Big ideas for little kids on safari: Yes, it’s worth it
Bush breaks for all ages in Kenya and SA
When a hippopotamus defecates, it lifts its bottom out of the water, waves it around with great fanfare and emits an explosion of poo.
This faecal firework is not without purpose: when the gods created these beasts, the story goes, the hippos negotiated a life spent at least half in the water — wouldn’t that be fun?
The gods agreed, on the condition that the hippos did not eat the fish swimming around them. The spray of dung is a showy reminder to the heavens that these largely herbivorous animals are not pescatarians.
Look, ma: no fish.I listened to this story while standing on a viewing platform over the Mara River in southwest Kenya, my daughter chuckling by my side.Antonia had been silent a few days earlier in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, 420km to the northeast, as we watched a leopard sitting under a bush, gnawing efficiently at the carcass of a baby eland, the largest type of antelope in the 2,509ha sanctuary.
Not 10m away, the eland’s mother stood agitated next to a twisted, dead tree on the bank of a hill, scanning the grasslands in search of its baby.
The mother, our guide Karmushu Kiama said in a low voice to my rapt daughter, could have fought off a leopard — not a lion — had the eland spotted it earlier.But now the baby, no more than three weeks old, was gone. And the leopard was full.Antonia and I had gone to Kenya in search of adventure, lured by a two-site eight-night safari with UK-based Abercrombie and Kent. They recommend June-August as the best time for family trips, to coincide with the great migration in the Masai Mara, but we went in February when the costs and crowds are more modest.Most people — friends, family members, strangers — told me not to go. What a waste to take a five-year-old on such a trip. She won’t even remember it, they said.The only reasonable argument against taking young children on such holidays is cost. If the only way around a lack of funds is debt, then that is a pretty miserable life lesson for all involved. But this obsession with memory, and the tut-tutting that parents who take young children on epic adventures are doing it only for themselves, misses an important aspect of development.Your children may remember tracking a warthog in Kenya, aged five, and they may not. But there are far more important reasons than “creating memories” to take your child outside of the predictability of their home environment.
“Travel is a great foundation for learning life skills that you can’t get at home,” says Erica Reischer, a US-based clinical psychologist and author of What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Fantastic Kids.“For example: how to manoeuvre in an unfamiliar environment; how to ask for help (politely); how to be strategic in getting what you need; how to navigate a new place; how to be comfortable in an unfamiliar environment; how to collaborate with people unfamiliar to you.”Frankly, a refresher course in these life skills wouldn’t be a bad idea for most adults I know.
Over the course of just a week in Kenya, I watched Antonia grow in boldness. By the sixth day, she had developed a deep appreciation for the bright beads of the Masai.One evening after dinner, as our guide lit the way back to our tent with his torch, he playfully mentioned to her that he had a seven-year-old son. “It is traditional,” he said, with great gravitas, but merriment in his eyes, “for Masai parents to pre-arrange marriages for children your age. I’m sure that my son would like you — and if you say yes, I’ll give you my best bracelet.”An impromptu marriage proposal is a tricky serve to return — particularly in the week that you’ve noticed your first wobbly tooth. I winced. But I had underestimated Antonia.
“Thank you,” she replied immediately, and with a twinkle in her eye, “but that’s just not my thing. It’s a nice bracelet, though!” and she skipped off into the tent.Our trip took us from Nairobi to Lewa, at the foot of Mount Kenya in Laikipia province, and then to the Masai Mara, in the south, all via tiny nine-to-20-seater planes that fly low enough for you to identify the animals below.
A fifth-generation family home, Lewa Wilderness Camp has nine large mud, wood and thatch cottages decorated with charmingly weathered antiques and giant skulls.This aesthetic, combined with the warmth of the long-serving staff, lends the impression that you’re visiting good friends — and, indeed, on our visit nearly everyone else was a returning guest. Sundowners and dinner are served communally, in what amounts to a fantastic dinner party during which you trade tales of safari, but also of life in the real world.
Lewa Conservancy is great for safari because of its hilly terrain: you come upon animals hiding in the bush rather than spotting them across the savannah as you do in the Mara. And with its two-truck-max rule, there’s an intimacy to observing the beasts.However, Antonia and I are not statisticians, and our guide Karmushu Kiama, a father of three himself and co-manager of the lodge, quickly assessed our interests — stories rather than photo angles; science (why the animals do what they do) over variety (we saw the Big Five, but were keener to spend a while spying on the behaviours of baboons than hunting for elusive beasts).
After each morning’s drive, we’d have a swim, then lunch, then perhaps later in the afternoon another drive, or a horse safari.But however spectacular the wildlife, the success of a family safari hinges almost entirely on the ability of your guide to speak the language of children.
Lewa sensibly allocates one guide per family, so you can set your own pace. One boy we met told us proudly that on his first visit to Lewa, aged seven, he’d kept a detailed log of the number of times he spotted each type of animal.There’s a large stable on site, and even inexperienced riders can head out to a predator-free section of the conservancy.
When you are also on four legs, the wild animals are less skittish: I came within kissing distance of giraffes and zebras, including the endangered Grévy’s zebra: 20% of the extant population are found at Lewa.
Another day we had a camel safari — while not native to the area, they’re another example of Lewa Wilderness’s focus on varying children’s activities; where other lodges, particularly in South Africa, offer kids’ clubs for parents keen to have time on their own, Lewa’s emphasis is more on family time spent together.Karmushu took the time to explain local culture to Antonia with sensitivity and respect.
She asked him what Masai children’s birthday parties were like. There are none, he said. No parties — but also no birthdays. As she puzzled through this, he added: “But there are naming ceremonies. A few months after a child is born, its parents suggest a name for it and all of the village debates the proposal, with other people offering better options.”
Our experience in the Masai Mara was different, though also spectacular. Here you’ll find Kenya’s largest concentration of animals; here, too, is the largest concentration of people on safari.
Sanctuary Olonana, our base for three nights, is a beautifully set encampment along the Mara River. From the deck of our tent we spotted a hippo mother and child grunting their way along next to a crocodile about 15m away.Lewa’s luxury is in the stillness, the isolation, the sense of family history; Olonana has a beautiful spa hut over the river, where the sound of water is a soothing backdrop to excellent treatments.
At Olonana, we went on a group game-viewing vehicle, which was a mistake. We made a wonderful Kenyan friend, Beti, and crashed the honeymoon of a charming American couple, but it wasn’t right for a child: adults seek six-hour drives, but that’s too much for a young person.
Our guide at Olonana was an encyclopedia of fascinating animal facts. He explained that migrating common zebras practice abortion by bashing into females. He told us he’d been Melania Trump’s guide about five years before her husband became the US president (her visit was notable, he said, because she came alone and didn’t speak a word during the few days she was there).
But beyond a few zebra crossing jokes, he didn’t know how to tell children stories that would engage them. Still, the Mara’s wealth of wildlife makes it a must-see; I would just arrange for private game drives to ensure a child-appropriate itinerary.Travelling with a child inevitably changes your trip, often for the better. To my annoyance, the night before we left I discovered Antonia trying to cram her art supplies into our suitcase which, thanks to weight restrictions on internal flights in Kenya, I had been quite judicious in packing.
Thank goodness she prevailed; each evening, after two game drives, a swim, and hours in the sun, we relaxed on our porch and painted. Painting is a far more valuable medium than photography on safari: you must slowly observe the tableau before you.
Over our short week away, I watched my daughter grow in confidence. I saw her thrill at the antics of the animals, in play and in hunting.Still, it was the people who made the biggest impression. As we lifted off in our 12-seater Air Kenya plane, Antonia started to cry.
“I’m really going to miss Karmushu,” she said. “He’s so kind; he made me feel like a part of the savannah.”
Combining great knowledge, energy and empathy, Karmushu Kiama was the ideal teacher. I don’t know whether Antonia will remember seeing a hippo poo, or a leopard devour a baby eland.
But to lay the foundation for friendship, to feel a sense of belonging, anywhere in the world: that is the gift of a lifetime.
– © The Daily TelegraphFIVE KID-FRIENDLY LODGES IN SOUTH AFRICA
Jaci’s Lodges in Madikwe Game Reserve, North West, have several accommodation options including family suites, treehouses and tents. Jaci and Jan van Heteren raised their own family in Madikwe and offer children’s photographic safaris; a games room; a child-friendly menu; and family game drives on which kids aged 6-12 are welcome. For younger children, parents have the option to book a “Jungle Drive” or stay in one of the two luxury suites that come with their own game vehicle. These guests are free to take children of any age on drives and choose their own safari times.
Riverdene Family Lodge at Shamwari Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape has a Kids on Safari programme. While children under 4 can’t go on game drives, Shamwari is behind several awareness centres that can help your safari double as a great educational moment for children, including an Animal Rehabilitation Centre and a Rhino Awareness Centre. They also have a pool; supervised play room and jungle gym; games; a special kids’ menu; and child-minding service.
River Bend Lodge in the Addo Elephant National Park has a range of activities for children, from baking with the chef to a mini-rangers programme. There’s also babysitting, a kiddies’ menu, kids’ DVDs and specialised treatments at the spa.
Bakubung Bush Lodge and Kwa Maritane in the Pilanesberg have a Junior Rangers programme for children aged 6-12, built around activities that encourage learning and a love for nature. As for game drives, Bakubung will allocate a vehicle specifically for families with young children.
Jock Safari Lodge in the Kruger has a three-room standalone lodge for families called Fitzpatrick's Lodge at Jock. The lodge offers several activities for children including mini-chefs’ training, a visit to the Stevenson Hamilton museum in Skukuza (with a closed-vehicle game drive en route), junior ranger training and a night walk in the camp.YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: