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Africa Safari Experience

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One of my friends asked me for recommendations, and I thought I would post them here too. Keep in mind I've only been once, and some of this is hearsay, but hopefully it will be useful for any first-timers.

1. East Africa (Kenya/Tanzania). Best in January/February (the dry season). Alternatively, July/August is good as it is the wildebeest migration season (where thousands of wildebeest cross from Tanzania into Kenya). East Africa is known for the classic luxurious tented safaris (a la Teddy Roosevelt and Out of Africa). The main reserve in Kenya is the Masai Mara, known for its nomadic tribal people (a la Nat'l Geographic). In Tanzania, the famous reserve is the Serengeti, which connects to the Masai Mara. Tanzania also features Mount Kilimanjaro and the Ngorongoro crater (a la Noah's Ark), which should not be missed.

2. South Africa. Best in September/October (dry, cool season). The famous reserve is Kruger Nat'l Park. Kruger has a higher concentration and diversity of game than does East Africa, but fewer in actual numbers. It also lacks the tribal peoples and sweeping panoramic vistas. However, the game viewing experience is generally considered superior (see below).

Surrounding Kruger are private ranches. Since there are no fences, the animals roam everywhere. The advantage of staying in a private lodge is that 1) you can go off road to track the animals and 2) you can safari at night. This is unique to the private reserves - you cannot do this in Kruger proper nor East Africa.

The reason why this is important is because going off road allows you to get extraordinarily close to the animals (within 10 feet). The lodges are also very intimate, no more than 10-15 rooms per lodge. However, you pay dearly for this privelege.

As I mentioned, private reserves surround the entire perimeter of Kruger, but the best area is just west, called the Sabi Sands. This is because of the 2 rivers that flow through the property. Sabi Sands is divided up into parcels of land. I stayed at the Inyati parcel - $300 per person per night, which is one of the cheaper lodges (http://www.inyati.co.za/). I think the cheapest available lodge in the Sabi Sands was around $250, called Chitwa Chitwa (http://www.chitwa.co.za/). The most expensive, and most luxurious, is called Singita - around $1100 per person per night (http://www.singita.com/). But it gets raves for being among the best in the world (beating out places like the Raffles and the Peninsula). You get your own plunge pool and they sprinkle your bed with rose petals and draw your bath with champagne and candles. Also, they arrange private dinners for just you 2 and your own personal chef and entourage - all included.

However, my recommendation if you stayed in the Sabi Sands would be Mala Mala main camp (http://www.malamala.com/malacamp.htm). It is $500 per person per night. It is ridiculously expensive but like I said, I stayed 3 nights at Inyati and after being there, I think I would rather spend the same amount of money for 2 nights at Mala Mala. Mala Mala is generally regarded as having the best game viewing experience in all of the Sabi Sands. This is because it owns the largest parcel of land in the area, and it also encompasses the majority of 1 of the 2 main rivers flowing through the sector. Because it is so large, the lodge sents scouts early in the morning to find the animals, so when you go out at 6AM, you can drive straight to them without having to wander aimlessly for hours on end.

To get to the Sabi Sands, you have to fly from the US to Europe (6-10+ hours) then nonstop to Johannesburg (12 hours). You may want to rest for a day in Europe as it is an extremely long flight.

Alternatively, you can fly from either New York or Atlanta to Johannesburg (on South African Airways). However, the plane stops in Dakar, Senegal (West Africa) to refuel.

From Johannesburg, it is another 1 hour flight to Kruger. Many of the private lodges (including Mala Mala) have their own landing strips, so you can fly right into the lodge (on a puddle jumper) from Jo'burg. Otherwise, you will have to fly on South African Airways to the closest major airport, which is Nelspruit aka KMIA or Kruger/Mpumalanga. From there, it is a 2 hour drive to the lodges.

From Johannesburg, you can also fly to Cape Town, known for its natural beauty (cable car to Table Mountain, shark diving at the Cape, penguins, fine wine, and famous waterfront).

There isn't much to see in Johannesburg, famous for its crime, but I didn't think it was that bad. I saw more Mercedes and BMW's than in Beverly Hills. Of course, I was staying in the nicest part of town (Sandton). But even the bad area (Hillbrow) didn't look that bad. Parts of the Bronx are much worse.

From Johannesburg, it is a 2 hour flight north to Victoria Falls. We went there to go white water rafting, but if you just want to view the falls, it won't take more than 2 hours. You can see the falls from either the Zimbabwe side or the Zambia side (sort of like the US vs Canada at Niagara Falls). The views from the Zimbabwe side are better, but the country is going through economic and political turmoil. I was a little scared about going there, but it turned out to be absolutely fine. There weren't a lot of people around, but the locals were really friendly and it was very safe. If you stay there, there are 2 really nice hotels:

1. Victoria Falls Hotel - which is a lot like the Raffles (colonial style). It is also the most famous. We just had tea there.

2. The Kingdom Hotel. Pretty new and really clean. The public bathrooms were spotless. Reminded me of a Vegas-style Hotel.

We stayed at an Accor hotel for $80/night. We also went over to the Zambia side. Most English-speaking tourists go to Zambia because they think it is safer. The views aren't as good though. The 2 famous hotels are the Royal Livingstone (the counterpart to the Victoria Falls Hotel) and the cheaper Zambezi Sun (which is still pretty darn expensive).

To get to Victoria Falls, you have to fly from Jo'burg. Your choices are:
1. British Airways to Vic Falls, Zimbabwe
2. Nationwide Airlines (a South African carrier) to Vic Falls, Zambia.

I picked #1 only because that is what my frequent flier miles were on.

From Vic Falls, it is a 90 minute drive to Botswana. Botswana is known for its well preserved game parks. The country is the richest in Southern Africa (due to its diamond mines). As a result, the tourist infrastructure is pretty good for a 3rd world country.

The 2 famous areas in Botswana are the Chobe River and the Okavango Delta. The Delta is known for its canoe (mokoro) safaris. You don't get to see a lot of big game though, mostly birds and enjoying the remoteness of it all.

Chobe is known for its huge elephant population (40 some thousand). I really enjoyed Chobe because you can safari from land (in land rovers) or on water (in boats). The boats allow you to get up close to the hippos, buffalo, and elephants when the come to the river to drink. The birding is also pretty good, and we went fishing too (for tigerfish aka fresh water barracuda). The diversity of game wasn't as great as in South Africa, but it had greater actual numbers of animals.. thousands of elephants and buffalos, hundreds of hippos, etc. The disadvantage is that you can't go off road and can't safari at night. But I really enjoyed Chobe, maybe even more than South Africa, because of the sweeping vistas and the ability to mix up both land and water game viewing. And I highly recommend the fishing (and I am not a fisherman).

We stayed at the Chobe Safari Lodge, about $110 per room per night (http://www.chobesafarilodge.com/). Game drives are a la carte, about $25 per person per 3 hour game drive. Very reasonable. If you go, ask for a safari room, which are brand new. One of the nights we got stuck in a rondavel (traditional hut) and it smelled like an elephant. But I'm thankful for the experience. Chobe Safari Lodge will pick you up from the Vic Falls Airport.

My recommendation, however, would be to stay at the Chobe Marina Lodge (www.chobemarinalodge.com). It is more upmarket and I think caters to Japanese tourists, but the lodge is really nice and more centrally located in town. That way you don't have to eat at the lodge all the time. It also gives you more opportunity to interact with the locals. Everyone shops at the Spar supermarket, and it was really fascinating to talk with both locals and tourists alike. We met an American hunter who paid.. gasp... $20,000 to kill an elephant!

The lodge generally regarded by the Africans as the "best in town" is the Mowana Lodge. It is on a golf course and a lot of wealthy Africans get married there. However, I found that it was just too far away from the center of town. The other lodge you will read about is the Chobe Game Lodge... very expensive. This is one of the few that is actually located inside the Nat'l Park. However, this serves as no real advantage, and I didn't even think the lodge was that nice. However, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton honeymooned there, and Jenna Bush stayed there while doing "humanitarian" work in Africa.

Hope this helps...

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