Gone are the days when you could not even mention the words “children” and “safari” in the same sentence. These days, a growing number of parents have realized that taking their children on safari could well be one of the most enriching, stimulating and memorable family experiences they can imagine, and more and more safari tour operators and bush lodges are coming to the party to provide a quality bush experience for all ages.
A family safari is not only wonderful for the children but also for parents who will get to see the wonders of nature through a child’s eyes and share in their enthusiasm and excitement as they spot their very first zebra, giraffe or lion. Even seasoned safari-goers will get an entirely new perspective of the bush when they see the children soaking up knowledge about the simple little things like a sparking spider web, a dung-beetle at work or a brilliantly painted grass-hopper.
Practical considerations when planning a family safari
Unfortunately, large parts of Africa (including the whole of East Africa) are situated in areas where malaria transmission occurs. Although it is possible to give young children medication for malaria prophylaxis it is far preferable to avoid taking any child under 8 years of age (or any pregnant woman) into a malaria area. For this reason South Africa, Namibia and southern Botswana are your best bets for a safari with young children.
If you are considering a safari in a camp that offers tented accommodation be sure to do your homework before booking. Children will love the idea of sleeping in a tent, but some camps only have double tents and will accommodate children in a separate adjoining tent. While this may be great for parents seeking some privacy it is totally impractical in unfenced lodges where it is dangerous to venture out of your tent at night. Make sure that your lodge of choice offers family tents so that you can all be under the same roof and children will not be scared by strange noises in the night!
The vast majority of safari camps and lodges will require families with very young children (generally all kids under 6) to book a private vehicle for game drives. In some instances this requirement is so that other game viewers will not be distracted from their (costly) safari experience due to boisterous children, but it does work both ways – families will find that a private vehicle gives them freedom to tailor their game drives to suit their children’s attention spans and sleeping patterns, and the chance for the kids to develop a one-on-one relationship with their driver/guide to enhance their experience. Even if your children are a little older (8 – 12) you should try and use a lodge that offers closed game-viewing vehicles purely for safety considerations.
Most child-friendly safari lodges have children’s programs that will both educate your children about nature, wildlife and the bush and give parents a chance to enjoy some relaxation around the pool between game drives. These programs often include junior-ranger programs, guided nature walks, mini-game drives and the chance to learn basic tracking and bush survival skills. Older children will get the most out of their safari experience if you find a lodge that offers multiple activities like boating, horse-riding or mountain biking in addition to game drives.
Some children (and indeed many adults too!) will find it deeply distressing to witness a kill. If you believe your children will react in this way it would be best to avoid visiting parks where there is a high probability of witnessing predator-prey interactions, such as the Masai Mara and/or Serengeti during the Great Migration when such sightings are almost common-place. Wherever your safari takes you it is very important to discuss this possibility with your children so that they understand the forces of nature and the balance required to sustain both predators and prey.
Child-friendly camps and lodges
If you have your heart set on an East African safari (and your children are old enough to take malaria medication) you will find that the Sanctuary group of resorts have pulled out all the stops to make your safari child-friendly.
Sanctuary Olonana in Kenya has a children’s program that includes nature walks with real Maasai warriors, treasure hunts and even visits to local Maasai villages, where your children will meet and interact with local children and learn how to herd cattle, build mud huts and have hours of educational fun.
Sanctuary Chichele Lodge in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia have taken it a step further and your children can learn how to make African masks, hand-make paper from elephant dung and build a fire (with nothing more than two sticks) for toasting marshmallows.
Sanctuary Sussi and Chuma are situated just 7 km from the Victoria Falls and allows families the opportunity to combine five-star luxury with quality family time, offering 12 tree-house lodges that come with a private guide/driver/vehicle, a chef and a private pool.
Sanctuary Chief’s Camp in the Okavango Delta is exceptionally well equipped for families offering a dedicated children’s area where younger visitors can enjoy dressing up while older children can enjoy table football and PlayStation Games.
Chobe’s Bakwena Lodge, Savute’s Lagoon Camp and Machaba Camp in Moremi all offer family friendly safaris with the proviso that families with children younger than 6 years of age will need to book a private vehicle. If your children are a little older they will probably love Camp Kalahari in the Makgadikgadi National Park where they can enjoy intimate moments with the extremely tame meerkats and then go quad-biking and tracking with local San people.
Namibia is possibly not the destination of choice if you have very young children with you – simply because distances are so great that it takes hours to get from place to place and because it is so hot most of the year. However, if your children are young teenagers they will have a wonderful time – Namibia is the action-sport capital of the southern hemisphere and older children can have a blast trying sand-boarding on the amazing dunes of the Sossusvlei or tracking desert elephants. Etosha National Park has several child-friendly camps with fenced-off safe areas for children to play in and the concentrations of game around the water holes during the dry season means that you will not have to travel far to see tons of wildlife.
We have purposely kept the best for last! South Africa has some wonderful game reserves that are not in malaria areas and thus suitable for children of all ages. In addition, most of our National Parks allow visitors to self-drive, making it a lot easier for families to structure their game-viewing according to their children’s needs and to help keep costs down.
The Kruger National Park
The gem in the crown of South Africa’s National Parks is without doubt the Kruger National Park and the many private concessions grouped around the unfenced western boundary. This is a malaria area, but families with older children should definitely consider visiting this incredible park. You can join guided game drives or do you own, and there are accommodation options to suit all tastes and budgets, including camping.
The Pilanesberg National Park is situated just two hours from Johannesburg, boasts the Big Five and has some great child-friendly self-catering lodges. In addition, it is just minutes from Sun City Casino and Entertainment complex which offers non-stop family fun in between game drives.
Madikwe Game Reserve is another great option for families of all ages – this is a malaria-free area in the North West Province and Jaci’s Lodge offers great family friendly options including private-use vehicles, children’s photography/art workshops and much more.
We have just scraped the surface of all the great family-friendly safari options that are available. Don’t put it off – instil a great love and respect for nature and wildlife in your children by taking them on safari with you from a young age.