South Africa is an amazing destination for family holidays. Do your planning properly and your children really will have the holiday of a lifetime. There are plenty of options, from a simple trip to the beach or mountain walk to once-in-a-lifetime thrills such as hot air balloon rides or the opportunity to ride an elephant through the African bush. This list gives just a few of the most exciting options available to make your family holiday an unforgettable adventure.
1. Tswalu, Northern Cape
Unbelievably remote, Tswalu is deep within the Green Kalahari, the slightly greener fringe of the Kalahari Desert. It is possible to drive, but at 850 kms (528 miles) from Cape Town, most choose to fly. It’s South Africa’s largest private game reserve, owned by the Oppenheimer family. It’s malaria-free and extremely luxurious, with animals from meerkats to rare black rhinos. Most importantly, children are welcome. Their Junior Ranger programme includes bush walks with lessons in spoor identification, the chance to make and fire their own bow and arrow, and the opportunity for them to cook their own bush dinner.
2. Sun City, North-West Province
Children brought up on Disney World may be unimpressed, but Sun City – better known for grown-up games such as gambling and golf – can be a great stop on a family holiday. With hotels in all ranges, babysitting services, and a kids’ club, Camp Kwena, it offers parents a chance to play. There is a small zoo, children’s games arcade, a wonderful waterpark with slides, the chance to go riding and Pilanesberg National Park is right next door. For real thrills, there are also the opportunities to go up in a hot air balloon or take an elephant-back safari into the bush (children must be at least 5 years old).
3. The Ant Collection, Limpopo Province
Only 3 hrs drive north of Johannesburg, in the malaria-free Waterberg, The Ant’s Nest and Ant’s Hill offer the choice of staying in luxury in the family homestead or a bush camp. Both camps have heated swimming pools for use year-round. They specialize in horse-riding safaris and welcome beginners, offering lessons, if you need them. They also welcome children, with children’s play areas, toys and games, child-friendly ponies, ranger-led ‘spoor’ and ‘bug’ walks and family-friendly game-drives in open 4×4 jeeps.
4. Fugitive’s Drift, Kwazulu-Natal
Taking your children a battlefield tour may not seem the most obvious choice of activity. However the stories of Blood River, Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift and the confrontation between the Boers, British and Zulus are compelling, vital in the story of South African history and play perfectly to the bloodthirsty tendencies of most children! Fugitive’s Drift, famous for its superb tours, has now introduced children’s tours that combine battlefield tours with visits to Zulu villages, the chance to handle a Henry-Martini rifle and a Zulu assegai (spear) and see animals on their private game farm.
5. Simunye, Kwazulu-Natal
Most people looking for a Zulu cultural experience end up at Shakaland. It’s fun, but if you want something more, try a night (preferably two) at Simunye, near Melmoth, in the hills about 2 hrs drive from Durban. It’s still not total immersion – it’s still luxury, but it is magical, a hidden valley. You leave your car and go down by horse, ox-wagon or 4×4, are greeted in traditional Zulu style and fed (well) on traditional food. You learn about the dance, the culture, the food and the beer. If you stay more than a single night, there’s a chance for you to go bird-watching, fishing (bring your own tackle), walking, or riding. With advance notice, a nanny can be organized for small children for the day and there are play areas and small animals to keep them entertained. Older children are taught about traditional Zulu games and skills from padded fighting sticks to Bull dancing. Choose to stay overnight in a village lodge or a cave room.
6. Stormsriver Adventures, Eastern Cape
One of the highlights of the Garden Route, the Tsitsikamma National Park protects one of the last patches of indigenous coastal rainforest in South Africa. Stormsriver Adventures run two unforgettable forest tours, both taking about 3 hrs. The Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour (ages 7-70, max weight 120 kg/264 lb) takes you through the treetops between platforms along steel cables, 30m above the ground. The far tamer Woodcutters Journey (no age restrictions) uses an open vehicle for a tour through the giant yellowwoods and stinkwoods, with either lunch or tea thrown in. Both offer wonderful opportunities to learn about the plants, birds and animals that live in this tangled exotic world. Advance booking essential.
7. Oudtshoorn, Western Cape
Oudtshoorn is a small farming town in the Klein Karoo, just north of the Garden Route, that has one great claim to fame – this is the ostrich capital of the world. On the strength of this, it has become an absolutely brilliant stop for a family-friendly tour of South Africa. Of the 400-odd ostrich farms in the area, at least three, Highgate, the Cango Ostrich Farm and Safari Ostrich Show Farm welcome visitors. You can feed the ostriches, ride them and watch an ostrich race. Also check out the Cango Wildlife Ranch it has everything from crocodiles to tigers. The Cango Caves have South Africa’s most beautiful stalactites.
8. Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, Western Cape
A magical eco-resort on the coast near Hermanus in the Western Cape, Grootbos is an ideal place for a family seaside holiday. There are stables for riding and a petting farm with ducks, chickens, a pig and tortoise. Guided treasure hunts in the fynbos and coastal forest teach the children about their environment and there are opportunities to explore archaeological caves, rock pools and swim in the sea. Back at base, there’s an entertainment centre with DVDs and games and kids can even help in the kitchen. As a bonus, in season, this is one of the best whale-watching areas in South Africa.
9. Township tours, Cape Town
Many parents worry about taking their children on a township tour. Will it be safe? Will the poverty be distressing? It can be a long day but it can also be one of the most rewarding things you do on your entire trip. Children across cultures connect easily and instinctively and seeing this world through your child’s eyes will make you see it in a very different light. It also does Western children no harm at all to get an early sense of how other people live. If it starts them asking questions, that has to be good. There are many tours to choose from but amongst the companies in Cape Town, Andulela are one of the best with specialist options including soccer, drumming, jazz and Cape Malay cooking tours.
10. Spier, Western Cape
Whether you choose to visit for the day or stay at this wonderful historic wine estate just outside Cape Town, it is a splendid all-round experience for parents and children alike. While parents appreciate the historic manor house, excellent food and wine-tastings, children can explore the gardens, play areas and hotel toy boxes. There is also a supervised kids’ club and they can swim, ride, go hiking or mountain biking on the estate, play tennis or golf. Best of all are the animals. The Eagle Encounter is a birds of prey flying display at 2pm each day. The Cheetah Outreach project allows visitors to get up close and personal with these fabulous cats.