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One of our favourite days on our trip to California was when we rented bikes to cycle the Golden Gate Bridge. With amazing views of the Bridge and also the city, the ride has a few hills, but nothing that young legs can’t handle. In fact the children absolutely loved having the chance to be active and do something a little different. Bikes of various sizes are available, for adults and children. Younger children can ride in seats, tagalong bikes or trailers. More active families can ride all the way to Sausalito, where it is possible to return to San Francisco by ferry. Those with less energy can ride to the bridge and back.
The resident sea lions at Pier 39 are something of a San Francisco institution. The Fishermans Wharf area is brimming with buskers and artists and whilst it is a little touristy, many people enjoy wandering along until pier 39 to get a glimpse of the sea lions basking in the afternoon sun and to listen to them barking. Pier 39 itself is full of touristy shops, there is even a shop dedicated to people who are left handed!
Possibly one of the most iconic means of transport in California, if not the world, the cable way is one of the must do attractions in San Francisco. Unsurprisingly, this is a popular (and expensive) way of getting around town, so queues are busy and prices high. We suggest getting up early to ensure you don’t have to wait too long.
Viewing San Francisco from the water is a real treat for adults and children alike and there are plenty of ferry companies to choose from. We recommend a later afternoon cruise so that you can watch the sun setting over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Older children may enjoy a visit to Alcatraz Island, the world-famous prison where Al Capone was famously incarcerated. Audio tours are available, as are guided tours with park rangers. To get there, you need to catch a ferry from Pier 31. In the summer months, it is highly recommended that you book in advance.
I’m not really a horse rider, I’ve done a bit of pony trekking in my time, but nothing hugely significant. My daughter Milly, however, like many 7 year olds, fancies herself as something of a future equestrian so when we were offered the chance of trying out some horse riding on our recent trip to South Africa, we jumped at the chance.
After a rather eventful car journey (think pot holes, untarred roads and I will leave the rest to your imagination) we arrived at Ant’s Hill in the Waterberg Mountains north of Johannesburg. We arrived just in time to go for a sun-downer, so our guide grabbed some blankets and whisked us off for a short game drive to a view point to watch the sun setting whilst sipping one of the best gin and tonics of my life. As I sat back and chatted to our guide, my daughter was absolutely transfixed watching a snake like procession of caterpillars on the pathway.
Because Ant’s Hill is primarily a riding destination, there are no predators on site, but an array of over 40 species of animals including giraffe, rhino, buffalo many species of antelope in addition, of course, to the many birds and insects. And this is actually a positive. When you’re in Big Five territory, it is easy to ignore the smaller things, but actually they are just as fascinating.
Over dinner we discussed riding abilities around the table with the other guests. This was what I had been most nervous about. I had had a lesson at home before I left, when my instructor told me he had never seen anyone with quite as little talent for trotting as me (he added that if it was any comfort to me, my daughter was a natural. It wasn’t a help) I nervously admitted to my complete lack of horse riding talent and was immediately put at ease. The guests ranged from very experienced riders to complete beginners and we were divided up accordingly. Milly and I were teamed up with another family and straight after breakfast the next day, we were off. They have 90 Horses on the farm and we were all paired with horses to match us. The other members of the group went for a canter and we walked off at a more sedate pace. Within minutes we had spotted some giraffes grazing amongst the trees and all of the nerves dissipated. We rode on for about 2 hours, spotting rhino, antelope and yet more giraffe along the way. And I was hooked. Arriving back at our accommodation later on, we had lunch and then some time to lounge around the heated pool before retiring to read books from the terrace by our own private pool.
Even now several months later, Milly still remembers the horse riding as one of the highlights of her trip to South Africa. And surprisingly, so do I. After having done many game drives in a Land Rover, it was like a breath of fresh air being in the great outdoors, with no noises apart from the wildlife around us. Ours was only a very brief stay, but I am convinced that if I had been able to stay there for a few days, they might even have coaxed some sort of horsemanship out of me. As for Milly, a pony now features very high on her Christmas list!
The key to the perfect Family safari in Africa is balancing the needs of everyone in the family. Some children can sit for hours in a game drive vehicle day after day, watching game and getting excited about every single animal. Other children will start to get bored and restless after a couple of game drives. We have one of each type, so know how hard it can be. Rather than making the holiday of your life time into an ordeal, here are a few recommendations to help you plan your holiday.
By paying extra, you can often have a ranger and game drive vehicle just for your family. This has the benefit that you can go at your own pace and that you don’t feel self-conscious exposing your children to other clients. It also means that the guide’s focus is on pacing the safari for your family, rather than needing to please all of the people in the vehicle.
Some lodges opt for communal dining, others have a more formal approach with rigid dinner times. Some lodges have lounge areas close to the dining room, or even children’s lounges where your children can go and relax whilst you are lingering over a glass of wine and chatting to your fellow guests. If you prefer privacy, then you might prefer to choose somewhere where you can arrange private dining just for your family.
Some lodges have swimming pools, which can be a real bonus for the more active children. For the most part, however, these are not heated, so be aware that if you are travelling to South Africa in their winter, then the pools will be very cold.
When choosing your lodge, it is also worth considering how your child (ren) behaves. If they are naturally quite loud and active then you might want to choose a larger lodge with a good array of children’s activities. If you have older children who are very happy to relax with a book in-between game drives, then you can happily opt for a lodge that is smaller and quieter.
Sleeping arrangements are also crucial and, again, completely dependent on the age of your children. With teenagers, you probably want separate rooms / tents and privacy. Families with younger children will almost certainly all want to share.
Between us, we have visited a large range of lodges across Africa and are very happy to take the time to find the perfect place for you to stay.
The schedule of your stay at a lodge is fairly regimented with early starts and late nights. You tend to have two game drives a day and each one will be around 3 hours long. After a few days of sitting quietly, many children (and adults) will be wanting to be more active, so we recommend combining your safari with something a little different. We have tried and tested all of the below with our 7 year old who was born with lots of energy to burn off, so can confidently say that each one ticks the box for an active adventure which both children and their parents can enjoy.
If you like horse riding, then you could spend a few days at a horse riding safari centre in the Waterberg area north of Johannesburg. With over 90 horses, there is a horse to match you and you will be taken out for rides according to your ability. Non-riders can have lessons, or if you prefer to stay on the ground, then there are walking options and game drives instead.
If you are a family who likes nature and walking and are going to South Africa, then we suggest our Blyde Canyon experience where you spend a few days with a guide exploring the world’s 3rd largest canyon. Your local guide takes you well off the beaten track to hidden view points, undiscovered caves and swimming holes. The more active and adventurous you are, the more you will get out of it. An absolute highlight.
If you want something completely different and wild, then we suggest that you go and stay at Laikipia Wilderness Camp in Kenya where you can combine adventure walks, swim, raft and fish in the river and scramble and climb on nearby outcrops. The owners have three of their own children on camp and will suggest a programme designed to suit you.
If you like a mix of culture and activities, then you should consider combining your family safari with a visit to Cape Town. Our signature Cape Town experience includes a cycle tour of the V&A Waterfront, guided Table Mountain hike and township experience.
If you want to properly kick back and relax after your safari, then the beach is going to be your best option. Depending on the time of year of your visit and where you go on safari, we have some fabulous options in South Africa, Zanzibar, Mauritus, Malawi and Kenya.
We are often approached by families wanting to go on safari in Africa who don’t want to expose their children to the risks of malaria. This rules out much of Africa’s mainstream family safari destinations, with the exception of South Africa, where there are plenty of malaria-free safari options offering excellent game viewing experiences. Of course, nowhere is entirely risk-free and no matter where you travel to, you should always take precautions against being bitten and seek medical advice before you travel. This NHS website offers some useful guidance and also maps of the affected areas:
Anti-malarials are readily available for children and we have given these to our own kids with minimal side effects. However, if you prefer to avoid these measures, here are some of our favourite tried and tested malaria-free game reserves in South Africa:
1) Madikwe Game Reserve
Located in the North West of South Africa close to the border with Botswana, Madikwe is an excellent malaria-free safari destination for families. Covering over 75,000 hectares, Madikwe is home to over 66 animal species, including the Big 5, and is home to the elusive wild dog, rarely spotted in Southern Africa. Whilst it is still nowhere near as well-known as Kruger, Madikwe has become known as a child-friendly game reserve and several of the lodges specialise in accommodation families and actively welcome younger guests. No day visitors or self-drivers are allowed into the reserve, so the reserve does not get too congested. Madikwe is an easy 4-5 hour drive from Johannesburg, or a short flight from Johannesburg. Many people combine Madikwe with a Garden Route holiday, or with Waterberg (see below) Our favourite accommodation options in Madikwe are Jaci’s Lodge and Impodimo, both of which offer luxurious accommodation in stunning surroundings.
2) Eastern Cape
Lying to the East of the Garden Route are a number of malaria-free game reserves, including Addo National Park, as well as several private options. At 180,000 hectare, Addo is certainly the area’s largest game park and is a draw card on account of its large elephant population. However, self-drivers are also allowed in the park, so it can become congested. Private concessions, such as Riverbend Lodge (14,000 ha) and Amakhala (7,000 ha) offer upmarket safari options with exclusive lodges and private game drives. The landscape here is fynbos and lower lying grasslands which is different to the denser bush to be found up in other safari destinations in South Africa. However, if you are travelling with younger children this can be an advantage as game is easier to spot. Most people combine the Eastern Cape game lodges with a Garden Route holiday.
Two and a half hours to the north of Johannesburg lie the Waterberg mountains, a stunning biosphere home to a plethora of flora and fauna. There are several large-scale land owners in the area who farm, but there is also the stunning Ant’s Hill who specialise in horse riding safaris. Because of their focus on riding, they don’t have predators, so not quite the Big 5, but they do have giraffe, rhino, buffalo and over 40 species of game. If you are not an avid horse rider, it doesn’t matter, as there are horses to suit all abilities. For resolute non-riders, game drives and bush walks are also on offer. Accommodation is in boutique bush cottages with outstanding views. Some people visit Waterberg in isolation, others choose to combine it with Madikwe so they can have a mixture of activities and more traditional safaris. Waterberg is an easy drive from Johannesburg and about 4 – 5 hours from Madikwe.
4) TThanda Private Game Reserve, Kwa Zulu Natal
Located in the East of the country in Kwa Zulu Natal, Thanda is a private game reserve close to Hluluhwe. A smaller reserve with 14,000 hectares, Thanda has no day visitors and is only available to the resident guests, so you can go a full day and barely see another game drive vehicle. They have the Big 5 as well as many other species of flora and fauna, which your guide will be keen to show you. The terrain is hilly, with mountains forming an pretty backdrop to the views. The accommodation on offer for families is at the luxurious end, small lodges with private heated plunge pools and a spacious sun deck; an ideal destination for those looking to combine relaxation with a safari. Thanda is located about 2 hours from Richard’s Bay and 3 1/2 hours from Durban.
Kruger National Park is South Africa's largest national park and one of Africa's largest game reserves. The size of Wales, it is home to 147 large mammal species, which makes it the most diverse reserve in Africa. The majority of accommodation within Kruger is managed by the park and guests are free to self-drive, although off-road driving is not permitted. Rest camps are basic affairs, which book out a long while in advance.
Surrounding Kruger park, are several private game reserves with luxurious lodges and private, guided safaris. Guests are not permitted to drive within these reserves, but the safari vehicles are normally permitted to drive off road, allowing guides to track animals more efficiently, giving guests some very up close and personal game viewing experiences. Accommodation in these reserves is not cheap, but can offer a fabulous blend of pampering and game viewing. As a standard, there are two game drives each day; one at dawn and one at dusk. On the dusk game drive, you will stop along the way for a sundowner and nibbles, in the mornings, hot chocolate and coffee replace the G & T's. In between game drives, you are free to relax at the lodge. In some lodges, activities are arranged for children whilst their parents can relax, snooze or go for a massage.
Please read on for our guide and take on the best Private Game Reserves in Greater Kruger:
Size: 65,000 hectares
Kruger Boundary: Unfenced to Kruger
Access: Many people opt for private flights direct into Sabi Sands. Self-drive can be hairy as the roads are not good, particularly for the northern lodges (including Chitwa).
Our Verdict: The best known and original private game reserve in the Kruger area and the place to go if you want exclusive accommodation (which comes at a price). Whilst the reserve is unfenced, not all lodges give each other traversing rights, so vehicles can't always go outside of their patch. That said, it is known to be the premier safari destination with perhaps the best game viewing potential, especially good for leopards.
Size: 53,000 hectares
Kruger Boundary: Unfenced to Kruger
Access: 1 hour drive from Hoedspruit along good roads (some unsealed)
Our Verdict: A slightly less well-known reserve, but as a consequence the lodges are not as expensive. As anywhere, game viewing is always down to chance, but with the diversity of vegetation (a good mix of lowveld grasses and bushes) chances of spotting the big 5 are good. Some excellent options for families.
Size: 14,000 hectares
Kruger Boundary: Adjacent to Kruger, Fenced
Access: 1 hour drive from Hoedspruit airport along good roads (some unsealed)
Our Verdict: A smaller reserve with slick (if a little commercial) lodges with great family friendly accommodation. The reserve is small, so not quite the wild feel of Timbavati, but it does heighten the likelihood of spotting wildlife. Good option for younger / lively families who won't feel too self-conscious if the children splash around in the pool.
Size: 24,500 hectares
Kruger Boundary: Not attached to Kruger
Access: 1 hour drive from Hoedspruit airport along good roads (some unsealed)
Our Verdict: This is not a mainstream reserve, mainly made up of private camps. Game viewing is good. There are only 2 commercial lodges operating here, so it is much less commercial - this can mean that there is less intense radio contact, which in turn can mean less guaranteed sightings.