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.