In June 2017, my husband and I took a much needed anniversary trip sans children to Africa. Although our itinerary included stops in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, we worked in two separate safaris: Umlani Bushcamp in the Timbavati Game Reserve just outside Kruger National Park in South Africa and Muchenje Safari Lodge just outside the Chobe National Park in Botswana. Both stays were four day, three-night stays, thus allowing us sufficient time to explore all the camps had to offer.
To read about the Umlani experience, go here.
Muchenje was recommended by a travel agent who described Muchenje as a “medium rated but proven to be well operated lodge” that offers a “personalized experience.” With a maximum capacity of 24 guests, the lodge, although bigger than Umlani (which accommodates a maximum of 16 guests), still maintained its intimate and personalized feel. The managers, Toff and Kiddy, were a warm and welcoming pair, pouring drinks for us from behind the bar and entertaining us with tales of their exploits in Botswana.
Muchenje seems to have hit upon a true “formula” for a successful safari For those staying two nights or more, the full day experience at Muchenje includes a boat cruise along the Chobe River. For those who desire, here is an optional early morning game drive, followed by breakfast before departing for the full day cruise. The drive to the river takes you through Chobe National Forest, before arriving at the Chobe River, where you board what can only be described as a large jon boat with seating for approximately 10 people. The boat ride lasts for a few hours, during which you are treated to lunch and an incredible amount of wildlife – we saw more hippos, elephants, and large expanses of plain filled with zebras and buffalo. Although it was also winter in Botswana, it turns out that due to Muchenje’s proximity to the Chobe River, it is actually their high season when we visited simply because all the animals are collect near the water source.
I’m not sure what I expected before embarking on the full day boat cruise, but I know I did not expect to see an elephant “washing” its food before eating it!
+Photo Credit: Diane Toole
Although there were a few hiccups during our stay at Muchenje, none can be blamed on the lodge. Indeed, we had an incident involving a genet that had taken up residence in the thatched area above our hut, which required us to be moved to a different room, and we also had a day where the electricity was completely out due to electrical work taking place in bordering Namibia. Although we had survived just fine without electricity at Umlani, being unexpectedly without electricity was a hurdle that the staff overcame with grace.
The daily schedule is similar to that at Umlani – the lodge offers an “early morning” game drive that begins at around 6am, followed by breakfast at 8:30am and a morning game drive at 9:30 am. Upon return, guests enjoy quiet time and some rest and relaxation, before departing for the evening game drive around 3pm, returning in time for dinner. The only modification is that when on the “full day cruise,” you don’t return to the lodge and have lunch on the boat. The Botswana experience is unique in that the terrain was very different from the Timbavati – much more wide-open expanse versus heavy brush.
Although we could not go off the paths since we were in Chobe National Forest, I never felt like we were missing out – the sheer number of animals was awe inspiring.
During one of our last game drives, we happened upon a pride of lions… and watched two mama lions take down a giraffe.
+Photo Credit: Sean Toole
+Photo Credit: Sean Toole
+Photo Credit: Sean Toole
My husband and I enjoyed our time at Muchenje. The accommodations were definitely a step up from the accommodations at Umlani, with electricity and a full bar of wines and spirits. The camp itself is also much larger – there were many guests that we did not get a chance to meet or talk to just because of the larger crowd. During the four days and three nights we were there, however, walking safaris were not an option. Although they were advertised online and many reviewed that they loved the walking safaris on TripAdvisor, we inquired upon arrival and were essentially told that the ranger that usually does walking safaris was on leave.* Nonetheless, our guide, Rambo, quickly got the sense that we were antsy from not being able to walk or exercise, and on our last full day at the lodge, he drove just my husband and myself into town to see the sights, including a visit to his own home, and allowed us the option of taking a two mile walk back to camp while he followed in the land cruiser. If bush walks are critical to your party, definitely inquire beforehand.
I do not know the lodge’s official policy on children, but on the last day of our stay, two families with young children did arrive. The youngest child in the group was eight – exactly the age of my oldest, so I believe school aged children would be appropriate for this camp.* Overall, I was happy that we had the opportunity to experience a second safari. Seeing the difference in terrain and the sheer number of animals was well worth the trip, and it gives us a good idea of what to expect, generally, when we next safari with the kids. I will note, however, that it appeared, at least to us, that the employees working at Umlani were much more comfortable with speaking English than those in Botswana. Although we had no problems communicating, there was less overall communication and discussion on the game drives and so we definitely learned a lot more during our game drives in Umlani. As with our experience at Umlani, however, I would not recommend Muchenje for those with small children.
Finally, there is a long walkway that leads from the central lodge/dining area to the individual huts in which guests sleep, but there is no large central space for toddlers/young children to run around. If your kids are young enough that they simply must have space to run around and burn off energy, a safari lodge would be a difficult place to keep them safely contained.
If you happen to be a birder, Chobe is the place to be! We saw more beautiful birds than I have seen anywhere else. My son is a big fan of birds (his earliest animal obsessions involved the kori bustard, which we saw on this trip, and the emu!).
+Photo Credit: Sean Toole
Do I recommend safariing with kids?
Yes. Safaris are an amazing experience and I would absolutely recommend taking your children. I would even bring my toddler, knowing what I know now, but would have to be prepared to sit out game drivers and/or plan to spend long afternoons at the camp, swimming in the pool or thinking of creative ways to keep him busy. There are many camps that simply do not permit children under a certain age, but there were no restrictions at either camp that we stayed in, suggesting to me that your child/toddler won’t be the youngest child/toddler the staff has seen and accommodated. The staff at both locations was also prepared to ask, upon arrival, whether there were any special dietary restrictions or requirements. Since the food is served buffet style, the kitchen at both lodges was willing to make separate dishes if nuts / gluten / dairy was an issue. I happily noted that milk and peanut butter was available at both locations, so I knew there would be something for my kids to eat had they been present. Finally, we happened to get lucky in Africa and did not have any trouble with mosquitoes. Both locations had mosquito netting for the beds and abundant insect and mosquito repellent – but I saw nary a mosquito and did not get any bites. My husband and I were both on anti-malarial medication, which is strongly recommended when traveling to Africa and can cause some people mild to moderate discomfort. Considering whether you want to bring your children to a location where anti-malarials are recommended (as well as the typhoid vaccine) is also something to take into consideration when planning a trip to Africa with kids.
*Although it varies by camp, it appears that camp employees typically live on site for 30-60 days, returning home for a few days or a week between rotations.
+One of the unexpected joys of the safari was meeting an awesome couple, Sean & Diane Toole and their two teenage daughters. We bonded during the course of our long day on the boat and a few mishaps that could have seriously altered the course of our respective vacations but did not. In our case, it was a “misplaced” dSLR that was subsequently recovered, in their case it was no electricity on their check out day, thus requiring an emergency cash loan. What happens in Africa stays in Africa!