South Africa

Ultimate guide to things to do in South Africa with kids

South Africa is definitely one of the easiest and safest African countries in which to travel with children. That puts its unforgettable cultural, wildlife and natural treasures within reach of families. Given the country’s sometimes turbulent history, though, an open mind is vital, as there are important lessons to be learned about social justice, the struggle for human rights and the need for animal conservation.

In South Africa, travel focused on a few activities in the same region is often advised. Attempting to do too much could mean many long drives, which does not always go over well with kids. After all, South Africa is a really big country and covers a large range of landscapes – urban, seaside, savanna, mountain, desert and wetland – that contain an amazing host of places: the world-class cities of Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg; Kruger National Park, one of the continent’s largest game reserves; the stunning seafront Garden Route and Wild Coast; and the mountainous hinterlands of KwaZulu Natal. 

An elephant herd comes to drink at river in Kruger National Park.
An elephant herd comes to drink at river in Kruger National Park. Picture: Shutterstock

Of course, it is well worth the effort to get children out into the pristine countryside, especially the malaria-free Eastern Cape with its amazing animals, including the Big 5. As wilderness areas shrink in size, the attention families give to understanding and preserving them is critical. Whilst city-based tours and experiences certainly teach a lot about contemporary lifestyles and culture, nature appreciation opens children’s eyes in truly special ways.

Best time to visit South Africa as a family

South Africa’s spring (September to November) and autumn (March to May) are very good times to visit. Whilst there are sunny days in most regions at both times, in spring the deserts are in bloom and the whales visible off Hermanus and Walker Bay. Wildlife-watching is better from autumn into winter, but in June and July (low season), minimum temperatures can be in the single digits in Johannesburg, Cape Town (also its rainy season) and Durban. The Easter and Christmas holidays are peak travel times for local and international travellers, as is the summer season (November to March), with national park and coastal accommodations in demand and often priced accordingly.

Things to do in South Africa with...

Penguins at Boulders Beach near Cape Town, South Africa. Credit: Shutterstock

Getting around South Africa

Designed to curb child trafficking, new laws from South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs require arriving children to present additional documentation, especially if not with both parents listed on a full birth certificate. Requirements should be checked.

Car hire is a solid family option, and kids’ car seats can be booked with advance notice. Rates are reasonable and roads are good, although local driving habits may sometimes be alarming. 

For non-drivers, comfortable tourist-class trains pass between Johannesburg and Cape Town. Baz Bus backpacker shuttles or intercity buses are other options. Shared minibuses and taxis are OK for short trips.

Brightly painted wooden bathing huts at St James Beach, near Cape Town, South Africa. Credit: Shutterstock: David Steele

Health

Tap water is safe to drink, except in rural areas, and clean toilets are easy to find. Baby change facilities are a bit less common, but milk, baby food and nappies/diapers are available in most supermarkets.  

Doctors can advise about required inoculations, but tetanus, polio, hepatitis A and B should be up to date. It is essential to protect against mosquitoes as well by wearing long clothing and using bug repellant. The greatest health risk is contracting malaria, so care should be taken if there are plans to visit Kruger National Park and any areas bordering Mozambique. The malaria risk is lowest during the winter months of June and July.

The internet and locals are full of stories about high crime rates in South Africa. Reasonable precautions are wise without being paranoid. Most travellers experience no difficulties.

Souvenirs

  • Telephone-wire crafts or soda-can art are great keepsakes. They can be bought directly from the artisans to support local enterprise and the sustainable use of recycled materials. 
  • Beaded items come in a colourful variety of ornamental designs. Inexpensive beaded trinkets like keyrings, bracelets or little animals are found in tourist stores or local markets. 
  • Carved wooden animals and masks are sometimes irresistible, but Made in China versions are common, so always double-check.
  • A popular drink all across South Africa, rooibos is a delicious, earthy tea from the leaves of the indigenous rooibos bush. Regular and gourmet versions are available in most supermarkets. 
  • A guide book for animal identification or a children’s book about Nelson Mandela will help keep memories alive.
Victoria Wharf in Cape Town waterfront. Credit: Shutterstock

Food

South Africans love meat. The classic barbecue gathering, or braai, centres on boerewors (spicy sausages), but wild game is common too. Biltong is a familiar snack of salted and dried meat. Like jerky, it can be quite spicy (tender tongues beware!). Bobotie, a curried minced meat with custard sauce, is a notable speciality.

The devotion to meat can present challenges to vegetarians, but market produce is high quality and self-catering is often possible. Also, mielie pap (a maize-based porridge) is a native comfort food, and both Indian- and Muslim-influenced dishes, especially curries, are popular – a “bunny” is a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with curry.

Reliable restaurants, including international and local fast food chains (perfect for picky eaters), are found in most population centre, as well as many truck-stop conveniences and farm stalls like those along the Garden Route. Family-style restaurants often serve children’s menus (or half portions) and provide colouring books and crayons to kids.

Local Customs

In 1994, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called South Africa the Rainbow Nation. The term stuck. With 11 official languages and eight others officially recognized, South Africa is one of the most multicultural countries in the world. Local customs are therefore extremely difficult to generalize. 

Travellers should anticipate and be sensitive to this diversity, and remember the difficult road to its official acceptance. There are still many issues to be worked out, especially around economic opportunity. For the most part, though, the South African middle class lifestyle is very similar to that in Europe, North America and Australia. 

Notably, family is highly valued by all cultures, and the warm hospitality widely shown to kids from foreign lands is genuine, personal and heartening, especially in local accommodations like bed-and-breakfasts, guest houses and intimate lodges.

You can see southern right wales from the beaches or cliff paths in Hermanus (near Cape Town, South Africa) between June and December

Costs

Compared to the rest of the world, South Africa is relatively cheap, although expensive compared to much of the rest of the continent. Costs depend greatly on the exchange rate, which can fluctuate widely, and a traveler’s selected class of comfort.

As service-industry wages can be low, tipping is both expected and customary – 10-15% in restaurants, and small change in hotels, for car guards and at petrol stations. 

Children are usually offered discounted admission to parks, museums and other attractions, and sometimes even hotels.

What’s on?

The best annual events for families in Thailand

Feb/March – Adelaide Fringe

You’ll find family and kid friendly shows at Adelaide’s wild and wonderful Fringe festival.

March - Adelaide Festival

Australia’s premier Arts festival showcases theatre, world-class musicians, dance, writers and visual art.

March – Adelaide 500

This motorsport spectacular is packed with action and entertainment for families. The 2021 Superloop Adelaide 500 will occur on revised dates in 2021.

March – South Australia History Festival

Enjoy hundreds of events such as talks to workshops exploring the local history.

March – WOMADelaide

Enjoy family friendly performances and workshops by the world’s best traditional and contemporary musicians, dancers and DJs.

May – DreamBig Children’s Festival

This arts festival for schools and families is the largest of its kind in the world.

September – Royal Adelaide Show

Experience animals, rides, food and entertainment as the country comes to the city.

October – OzAsia Festival

Australia’s biggest Asian arts festival.

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