There’s nothing quite as special as going on a family safari holiday… The early morning game drives, the close encounters with wild animals, the long hours spent in the wild.
A gin and tonic sundowner as the sun dips below the horizon and a herd of elephant meander slowly past is as quintessentially South African as a boerewors roll.
Except, add kids to the mix and all of a sudden things get a little trickier. For starters, many game reserves are in malaria areas – a no go for young children. Three-hour game drives are no problem for adults, but quite troublesome for youngsters. And toddlers (under 4 years old) aren’t allowed on game drives, which means you’re stuck at the lodge with not much to do with your little one.
Add to that the fact that life with small kids requires a high level of flexibility that most game lodges aren’t able to offer, and you’ll see why a family safari might be out of the question if you have a young family… That is, unless you’re going to Shamwari.
From the moment you arrive at Shamwari Riverdene Lodge, you’ll feel entirely welcome. Literally the moment – there’s a welcome committee waiting to usher you in.
Children under 4 are gifted with a stuffed elephant, children over 4 are part of the Kids on Safari programme that brings the bush alive for young ones.
Part of this is a backpack and cap, and an animal tracking book, including ziplock bags for elephant and giraffe poop! Kids spend time learning the Xhosa names of animals, identifying their tracks, and asking their ranger all kinds of interesting questions.
One of six lodges on Shamwari, Riverdene was recently (massively) renovated and has been tailormade for families. Interleading rooms mean that parents have privacy without having to worry about their kids – and without having to creep around after bedtime.
The layout of the lodge is also very well thought-out: the dining area is close enough that if your children call for you during a romantic dinner, you’ll hear it.
But there’s still enough wide open space, beautifully decorated rooms and sophisticated landscaping so that it feels like an entirely adult retreat. The boma – where a braai dinner is served overlooking the river twice a week – is a kids paradise.
Marshmallows on the fire, staying up late stargazing and sitting next to a roaring bonfire are exactly what memories are made of. Riverdene feels like a very slick, well-run operation… with kids added in. Parents will know what a rare treat that is!
Back at the lodge, after an amazing feast of breakfast (and lunch, and afternoon tea, and dinner – there’s no chance anyone will go hungry!) the kids can splash in the pool (a beautiful rim-flow pool with a shallow section) and explore the Kids Club.
Also newly renovated, it offers quite possibly the greatest playground you’ve ever seen, complete with bridges, tents, zip line and a viewing deck so kids can check out the wildlife while they play.
There are three different zones – green for little toddlers (with fun animal-themed swings, slides and a maze), yellow for bigger kids (more adventurous bridges and tunnels), and orange for tweens and teens (up to 16 years).
Indoors there are arts and crafts, books, games, activities (like decorating your own pizza for lunch) and the constant care and attention of three lovely ladies who are always ready to play.
Parents can drop their kids off for a few hours, or stay and play with them. This means that parents get to enjoy that rare and precious thing: time to relax on a family holiday.
But of course, the lodge is just where you lay your head. The most exciting part of a family safari is the animal experience… and Shamwari more than delivers on that front.
The morning and evening game drives offer very different experiences, but the variety of animals on the reserve are omnipresent. Shamwari is a conservation project first, game lodge second, and you can tell that by the abundance of thriving game.
Zebra, giraffe, herds of elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, hippo, buffalo and all kinds of buck… They have the big five and then some.
There are simple, effective kid-friendly touches: game drives are in the area surrounding Riverdene (and the neighbouring family-friendly Sarili) which means that the drive home never takes too long (nobody wants a grouchy, over-tired child in the middle of the bush!)
The Rangers have all been chosen to be able to connect with younger guests as well as adults, and the stories are fantastic. There are also frequent snack stops (great for kids and adults alike!).
There is something truly magical about experiencing wild animals on a family safari for the first time, and seeing it through your child’s eyes is no less magical: an elephant sidling up to a 4×4 is not something anyone will quickly forget!
Best of all, Shamwari is an easy one-hour drive from the Port Elizabeth airport. Fly into P.E., hire a car and within an hour you’re in a magical paradise where nothing is too much trouble, the wild animals roam free, and the kids are happy – all without sacrificing anything for the adults….
One last tip! Flights out of Port Elizabeth leave in the morning, and the last thing you want to do is sacrifice your last game drive. Rather make a weekend of it and spend some time in P.E… A family-friendly hotel near the sea (we stayed at No5 by Mantis and loved it) is a great solution.
Time to slowly adjust to the real world, away from the wild. And plan your next adventure!
GOOD TO KNOW
With the aim of restoring this area of the Eastern Cape to its former glory,
Shamwari Private Game Reserve was born of a need to conserve the land and its abundant wildlife, birdlife and ecological diversity.
Shamwari is home to five of South Africa’s seven biomes, making it a destination unlike any other.
This is our story.
In 1990, a small 1,200-hectare farm became available and was duly purchased. Shortly after, drought and financial difficulties led to a number of neighbouring farmers placing their land on the open market and further land was acquired to a total of 7,000 hectares.
Since then Shamwari has been actively restoring both the wildlife and flora, eradicating alien vegetation and striving to create an atmosphere where nature can flourish. Over the course of the next 25 years, Shamwari Private Game Reserve expanded to what it is today.
And because of the conservation efforts, Shamwari has officially been declared a Protected Environment, and comprises of 6 luxury lodges and 1 explorer camp, two different education, and rehabilitation facilities and employs over 325 local staff. The land and buildings have been restored to their rightful state.
By Bridget McNulty