Game boy

I AM sitting in the back of an open-top land cruiser with my toddler son.

Just a few feet away, in the shade of a tree, two lionesses are tearing bloody strips off a giraffe they have just killed. As they pause for a few moments to contemplate me and my two-year-old, our ranger Johan says in hushed tones: "Just make sure he doesn't disturb the lions." Of course, this is the moment Tom stands up and asks to get out of the car. But we manage to continue watching this breathtaking scene for a few more minutes, Tom pacified with biscuits, and the deep silence of the South African bush punctuated only slightly by a whispered rendition of 'Old MacDonald'.

This is a moment I could never have imagined in the early days of motherhood, when all the promises you made to yourself that life would carry on as normal disappear.

When my husband and I decided to take our son on an adventure holiday, which would take us to an unfenced game reserve in the wilds of South Africa, we knew we faced a huge challenge. Of course, we wanted to show him elephants at the watering hole at sunset, and ride home under a sky full of stars, but we also wanted to see if we still had the spirit of adventure, or if our backpacking best had truly disappeared somewhere between the steriliser and the nursery run.

For our trip to the 75,000-hectare Madikwe Reserve in North West province, to see the big five - lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo - we put ourselves in the expert hands of Bushbaby Travel, specialists in organising long-haul family holidays to malaria-free areas. They send many families to this part of the world because it requires no travel vaccines and it is in the same time zone as the UK.

We flew to Johannesburg via Paris on a ten-hour night flight and dispelled the first myth of parenting - the one that says don't fly long-haul with toddlers. Tom was so thrilled to be on a plane that he snuggled up with teddy somewhere over the south of France and woke up in time for breakfast. Astonishingly, he was still in good spirits several hours later, after a flight on a small jet plane and a Land Cruiser ride to our initial destination, Thakadu River Camp, where our first guide, Patience, pointed out the zebra, giraffes, water buffalo and impala.

Madikwe is a huge environmental success story with a strong social conscience. Thakadu River Camp is owned and run by the local Molatedi community, who take care of everything from ranger services to babysitting and provide the five-star food that was, perhaps, the biggest surprise of our trip.

We stayed in a tented lodge overlooking a river with monkeys playing in the nearby trees, and were chaperoned at night to avoid coming face to face with the more inquisitive of the local wildlife.

The owners of the accommodation, the Madikwe Collection, have made families a priority, and we were offered the chance of three-hour morning and evening drives without Tom as well as a middle-of-the-day 'bumble' - a shorter, child-friendly drive. Although babysitters were on hand, my husband and I took turns to do the evening drives but took up the offer of babysitting while we wandered over to the dining area for incredible set-menu dinners washed down with local wine.

We also sampled the luxuries of Tuningi Safari Lodge, a member of the Leading Independent Hotels of Southern Africa and the ultimate in colonial African chic. A bar and dining area is arranged around an ancient fig tree, and the thatched lodges are furnished with four-poster beds, viewing decks and outdoor showers stacked with Molton Brown toiletries.

Although Tuningi is fenced to keep out the wildlife, it didn't stop an elephant wandering just beyond the barrier as I took a morning bath.

There were lots of toys to amuse Tom, and the chatty staff were also happy to provide snacks and sandwiches for him. Johan looked after us for three days and my favourite memories are of the evening drives, rushing through the sunset in time to reach white rhinos and baby elephants at the watering hole, then sipping a sundowner under the reddening sky, listening to the silence and watching wildlife. Our bumble took us on a seemingly endless shaky off-road drive, but it was worth it to see two of only four cheetahs in the reserve, sleeping peacefully under a tree.

Again, the food was outstanding, with menus including goat's cheese souffl, fillet of ostrich with red wine and pear sauce, and Cointreau chocolate cups. On our return trip, we stayed at the five-star Grace Hotel in Rosebank, Johannesburg - the perfect stopover before the big flight home.

Of course, our safari was not the relaxing holiday it would have been without a demanding child. He fell into thorns and cut his nose, we had to ration nappies halfway through the holiday, and I felt a sickly panic when his skin erupted in a red rash that turned out to be windburn. I was nervous in the company of the lions as they lazily eyed my precious baby, and also when beggars knocked on our car windscreen at traffic lights in Johannesburg. But it was worth it. Tom may have been a few years too young to grasp the difference between a warthog and a hot dog, but his world of home, nursery and toddler groups has now vastly expanded.

Mine has too. There were moments sitting in the front of the Land Cruiser when I felt like a 20-year-old backpacker again, albeit one with broken rusks in her rucksack. And that's where we dispelled the second myth of parenting - that once you have children, you have to put your adventuring days behind you.

Fact file

Kate Foster travelled with Bushbaby Travel, specialists in 'malaria-free' holidays and safaris to South Africa and Mauritius. Prices for a similar one-week trip, staying at Thakadu River Camp and Tuningi Safari Lodge, including international and domestic flights from Edinburgh, start from 1,965 (there is a reduction for children under 12). For further information and a brochure, call 01252 792984 or visit http://Bushbaby.Travel