When I began to plan a trip to Kenya, I knew my elegant “Out of Africa” fantasies would have to wait. We were going to Kenya as a family, and traveling with two boys, ages seven and eleven, pretty much precludes “elegant” anything. Still, I had hopes for close encounters with big cats, and sundowners with my husband while we gazed over vast expanses of savannah, perhaps with a picturesque giraffe in the distance.
And in fact while we did not attain Baroness Von Blixen levels of sophistication, we did manage something almost as wonderful: our family safari bridged that sometimes painful gap between “family trip” and “vacation,” and resulted in what our older son described as “the most epic vacation ever.”
A few things to keep in mind if you’re planning a safari with children:
• Get your meds, even if you think you don’t need them. We all got yellow fever shots and took anti-malaria pills. We didn’t see any mosquitoes, but we took the pills anyway, because who wants to bring home malaria as a safari souvenir?
• Avoid the “National Geographic effect”: yes, kids love those nature shows, but make sure to explain how long photographers wait for those astonishing photos. After two days of safari, my eight-year-old said “I want carnage! When will a crocodile bring down a zebra?” Too many episodes of “Planet Earth” had taken their toll.
• Leave the checklist at home. You might see leopards, rhinos, and cheetahs…and you might not. Remind your kids (and yourself) that you’re not in a zoo or a wildlife enclosure. My eight-year-old never saw his zebra-crocodile death match, but nevertheless, every day he said “that’s amazing” at least once.
• Bring snacks. My husband laughed at the boxes of granola bars and fruit strips I packed, but when your first safari drive leaves before dawn, and it’s three hours before breakfast, tossing your kids a snack will ensure that they don’t become wild beasts, even as they watch the wildebeests.
• Prepare for a lot of down time. Morning game drives usually start at dawn and return around 9:30; the second drive of the day starts in the late afternoon. That leaves many empty hours to fill—and nowhere to go. If you have an iPad, load it with games, movies, and books; bring cards, drawing pads, and journals to record the day’s adventures. (If your kids are like mine, the daily journal entry may require daily chocolate bribes.) We left the laptop at home because it’s heavy, and there are strict weight allowances on the small transfer flights from camp to camp.
• Bring those point-and-shoots. If it’s possible, buy or borrow extra cameras and binoculars so that each child has one to use on the trip. When you’re having a spiritual moment gazing into the eyes of an ancient elephant, the last thing you want to hear is your kids bickering about who gets to use the camera.
• Practice stillness. No, that’s not advice from yoga class. Loud voices and sudden movements startle the wildlife. Sometimes the animals will run away, but sometimes they run towards, and believe me, you do not want an elephant or a buffalo charging towards your jeep.
• Prepare to be amazed. Our trip wasn’t exactly “Out of Africa,” but we did manage sundowners on the terrace, complete with giraffes grazing in the distance; we saw a cheetah chase and catch a gazelle (thus satisfying my blood-thirsty son); there were elephants, lions, rhinos, and spectacular birds. It was, indeed, epic, and we are already planning our return trip.
How we planned:
We talked with Melanie, at andBeyond
Guest blogger Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor and lives with her family in Abu Dhabi. You can read about her travels on her blog, Mannahattamamma.com.