It's always been a mystery to me why South Africa isn't ranked right up high on the great family holiday destinations. To me, it is the perfect family holiday playground. There are only two possible drawbacks for those from North America and Europe. It is a longhaul flight to get there, which is never fun and expensive with small children, and distances on the ground can be long, so you do need to factor in some longish car journeys. But the benefits hugely outweigh both of these.
South Africa has an amazing climate, fabulous beaches, friendly people, great food, fascinating cultures - and animals. Where else in the world can your child potentially ride an elephant, feed an ostrich, walk with penguins, dance with Zulus, learn about life in the townships and villages and swim in the Indian Ocean, scramble up mountains to see San rock paintings and even perhaps pet a lion cub. And that is just the start. There are huge numbers of things to do from the simple - a trip to the beach or a picnic, to the extravagant - hot air ballooning. For a few suggestions, see 10 Top Family Activities in South Africa.
Planning Your Trip
Don't be over-ambitious in your planning. Remember that South Africa is huge and that if you try and cover the whole country you'll fail. You'll do better if you concentrate on one or two areas so that the amount of travelling is limited. For instance, a week in the Cape Town area and a week in Kwazulu-Natal would allow you a perfect mix for a family holiday with city, beach and bush, flying between Cape Town and Durban partway through.
Self-drive is easy in South Africa and gives you the freedom you need with a family, as long as you are happy driving on the left and can cope with a stick shift. Make sure you order childrens' seats if you need them when you hire the car. If you are planning to go game-viewing, get something high off the ground with good visibility.
Where to stay
Many hotels are extremely welcoming, but there are a significant number of hotels in the country that don't accept children under the age of 10, so you don't assume you can simply turn up with small children. You should always do your homework and book ahead to ensure you have suitable accommodation. Another option is to look at hiring a private villa or apartment. Many come with a cook and even a safari guide!
If you want help there are some excellent tour operators, including Cedarberg Travel and Expert Africa who specialize in family-friendly holidays and have set itineraries or will set up your own personalized tour.
Children on Safari
Should I take my children on safari? Absolutely and unequivocally yes. They are the next generation of planetary caretakers. However it is not quite that simple. The general recommendation is that you shouldn't take children under the age of seven on safari. Not only do they not have the patience necessary to sit quietly in the vehicle for hours on end, but the crying of a baby can mimic a wounded animal and bring in predators. However, South Africans all start younger, so make the judgement call for yourself - only you know your own children.
South Africa is one of very few countries in Africa where it is possible to do self-drive safaris in your own vehicle, staying at National Park rest camps at a very affordable rate. But if you are new to the game, this is not the best way to learn about the bush. Far better to go out with a ranger who can spot the elusive animals and teach you and your children about their surroundings. You then have the option of staying outside the parks and doing daytrips or going for the luxury lodges.
Quite a few luxury lodges ban children but there are some safari lodges go out of their way to welcome them, with special children's activity programmes and there are plenty where you can get exclusive use of a small lodge for your family party.
South Africa is pretty safe. The food and water are fine with plenty of child-friendly choices. Bring hats, plenty of sun-screen and make sure children have shoes on when running around outside. Take antiseptics to deal with cuts and scrapes and anti-histamines to deal with bites and stings. One thing to drum into children's (and adults') heads is to watch where they put their hands and feet when walking in the bush - particularly if scrambling through rocks. There are dangerous creatures from spiders and scorpions to snakes. If worried about diseases such as malaria, stay in malaria-free areas. The Waterberg, Madikwe and Eastern Cape are all malaria-free.
Children sometimes need a little more help to focus them and keep them entertained. My mother who was a teacher, but also a very wise woman, started us off with travel diaries on our long trips when we were very young. Most things are electronic these days, but if you go for actual paper, write in it daily and also collect things, from pressed grasses to sugar packets, tickets and postcards, it becomes a souvenir that lasts for life. I still have my first travel diary, aged seven.