Think of an African safari and the first images that pop into your mind are scenes filched from adventure films or books: Vast savannahs teeming with exotic game, sultry nights in front of a campfire glowing as bright as those full moons typical in the sub-Saharan latitudes, rough-hewn guides dressed in khaki shirts with epaulets and the inevitable campaign hat with a leopard band, while a sense of adventure wafts through the air like the scent from acacia blooms.
The reality is far different, especially these days when tour operators are fully aware that new standards such as conservation and the protection of wildlife are unavoidable in the modern safari experience. Add to this the fact that many tour companies are making African safaris more family-oriented and you have a 21st century adventure spiced with a potent combination that attracts those who otherwise would not consider taking their offspring along on what previously would have been a hazardous journey.
Yes, the safari of old movies and adventure books is a thing of the past. Safety, conservation, education and awareness of the frailty of the environment seem to have taken the lead from hunting and other macho activities.
Safaris remain as popular as ever, but their configuration has changed. Still, the countries providing such experiences roll off the tongue easily and exude exoticism: South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana and Namibia. Their names alone will send those contemplating a trip into those appealing lands into wistful reveries.
While at one time hunting was the cynosure of such trips, today one sees an increasing number of non-hunting and family-friendly safaris being offered to those willing to venture en famille into the African wilderness.
Most agree that South Africa is the preferred destination for family safaris. It is full of private wildlife parks where it’s common to see a wide variety of game in a relatively short time. In addition, South Africa has a large number of malaria-free zones along with the best doctors, clinics and hospitals in the continent, thus freeing parents from worries.
However, there are caveats: some tour operators understandably have age restrictions because the danger of having small children in an open vehicle while viewing wildlife can be great. A number of lodges and campsites have a similar restriction because wild animals are frequently in close proximity.
But on the whole, the safari experience is a rewarding experience that is sure to provide a treasure chest of memories for youngsters and their parents.
According to Mike Nesbitt, president of Seattle’s African Safari Company, who has wide experience in organizing family-oriented trips to the veldt, booking safaris for families is not as simple as it sounds. “It’s difficult to package a trip without knowing the age of the children,” he says. “Although they are welcome at most safari camps in both southern and east Africa, there are [some] restrictions. In east Africa, the majority of lodges take children as young as 4, while the more upscale tented camps limiting the age to 6 and above.”
Nesbitt has ample suggestions for travel agents planning such vacations for family groups: “When booking a family safari in east Africa I usually suggest a private safari so the family has control of the length of game drives, time spent on sightseeing, etc. If tented accommodations are required, I check to see what restrictions apply for any camps that I may recommend in the itinerary. I also check whether the camps have family units, adjoining rooms, or any special family-oriented programs.”
Nesbitt likes the Intrepids Tented Camps in Samburu and the Masai Mara, both of which have a “junior ranger” program for youngsters.
south africa South Africa, though, he explains, has, “The most choices for families, with many lodges offering family rooms and special venues for children.”
African Safari Company uses such children-friendly camps as Jacki’s Lodge, in the middle of the high veldt in the South African province of Gauteng. Jacki’s has a mere eight rooms and two exclusive family suites, built from an attractive combination of stone, canvas and shaggy thatch roofs that create a true safari atmosphere.