Children love animals. They learn about them from picture books long before they can walk and talk, and invariably there’s some new lovable creature on TV obligingly ready to fire up the imagination.
My eldest, Rafael, 13, has an unusual ability to catch crickets; Zevi, 11, my other son, is enthralled by the late wildlife expert, Steve Irwin, and my daughter Zea, eight, wants to swim with dolphins. But at what age is it sensible to take little ones on safari? The answer may depend on when you have enough money — as safaris are not cheap.
Arriving at Thanda game reserve in South Africa, my lot’s faces were instantly glued to the windows as we chanced upon a family of warthogs waddling past. ‘Pumbaa,’ the children shouted in unison, referencing The Lion King.
Samantha Simmonds and her family went on an ‘incredible safari adventure’ at Thanda game reserve in South Africa. Above are elephants at the reserve
Off for our first drive in the 4×4, Zevi asked: ‘Where are the guns? What do we do if we’re attacked by a lion?’ Our guide Vincent explained there was no need for weapons as the Jeep could outrun any animal.
Ten minutes in, our tracker, Mbekhi, spotted two lions. We were told to be quiet, stay seated and not make any sudden movements, then pulled up within two metres from the magnificent beasts.
Zea grabbed my arm in panic. ‘It’s ok,’ I said, as my own stomach did somersaults. We all looked at one another in anxious wonderment. I’d never before experienced an adrenaline rush like the one I had when up close to these fearsome creatures.
Above are the villas at Thanda Safari Lodge, each with its own indoor and outdoor shower, private plunge pool and day bed
From Thanda Safari Lodge, guests can look down on the lush green canopy where the animals roam freely
A lounge area in the family-oriented Thanda Safari Lodge. ‘Conservation work is intrinsic to Thanda, and seeing the rhino patrol in action gave the children a first-hand look at the importance of protecting these imposing animals,’ says Samantha
The Bush Villa bedroom at Thanda Safari Lodge
Zevi whispered: ‘Are you sure about the guns?’ But the lions didn’t even acknowledge our presence.
They carried on grooming and preening themselves while we took lion selfies.
And by the end of our first drive we had spotted not just lions but zebra, giraffes, impala, nyala, kudu and, incredibly, a black rhino.
This was even before we were shown to our villas, each with its own indoor and outdoor shower, private plunge pool and day bed overlooking the lush green canopy where the animals roamed freely around us.
Impala nibbled at the acacia trees as we splashed in the plunge pool.
Next morning at 5am, I heard a shriek. ‘Mummy, is that a scorpion?’ screeched Zea. I froze and gazed towards where she was pointing.
‘Ah, yes it is.’ Looking at each other, as the scorpion scuttled under the bed, we both tried not to scream and then braved it and finished getting dressed.
Over the next three days we saw elephants, black and white rhinos, cheetahs and buffalo so incredibly close up we could hear them breathe.
During their time at Thanda game reserve, Samantha and her family ‘saw elephants, black and white rhinos, cheetahs and buffalo so incredibly close up we could hear them breathe’
Really wild show: Samantha and Zea’s lion selfie at Thanda game reserve
But some of the smaller animals and insects were just as awesome. We watched a frog create a white foam nest and a giant wasp paralyse a wolf spider and drag it away, legs removed, to be eaten alive.
Conservation work is intrinsic to Thanda, and seeing the rhino patrol in action gave the children a first-hand look at the importance of protecting these imposing animals, and plenty of photos and information to go back to school with.
I have never seen my children so enthusiastic. They bounded out of bed at 5am and sat calmly in the Jeep throughout every three-hour drive (one of them in the pouring rain), engaged and animated.
As our incredible safari adventure came to an end, all three of them begged for us to come back again. ‘Yes, we can,’ I said, ‘but next time you’re paying.’
In Cape Town, Samantha and her family stayed at the Radisson Blu Waterfront (above) in a ‘fabulous’ family room on the water, from which they could see dolphins playing in the surf
A highlight of the family’s trip to Cape Town was rock jumping and swimming with the penguins of Simon’s Town (pictured)
At the spectacular Cape Point nature reserve (pictured), Samantha and her family witnessed an army of baboons raiding tourists’ cars
While Samantha’s sons were keen to try shark cage diving, she put her foot down. Instead, they opted for a boat ride to the seal colony at Hout Bay (pictured)
Above is a herd of seals at the Hout Bay seal colony
Our holiday didn’t end there, as we headed to Cape Town, staying at the Radisson Blu Waterfront in a fabulous family room on the water. Watching dolphins play in the surf from our balcony, Zea yelled: ‘Mummy, this is the best trip ever.’
While the boys were keen to try shark cage diving, I put my foot down. We opted for a boat ride to the Hout Bay seal colony, and then rock jumping and swimming with the penguins of Simon’s Town. Finally, it was on to the spectacular Cape Point nature reserve. We got up close to a whale carcass and wild ostrich, and laughed as an army of baboons raided tourists’ cars.
Sharing this trip as a family was beyond anything we had imagined. The children were the perfect ages and we came back with memories to share for ever.
A three-night safari at Thanda Safari (thandasafari.co.za) for a family of five (children aged three to 16) from £4,250, full board, staying in two of Thanda Safari Lodge’s suites with twice-daily guided game drives. Doubles at the Radisson Blu Waterfront (radisson.com) from £137. Cape Point Tour (toursbylocals.com) from £280 for three.