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Family Safari in South Africa

To put it bluntly, money and malaria are the main deciding factors when it comes to choosing a family safari in South Africa. Stick to malaria-free zones and your choice is limited mainly to the Eastern Cape and a handful of game reserves northwest of Johannesburg, such as Madikwe. Feels a bit like drawing the short straw? Don’t believe it. Kruger National Park may be big and famous, but that doesn’t mean you’ll see less or have a ‘tamer’ experience in smaller, malaria-free reserves like Shamwari and Kwandwe. These, and other Eastern Cape reserves, not only boast the big five – elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo and leopard – but a wide range of other large mammals, such as giraffe, cheetah and zebra.

However, don’t get too obsessed with ticking off the cast of The Lion King. A safari has as much to do with small wonders. A good guide will have a knack for intriguing and informing children – drip-feeding them nuggets of bushlore, like the reason woodpeckers don’t get headaches, why warthogs run with their tails in the air and how termites protect themselves from sunburn. You’ll study animal tracks around waterholes, decipher the calls of birds and discover extraordinary treasures like a shed cobra skin turned inside out or the egg cocoon of a praying mantis which the female fashions from her spit. The secret to a successful family safari is to take your time and encourage children to tune into the subtleties of the bush.

Addo Elephant National Park Just 72km north of Port Elizabeth, this is an excellent option for families on a budget (and makes a great extension to the Garden Route). You can drive yourself around the 120,000ha reserve, but for added value, pick up a ‘hop-on ranger’ at the gate. He’ll be able to show you the best spots and advise on ‘ele-etiquette’ in the likely event of a close encounter with one of Addo’s 300 or so jumbos. Walking is prohibited except at designated points.

Kwandwe Game Reserve A 20,000ha wilderness just north of Grahamstown, Kwandwe’s Uplands Homestead offers private family accommodation with a dedicated chef, safari vehicle and guide. Just as wonderfully decadent is the reserve’s Ecca Lodge with its contemporary and minimalist styling – perfect for parents who might be stressed-out by more traditional safari lodges with their baskets of ostrich egg shells and vases of porcupine quills.

Shamwari Game Reserve Another top-end reserve, Shamwari is famous for its work with the Born Free Foundation to rehabilitate big cats. Long Lee Manor, with its family suites, is your best option for somewhere to stay.

Madikwe Game Reserve A three-hour drive northwest of Johannesburg, malaria-free Madikwe is home to the supremely family-friendly Jaci’s Safari Lodge. Not only do Jaci’s welcome kids of all ages, but they also organize special children’s safaris for 3-12 year-olds with activities such as detective trails, animal tracking, touch tables and river safaris. Infants under two even get taken on their own ‘jungle drives’ – shorter than your typical game drive and specially tailored to suit their interest levels.

Kruger National Park There are several magnificent, all-inclusive camps in game reserves along Kruger’s western boundary, but many won’t accept children under 12. Those that do, such as Sabi Sabi, restrict game drives to children over six unless the family can arrange exclusive use of a safari vehicle. Many families find a more free-spirited (and cheaper) option is to drive themselves around Kruger, staying in the park’s many self-catering restcamps. Many, like Olifants, have a restaurant, swimming pool and guided game-viewing.