Adventure

Room for a little one?

Children were rarely seen or heard in the bush a decade ago. Now top lodges actively encourage family safaris with tailormade activities and inspiring experiences. Lucia van der Post and her grandsons pack their trunks for South Africa.

November 24 2010
Lucia van der Post

There’s got to be a reason why almost any African safari lodge worth its gleaming 4x4s is busy launching what it calls “family programmes”. Safaris used to be a no-go area for children, who were most definitely “not wanted on voyage”. These days they – and their parents, not to mention their grandparents – are being assiduously wooed. As Dave Varty, whose family owns and runs Londolozi, one of South Africa’s most iconic game reserves, puts it: “Historically, safaris were a no-kid business. Today, it would be commercial suicide not to include them.”

Times, none of us needs telling, are tough and safaris have never come cheap. The best lodges are remote, the logistics of providing posh food and six-star luxury necessitate a deep purse and the organisational skills of a Rommel. And then, tastes have changed. Waterproof tents, bucket showers and great guides no longer cut it; spas, petal-strewn baths, swanky design and suites the size of most people’s houses are all part of the package.

Operators have had to do a bit of lateral thinking to keep the punters coming. What they perceived was this: in times gone by, those who came on safari were older and the children were usually out of their hair. And childless couples certainly didn’t want other people’s offspring having tantrums in the Land Rovers. These days, though, many of the very well heeled are younger, double-income parents who don’t see enough of their children as it is, and want to share their downtime with them. Speak to any of the big safari operators and they all agree that the past five years have seen a massive change in the way the very rich take their holidays. Having fun while learning together is key. One very wealthy family, for instance, didn’t want fancy hotels and pampered lodges for their four children. They took them to Kenya and the whole family worked in an orphanage before heading off to see the wildlife and enjoy some R&R on a beach.

Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell, a director of upmarket operator Cazenove + Loyd, says that it is striking how their customers now want to use safaris to do things with their children, to have what he calls “almost a Scottish-style holiday, but in Africa – hiking up a mountain, learning survival skills, building camps, sleeping out”. They want to open their children’s eyes to another world, give them experiences they could never have at home. Above all, what they don’t (mostly) want is simply to park their children in a crèche whilst they down gin and tonics.

Frances Geoghegan, managing director at Africa Travel, tells of the head of a major company who took his children and grandchildren on a big trip across Africa – but every property had to have a comprehensive children’s programme, as well as responsible eco-tourism credentials and had to offer tangible benefits to the local community. They visited orphanages for children and for animals, worked in research centres and afterwards started a foundation to build a school for a local community they’d got to know.

Eco-consciousness is now everywhere, and so is a growing sense that our relationship with the earth is out of kilter. A safari is a wonderful way of connecting urban children, who are alienated from nature simply by the circumstances of metropolitan life, to the wilderness. Giving them a chance to get to love that world, experience its thrills, its beauty, its intricacy, its danger and its wonders, isn’t merely about romantic notions of a lost Arcadian world – it’s about helping them to understand why that world matters. Africa can do this more poignantly, more movingly than any other continent. It has something special to teach us, mostly about the connection between people and animals and our soul-deep need to reconnect with the natural world.

But it also offers great adventure, which is where the rise of the multigenerational family holiday comes in. When there’s a special birthday or anniversary to celebrate, a trip to Africa is very alluring. “Instead of standing around having canapés and champagne in a grand hotel,” says Wilmot-Sitwell, “which many of us have done lots of times, families want to do something utterly memorable and truly original to celebrate. They want to have fun together.” So today, the big, one-off, multigenerational family holiday has become a new staple in safari land, involving a lot of fresh thinking. Every generation has to be catered for, from grandparents to small children.

A sedate drive through the landscape, passively looking at wildlife, isn’t enough to keep the kids happy for long, so safari lodges have come up with much more enterprising packages. It explains the plethora of places, such as Samara’s Manor, Singita’s Castleton Camp or Camp Jabulani’s Zindoga Villa, which an entire family can take over, complete with staff, swimming pool, tennis court and private game ranger. The menus in most of the lodges make one long to be a child again.

Take Samara, a heart-breakingly beautiful reserve in the middle of the Karoo, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. It has lots of game (including species such as the red hartebeest, springbok, black wildebeest, blue crane and Cape mountain zebra that you don’t find in the better-known reserves in the lowveld), but no elephant or lion, so they have to compensate in other ways. They set up camps where you sleep in tents, cook round a campfire, gaze up at the stars, learn how to orienteer, track game, identify dung and lots, lots more.

All this set me thinking that since we had some birthdays of our own to celebrate – two grandsons turning 10, a rite of passage that in our family means a journey to Africa – a trip to try out some of these family-orientated programmes seemed perfect. First stop, Samara. It is a bit of a pain to get to (from Cape Town you either drive or fly to Port Elizabeth, then drive or charter a small plane), but, as I’ve already explained, it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth and is as good a place as any to introduce two wide-eyed 10-year-olds to Africa’s glories.

Firstly, when we were there, the owners Sarah and Mark Tompkins and their three children were all there with other friends and families, so the boys had a ball. Days were spent walking up, carefully guided, closely watched, to wild cheetah (Samara’s great speciality), looking at the abundant wildlife and picnicking up on Aasvoël (Vulture) mountain, above the great plains of the Karoo. It was there that the boys got their first glimpse of the Africa they’d dreamed of – a panorama of giraffe, eland, kudu and zebra grazing, whilst ostrich and endangered blue crane pecked at the bush in the distance. Nights were spent eating in the boma or – best of all – camping out with nothing but a thin tent (and the ranger Charl, God bless him) to protect them, plus a fire to cook on and to provide warmth. It was the best, most thrilling night they had.

From Samara to Camp Jabulani, in Kapama Private Game Reserve on the borders of Kruger National Park. Elephants are what Jabulani is all about – though we’d scarcely gone through the gates when we came upon a group of four young lionesses, and there’s nothing to beat the faces of two 10-year-old boys when they see their first lion in the wild. Camp Jabulani began life with one baby elephant, Jabulani, who was found trapped and alone in the mud of a silt dam. Lente Roode, the camp’s owner, gave him sanctuary (“I’m just a tool in God’s hands” is how she puts it). Today, 17 elephants – many of them rescued from traumatic situations – wander the land by day, housed in a specially built “dormitory” by night.

Here’s a chance to get to see elephants up close and very personal. With the mahouts, the boys went out riding at dusk, learnt all about elephant family structures, how they live in the wild and how here at Jabulani they were once again having to learn to be elephants. (“When Jabulani first came,” said one of the mahouts, “he thought he was a human – now he knows he’s an elephant again.”) With Hein, our marvellous ranger, they learnt to track, make fires out of rhino dung, use two-way radios and value the small and the unsung, the beetles and the bugs.

Learning – about the land, about conservation, about breeding, about “rewilding” (preparing captive-bred animals for release) – is another Jabulani speciality, and the nearby Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, to which Roode has given R9m (about £800,000) over the past eight years, is home to some of Africa’s most endangered species. More than 380 cheetahs have been bred there and over 50 released into the wild all over Africa. There were packs of wild dogs and nocturnal animals such as servals, porcupines and genets.

Here, too, the boys got a short, sharp lesson that wild animals are just that – wild. As one of them got off the Land Rover to open a gate, all the cheetahs in the enclosure, which until then had appeared mightily bored by us, started to slink towards him. They’d identified prey and were stalking him in a trice. Wonderful how fast a child can move when he has to.

From Jabulani to Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge, where rangers Rico and Rondee took them walking in the bush, reading the spoor, learning about Shangaan folklore and the uses of plants. By now they knew the more common birds of the bush – kingfishers and rollers, fish eagles, starlings and pigeons; they were onto the snake-eagles, storks and vultures. There were thrills every day – their first leopard, found walking along a track at dusk; three great big buffalo (nicknamed “dagga boys”) wallowing in the mud.

Throw in the rifle practice (nothing a boy likes more than shooting at a tin can), the fire-lighting, the dung-throwing and the map reading, and it was everything they had dreamed of back home.

On then to two class acts: Londolozi and Singita. At Londolozi, ranger Tom found us leopards every day, took us first to a hyena den and then to a causeway where crocodiles lay in wait to catch the fish that came flying over the waterway. He found us lions that were about to hunt and we waited and waited until the last phases of dusk, when they came thundering right past us and brought down a wildebeest. Here the boys saw the brutal laws of survival in action. They learnt that everything has a purpose and that nature deems the survival of the species to be more important than any individual.

Another day, we watched for hours as a family of 11 lions romped around our 4x4. The boys spent a night in a treehouse, played games in the mud, caught fish in the Sand River, practised rifle shooting once more and had the sort of time that Kipling’s Stalky & Co would have loved. In amongst the fun and games, Londolozi takes conservation and the preciousness of the bush very seriously; and subliminally the boys took this in, that man has a duty to the whole of the natural world in its care.

For Dave Varty, children have always been the key to the future. “I like to hook them in with fun and excitement first – then you can go onto the more meaningful understanding of its importance. I used to come to Londolozi with my dad and I felt so proud to be there with him – but the flip side was that I was required to behave in a certain way. There was no room for playing the giddy goat. The bush teaches children about discipline and about connections. Today, it is ironic that mostly only the rich can afford to come, but perhaps they need it most because the pursuit of wealth has shut down the inner voice. It needs to be rediscovered.”

Then we were stranded by a certain volcanic-ash cloud and so had an extra treat. At Singita Ebony Lodge, Luke Bailes took us in and we enjoyed three more magic days in the bush. It was here that our tracker, Phanuel, finally found the boys what they’d longed to see – a snake, the deadly boomslang. Amazing how snakes are what first-timers most fear and yet how hard they are to find.

“I’m going to miss Africa,” said 10-year-old Tom, as we sat eating our last lunch on a deck overlooking the Sand River, a herd of elephants munching in the distance whilst a hippo waddled out of the water below and above us a bateleur eagle tilted its wings on the thermals. But we knew something of Africa would stay with him and his cousin Harry forever. The sights and sounds and smells of the wilderness, its thrills and its heart-melting beauty, the charm of the people who everywhere had been so kind to them, would, we hoped, remain like a great golden memory to warm them down the years and remind them why it all matters, why they need to do whatever they can to preserve it.

The safari companies may have started their newer, more absorbing itineraries with an eye on making safari-going more thrilling for the kids, but what has happened is that everybody’s a winner. The days when all that was on offer was a passive, chauffeur-driven safari are over. It’s become a whole lot more enthralling and enriching for the rest of us, too.

See also

Safaris, South Africa