Are Rwanda and Uganda Suitable for Travelling with Kids?

Article from the series: Frequently Asked Questions about Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo

Travelling with children anywhere requires a little bit more planning and preparation. A safari with kids is no different, but it is certainly very possible. A trip to the Gorilla Highlands region need not be ruled out or put on hold until kids are older …

A visit to Akagera National Park, like many typical safari destinations, is largely vehicle-based which makes it possible to go with kids of all ages provided the normal park rules and regulations are followed. Staying in your vehicle, keeping a respectful distance from wildlife and not going off-road are important rules for everyone and even more so with kids in tow. In Akagera, we would always recommend first time visitors take a guide. They provide an extra pair of eyes and ears to look out for wildlife as well as answer the endless stream of questions from inquisitive minds. We have always found guides to be very friendly, patient and engaging when we have traveled in the region.

When planning your trip, choosing to self-drive or organise a bespoke trip with a local operator (rather than joining a set departure combining multiple groups) is probably a better option with kids. Individual trips are fairly standard in Rwanda and Uganda, where itineraries can be adjusted to your time and specific interests. This gives you more flexibility to go at your own pace as well as peace of mind that your kids aren’t being too noisy for other guests, and that you can easily meet their additional needs, like more regular stops for a pees and/or a snacks!

When it comes to picking accommodation, not all lodges will cater for young children whereas some are far better suited to families. In Akagera, Ruzizi Tented Lodge only accepts children over 5 years of age and, with only one family-sized tent, will only be able to accommodate one family on any given night. The more rustic Karenge Bush Camp will welcome children of any age but requires close parental supervision as the camp is not fenced.

The Akagera Game Lodge offers a swimming pool and a restaurant which may better cater for early mealtimes and entertaining kids between game drives. Of the four campsites inside the park, only two have an electrified boundary fence and are likely to be better options for putting parental minds at ease.

While Akagera is largely vehicle-based, all activities in Nyungwe National Park involve walking, which may make it more challenging to visit with young kids. There are child-friendly hiking options though, such as Ndambarare waterfall (which means ‘flat’ since the majority of the walk is a relatively flat — an easy walk until you descend the very last part to the waterfall). The hike to the canopy walkway is relatively short and the canopy itself is very do-able for kids of all ages — my eldest two were 4 and 5 years old the first time they did the canopy walk, younger children may need to be carried — the only requirement is that they are accompanied by an adult.

Why are Kids Not Allowed to Track Gorillas and Chimps?

Primate trekking across all national parks in the Gorilla Highlands region comes with an age restriction. The primary reason for this is that children are considered a much greater health risk to habituated primate populations because they are more likely to be infected with common childhood diseases. Children are also less likely to be able to react appropriately in a potentially dangerous situation so, regardless of their physical capabilities, in Rwanda tracking gorillas and chimps is only possible for children over 15 years. The age limit for golden monkeys is 12 years.

In Ugandan national parks the minimum age for tracking gorillas is 15, but 12 for chimps and golden monkeys. Mgahinga Gorilla National Park also has some child-specific activities: one-hour nature walk, indoor creative workshops and swings.

Cost is likely to be a consideration in family travel but in most cases child rates are offered for park entry fees and activities. In Akagera children 5 years and below don’t pay any entry or activity fees. In Nyungwe only children above 7 years pay a fee, and children over the ‘free’ threshold pay around 50% of the adult rates — so it may be more cost effective to travel when they are young instead of waiting until they are ‘old enough to appreciate it’!

Exposing kids to different ways of life, cultures and traditions is an important part of the travel experience. The game drives and hikes can be broken up with some cultural activities which are likely to be more practical and hands-on for engaging young minds. There is a lot on offer in the region, and many cater towards kids and families. Outside Akagera the community freelance guides offer a range of activities, including a trip to a local farm and milking a cow or visiting a local blacksmith and trying your hand at metal work with traditional hand-made tools. Any trip to Rwanda is likely to include some mention of the country’s traumatic past so an age-appropriate discussion about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi may be valuable.

What to Pack for Children?

Be prepared! In our household, snacks will solve almost any problem and are an essential part of any safari with kids. Binoculars, guidebooks and reference books are all ways of keeping kids entertained while. In Akagera, we produced a children’s guidebook which includes lots of pictures and child-friendly facts, games and puzzles for kids to solve, available at the park gift shop.

Know what to expect in terms of weather. Savannah and primate national parks of our region have quite different climates, despite being relatively close. Rainforests can actually get quite cold! Their high altitude, thinner air, strenuous climbs and wet weather can take a toll on adults and this is only likely to be amplified for kids. Warm clothing, rain coats and proper footwear are needed.

There are tsetse flies in Akagera. Attracted to the vibration of vehicles, they can be pesky when on a game drive. Remember to wear pale clothing (they are attracted to dark colours such as blue, black and purple) and cars with air-conditioning are advisable if traveling with kids (or open topped safari vehicles where they can easily escape). There are no known cases of sleeping sickness from Akagera in recent years but they can leave an itchy bite. When our kids were very young we draped mosquito netting over their car chairs and we had friends who would wind the windows down and close mosquito netting in the doors to avoid tsetses and still get a natural breeze.

For all travelers it is essential to seek out the advice of your doctor for up to date guidance on any vaccination requirements and malaria prophylaxes. A comprehensive first aid kit is likely to be an important travel companion when holidaying with kids. As well as all the basics, be sure to include things like child-friendly re-hydration salts and anti-histamines. A good multi-vitamin and some probiotics are good when traveling too, to boost your immune system and prevent sickness rather than have to treat it!

Children and Malaria

Malaria is a very real concern for Africa travel, however, there are very effective preventable measures. I would always recommend prophylaxis for visitors. Malaria symptoms take 10–14 days to show up following exposure, by which time you are likely to be back at home. And if you are going to get malaria, you want it where the medical system is familiar with it! For those of us who live here, taking prophylaxis long term is not ideal and sleeping under a mosquito net and covering up in the evenings (since malaria mosquitos are more active at night) or using mosquito repellents are important.

On more than one occasion I was asked by tourists, who had heard that Akagera was one of the worst places in Rwanda for malaria, whether it was safe to visit. Malaria is transmitted from person to person, via female anopheles mosquitos (males feed on plant nectar, not blood). The mosquito must have fairly recently bitten an infected person in order to infect someone else, therefore you are far more likely to contract malaria in areas that have a high density of people, which Akagera obviously does not. And Nyungwe’s high altitude means that mosquitos, as well as people, are far and few between within this park.

Rwanda has been effective in fighting malaria in recent years, reducing malaria death rates by almost 80% between 2016 and 2020. Luckily, in the 12 years we have lived in Rwanda neither myself, my husband or any of our children have come down with malaria. Still, with any sign of a high temperature the first step is to rule out malaria as the cause because quick diagnosis and early treatment is key to a full and quick recovery.

With a little bit of extra planning a visit to this rich and diverse region can be very enjoyable for the whole family. Travel at any age is an eye-opening and educational experience and I have been amazed at the memories my kids have retained from journeys we have taken. Travel creates memories, broadens experiences and enriches lives — one of the best gifts a parent can give!