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Trip Report A trip of a lifetime: South Africa & Vic Falls

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After pining away about South Africa for the past 15 years, my mother and I finally ventured there the first two weeks of October. We were blown away by the hospitality, stunning scenery and, of course, the opportunities to view wildlife where wildlife belongs. Rather than a day by day recount, I will summarize our adventures:

Dates: October 1 – October 14, 2010
Itinerary: 2 night Vic Falls; 4 nights Cape Town; 2 nights Sabi Sands; 3 nights Ngala Private Game Reserve

Airline: South African Airways
Spending 15+ hours in coach was something we dreaded but we were pleasantly surprised at the amenities offered by South African Airways. The biggest upset of the trip, however, was at the hands of this airline. Our luggage was vandalized on route to Jo’burg – The lock from my luggage was torn off although nothing was stolen during this leg. As a result however, I could not lock my luggage from Vic Falls to Cape Town and someone stole my camera battery and charger. I found this very upsetting because in years of traveling, I have never had anything stolen. Since then, I learned that people shrink wrap their luggage and I find it very sad that this is a necessity. I know that some people are desperate, but I was very put off by the theft.

Vic Falls: Ilala Lodge
Our two nights in Vic Falls were spent at the Ilala Lodge. The room was comfortable and the service was excellent. We had a view of the warthogs and baboons that visited each morning. We also enjoyed the complimentary breakfast buffet. Vic Falls itself was amazing but an awfully expensive side trip when you add up the airfare and hotel room fees.

The only excursion we did during the trip, besides viewing the falls on our own, was a sunset cruise on the Zambezi. We saw hippos, a crocodile and elephants swimming across the river. The cost was $45 and was booked though the hotel so I am not sure of the tour operator. Other than that we did a fair amount of shopping from the locals. I have to say that they were annoyingly pushy, someone would begin to hassle us the minute we stepped foot off the hotel grounds, but we recognized that many of them were desperate. We purchased the usual wooden giraffes, masks and bowls. We also splurged on a 1 billion, 50 billion and 100 billion Zimbabwean note to have as souvenirs. The other thing I wanted to mention is that people are still looking to trade. We neglected to bring anything to trade with and many were asking us for our shoes. I wish we would have brought some clothes/shoes to exchange for goods.

Cape Town: Westin Grand
We stayed at the Westin Grand and had the wonderful surprise of receiving a free upgrade to the concierge level. Not only is a free breakfast buffet included, but you could order any hot breakfast you wanted at no charge. Plus there are excellent views of the V&A Waterfront from the lounge. The hotel is located within walking distance of the Waterfront there is a free shuttle every 15 minutes.

On our first full day, we took a tour of Cape Point through Ilios Tours. During the tour, we stopped at an ostrich farm and at Boulders Bay to watch the penguins. Our guide gave a fascinating account of the history of South Africa, the good and the bad. On day two, we took an all day tour to Hermanus. We had booked the tour through Viator but the actual tour company was Springbok Atlas. It turned out to be just my mother and I and one other couple which was meant we could take our time at various stops. The whales cooperated to some extent but none came within 150-200 feet of our viewing points. No matter though because we stopped at Betty’s Bay to visit the other penguin colony. There were hundreds of them!

On day three, we learned the hard way why it is important to go up Table Mountain as early in your trip as possible. The weather took a chilly turn and the top was completely misted over. We decided to go on the hop on hop off bus tour of the city. We stopped at the Castle of Good Hope and Camp’s Bay. We also had a yummy lunch at the Royale Eatery (known for their super good hamburgers).

Sabi Sands: Arathusa Safari Lodge
From Cape Town, we took a direct flight to Nelspruit, followed by a 2.5 hour drive to the Arathusa Safari Lodge. The Arathusa Lodge is located in the south of Sabi Sands and was a great choice for our first ever safari lodge. The room was pleasant and the bathroom huge. Our guide, Ryan, was very knowledgeable and the game viewing was awesome. The number of people in our Land Rover ranged from 6 to 8. When there were 8 in the vehicle, one person sat up front next to the guide. We got within feet of several elephant herds, including one with a one week old elephant. We also saw: (3) white rhino, (4) leopards, zebra, kudu, impala, steenbok, waterbuck, hippo, wildebeest, giraffes, civets, and a juvenile male lion eating a kudu. The watering hole provided some of the best viewing of our stay with kudu, impala, giraffes, zebra, and elephants all coming to visit at some point in time.

One of the best parts of the experience was the food. The chef, just hired the week prior, came out to do a menu presentation before lunch and dinner. Lunch and dinner were three course meals with a choice of two or three entrees. The only drawback to the lodge was that drinks were not included in the room rate and the water tasted terrible.

Ngala Private Game Reserve: Ngala Safari Lodge
Three words: Heaven on Earth. The Ngala Safari Lodge is without a doubt the best accommodation I have ever stayed at (and I used to be a manager at a JW Marriott so I am especially critical). Our beautiful room had two twin beds, a nice large tub and an open shower. The lodge itself is decorated in a British colonial safari style. I loved all of the oversized furniture and the open spaces for relaxing. There is also a fantastic pool which I made good use of on a day when the temp surpassed 45 Celsius! What makes the Lodge most special, however, is the staff. I have never stayed at a place where I could honestly say that every staff person was genuinely friendly. Our butler, Nat, was so gracious and the housekeeping, front office, and wait staff were all very congenial. Even the GM stopped by on multiple occasions to make sure we were enjoying our stay.

During our time at Ngala, we went on six game drives and saw a variety of wildlife. In addition to the Big Five, we saw different owls, eagles, and nocturnal animals, including several bushbabies and a genet. I took some fantastic pictures of a male lion, of a pride of four female lions, and of a male leopard. Our guide was named Dyke and he had to be the best guide at the Lodge. He, along with our tracker, Zup, literally tracked down the lion and the leopard for us. I could not believe how they could interpret the tracks, even to the point of knowing how old they were.

The food at Ngala was absolutely delicious. Breakfast was a buffet with a choice of several hot entrée items (for example – one morning I indulged in crepes with lemon honey bananas and chocolate shavings). Lunch was also a buffet with a variety of delicious sides, mostly vegetarian, as well as carved ham, cheeses and a hot option (pizza, pasta etc.). For afternoon tea, we had our choice of drinks as well as a few yummy desserts such as lemon squares. Dinner was the highlight of our vacation each and every night. On our first night, we were surprised by a bush dinner. When we were around 15 minutes from the Lodge, we came upon hundreds of lanterns lighting up a restaurant in the middle of the bush. The staff had gone to great lengths to set up tables, a buffet, a grilling station, even a bar for all of the guests staying over that night. The next night the courtyard was set up, again with a myriad of lanterns to light up the surroundings. Finally, on our last night, it was dinner in the boma which we enjoyed with our guide.

After this trip, I am definitely hooked on Africa, and I am an andBeyond convert. If anyone has questions about our experiences, feel free to ask!

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