Alistair, our family safari expert gives you the inside scoop on the very best family and kid friendly safari lodges in Kenya
07 Jun 2021
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These days, the vast majority of safari lodges and camps tend to tick the ‘family friendly’ box where one can enjoy nature’s finest alongside our ‘little darlings’ – in the hope that they will put the iPad down for some of it. The lodges that don’t cater for kids, really don’t, so avoid those if you are looking at taking along anyone who is under 12 at the very least. They won’t get the most out of it and consequently neither will you.
The ‘safari experience’ is continuously evolving from what was the traditional ‘morning and afternoon game drives all conducted within the vehicle’ to a more explorative and involved activity. The focus has shifted from the dated, must-see ‘Big 5’ to a more holistic experience which tends to be more enjoyable for the younger ones as lots of it is conducted outside the vehicle: understanding the terrain and how the whole ecosystem functions; what the tiny insects are building and how; the mandatory inspection of what an elephant has left in its wake; how the traditional tribes hunt and can we try it? Just some of the other experiences that sit alongside the traditional safari and Kenya has grasped this nettle. Some Lodges in South Africa were pioneers – have a look at Jaci’s Safari Lodge in Madikwe Game Reserve as a good example.
All children are different and all adults’ expectations of their kids wants and needs are too. I have therefore described 3 places below which I found offered a brilliant experience for kids. In particular a 6-year-old first time safari goer. The 3 lodges below can be combined easily for a virtually malaria-free holiday in Kenya or can be done individually with time on the beach afterwards. What I found was that we didn’t really need beach time after spending 10 days in Laikipia on safari but it does tend to nudge the budget up a bit.
Firmly entrenched in The Lewa Conservancy’s DNA, Sophie Craig and her family run the beautiful Lewa House on the stunning Lewa Conservancy. Their 2 children live on site and make the 90 minute each-way trip to school in Nanyuki 5 days a week, the first 30 minutes of this is a game drive through the conservancy.
The lodge is beautifully built with an openness that maximises the stunning views that the lodge commands. The main thatched area, a really comfy and homely open space, the centrepiece is the enormous fireplace – the heart of every home. And this is exactly how it feels. The cottages feel like they are set up for families and house 4 people in 2 en-suite rooms, and the new Earthpods (which could easily be mistaken for Hobbit Homes!) sleep 2 but can easily accommodate a stretcher bed as they are enormous. There are outside baths and a large swimming pool. The whole of the lodge grounds are fenced off electrically so whilst you don’t get a rhino peering in through the window you know it’s safe for the kids to roam around the grounds exploring.
There is so much to do here for all age groups: The conservancy is Big 5; the rhino population is enormous (if you don’t see rhino at Lewa I would suggest a quick trip to spec savers on your return); explore the forest from the canopy walk; cool off in the fresh water pools or catch a few fresh water crabs in them; bush picnics galore; walking or horse riding and if you are feeling really adventurous get out in a helicopter to explore the local terrain with the doors off – a real once in a lifetime experience. On your return to the lodge enjoy a drink by the fire as the kids have an early dinner. Babysitting is readily available but you are not likely to be up long after long active days in these incredible surroundings. I would suggest a minimum 3 night stay to enable you to get the most out of Lewa and all the activities on offer. You could quite easily be here for longer without going over old ground as there is so much to do.
Saruni Samburu is a short two hour drive up the road takes you down off the fertile Laikipia Plateau and into the much hotter and more arid area of Samburu. Here the soil is so dark red that it colours the mighty river a lovely shade of brown that Willy Wonka would be proud of. Saruni is set on a private concession called Kalama overlooking the Samburu National Reserve which is host to the Big 5 as well as the Samburu Special 5, endemic to the area (Reticulated Giraffe, Beisa Oryx, Grevy’s Zebra, Somali Ostrich and the Gerenuk antelope). Game drives are done in both the reserve and on the Kalama concession.
Saruni has only 6 rooms, correctly described as villas. What they lack in quantity they more than make up for in style and size. Four of these Villas are family size and have at least 2 enormous bedrooms, a communal living area and every single bit of the villa tries to maximize the most amazing views out over the Samburu Reserve. The villas are deliberately open to the elements so that the cool breeze can circulate during the day but can be closed up entirely at night. The lodge has 2 swimming pools – a good dinner debate of which one has the best view!
What makes this place so wonderful for kids is the activities and how they are guided. All the staff at Saruni are local Samburu and all are dressed in their traditional garb – there is no khaki here – so your guide is an authentic spear bearing Samburu Warrior. Makes for a great start to any game drive for a youngster. The longer game drives down in the reserve are always punctuated with breakfast or snack stops which is a full-on meal in the bush, so no one gets hungry.
Walks (for most ages but dependent on season) are conducted within the concession and the highlight was an enormous scorpion that was coaxed out of its burrow and of course the Warrior academy. This is an activity aimed at family time so both adults and children can participate should they want to and focuses on bush craft and the ways of the local Samburu people. By the end of it you will all be loosing shafts from your homemade bows! For the more active or elder children there is the opportunity to climb Mt Ololokwe, the sacred mountain or visit rock art caves.
Whilst Saruni is at home hosting both safari honeymooners or families it’s difficult to come away not having an amazing time and a quite different experience altogether from Laikipia. Again, malaria is a very low risk in this area too.
Heading back south and into a different part of Laikipia you will find El Karama Lodge. Another haven for youngsters to experience the great outdoors. This private wildlife conservancy sits alongside a working dairy farm and whilst that sounds like would detract from your wilderness experience, actually, it adds another dimension and also becomes very much part of it. Sophie and Murray Grant who run the tourism side of the business and host the lodge, again have 2 young children so the focus of every stay is making it as family friendly and as a fun as possible. From the rooms, all of which have options for spare beds and one which is even called The Hobbit House, to the activities (Bush school & fly camping to the enormous walk-in rabbit run), to the fun and games around the pool which is a big part of what El Karama is all about.
The farm offers a different perspective to life in rural Kenya and is a fun and interesting place to spend a bit of time. Not just with the dairy cows but also having a good look round the enormous veggie garden that supplies the lodge with all its greenery that finds its way on to your plate. The guides are superb with kids – I would say that whilst the standard everywhere was excellent in terms of child friendly guides, El Karama came out on top. They were always eager to please and would happily take the children off to make plaster of paris prints of a lion’s footprint or always have a little surprise up their sleeve – my daughter was over the moon when we stopped for sundowners and the guide pulled out her dinner of chicken and chips! We then had an amazing night-drive interaction with a male lion roaring away literally metres from our vehicle. There were also the camera traps, which we planted overnight with our guide and came back the next day to see what we had snared and of course the leopard mirrors – installed by Murray as a project but another talking point for the kids.
We could have stayed for at least 5 nights. Although, had we done so we would have left a few stone heavier! In all honesty this would have to be said for all 3 lodges. The food everywhere was outstanding and there was always an option for the kids.
I would certainly have no hesitation in recommending any of these 3 as a stand alone experience or all joined together. Generally I would say heading north into Laikipia and Samburu offers a more family focussed experience where the animals are an important part of the safari but not the sole focus. Everyone will come back having had an amazing experience and learned about the local culture, traditions and environment.
Other lodges that would be in the mix for an excellent family friendly safari would be: