bodily functions, I’m lost for words.

Sarah and her mum on safari in Chobe National Park (Sarah Marshall/PA)
Sarah and her mum on safari in Chobe National Park (Sarah Marshall/PA)

Going to the bathroom in the bush is – to be fair – a daunting prospect if you’ve never had to do it before.

Lucky enough to have been on dozens of game drives as part of my job as a travel journalist, there’s so much safari etiquette I take for granted. But this is my mum’s first proper trip to sub-Saharan Africa, and she has a lot to learn.

Eager to share my passion for this part of the world, I’m taking her on a once in a lifetime holiday to Botswana – a country packed with so much wildlife, it’s often too overwhelming to absorb it all. Travelling with Abercrombie & Kent and staying at three of their camps in iconic locations, I’m hoping she’ll gain a glimpse into a natural world that’s captivated me for years. Seeing it all through her eyes, I hope I’ll learn a few new things too.

Elephants in Botswana (Sarah Marshall/PA)
Elephants in Botswana (Sarah Marshall/PA)

Before we even set off, the first challenge was packing. For weeks, she deliberated over what to wear. Given a strict 15kg luggage allowance, many items were sacrificed. On several occasions during our safari, she mutters about the pair or pink shoes she reluctantly had to leave at home.

Chobe Chilwero Lodge, close to the border of the Chobe National Park, is a gentle entry point for our journey. Easily accessed from Kasane airport, 15 thatched suites have stone walls, glass doors, wifi and bathtubs. Surrounded by an electric fence to keep out any large animals, it’s the perfect slow introduction to safari – although (to my mum’s delight) plenty of bushbucks and banded mongoose manage to sneak in.

Once we’ve covered the basics of bush bathrooms, we board a boat ride along the Chobe River to see the park’s highlight attraction – elephants. Descending in size like Russian dolls, a breeding herd parades along the riverbank.

A boat ride along the Chobe river (Mark Williams/PA)
A boat ride along the Chobe river (Mark Williams/PA) (Mark Williams )

“Will I disturb them if I take a picture?” asks my mum, tentatively lifting her iPhone. Smiling politely, our exceptionally patient and gentle guide Lets shakes his head. “Not at all,” he says, as group of photographers behind us hit their shutters with the speed and aggression of artillery fire.

A first-time safari-goer, my mum is fascinated by every detail, soaking up facts in the same way an elephant siphons every last drop of water through its trunk. Enthralled by the new world around her, she takes great interest in animals I’d typically overlook. Gaggling guinea fowls and comical warthogs are on a par with leopards and lions, while she pities and prioritises species like hyenas and baboons above the typically charismatic Big Five.

Mesmerised by the iridescent feathers of a lilac breasted roller, she repeatedly tells me how “beautiful it looks with it’s wings open”. It’s a bird I’ve passed by more than a million times, but carried along on her wave of enthusiasm, I open my eyes to a beauty I’ve not seen before.

Chobe Chilwero Camp (Mark Williams/PA)
Chobe Chilwero Camp (Mark Williams/PA) (Mark Williams )

Surprisingly, Mum soon forgets about mosquito bites and bush bathrooms. Even the pink shoes are consigned to the back of her mind. One thing she does continue to worry about is finding a mailbox to send postcards. My mum must be one of the only people to go on safari and ask where she can buy stamps.

One of my biggest concerns, meanwhile, had been the comfort of vehicles. Having suffered with several slipped discs over the years, I feared my mum would have problems bumping over rough roads. But – largely due to the driving skills of our guides – every journey goes smoothly, and exercising caution never once compromises sightings.

Leaving behind Chobe’s crowds, we head to greater privacy and more intimate sightings at Stanley’s, a tented camp on a private concession in the Okavango Delta. Although luxurious, the canvas structures are a nostalgic nod to the golden days of early safaris. In a good year, the camp would gaze out to glassy water but a shortage of rainfall in Angola’s highlands has left the floodplain bare.

Stanley's Camp (A&K/PA)
Stanley’s Camp (A&K/PA)

Regardless, the wildlife encounters are still excellent. From grimacing honey badgers to emerald-eyed leopards, we clock up a vibrant mix of expressive animals. But watching their behaviour is where the real fun begins. Twice, we’re lucky enough to find two lionesses nursing tiny cubs, impressing my mum with their tender maternal care. At the other extreme of the life cycle, we find two bloody male lions chewing on an elephant foot metres away from a dead hyena. My mum quickly decides baby animals are more her thing.

But there’s more gore in store at Chief’s Camp, the jewel in A&K’s crown and our final stop. Set in the Delta’s Moremi Game Reserve, it’s one of only two camps on the 1000km2 Chief’s Island. Shaded beneath jackalberry trees, which impala and elephants frequently come to nibble, apartment-size rooms are the ideal space to relax between action-packed game drives.

Lion cubs in the Delta (A&K/PA)
Lion cubs in the Delta (A&K/PA)

Our guide, Skye, has a sixth and even seventh sense for detecting wildlife, connecting prints in the sand with an animal body language and alarm calls to track down elusive cats. I joke he has x-ray vision, but he shrugs his shoulders and replies humbly: “The francolin [birds] are helpful; the kudu never lie.”

We observe elephants using their tusks to shake fruit from towering palms and sneak a glimpse of a rare aardvark digging enormous holes. The most dramatic episode unfurls when we track two lionesses trailing a herd of 800 buffalo, watching them pounce on a vulnerable calf to make a kill. On every occasion, we are the only vehicle around.

Scrolling through videos on her phone in bed every night like a teenager, my mum whispers, “I feel like I’m in a nature documentary” – almost in disbelief at what’s she’s seen .

Chief's Camp (A&K/PA
Chief’s Camp (A&K/PA)

Towards the end of our trip, it dawns on me that two weeks is the longest time I’ve spent with my mum in years. Yes, there are trying times when she dithers in the room and we’re repeatedly late; even more irritating is the realisation that I do exactly the same at home.

We both have bad habits, but we share positive interests too. I quickly discover both of us have a fascination for the wild world around us. It sounds obvious but it’s easy to forget we are almost one and the same; I’m part of mum and she’s part of me.

I thought we might spend our time together talking about the past and stories of my childhood – but instead we focus on what’s around us. Very much locked into the present, we share mind-expanding moments and create new memories, giving Mum more than enough material to fill her postcards when we eventually find some stamps.

How to plan your trip

Abercrombie & Kent (; 03301 734 712) offers a seven night Botswana safari at Chobe, Stanley’s and Chief’s from £6,699pp, including international flights via Johannesburg, internal flights and accommodation on a full board basis including all game drives.

Virgin Atlantic (; 0344 8747 747) flies direct between London Heathrow and Johannesburg with return fares starting from £667pp.