This is an interview with Chris McIntyre of Expert Africa. We were compensated for this article by Kwandwe Private Game Reserve.
If you’ve put your dream of going on safari on hold until your kids have flown the nest, you can take your finger off the pause button, this really needn’t be the case. If you pick the right country, zoom in on a recommended base camp and check that they have a family-oriented guide, you can be with lions and leopards in their natural habitat soon after your kids are ready for school.
It’s almost impossible to pin point this perfect place, however, without picking the brains of someone with insider knowledge and Chris McIntyre, Managing Director of Expert Africa, is our man. Chris specialises in putting together high-quality tailor-made trips to Southern and Eastern Africa and, more importantly, he’s travelled around the continent extensively with his young family.
Chris has been working in Africa for over 20 years and has written guidebooks on Namibia, Botswana, Zanzibar and Zambia, but even he admits its only since having children himself can he really judge what makes a place child-friendly.
“I’ve travelled all over Africa and stayed in places where you wouldn’t want to board your cat, to places you never want to leave. I’ve seen an enormous number of safari resorts that have interlinking rooms, cots and a kids club, but it’s only when you take children to these places that you realise that you need a lot more than that to proclaim a place truly family-friendly.”
Although it is often an option, you don’t have to take your kids on safari to leave them with a nanny whilst you go off and track leopards. At the same time, you don’t want to have to drag your little ones out of bed at dawn for them to spend two hours in a jeep looking out for an elusive lion that never appears.
“As well as ticking the standard family requirement boxes, a child-friendly safari needs to be very flexible and have guides that can really engage with children,” explains Chris.
“On our most recent trip, my wife and I and our children, 7-month-old Charlotte and 4-year-old James, spent three weeks in Africa. Each time we were about to set out on safari I would say to the guide ‘forget about the rest of us, just talk to James, explain everything to him.’ Despite this, few guides made much effort to talk to James at his level; they directed everything to me.”
“Until we arrived at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, that is. The guide here, Jonti, got it straight away, he spoke mainly to James, interacting directly with him, and each drive evolved in a way that interested James. We didn’t spend long periods trying to track elusive predators, rather we’d go and check out a lion when another guide had found one, so that there was no waiting around, for example.
“Jonti really spent time getting to know James and he took us on a detour to see an elephant skeleton that he knew would fascinate him. He let him get out of the jeep when it was safe, to examine dung beetles and to touch a tortoise, because he got that he didn’t want to spend hours in the back of the car.
Kwandwe itself is also perfect for kids, because you don’t just spot animals in the vicinity at dawn and dusk, they can be found at all times of the day, so you can take a private jeep and a guide at 10am or even later and still be sure to catch some action. We saw rhinos, elephant, lion and cheetah amongst others.
“And, away from the safari the staff go out of their way to make the whole family feel welcome.” Kwandwe run a range of family-oriented activities.” James was given a backpack when we arrived with a safari hat, a bug box and a colouring book linked to a local community project inside and the staff would stop and chat to him and ask him what he’d seen that day, etc.
“They were also happy to schedule mealtimes around our needs and they would puree food for the baby.”
Kwandwe Accommodation Options
Kwandwe offers a number of accommodation options in four different lodges. They all work with families, but Uplands Homestead is the one to aim for if your traveling in a larger family group and want to let your children run around safely in the grounds as it has three bedrooms, a large enclosed garden, and a swimming pool.
“We stayed at Ecca Lodge, which is lovely,” says Chris, “but wildlife come up close to the property so we weren’t free to walk around the grounds. The Uplands gives you more freedom and is ideal for families.”
Great Fish River Lodge welcomes guests aged 12 and upwards, but Melton Manor is another option that works well for families as it has four bedrooms (two are inter-connected), is fenced, and has a communal pool area. The surrounding bush has been landscaped and kids can explore the grounds safely as there is a secure perimeter fence.
“Not every 4-year-old will take to safaris as well as James,” Chris acknowledges. “Each child is different, but as soon as your child shows a fascination for animals and could spend hours at a zoo he or she could be ready for safari. James is obsessed with wildlife and the animal world,’ says Chris. “He can tell you how many sets of teeth an elephant has and he can identify each species of antelope, had he not shown an interest we would have waited a few more years to take him on safari.”
There is no censor in the wild, either, you have to be ready to expose your children to animals attacking, eating and mating with each other. They will probably accept it as life, but you need to be ready to answer the questions that will follow. “There is no ideal age to start taking a child on safari, but I’d say around 7 and up is when they will really start to get the best out of it,” concludes Chris.
“Many families are put off traveling to Africa by the diseases that you can pick up there, but it’s a big and beautiful place and you shouldn’t let this put you off,” says Chris, “just make sure you only travel to the areas of lower risk.
I wouldn’t take a very young child to a Malaria area, for example. If an adult gets a fever they can tell you when things are getting really bad, generally with time enough to get to them to a hospital. Children can’t always tell you, which means that you might not know until it’s too late, so it’s not worth taking the risk.”
Kwandwe is malaria free and children don’t require any additional vaccinations other than what is standard back in the UK or USA.
Africa isn’t as daunting as you might think. Are you ready to explore it?
Photos provided by Kwandwe Private Game Reserve
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