The noise was wild and untamed — the primeval voice of Africa herself. The full-chested roars of two male lions echoed across the plain, striking terror into their prey and pumping adrenaline into our veins. Nine-year old Annalyse slipped her tiny hand into mine and squeezed it. I squeezed back with a sweaty palm. Naturally our first reaction was fear. After all, my husband, two daughters and I were in a Land Rover with our torsos emerging from the open roof, nothing more than fifty yards and a jeep door between us and these fierce predators. We were close enough to see their individual whiskers and piercing amber eyes. The two males continued to greet each other with verbal ferocity as the morning air vibrated with their deep vocalizations. “I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore,” whispered our sarcastic twelve-year-old J.C. “Keep quiet and don’t make any quick movements. They haven’t had breakfast yet,” Tanzanian guide Leonard said with the hint of a smile. Instructions understood; we remained still and silent, in heart-pounding proximity to the lions that strutted and stretched in the orange luminescence of the rising sun.
Soon our bellies growled and we headed back to camp for our own meals. Every day we kept a tally of the animals we saw; in addition to the lions, we watched twenty-one elephants ambling to the watering hole from all directions, leaping impala (we clapped for their high jumps), two loping hyenas, four comical wart hogs zigzagging through the grass with their tails pointing skyward, and dozens of zebra and Thomson’s gazelles – all before a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and cinnamon buns.
A jeep turned classroom:
At dawn and again late in the afternoon we joined our Tanzanian guide and driver in a land rover, and headed into the bush. Careening around termite mounds, up steep banks and down rutted slopes, we watched wildlife from a breathtakingly close vantage point. Sometimes we stayed with them even as they closed in on prey, other times we came upon them just after a kill.
The kids adored Leonard, the Pied Piper of African guides. They listened eagerly as he shared his extensive knowledge about the local mammals, birds and history of the Great Rift Valley; from Tarangire National Park to Olduvai Gorge, and the Serengeti to the Norgorogora Crater.
Prior to our African vacation we thought observing the big animals would be the zenith of our trip, however the camaraderie with our guides, and numerous contacts with the local people were equal highlights. One day we had lunch with our guide and his family in their home. Another day we visited a Masaai village where the homes were made of cow dung, the women wore massive bead necklaces, flies buzzed overhead and hovered around the children’s eyes. The village chief, wealthy enough to have two wives, took my husband aside for a private conversation, in which he offered him two goats for our oldest daughter.
An excerpt from the kids’ safari journals:
“Right before dinner we sneaked up to the roofless shower tent where Leonard was showering. We got a bucket of ice, filled it with cold water and I stood on a stool and dumped it over the top onto him. It was hilarious! He screeched and swore. It was awesome”, wrote JC.
“I drove for the first time today – across the Serengeti! Leonard took me out in the Land Rover and when I took the wheel we jerked and bumped through the grass. Mom and Dad applauded from the porch of their tent. It was so cool!”
On another page she describes our visit to a country school where the girls met the pen pals they corresponded with for several months.
“Children attend this school because their parents are wealthy enough to spare them from working at home. Most of them walk two miles or more each way. Hollow cement block rooms with wood benches passed as classrooms and the wild outdoors served as a bathroom. We all played soccer together. They played in their starched blue skirts and white blouses and barefooted. We wore our athletic shoes and they still pummeled us.”
Annalyse’s journal is adorned with drawings of animals, Maasai homes and smiley faces. “Today my favorite animals were the baby baboons and baby elephants. I was happy and excited (all day long!)”, she wrote.
Our “trip of a lifetime” to Africa was a major investment in time, money and family memories, so I did extensive research to find a tour operator who specializes in family trips. We wanted Tanzanian-born guides who knew how to entertain, feed and teach young kids – and they were fabulous companions and teachers. A range of accommodations was also important. We enjoyed safari lodges, comfy rooms on a working coffee estate, and deluxe walk-in canvas tents. Camping in the bush was a highlight. Make sure not to miss it.
Preparing for your safari
Medical and safety issues were our major concerns before the trip. We were comforted by the detailed pre-departure package including; answers to our questions, check lists, recommended immunizations, packing and reading lists. We followed the advice of doctors at a travel clinic and took Larium, the strong Malaria medicine. Our nine-year-old had nightmares and walked in her sleep after taking the medicine.
We worried about our safety on safari. Would animals come into camp? All our worries were unfounded. Guards patrolled all night in every camp.
What’s the best age?
In my experience, the best age for a family safari is when your kids are 8-12 years-old. They are old enough to appreciate and remember what they’re seeing, to write about it, and learn, and yet they’re still young enough to enjoy your company, participate in all activities and be awed by the natural world. Our thirteen-day safari was the perfect length.
Don’t leave home without:
A good pair of good binoculars for each member of the family. No one should have to share their binoculars. Label each pair.