How to take your children along on your first safari (William Gray)
Article Words : William Gray | 27 February

First-time travel: safari with kids

Inspired by the latest BBC series, but think Africa is out of bounds because you have kids? William Gray beats the drum for family safaris, whatever age your children

If there’s one thing guaranteed to get grandparents tutting and clucking it’s the combination of the words ‘kids’, ‘holiday’ and ‘Africa’ in the same sentence.

“Is it safe? What about malaria? Longleat safari park has lions – why can’t you go there instead?”

You can’t blame them for being concerned. Africa has its fair share of challenges when it comes to travel. But, equally, it has plenty of destinations that are ideal for families. South Africa’s Cape, for example, has everything from wonderful beaches to malaria-free game reserves, while East Africa is perfect for a safari/beach combo.

There’s more to Africa, though, than these well-established family favourites. Ever wondered what it would be like to do a roly-poly down one of the world’s highest sand dunes in Namibia? Or ride a horse in the company of giraffes and zebras in South Africa’s Waterberg? Or paddle along the Zambezi in the wake of Dr Livingstone?

The winged menace

Whatever age your children, health risks are likely to be the main factor in deciding where you go in Africa – or even whether to go at all. Malaria, of course, is the single biggest worry. 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. There are numerous parents who are quite happy to take even young children on an East African safari. Ultimately, it all boils down to your individual assessment of the risks, the precautions you are prepared to take and the age limits imposed by tour operators, camps and lodges.

Babes in the bush

Think very hard before taking children aged four and under to malarious parts of Africa. If they have older siblings who are desperate to go on safari, remember that parts of South Africa have malaria-free game reserves where you can spot big game. The safest, most relaxing and affordable way to visit South Africa with babies is to split your time between Cape Town and the Garden Route, staying in comfortable hotels or guesthouses with babysitting services. Be sure to take every precaution to protect your infant from the sun.

Intrepid toddlers

As babies evolve from nappy-bound blobs to mobile mini-explorers they inevitably encounter more in the way of germs and accidents. With hygiene and safety coming to the fore you may be further put off from visiting Africa. Don’t be. In addition to the Cape, other non-malarial places you should consider are Namibia and the Seychelles. Following the initial shock and stress of early parenthood, a self-drive motorhome tour of Namibia is a great holiday choice for families with toddlers. Not only does your campervan function as a self-contained bedroom, playroom and kitchen, but the Namib Desert will seem like one giant sandpit. For something a little more indulgent, the Seychelles and Mauritius boast numerous fabulous beach resorts with supervised children’s clubs and great facilities, allowing adults some much-needed ‘me-time’. 

Looking for the Lion King

At this age, Africa starts to sound really exciting. Most four-year-olds will have seen The Lion King and you may already have taken them to see Timon and Pumba at Disneyland. Now is the time to bring the wilds of Africa to life – warthogs and all! You have two main options when it comes to family safaris – lodge-based or camping. For safety reasons, children usually need to be near the upper end of this age category for camping safaris, while many of the more exclusive lodges also have strict minimum age limits (some as high as 12 years). That’s not to say you won’t find family-friendly safari accommodation. Far from it. Both East and southern Africa have several excellent camps and lodges where children are specially catered for with activities ranging from guided bush tracking to poo identification (always a hit with youngsters). 

Action stations for teens

Africa has several adventure ‘capitals’ with more than enough adrenaline-charged activities to please teenagers. Top of the list has to be Victoria Falls, where you can bungee jump, ride elephants and raft some of the world’s wildest water. Other adventure hotspots include Swakopmund in Namibia (for desert sandboarding, kayaking with seals and 4WD tours along the Skeleton Coast), Cape Town (for great white shark encounters, surfing and abseiling off Table Mountain) and South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains (for hiking, horse riding, rafting and paragliding). Alternatively, why not set your teenager a single, big challenge, such as catching a tiger fish on Lake Malawi or joining a Young Rangers’ Club in Kenya. There are also plenty of opportunities for getting off-the-beaten-track in places like Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley. 

Family safari operators

The following operators offer either organized group or individual tailor-made safaris for families: Aardvark Safaris, The Adventure Company, African Explorations, Expert Africa, Families Worldwide, On the Go Tours, Rainbow Tours, World Big Cat Safaris. 

For further information, visit www.101familyholidays.co.uk

To find out more about safaris – either for families or grown-ups – William Gray’s books, Travel with Kids and Wildlife Travel (Footprint) provide detailed country-by-country guides.

Also check out Will’s new eguide, The Safari Travel Guide, available in Kindle format from Amazon.