A Family Safari in Africa
I always tell people to take their kids everywhere, but we hadn’t been everywhere yet – because of the ages of our kids.
I had done several safaris through southern and eastern Africa with friends before I got married. I loved going on game drives and spending evenings at the lodges, listening to African music with a glass of Amarula and watching the sun set over stunning vistas. But there were negative aspects as well, like a lot of time spent in cars, not being able to drink the water, and needing to take malaria medications. My wife and I talked about it years ago and decided that eight was a good age to introduce our kids to Africa and take them on a family safari.
That was our plan until…we realized that when our youngest daughter would be eight, our oldest would be 12. That’s getting into the age range where it’s harder to take a week or more off school without falling behind. So we moved up our timing for our family safari and chose to go now when our kids are 6, 8 and 10. We selected a February departure because we had a week off school for winter break (which we added another week to) and because it’s when a lot of the animals are having babies. What kid doesn’t love baby animals?
We chose to go to Kenya and Tanzania for our family safari because of the abundance of wildlife, the ease of booking and the safety of the two countries. We booked locally with Sunworld Safaris in Kenya and its Tanzania-based division 4×4 Adventures. This saved us a lot of money over what we would have paid if we booked with one of the major international safari operators (my post on how to save money booking a family safari is here). We worked with Sunworld to craft a fifteen-day itinerary – as long as we had 20+ hours of travel each way between California and East Africa, we wanted to spend as much time as possible there.
Was the family safari an amazing trip? Yes and no. The kids enjoyed the game drives, had fun at the lodges and learned that a lot of people in the world live very differently than they do. They also got an excellent crash course on four million years of human evolution at the Oldupai (Olduvai) Gorge, learned how to craft bows and arrows from a Maasai warrior, watched the sun rise from a hot air balloon and saw the circle of life playing out right in front of them several times. But fifteen days was too long. The first time the kids saw a pride of lions on our family safari, they were mesmerized. The 5th time, they were still enjoying it. But then the law of diminishing returns kicked in. Hey kids, another sleeping lion family. Having said that, we saw something amazing on virtually every game drive.
So where did we go on our family safari? What did we like best? Here’s a summary of the five parks we went to and our thoughts on where you should go with your kids.
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania (two nights)
After flying into Arusha, Tanzania and overnighting there, we drove to the Ngorongoro Crater. The crater is a perfect place to start a safari for kids, a 260 sq km volcanic crater filled with virtually every major African animal species other than giraffes. We stayed for two nights at the Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, which was our least-favorite lodge but perfectly-located right at the entrance to the crater. We did two game drives into the crater, an afternoon drive for three hours and a 10-hour full-day excursion.
The crater can get congested – picture 25 Land Cruisers around one group of lions – but that doesn’t happen often. More frequently we would see only a couple of other vehicles near us, and there were times when we didn’t see another car for hours. Overall this was our favorite park because of the ease of seeing animals and because it was the first place we went and everything is more magical the first time.
Lake Ndutu, Tanzania (three nights)
We loved Lake Ndutu – our second-favorite park – for two reasons. First, it’s where the wildebeest migration is in February. We saw tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebras – maybe hundreds of thousands – as well as elephants, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, and several different gazelle species. Second, it’s the only park where you’re allowed to go off-road. If there were elephants or giraffes up on a hill, we could drive close to them, making the experience far more personal than viewing everything from park roads. We stayed at the Lake Ndutu Luxury Tented Lodge, which was nicely kid-friendly, had a great pool, and was close to the animal action. We even saw zebras and gazelles in the field outside our tent.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (two nights)
The name Serengeti conjures up idyllic images of animals on endless plains. However, we enjoyed the park more for the camp we stayed at than for the actual animal viewing. The Serengeti Pioneer Camp has a perfect location overlooking the plains, the tents are amazing (picture British safari luxury from a hundred years ago), and the service and food were among the best we found anywhere.
Both nights at the camp hundreds of impalas surrounded our tent, grazing under a mostly-full moon. It was magical! Highlights of our two game drives were hippos, baboons, leopards and lions, but it was a lot of driving for relatively few animal sightings compared to the other parks we visited. If we go back, we’ll spend more time at the camp and less time on game drives. The Serengeti was our fourth-favorite park.
Maasai Mara, Kenya (three nights)
After a flight from the Serengeti to the Tanzanian border, a half-hour border crossing into Kenya and another flight to the Maasai Mara, we arrived at the Little Mara Bush Camp, literally minutes from the airstrip. This is when we started splitting up a little on our family safari. My son and I did a couple of early-morning and afternoon game drives while my wife and daughters slept in or relaxed. We liked the Mara – our third favorite park overall – and the animals there, particularly the lions, cheetahs, gazelles, giraffes, hyenas, and zebras.
And we really liked the camp, the most proactively kid-friendly place we stayed. There was a kid’s club and a Maasai named Saruni in charge of kid programs. Our kids did nature walks, beading and archery with him, dressed like Maasai and were even given Maasai names. They loved it! Another unique feature was that our family tent was on the edge of a river filled with hippos – fun to watch during the day, but noisy at night! Overall a fun experience and our kids said that the kid’s club was their favorite anywhere.
Amboseli National Park, Kenya (two nights)
Amboseli sits at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, and is known for its amazing elephant herds as well as 400+ types of birds. While both the elephants and birds were fun to watch, we were getting burned out on game drives by this point and easily could have skipped this park – our least-favorite. We were impressed with Tortilis Camp, the food and our view of Kilimanjaro, but we wouldn’t go back just for the camp.
Maasai Village Visits (Tanzania and Kenya)
We visited two Maasai villages, one between Arusha and Ngorongoro and one in the Maasai Mara. Both were great experiences for the kids – seeing the Maasai singing, jumping and making fires, and being able to go inside their simple houses made from mud, sticks and cow dung. We always try to make family travel educational, and this was a perfect way for the kids to see how differently the Maasai live.
Sunrise Balloon Flight over the Maasai Mara
My son and I had been hot air ballooning before but the girls hadn’t, so this seemed like a pretty cool opportunity to get them into the air. The recommended minimum age is seven, and I would agree with that. My six-year-old spent most of the flight sitting down on the bench in the balloon, partly bored and partly scared. My other kids enjoyed it. We flew over several herds of elephants during the one-hour flight before landing and having breakfast in a field. The kids loved running through the tall grasses (usually not allowed on safaris because, well, they could be eaten by lions), and the food was good. Overall we enjoyed the experience, but I would say that it’s not a must-do, especially at $400 or so per person.
Giraffe Manor, Nairobi, Kenya
David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, Nairobi, Kenya
For our final activity of the trip, we visited the elephant orphanage during its one-hour public viewing time. It was very crowded (on a Sunday), and the kids had seen a lot of baby elephants already throughout Kenya and Tanzania, so this didn’t engage them like it otherwise might have. If it’s your best chance to see baby elephants, absolutely add it to your Nairobi itinerary. But if you’ve already been on safari, it’s not a mandatory stop…although it’s a great cause to support.
As we were getting ready for this family safari, and as I was posting photos on Facebook and Instagram, I got a lot of comments wondering about the safety of taking kids to Africa with wild animals, crime, political unrest and/or terrorism. Africa has 54 countries and sure some of them aren’t places where I’m tempted to take my family, but Kenya and Tanzania are stable and are well-touristed areas. Most of our camps were unfenced, but we had Maasai guards escorting us to and from our tents at night in case there were lions around. We never felt scared.
The bigger issue was health. The tap water isn’t safe to drink, so we got used to brushing teeth with bottled water and avoiding fruits and salads anywhere we weren’t confident of the kitchen procedures. Two of us still got sick during the trip, but we had Cipro and anti-diarrhea medicine (see my Safari Packing List). Three of us stayed perfectly healthy.
There are a lot of suggested vaccinations and medications for East Africa. I waited way too long to prepare for this trip, and as a result, my wife and kids were scrambling at the last minute to get everything done (I already had all of my shots from previous trips). They got meningitis and yellow fever vaccinations the day before we departed, and started their typhoid vaccine pills at the same time, meaning that we had to keep the rest of the vaccine series refrigerated for the plane flights and the first few days in Africa – not easy! We obtained five prescriptions for malaria meds and two for Cipro. We got a few mosquito bites, but in areas that were low-risk for malaria so we all stopped taking the pills over the course of the trip (not that I’m recommending that to others).
Note: Don’t underestimate the difficulty of getting young kids to swallow pills. If your kids are going to take malaria medications, have a pill plan in advance.
An African Family Safari – Summary
Our family safari was a good trip and was well-organized by our safari companies. Given that we didn’t love Amboseli, we probably could have just stayed in Tanzania. That would have saved us money on Kenyan visas and would have meant fewer flights, but it also would have meant missing out on Kenya’s very kid-friendly Little Mara Bush Camp and the Giraffe Manor. Whether you travel to just one country or both depends on the amount of time you have for vacation. Ten or eleven days would have been enough safari time for my kids. An alternative would have been to go to the three parks in Tanzania and then end the trip off-shore on Zanzibar with some beach and relaxation time.
Take your kids on a family safari to Africa! But get your vaccinations far in advance, and don’t try to fit in too many parks.
An African Family Safari – Specifics
Kid Friendly: Moderately kid-friendly. We spent 62 hours on game drives over the course of two weeks, and we had 25 hours of additional including airport transfers and driving between parks. That’s a lot of time in the car. If your kids are fine with that, you’ll have an easy time. If they get stir-crazy, it will be a problem.
Level of Difficulty: Easy. If you book through a safari company, they’ll handle everything from arrival to departure.
Airline/Routing: Lufthansa from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, Ethiopian Airlines from Frankfurt to Arusha, Tanzania via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Swiss Air from Nairobi to Los Angeles via Zurich.
Hotels: We started with one night at the Arusha Coffee Lodge. All other lodges and camps are listed above.
Trip Length: 18 days total, including travel.
Days of School Missed: 6.5 days, fully utilizing winter break and three weekends.
Cost Factors: We spent around $470 per person per day, including some splurges like a night at the Giraffe Manor. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime trip. However, this is half what a lot of other safari companies charge. See my post on how to book an affordable family safari.