Floating in a hot-air balloon above the Serengeti was Haden’s fantasy. He’s the seven-year-old grandson of Rick and Judi, founders of Thomson Safaris. While he knew a lot about Tanzania, he’d never visited.
That changed recently, when Rick and Judi got their daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren together for a phenomenal three-generation family safari in Tanzania.
Haden got his hot-air balloon ride, and he was awestruck. In the sky, all was silent. Acacias and hills and throngs of wildebeest dotted the landscape all the way to the horizon. He turned to his mother, Nicole Wineland-Thomson.
Haden in hot-air balloon over the Serengeti
“Mama, mama,” he said.
“What is it?” Nicole asked.
“This is my dream come true,” he said.
“This Was the Pinnacle”
When it comes to family travel, Thomson founders Judi and Rick are veterans. They’ve been taking their daughters to Tanzania for over 30 years–and loved it so much, they even founded a family travel company in 1998.
Early Wineland-Thomson family vacations in Tanzania
Everyone on this 10-person family safari (including three grandsons aged six, seven and eight, and one 11-month-old granddaughter) experienced the same guides, regions and camps that Thomson guests experience.
“Owning and running a safari company involves many, many, many dreams,” Judi, founder of Thomson Safaris, said. “This trip was the best of those dreams. This was the pinnacle, to finally take the entire family to Tanzania.”
From the moment the great migration ended (that is, the Wineland-Thomsons’ flight to northern Tanzania), everyone was exhilarated. Especially the three boys.
Sure, the rolling Serengeti hills excited them. Maybe the lizards skittering in the grass did too. But their excitement peaked when they discovered the top of their safari vehicle could open.
“They thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Nicole said.
The boys stood with their pop-top roof open during the entire drive into the Serengeti, the wind blowing in their hair. They shouted, “Look at this, look at this!” as they passed giraffes and elephants and warthogs in this magical natural paradise.
“How often do kids get to have fresh air like that, to just feel nature and see nature?” Judi asked.
The Wineland-Thomsons adventured into the Eastern Serengeti Nature Refuge, a wildlife area exclusive to Thomson guests. Here, they went on walking safaris among the acacias and golden grasses. The kids learned how to use their binoculars as they watched giraffes roaming in the distance.
“It’s nice having memories of Tanzania as a child, and now, having memories seeing my children travel,” Nicole said. “That feels really special because it’s shared. It’s permanent.”
Erica, Nicole’s sister, agreed. “I feel so grateful I was able to travel with my boys, Filian and Linden, to a place where I have such fond childhood memories of my own.”
Of all the places in the Eastern Serengeti, the refuge’s watering hole was a particularly popular place. Animals visited so frequently that the boys started naming the regulars. Two male warthogs became the “Rufus Brothers” because the piglets looked like the perfect match for the name.
“It was really fun to have your morning coffee or evening sundowner, and oh, there’s the Rufus Brothers coming for a drink too,” Judi said.
The boys loved predators. And ellies (their term for elephants). And lions and giraffes and zebras and, well, everything! Some 2 million wildebeest roam the Serengeti in an annual cycle called the Great Migration, and the Wineland-Thomsons spotted tens of thousands of them on a single drive. They also spotted some 200 elephants and plenty of zebras, antelopes, birds and more.
Seph Badi was the Wineland-Thomsons’ head guide. Like all Thomson guides, Seph is a born-and-raised Tanzanian with extensive safari experience – at least 10 years’ worth. He was great with the kids, patiently answering their questions and keeping them occupied with snacks, games and stories.
That’s on top of spotting incredible wildlife for the whole family, including three lionesses stalking prey in Ngorongoro Crater!
“That was a huge benefit, to know he was handling it all,” Nicole said. “I didn’t have to do anything. I was able to think of this as a true vacation and time spent with my family.”
The Thomson camp staffers were just as excited to see them. Every day when the family returned from safari, the staff were excited to play an impromptu game of soccer, serve delicious snacks and more.
“What resonates with me, and hopefully with the boys, is the relationship they had with the Thomson staff,” Judi said. “The amount of kindness and generosity between them, staff to kids, kids to staff, will mark their lives forever.”
Kids Just Wanna Have Fun
The Wineland-Thomsons were open-minded, ready to be enchanted by Tanzania’s landscapes and wildlife. Usually, it’s a different story with kids. Keeping them engaged can be a challenge–unless you work with the right people.
“We had downloaded some shows for Haden on the iPad, but they never crossed his mind,” Nicole said. “During some drives, he sat up front next to Seph and read his bird book quietly. He asked questions. He was so fulfilled every day.”
At camp, the kids kept busy with soccer and Frisbee and Jenga. One afternoon they learned how to shoot bows and arrows with the camp staff. Another night, they made fire from sticks. Every day they had hands-on experiences.
“Kids need downtime. Other times they’re curious. Sometimes they need to burn off energy,” Judi said. “There’s always something for them on safari, whatever mood they’re in.”
Perhaps the most memorable experience was the family’s visit to a Maasai community in the northern Serengeti. The boys played soccer and duck-duck-goose with Tanzanian kids their age, then petted baby goats and lambs together, laughing all the while.
“It was a joy to watch the kids enjoying each others’ company, even though no words were shared of the same language,” Erica said.
At one point, Maasai shepherds gave them sticks and sent them off to herd goats! The boys learned how to do this alongside their more experienced Tanzanian peers, running through the bush, trying to corral goats that were escaping left and right.
“It was organized chaos,” Nicole said. “It was really fun and full of laughter.”
A Dream Come True
We go on safari for the wildlife and the landscapes. The harmony of this natural world pulls us in the direction of our dreams. But when we leave, most of us remember more than anything the special moments we shared with our loved ones.
“We live in such a digital age,” Judi said. “I think that disconnecting, and just being with your family–really being–is the best part about travel. I want to thank the Thomson team for letting me do that with my family. It was just perfect.”
Judi with daughters Erica and Nicole
“Being in Tanzania again with my parents, Mama and Baba, and my sister, Nicole, it felt like no time had passed!” Erica said. “It’s so rare we can all find time to spend together, and I’m grateful to have been in Tanzania for our family trip. Our time together in the vehicles, viewing wildlife, chatting around the dinner table, going on walks in the eastern Serengeti and laughing as we tried to shoot bow-and-arrows was invaluable to me.”