A family holiday in South Africa

After years of absorbing David Attenborough documentaries and memorising every wildlife species ever profiled on the ABC's Deadly 60 TV series, I would have thought my eight-year-old son couldn't wait to travel to Africa.

For the first time he'd have the chance to see elephants and lions in their natural habitat. But of all the things our family has planned during a month-long trip through South Africa, do you think it's seeing animals in the wild that he's most looking forward to? No – a water park tops his list.

Sun City is just over two hours north-west of Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport by car, and my wife and I find that it's time well spent getting used to sharing the roads with motorists flouting the 120km/h speed limit. It's largely a dull route, save for the novelty of travelling through a foreign country on an unfamiliar continent, and Finn grows more and more restless as we draw nearer. He's often asking how long it will take until we arrive, while also keeping an eye out for anything resembling a water park.

"Is that where we're staying?" he asks, as we pass the processing facilities for a boutique platinum mine on a dusty, open plain.

"No, I think our hotel is a little fancier than that, Finn," I reply.

"Is that the water park?" he asks, when he first spots the ivory towers of our hotel protruding above the surrounding forest.

"It might be, Finn, though we won't know for sure until we get there. You'll just have to try and be patient."

When we eventually enter the resort complex that sprawls across the exterior flanks of an extinct volcanic cone, we pass by man-made lakes, casinos, concert halls and championship golf courses before the wedding cake outline of The Palace of the Lost City again comes into view. Statues of sprinting cheetahs and prancing impalas guard the entry to the hotel beside fountains squirting water from the tips of ibex horns.

Every architectural and design element follows a jungle or wildlife theme, and my wife's jaw drops when we walk into the hotel's domed entrance lobby.

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Jungle murals decorate the ceiling above marbled floors and soaring columns mimicking bamboo stalks. On constant rotation are ceiling fans shaped like banana leaves and animal prints festoon floor coverings and upholstery as far as we can see.

Finn can't believe it. "This place is luxurious," he says, later entering the description in his holiday diary. After presenting ourselves at the reception desk we're shown to our suite overlooking a swimming pool that's the size of a small country. We've barely dumped our bags when Finn asks if we can go to the water park.

With a few hours to spare ahead of a planned afternoon game drive in the neighbouring Pilanesberg National Park, Finn and I race from slide to slide inside the Valley of the Waves, hurtling around bends and tearing down slopes on rides that are over long before I've worked out what I've been down.

"This place is awesome," Finn says. "Can we come here every day?"

Even by our own overly active standards, we've crammed a ridiculous number of activities into our stay here, figuring we may as well try to make it a trip we'll all remember for years to come. Our three-day visit is filled with quad bike rides and go-kart races. Finn whizzes around a labyrinthine maze and sits astride a miniature train before the three of us track rhinos on foot inside the privately owned Letsatsing Game Park.

Every spare moment otherwise is spent inside the water park.By dinnertime each evening, Finn is so exhausted he falls asleep before his meal arrives. Then he fuels up again over breakfast plates piled high with waffles, jelly beans and marshmallows all layered beneath a generous serving of chocolate sauce.

"It's the best breakfast ever," he says, unaware that he'll almost certainly be dead from heart failure before he's a teenager. From the north of the country we fly south to Cape Town, where Michelle's sister Kath joins us from Australia. A friend from our days spent living and working in the Middle East has offered to put us all up in her beachside cottage in Fish Hoek, but before we even enter her driveway, I've added South Africa's legislative capital to my shortlist of world's most beautiful cities. It's a feeling that strengthens when we explore Cape Peninsula in our car, climb to the Lion's Head summit or ride the cableway up Table Mountain, all while sipping its regional wines and chowing down on barbecued dinners.

We spend our subsequent week following the Garden Route east as far as Port Elizabeth. Each night, after we've stopped to see penguin colonies or hurtled down coastal sand dunes, we track down affordable accommodation, only once booking ahead. After hiking around the Robberg Peninsula and ogling at cape fur seals south of Plettenberg Bay, we check into a spacious pine cabin beside the Bloukrans Bridge, where bungy jumpers dare to plunge off one of the highest commercial jump sites in the world.

Finn thinks the cabin is incredible and he runs from room to room like only an excited eight-year-old can.

"There are even two bathrooms," he says. "It's even got a TV… It's even got a balcony." After being wowed by our "luxurious" suite in Sun City, it's comforting to note that his tastes remain firmly grounded.

Next morning we take a zip lining tour through the Tsitsikamma rainforest, where more than eight kilometres of cables are rigged between towering yellowwood and Cape pear trees that are hundreds of years old. Then later that day we hike along a coastal trail to a suspension bridge at the Storms River mouth.

After crossing the bridge, Finn's eyes widen at the quality of skimming stones beneath his feet, so we spend the next 20 minutes bouncing some of the smoothest, most elliptical stones he's ever seen off the surface of the water.

Life, through his eyes, could barely be better.

The roads are straight along the Garden Route, rarely hugging the coast like I'd expected them to. From a mountainous backdrop formed by the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Ranges, we pass through rolling dairy country on the approach to Port Elizabeth, then arid scrubland as we continue north towards Addo Elephant National Park.

The nature reserve is one of South Africa's largest, stretching 200 kilometres from the East Cape's arid interior all the way to the Indian Ocean. Not only can you see the Big Five of elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard, but migrating whales and great white sharks as well, and for that reason the park markets itself as the only place in the world where you can spot the Big Seven.

We've confined our foray to the Addo Main Camp block, where we're handed a map and a picture card of animals and birds found in the park. Apart from elephants we see elands and buffaloes, and giraffes that Finn describes as "stretched out hyenas". There are zebras and red hartebeests, and an upright yellow mongoose that we mistake for a meerkat. The picture card awards points for every species ticked off during your visit, and that's all Finn needs to fuel his competitive instincts. At one point I spot a raptor that I guess to be a goshawk. "Nope, not on the list," he says. "No points for you."

It's past closing time when we exit the park and return to Port Elizabeth. With flights to Johannesburg booked for early the following morning, we've reserved adjoining rooms at an airport hotel. They're really just motel rooms, but Finn thinks they're "epic" because of a common doorway that allows him to flit between the two. Some people think spa baths and coffee facilities are essential inclusions in a hotel, but novelty value is clearly an important consideration for a child.

Kath leaves us in Johannesburg to join a high-end safari around Kruger National Park while the three of us continue on to Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge, inside the Sabi Sands Game Reserve. Before saying goodbye, Kath tells Finn that she'll be staying in a five-star safari tent.

"I want to stay in a five-star tent," he begs, but I reply by informing him about our lodge's worthier attributes.

"We'll have a huge room where you can hear lions and hyenas roaring and cackling at night, and I'm told that leopards sometimes prowl outside our door. Plus, there's a pool to swim in and a play centre with flying foxes and obstacle courses. Best of all though, there will be other kids for you to play with."

"Does it have a water park?" he wants to know.

There's no pleasing some people.

ADULTS-ONLY SOUTH AFRICA

SOME BREAKS ARE BETTER WHEN YOU LEAVE THE KIDS AT HOME

1. South African school holidays mirror those in Australia. Travel outside these times and you're more likely to avoid pre-pubescent hordes, with the added bonus of being able to book cheaper flights and accommodation.

2 Some private game reserve lodges don't allow children. Greenfire Game Lodge or Londolozi's Tree Camp, both in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, are adults-only and therefore popular with honeymooners and empty nesters.

3 Despite an unenviable reputation, Johannesburg it isn't all cloak and daggers after dark. Soweto Shebeen Tour takes guests on an orientation of Soweto's famous sites while visiting different party venues around Johannesburg's biggest township, ranging from rustic shebeens (informal bars) to upmarket pubs.

4 Swimming pools filled with excitable children can be anything but relaxing for adults so some hotels and resorts, such as Sun City and the boutique Grande Roche hotel in Paarl, cater for both crowds.

5 Believe it or not, kids as young as seven can cage dive with great white sharks and 14-year olds can bungee jump off Bloukrans Bridge. However, children are often prohibited from joining walking safaris through private game reserves.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/south-africa

FLY

South African Airways has daily flights from any capital city in Australia to South Africa. Passengers fly via Perth to Johannesburg with same-day connections to 29 destinations on the African continent. Go to flysaa.com

STAY

Rooms at Sun City's Palace of the Lost City include breakfasts and complimentary entry to the Valley of the Waves. See suninternational.com/palace/ 

Stays at Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge include open vehicle safaris accompanied by qualified rangers and trackers, environmental awareness walking safaris, all meals and a selection of beverages, Wi-Fi and transfers from Sabi Sabi's private airstrip. See sabisabi.com/lodges/bushlodge/

Mark Daffey visited South Africa courtesy of South African Airways, Sun International and Sabi Sabi.

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