When to go:
The months between May and September are the dry season and the best time for animal viewings as the vegetation is shorter and the animals tend to gather around rivers and watering holes.
In my opinion, and because I am not a huge fan of bugs and such, the best time to go is between June and August when its colder. On these months the temperature starts out quite low in the morning, between 3 and 6 celsius depending on how early you set out, and then progressively gets hotter till it peaks in the afternoon rising to 24 degrees! The in the evening it begins its rapid drop again so there is a lot of layering which is good to keep in mind when packing. More on what to pack at the end of the post.
Where to go:
When you have young kids with you I suggest only looking at the malaria free areas for a safari vacation. The anti malaria pills are not the best things ever to take and especially not for little kids. Contracting malaria is not something you want to do, ever. So your best bet is to avoid areas of malaria. We have only ever been to South Africa (or Self Africa or Salt Africa depending on which of my children you speak to).
The second criteria for your safari lodge is to find one that is child friendly. If it doesn’t specifically say that on the website then don’t bother. Many lodges won’t allow young children on game drives and many times those same lodges would prefer you don’t bring your children anyway. The flip side of that is a lodge like the one we went to in Tswalu game reserve which is the biggest in South Africa. It was so child friendly, the service was impeccable, the food was delicious and it was massive. They had activities for the children planned for the down time, They are totally ok with a 4 year old shouting “GIRAFFE! I am going to call him Jack!” in the middle of a game drive. The staff were so patient and welcoming. When they said ‘make yourself at home’ they really meant it.
The third is to check what animals you are likely to see at the reserve. Not all of them are the same. Tswalu has two areas. One of them with lions and the other without. This was brilliant because we were able to get out of the cars a few times and track things on foot. Not very well on account of the loud four year old, but it was fun no the less. We also were able to ride horses in the bush. An experience neither I nor the kids will soon forget. They have meerkats which we walked right up to and a slew of endangered animals you won’t get to see very many other places such as the elusive pangolin and the difficult to catch (as in catch a look at) aardvark. We got down and tracked one int he bush till sunset but only managed to make out the shadow of it before it got very dark and I got very nervous of being in the middle of the bush at night.
They didn’t, however. have elephants. I wouldn’t let this be a deterrent to you elephant lovers with kids because it is the most child friendly lodge I have been to and worth not seeing elephants for that. But maybe pair it with another lodge with elephants because I mean… do you even need a because? They’re elephants… in the wild.
Not having elephants there also meant we were able to ride on horse back in the bush. With elephants this is a no no for obvious reasons. The experience of riding beside wildebeest, giraffe and mountain zebra is one I will remember for a life time.
Finally I would suggest also understanding exactly what the accommodation is like. Most lodges have tents for their accommodation. Granted they are well sealed tents with heaters and AC’s but you can still hear the wildlife outside all night. So the frame of the rooms would be a solid frame with the doors and floors but the walls would be canvas. Others may be a fully built structures.
Always check if they have in indoor or outdoor shower. The outdoor shower means you have to time your showers to mid day when it’s warm, which is a bit annoying since you go out on another game drive after and get dusty. But then again there is usually an indoor bath which you could use any time. All of the lodges I have been to had an outdoor shower so I would have a shower in the afternoon and a bath before bed to get the dust off and refresh before bed.
The other lodges I have been to with the kids and loved were
This may vary depending on wether you book your own car and guide or you are part of a larger group. The latter means you have very little control over when you leave. The former costs more but with children it is worth it. I also would suggest you make sure you are with an experienced guide. Especially if you plan to do a walking safari.
Morning Drive: Depending on how hard core your safari experience is you could leave as early as 5.30 am or as late as 7.30 am. When we took the kids in 2013 we left around 5.30 am. Literally woke at around 5.10, put all our layers on and got into the car. They had blankets and hot water bottles. We would drive till the sun came up and then stop in the bush to have coffee, hot chocolate, biscuits and other snacks. One thing you never have to worry about in my experience is getting hungry. They don’t give you a chance! We continue driving till around 10 am- 11 am and then head back for a late breakfast. If you don’t think your little ones will last a long drive you need to tell your guide early so they don’t head too far. Although with my little ones they had no trouble napping in the car for an hour sometimes which was perfect. My sons sat for the full game drives at 3 and a half years old and at 4.
On this last trip we didn’t leave before 7.30 am so we would have cereal, yoghurt, pastries and coffee then head out for a shortish drive until around 11 or 11.30 then head back for a brunch.
Afternoon: Now comes the part I absolutely love, the doing of nothing. We had down time for about 4 hours until we went out again for the evening game drive. during this time there is usually an activity the children can do such as cooking, archery or some arts and crafts depending on the lodge. Otherwise this is the perfect time for a nap for the young ones, and the adults if need be. We read, played games, talked, sat on the deck and watched the animals come up to the watering hole beside the lodge.
I am not sure what we did for 4 hours straight exactly everyday to be honest but we did it and it was blissful and quiet. The lodge we were in had internet and a TV but the kids didn’t switch it on once the whole time we were there. And the iPads were put away as soon as we arrived.
Evening: Before going out again around 4 – 4.30 pm theres more food. Afternoon snack they called it which was anything from sandwiches, chips and dips, small tarts, and always always dessert. Keep in mind we’re not doing any moving at all so this is all just being stored. I asked if I could run when we arrived and the guide said if I drive behind you… cause of the jaguars ad cheetahs … I opted not to.
We get back in the car with all our layers because while the weather is perfect now as soon as the sun sets it gets cold again. We go out for a few hours of evening driving. Of course the car has snacks so we stop at some point before sunset and have a sundowner. Coffee, tea, hot chocolate and again food… dried fruit, biltong (typical south african snack of dried cured meat, absolutely love it), biscuits and small sandwiches (yes more food).
We head back after that and try spotting animals with the big flash light the tracker is holding while he sits on the little seat in on the front of the car just over the bumper. At this point, when it’s dark, look up. it is unreal how many stars there are in the sky. If you have a good guide he can start showing you the different constellations and planets so clearly visible. K my 4 year old was sitting beside the guide up front and I head him saying “You have a lot of stars in Salt Africa (which is what he calls it in spite of the older kids correcting him). In my country, Saudi Arabia, we don’t have a lot like you”. I must take him to the desert more often but in reality you have to drive quite far out of town in Riyadh to see what we saw on those nights.
Night time: We arrive back to the lodge around 7 pm and all go wash up for dinner. Every meal ends with dessert here so the whole meal takes about a hour. At the end of it the kids are very ready for bed.
The rest of the night after the kids sleep is spent either wrapped up on the deck, talking and listening to the strange sounds, trying to guess what animal is a few meters away from us, or reading a book and relaxing. We sleep around 11.30-12.
Next day rinse and repeat!
The timings may change form one place to another but the basic plan rarely does.
How long to go for:
We went for 5 nights which I feel is the perfect amount of time. We left wanting more but closer to being satisfied than not. You need to take into account that you will never fly straight into the lodge when you make your travel plans. All the times we went we ended up spending a night in Johannesburg and leaving the morning after to the reserve. So add a night on the way in and possibly a night not the way out.
Planes cannot fly into the reserves at night so you have to keep that in mind when you are booking your incoming and outgoing flights. We spent 8 hours in Johannesburg on the way out because that is the way our flights worked out but we spent most of it in a mall where the kids watched a movie and we bought books and a few other things we couldn’t resist and had lunch and dinner and coffee in between.
Why, you may be asking, did we spend our whole time in the mall? Well because when in Johannesburg I have been told to stick to certain areas as others are not safe. With the children I found the mall to be the perfect option. Also it there are a couple of hotels directly connected to the mall. We booked a room in the hotel this time for resting, praying, napping etc. I knew my 4 year old wouldn’t do 8 hours in a mall happily.
What to pack:
It is important to avoid wearing bright colours as it make you more visible and spooks the animals. White is on the list of colours you shouldn’t wear. I read this 3 days before leaving for the trip and realised most of the kids long sleeved t-shirts were white! Avoid red, pink, bright blues, bright greens. Stick to dark green and blues, shades of brown, black an dark greys to be on the safe side.
Back to packing. Let’s break this down into 3 categories:
What I packed and needed:
-Thermals: Light weight thermals or tights for bottoms. I love the UNIQLO ones and they are light weight and easy to wear under anything.
-Thermal Socks: Because who wants cold feet! Seriously.
-Hiking or Walking shoes (thick soles and high ankles but comfortable!)
-Hiking pants, jeans. But I preffered the light weight, stretchy, picking pants even though they are lighter (Thats where the thermals come in)
-Long sleeved cotton t-shirts
-Hoodies, or fleece… Nothing beats a good fleece.
-Wind breaker, I love my Just Over The Top jacket that I picked up at an airport somewhere not only for how small it rolls up an stores but for it’s function. It did really well to keep me warm in the car.
-Big long jacket Because night time comes and you want to be extra toasty from top to toes. Not necessary but I was happy to have it.
-Sunscreen: Even though you don’t feel it you are being baked in the son. Always use it.
–Buff If you don’t have one get one even if you don’t plan on going on safari. It is a multi functional head wear thingymadoo. I used it to cover my face from the dust, to keep my face warm form the cold wind and to keep my hair out of my face.
-Scarfs Because obviously going through this list I am a person who gets cold and likes to get bundled up. Also Khaled my 4 year old confiscated my scarves and used them as mini blankets.
-Hat = Warm head.
-Camera : Simple point and shoot for me but this is definitely a photographers destination.
-Books : for the blissful down time.
-Walking shoes with thick soles. When walking in the bush sneakers won’t cut it. Thorns are sharp and HUGE. Shoes with thick soles are imperative.
Somethings on this list make others redundant but I am a ‘better safe than sorry ‘person and I did actually use all of this.
What I packed and didn’t need:
-Change of clothes for dinner. Although I did change my shirt once. In general you get back hungry and tired and ready to eat and sleep. No time for changing in between.
-More tops and sweaters that I didn’t use. I stuck to two sweaters over my long sleeved T-shirts. I used one large coat and when it was less cold the wind breaker. I used one scarf of the 4 I packed and one buff. I could have travelled with half the things I ended up travelling with honestly.
-Perfume: Yeah, another no no. So while I did use it at night when we got back it really is a matter of how important it is to you. If you spray some before a drive you can guarantee you will be spotted (or sniffed) by the animals way before you spot them. And they will go far far away.
What I wish I packed:
-Binoculars: I would suggest everyone get some.
-Gloves: My hands were cold… more than was comfortable.
-Safari Hat (you know the kind.. like the guy in curios George wears) It would have helped with the sun… and looked authentic in the pictures.
-Sweats or something comfy for the down time between drives. I always like to take my shoes off and put on some sandals or something but what I really wanted to do is change into comfy trousers. I really wished I had some sweats.
I hope this was helpful! Please comment and tell me if you have been on a safari, where you have been and if I missed anything I need to add to the post!