A wildlife adventure safari with kids in tow may sound like the trip of a lifetime … or the stuff of nightmares.
A trip to Africa is a massive undertaking in terms of travel time, expense and health risks, so planning the right trip with children is critical.
Guest blogger Amie O’Shaughnessy, editor of Ciao Bambino!, shares her top tips on planning a safari with kids.
Consider the age of your kids
Kids need to be old enough to appreciate what they are seeing and deal with the intense travel logistics. The thrill of a safari is observing wild animals in their native habitat, but there are no guarantees what you’ll see at any point in time.
We had long stretches where we saw no action, punctuated by periods of seeing a mind-boggling array of wildlife. A child who is too young simply won’t be able to sit still during the quiet periods.
Moreover, safety is a constant concern. There is zero room for error and children need to be at an age where they listen to instructions.
In my opinion, the ideal minimum age for a safari trip is 8. There are countless exceptions to this recommendation—some kids are more mature than others—but after speaking with guides about their experiences with kids of all ages, this is the consensus.
Use top-quality service providers
Top-quality accommodations, guides, vehicles, and transportation are a must (with or without kids). This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to plan a luxury holiday, but it does mean you need to select well-known, reputable and experienced resources.
Working with a travel agent or tour operator to plan a safari is your best and easiest bet to ensure you access to appropriate service providers.
For more help, check out our general African Safari Travel Tips
In our case, we knew we wanted to stay in AndBeyond Africa for the bulk of our trip, so I was able to book our travel without the help of third-party support, but our few diversions from their lodges added logistical complexity. A single point of contact accountable for all of your ground details is the way to go.
Select kid-friendly accommodations
Booking kid-friendly accommodations is essential. Many camps simply don’t allow kids under a certain age so it’s easy to eliminate them from the short list. The next question to ask is if a camp is fenced or unfenced. The reality is that a fence doesn’t keep every animal out a camp, but it’s more likely to keep the big and dangerous ones from loitering outside your room.
We stayed at unfenced lodges in Tanzania and all was fine, but it means that the listening rule really needs to come into play. The other consequence is that you are less likely to have any space for a child to run around relatively freely in an unfenced set-up.
Of the five camps we experienced, only one had access to any sort of flat grass where kids can play games and kick a ball—andBeyond’s Kichwa Tembo in the Masai Mara, Kenya. We stayed at the sister camp, Bateleur Camp, and spent our safari downtime burning off steam at Kichwa. A swimming pool is another key amenity to have available for time between game drives.
Want to go on safari but concerned about “roughing it?” Be sure to check out Birding South Africa: Soft Adventure Travel & Easy Safaris
Access guides who are experienced with kids
Animals on safari are of interest without much effort, but a kid-friendly guide is key to engagement and learning. Which guide you get is luck and timing, but lodges that cater to families will work hard to make a good match.
Guides who are good with children modify their explanations so kids understand the big points easily. They are patient and willing to spend the extra time required to ensure kids see what is being spotted as binoculars can be a challenge for little hands and eyes. Also, it takes more work to interest kids in some of the “less exciting” sightings like birds and plants—but they are equally amazing and important to an ecosystem’s story.
andBeyond provided our son with a safari backpack that included pint-size binoculars and a workbook to record his observations. An interactive book is a great tool to keep kids actively engaged on a drive. In addition, at Bateleur Camp, we were provided with a Masaai warrior as our naturalist, in addition to our guide—this was absolutely incredible for our son! He loved the opportunity to get to know this person who has a life so utterly different than his own (not to mention someone who carries a spear and knife).
The last thing to consider here is the likelihood that other people will be on game drives with you. We had a treat on most of our trip and were solo in our own car. This is a nice perk as you don’t need to worry about your kids disturbing others. Traveling during off-peak periods increases the chance of this happening.
Note, many of our safari vehicles did have accessible seat belts. If this is an issue, it is best to confirm what will be available in the vehicles associated with your accommodations.
Engage with the local community
Our interaction with the local Maasai people in Kenya was as memorable and impactful as our game drives. Many safari lodges are adjacent to Maasai communities and there is ample opportunity to spend time with them (should your lodge offer these engagements).
If you ask our son what he remembers most about his trip, he doesn’t talk about the lion kill we witnessed, he talks about his learning to shoot a bow and arrow with the Maasai warriors. Sanctuary Olonana arranged an afternoon of fun for him in which he engaged in a bow and arrow shooting contest with the neighboring Maasai children. We also had our best bush dinner at this camp when the Maasai sang and danced with us, and even gave our son a Maasai name he’ll treasure for years (“Oloburo,” or “little growing warrior”).
Mull over other activities
Walking safaris are an option to experience the landscape in a very different way. We opted not to do this as we felt like it would not be relaxing with an 8-year-old who likes to skip and jump more than walk, for some families this is an excellent option.
In my research, I was very impressed with Mark Thornton Safaris. His specialty is private walking trips with multiple families, which makes a fantastic option for a multi-generational trip with kids of varied ages as everything is customized.
A hot air balloon ride over the Masai Mara at sunrise is a magical way to experience the wildlife and landscape as you sail over the animals and trees. In our experience with Skyship Company. Our son was barely tall enough to see over the basket, so I don’t recommend this for small kids, but older kids will love it.
Find more nearby activities in our Africa Travel section
Understand health concerns
Malaria is active in many safari destinations. Adequate protection involves taking medication before, after, and during the trip.
If you have concerns about your kids taking anti-malaria pills, choose your destinations accordingly. Many parts of South Africa are considered to be malaria-free and are a good option for those concerned about the potential side effects of antimalarials.
Know that logistics in Africa are time-consuming
Travel within Africa is time-consuming. What seems like a small distance can take all day with multiple flights and transfers required to get from one place on another. Keep your itinerary as simple as possible—even if it means you stay at fewer camps. The trick is to choose camps that are very different from one another in an entirely new ecosystem.
For more information on family-friendly safaris, visit CiaoBambino’s African travel page.
By Amie O’Shaughnessy for PeterGreenberg.com. Amie O’Shaughnessy is the editor of Ciao Bambino!, a family travel blog and worldwide guide to the best, family-friendly hotels, resorts, and vacation rentals.
Related Links on PeterGreenberg.com:
- African Safari Travel Tips
- Birding South Africa: Soft Adventure Travel & Easy Safaris
- Cape Escapes: Blooms, Birds, Beaches & Barbecues in Langebaan, South Africa
- Cape Escapes: The Culinary Charms of Franschhoek, South Africa
- Cape Escapes: Whale-Watching in Hermanus, South Africa
- Cape Escapes: Tips for Driving in South Africa
- Africa Travel section