My dream of taking a family safari in Africa was fulfilled last week; we just returned from a 9-day vacation in Kenya and Tanzania. We visited the Masai Mara, Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Lake Manyara national parks. I learned so much during the planning and execution of this trip — my head is spinning with all the details and tips I want to share.
Our trip was absolutely phenomenal in every way — a true experience of a lifetime. I need a vacation from my vacation it was so busy, but traveling in an environment that is utterly foreign, exotic, and engrossing is the ultimate escape from the daily grind.
In retrospect, I made a few consequential planning mistakes. They did not detract meaningfully from the trip because our tour operator, &Beyond, took great care of us, but I’d certainly do a few things differently the next time around and I’ll be sure and share the details over the next few weeks on the Ciao Bambino blog.
I’m going to start our coverage with answers to frequently asked questions about a safari with kids.
What exactly is a safari?
“A safari (pronounced /səˈfɑri/) is an overland journey, usually a trip by tourists to Africa, traditionally for a big-game hunt; today the term often refers to a trip taken not for the purposes of hunting, but to observe and photograph animals and other wildlife.”
Everyone has their own vision of what a trip to Africa is like from books, movies, and National Geographic. The bottom line is that a modern safari is about experiencing the vibrant and complex ecosystems native to Africa. The focus is usually animals, but uncovering details about trees and plants is a critical part of understanding the environment.
Safaris in certain parts of Africa may involve learning about the local culture too. Interacting with the Maasai people was an important part of our trip and as memorable as our animal encounters.
A safari usually involves driving in a 4-wheel drive truck that allows you to follow animals through rugged, unpaved terrain. Walking safaris are also increasingly popular.
The wilderness areas are vast and guests typically stay in accommodations within a game viewing reserve or private concession. Accommodations in this now well-developed industry range from simple tents to luxury lodges. Really, there is a mind-boggling array of options — at least in the top safari destinations (see Fodor’s list from October 2010).
Is a safari vacation kid-friendly?
Most kids love animals so in that sense — yes, safaris are kid-friendly. But the real answer is much more complex than that.
This is our second safari vacation (the first was without kids) and as a general rule I would not bring a child under 8 years old on this kind of trip. Let me acknowledge that I’m sure there are thousands of exceptions out there — kids that are more mature, patient, and listen better than my own child does — the bottom line is you have to draw the line somewhere and I’m drawing it at age 8.
Game viewing involves hours and hours in the car — a typical drive is anywhere from 2 to 4 hours. This is not the zoo so there are no guarantees when an animal will show up or what they’ll be doing when you will see them. A lion is a lion and that’s exciting, but a sleeping lion won’t hold a kid’s attention for long. There may be long periods where nothing is happening at all. We searched for hours for a leopard in every park we visited and never saw one.
Once you finally see an animal, it is essential to observe quietly. This was a struggle for our 8-year-old. There is only so long a little boy can sit still — particularly when there is something exciting to chatter about.
You are in the wild and there are no fences separating you from the world’s biggest carnivores. The best safari vehicles are totally open so you can easily see the animals and feel more integrated in the environment. Listening is truly a matter of life and death here, so kids need to be at an age where that is a guarantee.
Malaria exists in some (not all) of the popular game viewing areas and pharmaceutical protection is essential. You have to be comfortable with the options. In our case, our son was swallowing his first pill. This made every dinner exciting … and exhausting. We sat through tears and multiple tries the first few nights until finally the pill went down.
Is a safari dangerous?
In essence, yes. I would do it again with my family in a nanosecond, but that doesn’t change the fact that on this kind of trip the risk at one point or another is real. I can’t speak for every safari destination, but those I just experienced were remote. If something happens out there you don’t just get to pop over to the top-notch hospital that is a 5-minute drive away.
Many lodges now have electric fences but smaller animals can still come through at night. Hippos, hyenas, elephants — all were outside our door at one point or another during the week. They can’t waltz into your room but they are loud and this may be disconcerting (and part of the fun!). Bottom line is you need to be with kids that stay put and who won’t be traumatized by the excitement.
The accommodations where we stayed all run on generators that are turned off during the night so you only have flashlights and a whistle to blow if you need help. It’s dark in a land without electricity of any kind … really dark. Our son woke up one night and needed some consoling over the lack of light. Nothing devastating or long lasting, but this may be a big issue for some kids.
What is the most important travel tip of all?
Using a reliable tour operator or planning a trip through an established single portfolio of properties is a must. There are so many different outfitters these days offering safari tours and I will say categorically that the reason I felt comfortable 100% of the time during our trip is that we were working through top quality service providers.
This impacts everything — I’ll do a dedicated post on this topic shortly — but the important point is safety is the biggest concern and you want to know that every car, driver, plane, accommodation, guide, and meal is the best they can be. Period. There is zero room for flexibility here.
I don’t want to confuse top quality with luxury because they are not one in the same in Africa. However, top quality will be associated with expense. There is no way around it — traveling in Africa is hideously expensive. If someone is offering a package that is much less than the others in the market, there is a reason for that and I’d choose another provider.
Most of our trip was booked through &Beyond and I could cry I was so impressed with the quality of this organization. I’ll do a follow up post with all the juicy details, but I’d recommend a trip to Africa with them any time and place.
Our cell phones worked intermittently and issues came up. It’s essential to have a single point of contact and/or an organization that is accountable for all of your details and logistics.
There is so much more to say on traveling to Africa with kids; I have at least 7 posts in the works!
Stay tuned for …
&Beyond – A complete review of the &Beyond lodges and experience
Ngong House – A review of our stay at this unique hotel in Nairobi
Comparing tour operators and accommodations – what you need to know
Experiencing a hot air balloon ride in the Masai Mara
Mistakes and lessons learned
How to prepare for a family trip to Africa
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