For most, an African safari is a once – maybe twice – in a lifetime experience, and not an inexpensive one. So it’s worth some research to make sure you’re choosing the right lodge, particularly when traveling with children. Most families head to South Africa and Namibia, which offer malaria-free or low-malaria reserves, easier in-country transportation, the Big Five and super lux and kid-friendly lodges. But there are still enough lodging choices to make our heads spin. Paula Franklin, a New York mom who has over a dozen safaris under her belt, breaks it down for us.
For the Ultimate Splurge: Tswalu Private Game Reserve, Kalahari, South Africa
Covering almost a million acres and taking only thirty guests at a time, Tswalu Kalahari is South Africa’s largest and most exclusive private game reserve. Its population of over seventy species includes one third of South Africa’s remaining black rhinos as well as black-maned Kalahari lions, meerkats, cheetah and the rare aardvark, aardwolf, pangolin and porcupine. Tswalu is also one of the few reserves that allow children under six on game drives. The kiddies can enjoy Tswalu’s Junior Ranger program that includes archery, spoor identification and casting, children’s bush walks and a special children’s boma (BBQ enclosure) that allows them to cook their own bush dinner. Free babysitting is available around the clock, a bonus for parents that want to do an early-morning game drive while the kids are still asleep.
For the Royal Treatment: Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, Eastern Cape South Africa
Set on the Eastern Cape at the end of the famed Garden Route, Kwandwe offers two private villas - the three-bedroom Uplands Homestead and four-bedroom Melton Manor - where families can spread out in privacy. Each home has a pool, as well as a chef, butler, ranger, tracker and safari vehicle. With a focus on the environment and giving back, children’s activities include a “bugs n’ bones” walk for identifying insects, bones and animal droppings; planting Spekboom plants to offset the carbon footprint; and volunteer gardening projects at the local Mgcamabele Community, where even toddlers can join playtime at the local preschool.
For Homebodies: Ant’s Hill, Ant’s Nest, Limpopo Province, South Africa
One of the first lodges to focus on family safaris, Ant’s Hill (named for the owner not the insect) is a private bush home with six spacious bedrooms. Unlike the structured schedules kept at most safari lodges, days at Ant’s Hill provide the flexibility families crave. At any time, choose between activities such as horseback riding with the local wildlife to specialized "bug" and "spoor" walks and cycling safaris. The area is excellent for animal spotting, but there are no elephants or lions, which makes riding lessons and excursions safe even for young beginners. Back at the lodge, the little ones stay busy with a large swimming pool, a trampoline, sandboxes, a badminton and volleyball net and a serious collection of toys and books.
For Multitaskers: &Beyond Phinda Mountain Lodge, Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa
For families who need to compress the safari experience into a short time, Phinda is ideal. With a lot of game and not much terrain to cover, the reserve offers short attention spans a fast-track path to Big Five spotting. Stay at Mountain Lodge, the reserve’s largest and the only with a dedicated family suite that accommodates four children (it also comes with a dedicated drive vehicle plus a private pool). Every wild child visiting Phinda receives a special scrapbook that they fill up with mementoes from the bush, drawings and stickers. When not out searching for leopards (Phinda is one of the view reserves where they are spotted), children can go on special “poo” safaris, visit the local schools or have a cooking lesson in the lodge kitchen.
For Cinematic Scenery: Little Kulala, Sossusvlei, Namibia
The Namib Desert is the second largest on the planet after the Sahara, running 1,200 miles along the Atlantic coast and boasting some of the most incredible scenery in the world. For families, the best lodge is Little Kulala lodge, set in a 90,000-acre reserve along the Sossusvlei sand dunes. Stargaze from the rooftop terrace of the family villa, or head out to track desert ostrich, springbok, gemsbok and larger carnivores like brown hyena and cheetah. For the fearless, scorpion night walks offer animal sightings of a different kind – did you know some scorpions glow in the dark?