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Biscuit baking, bug walks and pool picnics on a safari? These experiences are all possible at South Africa’s Thornybush Nature Reserve. The 38,000-acre private game reserve in the northeastern Limpopo province is one of the few in the country with family-friendly safari lodges.
The biggest player is the Thornybush Collection of four- and five-star game lodges — it owns or operates nine of the reserve’s 11 lodges. Children are actively welcomed at both Thornybush Game Lodge and Serondella, while other lodges in the collection accept youngsters if the family books out the sole use of the camp.
Kids must be six years old and older to go out on game drives. Each family is assigned a ranger-guide who enjoys interacting with young guests, and drives can be tailored to suit kids’ interests and attention spans. They are unlikely to get bored though — not when they see, almost within touching distance of their open Land Cruiser, a cheetah devouring an impala (gross!) or a hyena suckling her pups (cute!).
During a three-night stay, guests are almost guaranteed to see the “Big Five” — lion, Cape buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhino (including rare black rhinos). Thornybush Game Reserve is also home to zebra, giraffe, hyena, cheetah and vervet monkeys (who like to snatch muffins and fruit from the outdoor dining room). As the park is privately owned, you can drive off the sandy tracks for better game viewing and, for kids, bouncing around off-road in the bush is a fun ride. Night drives are also offered within the reserve; that’s when you see lions, as they usually hunt after the sun sets.
And don’t worry about the youngsters getting hungry on drives. The “ranger-in-training” backpacks they receive upon check-in (containing coloring books, crayons and an interactive safari toy) are refilled with cookies and drinks before heading out.
Accommodations are very comfortable. All lodges in the Thornybush Collection have electricity and air-conditioning. Two suites at Thornybush Game Lodge — the flagship camp — can sleep families of five (with large living rooms and private plunge pools, they also double as honeymoon suites).
As well as kid-specific game drives, children are offered a special morning program at least once during their safari. While they are out on a treasure hunt or educational walk with an armed ranger-guide to see lion paw tracks or towering termite mounds, you can indulge in a couples’ massage, followed by a luxury hydro “bush bath,” at Thornybush Game Lodge’s Amani Spa.
A memorable evening at the lodge includes dinner in the outdoor boma (African gathering place). Seated at communal tables, guests feast by lantern light on barbecued impala and lamb — trying some fine South African pinotage wine too. Little ones can curl up on mattresses by the blazing fire pit. South African hospitality at its best.