EVEN AN occasional reader of the travel pages these days knows that an African "safari" is not what it used to be. The big-game-hunting days of Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway are gone forever, and the emphasis for today's visitor is on game-viewing and picture-taking from comfortable lodges and well-maintained minibuses.
Perhaps what is not so well known is that the accomodations and amenities for 1970s tourists are so comfortable that even youngsters now can enjoy a bush-country adventure that once was the preserve of only the rough-and-ready hunters of yesterday.
My family discovered this on a recent safari tour through the game parks on Kenya. Animal-watching always has been a favorite pastime with us, and a camping trip to Shenandoah National Park was not complete without the chance to watch a deer grazing in a meadow at sunset or a woodchuck scurrying along the road.
So last year when a safari story in the travel pages caught our attention, it was natural for us to wonder about taking the children along if we were ever to go. My wife and I asked a lot of questions, but were surprised to find that few children made such trips. Not much really was known about whether a game-viewing safari would be too rough for children the ages of our 8-and 11-year-olds. About the only thing we could find out for sure was that children under 6 were not permitted in some of the lodges in the game preserves.
When the opportunity actually came for us to join a safari tour, we decided we couldn't pass it up - all four of us would go and we hope for the best.
We were delighted. Our 10-day safari in September was a terrific family adventure that I'm sure will be the topic of the dinner-table discussions for years to come. The children enjoyed it fully as much as the adults, and we found no real problems at all in travelling with them.
All of the lodges in the Kenya parks we visited were very similar in accomodations. Rooms were modest, similar to an American roadside motel, usually with two single beds each. The lodges apparently were not built for families but for couples and singles. So on our group tour the price for children was the same as for adults, no "family plan" rate for us because there was no place where all of us could stay in the same room.
The meals, too, were aimed at adults, with elaborate lunchtime buffets full of fine-tasting good that, of course, many self-respecting 8-year-olds would never think of tasting. Dinners were often seven-course, but with no choice of an entree. It duck was on the menu, you got duck. This is fine for the adults - good, hearty fare familiar to any American - but enough unlike a home-cooked meal to be "different" to the kids and therefore difficult.
If we had any one problem, it was the food. No, no one got sick on it. On the whole, we found everything well-prepared and nicely served. But the kids often just picked at it because it was "different."
About five days through the trip I could have sold 8-year-old Johnny a peanut-and-jelly sandwich for six months' allowance. Despite months of admonitions at home before the trip that "the food in Africa might be different and you'll have to eat it," it took him a few days of being hungry to finally try the food. By the end of the trip he was enjoying the delicious Kenyan cheeses and breads that would offered as side dishes to the adults but became staple for the children.
Another food problem was milk. It was a heavy, rich milk, always served at nearly room temperature. Again, it was an alien taste. We finally had to suspend our longest-standing family rule and let them skip milk for the rest of the trip. We hoped the cheeses would provide sufficient protein to get them through. Apparently it did - Johnny and sister Cathy stayed healthy and alert throughout the trip, even dusty, bumpy roads and stomach problems sidelined some of the adults in our group tour.
For the children, the experiences really were from another world, far from anything they had ever known. They:
Rode a camel across a semi-desert plateau in southern Kenya.
Held 3-week-old lion cubs who had been orphaned and were being raised at one of the lodges.
Counted a total of more than 1,000 elephants, sometimes in herds of nearly 200.
Fed the beautiful tropical birds seen almost everywhere.
Watched baboons scamper over our minibus when it pulled off the road.
Played with the vervet monkeys that inhabited the edges of some of the lodge areas.
Stood in silence (really - they did) waiting for a shy rock hyrax to come out of her den tolook around, and then giggled so much when she finally did that she hurried away.
Watched from the bus while a mother cheetah romped across the plains with her four cubs. And with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background, no less.
Viewed thatched huts and fields planted with exotic crops from a bus traveling on the "wrong" side of the road in this former British coloney.
Stood in awe while Masai girls crowded around Cathy to make her show them the braces on her teeth.
And they were startled to find Kenyan tribal children fully as curious about the little white visitors as they were about the African children.
Along the way, Mom and Dad learned a few things about traveling with children. This was our first trip with them during which we shifted places nearly every day, which meant unpacking every night and putting it all back together in the morning. We finally figured out a packing arrangement that let us grab a fresh day's supply of clothes for the four of us without disrupting too many suitcases at once.
We were glad that we took enough street clothes along so that it was only necessary to wash out underwear, which dried quickly in the hot and dry climate. A warm sweater was needed nearly every night, and, under the equatorial sun, a broad-brimmed hat was vital for the children.
The dust was worse than we expected. We wished we had taken along a supply of cough drops to soothe dry throats during the hot late afternoons. But, then, there was a swimming pool at nearly every lodge, and the kids could jump in for a swim at the end of each day's ride. That made the drives seem shorter for them, too.
We found the children didn't play much with any of the games and toys we took for them. There were too many other distractions, and often they were so busy keeping up with a full schedule tailored to adults that they dropped off the sleep early but happily tired. Cathy spent some time every day compiling a list of the animals she saw and writing a journal of the day's activities, a book I'm sure she'll come to treasure.
A sensible Kenya parks regulation states that no one allowed to get out of a vehicle in the game parks. This gave us an answer for the children when they asked why they couldn't get closer to some of the animals.
Our only real concern about safety for the children was the confusion caused by driving on the left-hand side of the road. We felt we had to constantly remind them that cars would be coming from the "other" way.
On one other safety matter, it should be noted that the children were required to have the same immunizations for travel to Kenya as the adults - shots for yellow fever and cholera, a smallpox vaccination and malaria pills. They had no problems with any of these.
Restaurant and hotel staff members, and others in the Kenya tourist industry that we encountered during our stay, were always gracious and willing to attend to any extra details that came up as a result of having the children along. The agent who provided the minibuses for our tour group even managed to assign to our vehicle a driver who had youngsters of his own. The driver said our 8-year-old was the youngest he had ever taken on a tour, but we did see a few other children in some of the lodges. And our children enjoyed talking to these young visitors from other countries.
As we were flying back, my wife and I told each other how please we were that we hadn't let our initial uncertainly about conditions for the children make us leave them home. In fact, they made the trip extra special, giving the adults a chance to see so many things through a child's eye. A modern safari trip, it turns out, is for "children of all ages."