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Inspired By the Lion King? Here's How to Take Your Family on Safari

July 19, 2019
13 min read
Kenyan Safari
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Disney's Lion King wasn't just created in an animator's mind, the inspiration for the setting is said to come from Kenya -- specifically, Hell's Gate National Park, a feasible day trip from Nairobi. Whether your family is inspired by the Lion King to experience Africa and see many of its great animals in person, or your call to the wild comes from another source, it is possible to take a family on safari.

Our family has been traveling on safari in Africa since the children were babies. There are people who were shocked that we would travel so far with such young children to go on adventures that some view as dangerous. But I find children to be remarkably resilient on long flights, and safaris to be safe if you plan properly and use common sense. (Fun fact: Hell's Gate National Park is actually home to zebra, buffalo and gazelle -- not lions.)

Hell's Gate National Park in Kenya (Fernando Quevedo / Getty Images)

When I tell people that our family has gone on safari multiple times, I'm always asked the same questions: "Isn't going on a safari dangerous? Aren't you worried about being in such a remote place surrounded by wild animals? And, is it a good idea to travel anywhere in Africa?" The fact is, armed with an understanding of the nature and culture and sometimes a good guide, there are many safe destinations. But just because I'm relatively confident in the bush doesn't mean that I don't sometimes have second thoughts about our well-being.

Some safaris will accept children of pretty much any age, but that is not true of all safaris, so do your homework.

Safari Highlights: The Animals

At night, Africa really comes alive and reminds you who is really in charge: nature.

From our tents, we have heard the early calls of the hyena, the rutting of a mating lion, the shrieks of rock hyrax. The noises have stripped away the tentative sense of security offered by the camp's electric fence and Maasai guards, but being in the same environment as these animals is captivating.

Lioness in the Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Photo by @nana_dei via Twenty20)

Yet, staying safe on safari isn't all that different from staying safe anywhere else. It's all about being aware of your surroundings and making good choices. Of course, on safari you are on the animals' turf. That means lions, hippo, elephants, rhinos, giraffe, hyena, wild dogs, warthogs, leopards, cheetahs and all manner of birdlife are around, even if you don't see them. You absolutely need to keep your children close whenever you are in the bush — even when you're in camp itself.

You want your kids to have a healthy respect for animals and learn to keep quiet and still when one is nearby, but you don't want to frighten them unnecessarily. And don't forget to watch out for the smaller beasts — scorpions, spiders and snakes. Danger comes in all sizes on safari.

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Malaria and Mosquitoes

Speaking of danger that comes in small packages, malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes and is prominent in some, but not all, parts of Africa. If you have young children and don’t want to give them malaria tablets, stick to Kenya's highland parks and conservancies (and consult your doctor). Ol Pejeta, the Aberdares or Nairobi’s own Nairobi National Park are all excellent and malaria-free. Many safari reserves in South Africa are also malaria-free, including Madikwe, Samara, Phinda, Kwandewe, Waterberg, Tswalu Kalahari and Amakhala.

Where to Go in Africa

When the children were younger, South Africa was a personal favorite African destination of ours. We combined a week in Kruger with a week in Cape Town. As the children have grown older, we have adventured further; the Okavango Delta in Botswana, the endless sparking waters of Lake Malawi and even the sun-bleached shores of Namibia.

Nowadays, Kenya is our go-to choice, for the vastness of the landscape, quantity of animals and chance to escape to the Indian Ocean for some downtime after our adventures.

Why We Choose Kenya

Some trappings of the 21st century have made it onto the plains; some camps in Kenya are now equipped with Wi-Fi, refrigerators and the finest china. But in other ways, these spots remain ageless. Local men still guard the camp armed with bows and arrows, and trackers still search for prey in the predawn hours. It is the ability to connect at a raw level with the natural world, its prehistoric landscapes, its savagely beautiful animals and local people that bring people like us to Kenya from all over the globe.

(Photo by Darren Murph / TPG)

Bringing your children on safari is one of the most rewarding experiences you can gift them. No child will ever forget his or her first encounter with a truly wild animal. For many, this may be the last chance to see some species out of captivity. There are only two northern white rhinos left in the wild in the whole world and they are right here in Kenya.

(Photo by Nadine Murphy)

Where to Stay on Safari With Kids in Kenya

When selecting a safari experience for your family, you can go as basic or as sophisticated as you choose. Either way, you and your kids will spend a lot of time out and about viewing wild animals. Many camps and lodges have in-depth programs for their youngest guests. My children have been tracking lions in the bush since they were young enough to talk. They know that lion poop is white, the difference between a cheetah print and that of a leopard and not to poke a mountain of safari ants. Every safari experience has been different and what's right for you will depend on budget and the temperament of each member of the family.

Luxury Tented Camps and Lodges

In Kenya, the tented camps and lodges are a lavish indulgence. A tent feels like the wrong word for the permanent structures that make up these camps, often canvas homes filled with antiques, 600-thread-count sheets and private plunge pools. At first, this might not seem like the best place to bring the kids, but many camps welcome children with open arms.

(Photo courtesy of Cottar's Camp)

Cottar's Camp, in the world famous Mara Triangle in the northwestern part of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, is still run by the oldest continuing safari family in Kenya. Cottar's offers utter luxury in keeping with the spirit of the 1920s. There are family accommodations in vast cream canvas tents, where bespoke furnishings are juxtaposed with modern conveniences and butler-delivered goodies on silver. This is the top end of safari living and it can cost a couple of thousand dollars per night.

At Cottar's, children can attend Warrior School. Taught by Maasai tribes people, children learn how to make fire, throw a spear and shoot a bow and arrow. They also learn Maasai dancing, singing and animal tracking. Children of all ages are welcome on game drives, although there is a baby-sitting service if you would rather leave them behind at camp. As a bonus, there is a sparkling blue pool for the children who want to spend their day splashing around.

(Photo courtesy of Cottar's Camp)

Self-Catering Safari Accommodation

If you fancy a place to yourself and are more inclined toward barbecue than silver service, there are loads of self-catering options in Kenya; from Airbnb houses to cottages owned by the parks themselves.

Essentially, Kenya is one huge safari destination. You'll see giraffes, zebra, warthogs and baboons wherever you go, but the most dangerous animals (usually) remain within the parks. The must-see destinations are the Maasai Mara, Tsavo National Park, the Aberdares, Samburu and, if you want to head north toward the desert, Turkana, otherworldly in its desolation and magnificence. Self-catering options are available within or near all of these parks.

(Photo courtesy of Ol Pejeta)

Ol Pejeta National Park is one of my favorite places for self-catering lodging. Located only three hours from Nairobi, it's the only park in Kenya where you can see chimpanzees and it's the famed home of the last two northern white rhinos. You can choose from the elegant Pelican House, which sleeps eight and starts at about $50 per person per night (with minimum occupancy requirements), or the more basic Stables for $45.

My favorite lodging option at this park is the Safari Cottages. They have enough space for our whole family; comfy sofas, warm log fires and lawns for the children to play. The best part is the veranda overlooking the River Ewaso. I've spent many an hour watching the animals bathing in the river as I sip a glass of Champagne.

Airbnbs on Safari 

Airbnb is another great option for budget travel and can be a family-friendly approach to safari. You can find fabulous houses inside the parks or just outside. The amazing Ndovo House starts at around $180 per night and is situated right in Tsavo Conservancy. This house sleeps 12 in basic accommodation and comes with its own cook. The local guides will take you on short walks around the grounds or take you out in the car to find the local animal haunts.

(Photo by Nadine Murphy)

If you go this route, be sure to have a strategy for using the best rewards credit card to secure your Airbnb lodging.

Book a Car and Guide

If you don't stay at a full-service camp or lodge that offers transportation, trackers and guides, you'll need to organize your own.

Choose the Right Rental Car

Kenya is known for its bumpy roads and it only gets more treacherous inside a park. My husband and I question if we have even been on safari if we haven’t dug ourselves out of the mud while watching for hyenas in the bush. You will need a very capable four-wheel-drive vehicle. Sixt and Avis are the most recognizable car companies, and both are based in Nairobi.

Work With a Tracker or Guide

At most parks, you can hire a tracker to ride with you on game drives. It’s worth spending the money, as they will show you the watering holes and increase the chances of ticking off the Big Five — lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo — from your list. Guides wait at the entrance to the park and you can simply hire them on arrival. While in my experience there is always a guide available, do call the parks and book a guide in advance for a 100% guarantee. Trackers range from 1500 KES ($15) up to 4000 KES ($39), depending on the season and the popularity of the park.

Prepare Your Children for the Pace of Safari

Safaris are amazing, but they can also be boring at times. Invariably, your kids will spend a long time in the car. We let our kids have iPads or Kindles for the long drive up to the parks.

The trick to minimize whining is to get them involved. Buy them binoculars or their own camera and once you are in the reserve, hand them a list of animals. Start a competition: whoever ticks off the most animals wins a prize. It's like the ultimate game of "I Spy."

(Photo by Nadine Murphy)

There's More to Kenya Than Animals

When you visit Kenya with your kids, think about extending your safari with a trip to the coast. Visit Lamu for ancient architecture, Diani for endless palm-fringed beaches or Watamu for a marine park full of the ocean's version of the Big Five. Turtle Bay Beach Resort in Watamu has a kids club and program that will see them entertained the whole day. Kids learn local crafts, play beach volleyball and can even learn to dive — all under the supervision of professional child-minders.

Using Points on Safari

While you can use airline miles to get to Africa, how you use points to cover your lodging and other on-the-ground safari costs will depend on what type of selections you make. The easiest way to use points to go on safari with your family in Africa is likely to stock up on fixed-value points that you can use to wipe out a variety of travel related charges on your cards. The 60,000 bonus miles currently available with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card after spending $3,000 in the first three months could really help in reducing $600+ in out-of-pocket costs of a family safari.

Final Thoughts

Family safaris anywhere in Africa can be magical, but especially so in Kenya. Look for flights to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) in the capital city of Nairobi. Carriers such as British Airways, Lufthansa, Qatar, KLM Emirates and Kenya Airways operate into this airport.

While in Nairobi, check out the world-famous David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and feed giraffes by hand at Giraffe Manor. If you aren't ready to venture too far out of Nairobi, there's even an "urban safari" available within 30 minutes of town in Nairobi National Park.

(Photo of Sheldrick Wildlife Trust by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy)

And, since you'll likely be flying with at least one connection (if not more) on your way to Africa, be sure to have Priority Pass or other methods of lounge access available. In Nairobi, at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Priority Pass members have a few lounge choices, so brush up on how to access Priority Pass before heading out on your trip of a lifetime.

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.