Family holiday review: Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, South Africa

A safari is full of surprises and amazement, but what's most surprising is that it can be suitable for young families

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In a nutshell: Safaris are never cheap but Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, with its wealth of wild animals, including elephants, rhinos, cheetahs and lions, and 54,000 hectares of natural flora, is an experience that can’t be measured by money. It’s likely to be one of those family holidays that will live on in young minds and family stories for many years. 

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Best for: Families with children over the age of four. As long as your children are over four years they’re able to join the family on the safari tours (although not any walking tours under the age of 16), so it’s an exciting holiday for even young primary schoolers. If you do have under 4s, there are childminding facilities all day at the lodge, so your little ones can be looked after while you’re on safari. We certainly saw enthusiastic childminders doing painting and drawing activities. 

The Gondwana Lodge at Sanbona is a luxurious safari experience with an eco-friendly heart. Sanbona is dedicated to environmental conservation, reintroducing indigenous species of animal, such as the Cape mountain zebra, conserving endangered plant species and constantly testing the environmental impact of the numbers of animals on the site. The rangers are highly skilled at tracking the animals and telling stories about the fauna and fossils – a fantastic combination for a guaranteed action-packed, family-fun holiday!

Why it’s family friendly…

1 Malaria-free and only an hour time difference (although a long flight)

Sanbona is in a malaria free zone, which means you don’t have to worry about taking anti-malaria pills. The long-haul flight does take around 11 hours, so you’ll need lots of things for the children to do on the plane. However, the upside is that there’s only an hour’s time difference, so if you can settle the children to bed once you’ve arrived, you may not have a jet lag problem. 

2 Big suites and lots of activities

We stayed at the Gondwana Lodge, which consists of 12 large luxury suites especially for families. It offers endless views over the reserve and the Bellair Dam. A combination of traditional homestead with a modern twist design, the accommodation is light, airy and luxurious. The bedroom and bathroom offer an uninterrupted view of the reserve, so you can wake up to or lie back and enjoy the view: what a treat! The rooms have air conditioning, under floor heating, private mini bar and a digital safe.

While the bedrooms don’t have a television, it encourages you to enjoy the communal lounge – complete with roaring fireplace – outdoor dining area and pool, with child-friendly area. The pool is open and so you need to supervise your children swimming at all times. Every child staying at Sanbona is entered into the Kids on Safari programme. There is also a small gift shop, which most children will love with its huge array of clothing, toys and holiday accessories.

3 Safari related to your children’s ages

After signing in at the gate of Sabona, it is a further hour’s drive to the Gondwana Lodge. Although you may be tired from travelling, children are bound to have their faces pressed against windows looking out for their first glance of a wild animal. We luckily spotted zebra and springbok on our way in.

Upon arrival to the lodge, your family will be greeted with a welcome drink by the friendly staff. Taking weather and children’s ages considerations into account, your ranger will then discuss safari options with you – be sure to tell what your favourite animals are and what you would most like to see. Arriving at the lodge, there’s a welcome air of calm and contentment – and we soon found ourselves relaxing by the pool enjoying the incredible view.

In between safari drives, there’s a kid’s playroom, which is staffed, and an outdoor play area. Activities, such as stargazing, clay making, face painting and bead making, are all hosted at the lodge. 

4 Unforgettable animals and plants

The main reason for visiting Sanbona is to catch sight of the amazing species of resident animals. Our range guide, Marco, prepared us for our early morning drive with blankets, hot water bottles and hot chocolate to warm us up! The vehicles are open-sided, so with the morning chill and wind, it can get a little cold. But with our supplies, we were nice and cosy and ready for our adventure.

We took two drives per day: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We had breakfast before we left, lunch in the middle back at the lodge and a dinner upon return. All the time, we were kept full with tasty snacks and drinks. You can discuss your particular drive expectations with your ranger.

Sanbona is home to elephants, cheetahs, white rhinos, lions, giraffes and hippo, as well as, more unusual to UK visitors, springbok, eland and kilpspringer, to name just a few. The excitement is often in the chase, as your ranger uses a combination of his initiative and tracking devices to find the animals’ location. We raced off down the Little Karoo to see, close up and personal, four cheetah cubs, a two week old elephant and three white lions (of which there are only 450 in the world), amongst many other exciting spots. The thrill of the chase is perfect for children, and it’s an amazing experience to spot much-loved animals in their natural habitat. They’ll also be kept entertained with discovering beautiful natural plants, like our personal favourite, the Baby’s Bottom plant!

5 Family-friendly food

You can make sure the family is ready for your day’s big adventure with a generous buffet breakfast (classic hot options are available too). Lunch and dinner, both hosted at the lodge, are sure to be filled with exciting discussions about the day’s adventures. You might like to swap stories with the families staying at the lodge – did they also spot the baby elephant? Did they see the dazzle of Cape mountain zebra? How exciting!

Even fussy eaters will find something to enjoy at Gondwana. The children’s options include homemade fresh fishfingers, macaroni cheese and fruit platters, while you can enjoy three courses at lunch and dinner: why not, you’re on holiday! Traditional South African options, such as roast springbok, mingle with delicious soups, filling steak burgers and fresh pasta..

Note: All food is included in the overall price you pay for your stay, plus water and soft drinks, but alcoholic drinks are charged separately.

What to look out for

  • Children younger than 4 are not permitted on game drives
  • Children younger than 16 are not permitted on walking tours
  • Childminding is done by lodge staff at an additional cost and can be arranged before your stay
  • All swimming activities must be supervised by parents at all times
  • All activities are age and weather dependant

Extras

  • The Little Karoo Interpretive trail, located in front of the main lodge. Take a walk through the garden of Gondwana, which is dotted with giant animal skulls, including an elephant and giraffe.
  • On site spa – the Relaxation Retreat has two therapy rooms and a steam room.
  • Other accommodation sites at Sanbona include the Dwyka Tented Lodge, a romantic setting for babymooners or honeymooners, and Tilney Manor, also a good babymooner option as it offers peace and tranquility in a traditional setting.

We made the most of our family holiday to South Africa, by combining our visit with a stay in Cape Town. We stayed at the Cape Grace Hotel, located on the V&A Waterfront. Cape Town is around a four-hour drive from Sanbona and transfers to Sanbona can be pre-arranged with the concierge at Cape Grace, or individually.   

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