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Trip Report: Kenya with Kids; the perfect mix

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I am just back from a 2 week trip to Kenya with my 4 year old daughter, Issy; and as there are very few reports of safari with kids, thought I would post a trip report which may be useful to others with similar plans.

We travelled to:

Malewa River Lodge
Ol Seki Mara
Manda Bay

The lodges were chosen mainly on the basis that they were happy to take small children; and not for specific opportunities to view game. That said, the result was a happy mix of different environments, good viewings and fantastic people.

I used a UK company called Aardvark Safaris, and the ground handler was Bush Homes. All of our arrangements were very smooth. Given the age of my daughter, I decided on transfers by private charter or Safari Link, and having experienced the roads a bit on transfers to air strips, am happy this was the right decision despite the extra cost! We also had our own vehicle throughout: I judged this very important, as there will be occasions when any 4 year old's behaviour is trying, and should ideally not be tried out on others.

We started planning our trip back in January. We are based in Saudi Arabia, and thought we would take advantage of proximity (4 hour flight) to do a safari. I also have British Kenyan friends here who were very positive about the idea; although, lurking on this board, for a few months before our trip, I did have a few doubts about the wisdom of taking such a small child to Kenya. Especially when my friends nicknamed my daughter "Live Bait": not funny. In the event, despite each of our lodges having rooms which were open to the elements, we had no problems with unexpected visitations (except from bats, (much) more on that later).

A little bit on each of our lodges (happy to answer any detailed queries if there are any):

Malewa: great introduction to Kenya. It almost felt like our safari was being orchestrated by central casting: our Cessna flew over the airstrip first to clear game on the runway, then within 5 minutes of entering the reserve, we had seen white rhino, Rothschild giraffe, zebra, warthog etc etc. The setting of the lodge is magnificent, very relaxing; and we enjoyed a walking trip with Patrick (the excellent Samburu guide) into a nearby gorge. We were able to feed Molly, a giraffe recently moved from Giraffe Manor, who we came across on a couple of our gamedrives. The lodge's hosts, Chris and Christine, were very friendly; as were the bats in the room which delighted in doing a nightly fly-past and dive bombing me in the bathroom (I should add I have a bird phobia, and bats come fairly close to birds in the ugh league). This is where the mosquito net comes in handy: it provided a useful refuge from the bats ;-). The only real downside for me here was patchy food, despite it being promoted as cordon bleu, and not enough food to go around the guests (there is another post on this).

Sabuk: a real gem. The setting, at the top of a ravine overlooking the river, was stunning. The owner,Verity, is a very hands-on host and makes it her personal mission to ensure you have a great time. The Samburu guides, in particular Gabriel and Lettuce, were in a different league; and fantastic with kids. The camel safaris come highly recommended; and we saw lots of wildlife, spaced out across a wide area eg elephants, Grevy's zebra, oryx, leopard. The highlight was an invitation to attend a ceremony at a local Samburu village to mark an initiation into warrior status by one of the clan, who turned out to be Lettuce's brother. We thankfully did not witness the circumcision itself; but were invited to take part in the dancing and other celebrations: what a privilege and delight. The food and the welcome at Sabuk was just great; and I highly recommend it. We had another bat in our room (or maybe it had travelled with us from Malewa, it certainly had similar swooping techniques...).

We then moved on to Ol Seki Mara, which is a luxury tented camp run by Sue Allan outside the Mara reserve. The camp is run on eco-principles, and has only been open for a year or so. It is well-managed and a delightful setting. I spent my birthday here: the staff did some wonderful Masai dancing before dinner, and produced a spoof elephant poo birthday cake (gales of laughter as I tried to cut it up), soon replaced by a delicious chocolate alternative. We had some fantastic early morning game drives around the camp, and saw a lot of giraffe and lion (two separate large prides, one with 6 small cubs). We did a long trek to the Mara reserve: 9 hours, which was the only time Issy really complained about a game drive being boring. We saw our only kill of the trip, which unexpectedly was a baboon killing a small Thompson's gazelle! This was our only lodge without bats: a welcome respite!

We then moved on to the magnificent Manda Bay, at Lamu. This was a treat to reward Issy (a real beach babe) after 10 days on safari with some down time. Issy enjoyed everything about it: the transfer by speedboat from the airport; the warm staff; the great cakes at tea time; and the bushbabies which came down into the restaurant every night to eat fruit. More bats here: I started to think I was jinxed. Lamu itself was a delight: interesting history, some beautiful old buildings being lovingly restored. I would recommend a trip to the Baraka Gallery for some fantastic African art, and cheap and cheerful souvenirs; and Abdullah the guide at the Lamu Tourist Association was a mine of information, and always had a ready smile. Donkey rides around town kept Issy happy here.

My tips for travel to Kenya with a small child (those that worked for me anyway) are:

don't overthink the difficulties; but be prepared. take some familiar snacks and nibbles for those times when food is too unfamiliar or not forthcoming at the right time. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the shared table for dinner and lunch: but we did at times end up waiting for other guests to get back to be served: a small child may not want to wait. Despite arranging early meals for Issy in advance, results were a bit patchy. Be kind to yourself and your child: let them sleep in the car during the game drives if they want to: the stress level will rise otherwise. I was surprised how well Issy coped with early starts (she was always up by 0530) and with amusing herself with what was available rather than her usual toys. We took some crayons, glue sticks and paper; and she really enjoyed collecting stuff during our trips out to make into safari collages. Buy some cheap binoculars and an easy camera for your child to use: they don't feel left out when others in the vehicle is snapping away, and we have some surprisingly good results from Issy. Make sure they have their own torch too: it's a useful toy as well as a light. I would personally choose to stay only in lodges with power if I do another trip: one of ours (Malewa) didn't have electricity, and I didn't particularly enjoy the kerosene alternative. I took lots of peadiatric meds, none of which I needed, and which I donated at trip's end; but I am glad I took them nonethless for peace of mind.

All in all, I would recommend a safari with small children subject to some of the caveats above (own transport, ensuring early meals etc). We met some delightful people, and would definitely do it again (when my bank balance recovers...). We are off to New York in October: looking forward to the urban jungle for contrast....

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