Welcome to our travel blog In and Out of Africa. It’s hard to believe that one year ago I started planning this amazing adventure to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. But here we are with only a few days until we set forth on our 31 hours of travel to reach our first destination – Cape Town, South Africa.
Our 20 day trip will take us through Cape Town, often called The Mother City, through the surrounding Winelands and 10 nights of safaris in three different countries. We’ll visit a private game reserve in Sabi Sands which borders Kruger National Park and is the birthplace of sustainable wildlife tourism in South Africa. Our next stop will be in Zambia where we’ll view Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world and travel the mighty Zambezi River while staying at a beautiful river lodge. And our final destination is the Okavango Delta in Botswana, the world’s largest inland delta.
We have vowed not to be too connected on this trip so we can be “in the moment” and enjoy our surroundings, the people, the animals and this once in a lifetime experience. That means no email! But we want to document our travels as much for ourselves as for our friends and family. We look forward to reading your comments and having you along for the ride.
Our best laid luggage plans have been slightly modified. We’ve decided to check the two 24″ duffels straight through to Joburg to alleviate the shlep factor as well as eliminate any required negotiations due to the fact each duffel may be too bulky for the overhead bins. Our compromise was to add a small foldable Longchamp carry on bag housing a change of clothes, basic toiletries, prescriptions, and enough vitamins to supplement all of Africa! We’re pretty close to our safari weight limit of 20kg per person including all carry on items, and we have our fingers crossed that as we use up toiletries and vitamins, as well as off load a few gifts, that we’ll make weight by the time we get on the first little plane.
Flying on points from Toronto to South Africa in Business Class made the 31 hours of travel time worthwhile. We started our adventure on Air Canada in those funky looking pods, which, by the way are very narrow and a make you feel as if you’re sleeping in the aisle. We slept most of the way to London where we had about five hours to kill in the lounge. The lounge was a two level place that looked like a kindergarten room – filled with ugly primary coloured furniture and no restful spaces. The food and drink offerings were minimal.
The next 3 hour leg was to Istanbul on Turkish Air, voted the best airline in Europe several years in a row, including 2012. Really? I’m not sure who actually voted. The plane was old and shabby and the crew were surly and inattentive. The one saving grace was the meal was pretty good. Moussaka on an airplane. Yum!
Then we found the Turkish Air lounge in Istanbul and figured out this is what the airline must have won the award for. An architectural beauty, we felt as if we stepped into a luxurious hotel lobby, replete with a cafe, fabulous buffet and gorgeous bathrooms (Turkish bath…get it?).
Flight #3 was the long, almost 12 hour leg from Istanbul to Joburg. Oh, Turkish Air, how I love you! I’m voting in next year’s poll and yes, you’d win! Big, roomy seats, a white toqued chef on board, delicious fare, excellent entertainment system, hospitable crew, plush comforters, fully flat seats. This was a wonderful flight. Of course, the pharmaceuticals didn’t hurt either and we slept about 6 hours.
With a mere 90 minutes to get through customs, collect our luggage and make it to South African Airlines for our last 2 hour hopper to CapeTown, we were pressed for time, but sailed through and made it to the gate just as boarding began. Whew.
We made it!
After our long journey, we finally arrived at our beautiful hotel, Sea Five in Camp’s Bay, which is a beach suburb of Cape Town, nestled at the base of the jaw dropping Twelve Apostles mountains. This charming boutique hotel is more like a guest house. With only seven charming rooms, it feels as though you’re in someone’s home. Everything is white, with touches of cream and blue and we instantly felt our shoulders drop a few inches.
Our view of glittering Camp’s Bay and our private terrace made this the perfect spot for the start of our trip.
Camp’s Bay reminds me a bit of a cross between Laguna Beach and Malibu, but without the commercialism or shopping. It’s a bit sleepier (during the day anyway) and we’ve been told it’s an area for the trendy to see and be seen, though we saw no evidence of any peacocking.
Our first night we wanted seafood. After all we’re right on the ocean! Our genial host Marco recommended Codfather , a short stroll along the oceanfront strip. Our trepidation about the name fell away once we arrived at this unique spot of all things fish. We were surprised to be told there was no menu. We were invited to tour the fish counter where the day’s catch was described. We chose a variety of fish and seafood, all caught that day and it was simply grilled and served with either chips (fries) or stir fry of veggies. That’s it. No simpler, or fresher could the bounty of the sea have been presented. Everything was perfectly cooked and simply the most delicious seafood we’ve ever tasted!
And so ended our very long first day. We fell into bed, listening to the sounds of the ocean and slept soundly until morning.
Monday morning came fast and we woke up to brilliant blue, cloudless skies and lovely warm temperatures in the 20s. After a delicious breakfast poolside, we headed out for a quick tour of the city proper. I had purchased tickets for the Hop On – Hop Off Tour online before we left home. This is a typical double decker sight seeing bus tour you can find in many major cities and for under $20 CDN you can get on and off as many spots as you like on your choice of either a 14 or 18 stop route. This seemed like a perfect way to get the overview of Cape Town, as our time here is very short and we only had the morning to tour the city before we headed out to Athlone for the afternoon as guests at Dance for All.
We picked up the bus in Camp’s Bay and headed north along the ocean through the beach areas of Clifton, Bantry Bay, Sea Point, Three Anchor Bay, Green Point past the FIFA World Cup Stadium into the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. From there we headed through the streets of Cape Town listening to a pretty decent audio tour, complete with local musical interludes, through our headphones passing such important landmarks as St George’s Cathedral, the first church to welcome people of every colour and faith, past the Jewish Museum to the District Six Museum, an important reminder about the days of apartheid, ended only 20 some years ago where 60,000 homes were demolished and an entire community was chased out simply because of the colour of their skin. Today District Six remains a mostly barren area, and a reminder of the darkest days of the country.
The next main stop was Table Mountain, the most magnificent and imposing range that defines Cape Town as well as the other peaks, Signal Hill and Lion’s Head which also frame this incredibly beautiful city.
Our bus dropped us back in Camp’s Bay where we grabbed a quick bite in a seaside cafe before heading to Athlone.
As all of you know, Michael and I began a fundraising effort to assist the incredible organization Dance for All based in the Cape Town suburb of Athlone. This inspiring organization, in existence for 21 years, offers classes in various forms of dance to over 1,000 children from historically disadvantaged communities. DFA’s vibrant Outreach Programme classes take place daily at their studios, as well as at service points in the surrounding townships of Gugulethu, Nyanga, Khayelitsha and Langa. Ranging in age from three to young adults, students learn ballet, contemporary, African and Spanish dance from a talented and dedicated team of teachers.
By providing an enjoyable and constructive extra-mural activity, DFA gives students the chance to spend their afternoons in a safe environment while learning valuable dance skills. In addition, the students develop important life skills such as discipline, confidence and positive self-esteem – which helps them set goals for their future.
Charming, erudite, elegant, passionate and inspiring, former dancer, founder and CEO of Dance for All, Philip Boyd literally welcomed us with open arms and an open heart. He proudly gave us a tour of their multi-story building, donated to them five years ago by South African businessman Gareth Ackerman, which houses the administrative offices, a wardrobe department and multiple studios all appropriately outfitted with the various accoutrements including barres, mirrors, hardwood or sprung floors and sound equipment, yet he still marvels at how DFA has grown to become this life-changing organization.
We spent five hours at DFA with Philip as he invited us to meet his teachers and kids as they learned and rehearsed, most of them taking multiple classes back to back in 40 degree heat without air conditioning, never complaining, working hard, staying focussed, helping their peers and striving for excellence.
Philip shared the story of the beautiful young woman who hopes to attend university and do her thesis on the rampant teen pregnancy in her township, of the sixteen year old who wants to become a doctor and is studying dance so he can learn about anatomy and body movement, of the young boy without parents or family who showed up one day without any teeth, as the dentist had pulled them all, and DFA raised money to get him dentures and the teachers brought him food to ensure he would eat. This painfully thin, shy boy is becoming a glorious dancer. There were so many poignant stories and so many success stories of changed lives.
With a shoestring budget of only $500,000 CDN, DFA manages to teach and mentor over 1,000 kids and young adults annually. But funding is always tenuous and often public funding doesn’t come through. Many of these talented and dedicated kids dance barefoot, without shoes, prone to serious injury. The 60,000 ZAR (Rand) we raised will make a difference and purchase many, many pairs of shoes. But it’s not nearly enough.
So I implore you, if you have yet to make a donation, please do so today. I have seen these kids; I have watched their joy as they dance; I can attest to how DFA has changed their lives. Please visit Dance Shoes for All and give generously.
I will let these pictures speak the volumes of words I cannot adequately express:
Tuesday was set aside to head south down the Cape Peninsula. Originally our plan was to rent a car and do the drive ourselves, taking in the stunning scenery and meandering to Cape Horn, what we thought was the southern most tip of the continent. But that meant I had to plan the day, be the navigator and the tour guide and I’ve learned that’s not always the most enjoyable option for either of us, especially when we get lost.
Research led me to Rob Davidowitz of Beautiful Cape Town Tours. Always reticent to get into a vehicle and be “talked at” for an entire day, Rob, a native Capetonian, sounded like a breath of fresh air. We corresponded via email and his emails were engaging, warm and welcoming and I could tell I had found someone very special. Rob arrived at Sea Five, with maps and photos in hand and we started our day together by outlining the various sights and experiences to be had, with Rob asking us to indicate our interests and preferences. He pointed out Cape Horn is in fact not the southern most tip of Africa and the additional one and a half hour drive to get there, though pretty, would only yield a sign for us to photograph – a long way to go to take a picture. We agreed and together, with Rob’s expert guidance we mapped out our day.
We headed south along the stunningly beautiful west coast to the town of Hout Bay. Rob, a strong proponent of community empowerment, suggested we stop to see an incredible community project called Original Tea Bag Designs , a program very dear to his heart, which he actively supports.
From their website: “Original T-Bag Designs makes ‘Functional Art’ out of recycled tea bags. Used tea bags are dried, emptied, ironed then painted! Each artist has their own individual styles and patterns. There may be similarities, but no one painted tea bag is identical. These miniature works of art are then applied to stationary, wooden items like boxes, trays and coasters and even fabric items! For a group of previously disadvantaged people in Hout Bay near Cape Town, South Africa, one cup of tea has indeed provided community, love, excitement and financial security.”
This program has changed the lives of many who live in the nearby township shanty town, enabling many previously unemployed women to purchase their own houses, provide education for their children and support their relatives. What these beautiful, soulful people do with a tea bag will change the way you look at your cup of tea forever. And yes, you can help for just the cost of postage by mailing them your used tea bags .
Our drive took us along the magnificent Chapman’s Peak Drive
which winds it way between Noordhoek and Hout Bay on the Atlantic Coast on the south-western tip of South Africa. This 9 km route with 114 curves and switch backs skirts the rocky coastline of Chapman’s Peak (593m) is often referred to as the world’s most famous coastal road and has been used by Mercedes and BMW to shoot high performance car commercials.
Rob’s encyclopedic knowledge, gifted storytelling and incredible passion for his country made every minute entertaining, fun and engaging. With stops along this gorgeous route, he explained the topography and illustrated the unique geology of the surrounding striated mountains in a way that actually brought those peaks to life! Who can make rocks sound exciting? Rob!
Though the day was foggy and a bit overcast the scenery was still beautiful and the accompanying stories captivating.
Our next stop was through the touristy town of Simon’s Town to visit the Boulders Beach Penguin Colony. This rapidly disappearing colony of tuxedoed birds used to number 3,300 and is now down to only 600 in a period of just 3 years as their food stocks are being depleted by the effects of warming oceans and changing currents.
We continued our trip along the coast of False Bay, past Fishoek and into the fish market at Kalk Bay where Rob, his parents and grandparents have come forever to purchase their fish, fresh off the boats. The wives of the fishermen sell the fish, all line caught, for no more than a few dollars and for an extra 50 cents you can get your fish cleaned and dressed, ready for the pan.
We enjoyed a fantastic lunch overlooking the harbour at where else, but Harbour House restaurant? The freshest fish, delicious local wine and fantastic conversation with our new friend made for a memorable afternoon respite.
We continued our scenic drive with Rob regaling us with marvelous stories of his family and his ancestors and stopping to gaze at Muizenberg and the long, deep beautiful beach that stretches all the way around the bay, where many a Jewish family reunion used to be held. Muizenberg was sort of a cross between Miami Beach and the Catskills. Oy vey! The day we were there it was clear and beautiful, but Rob explained the southeasterly winds keep the area generally cold, foggy, damp and dreary – a most unlikely place for the alta kachers (look it up) to stake out their piece of the beach, yet they did, for years, complaining all the while about the lousy weather!
Our final stop was to the world renowned Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
set against the Eastern slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. We couldn’t even scratch the surface of this 8 square kilometre paradise filled with thousands of species of plants, trees and flowers only found in this part of the world. Rob explained every South African kid is brought to the Gardens annually throughout their education to not only learn about nature, but also to be taught about the medicinal and therapeutic properties of the many plants. As such, botanical medicine is far more common and accepted than most anywhere else in the world as it’s part of the cultural fabric of South Africans.
It was hard to believe our fantastic day with Rob had come to an end. Michael stayed awake the entire day and loved every minute of conversation! We felt we’d spent our time with an old friend and we hated to see him go. We hugged and vowed to meet again (maybe in Niagara Rob!).
Fine wines are made throughout the Western Cape but the geographical triangle between the towns of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl make up the main area often referred to as Winelands. There are about 3,300 grape growers and 600 wine makers and the industry has exploded in the last 15 years.
We hired a private guide, Stephen Flesch president of the Slow Food Movement and former Chairman of the Wine Tasters Guild of South Africa to plan two days of tasting with a free day in between for us to just hang out in Franschhoek. While Stephen is clearly knowledgeable, and obviously gave great thought to planning our stops and tastings, he is little more than a driver, and imparts very little information, nor shows much interest in us. Sadly we can’t help compare this experience to our day with Rob and we found ourselves pining for Rob’s enthusiasm, intellect and company. And had I known Rob was himself a fellow oenophile and a wine maker with a long family history in the business, our plans would have been very different. But we still made the best of our first day with Stephen and visited a very nice cross section of wineries and enjoyed a lovely lunch in this beautiful area that is as lush and stunning as Tuscany.
I’ll list the wineries we visited here and include a few pictures. Suffice it to say, almost everything we tasted was of extremely high quality, from sparkling to whites and reds. The most widely grown white grape is Chenin Blanc and the most widely grown red grape is Cabernet Sauvignon. Detailed wine tasting notes are here.
We visited six wineries and tasted (and mostly spit) 30 wines over the course of the day.
We enjoyed a lovely gastronomic lunch at Jordan overlooking the vineyard and the distant mountains.
Stephen dropped us at our stunningly beautiful hotel which is a series of six guest houses located on a working winery at the foot of the mountains, La Petite Ferme where we settled into our villa with a view and a private pool. This is living!
When we checked in, Michael immediately notice this sign:
Needless to say he was slightly concerned when we checked in and were told never to leave our doors or windows open, not to feed them, confront them or try to pat them (!!). Michael was reassured that they would recognize his male scent and respect his territory as long as they weren’t cornered. But so far we have had no sightings, though I am secretly hoping we will!
This will likely be our one and only post targeted to serious foodies.
We stopped chasing the latest chefs years ago and have become far more relaxed and much less easily impressed by the latest food trends, though we still love a good meal. Tired of tip-to-tail, sous vide, molecular gastronomy and culinary theatrics, we rarely seek out the “fine dining experience of the moment”.
But so many people raved about the vibrant culinary scene in Cape Town and the surrounding Winelands, that we wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So we chose to dine at two “of the moment” fine dining restaurants during our trip: The Test Kitchen in Cape Town and The Tasting Room in Franschhoek, often compared as two rivals with similar sensibilities, both offering only fixed tasting menus.
The Test Kitchen is in Woodstock, a fairly sketchy, former light industrial area that’s seeing redevelopment into a funky area with shops, restaurants and cafes. Located in the former Biscuit Mill factory behind a gated entryway, down a small alley; the restaurant doesn’t have a sign, yet we found it. The room itself is as you’d expect in these surrounds – exposed brick, high ceilings, raw concrete floors and a very large open kitchen. The staff are The staff are exceedingly helpful and knowledgeable and the service was superb.
We chose the three course menu (375 Rand or $47) with a bottle of a red wine blend called Ataraxia, rather than the wine pairings, though a five course option with or without wine pairings was also offered. There was a choice of 4 apps, 4 mains and 4 desserts. Michael and I both felt the menu was a bit limited and ended up choosing the same dishes.
The amuse was a fun and inventive play on dessert bites executed in a savoury fashion and beautifully presented.
The homemade bread was a fabulous selection including: seed bread, pretzel bread, warm ciabatta and olive bread served with in-house freshly churned butter.
We both started with:
“Home dried tomato, black sesame and aubergine purée and dust, burnt aubergine jelly, smoked goats cheese and aged balsamic”. While the presentation was pretty, there was an awful lot going on on the plate and we kept trying to figure out what was what.
Our main was:
“Slow cooked breast and pan seared loin of lamb, harief glaze, white bean hummus, ewe’s milk labneh with dry fig (dust) and cinnamon jus”. Sigh. Once again the chef was out to impress with how much he could dab or dust onto the plate. Flavours were good, and the lamb perfectly cooked, but the analysis was tiring. The plate took effort.
Dessert felt the same, and we both had the: “Nyangbo chocolate fondant, Cabernet Sauvignon berry sorbet, grappa dressed berries with Manjari mousse”. What?
All the dishes had additional things on the plate too, most notably a “dust” of some sort – pistachio dust, porcini dust, gold dust, macadamia dust. Everything was good but just tried way too hard, though we did enjoy the evening.
Our first night in Franschhoek we went to The Tasting Room, right in town on the main street. Located in Le Quartier Francais, a small, boutique guest house, the restaurant is quite famous and we had to reserve a couple of months ahead and guarantee the rez with a credit card. The room is quite plain with a contemporary feel, but a bit bare. Tables are spaced very far apart and there are shots of vibrant colour here and there.
We were welcomed with a sparkling rose Cap Classique, or the local version of a champagne style wine and an interesting assortment of very tasty nibbles, none of which I could describe. Like The Test Kitchen two fixed price tasting menus (5 or 8 courses) are offered, either with or without wine pairings, though no actual menu is presented until after the meal, as your souvenir. You are at the mercy of the chef, something I am not usually interested in. When we made the reservation we were asked about food allergies or dislikes.
A tiny tomato paste tin arrived and inside a cylinder of corn bread was revealed. Mmmmm.
Michael started with “Beetroot, buttermilk labne, dill and cucumber granita”. He said it was very good and though I hate beets, I did taste it and had to concur as there was no discernible taste of beets. This course was paired with 2012 Graham Beck Game Reserve Chenin Blanc.
I started with “Tomato tartar, young hen yolk, asparagus shavings, aged sherry vinegar”. This was paired with non vintage Silverthorn Genie Brut Rose. Light, flavourful and refreshing, this course was very tasty and perfectly, though surprisingly, complimented by the sparkling wine.
Our next course was “Curry dusted (there’s that dust again) monkfish, yellow Dahl, purslane, braised spices, confit tomato” accompanied by 2010 Stony Brook Ghost Gum, a white, Bordeaux-style blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. I do not like monkfish. This was the BEST, most perfectly prepared and seasoned monkfish I have ever had! Every bite was so delicious I wanted to lick the plate! What a surprise!
The meat course freaked me out a bit, as I am not a big meat eater. Get ready….it was “Great Karoo wildebeest loin, wild grains, sorghum, rainbow carrots, celeriac” served with a lovely 2011 Moreson Pinotage. Three small medallions of the most perfectly cooked, mildly flavoured, tenderloin graced the beautiful plate and was absolutely delicious and totally memorable.
Then came a cute little cheese course of finely shaved local, “Klein River gruyere, risks, mebos custard, currants” served with a 2008 Allesverloren Port. The cheese was quite aged and sharp, nutty and flavourful, and the rusks add the perfect crunch.
The denouement was the incredible dessert described as “Baobab, coconut, honeybush, caramel” with a teensy sip of a lovely 2008 Ezibusisweni Straw dessert wine. A large white dome was placed in front of us and hot caramel was poured on top as we watched the shell crackle open to form a lacy pattern revealing the ice cream and nuts inside. One of the best desserts ever!
Though we didn’t know many of the ingredients, as they are unique to this part of the world, and some of the flavours were new to us, this meal rates in our top 5 of ALL time! Every plate was beautifully composed. Every flavour and taste sensation melded perfectly, the wines matched to completely enhance the flavours of the food. Even though the plates had many ingredients, no analysis was required and everything balanced together to create perfect tastes and textures. No one component fought with another.
The staff were all local, extremely enthusiastic, fun and engaging and worked together seamlessly. They often brought out an ingredient in its raw form to be tasted or smelled before the dish was served to enhance the experience.
The best way to compare these two restaurants is to say that The Test Kitchen is like a Jackson Pollack painting – a riot of colour and texture on big canvases. You need to stand back and think about the dishes and invent what they say to you, trying to determine what the artist meant. The Tasting Room is like a fine Pointilist painting, detailed, thoughtful, a bit blurred, soft and pretty with a dreamy quality that’s all technique but you know what you’re eating and enjoying. No analysis required, only appreciation for the hand holding the brush.
Both were great experiences but only one will be remembered.
P.S. You’ll note not every dish at The Tasting Room was photographed because we were too enraptured by the meal and the experience. A very good sign, don’t you think?
It rained all day. All day. Heavy rain, misty rain, fog, but a constant, unrelenting rain. Did I say all day?
We headed out at 9:00 for the first of what would be six wineries today, plus lunch.
Detailed wine tasting notes are here.
Lunch was at a fantastic restaurant called Maison, a very contemporary spot with multiple wood burning fireplaces which were welcome on a day like today. The food was excellent too. When we pulled into the grounds, there was a sign that said Beware of Dog. A moment later we saw the huge, happy,wagging tail of a very wet, but very affectionate Merle Great Dane…more appropriate would have been a sign saying Beware of Tail! Three Danes in one day!!!! A wonderful omen indeed. Happy. Happy.
A one hour drive from Franschhoek, a two hour wait at the Cape Town airport, a two and a half hour flight to Neilsprut (Kruger National Park), a one hour drive on hard top and a one hour drive on a dirt road, but we finally arrived at Londolozi, our first safari stop, located in the private Sabi Sand Game Reserve on the Sand River. We were warmly greeted by Jess with cool towels and cold champagne; we were tired but happy.
Londolozi is derived from a Zulu word meaning the “protector of all living things” and this sustainable conservatory of this fragile ecosystem is one of the most beautiful and special places we have ever seen.
Our home for four nights is Tree Camp, one of the five camps in the Londolozi family. With only six suites and a maximum of twelve guests, surrounding our main lodge and tree house deck, it feels as if we’re almost alone in this vast wilderness.
After settling in to our magnificent accommodations, we were invited on our first game drive at 4:00 p.m. Our ranger Melvin and tracker Milton, are the experts we’ll rely on for the next 4 days. We were joined by one other couple from Boston in our spacious all terrain vehicle as we headed out for our first adventure. Melvin explained the rules of the truck. The animals view the truck as a non-threatening animal. The silhouette of the truck is one they recognize and are comfortable around. But no standing up, as that breaks the shape! We were told not to make loud noises, or scream, not to ever get out of the truck, and if the animals sidle up next to the truck, to cross our arms and sit still.
Milton sat in a jump seat outside the body of the vehicle and within only a few minutes spotted the large paw prints of a nearby male lion in the sand. Melvin turned off the path, driving through the tall grasses, and lo and behold…this big boy was hanging out all alone. Usually accompanied by his two brothers, he was quite thin and according to Melvin, likely waiting for a meal for some days. We sat for awhile and watched him roll onto his back and shift positions as dusk started to fall.
We headed back through the grass to one of many roads and continued on our way. We came across a large herd of impala, a type of antelope.
Just a few minutes later Milton spotted several zebra cavorting among the impala:
We couldn’t believe the wildlife we’d seen in less than an hour, and then we came upon these guys all hanging out together:
We felt like we’d hit the motherlode! But nope…the best was yet to come…we turned into a soft, sandy, dry river bed and found an entire pride of sleeping lions – 4 mature lionesses and 7 cubs. We were gobsmacked!
Every so often one of the adult females would get up and move, coming within inches of our vehicle, though completely disinterested in us. Eventually we were pretty much surrounded and as night fell, we had to wait until the girls shifted enough to let us pass. It was a thrilling encounter.
Darkness surrounded us and by a guiding light, Melvin and Milton got us safely back to camp where the staff were waiting and all the pathways and the main lodge were lit by rows upon rows of candlelit lanterns. It was a magical sight to behold.
We freshened up for dinner and met back at the main lodge over cocktails to recount our amazing sightings, toast our tracker and guide, and revel in our good fortune. We enjoyed a lovely dinner with our safari mates and retired to our cabin for a good night’s sleep knowing the 5:00 a.m. wake up call would be upon us in no time.
When you turn out the lights in the African bush it is very dark! We couldn’t even see our hands in front of our faces. And it’s still dark at 5:00 a.m. when you get the knock on the door accompanied by juice, coffee, fruit and yoghurt. Bleary-eyed, we stumbled to the bathroom, pulled ourselves together and headed out to the jeep to meet Melvin and Milton and our safari mates Andy and Leslie and Leslie’s sister and brother-in-law, also from Boston, Danny and Barbara. We took our spots on the comfortably padded stadium seats and off we went at 5:30 a.m. as the sky was just starting to grey.
Not two minutes out of camp and Milton hopped out of his seat, pointed to the sand and told Melvin the Tsalala pride of girls was right nearby. We rounded a bend and turned into the tall grass to discover three beautiful female lions. One is the grandmother and the other two are her daughters. There are a group of grandkids, now almost grow up, who were likely somewhere nearby but are now venturing farther and farther from their mothers as they reach maturity. Grandma and one of her offspring are both without tails, likely, Melvin tells us, due to fights with hyenas.
We sat and watched these beauties, who sat far apart from each other in a triangle, until they became restless and started to talk to one and other and then they all got up and started to walk. I posted a short unedited video on my Facebook page of the girls talking – incredible! We tracked them for about 40 minutes as they went to look for their offspring.
Then we got side tracked (literally) when we heard an incredible commotion off to our left, coming from the watering hole. The commotion sounded ferocious and soon we could see two male hippos fighting for territory.
We watched from a distance for awhile before Melvin turned us around and headed through the thick brush to the far side of the bank of watering hole for a closer look.
Eventually the loser retreated, coming within only a few feet of our vehicle and looking none to happy or friendly. Time to move on.
Backtracking, Milton heard noise to his left and Melvin turned the truck deep into the grass. Ellie!!! The boys didn’t recognize this young guy and thought he’d wandered in from another concession. Elephants are not territorial and wander for hundreds of kilometres in many directions.
We headed to flatter terrain sprinkled with a few trees, spotting two pretty waterbuck along the way. When suddenly, Milton pointed and said, “leopard”. About 100 yards away we spotted a cat high up on a tree branch, but when he heard us he scampered down the trunk and quickly away, an oddity for the leopards of Londolozi who have become quite used to the vehicles.
By now it was 8:00 and time for a bush break to stretch our legs. The guys set up the canteen on the hood of the truck and we had coffee or hot chocolate with Amarula, accompanied by cookies and biscotti.
I interrupt this blog post to give special thanks to my sister Harriet for providing me with one of the best things I packed for this trip: Urinelles
Break over and back into the truck. We meandered off road through the tall grasses until Milton pointed to his left. We all squinted as he pointed out a cheetah. Wow! There are only about 180 cheetah in 60,000,000 acres! Look at this magnificent animal as he surveys the terrain. Unbelievable! We were only about 15 feet away. This was a very special moment.
After about 45 minutes, he wandered off down the road and we headed back towards camp. Along the way we saw this tall creature that makes everyone smile:
I haven’t said much about the myriad birds but they’re everywhere and some of them are very colourful, or have beautiful markings including: red billed hornbill, wood king fisher, guinea fowl, lilac breasted roller, European roller, vultures, several types of eagles and owls.
By now it was after 9:00 a.m. and time for breakfast and some relaxaton. What an amazing morning we had. But the evening drive would bring even more excitement and one very scary moment.
Sunday morning’s game drive was so spectacular, we couldn’t expect it could be topped. Boy were we wrong!
We mustered at the truck at 4:30 following afternoon tea. Michael and I were seated on the top seats of the vehicle, with what I think are the best panoramic views.
Melvin was sure he was locked and loaded.
Our first sighting was the cute and funny looking warthog. I can’t help but think of The Lion King when I see these guys.
We continued on and off road for a few minutes when Milton pointed to his left and into the deep grasses we went. There! A leopard! One of only about 25 on the Londolozi concession, this boy was simply beautiful. We watched as he crossed in front of us towards a tree. In the tree were the remnants of a very recent impala kill. Up the leopard went to defend his food and have a snack. Wow!
We watched for probably an hour, Melvin changing our position to assure we continued to have a very good view. At one point we were maybe 6-8 feet from the leopard, parked directly under the tree with the remainder of his kill. He came towards our vehicle, brushing directly along the side and stopping right next to me. I could hear him breathing. I held my breath and he looked up at me. “No movement!” said Melvin. “Don’t move,” whispered Leslie, sitting directly in front of me, in case I hadn’t heard Melvin. We waited. Seconds seemed like minutes. Then…Woosh! Up the tree, right beside my shoulder he went. Whew! My heart was pounding. That was too close for comfort. The leopard went back to eating up in the tree, finally bringing the remainder of the impala back down into the grass to finish his meal. Time for us to move along but a moment I will remember forever.
Later that night one of the rangers who was in the vehicle directly across from us, said when he saw the leopard looking up at me, he just kept repeating to himself, “I hope that woman doesn’t move.” He said he’d never seen such a close call. I am glad I didn’t hear that until the next day.
We drove towards the sinking sun, seeing some grazing kudu and came back upon the same posing cheetah from our morning drive, still hanging out in the same spot. It was is if he knew we’d come back for the sunset shots. What a beautiful sight.
As we headed back to camp, the sun was setting, the sky turned a beautiful glowing pink, the trees dark silhouettes against the horizon, and we could hear a herd of elephants on our left. It was getting dark and we could barely make out the shapes but their deep, low rumbles, and the youngster’s screeches were distinctive.
The evening activity was a wonderful outdoor dinner in the Boma, a beautiful, candle and latern lit outdoor space lined with reeds. It was the perfect way to end another incredible and unforgettable day.
Monday morning started out cool and overcast as we headed out for the morning game drive. Even though it’s really difficult to pull it together when the knock comes at 5:00 a.m., somehow by the time we’re in the truck, we’re wide awake and ready for the day’s adventure.
Just outside of camp, as dawn broke, we came upon a group of wildebeests. These menacing looking animals were just out in the open right beside the road.
Continuing along, our intrepid tracker Milton spotted a hyena in the grass, a pretty rare animal to come upon. He was sniffing around the remnants of a kill from the night before but the dregs had already been picked over by the vultures, as was evidenced by the white, downy feathers scattered about, and one lone bone fragment, about 6 inches long.
We turned onto another dirt road past this beautiful pond and in the far distance we spotted a group of hippos, just hanging out in the water. Can you see them?
The rangers communicate with each other via radio, notifying each other of sightings and locations, all the while sharing a friendly rivalry. We received a radio call that the Sparta pride, the large group of 11 lions, was not far away. We arrived to find the cubs frolicking in the grass with their moms watching, and the male about 100 yards away. After watching this group for a few days, you come to recognize who is who by their markings and their behaviour. Too cool!
Eventually Dad joined his mates and kids. Look how close we are to these beauties!
We finally moved along and heading east we came upon several zebra and watched them for awhile, Melvin explaining their mating habits and behaviour.
Continuing along we spotted these elephants, who on an average day can cover up to 20 kilometres.
Can you tell what this is?
A termite mound!
Not all the animals are big or imposing. This delicate ecosystem also has lots of interesting little creatures too.
After our morning game drives we return to camp for a hearty breakfast on the suspended deck, followed by some relaxing down time. We’ve been hanging out back in our fantastic accommodations, reviewing our pictures, or reading. Before we know it lunch time rolls around, then a nap, teatime and by 4:15 we’re back in the vehicle for the evening drive. The days seem to blend together and time seems to slow down.
I might add that at Londolozi, you can be “connected” in your room, but not in the main lodge area. This makes for a nice change from what we’ve all become used to. What a simple pleasure to have no phones on dinner tables, no texting during lunch and a return to real conversation and uninterrupted human interaction.
Monday night’s drive saw us crossing to the other side of the river for a different perspective. The vastness of the concession never ceases to amaze and the topography can change quickly from area to area.
We came upon a nyla standoff. These big, hulking creatures are quite odd looking. We watched as three males asserted their dominance by parading around in a circle, never taking heir eyes off one another, but at the most glacial speed you’ve ever seen. It was like watching a carousel in ultra slow motion.
Continuing along we saw a shy rhino in the distance but as we moved towards him, he kept changing direction to avoid us.
Milton and Melvin decided to track leopard prints on foot, leaving us in the vehicle for what seemed like forever. At first this is disconcerting, but after awhile, you get used to it and relax. Melvin returned while Milton kept looking as we spotted a beautiful lioness in the distance standing very high up on a rocky outcropping surveying the plane. Melvin told us this area is where the lionesses den with their cubs and later we saw her through the binoculars with a cub in her mouth.
Milton returned to say he had located the elusive leopard sleeping on top of a small hill, overlooking a herd of impala not to far away, obviously waiting for night to fall so he could hunt.
Eventually we headed back over the river towards camp and using a large night spot light to lead the way, scanning back and forth, back and forth across the terrain, Milton spotted this little chameleon. How he sees this stuff in a nanosecond is simply amazing!
Our river crossing yielded sightings of multiple crocs, lying in wait, their mouths open, hoping for a fish to flow by.
Arriving back at the camp, under a starlit sky, our truck is always met by a staff member with a flashlight who escorts us back to our room to freshen up before dinner and then picks us up to take us back, as it’s not safe to walk alone at night.
Look what awaited us when we got back to our room tonight!
After our luxurious bubblebath and champagne, we floated to the boma for another lovely dinner followed by a short performance by the Londolozi Women’s Choir who demonstrated their local song, dance and drumming – a real treat.
Another glorious day had come to an end. Tomorrow would be the last day in this magical place. Off to bed.
Tuesday morning started out beautiful and clear. The mornings and early evenings have been pretty chilly, especially when driving around in the open vehicle. I was very happy I had brought a down vest, several scarves and enough long sleeved tops to keep me warm. But this morning was clear and windless and by 7:00 a.m we could see it was going to be a brilliant, sunny day.
Our first sighting was a leopard! This was a different leopard from the male we had previously encountered. This was a beautiful female with a white tail and very different markings from the male. She was slightly smaller too. Milton spotted her lying in the long, tall grass as dawn was breaking. But soon she was on the move. She walked right up to our jeep and directly under it and out the other side. Take a look at this video so you can get a perspective on how close we really were to this amazing animal.
We continued along, spotting myriad impala, wildebeest and water buck and then came upon this giraffe languidly grazing the tree tops.
Continuing, we found the Sparta girls lolling about in the grass. We watched them for a bit but quickly moved on. On our left were a group of elephants including youngsters. They were moving fairly swiftly but I was able to get a few good pictures.
Far away in the distance Milton pointed out a rhino. Even with binoculars we couldn’t really see him. Once again Milton amazed. Melvin wended his way off road through the rocky terrain and sidled right up to this group of five rhinos! They were all very curious about us surveying us with their typical sideways glances – the only way they can check something out as their eyes are on the side of their head. We were so close we could have reached out and touched them! They showed nothing more than idle curiosity towards us though they did come right up to the vehicle, but then turned away.
We watched these incredible creatures for some time as they moved around, grazing and then we pulled a few yards away for our morning coffee break before heading back to camp for breakfast.
Today we said goodbye to our new friends from Boston, Andy and Leslie and Danny and Barbara. We were together for all of our game drives and many of our meals. When you’re paired with other people for such long stretches for days in a row, you never know what the dynamic will be like and if it’s not good, it can really ruin your experience. We were so lucky to have been grouped with these two wonderful couples. We shared a lot of laughs, great quips, and our collective wonder and amazement, and by the time they had to leave for the next leg of their journey, they had adopted us!
Sadly our evening drive would be on our own and we felt a bit bereft, but we soldiered on, and enjoyed the luxury of having Milton and Melvin to ourselves. As we headed out of camp we saw more wildebeests and rhino and then we spotted this huge boy.
We stopped and watched him eat for quite awhile, only 8-10 feet from our truck. He was definitely aware of our presence and watchful as he ate, sometimes moving closer, but he didn’t seem too concerned or threatened, though Michael was a bit leery. Melvin explained they could tell that the elephant was at the end of being in must because of the minimal drippings around his eyes and the mostly dried up urine on his back legs. If he was in must we would never have been able to be as close, as these guys get very aggressive during this time, right before they mate.
For my younger readers, M, S and G, take a close look and what do you see?
Woah, pretty big huh? Well it has to be to enable the male elephant to impregnate the female elephant. Mom and Dad will fill you in on how this works.
After we said goodbye to the ellie, it was time to stop and stretch our legs for the traditional sundowner, the time of day when cocktails and snacks are served on the hood of the jeep. As we enjoyed our refreshments, we watched the sky turn pink and the beautiful African landscape fall under shadows, a chill in the air.
But before heading back to camp, Milton and Melvin headed off road, back to where we’d seen the Sparta pride earlier in the day. They had moved a bit but there they were, with the male keeping a watchful eye. Night was falling and the cats were ready to hunt. The cubs frolicked and the adults started to move.
There was a good size herd of impala fairly close by and Melvin drove behind them, knowing the cats would move in that direction to begin their hunt. We sat and waited and in only a few minutes the female lions had stealthily encircled the impalas, working cooperatively, making a very wide radius to surround them before they pounced. Slowly the lions began to move inwards. We waited, thinking we were going to see a kill. The impalas shifted, all turning in one direction. The lions waited, hidden by the tall grasses, for just the right moment. Then suddenly in a flurry of activity, all the impalas bolted, getting away just in time. A lost opportunity for the Sparta girls. But it was very early evening and the impalas hadn’t moved too far, and the lions had yet to give up. Sadly it was time for us to head back to camp, our very last game drive now over. How we would miss these exciting sights.
We returned back to a candlelit camp where we freshened up and convened for a quiet dinner with two guys, the only other remaining guests. One of the men is originally Australian, but living in Indonesia, and has quite the passion for photography. He travels to Africa several times a year and this trip brought him to Londolozi specifically to photograph their famous leopards. But the really cool thing is that he hired Greg du Toit, one of the world’s foremost wildlife photographers to accompany him for two weeks! They have their own tracker and ranger and spend hours and hours in their vehicle, loaded with unbelievable camera equipment that is fixed to mounts. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see their shots but Greg has a book coming out soon and we look forward to purchasing it and seeing his work.
We made it an early night and headed off to a good night’s sleep so we’re rested for the next leg of our adventure.
On Tuesday after breakfast we were invited to join a walk to the nearby Londolozi village which houses a great many of the staff who work at this amazing property. This was a wonderful opportunity to see how the locals live.
The owners of this private reserve have worked hard to build positive relations with the local villagers and have helped to build a solid infrastructure with safe, clean housing, running water and plumbing, electricity, onsite education, distance and e-learning, healthcare, healthcare and AIDS education and childcare.
This would have been a typical residential dwelling back about a hundred years ago.
These structures are maintained for educational purposes only to ensure the history of this tribe is kept alive, passed from one generation to another as well as shared with outsiders.
This is where food would have been stored, elevated to keep bugs and rodents out as well as to provide a cooking space underneath allowing the smoke from the fire to permeate the food above to eradicate insects.
Our tour guide Witness, spoke of his heritage with great passion and pride, sharing the ancient, but now defunct traditions of polygamy, religion and healing.
We got to meet the kids in daycare, ranging in age from about 16 months to 3 hears old. They are learning to count, the months of the year and the alphabet, which they recited for us with pride, followed by high fives all around. Too cute.
We felt honoured to spend a little bit of time learning about the history and culture of the people of this region.
On Wednesday morning it was time to say goodbye to this very special place. It is hard to describe how wonderful the people here are. From the chefs, to the servers, to the camp manager, to the many, many staff members you see and interact with everyday, everyone at Londolozi is truly special.
But I must say a few words about the supremely gifted and generous Milton and Melvin. You spend so many hours with your tracker and ranger, but their jobs go so far beyond sighting wildlife and providing information. They are responsible for your comfort and safety of course, but they truly love what they do and they want you to love their land, appreciate their skills, absorb their knowledge and leave being a little bit changed. They have the very best office in the whole world and they appreciate everything laid out before them. They taught us to slow down, inhale deeply, look beyond what’s right in front of us, listen to the sounds, gaze at the stars and revel in the wonder we have been so privileged to share with them. Farewell dear friends. We will remember you forever.
Zambia was never on my list of places to visit. I had heard Vic Falls was overrated and commercialized. But Bianca from Icon convinced me that if we were going to travel this far it was a worth a stop to see one of the seven natural wonders of the world. We’re glad she did.
We flew from Londolozi to Kruger and then onto Livingstone, Zambia. After a one hour drive we arrived at The Royal Chundu River Lodge on the Zambezi River. This beautiful, traditional lodge encompasses 15 kilometres of pristine river frontage opposite a nature reserve and is made up of 10 bungalows and a short boat ride away at the Island Lodge, another 4 riverfront suites. It was awarded Zambia’s Leading Ecolodge in the 2011 World Travel Awards.
Our first night was spent at the River Lodge. Yesterday we were upgraded to the Island Lodge in honour of our 25th anniversary as well as an ant problem in our room. Lets just say when the floors become a carpet of teensy ants, and they’re all over everything, it’s hard to sleep comfortably. But the owner of this lovely property handled the situation beautifully. Look at this stunning setting.
Here at Royal Chundu the atmosphere is very serene. Life centres around the river and the surrounding natural beauty. There is a 90 minute sunset cruise every afternoon and floating down the river with only one other couple, drinks in hand, snacks on board and the knowledgeable ranger to point out the unique bird life is a relaxing way to end the day.
We were picked up in the morning by our guide/driver Mombo for the one hour trip into Livingstone to see Victoria Falls. Mombo provided interesting insight into the Zambian people and their culture. He pointed out a very small Jewish cemetery, telling us about the Jewish community that first brought trade and commerce to the country as textile merchants. He didn’t know we were Jewish. He was just sharing what he thought were interesting facts. We told him we are Jewish and he said he’d stop at the cemetery online way back to the lodge.
We arrived at Victoria Falls, called “The Smoke that Thunders” and walked the trails. We were really surprised at how few people were there, how close the pathways are along and across from the Falls and the huge volume of water, though we had been told this was the high water season. The beauty and power of the Falls are magnificent and intimidating, made more so because you stand so close to the river bank and the edge of the 100 metre plunge to the Batoka Gorge. This is not for those with a fear of heights or water. But we gingerly soldiered on.
We had been advised to bring a change of clothes and shoes and we were provided with nylon rain ponchos, which ended up being useless. Luckily we had also been forewarned by Greg, the photographer we met at Londolozi, not to even think about taking our camera past a certain point. As you can see, we did take some pictures before placing the camera into a ziploc bag, inside another nylon bag, under the rain poncho. We figured we’d experience a little mist. Ha! We were completely deluged. The water rained over us in heavy sheets. At one point we reached a bridge over the gorge. There was no way Michael was going to cross the bridge, so he waited while Mombo and I crossed to the other side, and then back, in water up to our ankles under heavy curtains of water. It was quite heart stopping but thrilling at the same time. And I can say I walked across the Falls! Sorry, no pics.
We dried off and changed and headed back to the lodge. As promised, along the way we stopped at the tiny walled Jewish cemetery. We walked among the 20 or so headstones, reading the names and dates and the many heartfelt sentiments engraved on the markers. The last Jews left Livingstone in 1974 and this is all that’s left. It was a moving moment. We placed a small stone on the last grave. On the drive back, we told Mombo about some of the Jewish customs surrounding death as he listened intently, thanking us for sharing. He then told us about the Zambian tribal traditions when someone dies, and there were many similarities, including covering the mirrors, the community bringing food for the wake to feed the family, an immediate burial and others. Who would ever think that in a small African town we’d be sharing a moment like this with a Zambian man? This was another moment to marvel at how we really are all the same in so many ways.
The rest of our day was spent relaxing and reading, followed by a lovely sunset cruise down the Zambezi. We arrived back at our suite at dusk to find a candlelit bubble bath awaiting us on our riverside deck as well as the table set for a romantic, starlit dinner. After a long soak and a luxurious dinner, we settled back to stargaze. Every inch of the black sky glittered above us and the wide swath of the Milky Way was impressive. We only wish we had our friend and amateur astronomer John Crossen with us to describe the foreign night sky of the Southern hemisphere. Yes, we know there are apps but there is no connectivity in the suites, or for that matter in much of the rest of the lodge.
Suddenly, our door burst open and the ENTIRE staff of the lodge, including the chef and his staff entered with a candle laden anniversary cake, singing!They serenaded us with several verses of a traditional celebratory Zambian song that was so heartfelt and moving, it made me cry. This was a moment we will never forget.
We didn’t disappear. But there is zero connectivity in the area of Botswana we were visiting.
Botswana, the final leg of our journey was the country that originally inspired this trip. Botswana is the second flattest country in the world after Mauritius, and is home to the largest population of elephants in Africa. Landlocked by Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Zambia, the country is about 582,000 square kilometres, 80% of which is comprised of the Kalahari desert. The entire population of this vast country is a mere 2,030,000 – less than the City of Toronto! We headed to the southern region of the world famous Okavango Delta wetlands, the largest inland delta system on Earth.
Our 4 seater flight from Livingstone, piloted by the knowledgable Kirsty, took us to the first point of entry into Botswana – Kasane- a teensy spec of an airport in the middle of nowhere. Our passports stamped, we hopped onto another 4 seater, commandeered by James, to be whisked to the airstrip near Vumbura Plains, our final camp.
The site from the air was breathtaking as James obtained permission to fly low along the banks of the Chobe River, so we could see large herds of elephant and hippo drinking at the waters’ edge for miles. The stunning scenery only highlighted the vastness of the landscape as the horizon stretched for miles and miles, as far as the eye could see.
As we got closer to our destination, the terrain became dustier and drier. When we landed the temperature was 38 Celsius.
We were greeted at an airstrip in the middle of nowhere with cold, wet towels and warm greetings from our driver as we began the 40 minute ride to camp along the very sandy and sometimes very wet roads. Compared to the groomed roads of Sabi Sand, these were very rugged and bumpy and I was thankful for my sports bra. Along the way we saw giraffe, buffalo, baboons and elephant. A good start.
Our arrival at camp was greeted by camp manager Annabelle and her boss Roger with more cold towels and refreshing drinks. Our first impression of this camp was how very different it was from Londolozi. The terrain is really flat and rather than being elevated and surrounded by lush foliage, the main lodge is right at the edge of magnificent wetlands with an unspoiled, natural view that goes on forever.The lodge itself is very contemporary for Africa, with low buildings stretching north to south, joined by elevated wooden walkways.
Annabelle filled us in on the ebb and flow of our upcoming days at camp, reviewed the safety procedures and had us sign our lives away in the event of any animal encounters. Vumbura Plains is a very isolated camp, as are most, if not all of those in the Delta. No Internet, no telephones – no connection with the outside world at all. In the event of a real emergency, Annabelle has a satellite phone, but that’s it. If there is an emergency while in your room, you have an air horn – three long blasts and turn on all your lights so they know which of the seven cabins has the issue. Camp staff communicate via walkie talkie only. Staff work three months on, one month off, and until they return to civilization they have no way of knowing what’s going on anywhere in the world unless a guest fills them in. But honestly, they don’t seem to care. Not one person asked about what’s in the news. What an amazing way to live.
Our room, #7 in North Camp, was the farthest from the main lodge which meant a lengthy walk both directions, something we both needed after all the eating and drinking we’d been enjoying. North Camp has 7 cabins, as does South Camp, though South Camp is about a kilometre down the path and operates separately. We were instructed not to walk the paths in the dark, either morning or night, without an experienced escort as the game travel right through camp. In fact the walkways dip down in several spots to allow the animals to cross from one side to the other. We were reminded to stop and look in both directions before continuing along the path.
Vumbura Plains is a Premier Camp in the Wilderness Safari portfolio and is appointed beautifully, but it is very rustic compared to a camp like Londolozi, so it had a very different feel – much more like “glamping”. Our cabin was completely open on three sides but screened in. The suite was huge and comprised of the sleeping area, a sunken living room, exposed sinks, an amazing shower, as well as a separate outdoor shower, private water closet and a beautiful outdoor area with loungers, a plunge pool and table and chairs. There are no door locks so it’s important to remember to latch the room to keep the baboons out!
At night a mosquito net drapes the bed but it feels like you’re sleeping right outside as the sounds of the Delta are almost deafening. From the insects to the frogs, the night birds to the hippos chomping and sloshing 30 feet from your bed, to the elephants wandering through camp, and the baboons issuing warning cries, sleeping does not come easily at first. In fact the first night I think my eyes were wide open the entire night as every sound had my imagination running wild. Eventually you succumb to the sounds and they lull you to sleep. In fact on our final morning I mentioned to Michael I thought it had been a very quiet night because I had slept so soundly. He,on the other hand was up most of the night listening to the two hippos conversing for hours, one on either side of our cabin.
Mornings come a bit later than at Londolozi, with a knock on our gate at 5:30 a.m. followed by an escort to breakfast at 6:00. Look at the sunrise we awoke to every morning!
By 6:30 we were in the trucks and headed out to see what the day would bring. The topography is very different here, as compared to South Africa, and we kept reminding ourselves to stop comparing and go with the flow. Literally!
By March, the water has receded and there are huge swaths of dry lands with water pans spread throughout the landscape. Occasionally we encountered stretches of water which the Land Rovers manage handily. By April the floods will start and much of the land will be completely underwater with only islands here and there and necessitating the use of boats to get around. The road quality is pretty poor and we had to get used to lots of bumping around. The grass is extremely tall at this time of year and smaller game sighting can be difficult. Unlike Londolozi where there was game at every turn, we had to look for it here, often driving long distances. But the rewards were great, particularly when it came to elephant as there is an abundance of large family groups of these huge creatures throughout the reserve.
We saw one pride of lions a few times, as they seemed to stay in the same area.
There were several types of antelope we hadn’t previously encountered including the Lechwe, who runs like a dog with his head low to the ground, a Tsessebee, the fastest antelope, and the rare Sabl, not often found in this part of the continent. The female Sabl is red and the male is black.
We watched baboon families groom, frolic, eat and scold, remarking on their many human characteristics.
What are we looking at?
We had one lone leopard sighting, but she was very skittish and we didn’t have much time to observe her behaviour.
This hyena is pregnant and also has a den of cubs right nearby. She has some sort of abrasion on her back but otherwise looks to be in good health.
One day as we crossed this wooden bridge, we encountered this big guy moving slowly under our vehicle and slinking away.
We noticed a huge proliferation of many types of birds including many we had not seen previously.
Vumbura Plains provided many special and thoughtful touches we hadn’t encountered before. As the sun was setting, Russell, our guide/tracker would pull off the road into a clearing and poof, there would be an entire bar set up with lovely hors d’oeuvres and the other guests of North Camp gathered together to enjoy a traditional “sundowner”.
On another occasion, we had finished the morning drive and pulled off road to discover this gorgeous lunch set up in the bush.
These surprises were very special and were highlighted by the presence of many VP staff members who were wonderful hosts. Camp managers, trackers and guides shared our communal table at mealtimes and the conversation was always lively. We loved that at VP, cocktails and mealtimes were communal, providing a wonderful way to meet people from all over the world, share stories of sightings and discoveries, and make new friends.
On our final day we wanted to go on a macuro ride in the Delta. This traditional dugout canoe with a shallow draught is propelled through the water by skilled polemen, most of whom learn to pole as kids. Once the main way to transport goods throughout the Delta, the macuro is now mainly used for fishing, scenic viewing and to share tradition and culture with visitors. We lowered ourselves into our macuro as Pro poled us expertly through the lily festooned marsh, explaining the wildlife and the delicate ecosystem. The millions of midges danced all around us as the skater flies feasted and the frogs began to sing as daylight was waning. It was a peaceful and beautiful sight to behold.
On our final night at Camp, we enjoyed a traditional Botswana meal around the fire in the Boma which started with the camp staff singing traditional music and sharing their cultural dances. The harmonies were beautiful but what I will always remember is how happy the music sounded. These are a joy-filled people!
It was hard to believe our trip of a lifetime was coming to a close. The rugged beauty of Botswana had captured our hearts. We know we will return.
Planning this trip was an adventure in itself. And while I’m not new to travelling (or planning!) this trip in particular took special considerations, especially when it came to packing. If you have been following our blog, you know we had weight limits to consider, so after all our clothes and essentials, every other thing we brought had to be carefully planned out.
When it came to choosing a camera for this great adventure, I knew I needed something light, reliable and fast. Given the scenery and wildlife we were going to see, versatility and quality were also important, and I didn’t think a point-and-shoot would cut it. I have a digital SLR but there is no way my luggage could accommodate a heavy camera body and an assortment of lenses. My staff recommended a Nikon 1 J3 camera with a powerful 10-100mm lens. I certainly didn’t want to worry about changing lenses in the middle of a safari. The 10-100mm can shoot landscapes from afar, or do close-ups. My brother-in-law, an avid photographer, has the Nikon 1 J1 and he has nothing but great things to say about its capability, so this seemed like a great choice.
You’ve probably noticed we captured some great moments on our journey. All the photos featured in our blog posts (save for the food pics) were taken with the J3. This lightweight, interchangeable lens camera was the ideal travel companion and fit perfectly into my day bag.
Early in our trip Michael and I visited the Dance for All studios in Athlone. As you know, we have a special interest in this wonderful organization which makes dance accessible for many deserving youth. In short, missing a single shot during this meaningful visit was not an option. The camera’s lightning-quick sensor didn’t miss a chassé! The shutter was extremely responsive and I was able to preserve many beautiful moments such as the one below.
As many dancers will attest to, sometimes even the most stunning of stills just can’t do a movement justice. For moments like these, I took advantage of the camera’s Full-HD video-making capability, which allowed me to capture the students’ powerful yet graceful movements.
I also discovered I was able to take a still while simultaneously shooting seamless video. I was able to capture images I wanted without having to stop a video already in progress.
One thing I strongly recommend for those travelling, is to consider investing in a spare camera battery. Plugging-in while you’re on the move simply isn’t possible. While the J3’s battery lasted a considerable amount of time and I charged it every night, it would be a good idea to have an extra handy. As you can imagine, when you’re out on safari, the last thing you want to have happen is to run out of juice just when the perfect shot presents itself.
A variety of lenses are available, but this particular J3 kit is equipped with a NIKKOR 10-100mm zoom lens which has been perfect for documenting our many wildlife encounters. With this lens, we’re able to get up-close-and-personal with these beautiful animals…from a safe distance.
The images and video I captured on our trip have allowed me to bring a bit of the safari home with me to Canada. I am already planning (in my head at least) for our next African adventure. I hope these photos are just some of my many safari collections to come.
Africa, the dark continent. I had all of these preconceived notions and anxiety about the trip. I am slightly embarrassed to admit they were all incorrect and unfounded.
I was fearful. I admit it. I had heard all these stories about how dangerous South Africa is. Car jackings, kidnappings, murders, assaults, robberies, rogue cab drivers, touts and scam artists. I bought money belts, left every piece of jewellery at home, carried minimal cash and gave copies of our itinerary to everyone I knew, “just in case”. I am well travelled. I have been to many countries all over the world including a few emerging and third world countries. But the exotic South Africa, Zambia and Botswana seemed to me a whole different world all together. I could not have been more wrong!
In every country the people we met were kind, friendly and welcoming. They were eager to share their stories and culture and just as interested in hearing about ours. In South Africa the scars of apartheid are still fresh and will never completely heal, but the people we spoke to were open and happy, even those struggling to make a better life by hand painting tea bags and making crafts, or the generous angels at Dance for All who scrape funds together to teach township kids to dance and provide opportunities and self esteem, or entire rural villages who were being employed in the tourism industry, paid a fair wage and provided with healthcare and education.
In cities, towns, villages, airports and of course the amazing camps we stayed at, we used common sense, and exercised basic caution, just as we would anywhere else. We stuck to areas we were told were safe, we didn’t walk around alone late at night, carried very little cash, ensured we knew where we were going, used recommended taxi services in Cape Town, didn’t engage with people trying to sell us stuff or escort us and followed the instructions of our expert guides. And we were just fine. Never once did we feel unsafe or fearful. Well, other than on safari during my leopard encounter and another time when a big bull elephant decided to head towards Michael.
Thomas Friedman is completely right, “the world is flat”. Cape Town is a clean, safe, modern, stunningly beautiful world-class city with the same global brands and familiar food and drink we have in North America. Customs and culture may differ, but it is a fabulous city that we did not have enough time to thoroughly explore. Most places had internet access and our phones had service. Thankfully none of the properties had televisions!
I had anxiety about the four flights and 30+ hours it was going to take us just to get to Cape Town, as well as the many internal flights during our trip. I was concerned about navigating our way through so many airports, getting lost, missing flights, language barriers, lost luggage and customs and immigration in multiple countries. Can you tell I am a worrier? Our transfers went off without a hitch. Every one! In fact I’d say our experiences in the commercial airports including London, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Livingstone were far easier and measurably more enjoyable than any travel we do within North America! The teensy airports in Nelspruit, Livingstone, Kasane and Maun were sleepy, almost empty, clean, modern and a breeze to pass through.
We did have to adjust to the fact that we weren’t provided with actual tickets, nor did we know the departure times for our 4-seater flights on Wilderness Air from Livingstone-Kasane-Vumbura and Vumbura-Maun because the schedules aren’t determined until the night before. But all of these flights were problem free.
A few minor tips which may be helpful for travelers with similar connections:
When arriving in Joburg with a connecting flight on South African Air (or in our case AirLink http://www.flyairlink.com/, which is part of SAA) to Cape Town, go through Passport Control, pick up luggage and then walk straight through to the SAA counter on same level for domestic check in. Then go up the escalator to the gates. Don’t be fooled by official looking men in jackets who start to usher you and show you the way to your gate. They’re shills looking for money.
When we arrived from Maun to Johannesburg on our way back to Istanbul, we figured out NOT to go to “International Connections”. Instead we had to go to Passport Control (the same as when we arrived in the country), pick up our luggage, then go upstairs to departure level to check in at our airline for the international departing flight. The lounges are after security and another immigration check, then up the escalators. As an aside the shopping at the Joburg airport (especially for African souvenirs is fantastic). This was important as we were unable to purchase anything prior to our safaris due to the weight restrictions. So we did all our shopping at the airport and scored some great gifts.
I admit it. I always overpack because I like to have choices. As you know I was slightly freaked out about having to travel for 3 weeks with only a knapsack and a 24” duffel but I was also concerned about taking the right clothing. We needed clothing for the city and wine country including cool nights, a few fine dining evenings and sightseeing, and for safaris in two climates – warm days with cold nights and morning drives, and extremely hot days with warm nights but cool mornings, as well as the possibility of sudden showers.
I am happy to report I had nothing to worry about! In fact we didn’t need about 1/3 of what we packed. I have added an Addendum to the Packing page with greater detail. And now I will know exactly what to pack (and what to leave behind) for our next trip.
Have you ever been on a safari? If not, do you think you’d know what to expect? I am still surprised how many people ask if we were in vans or cars with windows. I guess they’re thinking of theme parks like African Lion Safari.
While we knew we’d be in open Land Rovers accompanied by an experienced guide and tracker, we still didn’t really know what to expect. We knew we would likely share the vehicle with others for many hours each day (a maximum of 6 per vehicle at both camps). We were very fortunate to have fabulous people in our vehicles and that made the experience even more special.
We knew we would be close to the animals and they wouldn’t be afraid of us. But we didn’t know how close. It turns out VERY CLOSE! Sometimes we were only a few feet away. Our initial encounters with the big cats and elephants were very unnerving, especially if they walked close to, or brushed against our vehicle or suddenly exhibited curiosity, like the family of rhinos and the big bull elephant. But after the first couple of drives and once we became trusting of our guide and tracker, we settled down and just marveled at these magnificent creatures.
We were told March (the beginning of Fall) was not the best time to go on safari because it is the green season when the vegetation is the most lush and the animals are harder to spot. In Sabi Sand we saw such an incredible abundance of animals every day that we cannot even imagine the viewing being better in the dry season. In Botswana we found the drives a bit lengthy with long stretches of driving without seeing anything. The grasses were much taller and more dense and sightings were different. We saw much bigger herds of elephant but only one lion pride and one fleeting and fearful leopard. If we were to go back to Botswana, we’d go further into the delta and try the dry season, despite the cold.
Morning drives were cold and I was very glad we had down vests and warm jackets. I can’t imagine how cold it gets in July and August!
We used mosquito repellant daily and checked, and often sprayed our clothing after each drive to repel ticks. We faithfully took our Malarone and though we both got a few bites, we were thankfully fine.
We chose not to get yellow fever vaccines on the advice of our travel doctor but he did provide us with an immunity certificate as we were told we would be unable to get back into South Africa from Botswana without one, though no one ever asked to see it.
A few words about costs. We saved for more than a year for this adventure. We flew all of our international flights on points. Our accommodations in Cape Town were modest compared to the big hotels and in mid-level Winelands in terms of cost. The Zambia lodge was mid range and all inclusive with meals, beverages including alcohol, excursions and laundry. The most lavish spends were the two safari camps, which while very expensive, included absolutely everything. And I mean everything! We loved not being nickel and dimed. We had the added bonus of a very strong Canadian dollar against the Rand too.
Tipping was additional and Icon Expeditions provided guidelines so we had some idea of what cash to bring and in what currencies, and brought note cards and envelopes so we could leave personal notes with the cash. Tipping is part of the culture in these countries and a very important source of income for the many hospitality workers. But we found the information we were provided could have been better explained and tailored to our properties.
For example at Royal Chundu in Zambia there are no rangers or trackers though the documentation seemed to indicate there were. The guy driving the sunset barge was a sort of ranger but he only occasionally pointed out shore birds. We seem to be assigned a waiter/butler but it wasn’t really explained. Categories for tipping at this lodge should be: Manager, housekeeping, main waiter/butler, general staff, Vic Falls (or excursion) guides, massage therapists.
At Londolozi the categories made more sense and included ranger, tracker, manager, general staff including housekeeping, though main waiter/butler, in our case, the fabulous Tresta, should also be included as well as massage therapists.
At Vumbura Plains the tracker and ranger are one and the same and then general staff including housekeeping are also tipped. Also at this camp they request the macuro polers and boss be tipped separately and provide a separate box for such.
We only took South African Rand and US dollars. We did not need Zambia or Botswana currency.
What would we do differently?
We loved our itinerary but we should have listened to Bianca’s, of Icon Expeditions recommendations. She suggested four nights in Cape Town so we’d have three full days. She was right. We barely scratched the surface of Cape Town.
Two nights in Winelands would have been perfect as opposed to three.
Although we really enjoyed the downtime in the river lodge in Zambia and we’re glad to say we have now seen one of the seven wonders of the world, two nights would have sufficed.
And finally, I think it would have been amazing to end the trip at Londolozi because the Botswana game viewing was a bit of a disappointment in comparison and Londolozi was the most luxurious of all of the properties and would have been a perfect ending to the trip.
So, if you have any fears about visiting South Africa, Zambia or Botswana – just go. Your concerns will melt away after only a few hours with some good planning, common sense and an openness to meet these amazing people and learn about their way of life.
I am an African
Not because I was born there
But because my heart beats with Africa’s
I am an African
Not because my skin is black
But because my mind is engaged by Africa
I am an African
Not because I live on its soil
But because my soul is at home in Africa
- Wayne Visser
It is hard to believe this incredible trip, planned 13 months ago, encompassing 13 flights, thousands of miles travelled and culminating in over 2,400 photographs, had to come to an end. And yet, we feel as if we are only at the beginning of our love affair with these special places and the soulful, generous people and their beautiful cultures that we have been so blessed to experience and to share with you.
Beyond the myriad exciting animal sightings, the incredible accommodations, the new experiences and the many inspiring people we met along the way, we rediscovered what it is like to just be in the moment. We loved watching the miracles of nature unfold, listening to the thousands of sounds all around us, smelling clean air, tall grass, wild sage, soggy marshes and musty elephants (!) and to feel the warm sun on our faces as it rose in the morning, relishing a cool breeze when it’s 35 degrees in the shade, and simply enjoying a good night’s sleep under a blanket of stars.
We will return to this magical continent. I hope it will be soon. For Africa will remain in our hearts forever.
If you enjoyed the experience please make a donation to Dance For All, a cause very dear to us.
Thank you for coming along with us for the ride.