Experiences | May 2020

Family safari memories to last a lifetime

David and Sarah Townsend first came on a family safari to Tswalu in 2008, when their daughter, India, was three years old and son, Theo, was just four months old. From Hertfordshire in the UK, the family has forged strong bonds with field guides, trackers and lodge staff over the years, including a special connection between Theo and tracker Jonnas Leeuw. Find out why they have been returning to Tswalu on family safaris for the past 12 years, in this delightful first-hand account by David.

We first came to Tswalu in July 2008. I was on gardening leave and had three months at home before starting a new job. Sarah, my wife, was also at home following the birth of our son, Theo, that March. We decided that we’d be mad not to take advantage of the fact that we were free to travel. We love South Africa and figured it would probably be the easiest safari with very young children – everything is relative when travelling with a baby!

We already loved Africa and going on safari and so I tried desperately to find a lodge that would take a toddler and a baby, but to no avail. I’d almost given up searching when it suddenly dawned on us that Theo needed a passport if we were to travel anywhere. So, late one evening, I went across the road to our neighbours at the time, Bob and Alison Sheldrick, to ask them to counter sign Theo’s passport application. I explained that we were wanting to do a family safari, but were struggling to find a lodge that would take very young children. The Sheldricks had done many safaris in Africa over the years, so I was preaching to the converted. ‘Try Tswalu,’ said Bob. That’s how I came to hear of Tswalu for the first time – Bob and Alison had been there on honeymoon and definitely remembered seeing guests with children.

Hopeful, I called Tswalu first thing the next morning. I remember vividly the torrential rain bucketing down as I asked the lady who answered whether the Motse accepted children. ‘Yes, of course,’ came her friendly reply. ‘Would it be okay if we came with a four month old?’ I asked with trepidation, fearing I was about to experience defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. ‘Absolutely,’ came her reply. Newly emboldened, I pushed my luck one last time: ‘Will the children be able to go on game drives with us?’ ‘Of course,’ she said. With a set of dates provisionally earmarked, I asked one final question. ‘What’s the weather like today?’ ‘Clear blue skies and glorious sunshine,’ she said. That was it! Our travel agent made our booking, and the rest, as they say, is history.

We’ve returned to Tswalu every year for several compelling reasons. Tswalu is truly an enigma. As you stand in that vast wilderness you know that your presence there is but a fleeting moment in the timelessness of the place. And yet, by the same token, Tswalu is constantly evolving. Every year we have experienced a different Tswalu – indeed, it just gets better and better over time. We have developed a deep connection and attachment to the landscape, the wildlife and the people that could easily be described as spiritual. Tswalu is without a doubt one of the very, very few places on this planet where we all feel truly at home. And indeed, for India and Theo, who have grown up at Tswalu, it is ‘home’. It is as much a part of them, as they are a part of it.

For several years in a row, we have requested the same tracker – Jonnas Leeuw. Theo and Jonnas have developed the most remarkable and wonderful bond since Theo was a baby. Jonnas is an awesome individual on so many levels – we all adore him! We have had a number of fantastic guides over the years, too, some of whom have gone on to become close family friends, such as Marco and Tarryn Tonoli (Marco was head guide at Tswalu, and as a private guide returns to the reserve frequently with his clients). In recent years we have thoroughly enjoyed being guided by both Kosie Lategan and Barry Peiser, both of whom are wonderful characters and have also become firm friends.

Although we’ve started to go on safaris elsewhere in Africa in the past few years, Tswalu remains our favourite. We’ve stayed in July and August, but also in October and November. I’m not sure that we actually have a favourite time of year to be on the reserve – maybe we just need to keep coming back until we find it.

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