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Safaris with children

Children's safari

Safaris with children 

Anderson Expeditions team member and father Gareth Hardres-Williams unpacks the virtues of going on safari with children…

An oft ask question we field when planning family safaris is “how young is too young to go on safari” and the answer is not always a very straightforward one.  One short answer is that we definitely encourage children on safari, and there are some great options to consider to make this a reality.

As with anything to do with young children, the ultimate answer of course lies with the individual child – in their temperament and indeed their interest levels and how long these can be sustained on a safari.  It may sound counter-intuitive to adults that interest on a safari could ever wain, but I have seen many an older person grow fidgety and impatient whilst on game drive – irrespective of the view – and children are no different.  Children of today are increasingly accustomed to “on demand” everything and the notion of sitting patiently waiting is not a skill typically well developed in kids, and even less so these days.  Be it waiting for a leopard to stalk her prey, or the painstaking search for the origin of an odd twittering sound coming from a shrub – no matter how potentially thrilling the outcome – both can see children lose interest quickly.

Safari with children is a go, go, go…

It is my humble opinion as a guide of many years and as a father to an increasingly well-safari’ed seven-year-old, that children should most definitely go on safari, and in an ideal world, they should do so as often as possible.  Thankfully many of the safari destinations share my view and increasingly we are seeing wonderful initiatives offered by a number of camps to entertain the younger safari goer.

How young is too young?

How long is a piece of string really?  If I was forced to blanket a rule of thumb on this question based on my experience, I would suggest that children younger than 6 will not benefit hugely from a safari experience.  Sure, they will have fun but on the overall balance of things, they might be better off staying home with the grandparents.   Some lodges will make this decision for you, by limiting the age allowed, but increasingly children are encouraged to join in the safari fun.  Many of the safari lodges that offer a very luxurious experience will tend to restrict access to children in an attempt to maintain an air of exclusivity, but there are ways around this too through exclusive use of vehicles and taking sole use of small camps.

Know the risks and mitigate…

The health and safety of children must always be paramount when considering taking the little people on safari.  A visit to high-risk malaria areas is best avoided with very young children.  Should they fall ill, their little bodies will take a nasty hit and the prophylactic medication can also be unsuitable for little kids.  Prevention is always the best approach, even in areas where risks are low and being a doting parent constantly armed with bug spray and sun block is a prerequisite. Get the best advice from your local travel clinic before you begin your planning and look for safari areas that offer the least risk to your child’s health.  There are increasingly some superb family offerings in malaria-free areas, and the excellent Kwandwe Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape is one such destination that provides a great experience for young and old.  There are some flights that will take you from Cape Town directly to the Kwandwe airstrip, making this a logistically child-friendly option too.

Ask for it by name…

Increasingly, operators will offer some kind of planned activity for the kids and the lodge management will typically present your children with their offering.  If nothing is forthcoming though, do ask the management and they will most often make a great plan.  Speaking of things great, Great Plains Conservation – who have superb lodges in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Kenya – offer the younger visitor a superb “Young Explorers” pack.  The neatly bundled collection of activities for young safari goers includes an expedition journal, games, stickers and a great learners pack and activity book. The lovely thing about this offering is that it is driven by the guides and they actively encourage involvement and learning.  There is also a very cool buff and hat thrown in for good measure too – a big hit!

The best way to do it…

The premium resource when on safari with children is flexibility and this is best achieved through “exclusive use” options.  I would suggest that you always take a private game drive vehicle for the family (this is often a prerequisite to allowing children in certain camps) as this allows for you to dictate the pace of the game drives and censor what is seen without impacting on anyone else’s experience.  If the family is large enough, or the camp small enough, then exclusive use of the camp is also a great way to do it.

Tricks of the trade…

Keeping children engaged and entertained is key to ensuring that they enjoy the experience and there are a number of ways to achieve this.

Here are some things that I enjoy doing to keep my 7-year-old engaged…

  1. Amateur Photographer

This is my favorite trick to keep kids engaged, and is easily achieved.  Thanks to the advent of digital photography and the “delete” button on cameras, kids can take pictures of Impala dung to their hearts content and review them immediately too.  Children of all ages love the idea of mimicking the guide and mom / dad, snapping away like a pro, and according to my daughter they also “just love the sound the camera makes”.  Another recent retro evolution is the return of the polaroid camera with some great kid-friendly options (the Instax Mini 9 from FujiFilm is one such example) and a safari album can be developed on the go.

  1. Checklists and books

Lodges and operators increasingly offer children specific checklists and activity booklets that they can take with them on drive, and record all that they see.  A safari is also a great time to get kids to leaf through pages of good old fashioned books, looking for information on what they are seeing and igniting the naturalist within.

  1. Targets and Games and the private guide

It is fun to challenge the kids a little, encouraging them to see how many of a certain animal they can see in 10 minutes or some such.  On a recent trip with my daughter, we had fun counting termite mounds – I can assure you that there are loads in the Sabi Sands.  As a guide I recall having young kids wait patiently with me looking at 2 sleeping cheetah hidden in the long grass for just shy of an hour.  I set a timer on my watch and promised to give them the Land Rover to take home with them if the cheetah didn’t stand up and start hunting before the time was up.  Regular updates on the timing combined with a detailed explanation on the features of the vehicle they would soon inherit made the time fly.  Miraculously and with much relief (both for me and the lodge management I imagine) the pair of Cheetah stood up with seconds to go on the clock and treated us to an exciting chase minutes later – something we would most definitely not have seen had I not had a trick up my sleeve.  Having the services of one of our specialist private guides also frees up the in-house guide to engage with the adults whilst the private guide makes a hat out of thatching grass for the kids, or visa versa.

  1. Off again, on again

The continuous sitting in the vehicle can get a bit much, so encouraging regular stops to hop off and explore the little things is also to be encouraged.  Some guides will need encouragement on this one, but soon the benefits become evident and everyone has lots of fun.  Again, the private guide is invaluable here too.

  1. Start a collection

Feathers, elephant dung, marula fruit, leaves, twigs, a dead beetle, rocks and all manner of inanimate objects can be collected and arranged back at the lodge as a temporary exhibition (note – inanimate! You don’t wont customs removing a chameleon from your hand luggage on arrival back home). Also, be sure to make the point that the collection will have to stay behind – the old “take only pictures, leave only footprints” mantra must apply.

Bin the tech (a little at least)…

Whilst I invariably lob the iPad into the bag to make flights more manageable, once at the lodge, I prefer to lock this distraction in the safe and encourage (not difficult at all) the little one to find her mental stimulation in nature.  This is my approach, but might not work for all.

Speaking of my approach, here is a first-hand account of a recent safari with my daughter…

A South African safari with my seven-year-old daughter…

I recently had the distinct privilege of returning to my safari alma mater “Londolozi” with my 7-year-old daughter, Amélie, and we got a first-hand experience of the exceptional “child friendly” safari they offer.  Our guide Melvin quickly christened Amélie “princess” – the only bit of the experience my little self-proclaimed tomboy was less enamored with.  We both so appreciated Melvin’s gentle and attentive approach and he won Amélie over in no time at all, despite this slight against her “child of the wilderness” character.   He has become the only person she ever tolerated calling her a princess – and that is saying something and a testament to his gentle touch.

The game drives were superbly managed for our young safari-goer and the adults alike (a tricky balancing act sometimes – again why exclusive use of a vehicle is an important consideration) and nothing was too much trouble to keep Amélie engaged.  Over and above the child-friendly game drives, Londolozi also offer children the exceptional “Londolozi Cubs” experience, which is expertly managed by two wonderful sisters – Amélie spent much of her time being entertained by the delightful Tippy.  Tippy and her “Londolozi Cub’s” team introduced themselves to Amélie on our arrival, armed with a gift of a “Londolozi Cub’s” safari bag full of all sorts of treats for the young safari goer, from checklists to a “Bush School” work book and pencil crayons and the all-important pencil sharpener – they really have thought of everything.  Children are also encouraged to spend time at the “Cub’s Den” during the day between game drives.  This is a dedicated kid’s play space behind the curio shop at Varty Camp, complete with cooking facilities for baking and all manner of games and distractions where the “Londolozi Cubs” team will happily take care of the kids for hours on end.  This does allow parents a bit of down time to relax and enjoy a massage or some equally pampering experience at “The Healing House“.  The “Londolozi Cubs” team also offer the children the thrill of heading down to the river for a spot of fishing, and the kid in me was only too pleased to be granted permission by Amélie to join in.  It was touch and go for a while as to whether or not I would crack the nod, but thankfully I was welcomed, and just as well too as we were lucky enough to watch a lioness hunting kudu in the river bed (from the safety of the vehicle) before enjoying a spot of fishing a little further down the river.  Unfortunately for the lioness, we had more success with the fish than she had with the kudu, but the adventure was a thrill all the same.

In the evenings, Tippy would sit with Amélie playing cards and chatting away like old friends, allowing me the chance to enjoy some quiet time with my G’nT.  They ended up having such a good time, that I felt quite left out and had to try and sneak in a round of “snap” – to no avail though, the girls were tight and I was an outsider already.

Londolozi through their “Cubs” initiative is one of an increasing number of safari operators recognising the importance of encouraging children on safari.  Not only are these children the travellers of the future, but they are custodians of the increasingly threatened wilderness and the sooner we get them on board the better.  It really is worth reiterating though that Londolozi do it exceptionally well.

So, should you be considering traveling with your children – please do get in touch with us and we will gladly help structure a safari that will be a thrill for young and old.  There really is something quite magical in seeing the excitement in one’s child as they experience wild Africa and that excitement becomes quite infectious, making your gift of safari to your children equally a gift to yourself.

Title image – safari gear for little ones © Gareth Hardres-Williams