Road-Tripping Through South Africa’s National Parks with a Toddler

Family sitting on top of a rock in South Africa

Jessica Macdonald

Before my daughter was born, my husband and I were dedicated adventurers. Only truly happy on the road, we departed on a year-long backpacking trip around South East Asia just three weeks after we met. Since then, our adventures have included camping our way around Namibia, diving with bull sharks in Fiji, and canoeing for a week along the Yukon River. When we found out we were going to be parents, we were so excited. So were all our friends and family, but many of them kept saying the same thing: that with a little one on the way, we’d have to slow down, settle down, and stop adventuring for a while at least. 

I started to feel a little bit claustrophobic—surely it wasn’t a completely impossible dream to continue to explore the world with our daughter in tow? Maia was born in April 2018, and for the first few miraculous weeks of motherhood, travel was the furthest thing from my mind. Then, when the whirlwind of learning how to keep a tiny human alive had subsided a little, we started planning our first adventures as a family. Maia went on her first safari at three months old (I had to change a particularly delightful diaper on the tailgate of our pick-up, then ran into a pride of lions around the next corner). We took her fishing for tiger fish at five months old and found that with enough planning (and a bulletproof sense of humor), babies are actually pretty amenable travel companions. 

Then a short while after her first birthday, our beautiful girl learned to walk. Setting her down safely in one spot and expecting her to still be there a minute later was now a thing of the past, which meant it was time to try Level 2 of adventurous parenting: Traveling With a Toddler. 

Toddler looking at a herd of zebra out of a car window
Jessica Macdonald

Planning the Trip

Our first task was deciding where to go. Anywhere that required serious vaccinations or malaria pills was out, and for the sake of keeping things affordable, we ruled out long flights. Eventually, we decided on a road trip around our home country, South Africa, intending to tick off as many national parks as possible. I am a massive fan of our national parks. They are well-priced in terms of entrance fees and accommodation, and often just as spectacular as the exorbitantly expensive private reserves. 

One park, in particular, had long held the top spot on my bucket list: the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, located in the far north of the country on the border with Namibia and Botswana. Famous for its predators, it’s one of South Africa’s most unspoiled wildernesses. You can drive there in just over 12 hours from our home on the coast in East London, but we decided to take a more circuitous route. After several recalculations, we settled on an itinerary that would take us inland to the semi-desert Karoo region, then south to the winelands of Franschhoek and Cape Town. Next, we’d drive up the west coast as far as Namaqua National Park, before heading inland to Kgalagadi and then back home via Kimberley, the famous diamond mining town. 

In total, we would travel around 2,300 miles, visiting four provinces and seven national parks. Each stage of the journey was carefully planned so that our time in the car would be kept manageable for Maia. This meant planning lots of crack-of-dawn starts so that she would sleep through the longest stretches and making sure to factor in plenty of boredom breaks. 

Packing, Unpacking, and Repacking

The primary difference between traveling as a couple and traveling as a family became apparent when we started to pack. In the past, this meant ruthlessly slimming down the essentials until we could carry our lives in our backpacks. Now, I was glad we would be driving our own vehicle because the amount we needed to take with us was frankly mountainous. There were the non-negotiables, like Maia’s car seat, camping cot, and high chair. Then there were her non-negotiables: Nigel, the stuffed penguin; Violet, the talking dog; and a plastic bucket and spade set, to name a few. To make things more complicated, we’d decided to test the theory that there are no limits to traveling with a toddler by camping for half the nights as well. So, a tent, stove, and other survival necessities were added to the growing pile.  

Eventually, after many deliberations about what could and couldn’t realistically be left behind, our final selection was made and we were ready to go. 

Leg One: Karoo National Park

With Maia sleeping in her car seat and our headlights cutting through the darkness on the way out of town, I felt the sense of excitement that only an impending adventure can bring. By the time she woke up, we were already drawing close to our first stop: Camdeboo National Park, famous for its starkly beautiful peaks, valleys, and geological formations. This would be a brief break, a chance for her to run off some energy as we climbed to the viewpoint overlooking the spectacular Valley of Desolation. Still tripping over her baby feet, she stopped every few minutes to marvel at a new flower or to point at a bird (“bird” being her first and most favorite word). I realized that although it certainly takes a lot more effort, traveling with a toddler gives you the privilege of seeing the world with some of the wonder that they do. 

Our first challenge came that evening. We had left Camdeboo and arrived at our campsite in Karoo National Park, where Maia had spent a happy hour playing in the dust while we set up the tent. The park is set amid the Karoo, a vast area of arid semi-desert where wide-open scrubland is interspersed with great rock ridges and plateaus. It is a land of intense heat, and shivering cold, where hardy klipspringers and tiny grysbok appear like shadows between the rocks and giant tortoises wander placidly along the side of the road. We met a few of these prehistoric-looking reptiles in the campsite, much to Maia’s complete fascination. All was well until the storm clouds began to gather, the light was abruptly extinguished, and the heavens opened. We spent the first night of our trip hoping the tent wouldn’t be washed away as Maia competed with the thunder to see who could scream the loudest. 

No sleep was had. Nevertheless, the tent held up, and our time in the not-so-dry Karoo was salvaged by a fantastic close encounter with a jackal in the park the next day. 

Father and daughter meeting a giant tortoise
Jessica Macdonald

Leg Two: Franschhoek

Our second night under canvas in the Karoo was blissfully uneventful, and it was with renewed energy and enthusiasm that we packed ourselves back into the car and continued to Franschhoek in the Cape Winelands. The scenery along the way was simply stunning; majestic mountains unfurled against a deep blue sky, with ruler-straight rows of grapevines blanketing the hillsides on either side of the road. Our campsite for the next two nights was similarly idyllic, with a trout stream running along one boundary and plenty of green grass for Maia to run free. We had one goal for our time in Franschhoek, and that was a day spent visiting the region’s famous wineries on the Wine Tram. The Wine Tram staff welcomed Maia with open arms, even giving her her own plastic wine glass for “sampling” along the way. 

All of the wineries we visited were incredibly beautiful. Our wine tasting at Babylonstoren wasn’t quite as romantic as it perhaps could have been, as my husband and I had to take it in turns to run interference on Maia, for whom the restaurant’s rows of display bottles and glasses were just too tempting. But at Vrede on Lust, she helpfully dropped off to sleep under the table while we sampled the exquisite farm-to-table cuisine for which the Cape is famous. Meanwhile, at Boschendal, she had the time of her life assisting us with our chocolate pairing and meeting the restaurant’s tame squirrels. Everyone we met was charmed by her obvious enjoyment, and we met some wonderful people because of her. As it turns out, cute kids are the best conversation starters. 

Father and daughter toasting glasses on the Franschhoek Wine Tram
Jessica Macdonald

Leg Three: Cape Town

Next stop: Cape Town. Maia’s cousins live in the Mother City, and we spent an incredible day with all three kids at the Two Oceans Aquarium on the V&A Waterfront. The huge rays and sharks, sources of wonderment for even the most jaded adults, were completely mind-blowing for our one-year-old. She stood in the perspex underwater tunnel for at least half an hour, transfixed by the ocean creatures swimming over her head. The next day we headed south along the Cape Peninsula to Simon’s Town to see the wild penguin colony at Boulders Beach. These comical little birds have been favorites of mine since I was Maia’s age, and clearly, she takes after her mother, because it was all we could do to stop her from joining them on the beach. All of them were duly christened Nigel, after her toy penguin. 

Father and daughter look into the tank at Cape Town aquarium
Jessica Macdonald

Leg Four: The West Coast

After heading north out of Cape Town along the remote west coast, we started venturing into territory that neither my husband or I had ever been to before. We spent a morning looking for flamingoes and other wetland birds in the coastal lagoons of West Coast National Park and stayed in a beautiful guesthouse in the tiny fishing community of Lambert’s Bay. In the morning, the landlord brought baby leopard tortoises to the breakfast table for Maia to play with. Our main destination was Namaqua National Park, where we had a cabin to ourselves on a ridge overlooking the valley below. Depending on the time of day, the valley was a study in dusty orange, bruise-like purple, or soft blue–always changing, always beautiful. 

We spent three days in the park, which we had almost to ourselves. We took our vehicle off-road on challenging 4x4 tracks, with Maia riding shotgun on my lap and shrieking with delight every time the cab rocked over a boulder or plunged into a dip. We saw soaring eagles and graceful, long-horned gemsbok, slender quiver trees, and the bleached skulls of animals that had not survived the latest drought. At one point, I stepped out of the car and almost on top of a giant, black snake, which turned out to be a highly venomous black spitting cobra. After that, we checked very carefully before allowing Maia to play in the patch of scrub around the cabin. It was a wild and magical few days and a real highlight of the trip. 

Cabin overlooking a valley in Namaqua National Park
Jessica Macdonald

Leg Five: Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park 

Finally, it was time to head as far north as we could go to the Kgalagadi. The drive from Namaqua National Park took seven hours, the longest stretch of the trip. Maia handled it like a champion until the last two hours when we had to resort to the iPad and her favorite show, "Ben and Holly's Little Kingdom," to keep her sense of humor intact. When we arrived at the park, it was late afternoon, and as we got the keys for our self-catering chalet from reception, we overheard another group talking about the incredible sightings they'd had that day. With excitement levels at fever pitch, we couldn't wait for our first foray into the park. 

Like all of South Africa’s national parks, Kgalagadi allows visitors to self-drive. This gives you the freedom to go where you want and to spend as long as you like admiring the animals you see along the way. The landscapes are breathtaking. Great red-gold dunes create razor-sharp outlines against the indigo sky, and the heat shimmers over dried-up lake beds. Acacia trees provide an umbrella of shade for dozing herds of gemsbok and springbok, and holes in the sand are the home of meerkats and ground squirrels. We spent three days in the park and saw some fantastic things. A caracal snoozing in the shade. A cheetah by the side of the road. An African wild cat sheltering in a cave high up on the plateau, and a brown hyena facing off with a jackal. 

Maia loved looking out for animals, and we were amazed at her concentration span. We spent hours at a time in the car, and whenever she got bored, she would simply doze off. She managed to sleep through our most memorable moment: a pride of lions stalking within a few feet of the car, their tawny skin painted gold in the light of a new dawn. Her favorite sighting came at the campsite. I took her on a walk around the fenced enclosure while her Dad built the campfire and got talking to fellow campers. When I turned around a few seconds later, she was making a beeline for the fence and a “puppy,” which turned out to be a wild jackal. Probably not the best playmate for a snack-sized toddler. 

Father and daughter picnicking in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Jessica Macdonald

Leg Six: Kimberley

The journey home took us through Kimberley, where South Africa’s diamond industry was founded in the late 19th century. We went to see the Big Hole, an open-cast mine that is the largest hand-excavated hole in the world. Maia thoroughly enjoyed exploring the underground miner’s tunnels, and afterward, we stepped back in time with a wander through the cobbled streets of the old mining town. It was a fitting last stop for our journey, which had exceeded all our expectations and proven that far from limiting opportunities for adventure, small children are actually the perfect travel companions.