Adele Cutler took her 10-year-old twins to Uganda, hoping she was well-prepared. Here’s her advice to others embarking on their inaugural family safari
“You are very lucky; you are now going to see the males,” whispered our guide James Kalyewa from Uganda’s Carnivore Research Programme. Our 4×4 gently pulled away from the two lionesses and their cubs on the Kasenyi Plains in northern Queen Elizabeth National Park. “A lion with a mane?” asked Charlie, one of my 10-year-old twin boys. “If we are lucky,” James replied.
I had decided this would be the year I took my sons to Africa for their first safari, after the continent captured my heart on my first safari eight years ago. Working in tourism, I’d had the benefit of visiting regularly and wanted to wait till the time felt right to take them. I’d purposely kept them away from our local safari park in the UK, preferring to show them the real thing on the wild plains.
As a parent of twins, I know the challenges that come with planning a family holiday, but throw into the mix an African safari and there’s a few more things to think about: vaccinations, malaria tablets, long haul flights, long games drives, will they eat the food… and could I find family friendly places to stay.
After much deliberation we chose Uganda. I had visited before and knew it had diverse wildlife and varied landscape, but, more importantly, I’d appreciated its relaxed pace and wonderfully warm people. It also offered great value for money compared to some of the more popular safari destinations.
We were all incredibly excited. I couldn’t wait to get back to Uganda, Charlie wanted to see elephants and lions, George loves reptiles and my husband is mad about primates.
We all had high expectations, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. This is what I learned about going on a first-time safari with children.
The adventure starts on the plane
Don’t under-estimate the value of a good flight. Wanting to keep things African from the start, we flew with Ethiopian Airlines, which flies from London Heathrow or Manchester via Addis Ababa to Uganda. We chose the day flight, which was eight hours on the first leg, followed by a short hop over to Entebbe. The modern aircraft had the best inflight entertainment system I have seen, and they handed out kid’s packs, so the boys were well entertained the whole way.
Make space to be a family
On safari, we decided to pay the extra to have our own private vehicle and it was the best thing we did. It gave us peace of mind that we wouldn’t disturb anyone else’s trip and we had the space to move around and ensure the best seats for viewing wildlife. We could stop when we needed and could take things at our own pace. The plug points in the vehicle were a big plus for the boys so they could charge their phones, which they used mainly for taking pictures and videos but also for entertainment on long drives. Top tip: take some snacks with you while out in the park. Hungry children and game drives don’t mix.
It’s all in the guide
I made sure the booking staff knew the age of the children in advance, and our guide – Paul, from Great Lakes Safaris – couldn’t have been better. He was used to being with children, having worked previously as a child physiotherapist. A change in circumstances saw him driving for the company’s CEO who soon saw his potential and encouraged him to train as a guide.
Paul became one of the boys’ highlights of the trip; he really stimulated their interest in the natural world and the boys were fascinated by him. He showed us that the smaller things on safari can be fascinating too. He was so knowledgeable, good fun, and just really understood kids. He even got them as excited by a pile of dung as the elephant that made it!
Freedom in camp
Some lodges may say they are family friendly simply by offering adjoining rooms, but the best thing to do is to check reviews online to see other families’ feedback.
We stayed at Elephant Plains Lodge just outside the national park, which meant we could relax a little more and give the kids some freedom to walk around, unlike those in the park where you need escorting. The park gate was only a five-minute drive away. The lodge also had a swimming pool, which was a huge plus in the equatorial heat. The lodge had two huge family units, each with two bedrooms and two bathrooms, located close to the main lodge and the swimming pool.
Dine on your own
Safari etiquette often means you dine as a group with the other guests. We chose to dine alone as a family, so we could spend that time together and eat a little earlier if we wanted to. The staff set a table for us by the swimming pool where we could relax, and the chef even asked the boys what they would like him to make for the following night: pizza, of course!
Take time out
Because of the variety of activities offered in Queen Elizabeth National Park, I did make the mistake of trying to do too much. Many of our days had morning and afternoon activities, and this meant very early starts. The two boys were broken by day three! In hindsight, sticking with just one activity a day would have been much better and more relaxing for all of us.
Learn new skills
We had borrowed a friend’s SLR camera to take some pictures and the auto settings meant we could just point and click. George developed a real interest and put his phone down in favour of looking through the lens. He would take it off around the lodge and come back with wonderful pictures of butterflies, ants and plants. If you don’t have a camera you can hire a decent one anywhere in the UK from lensesforhire.co.uk. You might find you have a mini photographer on your hands.
Get out of the 4×4
In some safari destinations it isn’t permitted to get out of your vehicle, but it’s essential when you have children on safari. Uganda has some fabulous forests and wetlands to explore – perfect territory for two 10-year-old boys. A guided walk through Maramagambo Forest was a real adventure, spotting monkeys, birds, bats and even a huge python. A boat cruise on the Kazinga Channel was a wildlife feast for the eyes; Paul got us there early so we could get the boys a seat on the top deck where they could move around and get the best views.
Go beyond the safari
The friendliness of the Ugandan people is what really made our trip. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit a local town or village to get a flavour of life there. It was a huge eye-opener for the boys. We went on a community walk in neighbouring Kikorongo village, where they joined a lesson in a primary school, the same year group. When class finished, the boys were surrounded by inquisitive children. George was showing them his camera and Charlie had a Rubix cube. At first, they didn’t know what to think, but kids always find a way of getting on. The boys bought some souvenirs from the women’s craft shop and joined in the song and dance, even teaching them how to do the dab.
“I miss Paul,” said Charlie when we got back home. It had been a wonderful family adventure, one which brought us together over so many different first experiences.
Uganda really did deliver as a destination. It was great value, an easy-going atmosphere, friendly people and a wide range of activities.
I asked the boys for their favourite things about the trip and was surprised by their answers: Paul, the school visit, the swimming pool and the pizzas. Oh, and the lions.