Ever since I bicycled from Cape Town to Durban (1,000 miles in three weeks with a group of Americans) in 1996, I have wanted to return with my wife Joan, to visit other highlights and neighboring countries. We left New York’s winter this year in late February and returned at the end of March after spring had arrived.
South African Airways (SAA) and Delta have direct flights from the U.S. to Johannesburg. From New York it takes about eighteen hours, with a one-hour stop at Dakar, Senegal. Since I had visited almost 80 countries, I would have liked to deplane briefly at Dakar to add one more to my list. It was not to be. The through passengers were required to remain on the plane. We complained about the long flight, but when I compared it to the lengthy and arduous sea voyage that earlier travelers had to encounter (even as late as the early 1900’s), it didn’t seem so bad.
Possibly because our flights were not on weekends, they were only about 60% full. As soon as the doors closed, the two of us quickly “claimed” six vacant seats, taking turns sleeping across four of them. Almost all of the international and many of the domestic flights go through Johannesburg. This was inconvenient because each transfer from one plane to another included a night’s layover; the flights didn’t connect on the same day. There was, however, a modern Intercontinental Hotel adjacent to the airport. Security procedures and carry-on weight restrictions were not strictly enforced in Southern Africa. We were usually permitted to carry on our baggage resulting in fewer delays and less of a risk of losing them.
The first morning after we arrived, we walked over to the airport for our flight to Livingstone, Zambia, the location of Victoria Falls. There was an unexpected $135.00 entry fee for Americans. I assume that may have been imposed in retaliation for increased fees and regulations for visitors to the U.S.
Our home in Zambia was the luxurious Royal Livingstone, a seven-minute walk to the mammoth waterfalls, one of the world’s largest and a World Heritage Site. The waterfall volume was very high, this being the end of the rainy season upstream on the Zambesi River in Zambia and Angola. At most hours viewing the spectacular falls involved wearing raincoats and umbrellas because of the heavy spray. By the way, the heavy volume resulted in the water pressure in our bathroom being the strongest I’ve ever had.
My overall rating of the four major waterfalls I have seen is that Victoria, Niagara and Igassu (South America) are close for first position with Angel Falls, Venezuela the least impressive. Niagara loses something by being easily accessible for us and being located in a less exotic location. Near the waterfall is a narrow railroad and single lane car/truck bridge which crosses the Zambesi into the troubled country of Zimbabwe. I strolled across the bridge; the frontier guards from both countries weren’t interested in looking at my passport. A large wild baboon entered the customs building causing a shrieking group of local girls to make a quick dash for the exit.
We met a friendly Zimbabwean woman, Jane, who had a tragic story. Her parents, who owned a large farm there, her sister and grandparents were all murdered in an apparent robbery attempt. The perpetrators were caught the next day and hung.
There was a group of beautiful zebras (in Africa the first syllable of zebra is pronounced to rhyme with “ebb”) who wander around the Royal Livingstone grounds. We encountered a giant giraffe contentedly munching on a snack of leaves from the top of a tall tree. On an early morning stroll I also ran into a small herd of horned impalas
The animals were docile; we could easily approach them for excellent close-up photos. On the other hand, the monkeys in the area were quite aggressive. One created a bit of chaos at the elegant breakfast buffet – jumping from table to table, sampling various tasty creations of the culinary staff. One mischievous monkey helped himself to a small plastic bag containing a guest’s jewelry while she was in the swimming pool. The staff was busy for the next hour trying to retrieve it.
We saw a few hippos wading and cavorting in the Zambesi from the deck on a laid back and relaxing sunset boat cruise that covered a calm stretch of the river above the Falls. The restaurant served continental cuisine and several local dishes, including impala and bream (my choice). About half of the tables were on an outdoor terrace with a view of the zebras on their evening meanderings. The wine list included some very nice South African wines with prices as low as $22.00 a bottle.
Wings over Namibia
After another overnight stop at the Joburg airport, we had a two-hour flight on Air Namibia to Windhoek, that country’s capital. We began a week long aerial tour operated by Sefofane Namibia and Wilderness Safaris. We were greeted by Phil, our 21-year-old pilot of our comfortable 13 passenger, one engine Cessna Caravan, at our disposal for the week. Our fellow travelers were a Canadian couple and a South Africa couple currently living on an island off of England.
According to the pre-departure information given us, each passenger was limited to 26 pounds of baggage including carry-on. We checked some excess baggage at an accommodation for the week and we developed some “packing discipline”, useful in future trips. As it turned out, perhaps because the plane was only half full, Phil didn’t check the weight.
Phil took us on a one hour flight to the Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp, where each couple had a rustic desert chalet. The private facilities included an outdoor shower and plunge pool conducive to cooling off (from the 90 degree heat with no air conditioning) and skinny dipping. This overlooked an exquisite desert panorama of sparse trees and bushes punctuating the sand, with a hilly backdrop. Just behind the chalet area was an oryx (an antelope relative) hydrating himself at a waterhole.
There were early morning and late afternoon open Land Rover game drives. coinciding with the stunning sunrises and sunsets. Namibia’s majestic sand dunes are the world’s largest. Our knowledgeable and friendly guide/driver Sebastaan, stopped frequently to point out animal. mineral and vegetable points of interest. At rest stops one of which was Namibia's Grand Canyon, we were offered snacks and drinks.
On Day three we flew to the Skeleton Coast. Our low-flying flight gave us a breathtaking aerial perspective of the area, at 500 feet above the Atlantic Coast, we had a close look at several shipwrecks. We passed over gorgeous squadrons of flamingos – all pretty in pink! We landed at Swakomund and were driven to nearby Walvis Bay for a coastal cruise. We were joined in the small boat by a 700-pound plus seal who jumped on board. Fortunately he was on his best behavior. A dozen or so dolphins were at play a few feet from us. I also saw several mammoth Portuguese man of war jellyfish.
Accompanying us on this mini voyage were several components of the Namibian air force including a very large pelican, numerous gulls and a cormorant. We headed for the Cape Cross Seal Colony (population: 17,000 seals).
We each drove a powered “quad cycle” over sand dunes, we were taken to a beachside lunch under a canopy on the sand constructed just for us. The first course was fresh oysters just harvested from the beds we had passed an hour or so before in our boat. We also had a brief shopping opportunity in town to purchase Namibian souvenirs.
We then returned to the small airport for an hour's hop east and inland to the Doro Nawas Damaraland Camp. The “airport” was an unpaved dirt landing strip with no buildings or people other than the land rover driver from the camp. As we were sipping pre-dinner cocktails, we viewed one of the most glorious sunsets over the dunes I have ever seen. It included shades of deep red I didn't know existed!
On the return leg of a drive to a World Heritage Site of a 6,000-year-old rock engravings, we were elated to catch a glimpse of a herd of elephants. Our guide drove a small radius around them, allowing us to take dozens of close-up photos. We rarely needed the powerful binoculars and camera lenses we brought because we were so close to our camera’s “prey”!
The final stop in Namibia was the modern and lush Ongava Lodge, outside of the 22,000 square kilometer Etosha National Park. The temperature became moderate, we had air conditioning and screened windows. From this point on though, we had no heat or insect problems. Game drives in this area afforded us sightings of hundreds of big game specimen. In addition to those previously mentioned, we had multiple sightings of lions – some were VERY close, brushed alongside our landie. We saw many gnus (wildebeests) and antelope variations. We even dined on kudu steaks that evening.
The only large species in the area we hadn’t yet sighted was a white rhinoceros. Our guide loaded his rifle with bullets large enough to kill an elephant (to be used in self defense – which has rarely happened) and followed fresh footprints, droppings, listening for sounds. We found them! The two-ton plus white rhinos looked a little like houses moving!
Mala Mala -Five Stars to the Big Five
After our final overnight at Joberg Airport, we flew on a small SAA plane to Mala Mala, just outside of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Rattray’s on Mala Mala is on a private game reserve of 33,000 acres. Over the past ten years I have stayed at about 500 inns on six continents, but I can’t remember one which was better! It is arguably the best lodge/camp in the African continent. We had one of the eight luxurious and modern khayas (villas), which had separate “his and hers” bathrooms and dressing areas with different plumbing fixtures in each. There was an outdoor shower next to our (very) private pool with a splendid view of the lush countryside. We had an internet computer and satellite television in our room.
We and one other couple were assigned a guide, a native South African, a graduate wildlife specialist, and a tracker who assisted him in locating animals from our open land rover. We were thrilled with multiple sightings of groups (“prides” and “coalitions”) of lions and leopards. Some of them came within three or four feet of us. We were told never to stand up or speak loudly and they wouldn’t bother us.
The Land Rover left the dirt trails and “bushwhacked” into the jungle, knocking over bushes and small trees in its way. By the first day, we had accomplished our objective of sighting and photographing all of Africa’s “Big Five”: rhinos, elephants, buffalo, in addition to the leopards and lions. We also sighted a crocodile up close.
We were treated to an early morning pre-drive light breakfast with a hearty one after the drive, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner (included samples of the game we had been viewing) in addition to drinks and snacks at mid-drive rest breaks. There were a number of inexpensive, but excellent South African wines to accompany the generally outstanding cuisine. The problem was that I was gaining weight – one of the many amenities in our room was a scale! On several evenings, dinner was served in a traditional African boma, a round reed structure under a magnificent jackalberry tree with a campfire in the middle. The absence of a roof exposed the southern hemisphere’s array of brilliant stars against the pitch-black sky.
After four fantastic nights, it was time to leave this extraordinary resort. The plan was to take a small charter plane for a 15-minute flight (on Chili Pepper Airline) to the Kruger Airport where we could get a SAA flight to Cape Town. However, due to a lightning strike hitting the airport and cutting out its power, our flight was cancelled. Our inn ordered a taxi to drive us two hours to the Kruger Airport. The friendly driver was informative about the region around Kruger and the Mozambique border. We enjoyed the scenic tropical fruit plantations, forest and towns along the road.
Our home for four nights in Cape Town was the comfortable Commodore, located within a five-minute walk of the V&A Waterfront which somewhat resembled New York’s South Street Seaport (in its heyday) with an upscale large U.S. suburban mall. The mall was convenient for our errands, having been away from civilization for over two weeks.
The next morning was very windy. We were driven to the base of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head to get an outstanding aerial view of one of the world’s loveliest cities. We saw the 60,000 plus capacity stadium under construction for 2010 World Cup events. We also strolled around two fashionable and inviting Atlantic beaches at Clifton and Camp’s Bay. We were unable to take either the tram up to the top of Table Mountain, or the boat to Robben Island for two days due to the fierce winds.
On our final day in Cape Town the winds had subsided allowing the ferry to Robben Island to resume operations. Robben Island is the site of the infamous prison where political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were incarcerated for many years. Our guide Thulani Mabaso, was also a long term former prisoner who had been arrested for setting off bombs at a military installation. Because there was only a small contingent on the early Sunday morning ferry, we were given the unusual experience of actually entering Mandela’s cell.
Having been a group member of fifteen Backroads tours, I can say that I agree with its claim of being the world’s Number One Active Travel Company. My group was composed of 14 interesting and friendly people from the U.S. and Canada, included four teenagers travelling with their parents and two guides.
Our schedule included five two-night stands at Relais and Chateaux inns and luxury lodges at spectacular locations in both countries. The first day’s activities included a five-mile hike more or less around the base of Table Mountain to Krisenbosch. There was an additional short hike to The Cellars-Hohenort after a good picnic lunch organized by “Snackroads” in the Botanical Gardens.
We were provided with Cannondale mountain bikes fitted to our specifications. We rode as many as 56 hilly and hot miles along the sea of the Cape Peninsula. Three of us continued cycling along the majestic sea cliffs and over Chapman’s Peak. We were shuttled by bus for four hours to the next place, Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Retreat, which had a large vineyard behind its spacious pool. Next was a flight on chartered Beechcraft 200 eight-passenger planes to Botswana (Matshatu Main Camp). For the mountain biking safaris, the leader was armed with a rifle which he loaned me the weapon for a photo. The last four days were divided among two more luxurious wilderness lodges, where I met a number of guests from various countries, lodge managers and/or owners.
We visited several villages where we saw a school, library and health clinic. We were told that AIDS is a major problem in Southern Africa. We observed numerous types of game on enjoyable drives twice daily. We had a festive farewell dinner under a cloudless black sky amidst hundreds of orange lanterns. At these five lodges, I had an opportunity to meet and chat with numerous other guests, managers and owners.
South Africa is facing an acute long term energy shortage, apparently caused by poor forecasting and planning. Two of our accommodations were in zones which had two- to three-hour planned rotating blackouts. Some had their own generators, automatically activated during a blackout. Urban traffic problems resulted when traffic signals (called “robots” in South Africa) became inoperative.
In my opinion South Africa is a first world infrastructure (such as high end tourist services) superimposed on a third world country. There are ramshackle “townships” where poverty is rampant. Crime is a major problem. Many South Africans drive their autos with a gun under the seat. Tourists have been robbed and murdered. The combination of taking reasonable precautions and having a bit of luck resulted in our having no such problems.
The better inns and lodges in this part of the world and in some other third world countries have surpassed most of those in the U.S. and Europe in terms of personal service and captivating architecture, fitting the facilities into their stunning settings in a highly effective manner.
Although we did take weekly malaria pills, no one suffered more than slight and fleeting medical problems. Tap water was generally drinkable, but bottled water was almost always available. The weather was outstanding. In a month we only had two or three hours of rain; temperatures ran between the sixties to the eighties (seemed warmer the first several days in Namibia).
This “once-in-a-lifetime” trip was very expensive. It took place in a point of time when our nest egg was being buffeted by volatile financial markets. Compared to the daily cost of a day “on the town” in new York or San Francisco (top lodgings, restaurants, premium seats at sporting and cultural events, personalized experienced guides and drivers, etc.), South Africa per day is somewhat less.
A trip to South Africa is affordable. There are a wide variety of cheap hotels, including comfortable and clean “self catering” units. I have had good experience with VBT Adventure Travel. Obviously, a shorter trip would cost less, but I think that 10-12 days is the absolute minimum.