Africa with Friends
Several years before having kids, I started traveling to Africa with friends. It was amazing! In South Africa we saw the Cape of Good Hope and climbed Cape Town’s Table Mountain. In Zimbabwe we spent several days at Victoria Falls before getting into a local bus, traveling towards Hwange National Park, spontaneously getting off near the village of Dete, and sleeping in tree houses at a closed resort. We boated through Botswana, bicycled the beaches of Zanzibar, bungee-jumped from the bridge connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia, and rafted the Zambezi. But I loved the safaris throughout Zimbabwe, Botswana and Tanzania the most. The animals were incredible, and even better was the safari lifestyle. We woke up, had a great breakfast, got into a safari vehicle and viewed animals all morning, stopped somewhere for a picnic lunch, saw more animals, and then returned to our lodge in the late afternoon where we would swim overlooking stunning plateaus, have several glasses of Amarula and dinner, and then wake up the next morning and do it again. We planned some things in advance, but made a lot of impromptu decisions as well.
An African Safari with Kids
Fast forward to the present. We’ve now taken the kids to Africa several times, and it’s…different. First, I’m not as comfortable being spontaneous when traveling with kids. I want things to go right, and not end up sleeping outside somewhere because we didn’t book a lodge in advance. Second, the safari lifestyle isn’t as attractive for kids, day after day after day. I could go out every day for two months seeing giraffes, lions and wildebeest in the wild. My kids, not so much. So there are some additional considerations. Here’s what we’ve learned. Hopefully this helps you to plan your own African safari with kids!
Safari Tip One: Go Where the Animals Are (Based on Time of Year)
Africa is filled with amazing parks, from Kruger National Park in South Africa to Hwange in Zimbabwe, from Tanzania’s Serengeti to Kenya’s Masai Mara, and many others. The parks don’t move, but the animals do. So whenever it works to fit a safari into your travel/vacation schedule, research where the animals will be during that period and make your plans accordingly. Want to see the great wildebeest migration? The wildebeest are constantly moving between Tanzania and Kenya, generally furthest south in February and up north in August. Or schedule your safari based on the optimal conditions for the animals you’re most interested in. Want to see elephants? They’re a lot easier to find during the dry season, when they stay close to water sources.
Safari Tip Two: Go for the Right Length of Time
Traveling from California to Africa, of course I wanted to go for as long as we could. I took a one-week scheduled school break and extended it by a week – the kids didn’t miss anything of consequence, and their teachers were supportive – and we visited five parks: Ngorongoro Crater; Lake Ndutu; the Serengeti; Masai Mara; and Amboseli. I found it was too long. The first time the kids saw a giraffe, lion, elephant, zebra, cheetah, etc… was amazing. But the 20th time wasn’t as special. An optimal safari length (from our experience) is closer to 10 days. And we could have visited only three parks instead of five – although we had amazing and unique animal experiences in each park, so it would be difficult to pick which three to go to.
Safari Tip Three: End with Downtime
After more than 80 hours in safari vehicles over two weeks, including game drives and traveling between parks, we finished with two days / one night at Nairobi’s Giraffe Manor. It was an amazing experience—especially breakfast with giraffes—but in retrospect our kids may have appreciated a few days at the beach even more. Or maybe we could have had it all – if I was a planning another two-week trip, I’d schedule no more than 9-10 days on safari, finish the animal portion with a night at Giraffe Manor if possible, and then book three nights in Zanzibar at the end. I love Zanzibar – cultural, but also relaxing and tropical.
Safari Tip Four: Research Immunizations and Vaccines Far in Advance
This is one of those times when you can, and should, learn from our mistakes! I already had all of my immunizations from previous trips to Africa, and my wife had most of hers, but our kids didn’t yet have meningitis, typhoid or yellow fever vaccinations, and it didn’t occur to us to get them until just a few days before our trip. This led to several problems. First, the kids had to miss even more school to get vaccinated. Second, the typhoid pills had to be kept refrigerated … easy at home, but difficult on planes and traveling around Africa. And third, it’s not easy to get kids to swallow pills if they’ve never done it before. Start all of the health planning months in advance and your lives will be far easier!
Safari Tip Five: Pack Light
Every African park is unique, and it’s worth visiting several parks – and staying in different lodges – during your safari. That means a lot of packing and unpacking. Don’t bring more than you need to! Pack a couple pairs of pants/shorts, some long-sleeve and short-sleeve safari-style shirts, a fleece or jacket for cool nights, a swimsuit, a few pairs of socks and underwear and a good pair of walking shoes and you’ll be set. It doesn’t matter if your clothes get dirty/dusty, and if you want to wash things, lodge sinks work well. The nice thing about safari clothes is that they dry fast. You’ll also need sunscreen, toiletries, medications, bug spray and maybe a flashlight, but even then you should be able to get by with small bags. Our full packing list for an African safari is here.
One more note on packing light: when we traveled to Uganda, the internal airline there had a 15kg weight limit per person for luggage, and our bags were carried often by porters, including on a 3-hour hike up a mountain to one of our lodges. Just out of respect for the porters, we were glad we had soft-sided duffels and that we hadn’t overpacked too badly.
An African Safari with Kids: Your Turn
Have you taken your kids to Africa? What safari tips would you add to these to help other families?