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Trip Report Fantastic Trip to Mashatu, Sabi Sands and Western Cape, Sept 2012

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With help and advice from this forum, my husband and I have returned from our three week trip to South Africa and Botswana. It was a truly wonderful trip, and I wanted to report our impressions, which may be of help to others. Our trip was about half safari and about half in the Western Cape.

We turned in frequent flyer miles and flew business class SFO-LHR-JNB on United and South African Airways. We returned on BA in 1st, CPT-LHR-SFO using AA miles. We booked the UA award 331+/- days out and the ticket using AA miles about 300+/- days out. I chose BA to return as the layover was less and I wanted to try their first product; note that 2 seats in first were easier to obtain that business, and yes there was a “fuel surcharge” of approx. $700 pp. For us, coming from the west coast of the US, transit through London turned out to be a good idea, even though the layovers were 7 hours outbound and 4.5 returning, as we got lie-flat product the whole trip. Lounges at LHR both had showers, which were a big help. SAA’s seat for me was the best for sleeping, and the BA seat on the first flight was good. The service on BA from CPT-LHR was just about the best I’ve ever had.

Our itinerary (Sept. 12 – Oct 3) was

Mashatu Main Camp 4 nights
o/n Hazyview, Abangane Guest House
Dulini Lodge (Sabi Sand) 2 nights
Leadwood Lodge (Sabi Sand) 2 nights
o/n Cape Town, Abbey Manor
Bushmans Kloof 2 nights
Grootbos Garden Lodge 3 nights
Cape Grace, Cape Town 3 nights

We used Tanya Kotze, Africa Direct, to make all the arrangements except the three nights at Cape Town (which I arranged from the Leading Hotel of the World website, because it was offering a stay three pay two deal). Tanya was great, very patient and knowledgeable, and the arrangements were perfect. We chose to use commercial flights on South African Airlink plus road transfers four all our internal travel. This allowed us to not have to worry about luggage allowances and to see more of the country. We found each of our drivers to be interesting and informative. Everyone was prompt (usually early) and very nice.

From the outset, it was pretty clear we were going to use the &Beyond lodges in Sabi Sand, because not only were they offering stay 4 pay 3, but their rates dropped to low season rates on Sept. 16. The price differential was so significant, we really didn’t consider other lodges in the Kruger ecosytem. I knew the downsides to these lodges (below), but since this was not our first safari (2008 to Tanzania) and we also had Mashatu, I decided these lodges gave us the level of comfort we like and allowed us to stay at both Bushmans Kloof and Grootbos, and yet stay under budget.

On arrival at JNB, we were to connect directly to our domestic flight to Polokwane (from which we took a 2 hour drive north to the border of Botswana on the Limpopo river). I was nervous, because the timing of our flight from LHR was changed, and our 3:40 minute connection was reduced to 2:20. Luckily, our arriving flight was 45 minutes early, and being in business class, we were out first and quickly through immigration and customs. We then went to the “recheck” desk, which had a longer line than I expected, and after waiting about 10 minutes, were told that they didn’t recheck for South African Airlink flights, and we had to go out into the terminal and check in there. Bummer. However, once we found the SA Airlink check in (way at the far end)…there was no line. We ended up having ample time to find the ATM’s, have a bite and still make it through security with plenty of time.

Mashatu: We enjoyed this quite a bit, with my husband saying it was his favorite of the lodges. It was very, very dry, and the pictures aren’t beautiful, but we saw much more in the way of animals than you might expect under those circumstances. We went there specifically for the large elephant herds, and were not disappointed. We saw herds of fifty plus at least twice, with many babies, including one that was born while we were there. The elephants were very relaxed, and the vehicle could stay amongst them for quite a while. They are offering the “ivory drive” and we did that with the biologist who is from California originally. It was informative and offered us essentially a private game drive for $100 extra. Normal game drives were six to the vehicle, but only three rows including the driver, so at least one person gets the middle seat if the vehicle is full. Meals were buffet for the most part, but surprisingly good (I admit to being prejudiced against buffet dining).

Rooms were quite comfortable and large, with a view out to the reserve and two comfortable lounging chairs plus a daybed . They had the best set up for charging multiple devices.

Game highlights, besides the elephants, were four different individual leopards (saw leopards each day); four lion cubs of about two months old (plus three adults); a mother cheetah with five cubs of about a year (saw them every day); and hyena babies being guarded by their mother in a den (two separate ones). The waterhole was quiet the first day plus we were there (it was cloudy), but saw lots of action the last two days, including a large group of elephants the last evening. No big 5—they don’t have rhino or buffalo.

Our ranger/guide was Bashi, and he was probably the best of the trip. The tracker was Isaac, who we also like a lot, and who was the strongest male voice in the Mashatu choir that performed every night after dinner. Everyone at Mashatu was really nice, but it was the largest lodge, with about 25-30 guests, and was mostly full the whole time we were there.

Dulini/Leadwood: I couldn’t make up my mind which of these to book, and in the end, we had to do both since neither had 4 straight nights for our dates. Moving was pretty easy, since they are only about 10 minutes apart, and it really didn’t detract from our experience. The service was top notch at both, and the food was excellent. Each had its pros and cons. Dulini has 6 rooms, so they have two vehicles each with six occupants if full. Leadwood has 4 rooms so one vehicle that has 8 in it if full (that happened to us on two drives, and one person gets the middle with one sitting by the ranger). The rooms at Dulini were quite nice, very spacious and luxurious, but the room at Leadwood was even bigger and more luxurious, and more to my taste as being modern and somewhat “sleek”. Both were suites, with a separate living area, and the bathrooms were huge with separate showers and tubs, as well as outdoor showers. The back of the Leadwood room is all glass/deck with a view to the Sand River. The plunge pool was huge compared to Dulini which was the size of a Jacuzzi (but neither was heated and I found them too cold for more than a quick dip). The lounge areas at Dulini were larger and more comfortable, but Leadwood had a spectacular setting on the river (and the big five wandered by over our two days there). The food was a bit better at Leadwood, but both were excellent, although except for the braai in the boma, it was a set menu without choices. We liked our guide better at Dulini (both trackers were good), but from reading reviews at Trip Advisor, the guides must move between the three &Beyond camps, as others had our Leadwood guide at Dulini and/or Exeter.

Several nice things about these camps: they have a group boma dinner every third night, with music; we had a picnic lunch in the river bed one day from Dulini; you can have your meals in your room if you like; one night, returning to camp, we came upon the “champagne tree” with candle light and champagne handing from it (after the normal sundowners); and on National Rhino Day they had a cocktail party in lieu of sundowners for all the &Beyond lodges, with hors d'oeuvres, drinks and a bonfire. They offer you the opportunity for a bush walk after the morning game drive if you want.

We saw the big five within our first three game drives, with buffalo coming last. We saw leopard again everyday (never thought I’d see so many leopard), including a mating pair (quite intense). There are currently no lion cubs in the reserve, because 4 large adult males came into the territory about six months ago and killed them. They have now mated with the resident females, and the reserve hopes to have cubs soon. The four males and three adult females we saw were very successful hunters, and there were two buffalo kills while we were there, including one we witnessed right outside Leadwood.

Other highlights included one lone wild dog, a buffalo herd of at least 150-200, and white rhino every single game drive (on National Rhino Day we saw about 14 different rhino). We saw quite a few elephants, zebra several times, but very few giraffe only a few hippo. Currently no cheetah in the reserve (we were told there is at Singita, the adjacent reserve). There were nyala in and around Dulini most of the time. We saw lots of birds and other antelope here, as well as in Mashatu. There had been some rains a week before we arrived, and there were new grasses already. It got greener and lusher each day we were there, and we were told that was a bit early.

It is true, that there is higher vehicle density in the area shared by 8 reserves in the western area of Sabi Sand than there may be in other parts of the reserve. Also, on a couple of occasions, we could see the boundary fence or even off the reserve to a village, but mostly the game drives were not in view of these. I will note that unlike Tanzania, there were power lines in both Sabi Sand and Mashatu Game Reserve. I guess I should have figured this from the fact that they were “on the grid” but it came as a visual surprise.

Bushmans Kloof: I have to say, this was the lodge I most looked forward to, and maybe my expectations were too high. After Leadwood, any room would feel like a step down. It was still quite nice, again large (sort of a junior suite), with ample storage and seating areas. Service was good again, but the food was the weakest of the trip (although there were ample choices). I was expecting carpets of wildflowers, and although there were some meadows in the reserve, we saw more fields of flowers on the drive up from Cape Town. However, there were plenty of flowering shrubs (I guess I should have read more about fynbos before we left!), although the protea were mostly done.

Two nights was about right for Bushmans Kloof. The first day, we did the afternoon nature drive (about 2 hours) during which we saw a few antelope we had not seen before (bontebok, red hart beast and springbok), lots of plants and birds. The second afternoon, the nature drive went higher onto the reserve, and we saw the same antelope plus eland (that didn’t run from the vehicle!), the rare and endangered cape mountain zebra and the gemsbok/oryx. I was really pleased by the latter, as the guide said they only find them once every couple of weeks and they are pretty shy.

Each morning, they do a walk to a rock art site, and those were quite interesting. The art is at least 2,000 years old and possibly 10,000. There are several swimming pools, bikes and hiking trails to keep you busy between the morning and afternoon activities. The grounds are quite beautifully landscaped, and there is a spa that we didn’t use. We did like having being more active than we were at the safari lodges.

Grootbos Garden Lodge: It was a long drive from Bushmans Kloof to Grootbos, over 5 hours, through beautiful farms and wine regions. Our driver said in 15 years, he’d never had anyone go from the Cederberg to Gansbaai, and he enjoyed the drive! We liked Grootbos, but the weather was uncooperative, the only bad weather of the trip.

Grootbos is a fynbos reserve, and you mostly go there for the plants. There was more in bloom in late September than in Cederberg, especially protea. Despite about a day of pretty straight rain, we were able to do a couple of nature walks (although they really need to do a better job of explaining the trails and should have a map), the 4 x 4 flower “safari” with Jo, who was the most enthusiastic guide of the trip and almost over the top in her regard for fynbos. She was great. We also took a tour of the two projects of the Grootbos Foundation (two training programs), and during the rain, they arranged a tour to a winery, brewery and cheese farm in a beautiful agricultural valley. The seas were too rough, and the whale watching boat was cancelled the three days we were there, but we did do whale watching from the shore at De Kelders. We saw at least six southern right whales very close to the shore. We were told that for the whale festival in Hermanus the same day there was only a single whale.

The rooms at Grootbos were a little less luxurious, but still very nice, with two rooms, a fireplace (that we used given the weather), and an ocean view from the decks (and the bathtub). Food was again good, this time with choices for each course (although I don’t believe we ever took them up on all four courses!). Of course, the landscaping was beautiful, and there were trails in the forest in addition to the fynbos.

My only complaint about Grootbos is that they were a little disorganized on check in about the activities. But once the head guide found us in the bar and explained things more completely, it was fine.

Cape Town: I wasn’t sure that staying at the waterfront was the right idea (since you never want to stay at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco), but it was (at least for us). On the weekend, central Cape Town was pretty deserted. And the Cape Grace was just far enough away from the V&A shopping center as to be quiet and yet close enough to make use of the restaurants and services. Service was very good, and the complimentary car service was convenient. All an all, the hotel certainly lives up to its reputation.

Touring at Cape Town has been written about extensively, so I’ll just mention that we had some excellent meals in Cape Town, all at incredibly low prices for what we are used to. We had dinner at Sevruga; Savoy Cabbage; Five Flies (2nd best meal); and La Mouette (fantastic six course tasting menu with wine pairing for about $100 for two was best meal of the trip).

Well, this turned out to be longer than I expected, but the one last piece of information I will provide is regarding plugs. I don’t know why I thought the outlets in South Africa were the Great Britain type with three rectangular prongs, but they weren’t. At the last minute, we bought one of the large three round pronged plugs (M), and that turned out to be everywhere except Mashatu (which did have the Great Britain type plug). Most hotels had only one universal outlet, and sometimes the 110 v. shaver outlet worked, but since we had two phones, two iPads and camera batteries, we were always switching things around. So bring lots of those M plugs!

Let me know if I can provide more info. Some pictures are here, but it’s a work in process.

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