Since I returned from a Southern Africa safari with my husband and 2 teens in June, we’ve fielded many questions from friends wanting to know what it’s like to travel with teens to Africa. In a nutshell: it was the most remarkable family vacation we've ever had, and an incredibly meaningful way to spend time together.
It's hard to believe that we were enjoying a beautiful evening at MalaMala with our guide Morné (pictured at the far right above) just a month ago. It is still a pleasure to reflect on our 13 days in Africa, and to share our experiences with friends. My impressions below are by no way exhaustive, or definitive, but may help if you are planning to travel with teens to Africa.
1. It’s not all about the Big Five
We had spotted all of the Big Five just a few days into our safari, and we saw elusive leopards at all three camps. Luck certainly played a role in what we saw, but we owe a lot to the skill and determination of our guides, and Bushtracks’ choice of reserves with reliable game sightings. Frequently, however, the Big Five took a back seat to the appeal of watching other animals' group interactions. For example, watching a cheetah mother at Mashatu teach her 4 adolescent cubs to track an impala (see photo below), and later, to share the kill five ways. The Big Five sightings gave us bragging rights, but seeing animal interactions like these gave us heightened empathy with the natural world.
2. Independent travel offers flexibility plus friendships
Were we with a group? No, we traveled from camp to camp on our own, which is the way we prefer to travel in general: allowing us to work around our kids’ school schedules and activities, to set our own pace, and to not compromise a long trip with assigned traveling companions with whom we were not compatible. In addition to the other families we met at each camp, our guides were our constant companions, and we cherished the time we spent with them on game drives (Justice at Mashatu is pictured below), around the dinner table and just hanging out at camp. During the unrushed time we spent together we learned about our guides' diverse personal backgrounds, marveled at their encyclopedic knowledge of the land and its inhabitants, and laughed a lot.
3. Sleeping in Tents Makes Your Safari a 24x7 Experience
Two thirds of our safari camps were tented camps, and they were a huge part of our experience. We were happy to surrender to the comforts of “glamping”: raised wooden floors, showers and toilets attached to the tent, and comfortable beds warmed by hot water bottles. We relaxed to the utter silence of the African night, learning to identify the sounds of the occasional lion, hyena, baboon, or hippo. And sometimes, to our great amusement, we heard vervet monkey feet on the roof, and saw their faces peering into the tent (or more memorably, into my outdoor shower) from nearby trees.
4. Schedule Active Time and Down Time
Traveling with teens requires strategic pacing, and time outside of the safari vehicle to engage their attention. At Mashatu we took a guided three-hour mountain bike safari through the reserve. At MalaMala we added a walking safari to one of our morning game drives, and learned about the plants’ relationships to wildlife and people. Finally, at Chiawa we got up close to termite mounds on a walking safari with our guide Wallace (photo below), but also canoed with him through channels past hippos and elephants. Equally necessary, however, was our deliberately underscheduled day at The River Club in Livingstone mid-way through our trip. After 5 days of 6:00 AM wake-ups for game drives, we were thrilled to rise late, lounge by the pool, and visit Victoria Falls.
5. Unplug your teens, but put them in charge of the camera
Our kids reluctantly left their phones stateside, and once in camp the grown-up phones went largely untouched, too. We learned that sharing mobile phone photos can unintentionally transmit rhino locations to poachers, so many camps quite sensibly prohibit their use on game drives anyway. We put the kids in charge of photos, sharing a digital SLR camera, as well as a smaller camera. Back at camp, they also handled camera troubleshooting and daily editing. Other travelers and our guides were happy to help them hone their skills, and they began what we hope is a lifelong interest in photography.
To a person, every traveler I have asked to describe their safari has enthused that it is “the trip of a lifetime.” For our family, as well, this was true. If it is a trip you have ever considered taking with your teens, I would encourage you to seize the day – because those high school and college years are over before you know it -- and start planning for 2016 to make sure you, too, experience top guides and reliable game-viewing at Bushtracks' preferred camps.
Get inspired by our top safari for travel with teens to Africa