This year is my 40th/10th (leap day baby) birthday. I decided I wanted something epic. For years the plan had been to go to Tibet to chill with the monks, but with the addition of a child on the scene, I realized that the chill in February might be a bit too much. Instead, our sights turned to Africa, one of only 2 continents I have yet to step foot on. And so the planning began!
I’m not one to shy away from destinations because they are ‘difficult’ or ‘dangerous’, but we definitely have felt the odds stacked against us more than once in planning this trip with a child. Here is some of what you need to know when planning a trip to South Africa with a child.
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Years ago I told a friend of a friend that I couldn’t wait to take my son to Africa on safari. She balked at me and admonished me for half an hour about how irresponsible it would be to take a child there and “ruin” someone else’s trip. I was horrified that someone would think that bringing a child would be tantamount to ruining a trip for others. Turns out, she isn’t the only one who believes that small children shouldn’t be on safari. Many safari and game reserves do not allow children to stay at their resort or participate in game drives until they are of a certain age.
As we began planning our trip to South Africa, we quickly came upon this hurdle. Many hotels require children to be at least 12 years old to stay at the resort and/or participate on the game drives. Several higher end resorts at private reserves have a lower age limit of 6 years old. Given that our son will be only 5.5 at the time of travel, we were left with very few options in any price range other than luxury.
If this weren’t a special birthday where we actually wanted to be on safari on the actual day of my once in 4 years birthday, I would have tried to wait until my son was older than 6 to give us more options and to enable us to do it a bit cheaper. But you know, you gotta do what you gotta do!
It is possible to go to some hotels with children younger than 6, as long as you don’t plan on them joining you on safari. If you want your child with you at the hotel and on game drives, some hotels will provide you the option of hiring your own private vehicle for each day of your stay. It’s a great option, but also a greater expense.
Mosquito Borne Diseases
Another challenge faced when looking to go to Africa with children are the potential health risks. Malaria and yellow fever being the big ones. This left us with a decision about how important it is to visit areas that are either malaria free or that require no additional vaccinations.
For our trip to India 2 years ago, my son had a horrible experience with an adult sized typhoid needle in his tiny 4 year old thigh(s). Given that trauma, his only request was that wherever we went this year, he didn’t want to get another shot. Understood and respected. This meant that much of Africa was off limits, specifically one of the countries high on our list (Kenya).
The second decision regarding health was whether we were willing to go to regions with high rates of malaria. After living and traveling in India for a decade, we are well accustomed to the risks of mosquito borne diseases. However, the unknown of Africa and the constant media reports of malaria in Africa can’t be erased from my worrying mind.
I have only taken malarial tablets once and it was horrible. I was not sure I would be willing to subject my 5 year old to this. Our pediatrician didn’t seem to think that we *had* to take malarial pills, especially since we lived so long in India and never took them. She suggested that we take a prescription for Malarone, one with the least amount of side effects and the only one available for our son’s size and age.
So the decision was made. We would take the risk (and the precautions) and go to an area with a high rate of malaria – the area around Krueger National Park. This is also the place where you are most likely to spot the greatest amount of animals.
Speaking to other travelers and researching this further, I found that one of the best ways to prevent mosquito bites is to spray your clothes with permethrin prior to arrival. Using this spray protects you under your clothes for up to 6 washes by actually killing some bugs that land on you and preventing others (like mosquitos) from even getting near you. This sounds like the best method of prevention in that we can spray our socks, shoes, hats, etc. Otherwise, another option is to purchase clothes specifically treated with bug repellent. This is a great option, except these clothes are expensive and do not offer the same level of protection you can get from having all of your clothes sprayed.
In addition to the spay, we will also do what we have always done and have our son wear these spiral mosquito repellent wrist bands on his wrists and ankles at all times.
Another important factor to consider when traveling to South Africa with children is the newly instituted entry requirement law. To take a child into/out of South Africa, all visitors are required to have the child’s original unabridged birth certificate that includes the names of both parents. Initially this proved worrisome to me as my son was born in India and we have very limited copies of his birth certificate. It’s not the best situation to travel with an original birth certificate, but we will have to keep it safe with our passports. Regardless, it’s important that travelers are aware of this requirement before they set off to the airport where they could be turned away before boarding the flight.
Organized Tour vs Independent Travel
One of the tricky parts of booking a trip to South Africa is dealing with the abundance of connections that must be made if you plan to go on a safari. Once you fly into the international airport you have to figure out how to get to your safari camp. Many safari locations are 5+ hours from Johannesburg by road or 2 hours by small plane. These transfers are often not cheap, nor negotiable. Once there, you then have to deal with your onward flight to the next location.
I tend to be one who likes to do things myself for maximum flexibility, but I am starting to see the benefit of booking a trip to Africa through a tour operator. If this is a trip you are considering, as a first stop, I would check into family friendly tour operators (Rhino Africa and AndBeyond are two popular tour groups) to see what kind of program they can offer and at what cost. If it feels expensive (which it will, trust me!) you can then move on to doing it yourself.
Internal flights within South Africa are actually quite reasonable as there are several low cost airlines (Check out TravelStart to check fares for local airlines). The greatest expense comes when you need to fly into private airstrips. The cost of the these flights are non-negotiable for the most part. Some are offered through the hotels which occasionally have specials of reduced or free airfare with a certain number of nights booked. Look for these specials when researching accommodation options.
It is also possible to hire a car and drive yourself. This would have been our preferred option had we had more time to leisurely make our way to our safari.
This is just the start of planning a trip to South Africa with kids, but the struggle of making it work will be worth it when we arrive and see the amazing wildlife! Stay tuned for our upcoming adventures!
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