When I imagined our first family safari, our 10-month-old daughter in tow, I never pictured releasing her onto the wild red Kalahari Desert sand to join a mob of 15 meerkats. (And yes, that’s the proper term.) But there we were, watching Indah crawl curiously toward a trio of the diminutive mammals, reaching out her chubby hand in a choppy wave as they stared, frozen in myriad meerkat poses — one standing, leaned back on its kickstand-like tail, another crouched. With a longtime researcher overseeing the adorable interaction, she was so excited and they, too, were interested. This was the first human baby the clan had ever seen. We know this for a fact since they’re habituated in Tswalu, a 111,000-hectare (274286 acre) private reserve with a maximum of 28 guests. By Kathryn Romeyn
African Safari with a baby
I thought our guide, OB Medupe, was joking when he first mentioned we sit Indah amid all these funny little not-quite-foot-tall creatures. But he delivered, on that and so many more stunning moments while we lived our best lives at Tswalu, The Motse in January, followed by Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge — both in South Africa, a place with a seemingly universal love for babies. The adventure was planned in flawless detail by Extraordinary Journeys‘ CEO, Elizabeth Gordon, and her team — several of them moms — using their encyclopedic knowledge of the most kid-friendly (not to mention low-malaria-risk) safari destinations on the African continent.
Before I continue, I’m aware that taking an infant on an African safari sounds out there. My past exploits were always hyper-focused on wildlife photography, but I was eager to be more present and soak up the bush through fresh eyes. My husband, Keith, and I are adventurous travellers and wildlife lovers, and we want to expose our daughter, Indah, to the world early, layering in typical baby experiences with extraordinary ones, too. We feel it’s important for her to hear other languages and accents, and be loved by others who are not her family. She won’t remember waving at giraffes and jabbering at elephants, having her diaper changed 20 feet from a leopard, or eating biltong in the bush during sundowners, but I’m confident those experiences will wiggle into her subconscious and positively affect her worldview and sense of connection.
In contrast to her small COVID bubble at home, Indah’s safari sphere was infinite. The magic began the moment we touched down in Tswalu’s sleek eight-seat aircraft and stepped into The Nest, living architecture where hundreds of sociable weaver birds flitted between their homes woven into the thatched roof. (The Fireblade Aviation hangar in Johannesburg was a lovely prelude, with a large kids’ playroom, snacks, and wine.) They captivated our baby birder, her eyes dancing trying to follow them. We hopped into a Land Cruiser with OB and our tracker, Piet, who laughed when I joked that Indah had been waiting her whole life for this. “Her whole 10 months,” cracked Keith. And with that, our safari — a Swahili word meaning journey — began, filled with rare species signature to the Kalahari Desert.
There, amid iconic orange sand with painterly layers of green, pink, and blue adding depth to the landscapes, we saw pygmy antelopes called steenbok, a slick black sable running like a mythical creature, and cheetah brothers, fur wet from the morning dew, walking coolly and sniffing around before stretching out on their backs in typical cat style. Our first giraffe sighting made a major impact, and Indah waved maniacally, pointed, and talked up a storm. These giant animals full of grace seemed to notice our tiny Dr Dolittle, who spoke to them exuberantly.
The nickname stuck at Sabi Sabi, where our soft-spoken yet knowledgeable guide, Andries Ndlovu, responded to Indah’s evocative chatter aimed at a sea of impalas with, “Who knows, they might understand you!” As a soon-to-be first-time dad, he loved her enthusiasm. But Indah’s spirited full-body communication made us nervous at times, too, like while watching a thick-maned male lion nurse a fresh forehead wound. Andries knew from experience that this cat had no interest in us, but my heart nearly jumped out of my chest when he sat up just as Indah started voicing her hangry cues. I quickly begin nursing her as he walked past, a few nail-biting feet away. In contrast, I didn’t worry at all when we rolled up on a maternal lioness that Andries called “a tough cookie” as she dozed in a sandy riverbed with her two girls.
Be prepared for your child to occasionally scare off wildlife, like when Indah’s excited yelp frightened a beautiful cheetah before I could lift my camera. Overwhelmingly, however, she seemed to have little impact on the wild, though she made an impression on visitors surprised to spot a human baby. Animal babies weren’t a rarity, though, like when we saw an elephant family of mamas, daughters, aunties, and sisters, the little ones running playfully and adults using their trunks to bathe in sand that looked like shimmering gold in the morning sun. I’d typically be all over that moment with my telephoto lens, but Indah was still waking up and I happily tended to her. A bonus? I got to take the magnificent parade in with my eyes instead of through a camera.
Our protective instincts flared up again, during the African safari, amid an idyllic scene of dazzling zebras, wildebeest, a spectacular saddle-billed stork, and more elephants, including the animal world’s version of a six-ton bodybuilder on steroids: a male musth. The strong earthy smell washed over us in the breeze, signalling an aggressive guy who moments later charged, looking positively ginormous beside another vehicle. In the excitement, Indah fell asleep, soothed somehow by the deafening cacophony of birds. She was still out when we met a leopard, legs and tail dangling from a high tree branch — the picture of chill yet amazingly alert with yellow eyes.
A monumental mama white rhino with her precious baby most engaged Indah as they grazed their way closer to us, munching on grass and clearly curious about this outrageously loud yet petite creature gesticulating and calling in a tiny Sabi Sabi safari hat. Rhinoceroses balance bad eyesight with superior smell and hearing, so when Indah did what babies do best, she played right into their senses. Mama, a mere 15 feet from our vehicle, actually jumped, turned, and trotted away. Yes, our child’s number two ended this most intimate rhino encounter.
Fortunately, she didn’t frighten away Tswalu’s full-time baby whisperer (aka child minder), Sanna, a sweet South African Mary Poppins who Indah immediately hopped to like a lemur. It was a trip to have someone swing by and snag our baby, then return her smiling and clutching a flower or seed pod. On one occasion, when looking for our daughter, I was told, “Indah’s in the spa having a treatment and Sanna says she’s not done yet.” I laughed and headed over to find Indah sitting on Sanna’s lap eating a cookie, her feet being lovingly rubbed by a masseuse. Sanna’s fun watch enabled Keith and I to get a massage, and also have the culinary adventure of a lifetime at Klein Jan, the surprising restaurant by Michelin-starred South African chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen. A fellow diner aptly described it as the “James Bond of dining experiences.”
At Sabi Sabi, our housekeeper, Busi, doubled as a babysitter. When we returned one night to our stunning suite — a two-bedroom with three bathtubs, including a pair in the glorious glass-encased primary bathroom — at 9 pm, we were shocked and amused to find a dazed-looking baby tied around Busi’s back. It was a hilarious cultural exchange moment for Indah, who’d apparently woken up hours earlier and didn’t want to go back to sleep. (The concept of letting a baby fall back asleep unassisted does not seem to translate.)
Gordon had promised these properties would cater well to Indah, and she was spot on. Sabi Sabi has a vibrant, vast kids’ camp, dubbed EleFun Centre. Chefs at both camps happily prepared special meals for Indah at the odd times we needed them — say 4 pm so she could eat dinner on the road during the African safari. Our first attempt was somehow smoother than in a high chair, despite bumping along corduroy roads. (Pediatricians recommend babies have good head and neck stability for these rough rides, and sit in a rear-facing car seat.) We also stashed croissants and rusks for a mid-drive snack to keep Indah occupied.
A few more practical tips: Pack lots of layers for multiple seasons in one day. (We’d also sprayed Indah’s clothes with permethrin in advance, and none of us got a single mosquito bite.) Give yourselves a few days before starting the safari to adjust to South Africa time. Four Seasons Hotel The Westcliff, Johannesburg — wonderful with baby amenities — makes a lovely first stop for resetting internal clocks and circadian rhythms plus spending relaxed days at the pool and lush grounds.
Above all, be comfortable with flexibility. It’s amazing how a little one’s enthusiasm for exciting newness can trump exhaustion. Our guides were adaptable to our timing, plus we had a private vehicle. And we alternated nights keeping Indah up later with ones where we put her down early with a sitter so we could have adults-only drives. The first evening, I tried putting her to sleep in the car seat while we spotted wildlife and a nest of sweet just-hatched birds, but she cried so loudly that OB said she sounded like a distressed cob. So, defeated, we stopped for gin and tonics as Indah sat in the tracker seat, jubilant despite her tired red eyes.
Even at 10 months, Indah seemed to come into her own in Africa, as so many adults do. Observing her being as social, trusting, and fearless toward animals, as she was with all the guides, trackers, hosts, servers, and housekeepers, was a pure joy. Her beautiful unbridled energy rubbed off on everyone, especially me — I actually found myself waving to a group of impalas when she wasn’t around. “When you stop looking and just enjoy, it’s like the animals come to you,” Andries said at one point, enjoying our baby-led pace, too. It was a wonderfully chill vibe with less pressure than on previous safaris. I felt connected: to the wildlife, to the landscapes, to Africa, and to Indah, who nursed a ton and took incredible naps, including one for nearly two hours in my arms as we cruised through the Kalahari calmly looking for rhino tracks.
Being outside all day long in fresh air helped lull Indah into slumbers I know had to be filled with the fantastical wildlife we were seeing. And no, she won’t recall actually seeing them, but I believe those memories will infiltrate her dreams for a long time to come. Mine, too.