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Diane's Trip Report Part III: Botswana

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Trip report continued . . .

On March 27, we set off for Botswana to begin the real safari portion of our adventure. We were going from Livingstone to Little Vumbura camp, run by Wilderness Safaris.

First, a word about the transfers. Both my husband and I found them to be mildly frightening and somewhat disorganized. We were scheduled to leave Livingstone at 12:30, stop down in Kasane (a 20 minute flight) for immigration/customs, and then head out to Little Vumbura (a 90 minute flight) in time for an afternoon game drive.

Wilderness Safaris exclusively uses Sefofane as the company that handles all air transfers. If you are ever transfering on Sefofane via Livingstone, you should know in advance that the Livingstone airport has no Sefofane sign or check-in counter or even any representatives that tell you where to go or where to wait. You basically go through security and wait in the international departure lounge until you see a pilot dressed in khaki shorts and khaki top wander in looking for people. The only people to ask about procedures or possible delays or anything at all are fairly uninformed security staff. It would be nice if Wilderness gave you more information in advance about the check-in procedure. But this would be my only complaint about Wilderness for the entire trip.

So we waited in the departure lounge for our khaki-clad pilot to arrive. And waited. And waited. Unfortunately, we had to share the lounge with a 737 loadful of South Africans who were ending a convention at the Falls by getting increasingly drunk and louder by the minute.

Then the thunder and rain began. Now mind you, my husband and I feared these small flights more than anything else about the trip. Our anxiety was rising and rising. We were starting to wonder if the pilot was ever going to arrive, if we would have to stay another night at Livingstone and miss out on a day at Little Vumbura, or if were were going to be hit by lightning mid-air. I had taken a Dramamine, which relaxes me slightly, but why hadn't I brought Valium?? Why oh why, had I not brought narcotics??

Just when we though we couldn't get any more worried, in walks the pilot. WHO LOOKS 19!!!!! I am not kidding. The boy looked like he hadn't even started shaving yet. We gulped. He apologized for the 2 hour delay (he got held up at Kasane for some reason) and hurried us out to the plane. By this time the thunder had stopped and the rain had abated somewhat, but the skies were far from clear. I told him we were bad fliers and were concerned about the weather. He assured us it would fine. So we boarded. What choice did we have at this point? He also told us that we would not be able to fly over the Falls due to the low cloud cover. This was disappointing, though understandable.

And we were off. The first flight to Kasane was not fun -- it was somewhat bumpy but it was really just my nerves that made the flight miserable. Every flight after that first one on Sefofane was much much better. I even slept on some. If you're a nervous flier, the first is the worst. After that it gets better.

Regarding the Sefofane pilots: We later learned that the pilot was not 19 -- he was 21. We also learned that ALL of the pilots are very young. Apparently, young pilots who need to log hours to advance up the pilot ladder flock to Botswana because it is an easy way to log lots and lots of hours. I experienced 2 Sefofane pilots. My husband and I agreed on the following: Both were under 25; both were competent (although, really, how are we to know if they weren't? We didn't crash or near-crash); and both were cocky as hell. I think they are probably very good, but don't expect a reassuring presence or even any pleasant conversation. Of course, our sample size of 2 is extraordinarily small. So we could have gotten the 2 most arrogant in a sea of nice guys. Who knows.

We also got what may be the smallest plane of the fleet. It's called a "bug" -- which is I think a Cessna 206. It's not called a bug for no reason. The interior is just a tad larger than the interior of a Volkswagon Bug. If you aren't neurotic, like me, the flights are actually quite fun. The scenery was breathtaking. Unless you're on one of the long, hour-plus flights, they fly quite low -- around 1500 feet. So you can see elephants and giraffes from the air.

Despite my anxiety, flying into the Delta was a wonderful experience. When do you ever get the opportunity to fly into a water and animal wonderland -- without a roof or electric light in sight -- and land on a dirt strip that has to be cleared of animals first (ours had an impala on it just as we were landing -- the pilot aborted the landing at the last minute)?

Boy, is the Delta full of water. It's just gorgeous. We could barely contain our excitement as we stepped of the plane. First, to be out of the plane. But more importantly, we were finally in real Africa. An Africa that looks exactly as it did hundreds of years ago. An Africa largely untouched by modernity. An Africa that had the biggest sky I had ever seen in my life. It was thrilling.

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    Oh, you just gave me chills! I can't wait! (Also have to send my pilot-in-training friend to read this, she's had some experiences with 20-something flight instructors!) But Thank you for that image of flying into the delta. We get to do so in May!
    more stories, more more!
    Cheers, another Diane :-)

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    Hi Diane
    We had a number of small plane transfers with Sesofane on our first trip a few years ago - most pilots were young but not as young as yours and were exceptionally helpful, friendly and social.
    All our flights were in the tiny Cessna 206 or 210 planes and that was a highlight for us - it's like being driven in a chauffered sports car rather than travelling on mass transit!
    Sorry you weren't so keen on it.
    Can't wait to hear about your experiences at LV! Hope you liked it!
    :D

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    Oh THANK YOU!!!! I am sitting on the very edge of my chair. Hurry!!!! More!!
    Our pilots were mostly from New Zealand and were there for the very same reason. Hours of flying experience. I found the same true in East Africa for the hot air balloonists. Again Australia and for the flying hours.
    I hope you have pictures from the air of the floods. I know how you felt about the here I am and I do this or else. No choices. Sorry, this is it and off you go and of course we only hear from the ones who made it through. :-D :-D

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    Although Little Vumbura ("LV") is only 40 minutes from the airstrip, it took us a couple of hours to get there because we were so busy sighting animals. I love that the minute you land, you are on safari. It's instant gratification.

    We had heard before we left that the Delta had experienced record water and that the floods were coming much earlier than usual and much higher than usual. We weren't sure what this meant in terms of the safari experience -- would there be too much water for good viewing?

    Our worries were for naught. The animals were everywhere. Yes, the cats are hard to spot with the long grass -- but that didn't stop us from seeing lions on our very first game drive. We ecstatic about the quality of the game viewing. We saw wildebeest, tsessebe, impala, giraffe, zebra, elephant, sable, lions, cheetah, lechwe, hippo, kudu, warthogs . . . We are not bird people and I never thought I'd be one to consult bird books, but the birdlife was absolutely gorgeous. The most exotic looking storks you've ever seen, with brilliant colors. And flocks of them.

    And the water! Just breathtaking. The challenge is not really seeing the game -- it's in not getting the vehicle stuck in mud/water (it happened to us only once). You cannot believe what these vehicles drive through. We were routinely driving through swamps (which were roads just a few weeks or days before) where the water was OVER the hood of the jeep. The guide would have to open his door when out of the water to let the water out of his seating area. Not having any responsibility for driving, it was pure fun.

    Getting to LV was also a treat. In times of high water, you have to take a motor boat to the camp. So they drive the jeep to a dock, where they leave the jeep and everyone gets into the boat. But this year the water is so high, that the dock is itself in the middle of water. It's wild. When we first arrived, it was already quite dark. We couldn't believe what we were doing/seeing. The driver had to drive through maybe 100 feet of very high water to the "dock". Luckily, the water came to just inches below the top of the dock, so the dock itself was dry.

    We got out and waited while the guide had to then turn around and drive the jeep back to dry land and then WALK BACK through waist-high water to the "dock" where we all boarded the boat.

    One of my many wonderful memories is that first approach to LV by boat -- speeding over the water with a cool breeze, listening to the yelps of countless frogs and birds, gazing up at the stars, looking at my husband who had a huge smile on his face, and thinking how lucky we were to be spending three days in this haven.

    LV is very special. I generally hate the word "special", but I don't know how else to describe it. The setting and atmosphere are supremely romantic. I know there are camps that are more luxurious, that have better facilities, or are more well-known for their game. But the feeling you get at LV is exceptional. And more than game sightings, it's the feeling I remember and treasure most.

    Prominent memories/aspects of LV:
    -- Pre-dinner cocktails around a campfire, listening to hippos, the sounds of the bush, looking at stars, and sharing wine with interesting, well-traveled guests;

    -- Dinners by candlelight

    --Bathing in a clawfoot outdoor bathtub, overlooking miles of game, grass and water.

    --Having that slightly scared, but ALIVE feeling when walking back to the tent at night.

    -- The early morning reflections on the water, seen by mekoro.

    --The sunsets. The light. The sky.

    --The constant knowledge and feeling that you're in the middle of nature, far far away (I never had this feeling at Sabi Sands).

    Both the Delta and LV are very special places. It's funny. We were later at Singita, which had slightly better game, much much much better accomodations and food, and was many times more expensive. But it's the Delta and LV that make my heart warm and make me want to return again and again.

    The tents themselves were modest but perfectly comfortable. Every night a hippo came to just outside our tent and spent at least an hour eating. You could hear him/her breathe, bite, chew, walk. It was scary, but exhilerating. In the morning we would be greeted by her enormous tracks and hope to god that the hippo knows not to charge the tent.

    The management was LV was very good. We had two different sets of managers. First, we had Ross and Catherine, who are were there relieving the regular managers, who were on vacation. They were a bit of a hoot. Very nice, with a touch of craziness. No adventure was daunting for them. The day before we left, they left to go to Duba for a month. They decided to go by mekoro -- just the two of them -- which had never been done before! They had no gun, no compass, food for only one night, and confidence that they'd "feel their way there." Crazy. This was just one day after Ross, who decided to go camping by himself the night before, had a close encounter with a crocodile, causing him to nearly miss being "croc food" (his words). They made it, though.

    The new set of managers was a couple named Matt and Robin. Matt was expecially great because he loved to guide as well. He led our last two game drives, which were excellent. His enthusiasm and knowledge are unmatched. They will be there all of April -- so if you're going this month, you'll love them!

    My favorite game sighting memory? Probably the lions. The male lion is named "Big Red." He is magnificent. He is strong, handsome, and right in his prime. Just powerful. (As an aside, it's mildly irritating that the lodge only names the male lions. When I asked what his wife's name was, the guide responded, "Big Red's wife."). But I really loved everything. Each animal is fascinating and beautful in an individual way.

    I very much want to return. Next time, I would probably pick Duba (for the cat/buffalo interaction) and Mombo just to see what all the fuss is about. But I'll never forget my first: Little Vum.

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    Finally, a few words about picking a safari lodge in the Delta. It's so hard to know how to do this. Although a travel agent can be helpful, unless you personally go to the lodges and compare, you can never really know which ones suit you best.

    So here are the nuggets of information I learned along the way.

    We knew we would be ending our trip in Singita and only had time for one Botswana camp. Although we had originally planned to go to Mombo, I was concerned that it wouldn't be sufficiently different from Singita. Our agents agreed and suggested that the best complement to Singita would be a camp that had water activites. We were working with two different agents at the planning stage (Bert of Fish Eagle and Mark of Taga Safaris) and BOTH recommended Little Vumbura as a great water/land camp. So that's how we chose. As I noted, we weren't disappointed.

    Once there, we learned that we really appreciated that fact that the camp was so small -- never more than 8 guests. So for us, small camps are a must.

    We also talked to everyone we could once we were there to get more information about other camps. Everyone's opinions are obviously informed by their individual biases, likes, and experiences, but here is what I gleaned:

    -- The managers Ross and Catherine had worked at many Wilderness Camps and very convincingly stated that LV was by far their favorite. In fact, Catherine's cousin was coming to Botswana for the first time and she booked her at LV.

    -- The other managers, Matt and Robin, also worked at many Wilderness camps. They had never been to LV before we met them, but they said their favorite camps are the small ones -- and said they expected to love LV since all the guides/managers do.

    -- An Italian couple we met loved LV (they had been to many other camps as well), but said Namibia was even better than Botswana. They said it was far less expensive and you can get around on your own.

    -- An elderly British couple who had also been to many Wilderness Camps did not like LV (they were unimpressed with the staff, but they didn't say why -- we couldn't figure it out). They much preferred Kwetsani, where they had just been. They also seemed to dislike the fact that the tents at LV are on the ground and not on raised platforms. They said their favorite Wilderness Camp was Duma Tau.

    Finally, we met a young French couple at Singita who had not been to LV, but they had just come from Jao and Little Mombo. They raved about Mombo and liked it better than Singita. The husband didn't like Jao, but it seemed more to do with his fear of mekoros and hippos than anything else. Also, they were originally scheduled to go to Jack's Camp instead of Jao. Two days before depoarture they learned that Jack's could not be accessed due to water levels, so they were reassigned to Jao. So anyone booked in the next couple of months at Jacks should make sure it's still operating!!

    Next installment: Singita

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    Great report. Just brings back all the memories from our trip last summer. We also had Sefofane do all of our transfers and we were very pleased with all of the pilots. I don't think ours were as young as yours nor did we experience any arrogance, but like Kavey, we found them to be competent, friendly and always concerned with our comfort during the flights. We had some pretty bumpy rides but then it just adds to the adventure...and I'm not crazy about these little planes either.

    Your experience at Little Vumbura sounds terrific and obviously you saw lots of wildlife, much the same as we experienced at Mombo. The only difference might be the accommodations being more luxurious and their setting is also quite spectacular. You are right about feeling like you are in the wilds of Africa. You definitely don't have the amount of tourists etc. that would be found in the Kruger area of S.A. The Delta Region is much more remote. It was an amazing experience for us even during the drier season.

    I remember Matt and Robin from our trip when we were at another camp, Kings Pool. They are really great people and very gracious and accommodating.

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    Still more observations I forgot to include before:

    The weather was absolutely perfect. Not hot, not cold. Just very nice. Sun was very strong -- hat, glasses, and sunscreen required for every ride.

    Rain: none.

    regarding the fear of hippos (that I read about in Liz's tick tock post): I, too, was fearful I'd never get in the mekoro. I went once and never saw a hippo. Apparently, hippos are more dangerous in low water conditions (or so I was told). High water is actually safer. Also, our camp was very cautious. We went only in areas that were too shallow for a hippo to hide in. We only twice had to pass through an area where hippos could potentially lurk (discomfortably named "hippo highway") and when we crossed through, we were going as fast as possible.

    The truth was that I expected to see lots of hippos or other animals on the mekoros. We really didn't (our hippo sighings were always by vehicle). It was more of a beautiful, quiet, and peaceful ride where you see mostly plantlife and birds. Don't worry. Also, don't miss it; our most spectacular photos of the water were taken on the mekoro.

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    Oh Diane, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!!
    This report was waaaaaaaay over the top. I am so excited now, of course I will get in the mokoro, mekoro, or whatever. I know Kavey was so kind to tell us all the difference, but I use them inter-changeably so please overlook if I use the plural for the singular.
    The skies, the stars, the sounds of the night. That is what I remember most. That and the mokoro ride we took.
    My husband and I both like the small camps and have loved the K&D camps. They would probably be part of the WS chain, but they have a management company of their own in Maun. Nice for extra help, which we always receive. Dougey, one of the owners has squired us all over Maun so I could show Max where all I went when I was there with the Earthwatch group. He will also meet us at a camp on this trip. He was attacked as a boy and almost mauled to death by a lion. Oh, the stories he does share. He tells us more as the night wears on and his drink glass empties. :-D Such fun, I can hardly wait.
    But Diane, thank you for putting up with my continual whining and getting to Botswana out of sequence. You did it proud!!! Thank you girl friend. Liz

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    Great report, and glad to read that you used Mark at Taga. He's helped me book two safaris, including my trip to the Delta, and I stayed at Chitabe and Savuti (two other WS camps), since I wanted to see dogs and other predators (and we did see dogs many times plus leopard, lion, serval, caracal, jackal, wild cat and aardwolf). Next time I'd like to stay at one of the water camps, and I just received the new WS catalog so I'm going to read through that tonight. Thanks for trip report.

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    Great report...wish I was back there! I've been to "big" Vum, and loved it as well.

    Interesting about Jack's being under water...wow. Since they are in an area that hasn't flooded for ages...but then given where they are situated they would never plan for high water!

    I wonder if "Big Red" is one of the lions we saw in 2001...does he have a brother? ( In 2001 this pair was the dominant pair in the area...they had a pride of 4 females, and and that year 2 of the females had 7 cubs. I have been wondering about this "family" ever since...

    I had just the absolutely best time at Vumbura, and really had a hard time choosing between V and Kwetsani for my next trip. Opted for the new camp, and I hope I made the right choice!

    Also, your experience at Singita with guides kind of confirms my experience with guides in SA sadly mirrors mine. Just a job, where they can wear clothes that show off their tan and act really macho. I think this may also be because they have great, very habituated game, and they don't really have to track it in the wilderness,,,just check the last radio report and drive there. Takes away the magic for guests and the challenge for guides. You can see amazing animals and take great photos in SA however. However I do think SA is a great first Africa destination... go to SA first, and get all the "I must see a....." out of your system. Then go to Botswana... Zambia...where the magic and mystery of Africa is still alive...and you are ready to appreciate the more subtle pleasures of the bush.

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    Diane, thanks SO much for such a great trip report. I leave for the Delta in May and your impressions have just made the wait almost impossible!! Last May my pilots from Phinda to Singita were so young that I asked them if they had their Driver's License...I just figured they learned to fly on a Play Station flight simulator game!? Thank you, thank you for an amazing report...your words transported me to Botswana.

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    Diane, you made Little Vumbra come alive in your beautiful report. You made us all want to go there and *now*.

    Tashak, we had a terrific guide named Carmen at Singita Boulders (but we think she is not there anymore). If anyone sees her at another camp, she is a guide who is totally thrilled and excited right along with you. Very smart woman, she knows just how much to talk and lecture and when to just listen to the air. Even though it's not the large open spaces of the Delta and they have the radios (which help them share the great sitings), it is still full of surprises and adventure. Once we found a white rhino caught inside a circle of elephants. They were taunting him like some gang of teenagers, trumpeting and not letting him escape, try as he might. Our guide was so excited, saying she had never seen anything like that before. Our tracker, Fanwell, was just wonderful. I agree with you that SA is a good first safari destination for many but my point is I don't want others to come to the conclusion that all the guides at Singita are the way you described your SA guides. I feel I'd be betraying my wonderful guide if I didn't speak up for her.

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    So delighted about your experience at LV - we loved it too - including the motor boat to get to the camp and the jeep wading through water deep enough to come in to the driver's feet!

    What a fantastic trip report!

    Thanks too for the note about Jack's Camp - will look into it!

    Kavey

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    Heard back from my agent, Jack's Camp was closed for about 10 days in all but is now open and fully operational again.

    THANKS for the heads up though, much appreciated.

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    Was Spike your pilot? We are just back from Tanzania, Vic. Falls and Botswana last week. We also took Sefofane flights. There is a theme about traveling to Africa that I think you are missing, its Africa, not the U.S., and it's adventure travel. Everything always seems to work out. I don't understand why you were frightened, unless you need a lot of hand-holding. Try to enjoy the casualness of it all. We also had to wait at Livingstone for the pilot to come and find us. As it turns out, our pilot never showed so they asked another pilot from a different airline who just happened to be walking by to take us. He not only flew us, but I asked him to buzz past Vic. Falls and he got permission to do so, and a $50 tip.

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    ttt for anybody who missed this outstanding report when it was first posted.

    Last April, Botswana was the furthest thing from my mind as I was nearing my 2nd Zambian safari. Funny how now that I am equally close to my 3rd Zambian safari that I am not even thinking of Zambia but rather of Botswana for next April! Variety is the spice of life, so they say.

    Now I am really confused, as recent reports had not been so favorable of Vumbura, but dlm labeled Little Vumbura to be "very special" and further adding that she does not use that term lightly.

    And I think dlm sums it up perfectly why so many of us have grown addicted to Africa, with these paragraphs she wrote:

    >>>Prominent memories/aspects of LV:
    -- Pre-dinner cocktails around a campfire, listening to hippos, the sounds of the bush, looking at stars, and sharing wine with interesting, well-traveled guests;

    -- Dinners by candlelight

    --Bathing in a clawfoot outdoor bathtub, overlooking miles of game, grass and water.

    --Having that slightly scared, but ALIVE feeling when walking back to the tent at night.

    -- The early morning reflections on the water, seen by mekoro.

    --The sunsets. The light. The sky.

    --The constant knowledge and feeling that you're in the middle of nature, far far away (I never had this feeling at Sabi Sands). <<<

    Dreaming a little dream, I think this itinerary would be out of this world:

    Sunday, April 22nd - Westcliff (1) In my opinion, if there is a best day of the week to spend in Joburg, it is on Sunday. Plus, this will allow to take a redeye flight out of Los Angeles on a Friday night, beat up from the work week and will be a most welcome reprieve.

    Monday, April 23rd - Jacks Camp (3) I keep trying to get this camp out of sight and mind but it is not working. The thought of the isolation, especially right now, when I have had a nearly 12 month separation from Africa, combined with the program offered makes Jacks Camp seem like a definite winner.

    Thursday, April 26th - Duma Tau (3) Although I have seen one or two negative reports, I have also seen glowing reports and fodorites who are making return visits. To date I have not yet returned to one particular camp, so this does speak volumes in favor of Duma Tau.

    Sunday, April 29th - Tubu Tree (3) Sleeping out, being in the Jao concession where I have read the management is excellent and the flora incredibly scenic combined with a beautiful looking camp and strong game viewing make Tubu Tree a mandatory stop.

    Wednesday, May 02nd - Vumbura (3) I had been looking for one more Moremi camp to add to the list and, really, no other WS camp appealed to me. Kwara (Kwando) had somewhat appealed to me, but I am not too excited about their PR or the fact that I read that their seats are bucket seats, making it very hard on photographers. Now that I have all kinds of camera equipment, this is not acceptable, unless I were to pay for a private vehicle or be assured at least one extra seat for my camera equipment.

    Saturday, May 05th - Little Mombo (3) I almost don't believe the monthly reports from Mombo on WS website...they just seem to good to be true...was it here that I read of an injured juvenile lion being killed within the camp by hyenas only for the dead lion's sister to chase off the hyenas and then eat her own brother? Sick but fascinating, to say the least!

    Tuesday, May 08th - Westcliff (1) Nothing quite like a night at a 5* hotel after 12 nights of roughing it at 5 and 6 paw camps! :)

    Thursday, May 10th - King George V Four Seasons (3) (enjoying a Saturday night grand finale in the City of Light.

    http://www.pbase.com/dellybean/paris

    dlm...if you still follow this board, THANK YOU for an INCREDIBLE trip report that I missed the first time around.

    It is a true benefit to this forum when returning travelers take the time and make the effort to post such a passionate trip report! :)

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    We had an amazing time at Little Vumbura in 2001. Note that LV is more of a true water camp than main Vumbura camp.

    In our opinion, the game viewing wasn't too good here (we just took one drive but also heard about the experiences of those who took more) but to be honest we were here to concentrate on water activities and those were indeed magical.

    In 2004 we went to Jacana as our water camp and found it to be even MORE magical!

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    What a fabulous report for me to read 3 weeks before heading out to Africa. We will be ending our trip in the Delta (at a CCAfrica camp - Nxabega) and I CAN'T WAIT. I knew that it would be fabulous - sounds like it will meet and exceed my expectations. Personally I have been looking forward to a mekoro ride (hopefully multiple ones) ever since I read about them. And I am SO anxious to have animals outside our tents. I want to experience all of it!!!

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    dlm,

    A wonderful, detailed report! I was especially interested in the Little Vumbura comments. Glad you had such a good time there and thanks for sharing it with us. It was quite helpful for me.

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