Going on an African safari with your kids is a truly unforgettable experience; I know this having just returned from four days in South Africa’s Kruger National Park with five children. The eldest was fourteen and the youngest five years old, and they all had the most incredible time. Here’s what I learnt….
Kids love the bush. They love it in that bright-eyed curious way that makes it even more exciting for you. Taking your children on an African family vacation is awesome!
The best advice I received was to be well prepared as travelling with kids can be challenging, but it does not have to be.
Our family trip to Kruger was carefully planned and I looked for family safari packages that cater for young children. We started our journey in Johannesburg and chose to drive to the Kruger National Park. It’s a relatively easy drive made all the more fun by stopping along the way for snack breaks, the petrol stations have great play areas and decent coffee so are an ideal for the whole family.
We purposefully chose a four-day safari at a small safari camp, which gave us enough time to experience all that’s on offer. Because we had booked a family-friendly safari, the camp staff and game rangers made sure that the kids had a great time on holiday. The safari crew are adept at making each day memorable, so while on paper it might read the same – we had so many brilliant and varied experiences.
On our first day, we arrived just in time for the afternoon game drive. The kids quickly clambered onto the game truck and we set off while the sun was lowering over the bush. Within ten minutes we saw elephants and zebra, and as the sun set, we were lucky enough to see two female lions slowly waking up, the kids sat silently staring at them in awe.
After enjoying ‘sundowners’ (think Gin & Tonic in the African bush), we set off back to camp for a delicious meal, comparing what we animals we had seen with other families at dinner, and then spent the evening playing monopoly.
Over the next three days of our budget Kruger safari, we explored the breadth of the park and tallied up incredible sightings including the ‘Big Five’, hundreds of antelope, wild dogs, a lonely honey badger. The kids loved spotting four of the ‘ugly five’ - hyena, wildebeest, warthog and a scraggly vulture.
On our second day, the kids were also treated to kid-friendly bushwalks, they literally walked around the camp with Enoch, the kid’s favourite game ranger, who taught them all about the bush, what plants you can eat and how to read animal footprints. The kids returned to the safari camp dragging a large set of antelope horns in the dust behind them.
My top tips for the best family safari experience:
1. Find a child-friendly safari camp
Not all safari camps accept kids, so do your homework. There are no hard and fast rules, but the general guide is that kids over eight are ready to go on an African safari. Saying this, my youngest daughter is five… and pretty energetic, however, she was brilliant on safari. She absolutely loved the game drives and jumped out of bed at sunrise so she could be the first on the vehicle. She still talks about seeing her first African wild dog, ever! It’s a good idea to choose a camp that offers family rooms so you have a base for the whole family, and a place to play in the afternoons.
2. Take anti-malaria precautions or safari in malaria-free areas
There are a variety of malaria-free game reserves in South Africa, so you can choose these easily. We purposefully planned to visit Kruger Park in June as its low-malaria season; this meant we didn’t need to think about malaria pills. However this doesn’t mean you can’t visit your dream destination, avoiding malaria is possible, you just need to be proactive. So take your malaria pills, use the malaria nets at night, pop malaria plugins in the room, spray your family with a mozzie spray, and get the kids to wear mosquito bands at night. We bought the glow-in-the-dark mozzie bands from Cape Union Mart for this family safari and the kids loved them.
3. Make game drives fun
Before you set out, make sure your kids know the drill and the golden rule that animals are scared of big noises. Game drives take about three hours, which for some children can be a long time to sit still, but the wow factor of seeing animals up close keeps them preoccupied.
What worked a trick was telling the kids what to expect. We also gave them small cameras and binoculars to share, so that they could see the animals in the bush easily, and so they could take photos to show the friends back at home. We also offered a points-based reward for spotting animals first, the first kid who spotted an elephant got ten points… and twenty points for a rhino…. five points for a Southern Hornbill and thirty points for a pangolin.
Another great tip for kids safaris is to give the older children a notebook and pencil to record what animals they see on each game drive. When we returned to camp we would crosscheck our animal guidebooks (another handy advance purchase from any good bookshop) and stick stars beside the animals we saw. We then read up about each animal, the kids loved it. We also set ‘targets’ for what each kid hoped to see, and by the end of our Kruger family holiday, we had seen all the Big Five and more!
4. Safari activities for kids
Many of the safari camps offer kid-friendly activities. Our children participated in a 45-minute ‘bumble,’ kind of like a mini walking safari, where the game ranger took the kids on a walk around the camp, they learnt about the local fauna and insects.
Another highlight was the ‘big sleep out’; the kids were allowed to sleep under the stars on a purpose-built wooden structure in the bush. They spent the night with us, cuddled up under warm duvets whilst listening to the animals call in the night. Words cannot describe how special it was.
We also booked a private game drive, so it was just our family in the safari vehicle which was great fun, especially when we stopped off for ‘sundowners’ and the kids were treated to roasting marshmallows over the campfire.
5. Have fun back at your safari camp
Most days you will have about four hours back at camp, so it's handy having a few activities up your sleeve. Our kids loved swimming in the pool. As it was winter we took wetsuits and they literally spent all afternoon swimming…having so much fun that they didn’t notice the elephant walking towards the pool for a drink of water.
The safari camp also had a good stock of games to play, so we spent heaps of time playing cards and monopoly. Meal times were great as that’s when everyone compares notes about what they saw and fun facts about animals.
A family safari is a bucket list ‘must-do’
When I reflect on our family safari experience, there is one thing I know – we made memories for life on this trip to Kruger. We were lucky enough to see the Big Five, to walk with wild dogs prancing beside us and to see our first honey badger.
Our kids loved every minute on safari, their chatter was filled with facts and tales about animals; they had the best time exploring nature – away from technology. We are hooked, and cannot wait to go on an African family safari again. All it takes is a little forward planning and a sense of adventure.
Talk to our African Travel Experts about finding and planning the best budget family safari for you and your kids. From Kruger Park to Etosha and the Okavango Delta to Masai Mara, we know the best ways to experience Africa on a budget.