South African Safari with Kids
If there’s one thing about being on safari, it’s the realisation that we are privileged to live in South Africa. We are indeed blessed with stunning landscapes, beautiful natural parks and abundant wildlife. And so it was, that with our boys (Kai and Jano) now aged four and seven, we felt it would be lovely to take them on safari again – especially after the covid pandemic and lockdown.
Our first South African safari with kids was a couple of years ago to the Madikwe Game Reserve in the Kalahari and then to the Pongola Reserve in KwaZulu Natal. This time we chose to focus on the malaria-free safari regions that lie a three or four-hour drive north of Johannesburg: the Marataba Reserve, the Waterberg Region and the Welgevonden Game Reserve.
We wanted – naturally – family-focussed lodges with safari activities geared towards children and run by staff with a good understanding of the dynamics of family travel. The most important aspect of a family-friendly lodge is the staff, and, since you see him or her the most, your guide will be the most important of all.
Our South African family safari started with a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg where we rented a car and self-drove to our destinations in the north. The roads were great, the lodges easy to find and the trip went smoothly but if you are a bit cautious about driving, then the same route can very easily be done with organised transfers. We started at Marataba Safari Lodge.
Marataba Safari Lodge
Located within the Marakele National Park, Marataba Safari Lodge is set on the foothills of the Waterberg Mountains in a private reserve called Marataba Reserve. This is one of the most beautiful settings I have seen, complete with mesmerising views of the Waterberg Mountain Range and has great wildlife too: we saw four of the Big Five here as well as many other species and would recommend a minimum of three nights here.
Our stay at the 5-star Marataba Safari Lodge was phenomenal. Four of the 15 rooms are family rooms: they have inter-leading rooms with bunkbeds in the children’s room – a great way to get our boys excited! Outside, warthogs, impala and bushbuck were moving and feeding around the lodge which really set the tone for our safari.
Family-friendly accommodation means kid-friendly dining as well as specially organised activities and excursions. On arrival, our boys each received a Mack & Madi Cap and a bag with a colouring book and crayons. We were happy to allow our kids to play, explore and just be kids. They also used the Mack & Madi Kids Adventure Explorers Centre in the time that they did not go on game drives.
Ant’s Hill Lodge
Next up on our family safari was Ant’s Hill Lodge, situated in a privately-owned reserve in the Waterberg area about 45 minutes’ drive away. On arrival we were greeted by Fred “Cool Cat”, the house cat as well as “Numar” the dog, both of whom showed that they enjoy having new guests around.
This beautiful lodge is built on the edge of a cliff with amazing views into the valley. The whole atmosphere is very relaxed, family friendly, and the staff are extremely hospitable. The safari activities don’t start at sunrise but only after breakfast at 08h30 which makes it easier for younger children. Many visitors come here for the Waterberg’s famous horse-riding safaris – and we went on one – but there are also lots of other activities for the non-riders. Our kids also enjoyed bow and arrow shooting, fishing, bug walks and, of course, the swimming pool.
We also had the privilege of being part of a Rhino Darting project. A female rhino had to be darted in order to be reunited with her two-day old baby. What a fantastic experience and what an amazing privilege to have been part of this adventure. The vet was in a helicopter trying to dart the rhino and we chased after the helicopter in our game drive vehicle. We arrived in time to help and assisted the rangers in getting the rhino into the trailer.
The staff at Ant’s Hill want to involve the clients where possible and this was the highlight of our trip. We are very thankful that we could be part of it and would recommend Ant’s Hill Lodge any day. Indeed, it is here where Jano decided that he wants to become a game ranger when he grows up!
Mhondoro Safari Lodge and Villa
From Ant’s Hill we made our way to the Welgevonden Reserve. We left our car at the main gate where our guide collected us and drove us to the lodge deep inside the reserve (a 45-minute drive).
Mhondoro Safari Lodge is a 5-star lodge and I’d say that the five stars refer to both its luxury and its family friendliness. The lodge is modern, the rooms spacious, and the service, dining and guiding absolutely top notch. Our guide – Dwayne – was perfect; very knowledgeable and keen to involve our boys in the whole safari experience. I can truly say that Dwayne and the staff went the extra mile in every way. The boys got to do some airgun shooting and fishing, and they sure loved the heated swimming pool with views over the waterhole!
We stayed in the two-bedroomed family rooms which worked perfectly for the family. The game drives were incredible and my whole family was sad to leave on the last day.
The trip was a great success and made me reflect on a few things when planning a child-friendly safari. First, make sure that your chosen lodge offers dedicated children activities and, second, if the budget allows, get a private game drive vehicle for the family.
Children’s activities vary from lodge to lodge but include bug walks, spoor casting, archery, airgun target shooting, fishing, cooking, arts and crafts, rock painting as well as animal track and bird identification.
As for private game drive vehicles – you may need to have one anyway: most safari lodges do not allow children under six years old on scheduled game drive vehicles. This is understandable from two perspectives – the child’s and the other guests. Not all 4-year-olds will be able to sit still for a four-hour game drive and not all guests enjoy being on a game drive vehicle with small kids. These are important considerations and where possible I would suggest getting a private game drive vehicle when you have smaller kids. The extra cost is worth it and the experience is fun and intimate for the family.