Think you can’t take your kid on an African safari? Think again. It just takes a bit more advance planning than your average trip and a few clever tricks to make everything go smoothly with children in tow. From where to go and when to travel to how to save a buck or two, here are the eight things to consider before you set off on what will likely end up being your family’s Best. Trip. Ever.
Time Your Travel Wisely
Every country in Africa is unique both in landscape and culture. So how do you choose? Decide whether your trip will coincide with your kid’s school vacation or if you have flexibility. May to October is the winter dry season in Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia, which means there is less vegetation and the animals are more concentrated around rivers and waterholes, making you more likely to spot them. There are also fewer mosquitos. South Africa is arguably the best destination for a trip with young kids and for first-timers: The risk of malaria is relatively low, it has good infrastructure and roads, and many parks allow self-driving.
Travel Off-Season, Off the Beaten Path
In East and Southern Africa, many lodges drop their prices in the off-season, like the traditionally wetter months of April and May. You’ve probably heard of Kenya’s Maasai Mara, Tanzania’s Serengeti, South Africa’s Kruger, and Botswana’s Okavango. So has everyone else. Sometimes a good deal on a safari lodge or outfitter can be found at the lesser-known game reserves, such as Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Arusha National Park in Tanzania, or Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa.
See Your Doctor
Don’t leave this until the last minute. As soon as you decide that a trip to Africa is in your family’s future, go see your doctor to determine what vaccinations, boosters, or medications you will need. (Check this WHO map to see what countries are at risk.) Make sure your kids are up to date on all their vaccines, regardless of whether a specific one is required or recommended for travel in Africa. Some shots come in a series, so you will need a few months before departure to get them done. Some meds, like many anti-malaria pills, need to be taken up to a week leading up to arrival in the at-risk region. Some countries require proof of vaccination before entering. Check with the country’s embassy for the latest information.
Find the Right Lodge
Many safari outfitters have a minimum age requirement—typically 8 and sometimes 12. Don’t look for a lodge that just accepts kids but one that actually welcomes them and offers activities to keep them engaged and entertained. Consider whether your kids are old (or mature) enough to sleep on their own, as that will also help narrow down your choices. Kenya’s recently opened Angama Mara features two separate camps, each with 15 glass-fronted tented suites, four of which are interconnecting so that children (6 is the age minimum) can move freely between their tent and their parents’ in complete safety. Aside from walking safaris and hot-air balloons, kids can fish in the dam, learn to bead with Maasai women in the craft studio, visit local schools, and stargaze at night with toasted marshmallows. &Beyond is another top option, as most of its lodges accommodate kids of all ages. The outfitter’s WILDchild program is designed to offer activities—traditional bow-making, tracking, cooking classes—that tie in with the heritage of each lodge’s specific region. For example, in the Okavango, adventures may include fishing expeditions and making water lily necklaces. In South Africa, &Beyond’s Phinda Mountain Lodge features a family suite and three family cottages. Families also have exclusive use of safari vehicles and can customize game drives for the shorter attention span of little ones.
You know how when you take your kid to the park or the beach you bring everything you might need and even more stuff you know you probably won’t? You can’t (and shouldn’t) do the same on this trip. Make a list (no, really, make a list) of must-haves. These are things like sunscreen, lip balm, long-sleeve shirts and long pants, and a hat. Now add items that you wish you’d thought of, like snacks (in a pinch, granola bars or fruit strips can help appease an impending hunger tantrum), Children’s Tylenol, or any other medicine your child might need. If you have it, bring an iPad or iPod with headphones.
Recognize Teachable Moments
No matter how old kids are, you’ll encounter myriad opportunities to impart knowledge and life lessons—about evolution, mating rituals, language, and culture. Encourage children to learn simple words (hello, thank you) in the local language so they can communicate with other kids they might meet.
Don’t Expect to See Everything on Your List
You might witness a lion chase and devour a zebra. Or you might not. Remember (and remind your kids) that photographers sometimes sit for hours or days to get the awesome shot you saw on the wildlife channel or National Geographic magazine.
Go With the Flow
Game drives are typically very early in the morning, which means young kids will probably be sleepy. Make it fun for them by bringing pencils and a logbook where they can record (with words or drawings) the animals they see. Most children as young as 3 know how to use an iPhone—let them! Even better, encourage them to take photos or video. If they fall asleep on the drive, don’t wake them. Better to have a happy, rested kid than a cranky one.
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