I’ve always loved the bush, and couldn’t wait to introduce my kids to our abundant natural heritage, especially our much-loved Big Five.
I had high expectations of this first encounter, which didn’t quite go as planned. You can read about that more here.
But here’s the thing, many Big Five game lodges don’t accommodate children under 12 (especially babies), and if they do, they’re not allowed on game drives.
My entourage includes a 10 year old, four year old and 13 month old. Given the scarcity of Big Five kids’ safari destinations, it’s not hard to see my dilemma.
Visit a local reserve and leave the kids behind – what’s the point? Or wait until they’re all old enough.
Erm…in 11 years’ time when The Baby qualifies for his bush debut, I think I might well be round the bend already. Have headed for the hills. Or simply lost all will to do anything be less enthusiastic where ‘kids’ and ‘holiday’ still go in the same sentence. Travelling with (3!) kids will do that to you.
So imagine my delight when I discovered a Big Five private reserve that not only allows kids of all ages to stay, but actively caters to them through a comprehensive kiddies’ programme.
I love sharing my mom wins with other parents, and so pitched the story to Mamas and Papas magazine. They were only too happy to feature this awesome kid-friendly luxury reserve, so a few weeks later we were all packed up and ready to head down the coast.
The luxury Gondwana Game Reserve is set in 11 000 hectares of fynbos in the rolling hills of Herbertsdale, just outside Mossel Bay.
That in itself is a drawcard. If you’re a regular Kruger or Sabi Sands bush person like me, you’ll appreciate that there’s something magical about seeing wildlife munching away at grass between pockets of flowering pink and yellow ericas.
Gondwana is unique in that it is a Big Five reserve located in the fynbos biome, not the typical grassland you’ve come to expect from your average safari experience.
It’s this rich fynbos landscape that welcomes you as you wind your way along the sand road into the reserve.
Although I must admit, this floral beauty is rivalled by the views the journey presents: deep valleys and ravines give away to the most spectacular locale perched on top of the plains at the reserve’s entrance, framed by an impressive backdrop of the Langeberg and Outeniqua Mountains.
It is breathtaking. You suddenly feel as though you’re on top of the world – and have room to breathe, just what moms and dads need on a weekend away!
The first sign that Gondwana was a kiddie-friendly destination were the Junior Ranger activity packs and welcome drinks that awaited them.
No sickly sweet juice in plastic cups, oh no! The kids were treated to rather exotic-looking two-tone strawberry cordials in fluted glasses. The Middle Child was most impressed!
The Junior Ranger packs were an instant hit: activity booklets, crayons, a ranger badge, rhino ‘piggybank’ and a few treats for when the munchies set in.
This set the tone for what was to come at Gondwana. Think dedicated kiddies meals at lunch and dinner, and a special kids’ table at afternoon tea, complete with vanilla sponge biscuits and pastel-coloured icing for them to create their own teatime delights.
I mean, what is high tea in the bush without a kids’ tea table?
Add to this a bag of marshmallows and some freshly plucked ‘reed skewers’ (yes, straight of the garden!) for some serious mallow roasting out under the stars after dinner.
And cards featuring wonderful African folk tales, like How zebra got its stripes and How jackal got its black back, waiting back at the rooms at night with a little sweet as a bedtime treat.
“These little touches all form part of Gondwana’s Junior Rangers Experience (JRE),” Meagan Eddy, ranger and JRE facilitator, tells me as we head out into the bush on the open game vehicle, kids in tow. “More than just maintaining a kids’ programme, we try to create a rich experience that extends across the entire time that the children are at Gondwana, where for every adult experience, there is an appropriate version for kids as well.”
When it comes to the game experience, that means early morning and evening Big Five game drives with the adults for children aged 6 and older. The Oldest Child adored this, and was riveted throughout every game drive.
These drives also make for really special family time. I think son and dad enjoyed it the most!
There are also family Bokkie Drives that take in plains game only, like giraffe and antelope, for children younger than 6.
I’m not going to lie, I was hugely grateful for this. The Middle Child has hit that I-will-never-stop-talking-ever stage. You know, where they talk all the time. Like their life depends on it. And so LOUDLY!
I was suddenly had visions of the resident pack of lions wandering over to see what all the commotion was about. Only to find The Middle Child demanding to know ‘WHY IS ELEPHANT DUNG SO BIG AND WHY ARE THERE SO MANY BUGS LIVING IN IT?!’
On our first trip out, Meagan expertly directed the vehicle along the bumpy track, which sent the kids into fits of giggles as they bounced in their seats.
It was thrilling for them, driving through the bush with the wind in their hair as they scoured the landscape for animals.
And for me as a mom, so rewarding to watch. I love seeing the children out in nature doing what kids do best: having fun.
Meagan capitalises on this exact idea, and weaves fun into her daily JRE activities. These cover topics in the areas of abiotic (non-living), biotic (living), conservation and history.
On the day we joined Meagan in the bush, the kids were learning about living organisms, fynbos specifically, and how these plants need fire to regenerate.
Meagan stopped the vehicle at the site of a controlled burn, and showed the kids the charred protea bushes. She explained how ‘these kings and queens of the Cape floral kingdom’ survive.
Given my kids’ fascination with castles, archers and all things fantasy, this notion of royal plants within a floral kingdom was right up their alley.
Fresh Eland spoor provided the perfect opportunity for Meagan to haul out her plaster of Paris and help the kids make casts of the large buck’s tracks.
Burnt sticks were instantly transformed into primitive pencils.
The kids used these to produce their own rock art on nearby boulders. The Oldest Child had made a giraffe from clay in the JRE creative workshop the day before. The very effective ‘burnt stick pencil’ proved to be just the finishing touch he needed to give his giraffe its distinctive spots.
“We have a great time, learn something new and sometimes get a little dirty, for which we apologise to the parents on our return to the lodge, hoping their kids’ smiling faces make up for it!” Meagan laughs.
If your brood includes a baby, you’ll be happy to know babysitting services are available.
And if, like me, you need to take a little extra time out, Gondwana’s rustic tented bush spa, located in its own private corner of the reserve, is a must.
I floated away on a cloud of fragrant frangipani during my Swedish massage, courtesy of therapist Kim Avontuur, whose expert hands (and elbows!) knew where to find those stubborn mom knots.
Sitting around the fire that night I could see why Meagan was so keen to introduce astronomy into the JRE programme.
The meandering Milky Way was distinctive against the velvet sky, gently nudging the Southern Cross where it hung low over the Indian Ocean.
And suddenly I’m struck by the richness of our country’s natural heritage, and just how fortunate we are as a family to have discovered such a wonderful place from which to appreciate it.
Children under 12 years old are accommodated with their families in luxury bush villas, which feature kitchen facilities, separate en-suite bedrooms, large outdoor decks, TVs and DVD players to assist with the little ones.
We stayed in a bush villa, and rearranged the furniture to make it baby friendly (blocked off the stairs with ottomans, moved glass tables out of the way, and removed all glassware from the lower shelves in the kitchen!)
Children’s rates apply for children under 12, while children under 6 stay free when sharing with two full-paying adults. Cots and rollaway beds are also available.
Tel: +27 (0) 21 555 0807
Cell: +27 (0) 74 582 4861
This article has been adapted from an original editorial written by Bronwyn Mulrooney that first appeared in Mamas & Papas magazine.