Warthogs, zebras and elephants: seven out of 10. Lions sleeping: eight out of 10. Lions awake: nine out of 10. Cheetah cubs: wow, I’d say 20 out of 10, easily.”
I was celebrating the final evening of my visit to South Africa with a leisurely dinner of scallops and kingklip fish at Camps Bay, a pretty beach resort just outside central Cape Town. As the sun dipped into the ocean, I couldn’t help catching snippets of chat from the family at the next table. They’d just spent a few days on safari and the kids were comparing the relative tweet-worthiness of the animals they’d encountered. I had to agree — a cheetah cub sighting has to be worth two tweets, at least.
For those planning a classic South African safari holiday, Cape Town might seem an unlikely starting point. All the most famous wildlife-watching areas — Kruger National Park, for example, and the high-end Sabi Sands private reserves — are hundreds of miles away to the north-east, far closer to Johannesburg than to Cape Town. But if you’re the parents of young children, there are good reasons to hesitate before bundling your loved ones onto a plane bound for Jo’burg. Security concerns aside, north-east South Africa is a malarial region. Is it really worth putting your kids’ health at risk?
Fortunately, there’s an easy solution — stick to the Cape. Not only is Cape Town a superb city for visitors (highly accessible, stuffed with attractions and blessed with beautiful places to stay, eat and shop), it’s also a perfect launch pad for a tour of the peaceful, malaria-free Eastern and Western Cape provinces. Here, you’ll find refreshingly family-friendly gourmet restaurants, responsibly-run mammal, bird and insect sanctuaries, towering forests and wild, windblown beaches.
And while there’s no need to abandon your creature comforts — smooth roads, boutique hotels, wineries and farm shops abound — there’s also no need to give up hope of an authentic safari, either. The Eastern Cape is home to a clutch of impeccably managed parks and private reserves whose rangers know how to capture the imagination of a child — even one who might struggle to stay focused on a school field trip, let alone classroom lesson. How do they do this? By delivering a wildlife-watching experience so thrilling it leaves the whole family itching to share it on twitter.
Best for foodie families: The Cape Winelands
A family holiday in a wine region? Really? Isn’t that a bit like suggesting a romantic night out at a football match?
Parents who book a break in the Winelands, just east of Cape Town, can banish their guilt. With a good scattering of family-friendly attractions, the picturesque region at the foot of Table Mountain makes a great base for anyone with kids. Part of the appeal lies in the fact a gourmet lunch in South Africa costs about the same as a plate of pasta back home — so if your kids have yet to try truffle-flavoured bacon or rooibos-cured ostrich, this could be a great place for a culinary adventure.
Also, when there are playgrounds, animal sanctuaries and activities laid on for kids at wine estates, grown-ups are more inclined to linger over the vintage wines in the tasting rooms.
My Winelands tour began at Môreson, a boutique estate near the pretty village of Franschhoek. Co-owner Tina Jewell runs pizza-making and bread-baking classes for children and adults. “Kids love it, as it’s so hands-on,” she says. “They can choose their ingredients, knead it all together and get as floury and messy as they like. Then, of course, they get to eat the things they’ve made.” And their parents get to try some too, perhaps with a glass or two of the multi-award-winning Môreson Premium Chardonnay.
On to Spier, a large estate on the Cape Town side of Stellenbosch. Here, kids were working up an appetite by tearing around the landscaped grounds on mountain bikes. Others were trying to out-stare the owls at Eagle Encounters, a bird of prey sanctuary on the site. Older kids get to hold tame kestrels and eagles, while handlers explain raptor care and conservation.
The following day, I found myself wandering through clouds of butterflies at Butterfly World, their delicate wings fanning me with the tiniest of breezes as I passed. Sharing their sanctuary were iguanas, doves, guinea pigs and some fearsome-looking spiders — securely incarcerated in padlocked boxes. Later, at the Franschhoek Motor Museum, I ogled row upon row of lovingly polished vintage touring and racing cars and daydreamed about burning along the coast in a 1925 Bugatti.
Back at my upmarket base, Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek, I took a table at the more informal of its two restaurants: The Common Room. Some people travel miles for chef Margot Janse’s signature dish of wood-roasted chicken, but I opted for the grazing menu — samples of satay-spiced squid, goat and ham crumble, as well as other to-share delicacies. It’s a formula to delight even the fussiest of families.
Best for young ecologists: The Eastern Cape Reserves
“Nice bit of ballet from the impalas, there,” said Erich, our guide, as a small herd of antelopes leapt and pranced in front of us as delicately as dancers en pointe.
We were on a mission to find big cats, but we kept being sidetracked by creatures with stripes rather than spots. All around us were pretty little impalas and springboks, aloof-looking oryx and plucky, snorting zebras. Then there were the comedy acts — the lugubrious wildebeest with their wildly swishing tails, and the round-bodied warthogs. Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, one of several excellent wildlife-watching areas north-east of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province, has plenty of these endearing herbivores. I’d have liked to have stopped for a while and watched. But two of my fellow safari-goers, a rather competitive Swiss couple, were determined to see leopards or cheetahs. So on we went, peering into thickets and under thorn bushes, trying in vain to glimpse a dappled flank.
One of my companions, Johann from Sweden, had left his wife Karen and three-year-old son Gustav back at our base, Ecca Lodge. A three-hour game drive was too much for him, so Erich instead organised special guided excursions for Gustav and his parents around mid-morning each day. “We don’t worry too much about the big stuff on Gustav’s drives,” said Erich. We just see what we can see — a few giraffes and zebras, maybe — and look out for interesting things like tracks and bones.”
I rather liked the sound of Gustav’s drives and asked if I could join in the next day. With his fair skin drenched in sunblock, Gustav was clearly raring to go. Within a few minutes, we’d settled down to watch three giraffes of descending size lined up beside a water hole, their legs elegantly splayed. Later, Erich found an impressive pair of horns and asked Gustav what might have eaten the unfortunate hartebeest they once belonged to. “Lion!” said Gustav, with the joyful grin of someone totally untroubled by the thought of animals eating each other.
With older kids on board, Erich explained, a drive can feel like a field-course — they’ll spend time identifying paw prints and nests, or pulling apart dry dung to work out what its owner had for breakfast. Every young guest at Kwandwe receives a ‘trainee ranger’ backpack stuffed with useful goodies such as a wildlife spotting book and a bug magnification kit.
Ours was a delightful hour-long outing that left me refreshed and ready for the next ‘proper’ game drive. This time, our patience paid off. Relaxing in a jumble of euphorbias and sweet-smelling wild thyme was a female cheetah, her four boisterous, six-month-old cubs scampering around her.
I wished Gustav could have been there to see them — but something told me he’d get his chance. I suspect he’ll be badgering his parents to take him on safari for many years to come.
Best for outdoor types: Plettenberg Bay & the Garden Route
Following the southern Indian Ocean coastline from Mossel Bay to the eastern edge of Western Cape Province, the Garden Route gets its name from the lushness of its natural scenery — vivid green and very varied. Seven hours’ drive or a short flight from Cape Town, this appealing region offers forests laced with hiking trails, unspoilt beaches and country house hotels.
I had the pleasure of staying at the Kurland Hotel, a graceful collection of Cape Dutch-style buildings nestled among rose beds, stables and polo fields. After a morning riding ponies or admiring the bigger, glossier steeds in the paddocks, kids can run riot through the gardens or muck about with their mates on the endless lawns. Smaller kids have a supervised, fun-stuffed playroom and pool to enjoy.
Their parents, meanwhile, can indulge in the English country idyll of afternoon tea on the veranda or a quick chukka of polo.
Beyond the hotel, there’s much to explore. I drove down to the resort of Plettenberg Bay, summer playground of Jo’burg’s smart set. Nearby are four excellent wildlife sanctuaries where you can mingle with monkeys, birds, elephants and big cats. I particularly loved Monkeyland, a large primate sanctuary with no fences or bars to separate you from troops of bright-eyed squirrel monkeys and lemurs. I also approved of its neighbour, Birds of Eden, a beautiful aviary where toucans and macaws flash through the treetops and flamingos pose like supermodels in their own tropical lagoon.
Half an hour east of Plettenberg Bay in the Tsitsikamma Forest, adrenalin levels crank up a notch or two. Here, at Stormsriver Adventures, kids of all ages whizzed through the giant Outeniqua yellowwood trees on a zip-line, scanning the canopy for monkeys, loeries and trogons and yodelling with joy as they went.
Three for South Africa’s Cape
1. For under 13s: Superb animal sanctuaries
In Cape Town, goggle the fish at the Two Oceans Aquarium and giggle at the penguins on Boulders Beach. Then head east to Plettenberg Bay for Monkeyland, Birds of Eden, The Elephant Sanctuary and Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre.
www.aquarium.co.za www.monkeyland.co.za www.birdsofeden.co.za www.elephantsanctuary.co.za www.tenikwa.com
2. For teens: Edgy nightlife & gourmet food
Adventurous teens will gain massive bragging rights after a few days checking out the sophisticated shopping, eating and music scene in Cape Town and the Cape Winelands. Start on Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront or Long Street, staying in style at the Cape Grace or at a cool hangout like The Grand Daddy, then move on to Franschhoek or Stellenbosch. www.capegrace.com www.granddaddy.co.za
3. For multi-generation families: Your own private safari
Book an exclusive-use stay at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve’s Melton Manor (sleeps up to eight plus one under-two) from £1,306 per night, or Uplands Homestead (up to six plus one under-two), from £1,144 per night. Each lodge comes with a pool and use of a private safari vehicle with a guide, plus activities for kids of all ages. www.kwandwe.com
Rental car is one way to tackle the often-considerable distances in the Western and Eastern Cape. Alternatively, book transfers or tours with a local operator such as Springbok Atlas. www.springbokatlas.co.za
When to go
South Africa is a year-round destination. May to August (winter) are the coolest and driest months. Spring and autumn are pleasantly warm and sunny; summer temperatures can rise to 35C.
Need to know
Visas: Not needed by Brits for visits of up to 90 days.
Health: Anti-malarials are not required in the Western and Eastern Cape but may be required in northeast South Africa. Check with your GP about jabs well before departure.
Currency: Rand (R). £1 = R12.
International dial code: 00 27.
Time: GMT +2.
Where to stay
Alphen Boutique Hotel, Cape Town. www.alphen.co.za
Le Quartier Français, Franschhoek. www.lqf.co.za
Kurland, Plettenberg Bay. www.kurland.co.za
Ecca Lodge, Kwandwe Private Game Reserve. www.kwandwe.com
Blackheath Lodge, Cape Town. www.blackheathlodge.co.za
Lavender Farm, Franschhoek. www.lavenderfarmfranschhoek.co.za
Plett River Lodge, Plettenberg Bay. www.plettriverlodge.co.za
Addo Rest Camp, Addo Elephant National Park. www.sanparks.org
How to do it
Abercrombie & Kent can create a tailor-made luxury Cape itinerary for a family of four (two adults and two children under 12) staying at Le Quartier Français, Kurland and Kwandwe’s Ecca Lodge for £9,780 for seven nights, including BA economy flights from Heathrow and car hire. As a special offer, a 10-night trip along the same route costs £9,950, including one night B&B in a pair of suites at Alphen in Cape Town. These packages have a family focus and include a number of complimentary children’s activities. www.abercrombiekent.co.uk
For those on a tighter budget, Bushbaby Travel offers an 11-night Cape trip, with eight nights in self-catering accommodation plus a three-night, all inclusive safari from £1,750 per adult/£750 per child under 12, including flights and car hire. Quote ‘NGT’ when booking with Bushbaby and it will throw in complimentary entrance to Monkeyland for two adults and two children. Quote ‘NGT’ when booking with Bushbaby and it will throw in complimentary entrance to Monkeyland for two adults and two children. www.bushbaby.travel www.monkeyland.co.za
Emma Gregg travelled as a guest of South Africa Tourism in association with Abercrombie & Kent, Springbok Atlas, Alphen, Le Quartier Français, Kurland and Kwandwe.
Published in the Summer 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family