Three generations of the Perkins tribe experienced the best of South Africa - from luxurious safaris and animal encounters to theme parks and the hustle and bustle of city life, for a memorable family adventure to treasure forever.
Symantha Perkins tells their story.
“If you want happy memories, you have to live them first,” are the sage words on a rustic timber sign hanging in a game park we visited recently in gorgeous South Africa.
Watching our tiny daughter Charlie (four) hand-feeding giant elephants in the luxury Sun City resort is a standout moment on our African adventure, jam-packed with unforgettable family memories. Our teen kids hug a tusk each for a snapshot and raise food pellets up to the elephant’s trunks. The amazing Elephant Wallow is reason alone to visit Sun City, an interesting two-hour drive from Johannesburg. But there’s heaps more to discover in ‘the Las Vegas of Africa’.
At the Palace, our opulent yet family-friendly hotel, the rooms are spacious and the breakfast buffet world famous. My irrepressible father, who’s travelling with us, gobbles up jumbo-size waffles topped with whipped cream and Smarties! “Go ahead kids, it’s Easter,” he laughs.
Soon we’re burning off the calories hooning around the bumpy adventure circuit on quad bikes. Our kids can’t stop giggling at my hilarious “panda tan” - I’m covered head to foot in red dust except for white goggle marks around my eyes. Suddenly our guide stops as five giraffe cross the road. “Animals have right of way,” he nods nonchalantly while we gape in awe.
A favourite Perkins family travel story is “the baboon incident”. Despite being warned not to leave balcony doors open in Sun City, hubby Kieren absent-mindedly does exactly that. Georgia (12), listening to her iPod in bed, turns over to see wild baboons jumping right next to her. Screaming follows from everyone as Kieren frantically evicts the baboons, and slams the door shut behind them. But the persistent primates try prying the locks open with their hands and teeth. It’s a long night with one eye on the door.
For the next leg of our trip, we fly into Lion Sands Private Game Reserve, on the Western border of breathtaking Kruger National Park. Safari animals stray across the airstrip as we come in to land. Any initial reservations we have about region safety or suitability for kids vanish the moment we spot our first jungle animal. A stunning leopard crouching barely metres from our open-top Land Rover is stalking an unsuspecting impala.
“Believe me you’re quite fine in the car, the leopard’s only interested in impala,” our field ranger reassures us, but we dare not move.
During our two-hour morning and afternoon game drives we never go more than five minutes without coming across giraffes, rhinos, lions, elephants, warthogs, water buffalo, rare African painted dogs, you name it we see it. God’s gifts to the animal kingdom are so incredibly close we never need the binoculars packed for the trip. When our little one, Charlie, gets tired the four-wheel-drive’s rocky rhythm soothes her to sleep, and the rest of us continue playing jungle I-spy.
Between safaris, lunch is a relaxed affair of fresh salads, chicken skewers and crusty bread back at the lodge on a deck overlooking the meandering Sabie River.
The children giggle at cheeky velvet monkeys in trees beside us, and shriek when elephants turn up to swim in the waterhole. Magnificent hippos float further downstream and I literally have to pinch myself. We fall in love with the infectious enthusiasm and grace of the African people, experiencing incredible affection. The staff love kids and Charlie is spoilt for board game companions, or to supervise them swimming in the glistening lodge pool.
One night drive is exhilarating. A pride of lions chorus a deep bellow that rumbles through the African plains. Unnervingly our vehicle is parked dead centre of more than a dozen big cats. Some snooze, some stare at us, just as long as these jungle kings don’t want us for dinner!
Truthfully, Johannesburg’s historical violence gave us initial concerns about visiting with children, but after doing our homework we were confident about personal safety and it boils down to careful planning.
The concierge at the palatial Westcliff Hotel suggests pre-booking taxis (safer than waiting in the street for one to show up) and directs us to secure tourist areas, like Nelson Mandela Square. Our meal at the Butcher Shop, famous for their juicy ribs and gargantuan steaks is delicious.
Over at Lesedi Cultural Village, Dad has the tribal warriors laughing with his weird safari outfits and the Zulu chief swaps hats with my father for a photograph. Lesedi is a replica centre of five different types of African tribal villages. Tribesmen with spears and swords immediately catch Harry’s eye while the girls admire the silver rings around their necks and legs on the tribal women.
At Gold Reef City theme park, the kids get a taste of Jo-Burg’s gold rush era. Kieren and the kids throw on hardhats and disappear 280 metres down a mineshaft. “That dynamite and rock drilling is awesome,” Harry grins as we resurface.
School teaches kids that Africa is the Cradle of Humankind and at Maropeng - an interactive museum - children get to walk through the stages of world evolution. Kids can touch everything, a brilliant learning concept for toddlers or teens, and hours of headache-free holiday fun for parents. No screaming hands off precious exhibits all day long, instead we enjoy playing with them all, especially a moving jaw display.
The kids bounce on a rope suspension bridge leading into Jaci’s Safari Lodge in Madikwe Game Reserve (situated against the Botswana border, three-hours drive from Johannesburg). Our lodge is like Tarzan’s tree house, complete with outdoor shower!
George our ranger wastes no time whipping us straight on safari. Instantly we encounter elephants, jackals and impala, nicknamed “bush hamburgers” because almost every other animal eats them. Two lions gnawing on a freshly caught wildebeest barely notice us watching, it’s incredible.
We never go hungry either. One morning we enjoy a surprise brunch right in the middle of the game park. Eggs poached in orange skins over hot coals. Sitting at beautiful dining tables it’s easy to forget we’re in the jungle until our ranger informs us a recent wedding ceremony couldn’t be held in this very spot, because lounging lions refused to move on!
Sundowner drinks and canapés at dusk is another tradition our family enjoys. While we sip gin and tonics, the kids sit in the forward tracker seat and shine a spotlight on waterbuck and kudu. As the red sun drops behind the mountains, zebra and springboks graze around us.
A boma dinner is held in a circular barbecue area fenced by upright tree branches. Huddled around the open fire under the stars, we occasionally hear lions roar as mouth-watering oxtail stews in a cast iron pot and lamb chops sizzle on the grill. Lanterns hang from ancient marula trees (a favourite food of elephants) illuminating silver service on the dinner table. I glance at my kids, their dad and grandfather roasting marshmallows over the campfire. I will forever be grateful for our wonderful family memories under the African skies.
Sunny all year around, with December to February being the hottest, there is no real off-season for travel.
The currency is the South African rands (ZAR).
Though there are 11 official languages spoken in South Africa, English is most commonly spoken.
Visit South African Tourism