Tammie Matson is a Singapore-based mother of two, wildlife conservationist and author of three books about Africa. Here she recounts the highlights of a recent safari in South Africa and provides some tips on sharing the experience with children.
The leopard was so close I could have reached out and stroked his dappled, velvet coat. From this short distance, the collage of tan florets encircled by jet-black rings on his clean white fur was striking, as was the hypnotic intensity of his feline stare.
A human would be no match for a predator of this size in the wild. Thankfully, from the safety of my open Land Rover, I had nothing to fear the leopard’s proximity. Resting languidly by a waterhole in the early morning light, this was one super-chilled big cat.
This recent encounter was in stark contrast to all the other leopard sightings I’ve experienced in my two decades as a conservationist and zoologist working in national parks and game reserves in places like Namibia and Zimbabwe. And when I say “all the other sightings”, I actually mean about three. Why so few? Because the leopard is the most elusive of Africa’s big cats, known for its secretive nature and effective camouflage. My previous sightings lasted no longer than about 30 seconds. I’ve seen “flashes” of leopards; once, the flicker of a white-tipped tail; on another fortuitous occasion, a quick crossing of a road in broad daylight in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.
This leopard, though, was out in the open in full view of everyone in our vehicle, including my husband, our three-and-a-half-year-old son, Solo, our friends, Jen and Dave, and their daughter Grace, also three and a half. Finally the magnificent cat stood up, yawned, slowly stretched, and then, in an ever so stylish and dignified way, padded past our vehicle as if he had no cares in the world.
In the middle of this spectacle, Solo experienced his African travel highlight to date – only it wasn’t the leopard.
“Look, Mama!” he said excitedly. His eyes were fixed on something in the opposite direction of the big cat. Had my sprightly, curious little boy spotted something my zoologist eyes hadn’t seen? Was it perhaps another elusive predator – a genet or a hyena – getting ready to hunker down after a night of hunting? Was Solo in fact a natural naturalist, a chip off the old block?
Solo spoke again and his eyes were wide with wonder: “It’s… it’s… another Land Rover!”
What can I say? Family safaris are full of surprises. We were all happy that day, leopard-lovers and Land Rover-lovers alike.
In just 36 hours on safari at Tintswalo in the Manyeleti Game Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park, we saw Africa’s Big Five: herds of elephants and Cape buffaloes, not one but two leopards, a magnificent white rhino bull – highly threatened –and two lions mating, all at very close range. It was undoubtedly the greatest “bang for buck”, so to speak, that I’ve ever had on safari – and a true fiesta for a keen nature photographer like me.
Kids on safari
When you’re taking children with short attention spans on safari, lots of great wildlife action at close range is exactly what you want. My husband Andy and I first brought Solo to Africa when he was five months old. Before he could crawl he had been carried up sand dunes in Namibia and up mountains at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Soon after he could walk we added a visit to Zimbabwe, where he saw hippos and African wild dogs up close in the Save Valley Conservancy.
He may not be able to remember his first leopard or his first lion, but in the future we’ll always have the photos for him to look at, and his dad and I will always have the precious memories of sharing nature at its finest with our son.
As conservationists, we know that some of these species are disappearing faster than any of us would like to admit, and we want to show them to our kids in the wild while they’re still around. Elephants and rhinos are under enormous pressure from poaching caused largely by Asian demand for ivory and rhino horn, and going on safari with ethical companies that actively support conservation and the local communities that live side by side with wildlife is as good as any donation you can make to a charity.
Thankfully, I’ve seen the options for family safaris expand and improve enormously. Twenty years ago, Africa was still the “dark continent” when it came to family travel, and admittedly there are still parts of it that I wouldn’t take my sons to today. But what has changed is that the variety of excellent options available is now much wider.
Safety and comfort
A couple of common questions I get asked by other expat parents considering taking their kids on safari are, “Is it safe?” and “Will they get malaria?”
Since I became a mother four years ago, I’ve become a lot more cautious about the risks I take while working in Africa. When I’ve got my kids with me, their safety is my primary concern. Some of the safaris I’ve found in recent years are as safe as any holiday you’ll do anywhere in the world. They’re also quite affordable, which is a consideration when you’ve got several flights to pay for.
At Tintswalo, where the aforementioned leopard sighting occurred, families can rent a large, luxurious manor house with four bedrooms, surrounded by a sprawling green lawn, with a pool and lots of toys for the kids to play with. The house we stayed in is surrounded by an electric fence to keep the larger critters out and to keep your own precious critters as safe as possible. Children under six years old stay for free; those between six and 12 are half-price.
Excellent local staff are available for babysitting and professional massages, and all meals are provided in the privacy of the house (or, even better, in the great outdoors under the starry African night sky). If Mum and Dad want to go on a game drive on their own (an open game-viewing vehicle and guide are provided as part of the package), they can leave the kids in the care of a professional sitter. This means that the parents get a well-deserved break.
The greatest wildlife threat you’re likely to face in Africa comes from one of the tiniest animals of them all – the mosquito. To minimise the risk of malaria, contact your GP and arrange to take appropriate prophylactics. If your kids are too young to take these, there are excellent malaria-free game reserves in places like Madikwe in the southern part of South Africa near Cape Town, that offer exceptional game viewing and lots of fun activities for the kids, like learning animal tracking with a local guide. The South African safaris also give parents the chance to visit the famous Stellenbosch wineries and Robben Island, where the late Nelson Mandela was incarcerated.
If you don’t want to miss South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park, or other malarial parts of Africa, travel in the cold, dry season, between June and September, when there are very few mosquitoes around. And of course, cover the kids (and yourselves) up! Long-sleeved shirts and pants, mosquito repellant and sleeping nets help to keep the mozzies at bay.
My father took me to Africa for the first time when I was 15, and that two-week safari in Zimbabwe set my life on a very different course to the one I thought I was headed for as an aspiring law student. I’m eternally grateful to my parents for giving me the opportunity to experience Africa’s magic in my formative years, and I feel really privileged that I’m now able to share it with my own family.
On our return to Singapore from our South African safari, I asked Solo what the best thing about the trip was for him. To my surprise, my car-obsessed son didn’t say it was all the Land Rovers he’d seen, including the one he got to “drive” while sitting on our guide’s lap at Tintswalo.
“Hot chocolate!” he said.
Turns out there’s nothing quite so fabulous to a three-year-old as sharing a nice mug of hot chocolate with your mate in the middle of an early morning game drive. Sure, you can make hot chocolate at home. But trust me, there’s nothing quite like sipping it while lions roar in the background.
Tammie’s most recent book is Planet Elephant, available from Amazon. For more details about it and her other books, and advice on taking your family on safari in Africa, head here.
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