Few families can afford to do Africa twice. Run through our list of considerations to be sure your kids are ready to love a safari vacation.
By Maryann Jones Thompson
“I’m glad we didn’t do this when I was younger.”
Our 15-year-old son wrapped up his third day on safari in South Africa with this observation. My husband, 13-year-old daughter, son and I had just started a bucket-list summer trip to Southern Africa and were already blown away with the people, places and animals we’d seen.
No one leaves a visit to any part of the African continent unmoved or unchanged by the experience. From our bike trip in Soweto to safaris in Kruger National Park to sunset at Victoria Falls to boating in the Okavango – there’s nothing like it. Hands down, it was one of our most incredible travel experiences ever.
That said, my son’s observation was a keen one: Parents need to be sure their kids are ready for a safari vacation before investing in one. Here are few realizations we had while on our trip.
5 Considerations before Booking a Family Safari
1. The older your kids, the better. There’s no cheap way to see Africa. There are absolutely ways to save money but unless you’re part of the 1%, you will likely only be able to take your family on safari once – twice if you’re lucky. So wait to go until your kids are old enough to remember it and appreciate it.
Think back to how old you were when you remember going on vacation as a kid – really remember it not just seeing photos in your mind. I would recommend waiting until your youngest is 10. Most safaris won’t take kids in open-sided trucks until they’re 8. (Read our guide’s recommendations about kids here.)
And if you think about how much time you need to spend happily riding inside the truck – without getting off, needing to go potty, or talking/screaming when a bull elephant gets close – those guidelines make sense.
2. The waiting is the hardest part. Southern Africa has less wildlife than equatorial Africa. Our guide mentioned something about that area having two breeding seasons a year versus only one in the southern latitudes – which adds up to a lot more animals over the millennia. A friend told me her family saw 100,000 wildebeest during the migration in Tanzania; the most we saw in Botswana’s Chobe National Park was about 100 – and that was a huge day!
The landscape you’re passing on game drives is not particularly scenic; there are lots of thorny trees, gray scrub, and sand. While adults are simply thrilled to be on an expedition they’ve long dreamt of, some kids can get pretty bored or antsy – and there’s no option of getting out or doing something different tomorrow. And even though there were a few safaris where it seemed like we would get “shut out,” nature [and our guide] always came through with something worthwhile – if not eye-popping – to see before we returned to camp.
The same goes for a particularly exciting sight: The truck might stop for an hour or more to watch a leopard hunting or lions feeding or wildebeest migrating. Your kids gotta be ready and willing to sit and watch patiently. Their ain’t no pulling out a phone for distraction.
3. There will be blood. Animals are going to kill each other. Yes, we know this is a fact of life. But if you’ve got a family member who will be disturbed or sad if they see an animal get not just killed but torn into bloody pieces, dragged around, hung in a tree, and devoured, strongly consider a different trip until everyone can watch the most gruesome nature documentary without tearing up. Being lucky enough to watch a hunt or happen on a kill is one of the main objectives of being in the bush – so everyone needs to be on board.
4. It’s really cold. It’s not a big shock that visiting a southern hemisphere destination in the northern hemisphere’s summer means you’ll have chilly weather. But we were surprised at just how cold it was. Sure, part of the reason is that you’re heading out before the sun comes up on a hours-long game drive in an open-sided vehicle – but it is very, very cold. Sunset game drives were similarly brisk as the sun disappeared.
The safari companies have you covered, providing heavy fleece-lined blankets and/or coats but don’t forget to pack your winter beanies, gloves, and socks. Parents would be smart to bring a large drawstring bag to hang onto everyone’s bits of warm gear as they need to peel them off or put them on – it’s super easy to lose something through the open slats in the truck as you bounce along the track or shift around to see animals.
5. The birds are astounding! Backpacking in our 20s, we spent time in Kenya. I had been excited to see the Big 5 but I was amazed at how incredible the birds were. Southern Africa is the same. Even our kids took to identifying all the different birds we saw.
From eagles to ostriches to vultures to cranes to storks to all the little guys – like this lilac-breasted roller that we often saw in Botswana. It looks like it was designed by a plush stuffed-animal toy company! How did this bird survive evolution, flashing obvious color as it flits through the drab veld? Yet another wonder of the wildlife in Africa…
Maryann Jones Thompson – January 2018
After a thousand years in publishing as a business journalist, ghostwriter, content strategist and market researcher, Maryann brings her experience traveling as a backpacker, businessperson, expat and mom to writing and editing for ROAM.
© ROAM Family Travel 2020 – All rights reserved
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