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.