Traveller's guide: Family safaris

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If you get the details right, a trip to view Africa's amazing wildlife can be the ultimate adventure for parents and children, says Mike Unwin

"Giraffes are boring. Hate giraffes!" "But it's your favourite," you plead from the front seat, patience flagging. This isn't how it is supposed to be – your once-in-a-lifetime family safari. You were sure your kids would love it. After all, their bedroom is stuffed with cuddly hippos and Big Cat Diary has them glued to the TV. Now you're giving them the real thing: a living, breathing giraffe, so close that you can see those outrageous eyelashes. Why the sulky histrionics?

Family safaris are tricky. Parents might be happy to wax lyrical about "the wilderness experience", but more often than not this means long hours in a hot vehicle. "Are we nearly there yet?" is just as hard to answer in the Maasai Mara as on the M25 – and a lion slumbering under a bush can't always compete with the ice cream that's been promised back at camp.

This, together with high prices, is why safaris are not always seen as family holiday fodder. Indeed, some more exclusive camps still maintain a lower age-limit of 12. They may cite safety – and, of course, you don't want your kids becoming too friendly with the local buffalo – but they are also concerned about their other guests. After all, clients who have paid top whack for their exclusive bush retreat could do without tantrums over twiglets, or the unrelenting click-bleep of a Nintendo DS as their vehicle tails a leopard.

Get it right, though, and there are few more rewarding family holidays than a safari. You just need to plan carefully and compromise a little on the agenda.

First, small is beautiful: think macro, not wide-angle. Cut down on some of those long game drives and spend more time in camp; a day in camp can be worth two in the bush. Indeed, you can get the African bush in a microcosm. A gecko snaring moths on your ceiling can be as gripping as any lion kill, while a sandy picnic site offers a real-life puzzle-page of tracks and signs. Children can enjoy their own thrilling close encounters with the likes of hornbills, vervet monkeys and mongooses – and all on their own terms.

Second, keep it hands-on. "Wilderness" means little to a highly charged seven-year-old unless there's a bit of it you can poke, chase or scribble on. So elephant tracks are made for hopscotch, baboons for pulling faces at and hippo grunts for imitating. The more tactile the better: threading seedpods on to a necklace, luring an ant-lion from its pit with a blade of grass, and teasing out bits of millipede from a civet midden have all worked for me.

And remember that safaris, for all the action-packed yarns, can be quite passive affairs. So you'll need outlets for all that pent-up youthful energy. Swimming pools, where available, are a godsend. Even building campfires or putting up tents are thrills that your children may not know back home.

That's not to say that game drives are out. But keep them short, for the sake of attention spans. That way the giraffes, elephants, zebras and other A-listers will all weave their magic. And abandon that Big Five checklist. Instead, try stopping whenever your children spot something that interests them – oxpeckers in an impala's ear, perhaps, or a huge puddle of elephant wee.

For ultimate family freedom, self-drive is the way to go. You can make your own itinerary and need not worry about treading on the toes of your safari neighbours. This is only practical, however, where the infrastructure allows it. Top of the self-drive heap are South Africa and Namibia, where major parks such as the Kruger and Etosha have good roads and large public camps, with cheap family accommodation, inviting pools and ice cream on tap.

The terrain in many other top safari destinations – including Zambia's South Luangwa, Tanzania's Serengeti and Botswana's Okavango – rules out self-drive for most. Here you're in the realm of the small private lodge. But most still have some larger, cheaper and more family-friendly camps, where you can do your own thing and then join organised game drives when you feel like it. With advanced warning, such camps may put aside a vehicle and guide for your family – and you could team up with another family to split the cost.

If the DIY approach is not for you, the good news is that the safari industry has at last woken up to the family market and many operators now offer family-friendly safari packages. These often include activities specifically tailored for children, such as guided walks or bush-craft courses.

At the top end of this market, families can have an entire camp to themselves. The Safari Houses of Zambia collection (safarihouses.com), for instance, offers exclusive family cottages deep in the bush, each with a cook and guide, plus an itinerary of child-centred activities. Other family safaris – especially in areas with less potentially dangerous wildlife – offer energetic activities, such as mountain biking or canoeing, and a chance to interact with the local community.

Another good bet is to combine your safari with something different. Popular bush/beach combos include Tanzania, where Zanzibar is the perfect foil to the dusty Serengeti; or Malawi, whose vast lake offers beaches and snorkelling. And you can end any safari in Zambia, Botswana or Zimbabwe with a stop at the Victoria Falls, where those with any energy left to burn can always go bungee-jumping and white-water rafting, or simply enjoy a drenching.

When you choose to go will depend upon where you're heading. In much of southern Africa the dry season, from May to November, is peak safari time, with roads open, wildlife coming to water and sparse vegetation making viewing easier. In South Africa and much of Namibia, though, all-weather roads mean that most parks are accessible all year round, and there's always something in season.

In East Africa the rainfall pattern is more complex and you can go at any time of year. Christmas holidays are peak season in the Serengeti (Tanzania) and Maasai Mara (Kenya), although June to September sees the wildebeest migration. Some lodges in Zambia's Luangwa Valley offer excellent March to April "emerald season" safaris, which makes Easter an option, and wildlife in the Kalahari (Bostswana/South Africa) is good at this time. The rainy season also has one major draw: there will be more baby animals.

In the end, wherever or whenever you take your family on safari the rewards will be the same: a wildlife bonanza, plus the ultimate outdoor children's playground. Mix up your itinerary, get hands-on, and there'll be no time for temper tantrums.

What's more, travelling with children offers adults the perfect get-out clause from all those pre-dawn departures and long waterhole stakeouts – and a chance to rediscover the natural world through younger eyes. If they find it interesting, be it rhino poo or baboon bums, then it probably is; you just haven't looked closely enough. There is more to safaris than big game, after all, and getting down and dirty with nature is where the wonder begins.

Mike Unwin is the author of 'Southern African Wildlife: A Visitor's Guide' (Bradt, £18.95) and 'The RSPB Children's Guide to Birdwatching' (£6.99).

Top tips for safaris with children

* Keep drives short: two hours maximum, preferably less.

* Pencils and paper work anywhere.

* Play "I-spy" and invent your own games: "First person to spot a..."

* Keep them drinking water; stock up on emergency snacks.

* Take toilet breaks – before you set out and at every stop.

* Get out of the vehicle wherever and whenever it's allowed.

* Allow playing time with other children you meet on safari.

* Don't keep moving on: allow time at each destination to establish a base.

* Stop whenever your child wants, even if it's "just another impala".

* Let them pick it up – seed pods, bones, whatever – unless it bites or stings. Wash their hands afterwards.

* Bring children's binoculars and/or digital cameras (cheap is fine).

* Make sure the car seat is high enough to allow a good view.

Independent and self-drive safaris

Doing your own thing in your own vehicle means a flexible itinerary and no worries about disrupting others. Top spots for a DIY, self-drive safari include:

South Africa

The Kruger Park has reasonably priced self-catering public camps, plus good roads and excellent facilities. Four nights for a family of four in a fully equipped, self-catering cottage at Satara Rest Camp costs from 5,700 rand (£488), excluding conservation fees. Details and reservations at sanparks.org.

Namibia

Good roads and facilities mean that a self-drive safari in this wild country is easier than you might imagine. Safari Drive (01488 71140; www.safaridrive.com) offers a 14-day self-drive "Classic Namibian Journey", covering Etosha, Damaraland, Sossusvlei and the Skeleton coast. The price includes five nights in lodges and eight nights camping. The price starts at £1,362 per person based on four people travelling, including vehicle, camping equipment and full in-country back-up, but excluding international flights.

Zambia

A self-drive safari in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park is only for the experienced. But there are good options for families who fly in to Mfuwe. Flatdogs Camp (00 260 216 246038; flatdogscamp.com), located on the edge of the park, has family-friendly activities and facilities, and will arrange airport pick-ups and trips into the park and local community. Luxury safari tents start at US$42 a night for adults (half-price for children), rising to US$200 ($100 for children) including all meals, game drives and park entry.

Malawi

Try the 14-night, self-drive camping and lodge family safari offered by Safari Drive (01488 71140; www.safaridrive.com). This begins and ends in the capital, Lilongwe, and takes in Majete Wildlife Reserve, Mount Mulanje, Zomba Plateau, Liwonde National Park and Cape Maclear (on Lake Malawi). It includes trekking, abseiling, elephant tracking, quad biking, mountain biking, horse riding, an educational village stay, kayaking, snorkelling, fishing and diving. Prices start at £1,620 per person, based on two adults and two children aged 12 to 18 years sharing a 4x4, but do not include international flights.

Bush and beach

A winning African combination – ideally with the beach coming second, so you can wash off all the dust:

Tanzania

W&O Rainbow Tours (020-7226 1004; rainbowtours.co.uk) offers a 10-night bush safari and beach experience, including three nights each at the Selous Safari Camp (Selous Game Reserve) and Jongomero Camp (Ruaha National Park), with daily game drives, and four nights at the exclusive beach retreat of Ras Kutani. The price of £3,445 per adult and £3,280 per teenager, includes all flights and is based on two adults and two children aged 12 to 16 sharing. Available July to October.

Kenya

Exodus (0845 805 9218; exodus.co.uk) offers a "Big Cat Safari and Coast" trip which includes three nights in the Maasai Mara, with game walks, game drives, a visit to a Maasai village and optional balloon trip, plus five nights at Galu beach resort, with snorkelling and an optional visit to Kisite Marine Reserve. Also includes flamingoes at Lake Nakuru and Lake Elementaita. The 13-day trip costs from £3,299 (adult) and £2,849 (child), including flights. Available July to December.

Zambia/Malawi

Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com) has a nine-night tour of the region available from April to December. It

includes four nights at Robin's House – a private two-bedroom house in South Luangwa National Park, with plunge pool, chef, hostess, private game-viewing vehicle and guide.

Three nights at Pumulani beach lodge on Lake Malawi are also included, with pool, private beach and sailing, plus village walks and birdwatching. The price for adults starts at £3,442; £2,946 for those aged 12 to 16; and £2,445 for ages seven to 11, based on a family of four travelling together. Includes flights, meals, most drinks, all safari activities in Zambia and non-motorised water sports in Malawi.

The bite stuff

Malaria is prevalent in most sub-Saharan Africa parks, including the Kruger, and is the main concern for many parents contemplating a safari.

Children under five are at greatest risk. Consult your doctor about anti-malarial drugs, and be rigorous with repellent and covering up after dark.

If you prefer not to risk it, then South Africa offers malaria-free, family-friendly alternatives, including Addo and Shamwari (Eastern Cape) and Madikwe (North-West Province).

Imagine Africa (020-7622 5114; www.imagineafrica.co.uk) offers a four-night, malaria-free safari at Amakhala Woodbury Lodge in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. The trip includes game drives, walking safaris and boat cruises on the Bushman's River. From the start of May to the end of September, prices start at £598 per adult and £323 per child under 12, including meals, house drinks, airport transfers and two safari activities per day (sharing in a family room), but excluding international flights.

Getting stuck in

Activity-based packages cater for more energetic families:

Kenya

Imagine Africa (020-7622 5114; imagineafrica.co.uk) runs a family safari in the remote Laikipia region which includes camel safaris, mountain biking, river bathing (croc-free), sleep-outs, and Big Five game drives. Five nights at Sosian Lodge, including all meals, drinks and activities, costs from £1,846 per adult and £1,366 per child under 16, excluding international flights.

Namibia

Responsible Travel (01273 600 052; responsibletravel.com) offers a 15-day family safari including boat trips to see dolphins and seals, an optional balloon ride and a visit to the Cheetah Conservation Project. The price of £2,238 per adult and £2,043 per child includes international flights to and from London. The next departures are 9 April, 21 July, 4 and 18 August.

Madagascar

Pioneer Expeditions (0845 0047801; pioneerexpeditions.com) offers activity-based packages for families with children aged over eight, exploring different regions of Madagascar. The accommodation ranges from camping to beach huts, lodges and a tree-bungalow. The trip includes interacting with local communities, wildlife, beaches and stunning landscapes, as well as activities such as canoeing and following mountain trails. Prices start from £1,895 per person, including all activities, accommodation and some meals but excluding flights. Available from September to January.

Botswana/Namibia

Intrepid Travel (020-3147 7777; intrepidtravel.com) offers a 19-day family overland trip from Victoria Falls to Windhoek, including tracking with the San bushmen, climbing sand dunes at Sossusvlei, game viewing in Chobe, Okavango and Etosha, and adventure sports at Victoria Falls. From £1,660 per person, excluding international flights. Departs year-round.

Tanzania

Explore (0845 0131537; explore.co.uk) offers a two-week Serengeti safari and Zanzibar family tour that focuses on big-game viewing in the national parks. Activities are all family-orientated. Departures are 22 July, 5 and 19 August and 16 December, and cost from £2,839 per adult (£2,524 per child), including return flights, accommodation, meals, transport and a tour leader and driver.

All to yourself

Splash out on a family house or tented camp in the heart of the bush, with child-friendly activities and not another tourist in sight. Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com) offers a pair of interesting options:

Zambia

A nine-day trip to the South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi family safari houses. These are private, four-bedroom cottages with plunge pool, chef, hostess, and private game-viewing vehicle and guide.

The safari combines four nights at Luangwa Safari House in South Luangwa National Park with three nights at Chongwe River House in Lower Zambezi National Park.

Prices starts at £3,947 per adult, £2,836 each for child aged 12 to 16 and £2,331 each for children aged seven to 11, including scheduled international flights, air transfers, meals, most drinks, safari activities and fees. Available from 1 April to 15 November

Botswana

A nine-day Kalahari and Okavango exclusive family safari available from March to November. The trip includes three nights at Camp Kalahari beside Makgadikgadi Salt Pans where you can explore the local geology as well as the wildlife.

Nature drives, quad-bike excursions and walks led by Bushman trackers are also included. You then have three nights at Footsteps tented camp in the Okavango Delta, with guided walks and game tracking.

The price starts at £4,272 per adult, £4,148 each for children aged eight to 11, and £3,904 each for children aged seven, based on a family of four travelling together. It includes flights, transfers, activities, meals and most drinks.

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