South Africa

Why the Best Trip of Your Life Might Be a Family Safari in Africa


Melissa Siebert


Journeys for Generations

If only our parents had taken us on safari in Africa, rather than to insulated, anodyne resorts in the Caribbean or Greece. I’m not ungrateful, but having lived in Africa for nearly 30 years now, with countless forays into the bush, I can only imagine my childish wonder at encountering Africa’s wildlife, landscapes, and people for the first time. Some of the best memories with my son are of tracking with the Khomani San in the Kalahari, living with lions snoozing outside our rooms, or gazing at elephant herds in various reserves. My brother’s first sight of game in the wild – a common herd of zebra – nearly undid his contained, lawyerly self. On an overland trip into the Okavango Delta, I saw my mother – recently widowed – replace her grief with the thrill of intimate wildlife rendezvous: an elephant munching branches outside her tent or a hippo mowing the grass around it one night. She actually felt honoured.

Africa surprises, exhilarates, humbles, grounds, and teaches – no matter what your age. An African family safari offers infinite possibilities for growth, connection, and collective discovery. A journey that generations may remember for generations.

My family safari memories are these…

With my son

Elephants, elephants, and more elephants. My son Rafe, now 24, loves them as much as I do. Their prehistoric grace, intelligence, compassion and care for the herd. So we’ve visited South Africa’s Addo National Park repeatedly over the years, where elephants are the stars, miraculously appearing (and disappearing) over the low hills and spekboom bush. Where you learn to look, carefully – at the age of elephant dung on the road, or for smaller creatures like the dung beetle rolling a ball across your path. You learn to be quiet, in deference to the animals, to be still – often for your own safety. Our last time in Addo, Rafe sat next to the guide/driver of our game vehicle as we stopped to let an elephant herd pass. One young bull, minus half a tusk, approached and stopped a metre from Rafe’s door, staring at him, at us. It was a breathless moment we won’t forget – especially Rafe. Especially since we met the same bull hours later at a waterhole, where he walked up to us and explored our windscreen with his trunk. Rafe has become something of an animal whisperer since then.

Rafe happily staked out near our room at Addo National Park, South Africa

On another trip, lions, lions, and more lions. We were in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, staying at the remote !Xaus Lodge on Dune 91, overlooking a heart-shaped pan in a sea of red sand. Due to a broken osmosis machine that provided wildlife with fresh water down by the pan, the lions had come up to camp, drinking from the birdbaths and seeking shade. Our San guide, Castro, had gleefully announced this when fetching us at the pick-up point to drive us over the dunes to the lodge. We were thrilled. For four days we watched and photographed lions relaxing on the dunes, under our decks, in the front drive. Of course we kept our distance, though I was surprised by a lioness one morning stealthily approaching a birdbath as I framed the sunrise through my camera lens. Rafe developed an ingenious method of dangling his camera off the deck outside his room to photograph a magnificent black-maned male below; I’m still not sure how he did it.

Conversation at sunset in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, with Bushman tracker Elvis

We learned volumes about lions and other fauna and flora there, on walks with the Bushmen, mostly Khomani San, part owners of the lodge. Rafe’s high-tech, New York City life receded as they taught us to read the stories in the sand – the imprint where a gemsbok overnighted, the trap ‘door’ of a buck spoor spider, a hyaena vs lion track. The Kalahari became our classroom as we learned the medicinal uses of various plants and trees, and how life survives in this ‘thirstland’. In the afternoons we spent time around the fire in their re-created kraal, watching them craft jewelry, mobiles, and other objects to sell, using just their finds in the bush: ostrich egg shell; bone; porcupine quills; pods from the camelthorn trees. Rafe made his own anklet with a traditional awl. One night we gathered in the boma, under an inky sky shot with stars, to hear their Bushman tales, each storyteller transforming into a different animal in the telling. Afterwards, in one magical instant epitomising our journey, a fiery comet trailed across the heavens. We were spellbound.

With my brother

My younger brother Merrill has always been the cautious one. Growing up north of Boston, I took on my parents in any argument; he stayed silent. I slalomed down ski slopes, sometimes crashing into trees; he executed a perfect, steady snowplow downhill. I became a journalist, venturing into war zones; he became a lawyer, specialising in intellectual property and contracts. Before he came back to South Africa two years ago, his only visit since my 1990 wedding, the only wildlife he’d seen were deer and squirrels in the New England woods or those caged in a zoo. Our trip to Addo – though a rerun for me – for him was a revelation.

My brother Merrill, thrilled to be setting off on his first game drive ever, Addo

At first the vervet monkeys hanging around our safari tent alarmed him, but they quickly became part of landscape; you wise up fast when they’re trying to snatch just about everything. Eland and other antelope at a waterhole fronting our tents distracted us; soon Merrill was an eager lookout – and a rabid photographer, snapping away at anything that moved.

His first game drive was relatively uneventful: a few elephants, far away; the ubiquitous impalas and kudus; zebra upon zebra herd. But Merrill was delighted, even with the vehicle itself. Nothing matches the Zen ‘beginner’s mind’ for amazement.

Merrill was surprisingly calm as this enormous bull approached and passed us

Our last day brought the most surprises: first a guided horseback ride, where Merrill – on a horse before only a handful of times – gamely cantered along with the rest of us, loving every minute. That afternoon we had our most thrilling – and blood-pumping – elephant encounter. We rounded a corner and saw an SUV stopped up ahead, and the reason why: a giant bull with tusks like sabres commanded the road, walking towards them, and us. We pulled over to the left as far as possible, almost into the bush, to let him pass. Stopped, but kept the engine running. Lumbering along, he dwarfed the SUV, which he passed slowly, coming our way. For a minute or so he was headed straight towards us, ears flapping slightly. I thought my brother would panic. But dead silent, he filmed the elephant’s approach on his phone; I snapped a photo of him as he passed on the driver’s side. I could have touched him if I leaned out the window. When he was behind us, we burst into laughter and exclamation; the thrill hasn’t left us.

Not a rider, my brother embraced the Addo experience wholeheartedly

I’ve looked at Merrill differently since our little safari; he’s braver than I remembered. After years of being apart, that shared experience in the African bush brought our hearts back together.

With my mother

An African safari – actually a pair of them, back to back – is not something I associated with Mom, Barbara Jacqueline Bell Soule Baumann Shipley, whose relatives sailed on the Mayflower and are buried in Boston Common. But when Jack, her second husband and my stepfather, died after a grim demise from Alzheimer’s 28 years ago, I invited her to Cape Town, then onwards to the Okavango and Kalahari.

It was rough, a far cry from the comfort she was used to in her travels. Run by an overland tour operator, each safari was two weeks of driving into the wilderness with a not totally compatible bunch of strangers. Definitely not the aristocratic ladies Mom played tennis with every week at the club.

My mother - a magnet for wildlife on safaris that saved her

In the Okavango, I shared a tent with my husband Hannes, which left Mom on her own. She charmed one particular assistant guide, always ready to help her put up her tent, and to answer her many questions. Like this one, asked one morning as we packed up camp on a small, palm-covered island: ‘What was that noise I heard all night? It sounded like a lawn mower!’ The guide checked around her fallen tent and told her: at least one hippo had munched his way around her as she slept. Or tried to sleep. The next night an elephant tearing branches off the tree overhanging her tent kept her awake. But Mom figured that one out.

Hannes skipped the second safari, so Mom and I shared a tent, and much else. Driving, driving, driving with the others, often in silence, in the dry heat across the semi-desert, to the Central Kalahari – stopping occasionally at a Bushman settlement but mostly moving through what looked like a vast emptiness. A gemsbok here and there; the lovely trees of Mabuasehube, strangely like a manicured English park; the moonscape of the Makgadikgadi Pans. Much time spent going inward, reflecting, the growing bonds unspoken, old bonds renewed.

After a month of travelling, we returned to Cape Town. Mom’s spirit seemed lighter. I still worried about her, sending her off solo again. ‘That was the best trip I’ve ever done’, she told me at the airport, about to fly back to America. Liberated.

She died seven years later, 21 years ago – but our safaris together seem like yesterday.

Written and photographed by Melissa Siebert 

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