Essential Tips for Taking an African Safari with Kids

Zebras are an arresting sight in their natural surrounds. Photo by Amie O'Shaughnessy
Zebras are an arresting sight in their natural surrounds. Photo by Amie O'Shaughnessy

A safari in Africa is, plain and simple, a bucket-list vacation. It requires a lot of time and money, and for many families, it may be a trip they only take once. But seeing the plains of Africa and watching animals in the wild leaves you with a lifetime of memories. To this day, I can recall the sound of hippos keeping me awake at night at a camp along a river and waking to the sound of a lion roaring, eager to start a drive knowing that lions were close. From the dark sky filled with stars you rarely get to see back at home to the friendliness of the people, even to the smell of the “incense” used on safari trucks to keep tsetse flies away, the memories linger.

Tips for Taking a Safari with Kids
A male lion spotted during a game drive. Photo by Lissa Poirot

But there’s a lot of planning that goes into a safari, especially when traveling with kids. We spoke with our vetted travel partner, a native of South Africa who spent his childhood vacations and weekends on safari and exploring the continent and spent years in the safari business before co-founding his own company. He’s also a dad who took his youngest on his first safari at just 6 months.

Here, he shares his advice to the biggest questions parents have about taking a safari with kids.

Best Tips for an African Safari with Kids

What’s the best age to take kids on a safari?

I think a good age to start taking children on safari is about 6 years old, but really from about 8 to 12 years old on is the perfect time. A lot of the good safari lodges have programs specifically developed for children around that age, whether it’s going out with a bow and arrow and learning how to shoot or going tracking and looking for animal prints and pouring plaster in them and making molds to take home. I see kids in this age range getting so much out of the safari experience; it’s all just so amazing to them. They get so enamored with the whole thing.

Then from 12 up, at that point, you’re basically a young adult and doing what the parents do, so it’s easy to take preteens and teens.

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Taking an African Safari with Kids
Zebras are an arresting sight in their natural surrounds. Photo by Amie O’Shaughnessy

Can I bring kids younger than 6?

Safaris are generally quite expensive relative to other trips, and you want to get the most value for your money. For example, we took my son on his first safari when he was about 6 months old. The lodge had fantastic childcare so we were able to do safari drives while he was with a child minder. That being said, he didn’t get anything out of it and kids are not free; there just isn’t a need to bring an infant.

If you do bring young children on safari, you’re required to pay for a private vehicle, which is about $400 to $600 per day with guides. And certain safari lodges have rules about the animals you can see. For example, they won’t let young children go near predators like lions and leopards because animals can sense other young animals and can become unpredictable.

What are the best times of year to go on safari?

Fortunately, the peak safari season and the summer break for kids coincide perfectly. Summer break is generally June, July and August, which happen to be winter and the best months in Africa. This is the dry season, so there’s not going to be any rain and the weather will be beautiful. It also means the safari viewings are at [their] best because there will not be a lot of leaves on the trees and the grass is short so you can see the animals. And because water sources are few and far between, the animals tend to congregate in the same area, making them easier to find.

Tips for Taking a Safari with Kids
With expert planning and the right destination, even young kids can enjoy the safari experience. Photo courtesy of Madikwe Safari Lodge

What about traveling during the Christmas break?

Christmas and New Year’s are the most expensive rates of the year, even though it’s not the best time to safari. It’s best to avoid this time because you are fighting for availability and paying the highest rates, and the rains return.

How do I find safari accommodations that are kid-friendly?

Actually, about 60 percent of lodges do not allow children under the age of 12; it’s more of a rarity for a lodge to allow kids under the age of 12 and if they do, they might have a “no child under 8 or 6” rule.

Going on safari is not like going to Paris and just booking a hotel online and booking the activities with the concierge desk. The number of people involved in putting these trips together, from the airport assistance to the guide and from the drivers to the light aircraft that takes you between the safari lodges, is multiple. Apart from the safari lodges, you can’t really go and book this all yourself.

Africa can be a scary place. There are a lot of different countries, a lot of requirements, visas and vaccines. And it’s expensive. It’s probably one of the most expensive vacations you’re going to take. Do you really want to try booking yourself online and not having a support network on the ground? Leave it to a professional.

Are safari drives safe for kids?

The thing to remember is, when you’re on safari, you’re going into the animals’ territory; these are wild animals. There’s always going to be some inherent risk to going on safari, no matter how careful the guides are or how many precautions are taken. These incidents happen but they are incredibly rare.

When you arrive at a safari lodge, you’ll be with the lodge manager and the guides, who will spend quite a bit of time with you on your first night to get an idea about your children. On the first safari drive, guides will be very conservative and keep their distance from big animals. They’ll be gauging how the children behave and how they react and then tailoring the drives around them.

The last thing guides are going to do is put families in any position that could be dangerous. You just have to trust them to make the best decisions.

Tips for Taking a Safari with Kids
Elephants congregate around the water. Photo by Lissa Poirot

Are safari lodges safe as well?

Much of the safety concerns are dealt with at the planning phase, before you even arrive in Africa. Safari experts will find the right accommodations based on ages. There are a lot of safari lodges that are completely fenced to keep animals out. These provide more freedom for kids to play on the lawn or splash in the pool.

These lodges will feature accommodations with sliding glass doors that bolt from the top so children can’t open them, versus canvas tents that don’t stop anyone from going in and out. There are also camps that are not fenced and may have animals roaming through whenever they want. For those, you may want to wait and keep your kids more supervised.

Safari drives are long days. How can I manage the kids so they enjoy it?

When traveling to a safari, you’re traveling a long way to get to Africa and flying at least 15 hours. Then when you land after a 15-hour flight, the time zone is completely messed up because it’s at least 8 hours ahead. That first night or two is generally quite stressful and kids don’t sleep very well. I always suggest visiting Cape Town or Johannesburg or even the beach for two to three days to allow kids to adjust to the time zone and sleep properly. Then start the safari element of the trip at the end of the trip.

Normally, safari drives are 3.5 to 4 hours long. You’re waking up at 5:30 am and going out from 6 am to 10:30 am, maybe 11 am, which is quite a long time for a child to be engaged and sit still and not get bored. Hire a private vehicle, as you can tailor your days to be specifically for your family. Instead of a 5:30 am wakeup, you do a 6:30 am wakeup and are on safari by 7 am. You can also make the drives a lot shorter, say from 7 to 9:30 am, so it’s just 2.5 hours and the kids are engaged and you’re back at the lodge for brunch.

Tips for Taking a Safari with Kids
In addition to spotting animals, safaris can include kid-friendly cultural experiences. Photo courtesy of &Beyond Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp

Do my children need vaccinations or malaria tablets?

We advise families to visit a local travel clinic to explain where they’re going and follow any instructions given. However, you can request, for example, malaria-free safaris. There are safari lodges around South Africa, like the beautiful game reserve Madikwe, that are in malaria-free regions.

What should I pack?

It’s important to remember that there’s no Walmart or CVS where you’re going. Absolutely anything you might need for your children, anything that they use at home, you should make sure you’re bringing it with you.

On safari, you’re spending a lot of time outside staring into the sun, so I always recommend good sunglasses for children as well. A lot of time, kids don’t really wear sunglasses, so try to get them used to wearing them before you go.

Do we need a full week to safari?

I would say four nights is about the maximum you should spend at one safari lodge. After four nights at one lodge, you’ve pretty much seen everything around that area. If you wanted to spend a week on safari, I would recommend doing three nights at one camp and three nights at another camp for two different experiences, different geographies, different animals and different ecosystems.

If you only have four nights, I wouldn’t recommend doing two nights and two nights. That’s not going to give you enough time to settle in and enjoy the place you are visiting. You’ll arrive, have a full day and then leave. Three nights and three nights is perfect.

If you’re going to travel 15 hours to get to Africa, you should certainly take a week or longer, if possible. However, you’ll want to spend the first two or three days acclimating to the time difference. I suggest spending a few days in Cape Town and then sampling two safaris, each for three nights for a minimum 10-day trip.

Taking an African Safari with Kids
Face to face with a majestic elephant. Photo by Amie O’Shaughnessy

What if I want to leave my kids at home and take a parents-only safari?

Again, you’re going to want to spend seven to 10 days in Africa, and I suggest after spending time in Cape Town that you spend a few days visiting the wineries before heading north to the safaris.

If you are, say, an empty-nester and have the time, I’ve planned trips that last six weeks. Spend 10 days in South Africa but then go on to Namibia and spend 10 days there. Fly up to East Africa and visit Kenya, Tanzania or Zanzibar. But don’t do safaris in every country. Those early mornings start to catch up with you and I do think you’ll get a bit safaried out.

You could start in South Africa and go up to Botswana to visit the Okavango Delta, which is a different experience because of the water and boats. Then fly to Rwanda and go gorilla and chimpanzee trekking. Next, go to Kenya or Tanzania for the Great Migration before ending with a couple of days on the beach in the Seychelles. This mix of safari, not safari, safari and not safari keeps things interesting.

Relevant Links: 

Browse all ideas for Africa family vacations on Ciao Bambino

Choosing the right luxury safari for your family

5 amazing things to do in Cape Town with kids

72 hours in Cape Town with kids

5 reasons Tanzania is an incredible destination for families

3 Belmond properties for a kid-friendly luxury vacation in Africa 

Editor’s Note: Lissa Poirot has been covering travel for more than a decade, including sites such as TripAdvisor, CruiseCritic, The Points Guy, Family Vacation Critic, Family Traveller and Cruise Hive. Her love of travel has led her to visit more than 43 countries and has her on a mission to see every state in the U.S. (only 4 states to go!). She has taken her kids on travel adventures since they were infants. When she’s not traveling, she’s exploring new attractions and events in New York City or Philadelphia, as she lives between both fabulous cities.

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