Travel: Baby’s first safari

Emma Jordan gears up to introduce her toddler to the African bush, and takes her own mother along for back-up

“Zebbies!” shouts Charlotte as we turn a dusty corner. We’ve been on the back of a game-viewing truck for over an hour and the rocking from the rutted road, combined with a whole day of travel and the baking heat has taken its toll on my two year old. She’s tired. And grumpy. And generally the novelty of ‘going to see the animals’ has long worn off.

We’re three hours north of Johannesburg in the Waterberg region of South Africa and taking a girls’ holiday. I’m a single mum and I’ve invited my mother to join us, so we’re travelling as a threesome, ‘making memories’, as my friend Kate would say.

We all know, as useful as mothers can be, they can also be a nightmare. Especially on holiday when it’s likely your accommodation is smaller than at home and a different routine is disruptive. It’s lucky, then, that we’ve chosen a reserve that is entirely flexible – and spacious. Ant’s Hill is luxurious, but not precious. All the specs are high – the linens are fine, the beds large and the service impeccable. And it really excels at its home-from-home approach  – anything is possible at any time.

The thatched lodges exude African charm

We have our own cottage with two double bedrooms, one with a spectacular outdoor bath and the other with an equally impressive outdoor shower. There’s a private plunge pool with kikoy-covered day beds and a deep, shaded terrace perfect for afternoon massages. It’s beautiful, but comfortable enough that I don’t have to spend my time worrying about sticky fingers and dirty feet. An analogy for the entire Ant’s experience – things are fine, but easy.

It’s Charlotte’s first safari and I’m clearly more excited than her. She’s been animated about going on the aeroplane, and has enjoyed seeing Granny, but I feel she would actually rather be back home, in her bed, in her routine. As many times we’ve practiced animal noises and talked about their habits, actually being with them is still an abstract.

It’s also hot and there’s a lot going on. As we’re out of season, there are only eight other guests, ranging in age from 30 to 70 and they’re all here for one thing: to ride horses. Ant’s offers South Africa’s best riding safaris. It has almost 50 horses and can accommodate all skill levels. There are no lions or elephants in the 45-hectare reserve, but plenty of buck, warthogs, kudu, eland, buffalo, zebra, giraffes and rhino that hide in the shade and drink thirstily from the waterholes. On the back of a horse, man’s scent is masked, allowing riders to really get up close and personal with these wild creatures in their natural habitat.

After day one, I realise I need to take charge, Charlotte is definitely feeling strained. I need to create some bush boundaries. I let my mother know we can’t do everything and be extra gentle with my child. I, too, have to let go of holiday expectations.

Little ones have the opportunity to play, swim and track animals

I’ve tried the babysitter – Charlotte’s not keen, so I’ve set up our own safari routine. We all go to breakfast, then I go riding, leaving Granny and her granddaughter to swim, play on the trampoline and ride the push bikes. I return for lunch, which I take in our cottage with Charlotte, while Granny joins the adults under the trees for bush barbecues. This is followed by nap time – for all three of us. Then it’s time for another activity – a bush drive, bush walk or the best for little Charlotte, her first bush ride.

Jiggy is Ant’s resident pony. He’s piebald and everything a bush pony should be – incredibly docile and extremely friendly. Dan, our guide – who has been with Ant’s for more than 15 years – merely has to walk in front of Jiggy for him to gently keep in step.

We passed giraffe and zebras grazing on our way to the stables, so Dan suggests we go find them with Jiggy. Out of the gate we plod, Charlotte and Jiggy in the lead as we pass warthogs, kudu and antelope. She’s in her element. I have to remind myself she’s only two years old as I see her sitting proudly astride the pony, riding through the bush.

Unfortunately the ‘zebbies’ and ‘piraffes’ have moved on. But we find them on our way back when we’re in the truck. Dan explains that giraffes’ tongues are 45cm long and are tough enough to wrap around thorny branches, stripping the tasty leaves. Charlotte is fascinated and forever now her favourite animal is the ‘piraffe’. During our trip she also gets to go on bug walks, follow spoor, play with chameleons and swim in a pool just 10 metres from a crash of rhino.

As with most holidays, as soon as you really get into it, it’s time to return home. I would, however, happily go back to Ant’s year after year – but probably in the school holidays when it’s filled with kids of a similar age. It would allow us all a chance to grow with the experience. As it is, I hope we have made a few first memories.