South Africa’s best family-friendly safari options

Having been on safari in quite a few countries across eastern and southern Africa, we know that South Africa is a great place to go on safari with your family for a few reasons.

  • South Africa has it all. From the Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo – to antelope, zebra, hippo, giraffe, hyena and a wide variety of bird and marine animals
  • There is an amazing choice of parks and game reserves where you can view these animals in their natural habitat.  Many of these parks are actually in the Western and Eastern Capes, close to the popular ‘Garden Route’, and are malaria free so are easily accessible.
  • Many of the parks are self-drive with good camping grounds so you can do a relatively cheap safari compared to some of the other African countries.

When researching our first trip to South Africa with the kids we discovered that there are quite a few game reserves that welcome children and so we decided to go and check them out. We have put these in ascending price order. There is no doubt that an all-inclusive luxury game lodge with the big 5 is going to be, for some, a once in a lifetime experience. But there are other ways to see the big 5 without having to win the lottery.

Our top 5 South African family-friendly safari picks

1. Addo Elephant National Park

Big 5 – YES

Entrance fee: R307 (adult) and R154 (child)

Addo Elephant National Park is located about 60km from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. If you are going to self-drive, all you need to pay is the entrance fee which makes it a really economical way to have a safari experience. There are various accommodation options in the park, ranging from campsites to pitch your tent, to luxury lodges, so there is something to suit every budget. There are also plenty of accommodation options outside of the park.

Addo Elephant National Park entrance gate

Addo Elephant National Park entrance gate

Addo started out as an elephant park back in 1931 with just 11 elephants and was set up to protect the remaining Addo elephants from being completely wiped out by hunters and farmers. I remember visiting in 2000 when it was just elephants. It was the first time I had seen them so close and free and will admit I was a little freaked out by them!  If elephants are your thing (or your child’s thing!) – you will not be disappointed with Addo because they are everywhere!

Family of elephants heading to the watering hole at sunset

Family of elephants heading to the watering hole at sunset

We were in the park a good 30 mins after closing time because we got stuck behind a family meandering up the hill to a watering spot. We didn’t want to pass because they were clearly protecting their baby, so we hung back. We were worried we would be locked in but the ranger found us and told us we could take our time. It was amazing watching them with nobody around as the sun was setting.

In 2003 they introduced six lions to the park. They now have around fourteen, although we didn’t see any on our drive. Our chances of seeing them may have been improved on a guided safari, but we were happy doing our own thing on this occasion. If you want to book a guided safari, make sure to do it well in advance through SanParks as they get booked up.

Probably a good thing we didn't see lions at Addo

Probably a good thing we didn’t see lions at Addo

2. The Kruger National Park

Big 5 – YES

Entrance fee : R372 (adult) and R186 (child)

If you are venturing further north or you fly into Johannesburg and are keen on doing a safari, you wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to visit the Kruger National Park. It is relatively close (well – 300km which, in South African distances, is not that far!) to Johannesburg. It is an enormous national park bordering Mozambique to the east and Zimbabwe to the north. You can self-drive and stay at relatively inexpensive campsites within the park which is why we have put this second, but there are also some eye-wateringly expensive luxury lodges. If you are looking for a luxury safari experience in the Kruger, we have heard from friends that Chitwa Chitwa is beautiful and welcomes children, but we haven’t been ourselves – ye… We’re saving that for when we win the lottery!

We stayed at the inexpensive campsites located within the park. We were self-driving and had a tent with us but there are also chalets equipped with bedding. You can check on the SanParks website for more info. Some of the campsites have pools which were great for relaxing and cooling down between morning and afternoon safaris, especially when temperatures were reaching 40 degrees. We stayed at the Malelane campsite and Lower Sabie (with pool).

Relaxing and cooling down at the Lower Sabie campsite pool

Relaxing and cooling down at the Lower Sabie campsite pool

We entered via the Malelane entrance. Within two minutes of passing through the gates had a very close encounter with a rhino. We saw him to our left as we were driving and he was not slowing down so we sped up a little to get out of his way. The rest of the game viewing was just as spectacular. There is something so exciting about a self-drive safari. You feel like you are out in the wild on your own and anything can happen!

Our close encounter with a rhino in the Kruger

Our close encounter with a rhino in the Kruger

The Kruger National Park currently advises that people take anti-malarials because of recent cases of malaria but you should check the situation before you go as it can change.

3. Buffelsdrift Game Lodge

Big 5 – NO (missing leopard)

For prices it is best to check with the lodge because they have various different packages available.

Buffelsdrift is just outside the town of Oudtshoorn. We stayed in a traditional (but quite luxurious) family safari tent. It had 2 bedrooms separated by the bathroom (with claw foot bath, double sinks and outdoor shower) and a lovely veranda that looked out over the lake. It seems safari accommodation is always perfectly situated to enjoy a sun-downer!

Arriving at Buffelsdrift Game Lodge

Arriving at Buffelsdrift Game Lodge

We went for the half-board option and chose a game drive and elephant experience. We chose Buffelsdrift because it was one of the relativley few private game lodges in South Africa that allows children under 12, and conveniently on our route passing through Oudtshoorn to visit the caves and crocodiles. It was also a bit cheaper than some other private game reserves because it doesn’t have the big 5. They had a lot of wildlife just wandering between the tents, such as Nyala and during breakfast and dinner by the lake, we would see hippos which the boys loved.

Nyala wandering between the tents

Nyala wandering between the tents

There was also the option of elephant, meerkat or lion experience. We opted for the elephant experience – and it certainly was an experience!

Elephant cuddles at Buffelsdrift

Elephant cuddles at Buffelsdrift

Another relatively inexpensive safari option if you want the safari tent accommodation and guided game drive is Chandelier, also near Oudtshoorn. They don’t have the big 5, but they do have a huge area to explore on foot which the kids loved. They also have a giraffe feeding experience where you can buy food and hand feed them at breakfast time. We just did one night here on the way back down the Garden Route.

The boys exploring the interesting landscape at Chandelier

The boys exploring the interesting landscape at Chandelier

4. Kariega

Big 5 – YES

Price – check with the lodge

Kariega is situated in the Eastern Cape, about 40km from Grahamstown (and about 150km from Port Elizabeth) and incorporates both the Bushman’s and Kariega rivers. We love that Kariega is family-friendly because it is built on the land that was once owned by the boy’s great, great, great, great, great grandfather, Jeremiah Goldswain. He was one of the original English settlers in 1820 and the remains of his house can be seen on the Kariega land (although it is all rubble now!).

 Kariega sitting above the Kariega valley

Kariega sitting above the Kariega valley

One of the great things about Kariega is that they run a daily kids programme between 11am and 2pm, offering guided trails in the bush (within the boundaries of the Main Lodge), identifying animals and animal related arts and crafts. It is fun and educational.

Children can accompany their parents on game drives, although children 5 and under is at the ranger’s and general manager’s discretion based on a safety assessment. If they can’t accompany you, there is a babysitting service.

George ever on the look out for animals

George ever on the look out for animals

There is a play area in the Main Lodge, which is also where dinner is taken so if the kids have finished their meal, you don’t need to feel like you have to rush yours too because they can go and play, leaving you to enjoy a meal in peace .

If you are staying with children under 10, you will only be able to stay in the main lodge (log chalets) – but that is fine because they are super cosy and some have private pools with a great deck overlooking the Kariega valley for sun-downers! Kariega is extremely warm and welcoming and you will definitely enjoy your stay here.

5. Shamwari

Big 5 – YES

Price – check with the lodge

Shamwari is located around 75km from Port Elizabeth and is easily doable if you are driving the Garden Route. It is one of the world’s leading safari and game reserves and works hard in the areas of conservation and environmental education. It is also famed for having had Mrs Thatcher and Paris Hilton among its clientele!

Rhino encounter at Shamwari

Rhino encounter at Shamwari

There are two family-friendly lodges at Shamwari (Riverdene and Sarili). There is also a main pool with shallow end for children.

Getting up close with the lions in Shamwari

Getting up close with the lions in Shamwari

It is getting into the very expensive bracket but it is truly a 5 star experience and you will be very well looked after! We haven’t stayed with kids but have visited prior to having the kids and loved the set up there. Children under 4 aren’t permitted on game drives but there is a childminding service. There is also a great activity centre for kids where they can zip line, wall climb and access tree houses with interconnecting walkways. There are also arts and crafts in the kid’s centre.

Shamwari's children's play area

Shamwari’s children’s play area

We hope this has given you some inspiration to add a safari to your South African itinerary. For more information check out our what to take on safari post and tips for wildlife spotting on safari.

Enjoy!

4 replies
  1. Tammy
    Tammy says:

    Your post is really informative and I love your photos! Safaris look like such an awesome experience for all but especially for the kids!

    Reply
    • Jacs
      Jacs says:

      Thanks for your comment Tammy. Yes, we think the kids get so much from the experience. It’s massively educational and fun at the same time!

      Reply
  2. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    Thanks for this post. Very helpful as we plan a safari with our 4.5 year old. Just wondering about the Buffelsdrift Game Lodge as you mention an elephant, meerkat or lion experience options. Are these animals pets or trained in some way? How do they make them come close to people for these experiences? Worried about the animal welfare if there is an elephant or lion experience as I wonder about the training methods they are using and what the lions fate is after they are grown up. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Jacs
      Jacs says:

      Hi Laurie, thanks for your comment. We are also concerned about animal welfare and have boycotted turtle hatcheries in Sri Lanka and Elephant orphanages there because we have heard bad reports. With Buffelsdrift, we believe the animals are cared for. The Lions and Meerkats are essentially wild. When they say ‘experience’ they mean viewing, as with other game reserves. The lion cubs were born in captivity elsewhere and brought to Buffelsdrift a few years ago so they had more space and can therefore never be released into the wild. The elephants were orphaned and are tame. We truly got the impression that they were cared for and loved. I hope this helps you with your decision. Thanks, Jacs.

      Reply

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