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, which 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 a local safari company recommended by my friend Piper Mackay, who knows Kenya and Tanzania as well as anyone. They crafted a fifteen-day itinerary for us – 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. I highly recommend reaching out to Meikan Safaris for photography trips or family safaris. Their contact form is here.
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
I had always wanted to stay at Giraffe Manor, so we spent one night there before flying home. It was a very fun experience – especially having breakfast with giraffes. My post on our stay is here.
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.
The Rest of Africa
Kenya and Tanzania are by no means the only good safari destinations in Africa. We had an amazing safari (with gorilla trekking) in Uganda. I’ve had great safari experiences in Zimbabwe and Botswana as well, and of course South Africa is excellent. We’ve also taken our kids to Morocco and the Seychelles, and I’ve traveled around Ethiopia. It’s all amazing, and there are so many African destinations remaining on our travel wish list.
This looks like an amazing trip. I loooove Giraffe Manor… at least from the photos, they look so much fun. Our kids were only 1 and 2 when we went to South-Africa, so we didn’t bother for game drives, but in a normal rental car we’ve spend time in Kruger and a few other parks and had a great time too. Perhaps this is for the future, thanks for sharing
Just the post I’ve been waiting for! Of all the destinations on my bucket list, Africa is destination #1. I have 4 young children ranging in age from 1 month to 10 years old so Africa is not in my near future, although I’d like to think the reality of travel there is closer than I think. Your post covered some crucial information that I’ve often thought and pondered about. Of course covering the #1 question of when is the right age. I also like how you gave detailed information on your itinerary. I especially liked the information on choosing not to go on safari every day. I could see it happening with my family. That’s all you think about when going to Africa…all the amazing animals you will see daily while taking long Safaris. But I can see it happening, after a few safaris, lots of driving and seeing many of the same animals, it begins to get redundant, especially with children. So thank you for the reminder. I also had never heard of Giraffe Manor. What a fascinating place to stay for children. Now, on to read your newest post all about Giraffe Manor!!
Eric Stoen says
Thanks Mara – I’m glad I provided useful information! In a few years when you start planning your trip, please reach out if you have any questions.
What lucky kids you have! I wish I could take my 3. I was fortunate to have the experience of safari in the Masai Mara after doing some humanitarian work in Uganda last year. It was the most amazing experience and I long to be able to share it. What a great recap.
Eric Stoen says
Thanks Rachel – hopefully you’ll be able to get your kids over there at some point. It’s definitely worthwhile. I’ll have a post up in the next day on how to do a safari less expensively than we did it.
Bailey @ Weekends & Wanders says
What an *amazing* opportunity for kids! You’ve brought their favorite wild animals to life right in front of their eyes. Oh to have this opportunity at their age – or any age!
Jenny Stephens says
Looks like a wonderful adventure. I have always wanted to go on a safari! When we were kids, my parents took us to Europe and it was a great experience for them and for us. Who said you can’t travel with kids?!
Eric Stoen says
I agree! Thanks for the comment!
Asante for your article! We are traveling to Tanzania with three kids in October, and we are considering a safari. One of our kids is pretty little, so we are considering whether to keep him in a car seat or not. My question is, how bumpy are the roads Ngorongoro? Is it crazy to consider keeping him in our laps?
Eric Stoen says
Karibu! Ngorongoro was bumpy, but not as bumpy as Serengeti or Ndutu. We let our kids stand on the seats and look out while we were moving for some of the safari there and at other times had them sit down. They were never belted in in the parks. If you’re going to have a car seat anyway for the Arusha-Ngorongoro drive, etc…, then you can use it if you think you need to. I would have felt comfortable holding a small child in my lap, but that’s just me. Other parents may feel differently.
Thank you so much for your input!
Another fascinating post!
I have 1 query though (sorry if this sounds silly!)
I’m the type that prefers planning everything by herself, as it’s cheaper and I’m assured it’s the best I can get at the price I can pay.
With all the discussions I’ve had with friends everyone recommended I pay an operator to plan a package ( I could customize it) irrespective of whether the operator is based in Africa or the world, else it could get nasty!
Is this true? Can you not book lodging, transport and every other minor detail by yourself?
Eric Stoen says
Yes, you can just show up, book lodgings and then arrange transportation and safaris through them. During peak season a lot of places are at capacity, so it probably makes sense to book that in advance, but otherwise you would have the normal trade-offs – certainty and a contact if anything goes wrong vs lower prices. I’ve booked everything locally, winging it, in Zimbabwe and Botswana. We took buses around Zimbabwe and taxis across the border. No problems at all. And it was very inexpensive. I don’t think I would do that with kids, but it was easy to do as backpackers. One caveat – I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of park permits in Tanzania and Kenya. I don’t know if it’s easy to drive up to the park gates and get permits or not. If you find a lodge, I’d contact them via email and ask about safari specifics.
Thank you so much for that!
Makes planning much more peaceful!
Yes, from the above comments it does seem South Africa is a little cheaper and I might throw that in too!
Thanks again Eric 🙂
Haha….it’s amazing how the elephants look up at the hot-air balloon….I didn’t know they look up.
Eric Stoen says
Yes, I was hoping for giraffes, but elephants were pretty cool too!
So. I am making out our family vacation list each year and after reading your post I switched stuff around and added the Safari for 2023. (I know it sounds far out, but with 5 kids I plan far out.) My 5kids will be 15, 12, 10, and twins 8, so asking of school will be interesting. I went two Victoria falls twice when I was younger and would love to take them there in addition to a couple of safaris. Do you have any non safari suggestions in Kenya and Tanzania? I am thinking splitting it up so the kids don’t become complacent. P.S. Taking all 5 to Jamaica this February!!😉 Wanted something easy with the twins just turning two.
Eric Stoen says
Those will be good ages for a safari. Victoria Falls sounds great – I loved visiting there before heading off to Hwange for a safari and then into Botswana. I haven’t taken my kids there yet.
My biggest non-safari suggestion in Kenya would be Giraffe Manor, but that’s still animal-oriented obviously. Otherwise you’re probably looking at the beaches near Mombasa.
For Tanzania I loved Zanzibar. We spent time in Stone Town and also across the island on the beach.
Jen Laceda says
I just got back from a solo trip to Zanzibar in August. I’d love to take my husband and kids there! Love this island.
Sabrina Rizk says
Our girls were 5 & 8 when we went to South Africa and Kenya. Many Safari operators want kids to be at least 12, or a minimum of 6 if you’re in a closed vehicle. We ruled out Kruger National Park because of the travel distance and age requirements. We ended up booking a private safari in South Africa once we were there, which was a lot of fun. We also saw a lot of wildlife in Addo Elephant National Park. In Kenya, we too visited the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and took an open air jeep through Hell’s Gate National Park, but by then, our girls were also tired of seeing the same animals. We had all our vaccinations before hand, and usually had to have mango juice with us for my older one to swallow her malaria pills.
Eric Stoen says
Thank you so much Sabrina – that’s great advice. I confirmed that kids under 6 are not allowed on drives in Kruger (https://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/tourism/activities/drives.php).
I have friends who go to South Africa every year with young children – this could be a resource for you or others: http://www.mominzurich.com/how-to-go-on-a-budget-friendly-and-family-friendly-safari-in-south-africa/
Thank you for the advice. We are doing a six day safari in Kenya with our three kids: 11, 8, 6 so this is very encouraging. Will be spending time with family before and ending in Zanzibar. I’m hoping that our six days won’t be too little time but we’ve never done a big trip with the kids before. Your trips are amazing!
Eric Stoen says
Have a great trip! Six days will be fine – and if they love it, you’ll have feedback on how long to go next time. Jealous of Zanzibar – I really want to take the kids there.
Nice post! Very inspiring… it almost made it seem possible for me to think I can go there with my husband and maybe parents. But whoa! $470/day is a lot. I think I jolly well save up. Such a wonderful experience. Definitely already on my bucket list. Thanks for sharing!
Jen Laceda says
Hi! We are a family of 5 and are planning a 2-week vacation to Kenya and Tanzania as well, in 2018. Our kids are 11, 8, 6 at planned time of travel. We’ve decided to do half-and-half – one week of safari and one week of beach. I found your post very helpful, informative and comforting. Thank you for sharing your experience!
Eric Stoen says
Thanks Jen – sounds like a perfect plan! Have a great trip!
viktoria altman says
Such a great article! I didn’t bring my kids to the tanzanian safari with me, and now i am considering going back with them. Thank you for the encouragement!
Such a great trip! Thanks for sharing your experience and including the links for the tours. I am currently doing some early research for a safari trip in summer of 2019 and am torn between Kenya/Tanzania or Kruger, RSA. My husband visited Kenya and Tanzania in 1995 and did not think it was very safe (times have probably changed), but it seems you felt it was very safe. He was more comfortable with RSA, if only for perceived better infrastructure. My daughter will be 11 when we go, so she should be able to participate in the safari drives, but not the bush walks in RSA (age 12 requirement). Did Kenya and and Tanzania have similar restrictions?
Eric Stoen says
I haven’t heard of country-wide age restrictions for bush walks in Kenya or Tanzania, but I’ve seen that some individual outfitters require kids to be 12 or 15. If you find a group that looks great, email them and ask. I’m sure they have reasons for wanting kids to be a certain age.
Jack Meyer says
Thanks for sharing your experience. The information is very helpful. We are in the process of planning a safari in 2019. There will 6 of us, grandparents, parents, and 2 children age 14 and 12. We are thinking a 10 day package in either Kenya or Tanzania. Based on your experience if you were picking one of these 2 countries which would it be and why? I have contacted Sunworld and they are very helpful. Did you find 4×4 Adventures is a comparable organization in terms of quality. If we choose Tanzania it appears I would deal with 4×4 rather than Sunworld. Lastly I want this trip to be as much of a cultural experience as an animal one. Any specific ideas on visiting tribal villages, seeing local schools, kids play soccer, etc?
Eric Stoen says
Hi Jack – I’d probably go for Tanzania since it’s easier. You can fly into Arusha and drive from there to Ngornongoro, Lake Manyara, Serengeti, Tarangire, etc…, and then fly back out of Arusha. In Kenya we liked Maasai Mara best, but it’s nowhere near a major international airport.
4×4 is the Tanzanian division of Sunworld. I never dealt with them directly – everything was seamless through Sunworld. I’d have no issue working with them directly.
For cultural activities, I’d arrange all of that through the tour company you go with. They’re the experts. Just tell them exactly what you want and they’ll make it happen.
What a fantastic, detailed post with lots of tips and information! Thank you for taking us through your experience. I’ve never been to Africa myself but have a five-year-old that’s crazy about animals, in fact, his first word was “elephant! For a long time, he’s been asking me to take him to Africa to see the wildlife. He has a younger, 2.5 year-old vivacious sister (not the calmest or most patient of toddlers) and my question is, how long do safari game drives last? What is the age limit? Will they take kids under 6, under 4? I will probably wait until she’s three-years-old at least so she can be better behaved, but I’m wondering about experiencing Tanzania with little children. Thanks in advance for any help you may throw my way!
Eric Stoen says
Our game drives were anywhere between 2 and 10 hours. That’s a lot of time in the car for young kids. The way we did the safari, six was a good minimum age. I have friends though who are always doing self-guided game drives in South Africa with much younger kids. Keep in mind that some lodges have minimum age restrictions – typically 4 or 12.
I’d contact Sunworld/4×4 or another local tour operator and ask them for their suggestions. I’m sure they can plan around any ages. You’d definitely want a dedicated car/guide, so that everything is flexible and you can create drives and experiences that your kids are all enjoying.
Hello Susan, about traveling with children safaris are open to kids of all ages with children under 3 years being free and special discount for children between the ages of 4 to 11 years of age. For game drive time it can last anywhere between 2 hours to 8 hours depending on the vastness of the park being visited. The best experience for a family safari would be doing it privately hence you have control and can organize with your driver/guide the length and duration of your game drives as well as rest stops that may be necessary.