Is safari suitable for kids? With the right preparation, it could be spectacular...
Jillian Bolger takes her family on a once-in-a-lifetime safari in South Africa
It's 7am in the African bush and we've hit rush-hour traffic. Our plans for an early morning fishing trip have been scuppered by a road block of rambunctious elephants.
Gridlock, African-style, is pretty thrilling, and we sit mesmerised as a herd of tuskers moves about oblivious to its audience. They seem to be on a breakfast march, stripping trees and branches all around yet moving with a grace and stealth that belies their stature.
If it weren't for trees snapping or branches cracking underfoot, we could have driven past dozens without realising they were mere feet from us, hiding in plain sight.
The children's faces are a picture, wide-eyed and rapt, giddy in disbelief. While their friends are back home getting ready for school, they are here in Kwandwe, a private game reserve on South Africa's Eastern Cape, getting up close and personal with wild elephants.
Our guide, Brendon, reverses slowly down the track, hoping to circumnavigate the herd. As he manoeuvres our four-wheel drive, more elephants appear from behind and we soon realise this herd's not for budging. Our only option is to abandon our fishing trip, retreat calmly and hatch another plan for our morning drive.
There are no grumbles or groans from our little crew. Instead they embrace the news that we're off to look for a leopard, something they haven't yet ticked off their lists (they have actual lists, part of the cool welcome kit they received when we arrived at Kwandwe a few days ago). Our eight-year-old clutches his possessively, eager to chronicle his sightings for posterity… and possibly a class presentation when we go home.
For many, a trip to Disneyland represents the pinnacle of a dream family trip. For us as parents, it was always safari, after a life-changing holiday to South Africa in 2002. Three kids later, aged 10, eight and six, we knew the timing was right.
Our family safari is made extra special by the fact that we have rather unique digs. Kwandwe sits on South Africa's Eastern Cape, a private 22,000-hectare reserve of pristine wilderness, with 22 rooms across four luxury lodges. We're staying in Uplands Homestead, a restored Cape Dutch farmhouse that was built by European settlers who farmed ostriches here from 1905. The walls hang with sepia prints of the family, the lady of the house incongruous in full-length Edwardian gown and wide-brimmed hat in the sweltering African heat.
With our own chef and housekeeping team, it's a far-cry from our campsite holiday of last year. In between game drives with our own tracker and ranger, who doubles up as our host (and patient question-answerer to our inquisitive children) we swan about the beautiful house. Taking afternoon tea on the porch, swimming in our pool on the lawn, and dining on Bongi's sumptuous feasts in a fabulous formal room with roaring fire, our safari leaves indelible impressions far greater than the three days we spend here.
We hit the jackpot during our stay, ticking off everything from a sashaying cheetah to a pod of hippos, hungry lions to giraffes, black rhino to the handsome oryx and marauding Cape Buffalo to skittish zebra.
In 2016, more children tuned into David Attenborough's Planet Earth 2 than watched The X Factor. When you are sitting with your children metres from two hungry lions snacking on a warthog, you'll know, once and for all, that nature is king. The crunch of bone, the gnash of teeth, the swish of a mane. No celebrity TV show, no Disney princess or high-powered rollercoaster can ever beat the sensation of sitting in your very own nature documentary.
A safari holiday isn't cheap, but it is, quite possibly, the most memorable family holiday you are ever likely to take.
3 top tips for kids on safari
1. Some game reserves have an age limit of 12. We wouldn't recommend taking a child younger than six on safari, as they may struggle with attention span and spending hours on the vehicle (not to mention flights).
2. Game drives tend to start at sunrise but having a private guide means that you can let your kids sleep longer, or finish up earlier if required. Just remember that dawn and dusk often offer the best sightings.
3. Let the children sit close to the ranger to ask as many questions as they want. Take a back seat, physically and vocally, and allow the kids to get maximum value. Don't underestimate your children's curiosity!
After our safari, we moved on to Cape Town - which is super for families - and up to the beautiful Winelands. Staying at the swanky Lanzerac Estate in pretty Stellenbosch (lanzerachotelstellenbosch.com; B&B from about €330 per double), our kids sat in on a wine tasting included in the price, and were fascinated to learn about the chocolate and cherry qualities of Pinotage. A winery is far more interesting to children than you're likely to imagine!
Jillian flew to South Africa as a guest of Kwandwe Private Game Reserve (kwandwe.com), Lanzerac and South Africa Tourism (southafrica.net).
Uplands Homestead sleeps private parties of up to six at R47,400 (around €3,271) a night, including full-board, twice-daily game drives, nature walks, a big-game walking safari, laundry and child-minding. You can stay six nights for the price of five throughout 2017.