Guides can teach children about local wildlife
Guides can teach children about local wildlife

Family safaris: Animal adventures for all ages

Africa is full of once-in-a-lifetime wildlife experiences, whether you are inspired by Walt Disney or David Attenborough

Sue Watt
Friday 30 October 2015 14:10
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It’s the land of The Lion King, Big Cat Diaries and the BBC’s new David Attenborough-narrated series, The Hunt. A land of beauty, nature and tantalising adventure that captures the hearts and imaginations of all ages. Experiencing Africa in person is even more enthralling, from the private reserves and family friendly hotels of South Africa’s Eastern Cape to self-driving around Namibia’s Etosha National Park; from the phenomenal wildebeest migration of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara to the remote wild places of Zambia and Botswana.

Age needn’t be a barrier to Africa. The key to a successful safari is choosing the right location at the right time, balancing children’s health and safety with a sense of adventure, education and fun.

Malaria is prevalent in most African countries and malaria prophylactics aren’t recommended for children under five. However, many areas of South Africa and Namibia are malaria-free, making them ideal destinations for younger families; older children can take paediatric Malarone. The NHS website fitfortravel.nhs .uk is an excellent resource for travel health, and GPs will advise on any necessary inoculations.

To make the most out of your trip, look for places that don’t merely “allow” children, but actively welcome and entertain them. Many family focused lodges have pools and children’s clubs with fun-filled activities, and will be fenced to deter wandering wildlife. Unfenced properties usually have guards to ensure guests’ safety, escorting them to and from their tents or rooms. In camp and on safari, safety is paramount and guides give full briefings on how to behave in the bush.

Private, fully-staffed houses are becoming a popular alternative to lodges and camps for young families, allowing more space and flexibility. Villa iZulu, within Thanda Private Game Reserve (00 27 35 573 1899; thanda.com) in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, is open all year, with UK summer holidays best for wildlife-watching. Children can join the Bucks & Bugs Club or take a Junior Rangers Course. It doesn’t come cheap, however, at 39,000 rand (£1,850) per night for six guests, full board.

For families with older children, Exodus (0845 004 2045; exodus.co.uk) has an exciting Zambezi Volunteer Experience, canoeing along the mighty Zambezi River, wild camping on deserted islands and volunteering with community and conservation projects. The 10-day summer trip costs from £1,699 for adults and £1,529 for children under 14 (minimum age 12) including flights.

The minimal time difference between Africa and the UK is another plus for families, reducing the likelihood of jet lag. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), South African Airways (0844 3759680; flysaa.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0344 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) fly daily from Heathrow to Johannesburg. Be warned, however, that families flying to – or simply through – South Africa face onerous red tape. Parents must provide unabridged birth certificates for each child under 18. Children travelling with only one parent or a guardian must have signed affidavits from the other or both parents respectively, confirming their permission to travel. If you are heading somewhere other than South Africa, you may prefer to connect elsewhere. Reliable alternatives include Kenya Airways via Nairobi (00 254 20 327 4747; kenya-airways.com), Ethiopian Airlines (0800 016 3449; ethiopianairlines.com) via Addis Ababa and Turkish Airlines (0844 800 6666; turkishairlines.com) via Istanbul. The Gulf-based airlines are also expanding their African networks.

For first-timers to Africa, planning a family safari might seem daunting, and it’s well worth using a specialist tour operator with expert knowledge of lodges and locations and an understanding of parents’ concerns to arrange the entire trip. One final warning – your first trip to Africa is unlikely to be your last: that call of the wild will lure you back.

A game drive in Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa

Home from home

Private houses are ideal for families, who can do as they wish without disturbing other guests. Guides tailor safari drives around children’s interests, take them on nature walks and teach them about the bush.

Zambia’s game-rich South Luangwa National Park allows children over 12 to join guided bush walks. The luxury Luangwa Safari House sleeps eight (minimum age seven) from £2,968 a night. Neighbouring Robin’s House sleeps four, from £484 per adult and £315-£140 per child per night, both through Expert Africa (020 8232 9777; expertafrica.com). Best during our summer months, both houses have plunge pools and game-viewing vehicles.

In the Maasai Mara, the wildebeest migration arrives in July, coinciding with school holidays. The Mara Bush Houses (above) come with staff and a shared pool. Natural World Safaris (01273 691642; naturalworldsafaris.com) offers five nights from £2,350pp, based on two adults and two children, with domestic flights.

On the move

Even the most ardent young animal lover can get bored staying in the same place: it’s worth varying your destinations to keep their interest. Try a mobile safari, camping under canvas in the bush, visiting Tanzania’s Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater with a private guide, cook and vehicle. The price starts at £1,270pp through Gane and Marshall (01822 600 600; ganeandmarshall.com).

Namibia is well-suited to self-drive holidays for families with older children. Etosha National Park can be combined with climbing Sossusvlei’s majestic dunes, kayaking in Swakopmund, and searching for desert-adapted elephants (left) and rhinos in Damaraland. The 12-day trip costs from £2,015pp with Aardvark Safaris (01980 849160; aardvarksafaris.co.uk).

Over Christmas, Easter and summer holidays, KE Adventure Travel (01768 773966; keadventure.com) offers a 13-day group safari to Kruger National Park and Swaziland, suitable for over-sixes. Adults from £2,295, children from £2,195, including flights.

Bush and beach

Combine a safari with a few days’ R&R on golden beaches. Kenya and Tanzania are the obvious choices for “bush and beach”, with wildlife and family friendly hotels and resorts along the Indian Ocean coast.

Although the Foreign Office advises against travel to Kenya’s northern coast, the resorts on the southern stretch, such as Diani, are deemed safe. Tribes Travel (01473 890499; tribes.co.uk) has a 10-night trip exploring Tsavo West National Park and visiting the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary then relaxing at Diani’s Pinewood Beach. From £1,810 per adult and £1,250 per child under 12 for a family of four during Christmas and summer holidays.

For families with younger children, malaria-free South Africa has interesting alternatives. A Big Five safari in Madikwe Reserve (above) combines well with whale-watching and beaches. Bushbaby Travel (0845 1244 455; bushbaby.travel) has a nine-night trip in the summer holidays staying in Cape Town, Hermanus and Madikwe from £2,350 per adult and £1,450 per child under 12, including flights.

Young ones

A typical safari focuses on early morning and late afternoon drives, when wildlife is more active. Families with younger children often spend less time on drives, so a good lodge should keep little ones entertained with clubs or special activities including games and nature walks.

In South Africa’s Eastern Cape, children at Ecca Lodge in Kwandwe Private Game Reserve (00 27 46 603 3400; kwandwe.com) can join the Blue Crane Conservation Club with lessons on ecology, puzzles, “Bugs and Bones” walks, and the chance to help local families with gardening or crafts. Three nights for a family of four start at £2,400, including a private safari vehicle and guide.

If your budget will stretch to it, fledgling adventurers in Botswana can join the Young Explorers Programme at Footsteps Across the Delta Camp, where parents and children over seven can learn about life in the bush, from tracking game, to driving a safari vehicle, to starting a fire with sticks.

Cedarberg Africa (020 8898 8533; cedarberg-travel.com) offers the private three-night experience from £8,610 for a family of four (valid July – October.)

Elephant in Damaraland

Teenage kicks

Africa has some real wow-factor options for that last family holiday before the children leave home. Get close to nature with expert private guide Rob Barber in Botswana, staying in mobile camps and luxury lodges in the Okavango Delta, the Khwai floodplains and Chobe National Park. The two-week tour during Easter or summer holidays includes game drives, boat cruises, night drives and traditional mekoro trips, ending with three awe-inspiring days at Victoria Falls in Zambia. Through Safari Consultants (01787 888 590; safari-consultants.com) it costs £5,795pp including international flights.

In Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, a magical encounter with mountain gorillas will never be forgotten. Track golden monkeys and chimps too, and experience East Africa’s highest canopy walk, over Nyungwe Forest (above). Cox and Kings (020 3642 0861; coxandkings.co.uk) has an 11-day/eight-night family primate safari from £4,095pp over Christmas and summer holidays, with permits and international flights. Children must be aged 16 or over.

Closer to home

If an African safari is simply too much of a stretch, it’s possible to have a safari experience in the UK. At Port Lympne Reserve in Kent (01303 802410; aspinallfoundation.org), the Aspinall Foundation has more than 700 animals including giraffes, gorillas, lions, tigers and rhinos. And some of them are rare and endangered.

Accommodation ranges from smart hotels to luxury safari tents. Elephant Lodge costs from £300 per tent per night (sleeping eight) during the school holidays. Activities include safari drives and walks, plus half-hour close-up animal encounters (for children over nine; from £40), you can even be a trainee wildlife keeper for a day (for children aged 13-17; from £145).

Alternatively, try spotting wildlife native to our shores. Highland Safaris (01887 820071; highland safaris.net) offers an Autumn Watch Safari in the hills of Perthshire (above), with the chance to see red deer, grouse and golden eagles, in the company of a safari ranger. The two-and-a-half hour experience costs £40 for adults, £30 for ages 12-18 and £20 for under-12s.

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