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Comedian Urzila Carlson’s family-friendly South Africa

Holidays with Kids chats with South African Tourism’s newest Ambassador, Urzila Carlson about the highlights, hotels and unexpected adventures from her recent family trip back to her home country.

Although she now lives in New Zealand, South African-born Urzila Carlson has a lot of love for her birth country. The Have You Been Paying Attention superstar was named South African Tourism’s latest Australasian Ambassador in September, and returned with her wife and two young kids in January for a fun-filled family adventure of safaris, sidecars and shopping.

As a South African yourself, what did you want your kids to get out of a journey back to your birth country?

This is their second trip. My son’s two, my daughter’s five, and I try to take them once a year or once every two years depending on my schedule. But I want them to have it as part of their make-up. You know how someone asks you something and you just know it, even though you don’t know how you know? You just have it. You grew up with it and it’s always been part of you. I want that for them. Just to know about Africa and the culture and the people and the language. There’s no other place like it. You can have a braai [South African barbecue] in Australia or New Zealand, but it’s not the same. When you’re there, with all the different cultures, it just blows your mind.

You first visited Kaapsehoop [in the Mpumalanga province]. Why did you include this town in your short nine-day adventure?

I’m from there … For me, the biggest plus is always the food and the shopping, because the rest I’ve already experienced. But it’s different for the kids. In our first couple of days there, there was a massive electrical storm in Mpumalanga. Then a monkey jumped on the roof of the hut we were staying in. It was so loud that it sounded like it was inside. The kids just thought it was insane. Imagine growing up in New Zealand where we have nothing, no wildlife at all, and then all of a sudden there’s a monkey looking at you through the window. They just lost their minds.

So there are all the animals. As we’re driving, we saw a massive elephant bull just standing under a tree next to the road. Stuff like that, stuff you’re never, ever going to experience [anywhere else] except there.

You spent quite a bit of time in Cape Town, with Table Mountain on the doorstep. It’s known as a destination for adventure travellers. What are some of the family-friendly adventures there?

We did a sidecar tour [with Cape Town Sidecar Adventures] from Cape Town where we drove around the city and through the pass. We got in the sidecars at 8am that morning and we only just got back before dinner. And the kids were knackered. They had the best time. It had never even crossed my mind to take [the kids] in a sidecar, but once we did it, we realised it was amazing. We saw a sidecar yesterday as we were driving and my two-year-old went ‘penguin! penguin’, because the sidecars took us to Boulders Beach where all the penguins are. So, of course, he thought we were seeing penguins again.

There are so many boat trips that go out and take you to amazing places in Cape Town. The kids loved the boats, too. There’s a big pirate ship that you can go out on for two hours – so we took them on that, they loved that. And then there are the beaches. It’s just beautiful.

I took them to Spier for two days for the Light Art Festival. At Spier [a historic Stellenbosch farm], because it’s so old, and it’s been around for so many years, and there are all these amazing trees and picnic areas. As soon as we stopped there, the kids climbed in a tree and we didn’t see them again, except to come down for eating. They were the little monkeys! They were just gone. It’s totally secure – you know, there’s security at the gates. They can’t get out, and they just ran riot. Every night, we never once had to go, ‘OK guys, it’s sleep time’. We basically said to one another, ‘You grab that one, I’ll grab this one’, because they just pass out at night.

You have a five-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy. What were their highlights from the trip?

For my son, it was definitely the animals, which is why we kept the safari for the last part of the trip. I thought, if we did that first, we’re going to peak, because even at home, every morning we wake up and he’s there saying, ‘we’re going to see the animals?’ So it was definitely the wildlife for him.

For her, she wanted to go to the kids’ club everywhere we went, because A, she didn’t have to spend time with her mum, and B, they would bake cookies and go on nature walks. So she actually had more fun without us, I think. Even now, at home, she wants a play date all the time, so in kids’ club – and everywhere we stayed had a kids’ club – all the other kids would be there too. So they’d bake, and go swimming together, they go on these trails where guides show them which prints were made by which animal. She enjoyed that, she enjoyed not spending time with me!

She also likes giving people tips. Their first trips were to Melbourne and Sydney, where there are a lot of buskers, and even today, when we go to Australia, she makes sure she has the coins or small notes with her so she can tip all the buskers. So when we were in South Africa, she saw I was tipping people and she decided she needed to get in on this. So I gave her a stack of 10 rand notes, which is a bit less than a dollar, and everywhere we’d go, everyone got a 10 rand. They loved her – she made a huge impression in Africa. So her experience was very positive. Everyone was very lovely to her.

We all know travelling with kids doesn’t always go exactly to plan. What unexpected adventures did you have?

Safaris usually go for 2-3 hours ¬– if you see a lion or whatever, then usually longer – so once the adult safari is finished, you come back, get the kids and go out on a 30-45-minute safari. But the thing is you can’t tell a two-year-old, ‘Don’t be super-excited when you see an animal because they don’t like loud noises’. So most of the time, he’d see an elephant and just scream in that two-year-old, high-pitched, dog-whistle voice, “ELEPHANT! ELEPHANT!”, and then all the animals get scared. You just cannot plan for that.

And the would fall asleep in different places. We went to have dinner one night and there was a band playing, they were amazing, so we were just watching. When we turned around, both of them had fallen asleep in their seats. It’s not a reflection on the band at all. We just had a massive day.

What common misconceptions would you challenge about South Africa as a family travel destination?

People think it’s the wild, wild west. They think you get off there and it’s out of control. And it isn’t. It’s very family-friendly. You can go anywhere, and people will go out of their way to help you with your kids and to make sure everything’s hunky-dory. We were at a mall one day in Somerset West in Cape Town, when our daughter ran, and our boy went the other way, and I was alone wondering ‘which one do I grab?’ And then a woman who was sitting across from us, having a coffee, saw what was happening and she goes, ‘I’ll grab your firstborn. You grab the baby!’ I had no idea who this woman was, but because they both split and bolted, I just had to go. So I ran after the five-year-old, she ran after the two-year-old, and when I came back her two teenage kids have joined. They had taken my daughter down to climb on whatever she could climb – they climb everything. They were just laughing. I went, ‘thank you’, but I had about 10 minutes where I didn’t know where they were, and they had my firstborn. When they came back, they were laughing, they had bought her a juice and everything.

So no, it’s a very family-friendly destination. Everywhere you go, people will go out of their way to make sure the kids are doing great, which I love.

Also, we stayed at one hotel, One&Only Cape Town, and when we got there, they had even put out soap and toiletries for the kids ¬– you know, Johnson’s Baby – and everything was kid-oriented and kid-friendly. People ask ‘is it safe?’ If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t take my kids, I tell you that.

You’ve highlighted One&Only Cape Town as a great hotel for families. Which other hotels won your family’s seal of approval?

Literally everywhere we stayed was great, but Madikwe Lodge, where stayed for safari and game drives, was amazing, too, and again, very kid-friendly. They even made little lunch packs for the kids. As soon as we arrived, they said they were going to come and get the kids in an hour. So they took the kids to kids’ club for a swim, then the masseuse walked in and said to us, ‘We’ll just give you a massage for an hour.’ So yes, we all just had the best time.

What do you love most about visiting South Africa?

The main highlight is always the food and the shopping. We went with three empty-ish bags and came back with seven full ones. Every time I go to South Africa, I buy stuff for the kids for the next year or two. Because they have different licensing, they make a lot of the brand stuff there in South Africa. Anything like Ben10 that they’re into at the moment, you can buy all of it over there and it’s real cheap. And because it’s in rand, it’s even cheaper. Some stuff you get is like 10, 20 rand, which is about two dollars.

What are your top must-see destinations for families in South Africa?

1. Go on safari. Go to Northern Cape, the Kalahari with the Sand people – I did this on a previous trip without the kids, but I’d love to take them there. And then on the Eastern Cape, where you don’t have to worry about malaria, they have the Big Seven, because they have whales and sharks as well. A lot of people going over for safari go Kruger National Park, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg – you can only see the ears of the hippo; the rest of it is still under water. There are a lot of places you can go to right across South Africa – there’s a lot of game everywhere. If you’re travelling with kids, avoid the malaria zone. Go to Madikwe, where there’s no malaria, but you can also see the Big Five, which we did as we were driving into the park. People need to do there research and not just go to Kruger because they’ve heard about it. There’s more to discover.

2. Cape Town, of course, is a must. If you’ve ever heard of South Africa and you don’t go to Cape Town, then there must be something wrong with you, because it is one of the most beautiful places, hands down, in the world. There’s so much to see. I always say, when you go to Cape Town, pretty to look at, right? But there are the smells and the sounds – it’s so many different cultures. Even driving around on those sidecars you smell the food people are cooking. It’s the colourful houses. Everywhere you go is stunning. I sounded like an American … “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” It’s really beautiful.

3. Another one that I didn’t take the kids to this time, just because I knew they would melt, is Durban. If you go anywhere in [the province of] KwaZulu-Natal, the weather is always amazing. You can go to Natal in the middle of winter and it will always be 24 degrees Celsius and the water is nice and warm and the surf is always great.

Thanks so much for speaking with us, Urzila.

Learn more about where to go and what to see with kids in South Africa here.

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