The No Hassle Guide to Taking Your Kids on Safari!
Traveling with kids is an adventure in itself; from packing for seasonal changes to surviving long flights, bug bites and sunburns. I have a few tips for you to have a great South African safari, family in tow.
I have 2 little boys, ages 3 and 7, so I must be ready for anything. My husband is South African, so luckily we have an insider’s guide to his home country, but he has never been there with little kids so this safari is new for all of us!
First off: Put everything you think you should pack out, then take HALF. Pack half the clothes and twice the money is my motto. Rain jackets are always a must and mosquito repellent, allergy lotion, tea tree oil and melatonin are my go to items on every trip.
In Flight: Getting there. Living in Montana, the flight to Johannesburg is exceptionally LONG. I like to break up long trips with an overnight, that way the kids can get out and play a bit, so I book a ticket that lets us do that. Always get a window seat, for some reason being able to look makes the kids feel better. Pack a lot of long lasting suckers and snacks for the flight and water bottles! Download movies so that no matter what there is something to entertain them. We also have a magnetic bingo game, which is fun for all of us. I love teaching the boys about wildlife and learning local words, so I create games that involve that before we get there. In this case, we play the A to Z Africa game…takes a good amount of time and imagination to get through all the animals!
Arrival: After such a long flight everyone needs to rest and shower, so we head to the Tambo International Airport Hotel…a mere 600 yards from the airport. This hotel’s elegant surroundings greet you and the rooms are spacious and provide every modern comfort. The Bernoullis Restaurant offers an extensive selection of international dishes from both the buffet and a la carte menu, while the wine bar is the perfect setting for a post dinner drink (it’s open 24 hours a day). Mommy needs a good local vino after this flight! I love a glass of the Two Oceans Pinotage from the Cape.
The next morning we hire a taxi to visit “The cradle of Humankind”, Sterjfontein Caves. Only about an hour from Johannesburg, this is a world Heritage site exploring the evolution of man. A great first “safari” for the whole family, with tickets about $6 for the kids and $10 for the adults. Within the Sterkfontein Caves, scientists have discovered many hominid and other animal fossils, dating back more than 4-million years, to the birth of humanity. The most important and most famous of these fossils are “Mrs Ples”, a 2.1-million-year-old Australopithecus skull, and “Little Foot”, an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton that is more than 3-million years old. It is fascinating and a good walk after being in a plane for so long.
Transport: I like to be in control of my situation, so we always rent our own vehicles to get around. A 4×4 safari truck is perfect to fit all of us and the car seats and we love camping on our own, so a roof top tent is included! We rent from Bushveld Safaris, whom we have known for years.
We travel via Middelburg, the town my husband, Nel, grew up in. We stop for a bite at the golf course, which has the best views and food in town. Nel takes us to his old school, the house he grew up in (which is now a doctors clinic) and the parks he used to play. The most fun is to hear him speaking Afrikaans and the kids trying to as well! The local candy shop has candies they had never tried, so we filled a bag for the rest of the trip.
Passing Belfast, Dullstroom and Lydenburg to the province of Mpumalanga and the “Panorama Route” of the majestic Drakensberg Mountains, we admire the natural beauty of the Blyde River Canyon – third deepest canyon in the world, Bourke’s Luck Potholes and God’s Window.
After setting up our tent that folds out from the roof of our truck, we sit with wine in hand and ready for a few nights in the beautiful Sabie River Valley near Hazyview. This is the gateway to Kruger National Park. But we take advantage of all the activites right here. If one thing I have learned with my 3 year old, the journey is NOT the destination, better to get to a place and enjoy a few days outside the car.
Our truck comes outfitted with all the pots and pans, camping fridge, bedding and coolers. We cook our own breakfast and finish coffee early to head out to walk the Matumi Walking Trail upstream under a canopy of indigenous forest that includes matumi trees. Whether you prefer a major hike or short stroll, the bird life is prolific and you might be lucky enough to spot red duiker.
A picnic and a dip in the stream is a perfect midday treat. We spend the afternoon walking with giants: rescued elephants at the elephant sanctuary. It’s a special experience to feel the sole of an elephant’s foot or touch the wispy hair on its tail. Elephants are my favorite animals, they have an incredible social and family connection, and it’s a special chance to share them up close with my sons.
Our plan is to camp in the same space for 3 nights, and do day trips into Kruger National Park. We spend the first park exploration with a local ranger on an included open vehicle safari in the Kruger National Park (20 000 km² of pristine African bush) in search of the “Big 5” – lion, leopard, rhinoceros elephant, and Cape buffalo and a host of other animals. We enjoy 2 full days traveling north. The Kruger National Park is known to be the most diverse park in the world with 140 mammals, 119 reptiles, 506 bird, 55 amphibians and more then 1980 plant species.
This is a perfect place to take a young family to see the African wildlife. Just alongside the road we stopped to let an elephant herd cross, a little lion cub chase after his mother, and lofty giraffes eat from the acacia trees. Nights are spent making lists of all the animals we saw and writing in our journals.
Still in the far northern reaches of the KNP, we visit Crook’s Corner on the border between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, wandering the trails of the Thulamela Ruins, former seat of wicked King Ingwe and beautiful Queen Losha (a great legend to explain to the kids!) We leave from the park via Punda Maria Gate and travel to Tzaneen, to visit to the Modjadji Cycad Forest Reserve, the oldest and largest baobab tree in the world – with a pub inside its trunk! Standing at 22 meters tall, with a circumference of 47 meters, this magnificent tree sits on the Sunland Nurseries grounds. The nursery itself is rather impressive although the baobab here is still the main attraction. Carbon dating estimated that the tree is around 6000 years old, making it even older than the famous Giza Pyramids! It is amazing to sit 1 meter blow the ground, surrounded by an ancient tree, sipping my Savannah Cider.
We camp Overnight in the beautiful Magoebaskloof Valley, and head for our last nights in comfort. All though all the campsites have showers and bathrooms (ablutions) it has been a lot of camping, and we are ready for real beds and baths!
I recommend the Vuyani Safari Lodge, it is intimate, exclusive, without the “luxury” fuss. Vuyani means “welcome”…and I must totally mention that the presidential suite is worth it. So spacious and a plethora of monkeys outside the room that we could enjoy watching after breakfast. They climbed the trees around the patio & even drank from the jacuzzi. This is what makes kids happy, to be able to see animals and play surrounded by wildness, and mom and dad can take a break from camping and cooking! Their braai’s are authentic, the wine and beer local, and as an all-inclusive package, our last two nights in South Africa were peaceful, filled with animals and something I hope my kids will always remember, I know I will.
iNingizimu Afrika lizwe elimangalisayo! ~ Zulu phrase