For many families, a safari tops the list of dream vacations. And no wonder: Africa is simply the best place in the world to see wildlife—whether it’s huge, dangerous predators like crocodiles and hippos or small, gentle creatures like dik-diks and rock hyraxes. And the thrill of being in Africa together enables kids, parents and grandparents to bond in a profound way.
But this dream vacation often remains just that—a dream. Certainly, planning a safari raises countless questions. What part of Africa should we visit? How do we travel around once we get there? Is it safe? Will my children get sick? What sort of food will they eat? And, finally, can we possibly afford it?
Let us offer some solutions, starting with this: To simplify all the logistics, sign on with a reputable outfitter that specializes in safaris. While some outfitters charge high rates for luxury trips, others are surprisingly affordable. These companies will supply packing lists, offer health and safety advice, and may book flights and assist in obtaining the necessary visas. Here’s our advice on some of the other big choices you’ll need to make.
WHERE TO GO
Your number-one decision will be which part of this vast continent you want to explore. We recommend East Africa—specifically Kenya and Tanzania—as ideal for a family safari. The two countries share a border, and both give visitors a good chance of seeing the Big Five (Cape buffalo, rhino, lion, leopard and elephant) along with a vast range of other mammals, all set against diverse and startlingly beautiful landscapes.
A two-week sojourn in Kenya can take you from the grassy plains of the Masai Mara Game Reserve to the 12,000-foot peaks of the Aberdare Mountains, and from the shimmering lakes of the Rift Valley to the arid regions of Samburu National Reserve. Two weeks in northern Tanzania’s renowned national parks can include Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa; the Serengeti’s endless savanna; Lake Manyara, part of which sits dramatically on the western escarpment of the Rift Valley; and Ngorongoro’s immense volcanic crater. It’s also possible to combine both Kenya and Tanzania in a single trip.
WHEN TO GO
No fence separates the Masai Mara’s rolling grasslands from the vast plains of the Serengeti, which allows the world’s greatest wildlife migration to take place annually. From July through October, as many as two million wildebeest, together with hundreds of thousands of zebras and untold numbers of predators like cheetahs, lions and hyenas, journey north into the Mara in search of fresh grass. Toward the end of October, the animals head back to their breeding grounds in Tanzania, where they remain until the following summer. If you’ve never seen it, this seasonal cycle should dictate the time of your visit to the Serengeti or the Masai Mara—it is not to be missed. But keep in mind that the timing of the migration changes each year depending on the rains; it doesn’t always stick to the schedule.
Before you even select a travel company, consider the appropriate ages for children going on safari. Most kids under five will love seeing all the animals, but few preschoolers will cope well with the long stretches (usually several hours at a time) spent sitting in safari vehicles silently watching and photographing wildlife. In most parks in Kenya and Tanzania, visitors aren’t permitted to get out of their vehicles to explore on foot, which is vital for active kids. If your safari will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it’s even better if children are older—at least 10 to 12—so they can really appreciate the trip. Whatever the age, make sure your children will be comfortable with witnessing a kill. This violent event can be disturbing to youngsters—or persons of any age.
When researching travel companies, look for one that caters to the ages and preferences of your children. If your family likes roughing it, you might enjoy camping in the bush and hearing the sounds of the African night. But if your kids are happier sleeping in beds, choose a trip where you’ll stay in lodges. As for food, most of what you’ll eat on safari will be provided by your outfitter, so ask what types of meals are on the menu. If there are nonperishable treats your children can’t live without, pack them in your luggage.
HEALTH & SAFETY
Several vaccinations are recommended or required for travel to East Africa. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov/travel/eafrica.htm) advises getting inoculated against hepatitis A and B, typhoid, yellow fever, meningitis and several other diseases, as well as taking anti-malarial medication. Consult your doctor for advice on the shots you need, which anti-malarial to take and other medications to carry for various contingencies. You can avoid most food-related risks by steering clear of street vendors and drinking only bottled water.
Although your outfitter will advise you about travel safety—and if the company doesn’t, you should ask for it—you also can check the U.S. State Department’s website (travel.state.gov) for travel warnings and consular information sheets about the countries you’ll be visiting. And find out what sort of vehicles your company uses. Whether they’re closed- or open-sided, they should have seat belts for the kids.
If all of these preparations seem daunting, they’re well worth it. A family safari to Africa is a trip you’re sure to remember—forever.