Ask Google when is a child old enough to take on an African safari and it throws up dozens of forums and experts with answers.
Safety is top of the list of concerns when it comes to children on safari and the hazards that present themselves range from malaria to, well… the fact that children are snack size for wild animals.
Other concerns are around whether the child can remain entertained for the time in between game spotting on the twice daily, three to four hour long safari drives and whether they are old enough not to make really loud sounds when one of the characters from Madagascar pokes out from behind a bush, or the rock in the field to the left stands up and presents itself as a one tonne rhinoceros. That’s dangerous because it’s not entirely predictable what behaviour this noise might provoke from the wild animals who may never have heard anything like it before. But if it caused one of them to run off, the behaviour of the human animals in the safari vehicle who’ve waited possibly hours to lay eyes on it, is even less predictable and potentially more dangerous for the child.
Then there are the sleeping arrangements. In a remote African game reserve with leopards on roaming nocturnal hunts, you’ll no doubt want the little ones tucked up safely under the same roof, but not all lodges offer accommodation that makes that possible.
So, the bloggers and experts have varying views on the youngest a child should be for a safari holiday but the answers tend to be around eight, nine and ten. Almost all say that a successful safari with children is all about making the right decisions before you go. Choosing a lodge in a malaria-free zone deals with the mosquito problem and finding one that is genuinely safety-conscious and family friendly addresses pretty much everything else.
This is how we found our way to the andBeyond Phinda Homestead at andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa – a rambling four bedroom cottage that sleeps up to eight people with its own staff kitchen, living and dining area and a dedicated butler, chef and housekeeping staff. The guests here are also assigned their own safari vehicle and dedicated tracker and ranger so we could arrange our own game drives and not have to worry about our nine-year-old annoying others.
The living room at the Phinda Homestead | andBeyond
The staff of around 10 had lined up at the entrance with cold towels and warm smiles when we arrived on our first day at andBeyond Phinda Homestead. Our ranger Devon and Zulu tracker Nsika (pronounced Inseeka) outlined the itinerary for the next three days. There would be a game drive that evening before dinner but first, the safari vehicle needed painting. While we settled into our room, Devon took our son to where Nsika had set up the paints for the job. Of course, the safari vehicle did need to have our names painted all over it in all the colours of the rainbow along with drawings of animals and sunsets, but the other purpose of the exercise was for him to have fun with the two young South African men who we would spend the best part of the following days with.
Within around 10 minutes of setting out on our first drive, with our son propped up in the front seat alongside Devon, we came across two lioness sisters out for an evening stroll and on the look out for a stray warthog that might serve as dinner. We followed them, just metres away, as they wandered along the track occasionally lying down for a rest and a languid stretch in the middle of the road. Even though most of the hunting in a lion pride falls to the females, lionesses, like lions, are known to be clumsy hunters generally. (Since they sleep a lot, they don’t need to eat that much.) These two, Devon explained, were young and not yet skilled to even the poor level of their older sisters so the hunting was comical to say the least. From his high seat on the front of the jeep, Nsika, with his Zulu bush skills gained as a boy looking after his fathers cattle in a village just five minutes away, spotted the warthogs in the bushes long before the lionesses had a clue they were there and sometimes even before the warthogs knew the lionesses were prowling nearby. But when they became alert to each other, the chase was on and Devon flattened the accelerator in pursuit of the action. Thankfully they were unsuccessful on each occasion and we parted company with the lionesses that evening before a single drop of blood was spilt.
Painting the safari vehicle | andBeyond
This relatively gentle encounter with dinner time in the African bush proved to be the perfect child friendly introduction for our son who was riveted by the action, but like us, all the time hoping the warthogs would live to see another day. Not long after we lost the lionesses to the thick scrub on the side of the road, a giraffe slowly loped across the road directly in front us and elicited the first of many excitement gasps from not only the child in the car.
In the days and drives ahead we saw the following children’s book characters: zebra, cheetah, hippo, elephant, rhino, leopard, baboon and vervet monkeys and wildebeest, each first encounter with a species causing hearts to leap.
The time between animal encounters was never very long, but all the time along the way Devon told stories to our son about Africa’s animals, birds and insects and the admirable conservation aims, policies and achievements of the andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve (about which he was equally passionate). Nsika occasionally held up his hand to let Devon know to stop and we all climbed out to examine animal tracks or dung while he spoke to our enthralled son about the direction the animal was headed, where it was going and how he knew how long ago it passed that way.
Boredom didn’t live in Africa for this child and the iPad remained unpacked and forgotten back at the lodge. Devon had formed a strong bond with him and we learned that methods of engaging children had been a component of his ranger training at Phinda. One morning on the game drive, Devon and Nsika had planned a surprise. We drove to a magical clearing where they squatted to teach us how to make a fire using flint. Once alight, we cooked jaffles under the trees. On another day, in between safari drives, the chef invited our son into the kitchen to make cookies with the staff and later that day Devon taught him how to shoot cans on a stump with an air rifle. At meal times back at the lodge, the staff told us about their village and what it was like to grow up in a place where humans live their lives alongside the predators of the African animal kingdom.
An elephant says hello
And when we weren’t out looking, the wildlife visited us at the homestead. We saw a leopard, elephants and monkeys make their way out of the bushes and across to the waterhole, as if they’d been beckoned by an offstage director coordinating the action especially for us.
I’ve heard more than once before that few people take a step off the continent without making a promise to themselves to return to Africa. We are now firmly among them.