Unlike anywhere else in the world, we residents and nationals of South Africa get to go on Safari pretty much whenever we please. No matter where you may live, likelihood is that you can hop in your car and drive no more than a few hours before reaching the nearest wildlife park or game reserve.
It’s a quintessentially African privilege, and one that I cant imagine living without.
Ever had a braai in a campground with the sound of elephants trumpeting nearby? Ever walked in the bush not knowing if you will encounter a buck or a predator or even just a troop of baboons?
Ever gone on a game drive?
Chances are you have, especially if you’re the type of person who reads Cross Country. But have you tried going on Safari with the kids?
Regrettably, most young people tend to get antsy when confined to a slow moving vehicle for hours on end.
They whinge that they miss their smart phones and ipads. They moan about the heat and the flies and thelack of speed at which the car is moving.
They barely acknowledge the slumbering lion outside of the window.
They get bored!
Sometimes I just want to lean back from the driver’s seat and thwack them with a rolled up newspaper (or cricket bat).
Safari operators (at least those who wish to attract families)realize that most children suffer from attention disorder deficiency. They get jaded looking at animals all day and need something interactive to keep them happy.
So, when I heard about the launch of a Junior Rangers program at the 11000 hectare Gondwana Game Reserve near Mossel Bay in the Western Cape, I decided to take a risk and pack my two kids.
The program (designed for 6-12 year olds) is an interactive family focused safari experience, conducted by staff who have received special training on how to educate and entertain young visitors.
They know how to focus on the kids. They know how to cope with a child’s swaying emotionsand mini attention spans, and they know how to take the pressure off parents.
Angels in Khaki I called them, and as for my two little demons (Mia 6 and Sam 9), well, not only did they have a whale of a time (or should that be elephant of a time?) they also learned a great deal about wildlife and the environment in a fun and interactive manner.
In the back of the car!
Our long weekend at Gondwana got off to a good start thanks to Melanie Delamare and Jade Conradie, both of whom are involved in the reserve’s Junior Ranger Program.
As we checked into our accommodation Jade tackled the kids, keeping them entertained with messy cookie doe that, thanks to the resident chef, became edible renditions of giraffes, lions and elephants.
Clutching Junior Ranger activity packs in one (sticky) hand and stacks of cookies in the other, they both stuffed their faces and then went for a splash in the lodge pool whilst my wife dropped off our bags.
Our digs (a spacious and luxurious thatched roof house) was exceptionally well suited to families, what with it being open plan split level building complete with DSTV, a stack of kiddies games, a private plunge pool, a huge veranda, and plenty of bedrooms. But as nice as it was, we weren’t there for the lodging.
We were there for Safari, so after extracting the kids from the pool, we hopped aboard Mel and Jade’s open air vehicle and hit the hills and plains of South Africa’s largest fynbos, big five wildlife reserve.
Within moments of leaving the lodge, Jade stopped the vehicle and encouraged the kids to get out.
“Don’t worry, our lions, buffalo, and elephants are all on the other side of the reserve today, and we’ll get to see them soon enough, but in the meantime, lets look at flowers, insects and this…”
She had stooped down at the side of the road in order to pick up a huge (dry) piece of elephant poop.
The kids were initially grossed out, but it didn’t take long for Jade to convince them that herbivore dung is really quite interesting and fun.
Right away the schooling began.
My nippers learned that elephants are not good at digesting stuff and that’s why their poop is full of twigs and grassy bits. “And that’s why they have to eat so much,” she told them
They also discovered numerous fynbos flowers and learned all about the insects that pollinate them. They turned rocks and found geckos and scorpions and all sorts of fascinating little beasties. And then we all had a short game of football with a bolas of poo before getting back into the vehicle.
“So what would you like to see?” asked Mel as we drove deeper into the reserve to which my kids enthusiastically shouted “LIONS!”
It didn’t take long.
Linked by radios, Gondwana’s rangers are always in contact with one another and fortunately for us, lions had been spotted earlier that morning.
We drove straight to them, bypassing any need to engage in a potentially fruitless (and for the kids, boring) search.
“He comes from Kalahari stock,” Mel said as my two littluns stared with wide eyes at a huge black maned lion who sat mere meters from where we had parked. He yawned, opening his mouth and baring his frightening teeth at the sky.
“Cant he eat us?” asked my little daughter nervously “There aren’t any doors on this car.”
But Mel explain that Lions can’t differentiate between a vehicle and the people inside it “They don’t see us,” she told them.
Then, just as the kids were getting bored (after all, it was a lion and lions don’t do very much) two little cubs showed up and began playing just like our kittens do back home.
The kids loved it. And so did I.
We then visited a pair of hippos in a dam, and some eland (which my son found boring because they look like cows) and lastly a herd of zebra with adorable little fowls.
“Cant we see some rhinos?” asked my son expectantly to which Jade replied “Of course. Ill just radio in and find out where they are.”
Just ten minutes later, we pulled into a large open field where two big lumbering beasts ambled about, chomping on grass
“Do you know about poaching?” Melanie asked the kids, to which little Mia replied that, “Yes,” she did. “It’s when you crack an egg into boiling water”
But with gentle tact, Mel explained that some misguided people believe eating Rhino horn is good for their health. “But it’s made from the same stuff as your toenails,” she said. “Now, how silly is that?”
She then pointed over to a white bakki which was parked off beneath the shade of a tree.
“That’s our anti poaching team,” she told us. “They are with our rhinos 24/7. We even have infra red drones that keep an eye on them at night.”
Sam, being a fan of robots and science-fiction cartoons, loved that piece of news.
“Can we see it, can we see it?” he asked, but alas, “It’s all top secret,” said Jade.
Before boredom could creep in, we were back at the camp for a lunch of kid’s favorites (fish and chips) followed up by as much ice cream as they could stuff into their faces and dribble down their shirts.
Not another game drive?
That afternoon, rather than head out on another game drive, Jade had prepared some child orientated activities for us.
This commenced with a fly fishing session down at a dam, where, despite our best efforts, and despite expert tuition, we all failed to catch anything other than pond weed.
“Can we stay until we get one?” asked my daughter who was reluctant to give up, but Jade’s radio had just cracked to life, informing us that a herd of elephants was on its way.
“We don’t want to get squashed,” she told us, so we got back into the vehicle and moved away from the dam in order to watch as the elephants came down for a drink and a splash.
That’s when Mel informed the kids (and we adults too) about the complex social makeup of an elephant herd.
“They’re just like a human family,” said Mia after the explanation had finished “And that one looks like Dada”
She was pointing at the fattest elephant, but my wife, who couldn’t help but notice he was sporting five legs commented that “No. That’s not like Dada at all”
The rest of the day was spent learning about animal tracks (and taking plaster casts of those we found)
We searched for frogs around a pond and finished off the afternoon with a visitto Jade’s Bone Yard- a rather strange collection of animal artifacts that, for some reason, my little daughter loved.
Then, back at the lodge restaurant, we all roasted marshmallows over an open fire before tucking into dinner and yet more ice-cream.
The kids were in heaven.
Towards the end of our little Safari break, after Sam and Mia hadreceivedtheir Junior Ranger certificates, Jade told me that Gondwana also provides babysitting and child minding services.
“If your children take part in the program, you as parents don’t always have to be with them. If you want to get away, see the reserve, pop over to Mossel Bay, or simply relax at the Lodge, we can take care of them for you”
Before we left for home, Sam and Mia requested one more game drive, especially seeing as earlier that morning, Mel had checked the Park’s satellite monitoring system on her computer and had pinpointed the position of the reserve’s two cheetahs.
“Wow, so you can see them from space?” asked my son incredulously.
“Yes indeed we can.”
But nature is nature and after an hour or so driving, we were unable to locate the two elusive cats.
“Bored!” said Sam
Oh well, Jade and Mel had done wonders to keep the nippers enraptured for the two days we spent at Gondwana, and what’s more, there was a good dose of education thrown into the mix.
To find out more about the Gondwana Game Reserve visit