Not sure if you should go on an African safari with kids? Think again. It just takes some extra planning and research for both you and your kids to have the adventure of a lifetime.
African Safari with Kids
How to Take an African Safari with Kids
I’ve been to Africa around 30 times: from Tanzania to Uganda, Madagascar to Benin. It’s my favorite continent, and I try to visit at least once a year. Ever since my daughter was born, I’ve been wanting to bring her on safari and share my love for Africa with her.
After some research and planning, we recently went on an epic 16-day African Safari trip with our 3-year-old daughter. It turned out to be the Best. Trip. Ever.
There is just something so special about safari, the awe of seeing wild animals so close, the warmth of the tribes met along the way, and the beauty of the African savanna — to share that all with my daughter was a privilege. For Kaleya, Africa was pure magic. She was mesmerised by the savanna and all the animals she saw.
For those who are thinking of going on an African safari with kids, I’m sharing details of where, when and how we planned our trip to hopefully help you plan your family adventure!
Where to Go on An African Safari with Kids
- Firstly, certain parts of southern Africa are free from malaria and safe to travel without taking any malaria medication. Malaria pills aren’t advisable for young kids under 5-6 years old. Even if they are, malaria medication can have a lot of side effects (which we experienced ourselves previously).
- Secondly, we’ve driven in South Africa before and we know that this region is easy to get around on our own rented vehicle. Because the roads are good in southern Africa, it’s not essential to hire a 4WD (which is much more expensive than a normal car). We booked our rental car online from Discover Cars. For the entire two-week trip in South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho, it only cost us just US$250 including a toddler car seat and all the permits we had to pay to drive the car across borders.
- Most organised safari trips and game drives have various age restrictions, and 6 is usually the minimum age. But many parks in South Africa and Swaziland (Eswatini) allow self-driving, that’s why we chose to come to this region so we could do game drives ourselves with Kaleya. The highlight of our trip was our family safari in South Africa where we stayed at a kids-friendly lodge and where kids were allowed to join the game drives.
- Southern Africa has better infrastructure than other parts of Africa, that means lots of supermarkets, restaurants and safari lodges that are good for kids. We ate really well in all three countries, with excellent three-course meals at the lodges and simple casual meals at service stations or restaurants.
- I’ve been intrigued by Swaziland (Eswatini) and Lesotho since I first learned about them — two small landlocked island-like countries located within the geographical area of South Africa. Best of all, because they are small and located close to each other, it is possible to visit them in two weeks.
- Lastly, we didn’t want to spend the whole trip on safari, as it would be easy to get bored of it after just a few days. We wanted to combine wildlife safari with other fun activities like short hikes, beach bumming, boat trips and horse riding. Swaziland and Lesotho provided lots of other alternative activities that were fun for both us and our daughter.
Where Else to Go on an African Safari with Kids
Other parts of southern Africa, such as Namibia and Botswana, can be great for kids too. Both have excellent infrastructure as well, and national parks with good wildlife watching opportunities.
Namibia in particular has diverse and outstanding landscapes, which make the trip more all the more interesting. Some fun activities include sandboarding on the Sossusvlei dunes, exploring the large clay pan of Dead Vlei, and meeting the Himba tribe.
Botswana has the stunning Okavango Delta, where you can the unique experience of watching hippos and crocodiles on a mokoro (wooden canoe). However, the central and north-west regions of Botswana (including the Okavango) are low risk malaria areas.
East Africa is another area that’s extremely popular for wildlife safari. It’s cheaper than southern Africa and well known for the rich culture and tribal traditions. Kenya’s Maasai Mara and Tanzania’s Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater are the best spots in the region to see wildlife.
But again, most parts of East Africa are high-medium risk malaria areas and yellow fever vaccination is a requirement to enter the countries. Check for info on malaria and yellow fever risk on the CDC website.
West Africa isn’t typically good for game drives, with the exception of Senegal. Bandia Wildlife Reserve, close to Dakar, is the best reserve in the country and it’s home to some big game. Senegal travel is easy and interesting as there are lots of colonial towns and cultural spots to visit in the country.
When to Go on an African Safari with Kids
We chose to go in June to celebrate Alberto’s birthday. It’s also the best time to visit southern Africa.
June to September is the winter dry season in South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho. During this period, there is less vegetation and animals are more concentrated around rivers and waterholes, making it easier to spot them. There are also fewer mosquitos.
However, it can get cold in the evenings during this time of the year. That means you’ll need to bring a winter/down jacket for game drives at sunrise and sunset. In general, winter is very mild in South Africa, Swaziland and even mountainous Lesotho. Temperatures in the lowlands range from 12 to 25 degrees Celsius, and in the mountains from 3 to 10 degrees Celsius.
We mostly wore t-shirt and shorts or cargo pants during the day, and added on a light jacket at night. The only time we wore our thick winter jacket was on the evening game drives, when the wind was lashing at us on the open safari jeeps.
It is the same for East Africa: the best wildlife viewing months are from June to October. The wildebeest migration usually reaches the Masai Mara in July and remains until October when they move back to the Serengeti in Tanzania.
How Old Should Kids Be to Go on an African Safari?
This is the biggest concern for most parents as there’s not much point in traveling Africa if your kids aren’t allowed to go on safari.
Most organised safari tour operators and lodges have age restrictions, and many won’t take kids under 6 years on game drives. Some allow young kids but will not stop too near predators if there are young kids in an open vehicle.
However, some parks allow self drives, and there is no age limit for self-drive safari. That means you can actually drive around and spot wildlife in your own vehicle, even if you have young babies or toddlers.
At 3 years old, Kaleya was able to spot animals and enjoy the thrill of it. She was always super excited at the start of each drive, but would eventually lose interest and fall asleep. That was fine by us, since we could enjoy sundowners and relax. Kids above 5 should be able to enjoy it more and stay interested throughout a game drive.
We went to Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and Mbuluzi Game Reserve in Swaziland, both of which have no predators and thus are safe for self-drives. We didn’t see much in Mbuluzi, but did spot quite a few wildebeests, zebras and antelopes in Mlilwane (there were even warthogs loitering outside our hut in the morning).
Hlane National Park in Swaziland has big animals and allows self game drives except in the lion section. The park runs game drives but does not allow kids under 6 on them. I went on the game drive while Alberto stayed with Kaleya at the camp, but they had just as much fun watching a group of 8 rhinos snoozing a few feet away from them.
We also stayed at Ekuthuleni Lodge in Welgevonden Game Reserve, South Africa, where kids under six aren’t allowed on game drives usually. But they made an exception since we were the only guests at the lodge and the manager saw that Kaleya was behaving well. Read my review here.
Where to Stay on African Safari with Kids
In Africa, a lodge isn’t just a place to sleep — it’s where you’ll be doing your game drives, other activities, relaxing and spending all your time at. It’s important to find one that has plenty of activities to keep you entertained.
Most safari lodges have a minimum age requirement—typically 6 or 8. You’ll be surprised by how many lodges that don’t take young children.
Don’t look for a lodge that just accepts kids but one that actually welcomes them and offers activities to keep them engaged and entertained. There are some things to consider when choosing a lodge: Is it a fenced property? Kids aren’t allowed to wander on their own in an unfenced lodge. Is it safe for kids? Certain lodges have open decks that plunge a few meters beneath.
Here are the lodges that we stayed at and highly recommend to family travelers:
Ekuthuleni Lodge, South Africa — This intimate luxury safari lodge is located in the malaria-free Welgevonden Private Game Reserve, just a 3-hour drive from Johannesburg. With only five suites, the small scale of the lodge gave us the privacy we were looking for. Besides us, there was only a young family with a baby staying at the lodge. We loved having breakfast on the deck, watching animals drink from the waterhole before us, relaxing next to the swimming pool over looking grassy plains, and going on a game drive at sunset. Read my detailed review.
Monzi Safaris Tented Lodge, South Africa — A great option for budget family travelers looking for affordable accommodation, safari style. Accommodation is in luxury tents that are fully-equipped with a big double bed, sofa, and well-designed bathroom. You’ll find an excellent kitchen, braai area and two swimming pools and lots of lounging space. There’s a cool and young vibe at the lodge that I like. Unlike the other lodges we stayed at, this tented lodge is located in the town of St Lucia, walking distance from restaurants and tour operators. The lodge can arrange hippo boat trips on the St Lucia Estuary and game drives in Hluhluwe Imfolozi National Park.
Mlilwane’s Rest Camp, Swaziland — Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary is excellent for families with young children, as there are lots of outdoor activities organized for kids in mind. We stayed at the Lontweni self-catering rondavel that’s great for a family of 3, with a fully-equipped kitchen and outdoor braai area. We loved seeing antelopes and warthogs roaming right outside our door. There are no predators so kids can wander.
Imfihlo Lodge, Swaziland — This stunning house is a bush retreat perfect for families who just want to feel like they’re right at home. Imfihlo – “Secret” in siSwati – is a luxury house overlooking a river in the Mbuluzi Game Reserve. Utilising “green” design principles, the lodge blends into the landscape with its earth colors and features. We had the 3-bedroom house to ourselves, where we cooked, swam, relaxed and went on self game drives.
Maliba Lodge, Lesotho — As the first and only five-star hotel in Lesotho, Maliba Lodge is an outstanding mountain retreat for those who truly want to escape. It is located in high altitudes of the pristine Tsehlanyane National Park. There are lots of hiking trails crisscrossing the area; the hotel also organizes community tours and pony treks. We thoroughly enjoyed the community tour and had fun riding the Basotho pony up to the blackpool. The lodge also has a kids’ club for young children. Read my detailed review of Maliba Lodge Lesotho.
How Safe Is It to Go an African Safari with Kids?
In terms of safety, there really isn’t much to worry if you’re spending your time on safari in the African bush. The crime-ridden areas are in big cities like Johannesburg, Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam. We only spent two days in Jo’burg and steered clear of the dodgy areas.
Driving in southern Africa is also relatively easy and straightforward. The roads are good, though certain stretches may have lots of potholes. We booked our rental car online from Discover Car Hire. For the entire two-week trip in South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho, it only cost us just US$250 including a toddler car seat and all the permits we had to pay to drive the car across borders.
Health and Hygiene Issues in Africa
The bigger issue is health and hygiene due to the malaria and yellow fever risks in Africa. Like I mentioned, we chose to visit only malaria-free areas. Certain areas in southern Africa such as Kruger National Park and Okavango Delta are malaria zones. There are a few suggested vaccinations and medications for southern Africa, but none are mandatory. We didn’t get any vaccination for Kaleya.
Kenya and Tanzania require the yellow fever vaccination. Suggested vaccinations include meningitis, typhoid, hepatitis A and B, and cholera. Most of East Africa are high-risk malaria areas, so be sure to get malaria medication at home before your trip. You’ll need to start taking it a few days before your trip and continue for a few weeks after the trip.
Don’t leave this until the last minute. Check the CDC website to see what vaccinations you need before you book the trip. Make sure your kids are up to date on all their vaccines. Some shots come in a series, so you will need a few months before departure to get them done. You’ll need a proof of vaccination before entering Kenya and Tanzania.
Food/Water in Africa
We are used to traveling to countries where the tap water isn’t safe to drink and it’s not a big deal. We bought a big 5L drum of water at our first day, and it lasted the whole trip. The mineral water was also used for Kaleya to brush teeth with.
Food wise, we ate very well in the safari lodges we stayed at. Most safari lodges include all meals and game drives with the stay. While on the road, it was definitely easy to find affordable, hygienic food everywhere in South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho.
We ate at many South African franchise restaurants like Wimpy, John Dory’s and Debonairs Pizza, but also found a few cute local cafes and diners in Swaziland. Lesotho was a bit trickier for us, as it’s a mountainous and largely rural country. We found supermarkets and restaurants only in bigger towns like Teyateyaneng and Maseru.
We didn’t have any health problems at all, although Alberto did have a bulk of stomach flu on the last day of our trip. Remember to pack anti-diarrhea medicine and rehydration pills in case of food poisoning (see my Family Safari Packing List).
What Activities to Do Beyond Safari
If you’re traveling with young kids, I advise against planning back-to-back game drives for more than three days in a row. Kids might be mesmerised at their first sight of lions sleeping, but it gets old pretty fast if they’re seeing animals everyday for two weeks.
In between wildlife safari, we added lots of activities including hikes in Mlilwane, a visit to a cultural village in Swaziland, a boat trip on St Lucia Estuary, South Africa, and a pony trek in the mountains of Lesotho. Our favorite activities usually involved meeting local communities.
Combining safari with the beach for example is a great way to break things up and make it more fun for the kids. We specifically drove to Durban on our way from Swaziland to Lesotho for some downtime on the beach. Durban is an excellent city to hang out with kids, as the coast is home to wide, windswept beaches and some of Africa’s best themed parks.
Our stay at The Oyster Box was exceptional — the landmark hotel is ultra family-friendly, with family suites (that have separate rooms for kids) and welcome packs for kids as well as free icecream and snacks for the little ones at their restaurant. The beach right in front of the hotel is a treasure trove of hidden rockpools and crab hideouts, perfect for little explorers.
South Africa itself is huge and diverse — with plenty to interesting sights that are suitable for the family. If it’s your first time in Africa, I recommend spending your whole holiday in South Africa. You can combine safari with Cape Town where you can go on penguin tours, Table Mountain cable car ride, and vineyard visits. Then drive up the Western Cape and go whale watching, shark cage diving or surfing.
If you plan to go to Kenya or Tanzania, you can easily combine safari with beach trips to the island of Zanzibar, home to spectacular pristine beaches, or Mombasa along the Kenyan coast.
Cost of an African Safari with Kids
Many people have the misconception that an African safari is very expensive. As with any trip, the cost can be just as low or as high as you want it to be.
The cheapest way to go on a family safari is by doing a self-drive road trip, which was what we did. Flights, rental car, and hotels were all we needed. Park entrance fees are usually very reasonable, and often free for kids. We paid around US$1500 for our return flights to Johannesburg, US$300 for our car rental including the permits and extra charges, and around $300 on petrol.
We did self game drives most of the time, but also combined them with organized game drives. Most safari lodges include game drives and meals in their prices. Game drives organized by national parks are usually quite affordable (around US$25 per person for half-day group drives and $50 for full-day drives). The good news is that kids under 6 travel free (if they are allowed).
You can also join group safari tours in Kenya or Tanzania for anything ranging from US$700 to $2,000 per person depending on the luxury level. We did a 4-day camping safari trip in Tanzania a few years ago for just US$500 per person. It was cheap, but it meant we had to join a group, sleep in tents every night and eat simple food that our cook prepared. That was fine with us when we were young backpackers, but not something we would do with our kid now that we’re older.
Packing for an African Safari with Kids
You don’t really need to pack anything special for an African safari with kids. Avoid packing bright colored clothes for your kids — go for khaki and olive t-shirts and beige cargo pants. If you’re planning to visit in winter (like we did), bring a thick winter jacket and thin layers. Remember to take a jacket on safari, mosquito spray, sunscreen, a hat, and sun glasses.
The most important thing to pack for safari is a pair of binoculars as it’ll keep your kids interested and engaged during the rides. There are plenty of affordable binoculars you can buy online, including kids’ binoculars. Read my detailed safari packing list.
Game drives can run up to three hours long, and can sometimes involve a lot of driving and no signs of animals. We got Kaleya to take photos with our iPhone. You can also buy a kids digital camera and books on African wildlife so that they can look up in the book what kind of animals they saw, etc. These make for great kids travel gifts.
Leave the toys at home. We made the mistake of bringing too many books and toys for Kaleya. Many of the lodges we stayed at gave her new toys as welcoming gifts and she was kept busy all the time looking at insects, birds and all the exciting animals around us.
Final Tips for Bringing Kids on Safari
Game drives are typically at sunrise (around 6-9am depending on the time of the year) or sunset (around 4-7pm), which means young kids will probably be sleepy. We skipped the morning drives and only took sunset game drives, as we didn’t want to break Kaleya’s sleeping routine and we are not morning people anyway.
Lastly, remember (and remind your kids) that an African safari is very different from the zoo. Animal sightings are not guaranteed. You might witness a lion chase and hunt an impala or a big group of wildebeest crossing the river. Or you might not.
Hang in there and be patient — you and your kids might just be rewarded with some of the most amazing wildlife experiences of your life.
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