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Top 7 places for kids' safaris

Growing up in South Africa, I was lucky enough to make regular visits to private game parks and reserves, like Addo Elephant National Park and the Kruger National Park. My first ‘game ranger-tracker-and-driver’ was my grandfather, who taught us grandkids the value of getting up before dawn, driving slowly, keeping quiet and training your eye to distinguish elephants from rocks and springbok from impala. At about 10, the ‘I want to be a game ranger when I grow up’ phase hit hard, and I amassed a huge collection of dead dung beetles, abandoned weavers’ nests, old warthog teeth and found antelope horns.

Fast forward almost 30 years and I’m not a game ranger, but I do take great delight when little ones are awed and amazed by the secrets of the African bush. A specialist junior game ranger programme, as offered by many of the top lodges and camps, is a great way to grow their interest and knowledge – as well as an excellent way for them to learn to appreciate long game drives without a smart phone or PlayStation!

Top 7 places for kids' safaris Kwandwe 2
'Blue Craners' at Kwandwe Ecca Lodge learn bushcraft from a patient guide.

#1 Kwandwe Ecca Lodge, Eastern Cape, South Africa

The Eastern Cape is a laid-back and affordable malaria-free destination that is perfect for first-timers or those holidaymakers doing a self-drive road trip along the Garden Route from Cape Town. At Kwandwe Ecca Lodge, children become honorary members of the Blue Crane Conservation Club, named after South Africa’s endangered national bird. As Blue Craners, they get animal checklists, take a pledge to ‘live green’ and learn about conservation on the excellent ‘Bugs & Bones Walk’ to identify animal droppings, tracks and skills, and the rich insect life of the wilderness.

For children keen on water,  there are supervised Minnow’s fishing trips. There is an opportunity to plant the indigenous spekboom, a succulent that is one of the top 5 carbon-storing plants in the world, as a way for the children to off-set their own holiday footprint. For a safe thrill, little ones can go on their own ‘Stripes & Hooves’ game drive to view non-aggressive and non-predatory game like zebras, monkeys and giraffes.

Top 7 places for kids' safaris Tswalu
The desert dunes at Tswalu Motse Lodge in the Kalahari are as much fun as the beach!

#2 Tswalu Motse Lodge, Kalahari Desert, South Africa

The Kalahari Desert may seem inhospitable but it’s one of the easiest environments to take children for many reasons: it’s malaria free so no need for them to take medication; it’s generally sunny so no days are spent inside when it’s raining to the constant refrain of ‘Mom, I’m bored’, and they can spend hours tiring themselves out in the swimming pool!

Motse Lodge in the Tswalu Private Game Reserve offers a Junior Ranger programme that has been specially designed to cater for children of all ages and includes exciting supervised activities like archery (the kids make their own bows and arrows), tracking animals on foot, and identifying and casting different spoor. Every Junior Ranger gets their own backpack full of fun guides and tools, and they are taken on interesting bush walks that are educational but never boring. Not to mention that staff always have an answer to the inevitable, ‘But why?’

Top 7 places for kids' safaris Morukuru
Even learning to fish can become a simple lesson in river ecology at Morukuru Farm House.

#3 Morukuru Farm House, Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa

One of the few lodges that welcomes children on game drives, Morokuru Kidz at Morukuru Farm House aims to make every junior ranger in training feel special. Armed with their own backpack of goodies, the little ones head off on guided spoor-tracking lessons and mini bush walks, returning to make a souvenir scrap book of their finds, photos and memories.

#4 Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, Namibia

At andBeyond lodges, all kids get a WILDchild backpack filled with bush-oriented goodies to enjoy, like scrapbooks, stickers and a gift (like a compass, solar-powered torch or magnifying glass). At Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, they take advantage of Namibia’s clear night skies and total lack of light pollution for lessons in stargazing, where an expert patiently explains amazing cosmic phenomena. During the day, they take inspiration from the ancient ways of the San Bushmen and learn how to find water and food in the Namib, which is the world’s oldest desert. 

Top 7 places for kids' safaris Sossusvlei
The desert gives up its secrets - like a clutch of huge ostrich eggs - to curious youngsters at Sossusvlei Desert Lodge.

#5 Lion Sands, Sabi Sands Game Reserve, South Africa

Lying on the banks of the Marico River in classic Big 5 country, one of the highlights of the 1933 Lodge at Lion Sands is the children’s dormitory that sleeps eight excitable kids. They are sure to spend nights whispering about their game drives and what they learnt that day in the bush: how big elephant poo is, how hippos can stay under water for so long, how fast a cheetah can run and why vervet monkeys would love a taste of the orange or banana you had for lunch!

Top 7 places for kids' safaris Lion Sands
Rulers of their domain: the children's dorm at 1933 Lion Sands is as much a playroom as a bedroom!

#6 Madikwe Safari Lodge, Kruger National Park, South Africa

The staff at Madikwe Safari Lodge definitely haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be a kid: their junior survivor bush orientation includes quirky lessons on which trees’ branches make the best toothbrushes, how to find direction in the bush, how to make fire and how to find water. ‘Bug CSI’ identifies different plants and insects found around the lodge, with youngsters encouraged to make sketches of them to take home as mementos. Spoor can be moulded in plaster of paris and, for those who aren’t squeamish, dung tracking will show them how to identify, well, animal poo. ‘Gross mom!’ 

Top 7 places for kids' safaris Madikwe
Getting to grips with spiders at Madikwe Safari Lodge...

#7 Bateleur Camp, Masai Mara National Park, Kenya

The Masai Mara – along with the Serengeti – is the most famous of Africa’s reserves and scene of the annual Great Migration of hundreds of thousands of wildebeest. At Bateleur Camp, children love witnessing the river crossings over the Mara as there is plenty of action and excitement. In quieter moments, they can delve into their WILDchild bag of treasures and go into the bush with professional rangers to learn about tracking, fishing and how to make bows and arrows. They can also visit a traditional Maasai village or manyatta and be taught how to make their own rope using age-old techniques and natural materials sourced from the savannah.

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Spoor recognition at Bateleur Camp.
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Bateleur Camp makes learning as fun as possible.

You may think the distance and expense of an African safari is ‘wasted’ on a child but the opposite is often true: with a patient guide, fun activities, new horizons and permission to just ‘be a kid’ with no timetables or pressure, the youngsters often enjoy a safari vacation the most!

Written by Angela Aschmann. Connect with her on Google+.

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