Let’s cut straight to the chase. Almost everyone you ask or meet will tell you that an African safari requires two things: patience to see animals and silence when you do spot them in the wild. For this reason, many people think that taking young children (less than six years old) on a safari is like committing family travel suicide.
But think about it.
An African safari is probably one of the most magical experiences that you can expose your children to. That unbelievable excitement of being in the wild and the suspense of seeing something moving behind the bushes…is it a giraffe? Is it an elephant? Is it a wildebeest? Oh, it’s a magnificent leopard and it’s walking straight at us! This is the kind of stuff that children will remember forever. Young kids are especially entranced by animals and interested in wildlife, so is there a way to fuel their childhood curiosity and give them their very own Jungle Book experience?
Now, I’m a firm believer that when it comes to travelling with young kids, its best to do your research but then in the end, make a decision knowing your own family best. No one can predict how your 2 or 3-year-old will behave on a safari. So, if you think you won’t enjoy it, he is not ready and it will be too stressful – then don’t go.
But if you are like me – you know how much your children love animals and would do anything to see them, and you are able to manage their expectations and adjust your own while making the proper arrangements – then I can guarantee you, it is possible to have a fabulous time on your safari adventure!
Here are some tips and tricks of what you need to know and how to plan for such a trip:
1. Choose a child-friendly country and preferably a smaller game reserve: When you are doing your research, choose an African country that is child-friendly and easy to travel to with kids. Even though I initially had my heart set on doing a safari in Tanzania or Kenya, this did not seem feasible with young kids. The children would need yellow fever vaccines and there was the risk of malaria to contend with. In the end, we wanted a stress-free holiday and decided that South Africa was our safest bet. Most of the game reserves in South Africa are malaria free and we decided to go to one of our favorite game reserves known for its natural beauty and abundance of the big five: Pilanesberg National park. There was a reason we choose to take our kids to a smaller game park like Pilanesberg as opposed to the hugely popular Kruger National Park. A smaller game reserve means you spend less time waiting to spot animals and you have a higher chance of seeing many animals in the wild in just two game drives. We felt both factors would make for an easier safari experience with young children and we were right!
- Don’t get complacent in your travel planning: We were denied boarding for our flight to South Africa, since we had not checked up on local rules and did not realise there was a new law in place. To clamp down on child trafficking, South African immigration requires attested originals of your children’s birth certificates (in addition to their passports) to be presented at the time of check-in. We had passports, but no birth certificates, but luckily had enough time to go back home and get them. It was a good lesson even for frequent travellers like us to always check the local requirements when travelling with children.
- Hire a car:
Hiring a car gives you more flexibility to drive around and suit things according to your own schedule. Having a car helped us plan road trips according to nap times, so the almost 3 hour drive from Johannesburg to the Pilanesberg National Park was very smooth, and meant our kids were well-rested when we arrived. There’s also another benefit of hiring a car – if you want you can also do your own private tour in a game reserve, if that suits your own family needs better. We did not need to do this, but in case you are worried about joining a big safari group, this could be a good plan B. And as most parents know, when travelling with young children, it’s always nice to have a plan B!
Choose a child friendly lodge: I cannot stress this enough. Do careful research and choose a lodge that is child-friendly and accepts young children. Many lodges do not accept children under six years of age, or allow them on game drives. Avoid these. There are plenty of facilities geared towards families with young children that will help you feel welcome and not anxious. We were so excited when we arrived at the five star Bakubung Bush Lodge in Pilanesberg National Park. It was super child-friendly, with a swimming pool and a playground for children to play in, in between game drives. The best part was its location; right next to a watering hole. This meant, that in the mornings we could spot many wildebeests, hyenas, and zebras drinking water, while having our breakfast! Our kids were fascinated to spot animals in the wild and it prepared them for going on their first official safari drive. Wide, open, free, green spaces for them to run around in the African bush was very important too, since children need time and space to explore. Dinner at night was a very casual and laid back affair, and very welcoming of young families. Where we stayed, played a huge part in helping to make our family safari a success!
5. Get disconnected and enjoy the nature and wildlife:
While we were on safari, we had a no internet, no Wi-Fi, no TV, no iPad rule. Sounds like torture? Well, I was skeptical too, but it turned out that as soon as my husband and I switched off from our busy, hectic lives, our children followed suit. For three days, we surrendered ourselves to our incredible surroundings, and focused on the nature and wildlife around us. There was plenty of time in between game drives to read stories together, talk about our day, for the children to draw the animals they had seen that day and to just unwind. Sometimes going off the grid can really enhance your travel experience, and what better time to do this than when you’re in the middle of the African bush!
6. Manage children’s expectations and your own: Before you set off on your safari game drives, its best to manage your children’s expectations. Explain some ground rules: it’s a bumpy ride so they need to be seated. If they are not quiet, then they will scare the animals and the animals might run away. Encourage them to look out for animals, and give them a pair of binoculars EACH (trust me, it’s better for each child to have their own binocular to avoid fights!). Pack some snacks to take with you so the kids can eat in between if you have a long period where you don’t spot any animals. Pack appropriate clothing for the kids (and yourself) including sweaters especially if you are doing an early morning 6 am safari drive. The safari jeep is usually open, so it could get chilly early in the morning or late at night. Manage your own expectations too: be prepared to answer a ton of questions and take a lot of pictures. If your children are comfortable with cameras, you can encourage them to take pictures too!
7. Make your game drives into a fun game: Children love new experiences and a safari game drive can be extremely fun for them. Encourage them to keep their eyes open, and report what they see. A safari is a great way to encourage their observation skills. A number of times my five year old daughter wondered out loud “is that a stone? Is it a bush? Oh, I can see something moving!” She was discovering the thrill and anticipation of being on a safari herself and this was not something I could have taught her at home. She had to experience it herself.
8. Let them draw their experiences: After each safari, my two kids would sit down and list excitedly all the animals they had seen and then tried to draw them. This was a valuable way for them to process their safari experiences and important for us as parents to encourage their storytelling skills, jog their memory, and help explore their artistic talents. We later compiled some of their best drawings in a book to show to their teachers and friends at school, after we returned from our Spring break.
9. Fuel their curiosity but introduce structure: My kids thrive on routine and we were able to introduce that during the safari, which really made the entire experience fun for them. We were structured when it came to our safari drives (getting up early, having a big breakfast etc.) but in between game drives we let the kids play at the playground, go swimming, take much needed naps and really do anything they wanted to do. It is important to strike the right balance and allow for some down time.
10. A two to three day safari is enough: Its best to keep your safari adventure short and sweet with your young kids. Going on a week-long safari will definitely get boring for them. I found that two to three days was the ideal length for a fantastic first safari experience – with enough time to see animals and equally important, enough time to unwind in between and enjoy your surroundings. When planning your safari trip with young kids, I’d recommend a two to three day trip, which is perfect for family bonding time.
Have you been on an African safari with young children? What would your top tips be? Or would you like to go on a safari with your young children in the future? Share your thoughts on ‘And Then We Moved To’, I’d love to hear from you! If you like this, you might also like to read my article: 7 Reasons Why Travel Is Never ‘Wasted’ On Young Kids.
About the Author: Mariam Ottimofiore is the founder and writer behind the blog ‘And Then We Moved To’. She is passionate about travelling with her young children and encouraging them to experience the world for themselves. Her travel writing has been published in Expat Living Singapore, Expat Living Hong Kong, Fuchsia Magazine and on the Huffington Post’s Parenting website.