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Our safari vehicle stopped on the side of the road, parking in a thicket of tall grass in Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park, a landscape of wooded valleys and granite kopjes (small hills) set along the country’s southwestern border. A UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its wealth of ancient rock art, it also boasts Zimbabwe’s greatest concentration of rhinoceroses. And our group — consisting of four parents and four kids ages 9 to 12 — was about to track some of the animals on foot.
“I know I can trust you kids to be very quiet and follow my signals,” said Paul Hubbard, our guide. “We don’t want to startle or threaten the animals.”
Tiptoeing as quietly as we could manage amid the dry scrub, we followed Hubbard and an armed ranger, who led us to the riverbed where he had last spotted white rhinoceroses. Suddenly, some 20 yards away through a clearing in the yellow grass, two appeared: an unperturbed 2-ton mother cow grazing with her 4-month-old calf.
It was a stunning sight — both in its rarity and because of the silent awe it inspired in our kids — and it was a highlight of our Southern Africa trek. A custom, two-week tour created by Intrepid Expeditions, our “Best of Southern Africa and Culture Safari” trip included stops in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe and featured traditional game drives that incorporated culture and conservation.
As a member of Safari Pros — a group of North American safari operators supporting properties, guides and parks that practice conservation methods — Intrepid Expeditions promotes responsible tourism in Africa, often a key component for traveling families interested in the region. The itinerary also included private guides and vehicles at each destination — another family-friendly convenience.
“I try to make the trip as fun for the adults as for the kids,” said Simon Gluckman, founder of Intrepid Expeditions. “I’m also very focused on the order of activities. For kids and adults who have never been on safari, it’s important to see all the big animals as early on as possible. People get to Africa, and they want ‘teeth and tusks’ right away.”
Before tackling the Big Five, however, we spent four nights recovering from jet lag in sophisticated Cape Town, sampling tourist destinations such as the hip Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Table Mountain National Park and Greenmarket Square’s curio shops.
Led by professional guide Chris Tromp, we explored the city and beyond, taking a peninsula tour that included stops at the popular Boulders Beach to spot African penguins and Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope for majestic, seaside views.
We sampled local chocolates and wine during a full-day tour of the country’s legendary winelands and ate wood-fired pizza in the charming college town of Stellenbosch. Another day, we got a glimpse of post-apartheid South Africa on a walking tour through Langa Township, where our kids took turns kicking a semi-flat soccer ball down an alleyway with local children, who then clamored to see images of themselves on our digital camera screens.
“Each person gets something different from township tours,” Tromp said. “Some people get a bit of a shock. And the kids get reminded of how privileged they are.”
After visits to an ostrich farm and animal-rescue sanctuaries, we traded cityscapes for the bush, starting at Thornybush Game Lodge, adjacent to Greater Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa. Our group literally had the place to ourselves at eight-guest Serondella Game Lodge, where an expansive deck overlooks a water hole visited by baboons, Cape buffalo, hyenas and more.
Three days of game drives there yielded spectacular sightings: four white rhinoceroses grazing at sunset; a pride of lions, each taking turns scavenging from a fresh giraffe kill; and a pack of endangered African wild dogs, including seven pups.
The next part of our journey, at Mashatu Game Reserve in the savannas of eastern Botswana, netted even more amazing sights. While headquartered at the family-friendly Mashatu Lodge main camp, we experienced the magical quietude of a photography hide (a camouflaged construction that allows close proximity to a subject) perched eye-level with a water hole. From there, we watched dazzles of zebras, herds of kudu and endless birds as they drank; our kids were noiseless as they snapped photos.
On game drives, we watched a leopard cub pounce playfully on its weary mother and cheetah cubs napping in the shade. We happened upon a literal heap of six juvenile lion cubs, piled together for warmth as the sun rose from darkness. And we viewed an otherworldly sunset from atop a cliff; a lone baobab tree was silhouetted against a spectacle of pinks, oranges and purples.
Our final adventure included a stay at Zimbabwe’s Amalinda Lodge. Its well-appointed, cave-like rooms are built into the granite framework of the Matobo National Park area and resemble abodes from “The Flintstones.”
Through Mother Africa Trust — a philanthropic organization affiliated with Amalinda Safari Collection, including Amalinda Lodge — Intrepid Expeditions matched up to $500 of the funds our kids raised to purchase donations such as blankets, toiletries and nonperishable food, which we delivered to a nearby Ndebele homestead. The cultural stop rounded out what Gluckman considers a true African safari.
“Yes, it’s a vacation, and guests want to see all the animals,” he said. “But it’s also important to make time for culture, to understand locals and to get a sense of how people live among the animals. That, to me, is the real Africa.”