For my business, villasandafrica.com, I have made it my mission to identify truly enriching safari experiences for families and kids, connecting with those lodges, guides and rangers who make time in the bush both exciting and memorable. Here are 10 of my insights into the important issues to navigate.
We started going on safari when our kids were toddlers and it was exhausting and stressful. The stress came from keeping our hectic toddlers still and quiet during game drives, meals and midday siesta periods. Exhausting because the safari day up-ends normal routines (early wake-ups, different meal times, late dinners) and our kids slept badly and behaved appallingly. We suggest the age to start taking them along is around seven, when they can follow guide books, tolerate a new schedule, and manage their impulsiveness during less-stimulating periods.
2. Get a private game drive vehicle and guide, if you can afford it.
If you can stretch the budget a little further, the extra cost of having your own vehicle will be well worth it. It can actually 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 (by now bored kids) swinging from the roll bars and throwing bits of muffin at each other. With a private guide and vehicle, we often shorten our game drives park at a river for a while and let our boys make mud pies and collect dung beetles under the watchful supervision of a ranger while we enjoy the view and gin and tonic. Much more relaxing.
3. Find a guide who is great with kids.
If you get a guide who is inspired and energised by the kids on his vehicle, it will forever cement your kids passion for the wilderness and make the safari a joy for parents too. We have had guides who have lost our kids’ attention in a matter of minutes. But then there have been those rare few who have lept up and down in excitement, picked every leaf and branch to taste, touch and smell and who have 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, doing paw-print papier mâché casts and even catching frogs at night with torches. They are gems and we have made it our business to find them and to follow their progress in the guiding industry.
4. Choose a safari in an area where game is known to be abundant
Some parts of Africa teem with animals and there is action around every corner. In other places, however, you have to work hard to find the animals and the focus is rather on landscapes and smaller animals and birds. Kids love, big hairy, noisy animals and bore easily when they are not around, so choose carefully.
5. Being able to choose activities other than game drives is important.
Variety is great to keep interest alive. Game drives twice daily for too long can start feeling monotonous for young kids. Consider safaris that include boat rides, hot air ballooning, horse riding, quad biking and bush walks – they all add to the excitement.
6. Be prepared for the game drive.
On the game drive, we suggest taking along a species check list that allows kids to mark off what they have seen. Alternatively download a bird app so kids can hear the bird calls and identify them during quiet patches of driving. Kids love lists. Ask if they can sit up front next to the guide – our kids always love that. Sometimes they can even have a turn up front on the trackers seat. Take a variety of small chewy snacks such as wine gums, carrots, popcorn. Ask to stop often and get out so kids can feel their environment. Take glow sticks for the drive back in the dark.
7. Consider a Villa
Safari lodges are often surprisingly formal and quiet – in essence many if not most are 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.
8. Beware the downtime
The daily routine of most safari lodges in Africa revolve around morning and evening game activities, leaving a long siesta period between 11 and 3 to relax, visit the spa and pool. Our boys don’t rest or sleep during the day and after a morning drive, when they have sat inactive for up to four hours, they are terribly fidgety and in need of action. Lodges that are open to the bush will restrict their movements to the living areas and bedrooms. Some lodges, however, have electrified perimeter fences to keep any dangers at bay and this certainly helps you to relax a bit about kids’ safety. Lodges that cater specifically for kids may offer active play areas, short walking trails, rivers to wallow in, trees to climb etc. If you have physical kids, consider these facilities in your choice.
9. Engage with lodge staff
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! They have left lodges with bullet shells and sculls as gifts from rangers, and cookies and hugs from chefs. It’s the greatest gift. Some lodges will also facilitate very authentic visits to local communities which can be hugely enriching. Our boys will always remember their visit to a Maasai village in Amboseli.
10. Choose a truly kid-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 play area and a few babysitters. It doesn’t cut it, so don’t be fooled by this marketing material. Ask the lodge about specialist guides for kids, ask them if they give families free private vehicles (some do), and ask about specific activities offered in the ‘kids club’. Also ask about kid’s meals and evening 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 that too.
And finally, Africa’s coastline is truly beautiful and many great safari areas are close enough to the sea to enjoy a bit of both. Remember, safaris involve early wake-ups and long dusty days, so ending up with a few days on a beach could ideal for the kids and you.