Leaning over the side of a four-by-four safari vehicle, it’s tricky to hold your camera steady. We are in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy in Kenya and can hardly believe our luck, having just chanced upon a cheetah and her two cubs who have taken an interest in us.
It’s a little alarming how close they get, especially when they stand up on their hind legs and begin gnawing at the wing mirror. My nine-year-old daughter is sitting in the back with her father, who is holding our four-year-old son tightly. It is only when one of the cubs looks as though it’s about to leap in that our guide, Lenkume, turns on the ignition to frighten the cheetahs off.
Lenkume tells us that a young cheetah did once jump into his truck, landing on an American tourist’s lap and ripping her jeans with razor-sharp claws.
You can’t help wondering, is going on a safari with young children really such a good idea?
Absolutely, is the answer. A safari holiday has always been a dream and when I heard that Great Plains, run by wildlife conservationists and filmmakers Derek and Beverly Joubert, now offer family-friendly safaris we raided our piggy banks, as it’s not cheap.
On a trip curated by tour operator Great Plains, Katie Nicholl and her family spend three days in the Chyulu Hills National Park before flying to the Maasai Mara (pictured)
First comes three days in the Chyulu Hills National Park staying at the Ol Donyo Lodge, before taking a 45-minute flight to the Mara Naboisho Conservancy in Maasai Mara, where we have three nights at Mara Nyika camp.
It’s an ambitious itinerary over a week (flying initially to Nairobi), so when we touch down in the golden fields of the Chyulu Hills, we head straight for the bush.
Dan, our guide, comes to the small plane with our very own Land Cruiser, complete with a well-stocked fridge, picnic table, chairs, two pairs of binoculars and a Canon camera. These extras mean you don’t have to use up precious luggage allowance (15kg per person in a soft bag is all allowed on the small internal aircraft) and you get to keep all the images on a USB stick.
You can’t help wondering, is going on a safari with young children really such a good idea? Absolutely, is the answer.
Everything you might need, from wet wipes to sunscreen and insect repellent, is included and because the camp does your laundry free of charge you can be frugal with packing. A fleece, layers you can peel off during the day, a scarf to wear over your mouth on dusty roads, proper shoes, a cap and good sunglasses are the essentials.
Itineraries are personalised and ours includes breakfast in the bush next to a lagoon with hippos and crocodiles, as well as sipping gin and tonics in the four-by-four at sundown while watching lion cubs rolling in the long grass.
A thrilling night-time safari is also thrown in. We use infra-red torches to observe packs of hyenas and lions, while stars high above the landscape provide the most wonderful light show.
Great Plains offers an all-inclusive kids’ club, which means that when the children are tired or bored, there’s plenty for them to do at the camp.
‘The food is excellent and there is a varied children’s menu for young explorers,’ Katie says of her stay at Ol Donyo Lodge (above) in the Chyulu Hills National Park
During a ‘thrilling’ night-time safari, Katie uses infra-red torches to observe packs of hyenas and lions (file photo)
Activities include archery, spear-making, learning how to make a fire, pizza-making and watercolour painting in the log hide-out overlooking a watering hole. The latter is the only source of water for 40 miles and attracts myriad wildlife, including zebra, impala, elan, monkeys, baboons and lions.
Horse-riding is offered, as are visits to Mbirikani, a local Maasai village an hour’s drive away. Here, we are welcomed by village elders and invited into their homes – huts made from cow dung.
There is no running water and no electricity. But with the help of a translator, we are given a real insight into local life. And it’s humbling.
On another day, a trip into the bush to see the work of the Big Life Foundation is arranged. This is an anti-poaching organisation working with the Kenyan government. Bloodhounds, named Bonnie and Clyde, work with park rangers to track down illegal poachers.
There’s so much to do – and it’s so educational for the children – that it’s tempting to be out adventuring non-stop, but it would be a shame not to enjoy the camp, too.
‘No two days in the Maasai are the same and we marvel at the vast number of animals,’ says Katie
Africa Exclusive has eight-night safaris with Great Plains for a family of four, including all flights, four nights at Ol Donyo Lodge and four at Mara Nyika Camp from £21,930; for two people the price is from £7230pp (safari.co.uk).
Each of the six lodges at Ol Donyo has its own butler service, plunge pool, ‘star bed’ (on the roof) and great views of the 300,000-acre conservation area. The food is excellent and there is a varied children’s menu for young explorers.
It might seem as though the luxurious experience is unmatchable but our stay at Mara Nyika proves this wrong. Nyika means ‘great plains’ and the camp is surrounded by acres of lush grassland where elephants roam at eye level to the stilted tents.
We opt for one of the newly refurbished family tents that boast two huge bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms complete with copper roll-top baths and walk-in showers, and a huge balcony where we enjoy breakfast with the monkeys.
This is a more exposed camp than Ol Donyo and we receive a safety briefing on arrival. No one is allowed to leave their tents at night and there is also round-the-clock security.
No two days in the Maasai are the same and we marvel at the vast number of animals. The ‘Big Five’ are here and, while we don’t encounter any rhino, we catch sight of the other four – elephants, lions, leopards and buffaloes.
The children have been given a wildlife tick list and we have hours of fun ticking off the names of all the magnificent creatures we have seen and learning their collective nouns – a troop of ostrich, a business of mongoose, a school of hippos.
Perhaps most magnificent of all is getting to see a leopard and her cub, while our son George falls in love with the warthogs and insists he wants to take ‘Pumbaa’ home. It’s hard not to think of the Lion King and the Circle Of Life – we’ve always loved the Disney hit, but nothing beats seeing Simba for real.