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Why an African safari is the best family vacation you’ll ever take

Secondary Categories: SafarisFamilyFeature

Born and raised in South Africa, Nick Dall speaks from experience when he makes this claim. Read on to find out why you can’t beat an African safari for wholesome family fulfillment.

Growing up in South Africa, I was fortunate to visit the Kruger National Park while still in diapers. The trend would continue throughout my childhood as my siblings and I were bundled into the family Volkswagen Kombi for month-long camping trips to places like the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (a unique desert safari experience), Hwange National Park (the jewel in the crown of Zimbabwean parks), and Mana Pools National Park, a rugged and unfenced wilderness on the banks of the Zambezi River. When we were slightly older, we even went on a bucket list trip to Kenya, with stops in the Masai Mara, Amboseli National Park, and Lake Nakuru.

Granted, the long drives did get a bit much sometimes – Mana Pools is a cool 1,800 miles from my home in Cape Town – but the time spent in some of the world’s most amazing natural habitats more than made up for any hardship. Some of my clearest childhood memories are of wildlife sightings. I’ll never forget the time a lion roared – really roared – a few yards from our car. Or the time we saw a leopard less than a hundred yards away after stopping for my brother to take a pee. And it’s not just the apex predators that stick out: our time in the bush fostered a love for birds, snakes, insects, and even trees … One glimpse of a rotund baobab (the famous “upside-down trees”), or the haunting silhouette of a long-dead leadwood, and the memories of afternoon thunderstorms and circling vultures come flooding back.

Baobab trees in Africa, Madagascar
The baobab is also known as the “Tree of Life”.

As a young adult, I got a chance to work at a luxury lodge in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve. One night, after an evening at the local dance hall, we bumped into a leopard on our way home. On another occasion, I awoke to discover that a hyena had given birth in the lodge’s kitchen. And don’t get me started on the once-in-a-generation floods that left us cut off from the world for a fortnight. While this did mean a lot of hard work (roadbuilding has to be the toughest job around), it also gave us the chance to float down a newly-formed river in tractor tubes, encountering a herd of elephants and a confused python as we made our way downstream.

Now that I am a parent, I’ve been fortunate to be able to take my own kids on safari. Nothing beats witnessing the joy on their faces as they observe a buffalo herd munching its way through a riverine meadow, or a cheetah mom calling her cubs to join her on the hunt (and them obeying the very first call!).

Going on a safari is a life-changing experience for adults, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be just as wonderful for kids. Read on to get the most out of your African family safari.

How young is too young?

While it’s completely possible to bring a newborn on safari, having a baby along for the ride is likely to complicate life for you, the parents. Kids from two years upwards can appreciate the wonders of the African savannah (think of the joy your toddler gets from visiting a farmyard and supersize that), but in my experience kids under six have a hard time on game drives (which typically last three or four hours and involve sitting in silence whenever there’s a sighting).

African lion couple and safari jeep in Masai Mara, Kenya, Africa
Spotting one of the Big Five: the lion.

While you may think that teens (and even pre-teens) would scoff at the idea of being stuck in the African bush with their parents and without (much) technology, the safari lifestyle has a way of getting under everyone’s skin. It’s easy to be blasé – until you’ve come face-to-face with a breastfeeding elephant calf, or a pack of wild dogs on the hunt.

When it comes to age limits, different lodges have different rules. Some have blanket bans on anyone under 16, others insist that families book their own private vehicles, and others have dedicated kids’ safari programs which involve shorter game drives and all sorts of activities on the side.

Is it safe?

Absolutely! While you must, of course, keep an eye on your children at all times (especially around swimming pools), the chances of them encountering a lion or a black mamba are minimal. I’d advise insisting that they wear shoes at all times: acacia thorns are not to be messed with, and shoes also offer protection against scorpions, spiders, and the like. Apply sunscreen liberally, and regularly, and bring lots of bug repellent. All lodges are equipped with first aid kits (and people who are trained to use them), but it’s a good idea to bring some standard pediatric meds with you. A broad-spectrum antibiotic can also come in handy. (Read this blog for some failsafe safari tips.)

Couple on safari vacation in lodge in Africa

Some lodges – typically unfenced ones or those with dramatic clifftop locations – don’t allow children for safety reasons. But most of the lodges we work with are idyllic, grassy retreats boasting hours of wholesome, natural entertainment for children.

Won’t they get bored? / Drive us mad?

While I can’t vouch for your children, my experience is that children of all ages are captivated by the African bush. While some kids (and adults) can arrive in Africa with low expectations, few are able to complete a safari without being deeply affected. Watching lions, leopards, and elephants go about their business in one of the world’s last untouched habitats is a life-changing experience. And it’s not only the Big Five that will wow you and your family: children are fascinated by zebras and giraffes; dung beetles and ant lions.

The rangers at the lodges we work with are experts in their field, and many of them have a natural way with children that might even inspire a tinge of jealousy in you. Children typically establish a fantastic rapport with lodge staff, hanging on their every word and developing friendships that continue beyond the trip – often it’s the kids who demand you return year after year!

Where should we go?

At SA Expeditions, all of our safari tours can be tailored to suit your family’s needs. Gliding across Botswana’s Okavango Delta in a traditional mokoro is the kind of experience that will mesmerize people of all ages. The same can be said for marveling at the raw power of the Victoria Falls, aka Mosi-oa-Tunya, The Smoke that Thunders, on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. And witnessing the Great Migration across the Serengeti, in Tanzania, should be on every person’s bucket list. (I wouldn’t recommend this option for very little kids as the dance between predator and prey can be a bit grisly.)

Aerial view of Victoria Falls and road on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, Africa
Victoria Falls lies on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and is one of the world's largest waterfalls!

That said, if you’re bringing your family on safari for the first time, I would probably recommend South Africa. The services, shops, and medical care are top drawer, and there’s a lot more to do than simply going on safari. After four or five days on safari, most kids – and many adults for that matter! – are ready for a change of scenery. A few days spent exploring the beaches, mountains, and barrios of Cape Town (regularly voted one of the most beautiful cities in the world) and the surrounding winelands is the perfect way to round off your African adventure.

Some of our favorite family lodges

  • Established in 1926, Londolozi – in the Greater Kruger National Park in South Africa – is one of the most iconic safari lodges in the world. Approved by both Relais & Châteaux and Nelson Mandela, and boasting the highest concentration of leopards in the world, it’s a truly special place. But despite this exclusive aura, children six years and older are welcome to not only stay at the lodge, but also to go on game drives. (To ensure a stress-free experience, I’d advise booking a private vehicle for your family.) Instead of a children’s program, Londolozi boasts a “children’s philosophy” that will keep your kids extremely busy between morning and afternoon game drives: think fishing, mud fights, and tree climbing. What’s more, Londolozi’s location in the midst of a “futuristic African village” is the kind of place that can inspire us all to be better citizens of planet earth.

  • Located on the banks of the mighty Zambezi, a few miles upstream of the world’s largest sheet of falling water, the luxurious Victoria Falls River Lodge is a very special place. While adults will relish the lodge’s sophisticated seclusion, children of all ages are also welcome. Over-fours are welcome on game drives (some rules apply for four- to seven-year-olds) and river cruises, and there’s also a range of child-friendly activities to choose from: fishing for the legendary tiger fish, embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime walking safari, or being treated to “fables by firelight” as told by a local storyteller.

  • The Okavango Delta is one of the world’s most spectacular natural gems – and Linyanti Ebony is located on one of its most sought-after waterways. With just four tents including one two-bedroom family tent (think four-poster beds, spacious living area, en-suite bathroom, and private viewing deck), you can book the entire lodge for a blissful bush experience like no other. Despite its small size, Linyanti Ebony boasts a thriving kids’ club that includes nature walks, cooking classes, and arts and crafts activities. And booking out the whole lodge gives you flexibility to tailor game drives and bush walks to suit your family’s needs.

What are you waiting for?

Family on game drive safari in Africa

In today’s fast-paced world, quality family time is hard to come by. Whether your kids are toddlers, pre-teens, or adolescents, an African safari is bound to blow their minds and lay the foundation for some genuine family bonding.

Check out our most popular African safari tours here. Then speak to a Destination Expert about curating your own African family adventure.

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