Contrary to popular belief, bucket lists aren’t only for retired folk. Today, youngsters are more switched on than ever before and after spending hours watching BBC or Lost Planet documentaries, many can’t wait to come to Africa and experience the thrill of seeing a leopard in the wild or elephant family at play for themselves.
It is a wonderful time in a child’s life when you can merge their singular passion for animals with both a fun holiday and an edifying educational encounter. After all, as the saying goes,
‘We conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.’
We’ve put together some of the ultimate animal bucket list encounters in Africa that are suitable for families with young children, where they will not only be awed by a thrilling close-up encounter but will also go home with a renewed understanding of why we must all work to conserve nature.
#1 Stick Your Neck Out for Something Different
Kids are generally fascinated by giraffes: how tall they are, how long their necks are, how awkwardly they manoeuvre themselves to drink and how they only have seven vertebrae – just like us! The best place to see Rothschild’s giraffe – one of the most endangered sub-species and known for its white leg ‘stockings’ and softer, creamier-coloured patches – is at The Giraffe Manor in Nairobi. Also known as Baringo (after Lake Baringo) or Ugandan giraffes, they are being successfully bred at this historic hotel and are world-famous for popping their surprisingly huge heads and large purple tongues through a door or window to charmingly demand a taste of your breakfast (don’t worry, they don’t really want to snack on your bacon and eggs. The manor staff provide a bowl of special pellets for the giraffes to munch directly from your hand). Children will be beyond thrilled to be able to go back to school and tell their incredulous classmates that they shared their breakfast with a 20-foot tall giraffe!
#2 Mad About Meerkats
Who doesn’t love meerkats? In the past few years these adventurous and intelligent suricates have not only had their own reality TV show (the highly regarded Meerkat Manor) but they’ve also starred in countless commercials. Extremely sociable, kids love watching their antics, which often seem to mimic our own. Found throughout Southern Africa, some of the best places to indulge your little ones’ ‘meerkat madness’ are in South Africa, which is not only malaria-free but has excellent infrastructure for hassle-free travelling. Consider a few nights at Motse Lodge in the Kalahari, which is not only very child-friendly but also offer expertly guided bush walks and outrides.
Read more: This is what happened during our trip to The Motse - meerkats, horse riding and a rare pangolin sighting! Read all about it here.
#3 All the Big Cats
The big cats have beguiled us for centuries and the AfriCat Foundation knows first-hand how special cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs and lions are. Based in Namibia – also a great environment for kids because it is totally malaria-free as well as being almost endlessly sunny – a visit to AfriCat at Okonjima is a great addition to journey that can include the country's magnificent desert-adapted elephants, sky-scraping sand dunes and sunrise hot-air balloon safaris. Check out our Namibia safari ideas to find one that's right for your kids here.
An important education and research facility, AfriCat does not allow interaction with or handling of the cats (cubs quickly become habituated to humans in this way, which means they lose their fear of us, with potentially devastating consequences when they are older - please see our blog on ethical animal encounters to understand why petting cubs is problematic). But they do close-up viewing from specially built hides and undertake interactive bush walks to track roaming big cats, which make for thrilling but completely safe encounters in the wild. Budding photographers will enjoy practising their skills from the security of the hide, waiting for the right moment to get an adorable close up of a tangle of wild dog puppies or the classic shot of a yawning lion, his mane backlit in the golden light.
#4 Monkeying Around with Chimpanzees
Although chimps are not monkeys (they’re great apes like their gorilla relatives in Rwanda) they are still great fun to watch and there are few places better to do so than at the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Established in 1993 in partnership with Kenya Wildlife Services and the Jane Goodall Institute, Sweetwaters is a safe refuge for displayed and orphaned chimps from across Africa.
There are about 40 chimps at Sweetwaters who roam a vast natural enclosure. Highly social and very intelligent, they’re the only primates known to make advanced use of tools. These incredibly compelling creatures are not the only attraction at Sweetwaters though: kids can also visit the Endangered Species Boma, which is home to some of the few northern white rhinos left in the world, Grevy’s zebra and the kongoni or Jackson’s hartebeest.
They can also track lions with expert guides, go on bush walks and spend a morning with the livestock management team who look after the world’s largest herd of pure-bred boran cattle. Not to be dismissed as ‘only cows’, the boran have been joined by other indigenous African cattle breeds – ankole from Uganda and jiddu from Somalia – to ensure the survival of these unique species. At Sweetwaters, the team works to ensure that human animal husbandry and the needs of nature are balanced as much as possible.
The best way to tackle Sweetwaters is probably as part of a larger tour – like a 7-day Kenya Wilderness Experience – that will allow the whole family to see the Masai Mara, snow-capped Mount Kenya and the wild beauty of Amboseli National Park while staying at a series of eco-friendly camps.
Extra Tip: If you're holidaying in South Africa and you'd love to see primates, then why not stop and visit Monkeyland along the Garden Route? This fantastic centre is home to a variety of African and non-indigenous animals, and is a super family activity. Next door, Birds of Eden is just as enthralling: why not make a day of it?
#5 In the Company of Elephants
Staying in Nairobi, head to the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage to see orphaned ellies from all over Africa being washed, exercised and fed before they are carefully reintroduced into the wild at Tsavo. Elephants are especially intelligent and will recognise their keepers and even play tricks on them, like quietly stealing their caps off their heads while they’re talking to visitors. Rhinos are obviously under major threat and orphaned black rhino calves also find sanctuary at Sheldrick’s, which is heavily involved in anti-poaching, anti-snare and community outreach projects through the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
The best part of a visit here is that you can make a meaningful difference by adopting an ellie of your own and sponsoring his or her care! If your child falls 'in love' with one specific elephant, ask about adoption as a great birthday or religious holiday gift.
There are plenty of safaris that begin and end in Nairobi, meaning you are spoilt for choice. The city itself is a thriving modern metropolis, with plenty of contemporary hotels in upscale neighbourhoods like Karen and around Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
A very long Big 5 safari in the wild may be overwhelming to a young child but a journey broken up by visits to sanctuaries where they can experience the animals close up and under the watchful guidance of passionate and expert guides will pique their interest and provide welcome diversion from hours in a game drive vehicle. You never forget the first time you stand just metres away from an elephant that has life beyond a zoo, or the first time you look into a giraffe’s eyes on your own level as it gratefully, gently and delicately lifts a tasty morsel from your proffered palm...