African Safari with a Toddler

An African safari is the dream trip, right? Who hasn’t imagined themselves with a khaki-clad crew driving a safari jeep through the Serengeti? Turns out it isn’t as unattainable as you may have thought. It can be done inexpensively and is pretty doable, so doable that you can do it with a toddler!

Self-Guided African Safari

I didn’t realize until I started researching for our trip, but you can self-drive your safari in most places. There are national parks that you can just drive right up to for a daily rate, just like you would Yosemite! You can drive around and see tons of elephants, giraffes, zebra, and more all by yourself. In Namibia we had our overlander camper truck, but in South Africa we were literally in a tiny sedan next to elephants! It’s kind of wild they let you do this.

Obviously hiring a guide is a much better experience in terms of wildlife spotting, but because many of the animals (especially the big cats) are more active at dawn you have to wake up super early! With a baby or toddler this isn’t always easy. The self-guided safari is a nice option to have if you want to work around nap times, etc. Your toddler can be happily munching on snacks and looking at books or playing with toys while you patiently scout out the next wild animal!

We did a mix of the two. In Etosha we booked an early morning guided tour the lions were much more active…but so were the tourists! It was packed. Maybe we just got lucky, but the day prior we spotted lions on our own with no one around. And the guided safari jeeps are expensive! We wanted a private one because this is a once in a lifetime trip for most people and we didn’t want to disturb others’ experience with a crying toddler, but we also didn’t want to pay the price tag of a private one. We lucked out by booking a shared jeep and being the only ones that reserved it. (The receptionist hinted this may happen.)

Where should I safari with a toddler?

You can safari in many countries throughout Africa. We stuck with Namibia and South Africa because there was a decreased chance of malaria and there were direct flights from The States. I didn’t realize it but there are a couple of different options when doing a safari. There are national parks like Kruger and Etosha but there are also privately owned Nature Reserves. These felt a bit more like “cheating” to me since they are buying and stocking the reserves with animals. How is this different than Disney World’s Animal Kingdom or the San Diego Safari Park? We ended up staying at one of these reserves on our Namibian road trip, but we didn’t do a safari there.

I also had questions about fences. You expect to just be driving around Africa and have lions and elephants cross the road, but what I didn’t think about was poachers. The national parks technically have gates to keep the animals in…and the poachers out. Again this felt a bit like “cheating”, but ended up giving me peace of mind as we were camping outside many nights! You definitely don’t want to see a lion then! To be fair the parks are massive (Etosha is the size of New Jersey!) so it doesn’t feel like you’re inside a contained space.

I also didn’t think about not being able to get out of the car whenever you want because lions may eat you, duh! There are designated gated rest areas with bathrooms. Marin was still in diapers so we didn’t really have to worry about him which was good. I may have sent Grant on a risky pacifier recon mission when Marin threw it out the window! He returned to the car unscathed.

Are there any restrictions to safari with a toddler?

Some places may make you take a private tour with young children as not to disrupt others’ experience, and some places will flat out refuse. We didn’t do a safari at Okonjima Nature Reserve because the age minimum is six years. They were afraid any crying would bother the leopards.

Safari in South Africa at Addo Elephant Park

Addo was pretty small and with the self-guided option it felt like “safari-lite”, but it was super cool entry level safari for us nonetheless. We saw zebra, warthogs, elephants, oryx, tortoises, buffalo, and baboons! The wildlife wasn’t nearly as dense as Etosha, but still a worthwhile stop if in the area! I mean wild Elephants, c’mon!

Safari in Namibia at Etosha National Park

Etosha is absolutely amazing! We spent 4 days exploring and could have easily spent more time. We saw so many animals here and loved exploring the park and it’s immense pan. Anywhere We Roam has a very helpful post on where to spot wildlife within the park. We saw more elephants than we could count, giraffes, zebras, ostriches, and LIONS! You know you’re in a good safari spot when the zebras become boring.

Where to Stay in Etosha National Park

Staying inside the actual park is the way to go! We spent two nights inside the park in a standard hotel room at Okaukuejo Resort. I wish we could have reserved a watering hole chalet but they fill up way in advance! This place was awesome! It was about $100 per night and included meals. There was a nice pool too, but the star of the show is the freaking watering hole! You can just sit on a bench with a glass of wine and watch rhinos and elephants come for a sip. There is even stadium seating! The watering hole at nighttime was super cool because only guests could be there. The park itself was closed and we were staying inside!

So what does nighttime waterhole viewing look like with a toddler? The first night we took turns staying in the room with Marin and going to the watering hole, but it was so hard because you would see something awesome and run back to the room to switch so the other person could see. The second night we put him asleep in the carrier and watched. But the minute he made a peep I had to book it back to the room!

Not realizing how cool staying in the park would be (the room was pretty basic and there wasn’t much of an online presence), I had booked our other nights at Mushara Bush Camp and Mushara Lodge. I wanted to stay at Bush Camp for three nights, but one night was sold out so we moved to the more luxurious lodge.

Grant nearly died when we checked into Mushara Bush Camp. It was an actual glamping tent with no AC! Yep, no air conditioner in the African desert heat… for a nearly $300 a night price tag. It was a cool hotel but we were outside of the park so each morning we had to waste time driving to the park gates versus staying inside the park.

Our one night at Mushara Lodge was even more expensive but very comfortable. Mushara was a boutique safari hotel experience, but we found the national park version to be superior. You can also car camp in the park. We had our overlander with a tent, but had already reserved the room before the car.

Between the two parks, we saw four of the big five (lion, rhino, elephant and African buffalo)! We’ll have to make a repeat visit for the elusive leopard.

Safari Squad,


Note: We visited Africa in October and November 2021.

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