Up close and personal

Family adventures on safari can be found in a host of countries, says Aoife O'Riordain

Out of the picture book, into Africa: the current generation of schoolchildren is the first that can realistically hope to see a range of animals, from lion to zebra, in their natural habitat. Cheaper air travel has helped broaden horizons for children and their parents. A trip to the zoo will never seem the same again when you have seen a hippo wallowing and an elephant lumbering through the heart of Africa. But taking the family on an African holiday can prove tricky - not least because many safari camps and lodges will not accept children under the age of 12. But there are exceptions.

Out of the picture book, into Africa: the current generation of schoolchildren is the first that can realistically hope to see a range of animals, from lion to zebra, in their natural habitat. Cheaper air travel has helped broaden horizons for children and their parents. A trip to the zoo will never seem the same again when you have seen a hippo wallowing and an elephant lumbering through the heart of Africa. But taking the family on an African holiday can prove tricky - not least because many safari camps and lodges will not accept children under the age of 12. But there are exceptions.

Family adventures can be had in a host of countries, from obvious favourites such as Kenya and Tanzania to Zambia and Botswana. The latter can often offer more intimate and memorable wildlife viewing thanks to high standards of guiding and small family-friendly camps offering itineraries to suit families' particular requirements.

Tailor-made itineraries are the best way to cater for the individual needs of a family travelling together, but can also be prohibitively expensive. Many tour operators offer escorted small-group tours during school holidays, aimed at families. Group trips also give children the opportunity to make some new friends their own age with whom to share their unforgettable experiences.

With the exception of certain regions of South Africa, it is imperative for families to take health precautions: notably against malaria, but many other hazards can be found in the tropics. Take advice from your GP or a travel medicine specialist such as MASTA (09068 224100; www.masta.org).

SOUTH AFRICA

Africa's richest country is one of the continent's most popular destinations, particularly for families. This is partly because some areas in the Western and Eastern Cape are malaria-free, dispensing with the need for prophylactics. Most of South Africa's wildlife lives in the bushveld or lowveld (woodlands in the north and east of the country). The celebrated Kruger National Park is the place to go to catch glimpses of the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo), but South Africa also boasts nearly 300 smaller parks and game reserves.

"Discover South Africa" is the name of a 15-day group trip offered by Explore Family Adventures (01252 760 177; www.explore.co.uk); there is a minimum age of six. The holiday starts with a flight from London Heathrow via Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth and includes visits to the Addo Elephant National Park, Schotia Reserve, Tsitsikamma National Park, Plettenberg Bay, Cango Caves and Table Mountain. The trip combines safari drives with activities including sea kayaking, mountain biking and whale-watching. It costs from £1,475 per adult, £1,275 per child (aged six-12), which includes all transportation, 12 nights' accommodation and some meals. The next departure is 21 August 2004.

Keen riders will enjoy one of the itineraries offered by the horse-riding specialist, In the Saddle (01299 272 997; www.inthesaddle.com). Ant's Nest and Ant's Hill is a luxurious camp in the Waterburg area of South Africa. It offers horse-riding safaris tailored to each family's requirements and abilities; riding is available for children aged four and above. Prices for a seven-night stay start from £1,980 per adult and £1,240 per child (under 12). This includes return flights from London Heathrow via Johannesburg, transfers, accommodation with all meals, activities, game drives and park fees.

ZAMBIA

Bordered by seven other countries, Zambia has a startling diversity of animals and bird species. The Luangwa Valley, in the east, covers 9,000 sq km and is roamed by elephant, buffalo, giraffe, hippo, cheetah and leopard. It's also home to a number of species unique to the country such as Thornicroft's giraffe and Cookson's wildebeest.

Zambia is an excellent place for walking safaris. Robin Pope is one of the most respected safari guides in Africa and operates several camps in the South and North Luangwa valleys. Some of his camps, particularly Nkwali in the South Luangwa Valley, offer children the chance to experience Zambian life. They can visit schools, enjoy nature walks and take part in safari programmes. The owner's original house, Robin's House, is particularly suited to families. Family weeks are held during the holidays in Easter and August, but the house can also be booked during half-term.

Aardvark Safaris (01980 849 160; www.aardvarksafaris.com) arranges itineraries for families through Africa including Zambia, which could include a week in South Luangwa staying in Robin's House. This costs from around £6,245 for a family of four (with two children under 12) including return flights from Heathrow via Johannesburg to Lusaka, onward transfers to Mfuwe, all-inclusive accommodation, all guiding and activities.

BOTSWANA

Botswana has one of the world's highest percentages of land dedicated to conservation. It has turned its back on mass tourism in favour of more controlled visitor numbers to protect its fragile environment (and, hopefully, make a lot more money). Botswana is an undeniably upmarket safari destination; but for families able to splash out, it will be a memorable experience.

One of the country's most spectacular attractions is the Okavango Delta, a landlocked lagoon of waterways and wetlands on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Botswana's Chobe National Park offers plenty of big-game viewing including bathing elephant and buffalo. A good time to visit is during August, when temperatures are warm but not roasting, and the channels of the Okavango delta teem with wildlife during the annual flooding.

Good safari programmes for families are offered at the Kwando concession in Northern Botswana. They are led by Lisa Reed, who brings the bush to life for young children. She has devised fun and educational itineraries to suit all ages. Children are taught how to track animals and survive in the bush. There is also a junior safari vehicle to take younger children on short excursions.

This holiday starts early: children receive a parcel from Kwando six weeks before their trip with information about what they can look forward to. These safaris are generally recommended for children over eight years, but younger children can be accepted at certain times of the year. Okavango Tours and Safaris (020-8343 3283; www.okavango.com) offers nine-day privately guided safaris in Kwando with Lisa Reed costing from £2,453 per adult and £2,225 per child (aged under 12), based on two sharing. This includes return flights from London Heathrow via Johannesburg to Maun, all accommodation, meals, drinks and activities.

The Adventure Company (01420 541007; www.adventure-company.co.uk) offers a 10-day escorted "Okavango Odyssey" itinerary in Botswana for families with children aged from six upwards. This includes walking in the Tsodilo Hills and exploring the waters of the Okavango Delta in mokoros (dugout canoes). There is also the chance to camp out in the great Moremi Game Reserve to spot lion, leopard, hippo, elephant and buffalo at sunrise and sunset. Tours depart through July and August, October half-term (22-31 October) and over Christmas. Prices start from £1,669 per adult and £1,380 per child (aged six-12), plus a local payment of £65 a head. This includes return flights from London Heathrow via Johannesburg, accommodation, most meals and a tour guide.

NAMIBIA

The vast distances in Namibia make it unsuitable for families with younger children - it's not uncommon to spend four hours at a time in the car. But as well as wildlife, Namibia offers some of Africa's most spectacular natural wonders such as the barren windswept Skeleton Coast.

Sunvil Africa (020-8232 9777; www.sunvil.co.uk/africa) offers a 15-night fly-drive holiday for £2,339 per person, based on two sharing (children over 12 pay adult fares), including stays in the Namib Desert, where you can explore the dunes on quad-bikes and sand boards, join horse-riding safaris, go shark fishing and visit Swakopmund, the adrenalin capital of Namibia. The price includes international flights from Heathrow to Windhoek via Johannesburg and accommodation plus most meals and activities.

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