I started taking my own children on safari from the age of four because I come from Africa and I visit my family each year and take the children to see their grandparents and extended family.
Based on years of exploring Africa, in no particular order because they are all absolutely fabulous in their own way, here are my Africa top 5 family friendly safaris.
What one can do, really does depend upon the age of your children, as some activities, like white water rafting in Victoria Falls and canoeing down the Zambezi in Zimbabwe or Zambia require a minimum age of 16.
Other things that you should in my experience consider are really very much down to your obvious knowledge of what your children like and dislike. For example, some children are very excitable and find it impossible to keep quiet, whilst others bore easily (especially if they cannot get onto their iPad or computers!). Also, if you have just one child – that is a factor to consider as well and also how self-contained your children are, too!
1. South Africa is best for really young children, up to the age of six, for several reasons. The first is that much of the country is non malarial which some parents would prefer.
There is also so much choice and diversity – so that if you are trying out your first safari and don’t know what the reaction is going to be (or how quickly they will bore), then it’s a great starting point. If you add in Cape Town for the aquarium, go on an amazing township tour with Uthando, which is so uplifting and perhaps go out on a tour for the full day on the beach with your private guide, who teaches you stand up paddling (even for the little ones in the rock pools) and do a treasure hunt, landing up in a botanical garden, and at this point you are only scratching the surface as there is really so much more on offer!
At this point I haven’t even started talking about the whales, the seals, the penguins (that you can get so close to) etc.! They also give children backpacks and this was the perfect introduction to a family safari in Africa for my own children.
They learnt all about the medicinal properties of trees and plants – which plant to use for toothbrushes and which plants to use for toilet paper (!), as well as identifying the spoor marks or the tracks and trails of the animals that had come by.
The best was taking plaster-of-paris prints from the lion tracks to take home. As we all horse ride as a family, we also visited a lovely lodge which belongs to friends of mine in the Waterberg Mountains, just three hours or so from Johannesburg. Here my daughter started off with a lead rein, getting really close to giraffe, zebra and kudu. It was such a thrill.
We had the chance to go for a canter and it was superb. With the added bonus of a heated swimming pool, everyone was happy! Another favourite we come to each year is a gorgeous small hotel in Plettenberg Bay which is just heavenly! Here the children have a separate section – but they can play tennis, they can quad bike, mountain bike, swim and they have staff to look after the children if perhaps mum and dad want to have a quiet meal together or for example when I was having a spa treatment.
They give you everything you need for the beach which is only a ten minute drive away and there is a place where you can ride elephants, where you can see the most amazing aviary with exotic birds which is enormous – in its own forest! There is zip lining through the forest canopies at Tsitsikamma – the list is endless!
On another holiday that we had, we took over a house that is fully staffed and with your very own private guide – it’s around 4 hours from Johannesburg, where we went mountain biking each day. There was also a zip wire and my son learnt how to fly fish and we all also rode horses. Everyone was happy!
As the children grow older, a brilliant option is canoeing or white water rafting down one of the famous rivers in the northern Cape for around three or four days. This is a fabulous experience for the family, camping en route.
Again, as they grow older and especially for teenagers, Cape Town is the perfect place to perhaps end up as there are great beaches, lots of music to listen to, fantastic road and mountain biking, the cable car ride to Table Mountain and lots of trekking which makes it far more fun! So – definitely South Africa would be my first choice for younger children.
2. Next up – Kenya every time. I have to say, our best family safaris have been taken here. It’s the fact they have such a wonderful culture – with the Samburu, and the Maasai to name but a few. It’s the local people who really make it. We stayed with friends in Laikipia (I am from Kenya), who have raised their own children in the bush.
We went swimming and tubing down the rivers, taking swing ropes across the river, we camped out beneath the stars, we tracked wild dog with a telemetry system, we played badminton – we did so much! We visited a local village and saw how the ladies made their wonderful beaded belts and jewellery.
We also went on a camel trek which was the star of the show. How amazing! With a team of Samburu warriors, we learnt all about their culture, we learnt how to make fires with no matches, how to make a bow and arrow from a shrub and then how to shoot them. We also learnt what it is like in the 21st century to become a warrior and the difficulties that face them whilst embracing parts of westernisation but also retaining their culture.
The Masai Mara was next which is undoubtedly the finest game reserve in Africa. We saw three separate cheetah on our one game drive – and one of the cheetah was hunting which was fabulous to witness. We saw lots of elephant and bat eared foxes (they are just wonderful!)
We ended by going to the coast and stayed at a Robinson Crusoe style island retreat. It was simply fabulous! There were more water sports than you could shake a stick at! From kite surfing, to scuba diving, to laser sailing, to water skiing, to snorkelling to fishing – just absolutely everything! However, I was very happy to sit next to the swimming pool, read my book and dine on fresh crab in the evenings, accompanied by a chilled glass of sauvignon blanc!
3. Then there’s just fabulous Botswana. Again, as we ride, we always incorporate riding in our safaris and there are some wonderful places where you don’t get any predators which are perfect for children who have never ridden in the wild before!
Otherwise, there is also more serious riding amongst predators too for experienced riders. But one of the highlights was going to the Makgadikgadi salt pans in the Kalahari Desert. That was simply amazing. We took the quad bikes out and slept out beneath the stars with our guide for a couple of nights.
The night sky is simply breath-taking here! The children spent time with the Meerkats who took great interest in them – and vice versa! This was a real highlight, too, together with being with the San or Bushmen people and learning how they forage for roots and tubers with our guide who interpreted everything they told us in their click speaking language.
We then travelled to the Delta, where we had a private tented mobile camp erected just for our family. This was great and quite aside from going out and seeing amazing wildlife each day – but on our own terms – with our own guide and vehicle – which gave us complete flexibility and freedom each day.
We took a mokoro (canoe) along the floodplains and camped on a private island. The children learnt how to fish again and how to pole a mokoro - their dug-out canoes. They learnt all about the culture and our guide Opi was simply sensational. He taught us about the night sky in the southern hemisphere and how to read the stars. He taught us about reading tracks of animals and again about the plants and trees and their medicinal uses.
From the Delta we moved on to Chobe which had a wonderful lodge where we stayed and where we could game view by vehicle into the park and by boat along the river, which is just so beautiful. The elephants were incredible – I think we counted around 100 that were swimming across the river all with their trunks in the air!
The last leg of this wonderful journey ended at Victoria Falls which was just magical. We stayed on the Zambian side, at a tree house. Here we took a zip line across the Falls, we rode an elephant and we took a helicopter ride over the Falls. The children just loved it and the best bit is that it was nothing like being on a safari, but rather something completely different. My son fished and my daughter relaxed with her books and sadly - her iPad which she was overjoyed to be reunited with!
4. As a fourth option - I would place Zambia and Malawi together for a great family safari with a twist. Zambia has amazing wildlife and we were able to take over a private house and had our own guide and vehicle, plus chef. As you might imagine this was the highlight of the whole adventure for me!
The days were spent exploring and seeing extraordinary leopards in the south Luangwa reserve. We then camped out for a night and did a walking safari, where we learnt so much, especially about how to walk amongst wild game and how to keep safe.
We even went to one of the villages and played a football match with the local people and the children learnt how to play the drums and see how the local people lived.
For me this is such an important part of every family safari to Africa that we undertake. It’s not just about having a safari and a lovely time, but I also feel we have a social responsibility too and I like to be very sensitive when it comes to integrating with the local people and they have to also gain something from the experience.
Their children interact with ours and it completely changes the dynamics. Next was a trip down the lower Zambezi where we canoed and fished and saw loads more game. We then flew to Lake Malawi where there is a simply fabulous lodge. Here the children water skied, snorkelled and simply had a lot of fun.
I loved it because this was a part of true, uncommercial Africa. We went to Likoma Island and saw the cathedral. There were lots of children were here and they would laugh and follow us everywhere which was just superb.
5. Fifth – I would say Mozambique together with Southern Tanzania is also an extremely good option. We had a truly amazing dhow safari just for our family up the Quirimbas archipelago. We started off by staying at a lovely island which has just one hotel on it (at present!).
We walked through the streets and felt part of the local people. It was all incredibly safe, too. You can see the silversmiths working on ancient coins that they pummel and make into silver jewellery or watch a football match being played.
Another wonderful experience that we shall never forget is when we took a boat out and went swimming and diving with dolphins. We camped out a night – but this was no ordinary camping. A camp was set up for us and in the evening and a wonderful seafood meal was freshly prepared for us.
We sea kayaked, snorkelled and went scuba diving. We visited a village on another island and spoke to the school master who was teaching the children in a tiny open sided school.
Later we flew to Southern Tanzania where we went to Saadani and did some walking which was terrific. There is a wonderful, Robinson Crusoe style rustic camp with open sides which is where we ended up staying. The owners are both doctors and do a lot for the local community and we were invited to accompany them on one of their visits.
The final leg of this particular safari was in the Selous which is an amazing place where we were able to game view by vehicle, on foot and by boat as well as fish. We were again fortunate to have a private house with our own chef and private vehicle – so we were really very spoiled.
The views here were simply sensational! The game viewing was good although not as concentrated as the game viewing we have seen elsewhere, but it was just lovely and the perfect ending to a perfect family safari in Africa.
The thing is, Africa offers such non-stop fun and entertainment for the whole family and that is why a safari to Africa is always such a successful family holiday. Having tried to holiday elsewhere, I am always drawn back to Africa because we always return having had our best holidays here.