We started going on safari when our kids were toddlers and it was exhausting and stressful. The tension came from keeping our hectic children still and quiet during game drives, meals and midday siesta periods. Exhausting because the safari day up-ends little kids normal routines (early wake-ups, different meal times, late dinners) and our kids slept badly and behaved appallingly. We suggest the age to start inviting them along is around seven, when they can follow guidebooks, tolerate a new schedule and manage their impulsiveness during less-stimulating periods.
2. Get a private vehicle if you can afford it
The extra cost will make or break game drives. We have had bad luck at times sharing our game drive with first-timers who ask endless questions, stop for everything and who didn’t like our kids swinging on the roll bars and throwing bits of muffin at each other. With a private guide and vehicle, we often shortened our game drives or parked at a river and let our boys make mud pies and collect dung beetles while we enjoyed our gin and tonics.
3. Try to find out about a great kids guide
If you get a guide who is inspired and energised by kids, it will forever cement your children’s passion for the wilderness and make the parents’ safari a joy. We have had guides who have lost our kids’ attention in a matter of minutes. Then we have had a few who have leapt up and down in excitement, picked every leaf and branch to taste, touch, smell and told fabulous bush stories and great jokes. We have had guides take our kids fishing in their own free time, had them making and shooting bow and arrows, and even catching frogs at night with torches.
4. Choose a safari in an area with an abundance of general game and lots of activities
Some parts of Africa have teeming herds of animals with action around every corner, others require you to work hard to find the wildlife and the focus is on landscapes and smaller animals and birds. Kids love big, hairy, noisy animals, so choose carefully. Consider safaris that include boat rides, hot-air balloons, horse riding, quad biking, bush walks and active days that can really make it all exciting. Game drives twice daily can go on for too long and start feeling monotonous for young kids.
5. Be prepared for the game drive
On the game drive, we suggest taking along a species checklist that allows kids to mark off what they have seen; children love lists. Alternatively, download a bird app so they can hear the bird calls and identify them during quiet patches of driving. Ask if they can sit up front next to the guide. Sometimes they can even have a turn on the tracker’s seat. Take small chewy snacks for sensory modulating, such as wine gums, carrots and popcorn. Ask to stop often and get out, so they can feel their environment. Take glow sticks for the drive back in the dark.
6. Consider a villa
Safari Lodges are often surprisingly formal and quiet and in essence designed for adults who want to relax and escape busy lives, so if you have noisy, active kids like ours, communal dining, swimming pools and living areas don’t work well. This is the main reason we decided to focus our business on villas. We love having a house to ourselves, where we can enjoy meals, wake-ups and activities at our own pace, and where the kids can start feeling familiar and at home. Long dinners can be enjoyed, while kids watch a movie or fall asleep nearby.
7. Beware the down-time
The daily routine of most safari lodges in Africa involves morning and evening game activities, leaving a long siesta period between 11 and 3 to relax, visit the spa and pool. Our boys do not rest or sleep, and after a morning drive, where they have sat inactive for up to 4 hours, they are terrible fidgety and in need of action. Some lodges have properties that are electrified from any dangers, and offer active play areas, small skull-bomas or walking trails, rivers to wallow in, trees to climb, shooting ranges and a kids zone. If you have physical kids, consider these facilities in your choice. Lodges that are open to the bush will restrict their movements to the living areas and bedrooms.
8. Engage with the staff in the lodge
African people love kids. Wherever we go our kids always end up making ‘best friends’ with chefs, barmen, waiters and butlers. Our boys have sat at bars for hours learning to make various cocktails and sharing stories with barmen. They have even helped serve drinks! Some lodges will also facilitate very authentic visits to the local communities, which is a very enriching experience. Our boys will always remember their visit to a Maasai village in Amboseli.
9. Choose a truly child-friendly safari lodge
Experience has taught us that some lodges promote themselves in this space, but only rely on a kiddy gift pack, a small sticky indoor play area and a few bored babysitters. It doesn’t cut it so don’t be fooled by their marketing material. Ask the lodge about specialist guides for kids, ask them if they give families free private vehicles and ask about specific activities offered in the ‘kids club’. Also enquire about children’s meals and babysitting. Often a lodge will have two or three smaller lodges associated with the parent property and it’s quite common for one of those to be specifically aimed at kids, so check.
10. Combine the bush with some beach
Safaris involve early wake-ups and long dusty days, so ending up with a few days on a beach is ideal.
Villas & Africa www.villasandafrica.com has made it their mission to identify truly enriching experiences for families and kids on safari, and we have connected with guides and rangers who make this experience exciting and memorable.