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Even when she very young, my middle daughter was always on the move. While her older sister could sit happily for hours colouring in and drawing, Milly needed action, preferably outdoors. From the moment she was mobile, she would crawl over to the front door and wait for someone to open it so she could head for the great outdoors. So when I decided to bring her with me on a recent trip to South Africa, I was intrigued (and slightly nervous) about how she would cope with sitting on game drives for hours at a time with no outlet for her energy.
In reality, the short answer to that is that she was absolutely fine. She loved the opportunity to see lions feasting on a buffalo, giraffes grazing and leopards stalking an impala (who wouldn’t) and was enthusiastic about spotting the smaller things as well (a rain spider in our bathroom remains a talking point to this day.) However, I had included a few opportunities in our itinerary so that we could experience something a bit different. This included some time at the beach, horse riding and a day in the Blyde Canyon area. The latter which remains, to this day, her absolute highlight of the trip.
Blyde Canyon is the 3rd largest canyon on earth, but with so many amazing highlights to choose from in a country like South Africa, it sometimes gets over-looked. When it is included in an itinerary, it is usually as part of a whistle-stop tour of the Panorama Route – an afternoon visit to the view points and then back in the car for the next sight. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want to that type of a stop and so we met with a local guide, born and bred in the area, who took us to completely off the beaten track for a couple of days.
The first thing we did was an afternoon hike to a hidden waterfall. With no one else around, we walked through woodland until we reached the pool with clear waters and plenty of rocks to jump off. It was too late in the afternoon for a full on swim, but we had so much fun skimming stones and paddling in the water.
The next morning we set off to get a view of the canyon, passing some stunning scenery along the way. With not another car on the road, we parked up and then had a short walk to a view point where we were free to clamber on rocks and let off some steam. And the views we were rewarded with were out of this world. I have been to the Grand Canyon and shared the viewpoints with countless other tourists, but to have this amazing landscape all to ourselves was heaven.
After being on top of the world, we then descended to a picnic spot at the base of the canyon where our guide set about cooking us an alfresco lunch. We were just by a gorgeous river with a rope swing, so had huge amounts of fun spending the afternoon messing around by the river before warming up with a hot meal.
Having two days to run, climb and swim and make lots of noise without seeing another person was heaven on earth for my both myself and my daughter. She loved the clambering on rocks and the freedom to roam and I loved being able to take in the amazing views and have some physical activity. That spelled the end of Blyde Canyon adventure, as sadly our schedule meant that we had to move on. However, had we more time, the next day we would have gone canyoning to explore some of the hidden caves in the side canyons. A reason (as if I needed one) to go back again one day.
For us, the best safari is not just about seeing the big five. Experiencing the wilderness, spending a night out fly camping under the stars, getting out of the 4WD and exploring on foot or horseback, spending some laid back time with the Masai practising with spears and making bows and arrows, these are the things that bring your safari alive. And not just that, they give you a sense of Africa that you will never get if all you ever see is the inside of a 4WD and luxurious camp. In our experience children love game drives initially, but depending on the child, their enthusiasm will start to wane after a couple of days of back to back morning and afternoon game drives. So a safari that mixes things up with some game drives, some more active time and some time exploring Africa's stunning wilderness areas always works brilliantly for families. The five once in a lifetime experiences we have picked out here are the places that have really stood out for us and consistently get fantastic feedback from families. Amongst them are some of our favourite places in the whole of Africa, places we'd happily visit again and again year in and year out with our own families.
RIDING WITH THE RHINOS AT ANTS NEST
Ants Nest may not have the big five, but they do have plenty of plains game and the views are to die for. Spend your days on bush walks, horse riding amongst rhino, giraffe, zebra and wildebeest or heading out for an overnight at the bush camp. This place really comes alive for horse riders, but is great fun for beginners too. Non-riders can have lessons, or if you prefer to stay on the ground, then there are walking options and game drives instead. This the kind of place where you wish you'd booked in for a week. See here for more details on Ants Nest.
Sosian Ranch in Kenya is also a superb option for riders (need to be experienced)
WILD SWIMMING AND UNDISCOVERED CAVES AT BLYDE CANYON
The perfect antidote to a more traditional safari in the Kruger area, the Blyde Canyon is one of the largest and most spectacular canyons in the world. The Blyde Canyon River Adventure really gets under the skin of this spectacular location heading well off the beaten track with a superb local guide exploring hidden view points, undiscovered caves and swimming holes. An absolute highlight. See our Kruger, Cape Town and Blyde River Adventure.
FLY CAMPING, ROCK CLIMBING & WILD DOGS IN LAIKIPIA
In the Northern wilderness of Kenya, Laikipia with its vast area of bush, rocky kopjes and streams offers one of the finest wilderness safari experiences in Africa. Elephants, black rhino and wild dogs all thrive here and although it doesn't compare to the Masai Mara in terms of the big cat populations, there is a good chance you'll see a lion or leopard. With such a vast area and so few camps, you really have the place to yourself out here. What really marks Laikipia Wilderness Camp out though are the guides and the experience. Expect an itinerary tailored to your family, with fly camping out in the wild, messing about in the river, meals served out in the bush and sundowners atop rocky kopjes, it is quite simply, Africa at its best. See here for our Laikipia Family Holiday sample itinerary.
GETTING OVER THE HUMP ON A CAMEL SUPPORTED WALKING SAFARI IN KENYA
A true adventure. There is nothing quite like heading out on foot into the bush, without forsaking the comforts of a comfortable camp, bucket shower and cold beer at the end of the day. Walking through the bush, you quickly learn how to identify footprints and dung and stay downwind of the wildlife. Waking up in the night to the sound of hyenas sniffing around camp, you know you are in for a real adventure. What makes these walking safaris perfect for families is that the children can ride the camels.
Fantastic walking safari is also available for families in the Serengeti (albeit without the camels, but no less comfort)
GOING MAASAI AT MAGI MOTO
There are no shortage of cultural manyattas in Kenya and Tanzania, but all too often these are pretty dire, places where big lodges can ship in their guests for a couple of hours to buy trinkets. However done right, spending some time with people from a vastly different culture than our own can be fascinating, fun and rewarding, especially for families. Magi Moto is an inspiring eco camp on the approach to the Masai Mara with a warm welcome and a big heart. We camp here and head out on bush walks with the Masai learning about medicinal plants, learn how to make a bow and arrow and sit around the camp fire trading stories. Our Maasai Family Adventure includes overnight camping at Magi Moto.
I had heard of Lake Tahoe as a winter sports destination, but when a friend of mine suggested it as an idea for some summer r & r with some watersports thrown in, I was a little surprised. Home to the 1960 winter olympics, it is well-known as a mecca for skiers and snow boarders, but I was rather sceptical about the idea of spending some relaxation time on the beach of a lake. However, I have always secretly fancied giving stand up paddle boarding a go, so decided to head over and try it out for myself.
The lake itself is huge. At it's widest point it measures 19km and it is 35km long and it is one of the highest large lakes in the USA. Located at an elevation of 1,897 m, it enjoys a pleasant climate, with sunny days, but not as hot as other inland Californian destinations. The Lake itself forms the border between California and Nevada and is easily aceesible from Yosemite and San Francisco. There are plenty of accommodation options, from cheerful motels to the more upmarket resorts.
One of the things that surprised me so much about Lake Tahoe was the number of beaches. With crystal clear waters and a mountainous bnackdrop, they are a beautiful place to lie back and relax. Emerald Bay is one of the more famous ones, but there are plenty to choose from.
Each of the main beaches has a carpark with basic toilets and many have a concession renting out paddle boards, kayaks and life jackets. With no tides, the lake is a perfect place for all of the family to have a go at the watersports on offer. And the water is not as cold as you would expect either.
For those who prefer to take it easy, there is, of course, the option to stay dry and just while away the days sun bathing and reading.
When it starts to cool down and evening beckons, there are some great dining options, from old town Americana in Truckee, to beach side dining in South Lake Tahoe, where it was possible to enjoy a glass of wine in a restaurant whilst the children played on the beach.. Heaven....
Yosemite has to be one of the most scenic National Parks in the USA. With sheer white granite rocks, beautiful alpine lakes and far-reaching views, it is a photographer’s dream. We have selected some of our favourite views to give a taste of what awaits you in one the USA's oldest National Parks.
Tunnel View, on the main approch road into the valley. Early park authorities constructed a tunnel that ended at this viewpoint just to give it an extra wow factor. You can see the half dome in the distance, and the contrast of pine forest against the white rock is very stunning.
Located in central California, Yosemite National Park is a breath-takingly beautiful place with vast sheer granite cliffs, lush green meadows and fast flowing waterfalls. Established as a national park in 1864, it has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1984. Most of its tourism is focussed on the main valley, however the park actually stretches over 1,200 miles. With views to rival the Grand Canyon and a huge amount of ‘must do’s’ in the guidebooks, it can be a little bewildering to know where to start, especially when you are visiting as a family. Children have only so much tolerance for views and sight seeing in National Parks, especially when they are constantly in and out of cars, so based on travel with our own children, we have put together our highlights which combine a mixture of views and activities.
Even the most cynical of kids can’t fail to be amazed by the views at Yosemite. The key is not to drag them round to each and every view point, but pick out the very best. If you are going to one and only one, then Glacier Point offers fantastic views of the valley and the iconic Half Dome. During peak seasons, there is usually a ranger there with a telescope through which you can see climbers on the rock. We suggest you beat the crowds and go early, take a picnic with you and enjoy your breakfast with a spectacular view.
Whilst exploring under your own steam can be a lot of fun, we do recommend a day with a guide who can take you off the beaten track and away from the hordes of other visitors. There are some lovely day hikes that you can do, from the Panorama Trail offering stunning views of the valley, or a hike up to one of the many waterfalls in the park. Your guide is very knowledgeable about the geology and history of the area and will go to great efforts to make sure that everyone in the family is involved and enthused about the area.
The floor of the valley is flat and with a excellent network of bike paths, it is an excellent place to hire bikes and explore on two wheels. We recommend this activity later in the day, when the crowds have gone and it is a bit cooler. Passing over rivers and through meadows and forest you are surrounded by the huge rock formations which can give you an amazing sense of the sheer scale of the place.
If you are visiting in the summer months, then Yosemite valley can get very hot. With much of the day spent in the car driving between view points, a swim can be very welcome and fortunately there are plenty of opportunities in the valley. River beaches are marked on the map given to you when you first enter Yosemite and parking is easy. The water is surprisingly warm and views are second to none, so make sure that you always have towels and costumes in the car when you head out.
In the south of Yosemite you can view some of the largest and oldest trees in the world. The largest of the Giant Sequoias is the Grizzly Giant. Estimated to be over 2,000 years, this tree is over 64 metres tall. Another draw is the California Tunnel Tree, which you can walk through. There are several walking options in the Grove. We suggest visiting early to make sure you get a parking space and to beat the crowds.
If you are one of those people who is truly allergic to other people, then you might want to consider our wilderness trek in the Ansel Adams Wilderness area. Hiking 6 miles into the wild, you will set up a base camp by an alpine lake where you can swim and relax, far far away from anyone else. Your guide will take you on day walks from your camp, scrambling up peaks or to other lakes in the area, but the focus of the trip is really about getting back to nature and away from modern life. Your bags and camping equipment are all transported by mules, so you just have to hike in with your day gear.