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January 18, 2018

Why an African Safari Is a Must for Families

We were fortunate enough to experience an African safari in November. To date, it has been our favorite trip of all time and I maintain that an African safari is a must for families.

A safari isn’t easy to plan. Number one, Africa is a huge continent with 53 countries, so picking one or two countries to visit isn’t an easy choice. Each country is different and has different things to offer a family. Other factors such as language barriers, developing nations and their infrastructure problems and a very, very different culture make things more complicated. A safari to Africa isn’t something people can just “throw together” and hope for the best. From flights out of the United States to transportation within the continent (hello tiny prop planes) to game drive timing, everything must be meticulously planned. We chose Tanzania for our safari for many reasons – mostly for the “big five” (rhino, lion, cape buffalo, leopard and elephant) and their reputation for being the best place for a family safari.

Tanzanian Male Lion

Why is an African safari a must for families? Too many reasons to count!

Showing your kids a totally different culture

As much as we love Stapleton, frankly, it doesn’t give most kids a healthy dose of reality. We all want to be the best parents we can be and protect our kids, but we know that life isn’t all about the cutest playroom or who has the best car. We struggle – and I’m sure most parents struggle – with not spoiling our kids and providing them with values beyond “things”. A trip to a place totally different is just the ticket. On our first day, driving from our hotel to the airstrip to catch a prop plane to our first camp, our kids were silent for an entire 45 minutes, looking out the window….watching kids walk to school by themselves (some as young as five), watching kids herding goats (again, by themselves), seeing children and their moms carrying huge jugs of water on their head back to the family home. They saw Christian girls in Catholic school uniforms, Muslim girls wearing hijab on their heads, families sweeping their front porch of their tiny huts with a rudimentary broom made of straw – a wonderful mishmash of cultures and differences. Our daughter exclaimed that the Muslim girls looked like a friend of hers at school – she never knew what a hijab was for or what it meant until this trip. Our son was impressed that little kids were walking a mile to school totally by themselves. First day of the trip, lessons learned that a world exists outside of our little bubble.

Members of the Maasai do their traditional jumping contest with our kids

This continued throughout the trip. We met members of the Maasai tribe, a tribe throughout Kenya and Tanzania who live in small, handmade villages, herd goats and cows and carry spears everywhere they go. Maasai warriors have zero fear of coming upon a lion or a hyena – after all they have a spear and they know how to use it. Their culture is totally different from ours and they are a friendly, well spoken people. We were fortunate enough to have a Maasai warrior named Kasika go on a game drive with us and the kids were impressed and fascinated. “Mommy, he can kill a hyena with that spear!”

Kids play on the beach

On Zanzibar Island, where we spent five days after our safari, we saw children by the side of the road wearing nothing but a diaper or underwear, their house behind them a tiny mud hut with a tin roof. We saw a group of boys my son’s age playing football on a beach with, not a brand new ball from Sports Authority, but a tattered dirty ball that had seen better days. The joy on their faces was unmistakable. As far as my husband and I were concerned, we learned from our guide that the government on Zanzibar is so corrupt that, when they lost the last election, they declared the results a “mistake” and put themselves back in power again. A lot of perspective for this family, young and old!

A lady and her daughter our walking in Stone Town, Zanzibar

Discovering respect for animals and wildlife and the circle of life

Animals are a given on a safari and we saw so many animals. Our very first game drive gave us tons of lions, elephants, cape buffalo, giraffes and leopards. We learned about the flora and fauna and fun facts about animals. Fun facts:

—Elephants can cry and have incredible memories.
—Elephants are pregnant for 22 months (yikes!).
—A female lion does all the hunting, but the male lions, followed by the cubs, eat first (ridiculous)
—Lions are very social and live in prides of approximately 15 lions
—Lions can’t roar until the age of two
—The hippo is the most dangerous animal on the African continent
—In Swahili, a lion is called Simba and a warthog is called Pumba (hence the names from the movie The Lion King)
—The Ngorongoro Crater is the largest intact caldera in the world
—The crater has 30,000 to 40,000 animals inside it

A leopard jumps out of a tree

Our kids learned of the circle of life. An animal is either the hunter or the pray and life in the bush is all about survival. On our second morning out, we came upon a recently killed wildebeest, with only a few bites out of it. Our guide guessed that it had been killed by a leopard but the animal was too heavy to carry into a tree so he ate a bit and then abandoned the carcass. Our guide, Rem, said that by the time we got back from our game drive a few hours later, the carcass would be picked clean. And he was right – the kids were fascinated to come back and see that not one little bit of the animal had gone to waste….the circle of life was at play.

Taking your kids out of their comfort zone

Are your kids picky eaters? Scared of the dark? Ours are no different. I swear my kids survive on a diet of cheerios and chicken nuggets. and my daughter still insists the hallway light be blaring in her face until she falls asleep every night. Well those things aren’t readily available in Tanzania and the kids had to learn to deal with it. We were really worried about it, but everyone survived and thrived. We did stay in decent tented camps with food that we knew wouldn’t be too different, but it was still different. The camp cooks were happy to make spaghetti noodles when requested and bread was always readily available, but I’m happy to report that both kids devoured Guinea Fowl on Thanksgiving and both tried several different types of salad and unusual bread (one bread had *gasp* olives baked into the bread and was declared “good” by my daughter). When in Rome was the phrase of the week and, with a minimum of arguing, the kids took things in stride.

A tented camp overlooking Ngorongoro Crater

As far as the tented camps were concerned, they were both definitely out of their comfort zone. Although we had been camping in the past, none of us had ever seen camps quite like the ones we stayed in. Definitely luxury tents, there were still a lot of things that took some getting used to. Showers were cold water “bucket” showers and if you wanted warm water, you ordered it. The camp staff would heat water and pour it into the cistern outside your tent for the shower. While we definitely weren’t roughing it (read some reviews here) in these luxury camps, it was still something different for all of us.

At night, it wasn’t uncommon to hear lions roaring and hyena’s howling in the darkness – something that definitely doesn’t happen at home! One night we saw a gigantic scorpion in one of the tents. On our second day, I was sitting on my verandah by myself and heard something snarling from a nearby bush. I quickly retreated inside my tent. All of these things combined really took our family out of our comfort zone and what’s life with things the same day after day?

Teaching kids patience

Ready for the first game drive and ready to practice patience

African safaris involved a lot of travel time – both to the continent and in between tented camps. Our flight over was Denver to Washington, Washington to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and then another 2 hours to Arusha, Tanzania. Over 18 hours of plane travel, plus layovers in different airports. And certain airports (I’m looking at you Addis Ababa) have literally nothing to do, see or eat in the terminals. The kids really had to learn to be patient and patience combined with massive jet lag wasn’t easy. Even an Amazon Fire tablet gets boring after awhile. Additionally, planes and driving time between camps was time consuming. Our drive from Ngorongoro Crater to our Serengeti camp was 3 hours. While parts were interesting, it was mostly quite boring. And then there are the game drives themselves. While seeing animals was fascinating, at times you go over an hour seeing nothing by a bird. We adults were fascinated by every tree and bush we drove by but for a kid? Trees aren’t that interesting. The safari taught them a lot about being patient.

Overcoming fears

Lions above our tent

When we pulled up to our camp in the Serengeti, the camp manager greeted us and asked us to not make any sudden movements and to talk softly. When we inquired as to why, he casually mentioned that there are a few lions on a rock “over there” and we didn’t want to alarm them. Turns out the 3 lions were sitting right above our tent. “There were ten lions over there this morning!” one of the guides told us delightedly. We spent the rest of our day back and forth between our tent and the main area of the camp with three lions watching us very closely. At night, we listened to lions roaring and hyenas laughing, as mentioned above. At our first camp, we were told a story about three lions attacking and eating a zebra right on a guest’s verandah at 5am – with the guests inside the tent hearing the whole thing. Let’s just say the kids had to overcome a lot of fear.

The lions at our camp watching us closely

Bonding Bonding Bonding

A lot of our family vacations involve sitting by beaches or pools, eating at random times and occasional TV sandwiched in at night. There’s none of that in tented safari camps. No TV, limited electricity and no manufactured entertainment. We spent our time talking, sitting down together at meals, getting to know other people at the camps and just spending time together. Although the kids did have Fire Tablets, they barely used them, which was such a nice change. We talked on the game drives, we talked around camp fires and we talked around dinner tables. It was nice to know that are kids can still handle a vacation without a pool or a beach. A relief to know that other things entertain them!

An African safari is a must for families. Something totally different and totally unique. I used to say it’s a once in a lifetime trip, but we plan to do it again so it really isn’t once in a lifetime. A safari isn’t cheap, but it’s definitely worth it. We saved money for over a year and a half to make it happen and don’t regret it one bit. “Collect memories over things” is an overused expression but it couldn’t ring more true in this case. We put off redecorating our home for the two weeks in Tanzania and wouldn’t change that decision.

Here’s some last bit of advice for planning a safari:

—contact a travel agent/advisor who has relationships with tour operators on the continent. Don’t take it on by yourself – there are too many moving parts to consider and a totally different culture.

—stay in tented camps in favor of lodges. I’ve stayed in both – lodges when I was in my 20s and tented camps recently and can honestly say that camps are the way to go. It definitely adds to the experience and is so unique – and the tents aren’t roughing it in any way, shape or form.. There are some lodges that blend into the landscape quite well, but try to book more tents than lodges. For those concerned with having a pool, believe me when I say that the last thing you will be thinking about is playing in a pool. And there really isn’t time anyway. Game drives take place in morning and late afternoon and in between you’re relaxing in the camp, talking with people or having a fantastic lunch.

—wait until your kids are at least 7 or 8. Most tented camps won’t allow children under 8 anyway (our daughter was a few months shy of 8) and they honestly won’t be really interested in the experience until around that age.

—add on a beach after your safari. Believe it or not, for as wonderful and luxurious as it feels, safaris are tiring! We added 4 days on Zanzibar island on to our safari and it was amazing.

—Take two weeks. Just getting to Tanzania takes close to two days with the time change. You have jet lag for a few days. Don’t rush yourself. You may only get to Africa once for twice in your lifetime – take the time to enjoy it.

—Don’t try to book the cheapest safari you can find. I made that mistake in my 20s and it was all wrong. Game drives in the middle of the day when all the animals were sleeping, bad food that made us ill, potentially dangerous situations (there were no safety measures in place on my first safari), and very uncomfortable game drive vehicles. It’s not necessary to go with the highest price, but don’t go cheap. Safaris are expensive but they include everything – food, drinks, guides and most importantly, conservation fees, which the countries really need to keep the parks open.

—Have fun!!

Melissa Downham is a Stapleton resident and a photographer and travel planner. She is married with two children – Max, age 11 and Zoe, age 8. Contact her at mdownham@departurelounge.com for more details about an African safari or any other trip. For more information about traveling with kids, visit www.theroamingfamily.com.

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