How to Take Children on an African Safari
Despite all the warnings, a trip to Tanzania with a toddler and an 8-year-old turned out to be a dream vacation for the whole family
A LITTLE AFTER dawn, our safari guide headed to the less-explored eastern part of Serengeti National Park. He slowed the Toyota Land Cruiser at a patch of green that interrupted the straw-colored Tanzanian landscape, so barren that it made our mouths feel dry.
“There’s a hyena under that tree,” he said.
My husband, Nitin, and I stood up in the vehicle and instinctively shushed our groggy children, Naya and Riya, then ages 8 and 1. Looking through binoculars at the tree, we saw only a blur.
“Hey!” the baby shouted. “Hello? Hello?” “Shhhhhh!” we scolded.
And suddenly, there was the hyena—headed straight for us. Creatures like these see young animals (including humans) as easy prey; once you get over the creepy factor, this can make for a cool wildlife-viewing experience—at least from the relative safety of a getaway car.
Months earlier, when we’d told friends that we planned to take our children to Africa, they mostly admonished us. The water’s not safe. The bugs are vicious. The kids will get bored on long drives. They won’t remember any of it.
Their doubts only emboldened us. We’d lived in India through my eldest daughter’s toddler years and considered ourselves seasoned travelers. The three of us horsebacked across Kashmir, rode elephants into the grasslands of Assam, took a palanquin into the caves of Ajanta. Then, in 2008, we moved back to the U.S. We bought a house. We had a second child. Vacations became three-day weekends in the Catskills or Berkshires, beach rentals up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Our Facebook photos started to look like everyone else’s.
I missed adventure and wanted to expose my children to more. Tanzania felt like a logical destination. Its pleasant dry season runs from June through October, overlapping with the kids’ summer holiday. My college roommate lives in Dar es Salaam, so we had an in-country contact in case of an emergency.
African safaris are attracting a lot more families these days, including some with very young children, according to tour operators. When planning our trip, which included stops in Istanbul and Zanzibar, I requested safari quarters where little ones would be welcome (many lodges bar children under 12). To our surprise, we were offered high chairs, baby cots and special kid-friendly meals as we made our way around Tanzania.
We started in Tanzania’s most populous city, Dar es Salaam, took a day to acclimate and continued to Kilimanjaro, where we embarked on six days of safari. The Serengeti ecosystem, which straddles Tanzania and Kenya, is known for the largest migration of mammals in the world, but they were on the Kenyan side by the time we arrived. We stuck mostly to the central Serengeti to catch better views of lions; we saw plenty of zebras and wildebeest in the lesser-known Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania. Ngorongoro Crater, an immense inactive volcano caldera, gave us a chance to see all these animals in one place. Feeling cramped from days of driving, we also took a memorable hike around its rim.
Safaris, it turns out, are a dream vacation with and for kids. There is nothing like the amazement on a child’s face when giraffes and zebras are so close that you can smell them. Teachable moments abound—about nature and evolution, power and the world order. And though safari travel tends to be luxurious and sheltered from reality, having children along facilitates interaction with locals. Everywhere we went, Tanzanians wanted to hold our baby, pinch her cheeks, make her laugh. They gave our older child candy and pats on the head and encouraged her attempts to speak Swahili.
THE LOWDOWN: SAFARI WITH KIDS IN TANZANIA’S SERENGETI
Getting There: Dar es Salaam and Nairobi are the most common entry points for visitors to the Serengeti. From there, you can take shorter flights to Arusha, Kilimanjaro or Seronera to get closer to the parks. Visas can be purchased for cash upon arrival ($100) but if you want to avoid lines, do it in the U.S.
Staying There: Tour operators generally book safari lodging, and Duma Explorer planned our trip (dumaexplorer.com). In Arusha, Arumeru River Lodge is a serviceable first or last stop, with great food and views (from about $270 a night, arumerulodge.com). Its restaurant has high chairs and will accommodate children’s whims. Rhino Lodge near Ngorongoro Crater is bare-bones, but animals wander right onto the property in the morning and evening (from about $270 a night, including meals, ngorongoro.cc). Tarangire Safari Lodge, inside Tarangire National Park, recently added a spa, with a massage table that overlooks the river (from about $400 a night, including meals, tarangiresafarilodge.com). Duma Explorer’s tented Chaka Camp in the Serengeti offers king-size beds, hot showers and private porches (from about $690 a night, including meals, chakacamp.com).
Eating There: In tent lodges, cooks whip up whatever is freshest. You can request special meals for children, such as pasta or rice. Maasai-raised beef is not to be missed. Pack nonperishable snacks for long car rides; tour operators provide bottled water.
Spending There: Tanzania is largely a cash economy, so bring at least $1,000 for tips, souvenirs and incidentals, or plan to stop at ATMs outside the park entrances.
Taking Children Along: Consult your pediatrician about vaccinations and medications. The Sit ‘n’ Stroll, a car seat that turns into a stroller, is a good investment for any globe-trotting family ($330, lillygold.com).
During a hike through a village outside Arusha, the largest city in northern Tanzania, the baby delighted in all the attention. “Mtoto, mtoto,” children chanted, using the Swahili word for baby as they ran after us and colobus monkeys swung over our heads. Our eldest grew silent when the children begged for her sunglasses and stroked her skin as if to determine if it was different from theirs. Later, at dinner, we reminded her that the poverty she had witnessed was much more the norm than the Tanzania we saw on safari.
Guidebooks warned of something else I might have to discuss with the children: Mating, notably among the lions. We didn’t see any mating, but in July, the landscape of short brown grass exposes other primal behaviors. One day in the Serengeti, we came upon a pride of lions, and watched them for nearly an hour. My youngest stared at the lioness, just steps from her car seat. The eldest fiddled with the binoculars.
When the lioness started walking differently, Ebeneezer Emanuel, the same guide who showed us the hyena, warned that we might be about to see a kill. He gestured at the children as if to ask, “Is that OK?” We nodded.
The lioness crept up behind a pack of dancing gazelles and waited. We waited. I prayed my children would stay quiet. And she pounced. A baby gazelle was dragged under a tree to be eaten.
“So the female lions are stronger?” my daughter asked Ebeneezer.
“Yes,” he said. “They are much better hunters.”
“That is so cool.”
Seeing the kill inspired more serious dinnertime conversation. “How can the gazelles dance around so much knowing a lion might eat them at anytime?” my daughter wondered.
“Perhaps that is precisely why they let themselves be so happy,” I said.
Between game drives, we returned to our lodge or tent and let the girls run around and get out their own wild sides. I had packed an iPad loaded with kids’ videos in case they grew restless, but we never needed it; the children were much happier watching natural dramas unfold before them.
Also unnecessary were the dozens of packets of instant macaroni and cheese we’d brought. As my daughters devoured roast chicken and cassava stew, I felt sheepish for brushing off our friends’ skepticism when I’d clearly had a healthy dose of it myself.
When you take a picture, light reflecting from the subject hits the camera’s sensor and is recorded. If the shutter opens and closes very quickly, there’s no time for light from moving portions of your image to “˜smear’ across the pixels of your sensor. However, as shutter speed slows, the “˜smear’ of light increases. Many photographers use this to make fantastic images.
With moving subjects, shooting slow exposures from a tripod can emphasise the movement of your subject relative to its background. The subject in motion is blurred while all around it is pin sharp. Think of those shots you may have seen of ghost-like waterfalls and rivers.
Pan with your subjects
Another simple technique is to pan with or follow your subjects. This means that, relative to your camera, the subject in motion is steady and the background is moving. Consequently, the subject in motion is sharp while the background is completely blurred. Think of wildlife photographers shooting moving animals or herds, or motoring journalists trying to emphasise the speed of a car. Ironically many of the motion shots used in car adverts are shot using very slow exposures while pushing the car by hand.
The amount of blur is dependent on four factors:
- The angle of motion relative to the camera: subjects moving perpendicular to the lens blur more than subjects moving towards the lens.
- Speed of the subject: the faster the subject, the more it blurs.
- Magnification of the lens: the bigger the focal length of the lens, the more the subject will blur.
- Distance from the lens: the closer a subject is to the lens, the more it blurs.
Do it yourself
Firstly, find a suitable subject; cars passing on a road in the early evening work well. Set your camera to aperture priority and select a high f-stop (a small aperture – try f11 and above) that results in slow shutter speed. See below for the shutter speeds at which certain subjects will begin to blur.
Try both techniques. With your camera on a tripod, shoot scenes of passing cars and watch how they blur and the lights streak. Next take your camera off your tripod and pan evenly with your subject as it passes, snapping shots as you go.
Guideline shutter speeds
Approximate shutter speeds for a short zoom lens – 55 to 90 mm – that will begin to blur on a subject moving at the following speeds approximately 30 metres away.
60 km/h 1/125th
120 km/h 1/250th
Follow a few simple tips to eradicate blurred sunsets and headless family members in your travel snaps
Even the best holiday memories fade – but photographs never do. At least, not these days with digital technology enabling us all to keep those happy snaps forever. But what if you struggle to take pictures you’ll want to treasure? Do you always chop people’s heads off, or end up with out of focus landscapes? Read on and let a professional show you how it’s done.
Invest in your camera
Don’t scrimp on time or cash when choosing the right camera. Do your research whether you are buying a full digital SLR, a compact camera or even just using a smartphone as your main travel camera. There is no going back, so read the reviews and go into a store to ask questions face to face even if you later buy online.
Get all the gear
You’ve got your camera, but make sure to get all the other bits and bobs you might need on the road; that means spare memory cards, lens-cleaning cloths and, most importantly, a spare battery. Ignore this advice at your peril – you’ll remember it ruefully when a lion vaults over your safari truck just after your battery dies.
Stabilise that image
So many gorgeous sunrise and sunset shots, as well as many landscape images, work best with a tripod. You don’t need a huge man-sized tripod rig that takes out passers by as you turn corners. There are plenty of compact tripods these days and you can even buy tiny little tripods for smartphones.
Compose, compose and then compose some more. Don’t just snap dull shots of the Eiffel Tower. Think about closing in and shooting some of the detail, or adding some people for extra interest – and use whatever light you have. Put simply, the more effort and time you put into composition, the better your pictures will be.
People not ants
When you are shooting photographs that aim to sum up the spirit of a great holiday don’t have the stars of the show standing miles away. Even if the backdrop is dramatic the people are the main focus here and you want to capture their enjoyment, even if they are a little camera shy, so bring them into the foreground.
Tell a story
Home in on details to tell the story of a place. For a market, first shoot a wide shot from a distance to set the scene, then move in slowly, finishing with close-ups of food and dashes of local prices or language to add more colour. You should have everything you need now to make a great montage for your wall back home.
If you have invested in an expensive DSLR don’t just rely on the automatic modes. Get creative and experiment with various combinations of ISO settings and different shutter speeds. This will enable you to take more sophisticated photographs, as well as meaning you can call yourself a “proper photographer”.
Africa is blessed with amazing natural treasures and we hope you’ll find these destinations and events interesting and tempting to explore.
1. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda).
The park is part of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and is situated along the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) border next to the Virunga National Park. The park provides habitat for 120 species of mammals, 348 species of birds, 220 species of butterflies, 27 species of frogs, chameleons, geckos, and many endangered species.
2. Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls (Zambia and Zimbabwe).
One of the biggest tourist attractions in Africa, Victoria Falls is undoubtedly amongst the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. Located on the mighty Zambezi River, Victoria Falls is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is one of the largest waterfalls in the world.
3. Wildebeest migration (Kenya and Tanzania).
Certainly a must see, the migration is considered one of nature’s great spectacles and sees over a million wildebeest trek north from the Serengeti (Tanzania) to the Maasai Mara (Kenya). The wildebeests are joined on this epic journey by thousands of eland, gazelle and zebra as they cross the crocodile-infested Mara River to graze on the Maasai Mara plains.
4. Bazaruto Archipelago (Mozambique)
Is a group of six islands. Bazaruto Island is the largest in the Bazaruto Archipelago and Bazaruto National Park. The archipelago is certainly a beautiful destination which needs to be explored. The archipelago boasts of by a wide array of marine and wildlife, azure waters and amazing beaches.
5. Ennedi Massif (Chad).
6. Sanganeb Marine National Park and Dungonab Bay
Mukkawar Island Marine National Park (Sudan) recently inscribed as one of UNESCO’s Newest World Heritage Sites. Sanganeb is a coral atoll 25km off the coast of Sudan. Sanganeb National Park is indeed a marvel. Dungonab Bay is another remarkable marine treasure, which provides a habitat for large populations of seabirds, marine mammals, fish, sharks, and turtles.
7. National Arts Festival (South Africa)
One of the most important events on the South African cultural calendar, and undoubtedly one of the biggest arts events on the African continent. Starting at the end of June/beginning of July, it runs for between 8 and 10 days and is held in the small university city of Grahamstown. The programme comprises drama, dance, physical theatre, comedy, opera, music, jazz, visual art exhibitions, film, student theatre, street theatre, lectures, craft fair, workshops, and a children’s arts festival.
8. Erin Ijesha Waterfalls(Nigeria)
is also known as Olumirin waterfalls. A visit to Nigeria is not complete for a tourist without a visit to Erin-Ijesa because it’s the popular and most visited tourist attraction in Nigeria. Olumirin is a seven step waterfall and each step of the waterfall has a flowing fountain that marks the mystical nature of the place. The waterfall is a stunning assemblage of seven unique levels, with each level providing a whole new outlook when compared to the previous level. The water fall exudes a therapeutic ambience which only something natural can produce.
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