Staring down a pride of lions is one thing. Staring down a pride of lions with two toddlers in the car is something quite different.
I didn’t think it was possible to get so close to a female lion. But as we drove into the bush that morning on our final game drive, the warm African sun casting everything a blondish hue, our driver Stephen spotted the felines immediately and barreled towards them with a gusto that made my stomach lurch. My five year old, meanwhile, looked on delightedly from the front seat while I clutched my younger son tightly in my lap.
When I noticed one of the lions starting towards us, her paws moving with no particular haste, I turned to Stephen and urgently mouthed the words “LET’S GO.” But he just smiled and put an arm securely around my son. “It’s alright,” he said calmly. “Just watch.” I turned and saw the lion walking towards the front of the vehicle, totally uninterested in the two young bodies sitting temptingly inside. I looked over at my husband who was standing on the opposite side of the jeep. He gave me a look that said “that was close” and then hoisted his camera up to capture my anxiety on film. I took a deep breath. We could’ve had a staycation, I thought to myself.
There’s certainly no shortage of adventure when taking kids on a safari. I was reminded of this every time I mentioned to someone our upcoming trip. Wow, how brave they’d say. And then they’d launch into a flurry of questions about whether the animals might mistake my kids for lunch, or what about all the tropical diseases they might catch? And was I certain that malaria pills were safe—or even necessary— for children that age?? I’d walk away from these exchanges with a knot in my stomach and my head burning with images of my kids fleeing a pack of hungry four-legged creatures. It will be an adventure, my husband kept saying. I braced myself for the ride.
But the prospect of taking our kids to Africa had been a dream. My husband and I went on safari many moons ago, and yet the memories of that trip still speak to us years later. Once you’ve been to Africa and have experienced its raw and powerful beauty, it’s hard to shake it off. Like a drug, we were intoxicated by the landscape, the passion and warmth of the people, the incredible food. We couldn’t wait to go back. But where to go? And with kids??
Kenya: From Bustling Citylife to Wildlife
From Dubai there are myriad possibilities for a safari, from Tanzania and South Africa to Botswana and Mozambique. We chose Kenya for its proximity to the Gulf and it’s unique combination of bustling citylife with exceptional game viewing. Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, is a a five hour flight from Dubai and several airlines offer nonstop daily service with competitive fares. We flew Emirates and were amazed at how easy-breezy the travel was, especially since we secured our visas in advance instead of upon arrival (which I highly recommend doing). We had the slightest amount of trepidation around Kenya’s safety– the US State Department upgraded their warning following the tragic incident at a college outside Nairobi. However, after considerable research and talking with families who had been to Kenya—many with children younger than ours—we found it to be both safe and chock-full of kid-friendly activities.
Nairobi: The Big Five in A Big City
What was different about our trip is that we chose to spend two nights exploring Nairobi, a vibrant city that is often overlooked by safari goers. We were surprised by how much wildlife you can experience without ever leaving the city limits. The Nairobi National Park is a mere four miles from the city center and offers game drives and walking safaris with the opportunity to see The Big Five. The David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage was a great experience for our kids as they got up close and personal with baby elephants, watching them snack, bathe and spray each other like bandits (just like bathtime at our house!). We also visited Giraffe Centre which is adjacent to one of Kenya’s most famous hotels, Giraffe Manor. There, kids can stand atop a large feeding platform and dole out snacks directly into the mouths of the giraffe. My boys loved getting tickled by the giraffe’s long, sticky tongues, but only after they got over the initial fear of standing eye-to-eye with one of these massively tall herbivores.
We then had the good fortune of meeting up with another expat mom, Erin Brennan Allan, who is also a former classmate of my husband’s. Erin and her husband Jan (pronounced YAN) have been living in Nairobi for 13 year– well, actually, Jan is third generation Kenyan so he’s been there much longer. Both run thriving businesses in Nairobi—she manufacturers sustainable kid’s clothing while he designs and builds those gorgeously elaborate tents that have come to define ‘glamping’. It was nice to meet another mom who understands the trials and tribulations of living abroad, but even nicer to make a new friend.
A Safari on The Mara
On our third day we headed to the Masai Mara National Reserve, a large game reserve about 280 kilometers from Nairobi on the southwest border of Kenya. The Mara, as it’s often referred to, is probably best known for its Great Migration where each year thousands of wildabeest, zebra and other game cross the Serengetti in Tanzania and travel north into Kenya, making for some of the most spectacular game and wildlife viewing in the world. Few countries in Africa experience anything like this but you can only catch it from July through October.
So while deciding on visiting the Mara was a no-brainer, finding the right safari company for our kids was anything but. Initially, I found several companies that marketed themselves as ‘family friendly’. However, once I called them to drill down on the specifics, such as which kids activities they offered or what added safety measures they had, I found very few companies actually lived up to the title.
Fortunately, we found The Safari Collection, a family-run company with several properties throughout Kenya that actually ‘talk the talk’ when it comes to family-oriented travel. Owners Tanya and Mikey Carr-Hartley are themselves parents of three children so they understand the unique challenges of taking kids into the bush. I was particularly impressed with the variety of kids activities they offered at their camps, such as horseback riding, swimming, mountain biking and hiking. Some of their camps even offer free babysitting, which we took full advantage of. We chose Sala’s Camp because of its prime location in the Mara—it’s situated right on the banks of the Sand and Keekerok Rivers at the crux of the migration so you hardly have to leave your tent to see zebras and buffalo walking by. Plus, unlike some of their other camps where you stay in an actual brick-and-mortar lodge, Sala’s Camp provides spacious, fully tricked out tents complete with bathrooms, showers, and extra beds. My husband loved feeling like he was on an authentic safari and sleeping under the stars, while I appreciated the small luxuries of a hotel robe and fancy bath salts.
The staff at Sala’s Camp was amazingly warm and went to great lengths to make sure our kids had plenty to do while we parents relaxed. Meals were planned in advance with the kids choosing a custom meal if they didn’t like the adults buffet, which eliminated a lot of headache. Plus, instead of having to haul the kids on group game drives Sala’s ensured we had our own jeep, driver and tracker. This was critical (I repeat, THIS WAS CRITICAL) because it meant that if the kids wanted to sleep in that morning or cut the game viewings short we wouldn’t risk the ire of a group of grumpy tourists all sharing the backseat. And they did it at no extra charge. Not many camps, I learned, will do that.
My kids did better on the game drives than I expected, their attention focused on spotting the animals or just playing in the jeep. A few times we had to stop and get out, our guides leading us to an area that was safe for us to meander. But mainly the kids were amused with the scenery or the toys we brought along or just the novelty of drinking out of a new canteen. There were no great tantrums and turning the jeep around, as there often are at many restaurants.
Of course, when the family wasn’t out in the jeep there was plenty to keep the kids entertained back at camp. Our amazingly patient tracker Masik took them for ‘warrior training”’where the boys learned to make bows and arrows and were dressed up in traditional warrior outfits. Masik even helped them to make their own spears which, thankfully, were about as blunt as a butter knife.
And The Lesson For Today Is…
But as with any vacation, there are unexpected moments where one’s parenthood is tested. On the last night of the trip our younger son came down with a fever. It was the middle of the night and while I was good enough to pack some medicine I didn’t have the number of the camp director in case things got worse. Instead, I had only a whistle and a flashlight provided by the camp. As I cradled my son in bed that night, I had visions of witch doctors and medevacs being summoned to our tent. Meanwhile, outside the canvas walls a symphony of wild animals played boisterously into the night. It was then that I asked myself whether I was the world’s most adventurous mother of all time or the most dense. I longed for our beds in Dubai and vowed that the next vacation we’d take with animals would be where we watched them from behind plexiglass.
The next morning my son woke up feeling better, his energy in full force as he scampered up to our jeep and hopped in. I watched as the boys hugged our camp director Mark goodbye and then one-by-one hugged each of the staff, their voices trying hard to mimick the little bits of Swahili they had learned. As they sat in the back seat they began playing with their animal figurines, my older one instructing his younger brother to be the crocodile while he played the lion. As we pulled out of camp, our driver Stephen turned and asked them if they would like to see a real lion. Their faces immediately lit up and, in unison, screeched in delight. My husband and I looked on and smiled and felt proud we survived another family adventure.