Contrary to many misconceptions, Africa is an eye-opening, stimulating and educational playground for children. Will Gray tells us why the continent is the place to take your family
he first time we took our twins on safari, they were six years old. Our guide commanded instant awe in them by scooping up giraffe droppings as if they were chocolate-coated raisins. He showed them lion tracks in the dry sand near a waterhole and taught them how to make pancakes on a camp stove in the bush. Joe and Ellie are nearly 18 now. Following that first wide-eyed brush with Africa, they’ve become seasoned safari-lovers, tracking Kenya’s Great Migration, canoeing the Orange River and foraging with Kalahari Bushmen. The thrill of an African safari still fires their imagination — later this year, we’re travelling to Botswana and they’re behaving like six-year-olds again. Even the prospect of long periods without Wi-Fi hasn’t dulled their enthusiasm.
That’s not to say, however, that the grandparents haven’t been tutting and clucking again at the mere mention of the words ‘family’, ‘holiday’ and ‘Africa’. “Is it safe? What about malaria…?” You can’t blame them for being concerned. Africa has its fair share of challenges when it comes to travelling with kids. But, equally, there are plenty of reasons why an African safari is the ultimate family adventure.
It’s not hard to see why guides are quickly elevated to hero status in the eyes of most children. If your child is of a certain age, the realisation that your guide is obsessed with animal dung and bugs is nothing short of an epiphany. They are also magicians. They can make plant seeds rotate with a dab of saliva and read animal tracks in the dust. Older kids silently think their guides are cool (even if they won’t admit it). They drive big 4WDs, talk about lions and stuff, and probably know how to use a gun. Ultimately, though, no matter how shy your child, or how much they’re suffering from Snapchat withdrawal symptoms, a good guide at a family-friendly safari camp will engage, enthuse and inspire.
2 They’ll connect with the ‘real world’ and learn loads about nature and wildlife
In this age of mesmerising smartphones, relentless connectivity and social media pressure, a safari in the Wi-Fi-free wilds of Africa not only provides a digital detox for children (and their parents), but it can also transport them back to the real world. Give most 10-year-olds a pencil and a good old-fashioned tick-list and they’ll soon forget the virtual worlds of Toca Life and Pokémon. Safaris are the ultimate I-Spy. Far from being boring or old-fashioned, though, they reveal life in all its raw (and sometimes gory) detail. On safari, the ‘great circle of life’ comes with uncensored extras that are guaranteed to elicit endless questions from naturally inquisitive youngsters. Of course, older children will find textbook geography and biology springing to life — whether it’s a question of habitat change in the Great Rift Valley or human-predator conflict in Namibia.
3 You can easily avoid malarial zones
Force-feed your children with Malarone, douse them with insect repellent and insist they wear long clothes and you may still find yourself lashing out at every winged insect that passes anywhere near them. Paranoid? Perhaps. If malaria risk is holding you back from taking the family on safari, consider South Africa where you’ll find malaria-free game reserves both in the Eastern Cape and north of Johannesburg at places such as Madikwe. Large parts of Namibia are also malaria-free.
4 They’ll never forget their first wild elephant or lion
Children all over the world grow up loving African wildlife, but few get to see it in the wild. Instead, their fascination with lion, elephant, giraffe and zebra is nurtured by The Lion King and visits to the local zoo. Take that childhood wonder and curiosity on safari, however, and you’ll see your loved ones utterly transfixed by their first wild encounters. Yes, there will be dust, heat, pre-dawn wake-up calls and even the occasional frustrating game drive when all you see is the retreating posterior of a lone warthog, its tail held aloft in defiance. But there will also be priceless, unforgettable moments: your safari vehicle lurching to a halt, the hushed anticipation, then the sudden sense of elation — disbelief even — as your first-ever elephant stride into view, or a lioness looks up to fix you with a smouldering gaze…
5 There’s something for all ages
Think hard before taking children aged four or under to malarial parts of Africa. Remember that parts of southern Africa have malaria-free reserves where you can stay at excellent lodges with very young children. By the time they’re school age, however, kids will get a huge buzz from an African safari — whether it’s seeing Timon and Pumbaa for real, or becoming an expert in poo identification. Teenagers might raise an eyebrow at the prospect of early morning wake-up calls for game drives (and some may resent the educational element of a safari thrust on them), but they’ll love the stylish camps, the superb food and the thrill of spotting wildlife — especially if they’re encouraged to capture it all with a camera.
6 They’ll meet and interact with other cultures
Children can break down cultural barriers with local people. The concept of ‘family’ is so deeply embedded in the culture of the Maasai, Batwa, Xhosa, Zulu or any of the other indigenous people of Africa that you will often strike up an instant rapport with them wherever you go. Kids will be kids, whether it’s a shared love of jewellery or an impromptu game of football, while camp staff — from guides and cooks to managers and waiters — will treat your little ones like royalty.
7 Many camps and lodges have special activities for kids
There’s more to a family safari than game drives. Properties that welcome kids usually offer an exciting range of activities that can include anything from bug collecting and fishing to bark rubbing and baking cookies with the chef. Guided nature walks will open their eyes and ears to animal tracks, birdsong, the traditional uses of plants and the often-overlooked antics of mini-beasts like termites, antlions and baboon spiders. Guides might use laser pointers to introduce kids to the star-spattered night skies, or show them how to make a plaster cast of an animal print. From flying kites over the Namib Desert to making natural string from plant fibres, there’s rarely a dull moment on safari.
8 It might make them budding conservationists
One of the most rewarding aspects of taking kids on safari is how it stimulates their innate empathy towards wildlife. To watch a herd of elephant browsing peacefully on vast, tawny plains beneath a towering African sky can be a sobering experience to share with your children. They could be the last generation to witness such sights. And yet, at the same time, safaris can be incredibly uplifting and empowering when you (and your children) begin to appreciate the huge efforts that operators make to help protect Africa’s wild places, support wildlife and local communities and ensure that their safaris are as sustainable as possible. If you want to show your children ‘conservation in action’, there are few better places to go than this great continent.
9 Accommodation is amazing – and family-friendly
You have two main options when it comes to family safaris — lodge-based or camping. Children usually need to be 12 years old for camping safaris, while many of the more exclusive properties also have similar minimum age limits. That’s not to say you won’t find any family-friendly safari accommodation if your children are younger. Far from it. Many camps and lodges cater specially for families with interconnecting rooms and child-minding services. You can even book a private villa or safari house for exclusive use, complete with your own guide and chef. Adventurous families could opt for a camping-equipped 4WD with a pair of roof-top tents, while first-timers might want to go down the (less bumpy) route of a normal rental car, touring Namibia or South Africa.
10 You can combine a safari with lots of other cool things
Combine animal magic with beach bliss by dividing your holiday between a safari and a sojourn on the reef-fringed coastline of Kenya or Tanzania. In South Africa, a few days on safari is the perfect way to round off a city break in Cape Town and a free-spirited tour of the Garden Route. Some of Africa’s top safari destinations also combine well with adventure hotspots. A safari in Zambia, Zimbabwe or Botswana, for example, is easily dovetailed with Victoria Falls where you can bungee jump, and raft some of the world’s wildest water. Etosha National Park in Namibia goes well with Swakopmund for desert sandboarding, fat biking and kayaking with seals, while South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains are a magnet for hiking, horse riding and rafting.
Malaria is endemic to most of sub-Saharan Africa and you must take precautions against this potentially fatal disease. Discuss this with your doctor well before you travel. You should also plan an appropriate course of vaccinations. Tap water is generally not safe for drinking except in South Africa and Namibia. If in doubt always assume the worst. Wildlife is often perceived as the most obvious threat to travellers in Africa. Few safari lodges have fences, which means animals are free to come and go. Stay calm and keep a respectful distance and you should be perfectly safe. Young children, however, who can be unpredictable and easily excitable, might alarm some animals and that is when danger can arise. For this reason, camps generally have a minimum age limit.
We asked our experts for their thoughts on family travel in Africa
Will Gray, writer
“A good guide will have a knack for intriguing children — drip-feeding them nuggets of bush lore, like the reason woodpeckers don’t get headaches, why warthogs run with their tails in the air and how termites protect themselves from sunburn. You’ll study animal tracks, decipher the calls of birds and discover extraordinary treasures such as a shed cobra skin turned inside out. The secret to a successful family safari is to take your time and encourage children to tune into the subtleties of the bush.”
Sandy Wood, Pulse Africa
“Safari is both fun and educational. If you can pry your children away from their hand-held gadgets, a whole new world opens up to them. If they are old enough, they can try their hand at photography or draw or paint what they see. They will learn so much about nature, the bush, the stars, animals and birds. One property we recommend, in particular, to families is El Karama in Kenya’s Laikipia, where children can learn to fish, make sculptures out of termite clay and join the gardeners in the veggie patch.”
Ndeithi Kariuki, Heritage Hotels
“Our Intrepid and Voyager lodges have games rooms, resource centres, trained naturalists and animation staff, inter-connected rooms and tents to keep families at ease on safari. Activities for Adventurers’ Club members (4-12 years old) include learning to use a bow and arrow, spoor casting, tracking nocturnal animals and storytelling. Activities for Young Rangers (teenagers) include bush orienteering, bird and tree identification, mammal behaviour studies and bush walks.”
Francesca Hird, Ker & Downey Botswana
“Ker & Downey Botswana has a reputation for family-friendly camps, rates and policies; we value family travel so much that we have a product entirely dedicated to families — Young Explorers, based at the Footsteps Camp in the Shinde private concession. Suitable for children aged seven years and above, the Young Explorers safari teaches them how to track game — both on foot and in 4WD safari vehicles. We also show kids how to make small animal traps and how to start a fire from nothing more than two sticks. They learn how to recognise different animal spoor, try their hand at poling a mokoro and shooting an air rifle at tin cans. On completion of their stay, children receive a Young Explorers certificate, t-shirt and cap.”
James Haigh, Elewana Collection
“Kifaru House, which takes its name from the Swahili word for rhino, is located on an escarpment with impressive views of Kenya’s Lewa or Borana Wildlife Conservancy — home to East Africa’s healthiest rhino population (66 black and 62 white). The property has just five bedrooms, all located in individual spacious bandas complete with four-poster beds and en suite bathrooms. One of the cottages has two bedrooms, one double and one twin, making it ideal for a family stay. In addition, there is a heated swimming pool and guided bush walks where children can learn about trees, flowers, grasses, insects, birds, mammals, tracks and droppings. Local school visits are available during term time, while horse riding and camel riding are on offer for older children and experienced riders.”