Africa is not the most obvious family holiday destination with a two-year-old and a four-year-old. But in March 2018, Jenny Lynn and her family landed in Johannesburg to pick up a Land Rover TD5 with roof tents and embarked on a 101-day self-drive adventure through South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Namibia.
We had no 4WD experience whatsoever, and dealt with corrupt officials, experienced impassable roads, once-in-a-generation weather events and, of course, the usual toddler tantrums along the way. But all that pales in significance compared to the seemingly endless nights camping under the African stars, the incredible wildlife experiences, the warm welcome from villages we passed, and the tighter bond we formed as a family. It was our best adventure yet.
Travelling with young kids
Since my husband and I met at Hull University back in 2000 we have travelled extensively, always preferring to venture to off-the-beaten-track destinations on a budget. Once the boys came along twelve years later, it felt wrong not to continue these adventures as a family; we just had to find space in our backpacks for nappies and comforters.
Parenting can be challenging wherever you are; there are always going to be the bedtime routines, sleep deprivation, and never-ending demands to negotiate. Travel just creates a different and changing backdrop to those everyday tests. But most importantly, travel provides the time to be on our own schedule, time not distracted by other commitments, time simply to share day-by-day experiences together.
Read more: Where you should go on your first safari in Africa
Before Africa, we had been living in Bangalore due to my husband's work and took every opportunity to explore India and neighbouring countries. In that time our boys became fantastic little travellers; taking overnight sleeper trains cross country, trekking the Himalayas at 3000m, and riding tuk-tuks around Sri Lanka. We knew that they were ready for Africa, a continent that we had fallen in love with many times over and were desperate to return to.
So when my husband was offered a voluntary redundancy package we jumped at the opportunity of some extra travel funds. In a matter of weeks, we packed up our apartment in Bangalore, flew back home to the UK, repacked our bags and were on a flight bound for South Africa.
Planning for Africa
For many, an Africa trip is years in the making. We didn’t have this luxury.
Our start and end point was Johannesburg, and with a fixed pot of money we calculated that on a budget of £50 per day (after flights, visas, and Land Rover hire) we could travel for 101 days. This is tight for Africa, but by camping and self-catering it was manageable.
Read more: Dune boarding, climbing, surfing and more: finding adventure in Namibia
We planned only a few days in advance, although we set off each day with a Plan A and B just in case (many times we had to resort to Plan C). If we liked a place, we’d set up camp and stay a while, and if we didn’t, we would move on. This flexibility was so freeing.
As for visas, we arranged them at borders, although arranging them before departure would have prevented hours of negotiation at the Mozambique–Malawi border crossing and fast-tracked other lengthy border crossings.
How did the boys cope?
The boys were never on their best behaviour at border crossings, probably out of boredom. In all honesty, I'm not a fan of them either, with all the associated bureaucracy. But I will never forget Ezra (then aged two) jumping off a bench and hugging a Malawaian border guard who was trying elicit a bribe from us. It was hilarious. Kids always have a way of diluting intense moments in travel.
The boys truly embraced this trip and it was incredible seeing Africa through their eyes. Southern Africa really is an amazing natural playground for little ones; from running down sand dunes and spotting elephants and lions on a self-drive safari, to jumping into waves crashing onto pristine beaches and camping every night under the African stars.
We never bothered too much with toys. I packed a few crafty items, but most fun was always had with sticks and stones, climbing boulders and playing in sand, or inspecting animal dung (poo was a hot topic on safari drives!).
Did we feel safe?
There was no time at all on this trip that we felt unsafe or threatened in any way. We camped at secure and fenced sites, and ensured we arrived at camps well before dark. We packed a medical kit (including a malaria test kit), took antimalarials (we crushed up the boys’ tablets into a chocolate spread for them), and were up to date with vaccinations. We also self-catered, which limited concerns of food poisoning, and no-one fell ill during the 101 days.
Read more: Best gear to keep you safe while travelling
The only unsafe aspect at times was the deterioration of a road. But if we didn’t feel comfortable driving the Land Rover down a dirt track, we would turn around and find an alternative route. This happened a lot in Tanzania, as the country was experiencing the worst rains in over two decades.
Back home in the UK
It’s been over a year since we returned from Africa and the boys still talk about it. Our eldest in particular is obsessed with David Attenborough documentaries, and I’m sure it’s because of all the safari drives we did together. And just recently our youngest was telling someone about how he went on a boat for his third birthday and saw Victoria Falls.
People say that young kids don’t remember things, and I used to believe this, thinking that the point of our travels was the precious bonding time together. But if those moments stand out as something different, away from routine, I’ve since realised that they do indeed remember moments in their own way. The open plains of Africa have a way of stealing everyone’s heart, however young or old you are.
Jenny writes about her family’s adventures at TraveLynn Family, which is a multi-award-nominated blog that has been running for three years. If you want to read more about their Africa overland trip, head over to this blog post: Self drive Africa overland with kids.