A safari holiday is a fantastic choice for a family holiday and can be an amazing way for children to learn about nature. Gone are the days when catching a glimpse of a lion in the wild necessitated travelling and sleeping in the kind of basic conditions that can make holidaying with young children difficult. Safari is now very accessible for families and South Africa is a fantastic place to go to experience this since many of the game parks offer Malaria free safaris just a few hours drive from the cities. We spent 4 nights at two different safari game reserves, both of which offered us unforgettable experiences.
We chose to fly in to Port Elizabeth, a costal city situated on Nelson Mandela bay which is within easy reach of some of the best game reserves in the country and acts as the transport hub for the Eastern Cape of South Africa. For this reason, it is an excellent place to start or end a safari trip if you are also planning to spend time along South Africa’s famous Garden Route and in Cape Town.
We spent the first night in Port Elizabeth to give us a chance to catch up on our sleep but early the next morning we couldn’t wait to get on the road to our first safari destination Shamwari. Whilst to many the ideas of luxury and safari don’t always go hand in hand, the Shamwari game reserve exists to offer both, making it a perfect family safari destination.
Shamwari Game Reserve which is part of the ‘Shamwari Group’ which also encompasses; Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, Jock Safari Lodge, Nkomazi Game Reserve and Nyungwe Forest Lodge, is situated slightly North of Port Elizabeth, it occupies 25,000 hectares of malaria-free land and is home to Africa’s Big 5 (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard). Here you will find the most breath-taking African landscape with wide open grassy plains, dusty red soil, undulating hills and dense thickets of fynbos that are teeming with wildlife. Spaced out across this reserve, Shamwari has 7 different lodges, each with its own distinctive style. This reserve has received numerous international awards, including the World’s Leading Conservation Company and Game Reserve for many consecutive years.
The Shamwari staff were extremely welcoming and friendly and we felt well taken care of from the moment we arrived. After being greeted with freshly poured homemade lemonades we were given a brief tour around the main lodge before we were left to settle into our room and freshen up for lunch.
Shamwari offer a number of different accommodation options but the Riverdene Family Lodge, which provides elegant comfort particularly for families is the ideal choice when visiting with children. Here you will find a beautiful, warm and welcoming lodge with 9 luxury rooms plus a rim-flow swimming pool with shallow area for children and a children’s supervised play room & jungle gym. Upon arrival, a children’s coordinator will discuss activity options with the family taking the family’s size, children’s ages and the weather into consideration. In addition to the game drives (which are, unfortunately, not suitable for children under the age of 4), kids can take part in a visit to the Born Free Foundation Big Cat Rescue Centre which features conservation focused activities, a visit to the Shamwari Animal Rehabilitation Centre where animals are cared for before being released into the wild and various social, sporting, arts and cultural activities which take place under the supervision of their children’s coordinator. Child minding for under 4’s is also available upon request whilst the game drives are taking place.
After unpacking and taking a quick dip in the pool we had worked up quite an appetite and decided to go for lunch. Each of the 7 lodges has its own restaurant which serves up a menu of mixed international and African influenced dishes that change daily. They also put on a lovely tea before every afternoon game drive, consisting of delicious homemade cakes and beverages. Not wanting to fill ourselves up too much before the tea we each opted for just one of the three courses on the lunch menu, which was excellent and along with the homemade cakes a few hours later this set us up perfectly for the day’s main activity; the game drive.
We were introduced to our guide, Frans, who was to be with us on all 4 of our game drives during our stay. Frans was open and friendly with a great sense of humor and an incredible knowledge of all forms of flora and fauna which he was able to demonstrate when answering our questions and explaining all about the different things that we saw. He took us out in a spacious and comfortable 4×4 which had been converted for game viewing (essentially an open top vehicle but with a canopy overhead in case of rain). The maximum number of passengers in a vehicle is 7 and even at full capacity it doesn’t feel crowded.
Our first drive was incredibly exciting getting us up close with a solitary bull elephant on the plains and allowing us to observe white and black rhinos resting in the grass, giraffe browsing the trees, a host of different species of antelope and finally, as the sun fell behind the mountains, a group of female lions lounging on an embankment. Seeing the animals in their natural habitat is a magical experience and completely blew us away. Thrilled and exhausted, we arrived back at the lodge and had a short break to freshen up before reconvening for dinner.
Dinner at Shamwari alternates every two nights between an outdoors braai (a traditional African BBQ) around a camp fire and a mouth watering 3 course set menu served in the restaurant. Our first night was the braai and we were presented with a host of meats from beef sirloin to marinated impala which were cooked to order and served with your selection from a buffet of salads, vegetables and hotpots. Dinner is taken at a table shared with your guide and the other guests from your drive which was a lovely touch as it gives you a chance to meet other families and to ask your guide as many wildlife questions as you can think of! Full of good food and lovely wine and exhausted from the day’s excitement, we made our way back to our cabin, which had a lovely wood burning fire going, and cosied down into the huge four poster bed.
Game drives are taken twice a day, once in the afternoon/early evening and once in the morning at first light. Our 5:30am wake up call was a bit of a shock to the system after the long previous day but we were so excited about getting back out into the bush that it didn’t matter. We quickly got kitted up (it can be quite cold early in the morning and late at night so you must bring warm clothes if you are planning to go on safari!) and after a nice cup of tea and biscuits at the main lodge we were off again! The second drive was just as magical as the first with a variety of animals making themselves visible to us such as zebras, warthogs and a rhino feeding its baby but the absolute highlight had to be a magnificent pair of cheetahs who, after basking in the sun for a few minutes, prowled around stretching before clambering up a windswept tree to survey the landscape. It was a magnificent photo opportunity!
Our luck continued into the afternoon and on our third drive we found ourselves surrounded by a herd of about 20 elephants including the tiniest baby, which was trotting along like a little puppy behind its enormous mother. Then towards the end of the drive we had a close-up encounter with the female lions again before heading back to camp.
On the final morning, we set off for our last game drive which was spent trying to find the elusive buffalo, one of the “big 5” that we had yet to see. From a distance our guide had seen them disappear into some thickets of cacti on a rocky mountainside. Alas they were able to evade us but a further encounter with the pride of lions more than made up for this! We then headed off to the Born Free Sanctuary for the last couple of hours of our stay.
Shamwari is host to a Born Free sanctuary which takes in big cats which have been held in captivity in the likes of circuses or wealthy individuals private collections. These animals have often been abused and the sanctuary provides them with a more natural and spacious environment in which they can live out the rest of their days. Here we were told the story behind each of the animals and were able to see most of them from the safety of some viewing platforms that look down on the enclosures (the enclosures being large areas of naturally wild land that have been fenced off to protect the cats from the other animals on the reserve). The sanctuary also serves as a teaching outpost which sees up to 600 local under-privileged school children come through it each month who are given the chance to see the animals and to learn more about conservation and the wildlife of South Africa. The sanctuary also represents a great opportunity for children to learn more about conservation.
Our experience at Shamwari was a magical one with so many wonderful moments making it impossible to choose a favorite. With abundant game, lovely staff, plenty of activities for the children and luxurious accommodation, Shamwari would be an ideal place to spend a fascinating and exciting holiday.
With the first stage of our safari adventure over we were ready for some scenic driving and some R&R and set off for a stunning three hour drive down the famous garden route to Plettenberg Bay. Plettenberg Bay is an idyllic seaside town, around 230km west of Port Elizabeth, whose beautiful sandy beaches and sea views make it a favorite holiday destination for locals in South Africa. It is one of the most picturesque towns along the garden route and is a must-visit for anyone doing this drive. We were even lucky enough to sea dolphins and whales swimming in the ocean from our hotel window.
Feeling refreshed and relaxed after our stopover in Plettenberg Bay we were ready for some more adventure, so off we headed to our next safari at The Gondwana Game reserve.
Gondwana can be found around 30 minutes drive North from Mossel Bay at the beginning of the garden route. The reserve spreads out to cover 11,000 hectares of the most astonishing mountainous terrain and is also malaria-free and home to Africa’s ‘big 5’ as well as other well known game animals who are free to roam across the reserve.
Gondwana has a number of different accommodation options available ranging from little free standing Kwena huts to entire villas with two, three or four bedrooms and families are typically booked into Private Bush Villas for their comfort and convenience with additional amenities like kitchen facilities, separate en-suite bedrooms, large outdoor decks, flat screen TVs and DVD players to assist with the little ones. Cots & rollaway beds are available on request.
Like Shamwari, Gondwana makes special arrangements for children and has a junior ranger program available for children of 6-12 years. This program includes educational game drives, interactive activities, junior ranger packs and completion badges. The younger children’s activities are based mainly around the lodge to allow them to stay closer to parents. Through the program they will gain a greater understanding of conservation and South Africa’s precious eco systems. They will be quizzed on what they’ve learned by their ranger and receive a level 1 Junior Ranger Patch and completion certificate, as well as a picture with their ranger for their safari book. As with Shamwari, the game drives are not suitable for particularly young children, in this case those below 6 years of age, but childminding facilities are available during the drives or alternatively the provision of a sole-use vehicle can be arranged for an additional charge.
Upon arrival we were warmly welcomed in the reception with drinks around the burning brazier that sits in the centre of the room. A quick tour of the site followed in which we were shown the restaurant and bar areas both of which had a rustic, cosy feel with burning fires and gorgeous African décor.
After having a shower and unpacking a few things we had lunch in the restaurant and were treated to wonderful wholesome cuisine. A children’s menu is available at all times. Pleasantly full, we spent a couple of hours relaxing by the pool and enjoying the spectacular view out over the watering holes, where two elephants were enjoying a refreshing drink, before it was time for our first game drive.
Driving around the reserve is an incredible experience as the terrain is absolutely breath-taking. Lush expanses of fynbos give way to rolling green hills and valleys and soaring rocky mountains, it’s a real feast for the eyes. Our first drive had our guide Trevor taking us out and tracking down the reserve’s elephants and black rhino and observing them as they browsed through some wooded thickets. We also encountered zebra, red hearted beast, kudu and the beautiful oryx as we made our way round the reserve in the open topped 4×4. Seeing the animals up close in the amazing setting of the Gondwana reserve really brings home the feeling that you are out in the wilds and close to nature. Trevor was extremely knowledgeable and passionate and had an amazing respect for the bush and the animals. He shared some very interesting stories with us and made it his mission to make sure we had the best possible experience.
We returned to the camp at sundown and enjoyed a lovely drink at the restaurant while we watched the African sky turn from an amazing orange to a jet black dotted with the brightest stars we’ve ever seen. We then spent a wonderful evening enjoying a 3 course meal of warming soup, African game meats and a delectable trio of berry deserts before retiring to our lodge to cosy down for the night.
One of the highlights of our stay was being awoken in the middle of the night by a scratching, scraping noise that was coming from right outside our hut! Thinking that it perhaps could be the lions (the huts are right in the reserve and the animals are known to enter the encampment) we huddled together in excitement and just a little bit of fear. After moving around our hut for a while the sound gradually moved away and we dozed off, thrilled with our “close encounter”. When we awoke in the morning, the rising sun revealed an enormous elephant dropping that had been left right outside our door and the culprit was still visible in the distance slowly making his way across the valley! We really were amazed to have been lucky enough to have had a night time visit from the majestic elephant!
As the sun began to creep up from behind the hills we set off again with Trevor for our second game drive. Once again he excelled himself and we were privileged to have a rare sighting of a pair of hippos out of the water. The giant animals looked so docile and peaceful as they lounged in the sun in a grassy thicket near their usual pond, that is until they opened their mouths to yawn, revealing their monstrous teeth, which reminded us that these are the most dangerous animals in Africa.
The elephant had returned to our lodge while we were out and really seemed to have taken a liking to it as he browsed through the grass on the surrounding hillside! We had to wait for him to lose interest and head off before we were able to get back inside!
That afternoon we went in search of the lion pride. The lions are notoriously hard to track down so we had a real adventure searching for them and following footprints and indications that Trevor picked up on. When we stumbled across a recently eaten Kudu we knew we had to be close and the excitement was really building. When we eventually caught up with the lions, we found all 4 of the females and the handsome male with his elegant mane stalking through the long grass. They seemed to be quite active at this time and were clearly on their way somewhere, which was great as we got to see the cats in motion, trotting gracefully through the grass, this was a fabulous end to our game drive.
Our time at Gondwana was really magical, from the wonderful, cosy accommodation to the close encounter with the elephants and our game drive adventures, each day had something really special happen that we felt extremely lucky to have experienced. Alas it was time to leave and head on to Cape Town for our final stopover before our flight home.
Flights to Port Elizabeth take approximately 14 hours with a short stop over in Johannesburg. You can fly with a number of different airlines including South African Airways, Virgin and British Airways.
To find out more about the places we stayed you can visit their websites: