Tips For Planning An Africa Family Safari

By Nancy Schretter

This year, many parents and grandparents are seeking out wildlife-rich destinations for their next family vacation. An Africa safari is the ultimate adventure for nature loving families, but planning such a trip can be daunting and expectations are high. That’s why it’s wise to consult with an expert.

We talked with Kent Redding, founder of Denver-based Africa Adventure Consultants (www.adventuresinafrica.com) to get some tips on how families should plan an Africa safari adventure. Kent’s company specializes in safaris and he has lived and worked in Africa for years. Conde Nast Traveler named him as one of the nation’s top travel professionals. In addition, Kent has first-hand experience taking his children to Africa on safari.

Q. Why is it important to work with an expert like you in planning an Africa family safari? What should families look for when choosing a travel company, trip planner or tour operator?

A. Africa is a large and somewhat daunting destination. There are many choices and unknowns and it makes self-planning very challenging, if not risky. While Africa is a fantastic destination for families when done right, when done wrong – the results can be unpleasant, if not dangerous.

It’s best to find someone who has actually been there and knows what they are talking about when planning a safari, especially for your family. When choosing an operator or agency to work with, families should consider a number of factors. These include:

  • Reputation and reliability
  • Years in business
  • Location  - in the United States vs. Africa
  • Insurance  - make sure they have it
  • Knowledge of Africa – many traditional travel agents have never been to Africa or have only visited only once
  • Experience with Africa family safaris – how many trips have they organized
  • Chemistry/fit between the family and the operator/agency

Q. How do you approach helping families decide where to go on safari? What factors are important considerations?

A. We first listen to the client to find out what their interests and expectations are. Some people have a good idea of what they want, while others are looking for recommendations. We try to find out what type of travel they enjoy (adventure, luxury, etc.), what they want to experience (wildlife, culture, scenery, food, etc.), and what types of travel they have enjoyed in the past. Certainly, budget is a consideration as well.

We also listen to concerns. For instance, if a client is terribly afraid of malaria and/or doesn’t want to take preventatives, we can recommend malaria-free destinations. A lot of our job is explaining to clients how things really work (or don’t work!) in Africa and setting realistic expectations. For example, visitors are not allowed to walk in many parks. If walking is allowed, however, it’s not generally advised for small children. We know that kids need to burn off energy, so we make sure to offer opportunities for them to do so.

Q. How do you help families determine their itineraries and where to stay? Do people tend to have an idea of what they want to do or do they heavily rely on your guidance to plan their trip?

A. We listen to the client’s needs and then advise accordingly. We certainly have opinions about where the best places are for family safaris. For day-by-day itineraries, we pay close attention to pacing. It’s generally best for most families not to move around too much and we try to limit long drives and long days in the car.

Most people are not aware of the range of choices for accommodations or the difference, for instance, between camping and staying at a permanent tented camp - which is more like a lodge or hotel under canvas. We make recommendations and alert families to concerns about sleeping arrangements. For instance, it’s not good to have Mom and Dad in one tent and the two 4 and 5 year-olds in a separate tent! We generally recommend lodges with adjoining rooms, permanent tented camps with family suites – or if they want mobile camping – strongly advise Mom and Dad to split up and each share a tent with a child.

Q. What do you find makes the difference in the quality of the safari experience for families? 

A. A great safari experience depends on the following factors:

  • A good itinerary – in addition to the flow and pacing, it’s critical to pick the right location for the right time of year.
  • Quality guiding
  • Quality vehicles
  • Appropriate accommodations
  • Opportunities for interesting experiences

Q. What tend to be families most memorable safari experiences?

A. That’s a tough one. Many clients return and say their safari was the best vacation they’ve ever had. Everyone’s interests are different, though. Usually clients come back with one or more wildlife sightings that are particularly memorable for them: a mother cheetah hunting for her five cubs; a baby wildebeest, just a few days old, orphaned by its mother and then taken by a lioness; watching a mother elephant delicately step over her baby calf, etc.

However, we very often have clients return saying they went for the wildlife, but most enjoyed getting to know the African people. Other things that clients have said: they felt alive for being closer to nature; they loved the wide open spaces; and they felt lucky for what they have in the face of the poverty in Africa.

Q. What tend to be favorite safari experiences for kids ages 5-11? How about for ‘tweens and teens?

A. Seeing wildlife is a thrill for all children and teens, but they are often most interested in interacting with local people and enjoying hands-on activities. Younger kids tend to really enjoy meeting African kids. On our recent family safari, our boys enjoyed playing soccer with local school kids, throwing rocks, and learning to shoot a bow and arrow with a local Maasai. Older kids tend to also enjoy the culture, but really get into the active adventures including walking safaris or shorter nature walks, climbing trees, soaking in hot springs or under waterfalls, exploring, camping, etc.

Q. People often talk about experiencing “the real Africa” on safari. How does Africa Adventure Consultants help its clients do that?

Good question. First, by putting clients together with experienced, knowledgeable local guides (really ambassadors) who read the client and interpret the wildlife, culture and history in a way that works for them. Second, we provide opportunities for clients to explore beyond the heavily traveled tourist routes – such as arranging for an authentic village visit vs. a stop at a tourist cultural village. At times, we can arrange for clients to see special ceremonies or events, shop at colorful markets, milk a cow, see the inside of a family’s hut, etc.

Q. What should families do to prepare their children for an Africa safari?

A. Many things. First, parents should talk with their kids – at length and over time – to tell them what they might experience in Africa. They should find out what questions, concerns and interests they have, and then address those ahead of time with the goal of having their children be excited and motivated to enjoy their safari. There is nothing worse than having a person (adult or child) in remote Africa when they don’t want to be there. Providing maps, books, pictures and stories about Africa and discussing them ahead of time is a great idea.

We also suggest parents find out one or more things that the children are particularly interested in and see if they can be incorporated into the itinerary. For example, this may be something as simple as the children want to see a giraffe. Knowing this, we can have the family visit places where giraffes are often seen.

On a more practical level, parents should:

  • Get their children the appropriate inoculations and anti-malarials. Talk with your pediatrician and a local travel clinic for guidance.
  • Check passports to make sure they are valid and have enough blank pages for visas for your trip
  • Purchase travel insurance that includes medical evacuation coverage
  • Buy appropriate clothing including good sun hats and footwear
  • Choose some toys, games and activities to bring along for the long flights and downtime on the safari. One must keep in mind, however, that there are baggage weight limits on most safaris.

Don’t be afraid to take kids on safari. They love it and it’s a wonderful vacation for the whole family.

Q. What are a few tips and suggestions for planning and preparing for a safari?

Ask the right questions, but if you’ve found a good operator, make sure to listen to their suggestions. Sometimes when people who have never been to a destination try to micromanage their itinerary, it doesn’t work well. In addition, read! There are fantastic options for fiction, nonfiction, reference and other books available. Reading one or more of these ahead of time will truly enhance your safari experience. Also make sure to ask about the weather and bring appropriate clothing.

Q. Are there any “must have” or “highly recommended” items to bring on an Africa safari?

A. Bring along a sun hat, sunscreen, good binoculars (one for each person), and a good camera if you want to take pictures. For kids, camera quality is relative. It’s often fun for them to just take a photo of anything. For adults, a good quality digital SLR with a zoom of at least 200, if not 300, is best. Also, make sure to bring any medications you might need including ibuprofen, aspirin, anti-diarrhea medication and antibiotics.

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