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 30 years and while I’m not a game ranger, 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 more and more 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!
An insider tip to travelling on safari with little ones is to, wherever possible, consider opting for your own private vehicle. This means you can determine exactly how long you stay at each sighting, how long you're out in the bush for, and the freedom for your family to really get into the game drive in a way that a shared vehicle may not allow (some lodges may, in fact, insist on a private vehicle if you have children under a certain age).
It also pays off to educate your children about what's going to happen on safari: they may be expecting the swashbuckling action and non-stop drama often shown on wildlife documentaries that takes specialised filmmakers literally years to capture. Explain that they are seeing the 'real deal' and not the TV version. Make it even more fun by pointing out 'Scar' and 'Mufasa' from The Lion King when you see lions, as well as Zazu when you spot a red-billed hornbill, Rafiki for a head honcho baboon and Pumbaa for a feisty warthog!
Here are our best options for going on safari with kids in Southern Africa:
#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.
#2. Tswalu Motse Lodge, Kalahari Desert, South Africa
The Kalahari Desert may seem inhospitable to outsiders 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, 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 Tip Combine your stay in the Kalahari with thrills at Victoria Falls. There is so much to do and see: go on a Zambezi River cruise, enjoy a helicopter flip or even bungee jump off the old railway bridge! We recommend the Victoria Falls Hotel for easy access to the Falls.
#3. Morukuru Farm House, Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa
In addition to welcoming 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 scrapbook 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 Tip Namibia combines really well with Botswana - another superb Southern Africa country filled with adventure! Why not take your family into the exciting Okavango Delta for an unforgettable holiday of game drives, nature walks and bird watching?
#5. Royal Malewane Africa House, Thornybush Game Reserve, South Africa
Situated in the heart of Thornybush Game Reserve bordering the greater Kruger National Park, Africa House offers an unprecedented luxury safari experience for families. Sleeping up to 12 guests, this beautiful safari holiday house is truly a home away from home, with wonderful views of the surrounding bush. You and your family will appreciate the services of your own private guide, tracker and vehicle, while children will enjoy the many facilities available to them: toys, game and books in the lounge, television with a variety of movies available, splashing about in the swimming pool and stargazing at night.
#6. Madikwe Safari Lodge, Madikwe Game Reserve, 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!’
Top Tip Combine your malaria-free Madikwe safari with a few days of fun and excitement at The Palace of the Lost City, the continent's most popular resort that has its own 'beach and ocean' in the middle of the bush.
#7. Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp, Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
The Masai Mara – along with the Serengeti in Tanzania – is the most famous of Africa’s reserves and scene of the annual Wildebeest Migration of hundreds of thousands of wildebeest in search of fresh grazing. At Kichwa Tembo Tented 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 Kenyan savannah. The camp also has three family tents with an interleading passageway connecting two rooms, and two of these tents have their own private outdoor areas.
#8. Sabi Sabi bush Lodge, Sabi Sands Game Reserve, South Africa
Because it shares unfenced borders with Kruger, the Sabi Sands is one of the best places in Africa for your kids to see the Big 5: lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino.
Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge was conceived with families in mind: the bright and cheerful EleFun Centre is painted with tribal Ndebele designs and opens out onto a play park with swings and other gear for climbing, jumping and using up all that youthful energy that parents might wish they still had. At EleFun, under-eights can take part in the Junior Trackers Programme while up to 12-year-olds can have fun being Junior Rangers. Qualified staff are always around to teach your children more about map reading, animal tracking, and the birds and bugs found in the garden.
The day is broken up into nature activities, arts & crafts, and games like treasure hunts - all connected to nature and ecology in an upbeat and easy-to-understand way.
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!