Despite having often dreamed of an African safari holiday, I had always consigned the idea to the “one day, when my son is grown up” file of fantasy travel destinations that I store at the back of my mind (see also: Antarctica, Easter Island and the Trans-Siberian railway!).
So I was pretty surprised to learn that – with a bit of planning – not only is a safari holiday do-able with a toddler, but that it can actually turn out to be a pretty easy trip with the whole family, and that if you’re after an adventure with the creature comforts thrown in, South Africa is a destination that ticks all the boxes. Surprised? I was!
First things first, let’s tackle that journey. There’s no denying that the flight to South Africa is a long one, at 8 hours to Johannesburg. However, for anyone who regularly travels to Europe, Australia or America, this actually isn’t too onerous, and with a bit of planning, the flight can be relatively hassle-free. Emirates offer 2 daily direct flights to Johannesburg, so take your pick mamas!
Once in Johannesburg, we transferred to a Federal Air light plane for our journey to Madikwe, in the north-east of the country. The tiny 12-seater plane gave us a birds-eye view of the stunning landscape and added a real sense of adventure to the journey, perking us all up a bit after our long flight from Dubai! Landing at Madikwe’s tiny airstrip, we were met by our lovely ranger Steph, who was to be our guide for the duration of our stay (and who handles a jeep like a total pro!). Being just five minutes’ drive from the airstrip, Steph just about had time to share a bit of background on the area before we arrived to cool drinks and a warm welcome after our journey.
Madikwe Safari Lodge offers guests a choice of accommodation at one of three distinct properties; Dithaba, the mountain lodge, Kopano, the small gathering lodge, and Lelapa, the family lodge where we stayed. This larger property caters for a maximum of 24 guests in 12 luxurious suites, and is surrounded by stunning open plains.
The suite itself was comfortable and extremely well laid out for a family, with a large sleeping area, separate sitting area with sofa (this doubles as another bed – perfect for those travelling with older kids) and a bathroom stocked with eco-friendly toiletries complete with a huge tub… ideal for wallowing like one of Madikwe’s hippos! A large outdoor decked area with loungers makes a great spot for sundowners, while the outdoor shower was a fab novelty for my son, as was the private plunge pool that can be netted for extra safety. Aside from the stunning rooms, the main lodge acts as central hub and general meeting point for all activities.
And let’s face it; the activities were the reason we were there! The game drives are the big draw here, with excursions at sunrise and sunset for the over-sixes and late morning drives for the really little ones. Madikwe’s abundance of animals mean that you are more or less guaranteed to see everything that you came to spot, including the ‘Big Five’, and on my first evening drive, I spied elephants, giraffe, impala, warthogs, gazelle and even a lion – all within the first half hour! Assuming that the animals hadn’t been paid to show up on cue, this goes to show what a great job Madikwe is doing in terms of conservation and protection of its diverse animal population. Our guide was certainly both respectful of the animals, and extremely knowledgeable as to their habits… reassuring when you’re face-to-face with a lion!
Aside from the game drives, families are well taken care of in terms of activities, with bush skills tutorials, bug-tracking, (or for the very adventurous, dung-tracking!), star-gazing talks, baking and pizza-making at the Bomba (an outdoor gathering space and kitchen), to name but a few. My son’s personal favourite was washing the jeep – an hour of splashy, messy play that’s impossible to replicate at any playgroup! The Eco-House is another fabulous hive of child-friendly activity where kids get to learn more about the area’s animals through play, and even get face-to-face encounters with the centre’s own snake and spider (thankfully contained in tanks!). Staff also try to accommodate specific meal requests where possible, and are very willing to tweak menus if required. Babysitting is provided for a small extra fee, meaning that parents get to make the most of the day’s safari drives while little ones are kept busy, and if all else fails, there are DVDs to watch and board games to play, meaning that whatever the weather there’ll be no time for kicking their heels.
Our three-day stay was perfect in terms of balancing activities and downtime – I only wish we’d had a little longer to spend at Madikwe before hopping on the flight back to Jo’burg. But we were off to Cape Town for the next stage of our African adventure, so reluctantly we packed up and shipped out.
You can read Part Two of Kate’s adventure here.