Planning An African Safari For Your Family

This is a guest post by one of my readers, Paul.  He’s a road warrior, marketing guy and dad.  I’ve never been to Africa but I’m fascinated with doing a safari with my family.  We mapped out how to do a safari for less than $100 a day.   This guest post is another extension of providing information if you’re trying to book a trip like this.

In 2000, I traveled with REI Adventures to Tanzania to hike Kilimanjaro and go on safari. Amazing, exhausting and eye-opening.  When our son Luke was born in 2009, I vowed that when he was ten, we would take him on safari. When I started doing research in the summer of 2018, imagine my surprise that few of the reasonably priced, US-based safari companies had trips to Tanzania suitable trips for 10 year olds. Recalling how superbly managed my trip was with REI, I called them and asked, who can you recommend?  “Well, we have a Tanzania Family Adventure & Safari built around kids.”  What? Sold!

Travel overseas with kids can be challenging.  Our son has been to Bali, Thailand, Hungary, Croatia… and 15+ states. He loves to travel (almost) as much as mom and dad.  What are some of the challenges kids can face when going overseas?  Time zone changes and the lack of sleep can be really disruptive (we were awake all night in Bangkok when Luke was 3), new foods can be hard on tummies and very tough on kids who are bound to their routines, sleeping on planes can also be a big ask for some kids and for some youngsters raised in the first world experiencing third world life can be frightening.

Why did we want to take Luke to Kenya and Tanzania?  Well, first, of course, animals.  At Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti we saw lions, warthogs, hyenas, hippos, giraffe, waterbuck, dik diks and elephants (more on that in a moment).  Second, to get him out of his suburban comfort zone. While visiting a Masai village, I asked him how many changes of clothes the kids had.  Puzzled he didn’t respond. One set, I told him. We saw countless groups of goats being herded by 8 year old boys left alone all day in the bush.  Luke’s mind was blown.

Lesson One: You may be in the majority in one country, but the minority in others.

Throughout Kenya and Tanzania, we were in the minority.  On the island of Zanzibar, which is 94% Muslim, we saw men in long flowing robes and women in headscarfs, hijab and full burqa.  Changing your location can clearly change your sense of self.

Our Nairobi hotel was located in the Secure Airport Zone (enhanced security went into place after bombings a few years ago).  We visited three amazing places that day.  The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust rescues orphaned elephants and raises them until they may be reintegrated into other herds.  We watched as six young elephants ran to their human parents/keepers and devoured jumbo containers of milk and formula. (You can sponsor a baby elephant and, if you book in advance, can go to a private feeding).  Baby elephants feeding? Even the souls of the most heartless adults would melt. Then, we went to the Giraffe Center and fed giraffe and warthogs (did you know that giraffe tongues are hypoallergenic?). Finally, we visited the Karen Blixen museum/home familiar to many of us from Out of Africa. Fascinating.

Lesson Two: Expose your kids to new and different, but have a safety out.

After an uneventful flight to Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania and a 1 hour transfer, we arrived to our hotel near Arusha and relaxed for the evening. Dik diks roamed the lush property. The next day, we hired a guide to take us into Arusha (population 400K) and explored the locals market built in the late 1800s by the British.

Imagine your neighborhood Target store and now think of the exact opposite: bustling open air stalls featuring massive avocados, every fruit under the sun, sides of beef hanging from hooks in the ceiling complete with flies, spices of every color and five people per square foot.  Luke was fascinated.  Luke saw a bunch of guys asleep on top of burlap bags of rice. Our guide commented that they were drug addicts sleeping off their highs.  Luke grabbed my hand and held on a bit tighter than usual.  I knew that the open air market would be eye opening. Our guide and I had an exit plan in place if we needed to get away quickly.

The safari began in earnest the next day when we met up with the other family on the REI trip. A really lovely and fun group — father, mother and two kids around Luke’s age.  He rode with the boys in their Land Cruiser for a few hours a day. He enjoyed being with them, watching the animals, playing with iPads and roaming. Your kids may love you, but our single kid relished being with others his age.

Lesson Three: Bring along immersive entertainment for the whole family.

The nine of us spent hours each night at dinner asking and answering question from Chat Pack for kids: if you could invent a new animal what would it be, if you could rid the world of one problem what would you get rid of…  We all enjoyed sharing our funny, smart and ridiculous answers, but more importantly all of us (from 8 to 57 years old) could play and laugh together.

What were the amazing sights of our safari?  Honestly there were so many that it’s hard to recall. Here are our highlights:

Do you remember the first animal you saw in the wild? As on my trip in 2000, the first animal that delighted everyone on this trip was a zebra.  Within an hour, we had seen hundreds.

Minutes after driving onto the rim of Ngorongoro crater, we came around a turn and found six elephants including two youngsters munching on the foliage. They were spectacularly beautiful, so intelligent looking and timeless.

We glamped a few nights in the middle of the Serengeti at a lodge with no running water or electricity in the tents (no wifi either).  To go to dinner from your tent, you had to flash a lantern three times and wait for a guard to come get you.  They didn’t want you to encounter a lion or other large animal while walking unattended.

We ate breakfast in the bush, thirty yards from a pool of hippos (they poop in the water, smell horribly and are incredibly cute AND dangerous).

After driving endlessly on a dirt track for hours, we came upon a group of rocks and trees in the middle of nowhere with 5+ Land Cruisers filled with tourists with cameras and binoculars facing a tree. What’s up?  A leopard was in the tall branches eating a freshly caught antelope.

Part of our adventure included a walking safari. We met our semi-automatic armed 50-ish year old park ranger at the Arusha National Park and he gave us a safety lesson before embarking. He took us to a gorgeous waterfall, pointing out the water buffalo and birds that thrived around us.  Then we came upon four giraffe chillaxing in some trees around 50 yards from us. “Wait here” he told us.  Um, yes, sir.  Where is he going, we all thought? Are we safe here? Four minutes later, the four giraffe came sprinting out of the trees heading directly for us.  They veered away, but were spectacular and graceful even in their odd cadence.  Our guide had gone into the trees and flushed them out towards us.

One late morning, while being driven around in the Land Cruisers, we saw a large group of trucks/SUVs gathered a mile away. We quickly joined them and after jostling for space, were rewarded with a view of three male lions lazing around a stream. They stretched and pawed in the air much like your cat at home with his scratching pole.  But, then they got up to drink from the stream (again much like your cat at home). Finally, they lumbered right by our vehicle to go further into the bush.  Regal and lethal.  Luke loved them.

On the last afternoon of our safari in the Serengeti, we drove around listlessly and aimlessly for hours. It was unbelievably hot.  Yes, we saw dozens of giraffe and antelope and birds and a few crocodiles, but nothing new.  We saw some rock outcroppings a few miles away (the land can be flat as a pancake on the plains of the Serengeti). Let’s go check them out.

After 20 minutes of driving, we arrived to…? Nada.  We hung out for about ten boring minutes and then we saw a lioness’ head pop up. Cool. Then, she visually started tracking antelope that were nearby.  Stealthily, she crept towards them. We concentrated on her. A few minutes later, a Frenchwoman in one of the other SUVs whispered “Bebes” and pointed to a hillock.  25 yards away a lion cub popped up on a rock.  Wow!  What, wait? Then another head and body popped up. Within minutes, four lion cubs were lazing on the rock, beating each other up and playing roughly as only siblings do.  We sat and watched them for 30 minutes, the perfect capper to our safari drive.  No, we didn’t get to see mom lion attack the antelope, but the four lion babies were captivating.

Before we left, friends (and acquaintances) asked, “Aren’t you scared to take Luke into the bush?” The short answer is no. Tour companies have been operating in Africa for 150+ years.  They know what is safe and what is not.  We never left the confines of our Land Cruisers unless instructed by our knowledgeable, caring and funny guides.

Driving around for hours and hours on hot, dusty dirt track can be exhausting and very boring for kids.  Yes, we did let Luke take his iPad on the adventure, but we also forced him to turn it off and get bored.  Sometimes, being bored can be rewarding.  “Dad, we saw four lion babies!

Paying and Insurance

Choose your credit cards wisely to book and consider travel/emergency insurance.  We paid for our REI trip using my Chase Sapphire Reserve, which earns 3x on points for the expense as it coded as travel.  There was a possibility that our 23 minute Zanair flight from Zanzibar to Dar Es Salaam was going to be delayed so long that we would miss multiple connecting flights.  I found other flights and didn’t fret too much about the added costs because of Chase Sapphire Reserve’s excellent trip delay and cancellation benefits and because we had purchased relatively inexpensive travel insurance (including emergency evacuation) online from Allianz.  Thankfully, we made our connections.

Should You Take Your Kids to Africa?

Would I recommend taking a 10 year old on safari? Yes, 100% if there will be other kids for him or her to hang with.  Luke would have been bored out of his gourd if not for the two fun boys his age on the REI trip.  Some people vote thumbs down on letting kids play on electronics while on vacation.  I can honestly say that his iPad was worth its weight in gold on the safari — after driving for 5 or more hours on hot, very bumpy, dusty roads, sometimes a kid just needs Teen Titans Goto help relax before marveling at the next wise elephant, farting hippo or gamboling giraffe.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks Ed Pizza, great post! I love Africa – Southern, also Equatorial East Africa. Oh okay, and north too . 6 or 7 safaris to date..

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