Sitting on a plane bound for Johannesburg, I carefully read my holiday itinerary. It seemed almost too good to be true. Ultra-luxe bush camps, check. Big-game viewing, check. Comprehensive childcare, check. No risk of malaria, check. Reality, check.
I was heading into the heart of Big Five country with my sons Jack (14 months) and George (aged 10). You might not associate luxury safaris with family holidays, especially for those with younger children. It is commonly argued that youngsters need to be around 12 years old to appreciate the safari experience, and there are obvious dangers, tropical diseases to protect against, the dreaded pit lavatories and long 4x4 drives.
Turning these assumptions on their head, our host Bushbaby Travel, a specialist operator, promises imaginative, bespoke safari fare for families such as mine - keen to see wildlife in the raw but uneasy about sacrificing either personal safety or creature comforts.
Three hours' drive north-west of Johannesburg we reached our first camp, Ant's Nest, a private reserve teeming with wildlife, in South Africa's Waterberg region. Exclusivity is what this place is all about, taking just one group or family at a time. That means you get a chef, ranger and staff to yourself - not exactly roughing it. I gave George first choice of the farm's three intimate one-bedroom lodges. He rejected the romantic, oversize thatched suite and the cosy farmstead, plumping instead for an elevated, Tarzan-style affair, complete with an immense bed held up by tree trunks.
By the end of our first day George had tracked rhino from a dirt-bike, set up a footie friendly, trampolined, clocked the climbing wall and booked a game drive. Jack, meanwhile, paddled in the pool and played peek-a-boo among the bleached elephant skulls. Next morning we ditched the 4WD and went hiking with our guide, Peter, who pointed out fresh tracks and spore. Later we filed on horseback after an expert equestrian guide, Kara, for a tantalising glimpse of game up-close.
The ride ended with a thoroughly civilised lunch in the bush, at a table dressed with starched linen. I worried whether my children's manners were up to it, but I needn't have. At this and every meal we giggled and chatted our way through the delicious fare. It was the connoisseur's Africa.
Our next stop was Madikwe Game Reserve in the far north of the North West Province. Our elaborate faux-rustic suite oozed style, with an open fireplace, outdoor shower, private viewing decks and plunge pool. Outside it was raw Africa - mile upon mile of bush.
The absence of fences here meant we had our work cut out keeping an eye on wandering Jack. Thankfully, the indulgent staff kitted him out with an apron and diverted him with neon playdough. But we were generally pleased to have the chance of crossing paths with a wild animal just about anywhere. During one bathtime a family of elephants appeared a few inches from our deck, a mere wall of glass between us and them. For a toddler whose encounters with elephants had been confined to Barbar, this was a coup.
Our last stop was Jaci's Safari Lodge, also in the Madikwe Reserve, which offers eight elegant, open-fronted, canvas-walled cabanas spread out in a line. By day, the indoor-outdoor feel serves as a reminder that a safari is not just about fancy living, but about unrivalled quality time in the company of wildlife.
Sassy vervet monkeys scampered out of the thatch, stealing from the fruit bowls. Exotic crimson-breasted shrike cawed from their lofty perches. At night, when the candles were lit and the flap zipped into place, we gained a profound sense of solitude.
In Jaci's 4WD, the wind blowing in our faces, we were shown old-time hunting skills for stalking game, our guide pointing out fresh rhino dung and hyena territorial grass markings. Soon he had George deciphering animal footprints, and Jack ecstatic at a sighting of a lookalike of Zazu (the yellow-billed Hornbill from The Lion King).
I felt safe with all the guides. Back home doubting friends had tutted at our adventure, convinced that taking two youngsters on safari was a half-baked idea. But we came looking for an genuinely intimate encounter with the wild that compromised neither our level of comfort nor a feeling that my kids were safe and welcome. And we found it in South Africa.
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Helen Truszkowski travelled with Bushbaby Travel (0870-850 9103; bushbabytravel.com). Its Week in the Bush itinerary, from 1 May to 30 June, costs from £1,999 per adult and £1,149 per child under 12. The package includes return flights with Nationwide Airlines, car hire, three nights at Ant's Hill or Ant's Nest, two at Madikwe Safari Lodge, and two at Jaci's Tree or Safari Lodge.Reuse content