Skip to main contentSkip to footer

Where to take teens on safari: a South African family adventure

A bucket-list holiday of a lifetime

safari teen
Sophie Vokes-Dudgeon
Head of Digital
Share this:

Taking the kids on safari has been a bucket-list dream ever since I was lucky enough to visit South Africa with a group of journalists five years ago. In a few days, I fell in love with the country and vowed to return with the family. A global pandemic got in the way but with travel back on the agenda, and a teenager about to start sixth form, I decided it was now or never – and I can happily report that the holiday lived up to all the ‘once in a lifetime’ expectations, and then some! 

How to book a family safari?

There are many ways to book a safari for your family – and there is no getting away from the fact that this is an expensive family holiday. But for me – perhaps the hint of a control freak here – the idea of spending more money, and having less autonomy by going with a big company, was less appealing than putting a trip together myself.

READ: Going on holiday? You need to get an Apple AirTag on Amazon – here's why

boys in safari van

The teenage years are a great time to go on safari

Of course there are plenty of all-inclusive options, but I was introduced to the Mantis Collection of hotels by a colleague who was already a fan of their eco-friendly safari holidays, and it seemed like a good idea. The group of properties they have, clustered around Gqeberha (formerly called Port Elizabeth) on the Eastern Cape are almost indescribably incredible, and a great way to mix up safari, beach and city time in whatever proportion you most desire.

Johannesburg with kids

The most affordable way to get to South Africa – and to Gqeberha in particular – was to fly to Johannesburg with Virgin Atlantic and I found the difference in prices depending on the day of travel was surprising - so definitely use the flexible date option to find the best deals. The flight is around 11 hours, and overnight in both directions, not something I love! But the reality was much better than we'd imagined, mainly I think due to the lack of jetlag (SA is only an hour ahead of the UK). It was also pretty comfortable even in economy, and we all slept a good six hours or so. After a quick hotel powernap on arrival we were back on track swiftly. 

Much like the last time I was making a journey to Johannesburg, the fears of danger in this city fell upon me from every angle – whether it was reading TripAdvisor reviews or from well-meaning friends. But, as on my last journey, I found Joburg to be a fantastic adventure, and one where, with some decent planning, I never felt unsafe.

It also was a really excellent flip side to the utter luxury of our future Mantis experience – and one that I felt was important for the kids to explore. Charlie and Geralds’s Joburg Places tour of the original city centre was a powerful and fascinating introduction to the realities of Apartheid (and post-Apartheid) life in the city – as we stood in front of the Rand Club I could almost see the Gold Rush town as it once had been. At the same time, desperately hopeful regeneration projects gave a glimpse of what would might yet be to come, but also an idea of what had happened here, and the sad and difficult history of this country’s recent past.

soweto views

The view over Soweto, both sobering and inspiring

A return to Lebo’s Backpackers for a tuk-tuk tour of Soweto was as powerful and inspiring as it had been on my first visit. The way some people in this township continue to live, despite 20 years having past since Apartheid ended, is sobering, as is the happiness and joy that can be seen and felt in a community where people have so little of what we consider basic necessities. The Hector Pieterson memorial and museum – remembering a 13 year old child, one of many shot dead during a peaceful protest against an inferior Black education system, and the insistence of Afrikaans as its language of delivery, was a poignant reminder of the tragedies encountered by many in the area.

Safari in South Africa with children and teens

After two days in Johannesburg, we returned to the airport for an hour’s flight to Gqeberha. Our first stop on the Mantis adventure was the breathtakingly beautiful Founder’s Lodgeabout an hour and a half’s transfer from the airport. The fun began as soon as we turned off the tarmac road onto the dirt roads traversing the Shamwari game reserve. An elephant! An ostrich! Even from our transfer vehicle the excitements had begun.

lions big shamwari

The animals were up close and personal!

On arrival at the Founder’s Lodge it truly felt like we had been exported into a dream. Met with hand towels and a welcome drink (this was to become a twice-daily routine, whenever we returned from a game drive, and never the same drink!) we were introduced to the staff – who we would get to know well over the next three days as this resort is so small and personal. The manager Sean, showed us to our rooms and as we entered the elegantly-decorated suites, our minds were immediately blown with the views from the patio, past the manicured lawn, to a pair of rhinos, happily sipping at a water hole – a couple of giraffes visible in the trees behind.

view from room

The incredible view from our lawn

I’d spent the week before our trip excitedly browsing the website, and it looked excitingy appealing, but I can honestly say nothing prepares you for the reality of this place (and it is no doubt the reason stars and royalty like John Travolta and Prince Charles have been visiting the Shamwari reserve for years). 

SHOP: 18 best toiletry travel bags for your holiday: From pouches to vanity cases, hanging options & more

MORE: The best hand luggage for your holidays: From Amazon, John Lewis and more

The history, which I read up on (and subsequently bought the book!) is fascinating. A weathly local with an interest in conservation, Adrian Gardiner, bought the lodge and set about a seemingly impossible dream of rewilding an area turned over to farming, having lost all its natural animals. Thirty years later, this malaria-free wilderness is full to bursting with the big five (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino - you'll be ticking them off your checklist) and everything else you can think of. It’s stunning and literally takes your breath away every time you venture inside. This project inspired many other rewilding projects in the Eastern Cape - now a popular safari hotspot.

sunrise founders lodge

Sunrise at Founder's Lodge is worth getting up for

The Lodge is the perfect mix of intimate, solo family time, and friendly encounters. Those with younger children can enjoy animals from their rooms, and opt for shorter drives through the Founder’s Lodge grounds where conservation efforts are evidently successful with the incredible existence of a large crush (we learned a lot of collective nouns on this trip!) of rhino.

There were younger children when we stayed, clearly enjoying their holiday, but I'd definitely say teens are the perfect age for a safari adventure – my two were engaged utterly throughout our 3-hour morning and evening game drives and delighted and fascinated by all the animals we saw - two cheetahs devouring a Red Hartebeest being a particular highlight.

morning coffee big

Morning coffee stops were just the ticket

We visited the Born Free foundation, where animals are returned to natural habitats after captivity, the boys learned some bushcraft skills at the Bear Grylls Survival Academy, and we even hand-fed a blind black rhino who the foundation hope one day, to be able to breed from, and help conserve this endangered species.

oceana sunsets

The sunsets are out of this world

My highlights - aside from the incredible animal encouters - were the G&T sundowners at half past five. As the sun started to set and golden hour descended, our guide, Skhumbuzo, would find a spot in the bush where he’d jump out, lay a folding table with a cloth and serve us cocktails as we watched the sun go down. You can’t actually describe the magic of moments like these. To feel nature in that instant, surrounded by wild animals, and witness the beauty of the world in all its glory, is something I think I’ll carry with me forever. I’m drifting back, just writing about it. There’s a reason this is a bucket list activity.

South Africa’s Garden Route Beaches

Leaving Founder’s Lodge was hard. But arriving at Oceana, an hour and a half later, made it just about bearable! To say the views from this treetop resort (another Mantis delight with just 9 suites plus a private 3-bedroomed house) are exceptional does it an injustice. They take your breath away and it’s hard to do anything other than just sit and look out to sea.

sunset from oceana

The views from Oceana just don't get old

It’s a great followup to a safari. The resort has its own reserve and nightly game drives are recommended – no big five here, but buffalo and giraffe are in ready supply. Compared to Founder’s Lodge the safari adventures are smaller but the sunsets – with the ocean to one side, and the pink skies to the other, are utterly glorious. I even got up to watch the sun rise it was so spectacular.

READ: 19 best books to read on holiday: Top reads for summer 2022

SEE: 9 incredible UK hotels where the royals will be spending their holidays


Just simply perfect

The beach is almost too good to be true. Seven kilometers of private sands, with barely another soul to share them. Huge dunes to surf down and the option of a picnic for lunch, served to you on a table on the small terrace, built into the cliffside forest, beneath the welcome cover of trees, reminds you you really are in the process of having a holiday of lifetime. It’s a change of pace – and a welcome one. Life on safari is busily scheduled, with early breakfasts to make the most of the wildlife and so much to do, learn and enjoy. At Oceana, breakfast is served til 10, and if you’re lucky enough to stay in the self contained private house (perfect for families, and sleeping six) you don’t even need to leave your terrace to eat it – it comes to you, as you watch the waves crash beneath.

zebra and sea

It's a safari with a difference at Oceana

Surfer's Paradise in Gqebehra

Another change of pace eventually becomes necessary, because – wish as you may – nobody can stay at Oceana forever. The former Port Elizabeth is a great last stop before the airport and your return journey beckons you home. Hotel No.5 - a beautifully restored art deco home, was the final fasincating part of the journey of education about Adrian Gardiner (one of his colleagues and friends is in the process of attempting to re-wild a part of Scotland in fact…the grizzly bears are proving logistically difficult but the wild cats are already back!).

mountbatton theatre

The No.5 hotel has a screening room - a replica of Prince Charles' in Clarence House!

As an art fan, this hotel is a luxurious boutique experience, literally stuffed full of Adrian's pick of fascinating works of art. It’s a city branded Africa’s safest – and the city where Adrian lives himself – and it was a welcome experience being able to walk freely along the coast and explore the shops and restaurants. Walking to the right of the hotel one morning, we discovered a wild and wonderful beach, with a few areas marked out as safe to swim, thanks to lifeguards. We gladly did so and were overwhelmed to be joined, not far away, by around 20 dolphins, leaping for joy and putting on the most incredible display.

The local eateries had a relaxed surfer vibe (the Something Good Roadhouse is on our list of places to come back to). We were advised it was best to take taxis after dark, but since we only had one night at No.5 and the menu looked so good, we decided to stay home and eat there. A great choice, it turned out. The calamari is something to put on your must-do list.

RELATED: The best all inclusive hotels with top reviews

South Africa – is it safe?

If you can’t tell by now, I adore South Africa, and it would be a terrible sadness to miss out on the joys of this incredible country due to fears for safety. It’s definitely a country with struggles – there is a huge water shortage, load shedding means the entire country lives some days without electricity for 6 hours – the infrastructure failing and the chance of investment to fix it seemingly unlikely. There is crime and in places like Johannesburg the endless high fences around buildings can feel intimidating. But tourists are not generally the targets for these problems, and tourist areas are prioritised by police for safety. If you plan, keep your wits about you and invest in some moments of luxury, you’ll discover natural delights you’ve never believed possible. And I can hand on heart say this holiday was one I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Making memories for the family, for a lifetime. Please go!

Our combination of three nights at Mantis Founders Lodge, two at Oceana Beach & Wildlife Reserve and one at Mantis No.5 Boutique Art Hotel was fantastic, though I'd spend longer at the last two if time and budget allowed. Accommodation in a room for two at Founders starts at £551, which includes all food, house drinks and a personalised itinerary including game drives, activities like the survival academy and rhino feeding. The Founders Railway Carriage is availble from £1,060 per night (all-inclusive) and sleeps up to six.

Oceana's rooms (again all inclusive covering food, local wine and beer, game drives and spectacular beach picnics) have rooms for two from £468, and a room for two at No. 5 will set you back just £160 and comes with a delicious breakfast. Transfers can be arranged between the lodges by Mantis and cost around £100 per trip for a family of 4.

More Travel

See more