Africa's iconic animals may be the things of childhood dreams, but taking your youngsters to the continent can be an unnerving prospect.
As travel writer and dad David Else explains, it doesn't have to be daunting. Follow his family's recommendations to enjoy a fun mix of activities, stunning scenery and wildlife.
Why South Africa and Swaziland?
South Africa and Swaziland are home to huge national parks and wilderness areas, which satisfied our family's desire to enjoy the natural sights and sounds of the continent – red earth, yellow acacias, chirping cicadas, grunting hippos. They also have great historical sites, plentiful tourism facilities, easy-to-drive roads and well-stocked shops.
Importantly, we wanted to introduce our children Sarah (age 10) and Michael (age 8) to travelling, and to give them a chance to see a positive side of Africa, one not often portrayed in today's media. And because it had been 15 years since my wife and I had travelled in Africa ourselves, a road trip was perfect for rekindling old memories.
We landed at Johannesburg, picked up a rental car, and our first stop was the Cradle of Humankind, one of the world’s most important regions for hominid fossil discoveries. The Maropeng museum provided a great mix of hands-on activities for kids and informative exhibits for grown-ups, while the deep cave at Sterkfontein was enthralling for everyone.
Preferring to remain outside the city, we checked into Kenjara Lodge (kenjara.co.za), a quirky little hotel with thatched cottages in the garden – ideal family accommodation. On the edge of the garden was an easy-climb tree, a dry riverbed and a boulder pile where the kids played for hours in the sunshine while we sat on the veranda with binoculars, bird books and cold beers.
Next was the Drakensberg, a vast mountain range that separates South Africa from Lesotho, the independent kingdom next door. A sinuous mountain road wound up to the sleepy town of Underberg and long-time backpackers favourite, Khotso. Eschewing the dorms, we opted for family rooms but enjoyed the communal atmosphere and chatting to other travellers about their journeys, while the kids played happily outside.
There are great walks in the foothills, but even better was a horse trek up to the higher ground. The local Basutu ponies were patient and sure footed, so perfect for children. And for adults, the views across the landscape were spectacular.
Thick coats were swapped for swim suits as our next stop was the Indian Ocean at St Lucia, a relaxed little resort town of hotels, restaurants and fishing tackle shops. For families, this place had everything: great beaches for swimming and snorkelling, a big market where the kids could barter for Zulu beadwork animals and other souvenirs, and iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a vast area of coast, dunes, lakes, forest and grassland.
Highlights at iSimangaliso included a boat ride with up-close hippo and croc encounters, a wildlife safari with sightings of rhinos, and a day at Cape Vidal that none of us will ever forget. We sat on silver-white sands, while monkeys scrambled in the trees above the dunes. In front, our kids paddled in the shallow waves, while beyond them humpback whales breached above the surface and then fell back into the water with a giant splash.
Perhaps it’s fanciful to recall the island of the same name in the West Indies, but St Lucia seemed to have a slightly Caribbean ambience – palm trees, the smell of the sea, and fish eagles standing in for squawking parrots. This tropical feel was reinforced by the family-friendly Umlilo Lodge, a charming hotel with wooden decks and a prodigious garden, and at the self-catering Lai-La Log Cabins (lailalogcabins.co.za), which had views over the coastal forest to the ocean beyond.
Back to the bush
Leaving the ocean, we drove inland to uMkhuze Game Reserve for a taste of classic African wilderness. At Mantuma we stayed in safari tents surrounded by bush, where animals such as nyala and bushbuck wandered by. Although technically camping, having tents with beds, wardrobes, electric lights and flush loos (not to mention a fully-equipped kitchen) probably doesn’t count as roughing it.
Some of the many other animals in uMkhuze include elephants, rhinos, lions, hippos, giraffes and monkeys. While we could drive around looking for wildlife, it was much more rewarding (especially for the kids) to use the hides overlooking waterholes, which made photography almost effortless, even for 8-year-olds.
Over the border
Wildlife was even easier to see at our next port of call: Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in Swaziland. Impala wandered past the window of our quaint colonial-style bungalow, while – much to the children’s delight – a warthog family slept in the dust nearby. Thanks to the lack of lions and other dangerous beasts, Mlilwane offers horseback safaris that allowed us to get almost within touching distance of zebra. For steeds of a different sort, mountain bikes were available too.
Our final stop was Malolotja, a breathtakingly beautiful region with rolling hills, deep valleys dotted with rocky outcrops, and ranges of mountains stretching into the hazy distance. Although it's popular for wilderness hiking, our own walks were on the short side due to little legs and a nearby boulder field that proved to be a distraction (every giant rock needed to be climbed). Malolotja’s other main draw was the Canopy Tour, where we skimmed down zip-wires between airy platforms, zig-zagging high above a dramatic tree-filled canyon. For the kids, this was an undoubted highlight of the entire trip, and even us adults had to admit it was pretty jolly exciting.
So we ended our trip as we’d begun – in a spectacular location that adults and kids could enjoy. We sat on the veranda of our log cabin, relished an Out of Africa moment as the setting sun turned the Swazi sky rich orange, and looked back at where we’d been and what we’d done. Throughout the journey, we’d all enjoyed adventurous activities and simply being in Africa, without the kids feeling uncomfortable or too far beyond the familiar. For us, South Africa and Swaziland provided a perfect family holiday, and we’re already planning the next adventure there.
Make it happen
Numerous airlines serve South Africa. We flew from London to Johannesburg, via Frankfurt, on Lufthansa. The total flying time was about 12 hours each way. The kids breezed through the flights, thanks largely to the seat-back video screens.
We travelled by rental car, and all the usual international brands are found in South Africa. A great car choice for families is the Nissan Qashqai or the Hyundai ix35. Both SUVs, they provide enough room for a family of four. Being higher than a normal sedan/saloon car, they are better for viewing animals.
We stayed in some hotels, but mainly went for self-catering options. Shopping for supplies along the way was straightforward. National park and reserve accommodation in South Africa and Swaziland can be booked through:
David travelled to South Africa and Swaziland independently, and received some support from the official Swaziland Tourist Organisation, Khotso, Umlilo Lodge and Heritage Tours & Safaris (heritagetoursandsafaris.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.