Over the last two decades of working as a wildlife conservationist in Africa, I’ve seen a lot of things in the animal world, from lions killing and feasting on a springbok right before my eyes to baby antelopes being born and learning to stand on wobbly little legs. I’ve fallen asleep on a swag under the vast African starry night while listening to lions roar and hyenas cackle, and I’ve lain in a small tent, terrified, while an elephant bull stood over me – farting – for a couple of hours. The addiction to Africa is something that one can never escape, as many travellers afflicted with ‘Africa-itis’ will openly testify.
I used to worry that I might not be able to do my job as a wildlife conservationist in Africa once I became a mother. The truth is, it is different because I don’t take as many risks, but being in the bush in Africa is just as much fun now, as these days I get to share it with my family. And if I’ve learned anything over the years, I know there’s no better education for kids than what they learn from nature.
Little kids spot things that we grown ups tend to miss, simply because they’re smaller. My 4-year-old son, Solo gets a kick out of seeing elephants interacting with each other, but he also notices things like rainbow coloured grass hoppers and spotted geckos. While watching animals in the bush, it’s a great time to talk about how everything is connected in nature, and how some animals, like elephants, show compassion to one another. Animals are great teachers, and watching their behaviour can help curious little ones learn patience, listening and observation skills.
Photo credit: Andy Ridley
Aside from life and nature lessons, going on safari is fun! One of the absolute highlights of being in Africa for my car-mad son is driving in the open 4×4 game viewer vehicles. He also loves stopping for hot chocolate breaks during early morning game drives while lions roar in the background. When you’re knee high to a grasshopper, adventures don’t get much better than this!
As a Singapore-based mum of two boys, one aged four and the other 4 months old, the needs and safety of my kids come before everything else. But as a conservationist, I also know how important it is to show my kids elephants and rhinos in the wild before it’s too late. I feel a sense of urgency around showing my children animals in their natural habitats because species are disappearing from the planet faster than you might think. And that’s why my husband, Andy and I took Solo on his first safari when he was just five months old, and that’s also why he’s been back twice more – all before his fourth birthday. He may not remember these trips, but we’ll have the photos to show him one day and we’ll also have some amazing memories to share with him too.
Today, elephants and rhinos are being poached at higher rates than in decades past to provide ivory and rhino horn for newly wealthy Asian markets. Ivory is made into jewellery, amulets and carvings, and rhino horn is incorrectly believed to provide a hangover cure. The result of this is that almost a hundred elephants are killed every day, and two thirds of central and west Africa’s forest elephants have been killed in the last decade. In South Africa alone, more than a thousand rhinos were killed last year. At this rate both species will be extinct before 2030.
The time to show your family these amazing creatures is now. There’s no better way to educate your kids about why it’s so important to conserve wildlife and their habitats than to take them on safari. Trust me, seeing elephants and rhinos in the wild in Africa is much, much better than seeing them in the zoo!
Photo credit: Andy Ridley
Other parents regularly ask me whether Africa is a suitable place to take kids on holiday. Is it safe? Is it kid-friendly? What about the malaria risk? The honest answer is that Africa is a fantastic place to take the family, more so than ever before, and like anywhere in the world, the key is to plan your trip using the right advice.
When I first started traveling to Africa as a teenager two decades ago, Africa truly was the “dark continent” and not particularly suited to traveling with small children. These days, all that has changed. There are many excellent options for family travel. South Africa is a great option, because you can choose to travel to malaria-free areas like the Cape or Madikwe, or focus your travel on the time of year when there are few mosquitoes around, and therefore limited malaria risk (the cold dry season – June to October).
Last year at Tintswalo in the Manyaleti Game Reserve on the border of the Kruger National Park, Solo and his fellow three-year-old partner in crime, Grace, saw the “big five” (lions, leopards, elephants, Cape buffaloes and rhinos) all in less than 36 hours and all at very close range. The wildlife sightings were the highlight of our trip and were perfect for these two kids with their innate animal curiosity (and short attention spans!).
The accommodation at Tintswalo was nothing less than five star and all for a very reasonable all-inclusive family price (where kids under the age of six stayed free). Tintswalo’s Manor House with its four bedrooms and accommodation for up to 10 people was a great option for families. The large pool and enormous lawn were surrounded by an electric fence that kept the big critters out (and little critters in!) and came complete with toys, as well as the best possible entertainment in the African bush – a personal guide to teach our kids everything they wanted to know about the real animals that star in The Lion King! And for parents there were baby sitters and masseuses, cooks and housekeepers, all to make sure we got a proper break.
In this fast-paced rat race that we all live in, where we rarely connect what we buy at the supermarket to the natural world that provides it, there really is no greater gift to your children than the chance to experience the wilds of Africa first hand. In years to come they’ll thank you for it. Let’s hope that in the future that our kids inherit, they’ll still be able to see elephants and rhinos in the wild, not just in a zoo.