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Great Train Adventures - Shongololo Express - Southern Cross -Sept 2010

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I searched long and hard to find anything about the Shonogololo Express on both TripAdvisor and Fodor's - with only limited success - therefore this report is my contribution to any of you thinking of taking this train adventure. I met others on our trip who had done similar searches - so I hope they will add their own comments to this report.

First, we choose this trip as we: 1) wanted to see more than one region of Africa; 2) wanted to experience more than just animals and finally; 3) to experience a new mode of travel - train. I have broken my report into sections: itinerary, train travel, accommodation, meals and overall recommendation - for your ease of reference.

When coming from North America this is a LONG trip -- therefore we choose to start our adventure with 5 days in Cape Town to get over the jet lag and have the opportunity to see the area through a city tour and a pennisula tour that we prearranged. We stayed at the Mandela Rhodes Hotel (see separate report on TripAdvisor). The Mandela Rhodes had an onsite ATM machine and good lobby security - so we were able to do all of our banking prior to starting our train adventure.

We flew from Cape Town to Johanesburg and were picked up by the Shongololo representatives at the airport - along with 6 other guests. I would strongly recommend that you take the pre-day on the train - just to get settled.



ITINERARY:

This is a fast paced itinerary - covering 6 countries (South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Zambia) in 17 days.

The train carries it own vans and each day you are on tour in the vans and return to the train in the afternoon - sometimes meeting the train at a new location. Some days the train moves overnight to a new starting point - other days it remains stationary. Each day you are assigned a van and a guide for that day - all guests rotate through the various guides and vans - unless there is a specific language requirement - in which case those guests are usually booked with a single guide. If you are considering the trip - read the itinerary closely - you will see how many kilometers are travelled each day - they can be LONG days. There are a number of "early" start mornings i.e. 6:00 am.

Each of the guides has a unique presentation style - some offer a lot of information - others very little as you drive throughout the day. Therefore your enjoyment as a guest depends on your personal needs. Some guests felt some guides "talked non-stop" - others felt some guides "offered nothing" and they were seeking more. All guides respond to questions asked - however their individual knowledge on each area varies. In the end - we all had our "favourites".

Personally I found the interinary to be quite balanced - offering museums or similar offerings, scenic opportunities and some shopping. They did try to bring you to the main source for shopping and therefore the "best" price possible.

Of course travelling through different countries means Immigration and visas and this is one area where doing the train journey is invaluable - the train arranges your visas and they are charged to your account. Many times we were crossing boarders at midnight - so it was train staff dealing with the local immigration staff. Worth every penny! Keep in mind that there are a number of nationalities on the train and in some countries each nationality would have a different visa rate - it did get complicated at times - particularly for Canadians - as the Zimbabwe government recently cancelled their ability to have a "multi-entry visa" available to other nationalities .

Our trip had 53 guests - mainly Germans (some who spoke no English - Germans had their own van and guide) and Australians as the primary groups; then Dutch, English, American and Canadian.

If seeing animals is your priority, the basic itinerary offered many good opportunities. There are a number of add on tours that you can pay for individually to increase your "off rail" experience (We did see the Big 5). The itinerary also offered two dinners off the train: one in Maputo (seafood) and a Bush Dinner at Victoria Falls.



TRAIN TRAVEL

The experience was not quite as "smooth" as I had anticipated - and one should seriously consider taking along sleeping tablets. One factor was the gauge of the rails which are narrower than in North America - so you do get a "rock and roll". A second and more important factor (and one totally beyond Shongololo's control) is engine drivers are assigned by each country as we pass through and each driver had different "skill" levels (I'm sure some were more familiar with moving coal or other cargo than live passengers). There were often unexpected "jolts" (i.e. grab your wine glass before it tumbles!). Another factor was the "priority" the train was given on the tracks - sometimes we would be sitting for hours - waiting for the engine driver to appear or another train to pass - and then our driver would feel the need to "catch up" to make time.....it was a rock and roll experience sometimes.

The "departure time" of the train was always posted in the lounge so I, as well as many others, would strategically determine when it was best to shower so one was not showering as the train was moving!

We often had "interesting" views from our train window looking out at cars carrying toxic chemicals....but that is the problem with train travel - rail yards are not pretty places. We even had the famous "Blue Train" parked next to us one day. (I was advised even the Blue Train has problems getting priority on the rails at times!)


ACCOMMODATION

Once we arrived at the train - there was an initial orientation and we were shown to our room. The rooms are small (smaller than a cruise ship) and do take some adjustment - one needs to have a common understanding with your partner on where things will be stored. We had an Emerald class room and there is a lot of storage under the beds which was great - there was not as much storage in the other classes of rooms.

There were varied opinions as to whether the rooms needed to be "modernized" - all depends on individual expectations. In some rooms there had been efforts to update some of the bathroom fixtures. Ours was classically old and with a little adaptation we were comfortable. For us that was part of the "experience".

The train offers three types of accommodation - Emerald - private washroom, seating area and A/C; Commodore - private washroom, A/C (more modern - double bed) and GOLD - private washroom, A/C (older style - bunk beds) and finally Ivory - common washroom/shower area - no A/C - bunk beds. If you are planning a trip during the September timeframe as we did - I would strongly recommend a room with A/C - it was worth every penny!

In addition to the sleeping accommodation - common areas were: the dining car for breakfast/dinner; bar car - opened after 4pm and the lounge (smokers room when train was moving). All of these had A/C and were favorite gathering areas for those who had not choosen to have A/C in the rooms or who did not have a comfortable seating area. We started in Johanesburg where it was a very nice 20...to warmer and warmer temps each day. Likely our average temp was 34 most days.


MEALS:

The train has a dining car which offered two seatings - 6:30 and 8:00 pm with a fixed menu that was posted each day on the white board in the Lounge car which showed your assigned driver and van for the day. The meals were varied and very good. The train also offered a good selection of red/white wines at a reasonable price (at least according to most guests).

Breakfast was served at a variety of times based on our departure time that day. You could have fruit, yogurt, meats, cheese, pastries and then also order eggs to your preference. There is coffee/tea available at a station throughout the day for guests.


Overall Recommendation

Did we enjoy the trip - Yes Indeed and would certainly recommend it as an "adventure" to other travellers. You need to come with a flexible attitude and take each day as it comes. You will get tired at times (it is a hectic pace) and you may not enjoy all of your travelling companions - however that is not something the train can control. You will meet some very nice guests and some excellent staff, that are working hard to make your trip memorable. Just remember it is Africa -- lots of things are beyond anyone's control.

We live in North America and the information we could find was limited - I do believe that Shongololo could do a better job in marketing it's product.

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    I've been eagerly anticipating your return! You did a good job of summing up the train. Will you be doing the same for the various stops? Would love to read all about it and hear your impressions. Wildlife sightings? Pictures?

    I've just returned from a visit to a couple of the private reserves beside Kruger. In comparing the two, we saw an astounding amount of animal activity from the Shongololo van.

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    Hi Femi - I had not thought about writing up each stop -- it was an intensive schedule as you know and you gave great insights into each of the stops in your write up.

    In terms of wildlife - your assessment about how much you can see from the vans was correct. We did an overnight at the Lion Sands Reserve (River Lodge) which we enjoyed and did see some Cheetas - but all of the other wildlife sightings were also seen from the vans.

    It was actually quite funny how excited everyone was with the first impala sighting in Kruger and how 10 days later we were very blase seeing herds of elephants in Chobe National Park. How our expectations changed.

    Two of the guests referred to your "All Aboard" report on this forum --they too had found it to be very helpful when planning their trip -- you had more of a following than you realized at the time.

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    Glad others found my trip report interesting, it would never have been completed or as detailed if it weren't for your prompting :)

    Overall I am also quite happy I took the trip. The itinerary is hard to beat (always wanted to go to Mozambique), and the visa service was invaluable.

    If you do get around to posting a report I would love to read it. I'm also hoping Leana and Louis will write about their experiences upon their return.

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    For those reading this report - you may wish to also check out Femi's Report below:

    http://www.fodors.com/community/africa-the-middle-east/all-aboard-southern-cross-journey-on-the-shongololo-express.cfm



    Pre-Day - Johannesburg

    Three activities were offered:

    1) The Cradle of Humankind: Maropeng and Sterkfontein Caves
    2) Lesedi Cultural Village
    3) Gold Reef City, Apartheid museum & The World of Beer
    4) East Rand Mall or Emperors Palace


    Due to our arrival time - our only option was #4 - cost of 40 Rand/pp. It was a good opportunity to have lunch - none offered on the train and the guides strongly stressed this was the best opportunity to pick up toothpaste or anything you needed AND to use the ATM.


    DAY 1 - PRETORIA/JOHANNESBURG/SOWETO

    Two options were offered:

    1) Pretoria and Soweto
    2) Johannesburg and Soweto

    Guides described #1 as the Black and White Tour and #2 as the Black Tour.

    We choose #2 - Johannesburg and Soweto

    First stop - Constitution Hill - home of the Constitutional Court and site of the Old Fort Prison Complex -- very interesting. On site guide was very articulate and it was an informative tour. This was followed by a visit to the African museum - described as more of a cultural/science museum - of limited interest to most. There was a coffee shop close by and many choose to have coffee after a brief tour of the museum. There was also a flea market close by which some checked out. Instructions were to meet back at the vans by 12:00 noon.

    Then it was off to the Rosebank Mall - where it was safe to release us on our own. There were a number of restaurants you could eat at - a Pick and Pay which had a great bakery and take away items. Instructions to meet back at the entrance at 1:30. The Mall could be a bit confusing so you needed to keep your directions straight.

    Afternoon it was off to Soweto - a drive by the residences of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and then a visit to the Hector Petersen Memorial. You can spend as much time inside the memorial museum as you wished - there were a number of interesting exhibits and a lot of information to absorb.

    There was also a flea market outside. Based on Femi's report - I was looking for beaded animals and did find one vendor who had a beaded graiffe - which I purchased - never saw another one the entire trip and like Femi - it is one of my best remembrances of the trip! Thanks Femi!

    (Total distance travelled - 170 km) - back to the train by 5pm

    Dinner Menu: Greek salad; mushrooms with tartar sauce; lamb with roast potatoes and apple crumble for desert. All were quite tasty. We were at early seating - anticipating the train departure at 8PM. Train moves from Boksburg East to Nelspruit.

    Today was our first train "Jolt" start - and I do mean "Jolt" . Flowers in the bar were thrown to the floor and many people landed on the floor - everyone was quite surprized - not an auspious start and the Train Manager - most upset....this was not part of the masterplan.

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    Loving it!!!! :D

    You're much better than I at keeping track of the details that would be very helpful to others.

    Hoping you bought your giraffe from the same guy I got my animals from. He was quite an interesting fellow (from Zimbabawe).

    Definitely looking forward to more.

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    DAY 2 - SWAZILAND (Temp 17/25)

    We each carry our own passports and enter the Kingdom of Swaziland at Jeeps Reef pass through Immigration and meet our guide and van on the other side - no visa requirements. Today is sunny and 25 degrees. The day is warm but hazy - lots of surface burning being done in anticipation of planting new crops. In fact most of the trip there is a light haze. We are 16 days into Spring so everything is quite brown - rains are anticipated in the next few weeks.

    Today is a scenic tour with stops at Ngwenwa Glass (where they produce swazi glass made from recycled glass which kids collect and their schools are given a donation for the glass collected); a textile market (nice batiks); Swasi Candle (where they create handmade candles in a variety of shapes, animals and traditional african designs); and Swasi Secrets Factory where they process the Marula seed into lotions - great small gifts bring home.

    We took longer than required at the Swasi Secrets Factory as our train had yet to arrive at the station. We had to check out of Swaziland at Immigration and at the last minute they decided we needed to individually fill out a form - so a bit a confusion as pens were found. As soon as we boarded it was the dash for the shower before the train was moving again!

    Dinner tonight: Black Tie Salad, Vegetable Terraine, Incrusted Beef Fillet with mushroom sauce with mashed potatoes and Malva pudding with ice cream for desert. We enjoy a bottle of Savanah Chardonay for 85 Rand.

    I had a surprize bottle of champagne from the train and a happy birthday song from the dining staff and train manager in celebration of my birthday which was on the day of our arrival....someone picked that up from our passports when they were collected when we arrived. Nice touch - Thank you Shongololo Express!

    Tonight we cross through the Lebombo mountains to Goba for the boarder formalities and further into Maputo for our one and one half day visit to this exciting Harbour City.

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    DAY 3 - MAPUTO (MOZAMBIQUE)

    Breakfast today is 5:45 - 8:15 and we are up early - still adjusting to train movements.

    Two tours are offered today:

    8:00 am - At the Beach - Guests are transferred to the ferry port for a ferry ride to a beach resort where you spend the day - (Full day 160 km)
    9:00 am - At the Beach on the Marginal - Guests are transferred to Costa Del Sol - on route guests are given an orientation on of surroundings and what activies you would be able to do on our own.

    We choose the On the Marginal Tour - part of a very small group - majority of people choose to go to the beach.

    Maputo is the "prettiest" of the train stations we visited. The movie Blood Diamond was filmed here. We were cautioned about taking pictures of any military/police or certain buildings - caution was the word of the day. One realizes after a while that you are not seeing any animals (dogs, cats) and only a few birds, apparently most of them were eaten during the military conflicts.

    Tonight is one of two - off train dinners - at a seafood restaurant in Maputo (Sangres at the waterfront). Vans shuttle us back to the train when we are ready to leave. Most found the restaurant food to be so-so at best.

    Train is stationary tonight.


    DAY 4 - MAPUTO (MOZAMBIQUE) (Temp 16/32)

    Today we got a tour of the city - visit to the municipal market, Catholic Catherdal, the Civic Centre and other main buildings and statutes. Once again the instructions are to be careful what you photograph and stay together as a group. Lunch is at Mundos restaurant - which had great pizza (thanks for the recommendation Femi) and then we head back to the train for a 3pm departure to travel to Komatipoort where we overnight. High Tea is offered on the train in the afternoon. We did not participate but others seemed pleased with the offering.

    Tonight's dinner: Apple & Watercress Salad with blue cheese; Indian Samosa with malay curray mayonaise; Durban Lamb with Spicy Rice, Samabels & Pop Adams; and Black Cherries with Brandy in Pancake for dessert.

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    DAY 5 - KRUGER NATIONAL PARK (Temp 13/40) Sunny 52% Humidity

    Today we have a number of additional options: 1. Open Vehicle Safari 2. Protea Kruger Gate Lodge and 3. Private Game Reserve overnight

    Breakfast was offered from 5:30 - 6:00 am - Self Service - muffins and coffee. You are instructed to grab a Breakfast pack for a picnic site location. Most started nibbling on their breakfast pack well before the transfer point.

    We have choosen Option #3 - Private Game Reserve - which turns out to be Lion Sands (River Lodge). We made this decision prior to our departure in anticipation that it would increase our odds of "seeing the Big 5". We head off in our assigned van and enter Kruger National Park - there is an admission fee for the Park (135 Rand) and this is paid by your guide.

    While we were travelling in our van we saw: Hippos (mostly ears in the water) intially but at the lunch stop they were out of the water (5) and lounging on the river banks; Cape Buffalo; Warthogs; Impala (lots); Rhino (difficult for a photo shot as he only offered his butt to the roadway); Giraffe (very close to the road - he posed well for pictures); Zebra; Baboons; Kudus; Crocodiles, Turtle; Vervet Monkeys; Grey Rhebok; Elephants and Nyala. For birds we had a Fish Eagle; Baby Owl; Lilac-breasted Roller, Crested Eagle, Yellow billed Hornbill; Vultures, Southern Ground Hornbill; Village Weaver.

    We ate our breakfast pack at the designated rest stop in Kruger National Park (there is a small shopping area and restaurants where you could buy additional items if you wished or a beverage). The vans converge at a designated spot at the airport and those going to the Private Game Reserve (about 17 of us) are transferred to the safari vehicles of the Lion Sands and the other guests continue touring the Park and returned to the train for the evening.

    On the road into the Lion Sands we saw: Bushbuck; a Cape Buffalo carcass which was a Lion's dinner the evening before; Lilac-breasted Roller and three Cheetahs - which had arrived 3 months ago at Lion Sands - first time they have had Cheetahs in 3 years.

    We checked into the Lodge - have a brief orientation - and are shown to our rooms. We were offered lunch - (Shaved Bushbuck/Nyla on a Bun/Penne Pasta as well as a soup starter and a dessert) - and then a rest period before tea at 3:30 and then depart for a game drive 4PM. Sundowners are served on the safari around 7pm and then we return and meet for dinner at 8PM which is buffet style in a Boma with a large fire in the centre.

    We have two safari jeeps and head off in different directions. In evening game drive we saw: Nyala, Impala, Yellow billed Hornbill, Red Bead Holto, Vervet Monkey, Cape Buffalo, Pride of 5 lions, Banded Mongoose, Kudu, second pride of Lions (4); Waterbuck. After our sundowners: Chameleon; Scrub Hare; Wildebeest and White Tail Mongoose. The other group saw Rhino with a baby - but not our jeep.

    Nice to sleep in a full size bed and not have any movement! The bathtub is to die for!!


    DAY 6 - KRUGER NATIONAL PARK (Temp 38 - Sunny)


    We receive a wake up call at 5:30 am meet for coffee and are out for our morning safari by 6:15 am. Surprizingly there are less animals in the morning than the evening before.Today we saw: Impala; Kudu; Waterbuck; a Rhino and baby; Nyala, another Rhino with Impala; White-backed Vulture; and a Tree Squirrel.

    We stopped for coffee at 8:30 am - with very nice nibbles. Then we see: Herd of Nyala; Warthogs; a Great Eggret and a Grey Heron; Baboons; White Box Eagle; Bushbuck, Nyala and more Veret Monkeys.

    We then return to the Lion Sands for a full breakfast, check out and head back to meet the vans at the airport. On way out our guide asks if we would like to try and find elephants or see the Cheethas again - we choose elephants and are successful in finding two prior to arriving back at the airport.

    At the airport there is some confusion - only two vans are there. The guides are calling out the room numbers of those guests they are seeking and they are loaded into the vans. That leaves six of us standing in the sun as they drive away - out of the window one guide does say "don't worry the other van will be here shortly". That turned out to be 25 minutes later.

    Our guide - apparently got side tracked with his four other guests finding animals and stopping on route. Without any explanation (except they have been having a marvelous time looking at animals) we are loaded into the van - driven 1/2 hour to the rest stop and advised we are now stopping for a 1.5 hour lunch hour....quite frustrating when you have just eaten and been waiting in the hot sun for 25 minutes.

    After lunch we start a painfully slow afternoon drive back (30 Klm top speed). The guide was given a lot of verbal encouragement to "speed up". By the time we reached the Park Gate all of the other vans had passed us. We learned later that apparently we needed to "exit" the park as a group for our passenger manifests to match up so that is why we were moving so slowly as one of the other guides needed to exit ahead of our guide in case there were any issues. In addition, our guide was having some mechanical difficulties - however this was never shared with us at the time by the guide so we would understand the slow pace.

    Animals seen in the afternoon: Zebra, a Cheetah (way, way, way off the road -- needed bionuclars to see but we stopped); Warthogs; Southern Ground Hornbill; Steenbok and Elephants. Actually the Elephants were the most interesting - the leader did not like the van and made charging motions -- the guide did move forward when all of us were yelling "GO! GO!. Final animal of the day - roadkill - a jackal - yes we did stop - Does anyone really want a picture?

    Dinner tonight: Greens - Lime and Corinder; Game Terrine; Pork Fillet with spicy sauce potatoes and veg and Dessert: Chocolate Eclair. Honestly we NEVER left dinner hungry --- the portions are more than adequate!

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    DAY 8 - DAY ON THE RAILS

    Because we were to spend the full day on the train breakfast was moved back to 7:30 - 9:00 am. At 10:00 am there were information sessions offered by the guides - which were a general overview of entering in Zimbabwe and how to fill out your Customs and Immigration forms (one of the confusing questions was "how much money are you carrying" and of course folks were concerned what to respond - the replies from the guides were varied).

    After this there was a "Finger Lunch" at 12:30 - 1:30 and 4:00 PM - Coffee, tea, scones and cookies. Dinner was it's usual 6:30 and 8PM seatings.

    We are to fill out our Immigration forms and return them with your passport by noon.

    We really should call this a Day - "Starting and Stopping on the Rails" because that is what we did - lots of starts and stops. At one point we had a four hour wait for the next engin driver to pick us up -- Not the fault of Shongololo - such is life on the Rails in Africa! Our White Board Update now says "Rock and Roll all Day and Night".

    Dinner tonight: Spinach & Grapefruit Salad; Springbok Carpacico; Panfried Chicken Breast on bed of Rice with Lemon Butter Sauce and Veg; Mixed Berries and ice cream.

    Some personal observations - since we had a day to discuss:

    --Our room is as expected based on our research - Everything is l940's-l950's - uncomprised in terms of furnishings.

    --We were a little surprized that one bed is a foot shorter than the other (due to the closet) - only a problem if you are both 6' like us!

    --We like our middle compartment room - believe there is less sway when the train moves and less hallway noise as people meet and cross over between cars

    --Meals have been great -higher quality in flavour than we anticipated. One gets a good sense of variety and the Chef can change sauces if you don't like "mushrooms"

    --Dining staff are friendly, efficient and timely - actually all of the staff have been great

    --More extensive wine menu than we had been led to believe - reasonable prices 85 Rand - 155 Rand ($12 - $20) . 14 Rand for a single pour ($2) - does come from a box. Generous pour in a single glass.

    --No face cloths - bring your own if you need one. Towels were changed daily -- always fresh.

    --Kept removing drinking glasses from our room and not replacing them - always off to the bar to pick one up!

    --We really like the late dinner seating - way less frantic!

    --Tour vans - adequate but not luxurious - some in rougher shape than others; A/C overpowered so can be a "warm" ride sometimes - some guests want a breeze and open windows - which further cuts A/C value

    Final White Board update for the day:

    "We are approximately 11 hours late at this stage due to spournet problems with signals out and power cuts from Escon. We appreciate your patience".

    Dinner tonight was a jarring event - more than one glass of wine was spilled - even staff found it to be jarring -- our engin driver is trying really hard to make up time so we can make it to Great Zimbabwe!

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    DAY 9 - GREAT ZIMBABWE - (Temp 32)

    We have not travelled as far as originally planned due to the delays - so will be travelling longer in the vans today (2 additional hours) to get to Great Zimbabwe - apparently the vans can make up the time we lost on the train. That is what is unique about this trip - you really don't know what is going to happen next. Got to be flexible!

    Great Zimbabwe is the Largest Monument in Africa, south of the Pyramids. We have signed up for lunch ($15 US) at the Great Zimbabwe Hotel and then we will be taken to the tour site. Lunch was a buffet - good - enjoyed the local beer!

    We are guided today by the site guides - broken into two groups - one group visits the site first and then the museum - our group goes to the museum for an overview and then to the site. The site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 along with Victoria Falls. Great Zimbabwe = House of Large Grey Stones. Topography here is more savana but with rock outcroppings of granite that can rise up 10 to 1000 feet. The granite is black so when it is just on the surface - it looks like the area has been burned but that is not the case - it is a combination of rock color and lichen. The actual site was larger than I anticipated. Walls were higher/thicker than anticipated and the stones much smaller - therefore requiring much more thoughtful process and effort to put together.

    There is a flea market/curio stand as you leave the hotel onto the highway - best place for you to pick up a stone King Fisher carving - the Bird of Great Zimbabwe. Take good walking shoes, a hat and water!

    Dinner times tonight were moved back to: 7:00 and 8:30 as we arrived back at the train later than usual.

    Dinner tonight: Chicken salad; Carrot & Orange Soup; Karoo Lamb Chops in a mediterranean sauce with potatoes and vegetables; Dessert: Cape Tiramisu


    DAY 10 - ANTELOPE PARK, GWERU (Temp 11/32 - Sunny)

    Today is one of the highlights of the trip - Walk with the Lions in Antelope Park - giving you the opportunity to talk with lions 3-15 months of age and have a photo opportunity. No leashes, no collars - the lions roam free with you through the African bush. You also get an opportunity to interact in small groups with lion cubs. You can sign up for lunch - African BBQ - $12 USD - was quite good. In the afternoon you could visit the Military Museum and then we all went to visit the Somabhula Primary School which put on a small performance.

    When we arrived at Antelope Park they had coffee/tea and cookies laid out under the trees along with a good seating area. In Femi's report it was indicated there was no alcohol served - but in our case it was available along with your lunch should you wish. Coffee/tea was also available during the afternoon.

    In addition you could sign up for other specialized activities:

    --Overnight at Antelope Park and Night Encounter with the Lions -- Some guests did this and had an enjoyable time. One of the guides stays with you overnight and returns you to the group in the morning. They did go out on the Night Encounter - but the lions were not interested in hunting -more playing with each other. Overall they felt it was a worthwile experience.

    --Canoe Hire - You can paddle on your own on the river and observe birdlife - did not see anyone do this
    --Horseback Game Viewing - no sure if anyone did this
    --Elephant Riding - 350R - some did partake
    --Lion Feed - 150R - they had not fed the lions for 5 days and apparently it was quite the sight to see them feed - strongly recommended by some guests
    --Birdwatching Boat Cruise - 200R - some did partake

    Regretfully our Guide today was one who shared very little - so there was lots of confusion when we first arrived as to what was happening and that continued throughout the day. We ended up doing our Walk with the Lions near the end of the morning as part of a large group of 17 -- which was not very pleasant for either the lions or the participants. By the time our group was done - I think the Lions had "had it" for the day. The Antelope Park guides did ensure that you got your photo opportunity - but unfortunately we did not get the "experience" than we had been looking forward too.

    The School visit was interesting - though I felt badly as the students had been waiting for us for over an hour for us to arrive - not quite sure why. After doing their performance most had a very long walk home. I would strongly encourage anyone taking this trip to consider bringing along a donation of school supplies - they really do need everything and anything is most appreciated.

    Dinner tonight: Roasted Beet, Carrot and Orange Salad; Smoked Chicken Breast with Apricot and Mango Sauce; Crumbled Fish and Chips with Cauliflower & Cheese Sauce; Dessert: Fruit salad with cashew nuts.

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    DAY 11 - BULAWAYO & MATOBO NATIONAL PARK (Temp 13/29)

    Today there were two options:

    1. Matobo Hills and an Art Gallery OR
    2. Matobo Hills and the Railway Museum -- it was an 8:00 am start.

    We choose to do neither option - as did some others - sometimes you just need a break. The Bulawayo Station Manager thinks he is a DJ and played music all day over the public address system - first time we had that at a station.

    Two specialized options were offered: Chipangali - visit to the Wildlife Orphanage - which many guests enjoyed and Rhino Tracking which was done by two couples - (450 Rand) - they did not see a Rhino in their tracking which was done in a vehicle.

    Dinner tonight: Chakaleaka Salad; Biltong Pate; Grilled Ostrich steak with green pepercorn sauce, baked potato and butter; Dessert: Grilled Pineapple & Vodka with Ice Cream.


    DAY 12 - HAWANGE NATIONAL PARK (Temp 13/34)

    This is a very early day - Coffee available at 5:30 am - Departure 6:00 am with Breakfast in the Park at 9:00 am.

    Hawanage National Park is the nation's largest wildlife area and contains a variety of animals and birds. Covering 1 462 000 hectares it it roughly the same size as Belgium. The train rolled into the station just about 6:00 am - the time that we were to depart. Good news - we travelling in open Safari vehicles and they are all lined up and waiting for us to board. You are not assigned a specific vehicle - just climb on where you wish. The vehicles spread out on different trails so no one was "eating" dust and then we all ended up at the same park area for breakfast at 9:00 am.

    In our vehicle we saw: Giraffe, Impala, Elephant Goose; Yellow billed Hornbill, Kudu, Egyptian Goose, Elephants, Steenbok, Zebra, Helmuted Guineafowl, Vultures, Southern Ground Hornbill, Cape Buffalo (herd), Warthogs - before 9:00 am breakfast under the trees. You were offered a glass of champagne, eggs, bread, sausage, bacon, coffee. Even had a very nice outdoor bathroom facility.

    After breakfast our vehicle along with the German vehicle entered the National Park where we saw: Lilac-breasted Roller Bird, Elephants, Kudu, Tree Squirrel, Sable Antelope, Giraffe, Crowed Crane, Steenbok, The Secretarybird, Ostrich, Lions, more Giraffe (6) with Zebra (8). At the Waterhole: Hippos, Impala, Zebra, and Crocodiles. Continuing onto Simkumi Tree Lodge: Giraffe, Impala, Pride of three Lions, Red Billed Buffalo Weaver; Short Tailed Eagles, Baboons.

    We got to the Sikumi Tree Lodge at 1:30 where we met the other two vehicles - this was the lunch stop ($7 USD) for those that wished to eat and there was also a pool available for those that wanted to take a dip - it was warm enough to sun bath and some did indulge and rest.

    Nine guests choose the specialized option to stay overnight and have an additional safari in the evening and again in the morning before joining the main group again. For those that took this option - while the accommodation was "rustic" - they seemed to have enjoyed the experience. Once again a guide remains with you overnight. The location is actually quite pretty and I can see when the rains come and the watering hole fills - there would be an abundance of wildlife to view.

    At 3PM - Since our group had been through the Park - we changed vehicles - accommodating some of the Germans from the other vehicle into our group - and our two jeeps with new guides headed off again. Very hot in the afternoon - however we saw: Warthogs, Baboons, Impala, Marshall Eagle, Zebras, Elephants, Kudus, Waterbuck; Seering Bird, Southern Ground Hornbill, Herd of Elephants; Lilac-breasted Roller, Vervte Monkeys, Baboons and a large group of Elephants at the watering hole

    When we got back to the train there was a group of young students singing as we boarded and a number of local vendors offering their wares for sale. All very low key. It was a long a hectic day - but a good one. Tidbet: When we started this trip - it could be a challenge to get "hot" water at times for a shower -- now it is a challenge to get "cold" water!

    Dinner tonight: Butternut & Rocket; Mussels in white wine sauce; Cape Malay Bobotie with Yellow Rice and Sambus; Dessert: Moroccan Pear

    Tonight the trian moves to Victoria Falls - our final move.

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    DAY 13 LIVINGSTONE (ZAMBIA) (Temp 37)

    Today we took the "Special Livingstone Tour" which the train has established since visas in and out of Zimbabwe have increased in price. For Canadians there is no longer a "multiple entry visa" so it would cost $750 Rand ($100 Canadian) for a single visa to enter Zambia to see the Falls. Many other guests also did not want to pay the increased visa fee - though their fee was lower than the Canadians.

    So the train established a "Special Tour" consisting of a visit to a local village and a crocodile farm. We get to depart at 9:00 am -- a late day in terms of our recent travels.

    Today are not using the Shonogolo vans - we have a large new motor coach that can accommodate all guests. It comes with a driver and our guide only has to provide a commentary. Today we get an informative guide - it is a delight - lots of information shared and everyone knows the plan for the day.

    First stop a local village - where the Chief's son acts as our host and gives us a tour and an overview of their living arrangements and approach. This is a true "working village" with 23 members. The road down to the village was not built anticipating a tour bus may use it some day. It was quite informative.

    From there it was off to the Crocodile farm - which was interesting - and very cheap if you wanted to purchase a belt or purse, cell phone holder. Best prices we had seen anywhere and they gave you an "exportation certificate" in case Customs asked to verify the item was not poached. After that we were given a general tour of Victoria Falls area - where to shop, recommendations for lunch stop, internet cafe, local curio market. You had a choice to be left downtown or taken back to the train.

    Tonight was our second off-rail dinner - a Bush Dinner on the banks of the Zambezi River. We arrived to singing African dancers and trooped down a kerosene lit path to find our tables for dinner in a large clearing under the trees. Dinner was: Chicken soup, salads, potatoes, carrots, creamed spinach, chicken, steak cooked to your preference and a "traditional" offering of Cape Buffalo and Poi. Dessert was fruit salad. The entertainers who greeted us when we arrived - also provided some additional entertainment and crowd engagement. Drinks were $2.00 USD each.

    Overall a very nice event and enjoyed by all - much better than Muputo.


    DAY 14 - CHOBE NATIONAL PARK (BOTSWANA) (Temp 37)


    Breakfast today was 6:00 - 7:30 with a 7:45 am departure. You had to pick up your Botswana Immigration forms after breakfast and have them filled out by the time we got to the Border. Of course these meant another Zimbabwe Entry form and visa cost as well.

    As we leave the train we board the Shongololo vehicles to travel the 70 klm to the border but they are left on the Zim side. We have to disembark walk across some chemical pads to have your shoes sterilized for Foot and Mouth Disease and walk to the Immigration Office and present our forms. Some initial confusion because of course we have not filled in "Chobe Marina" as the place we are going to. Once we do that - we choose one of three vehicles offered by Chobe Marina Lodge and are taken to the Lodge - a very nice and upscale place.

    First order of business for the full group is a river cruise - which means we must fill out forms again - one for the cruise and one for the game drive - complete with your passport number. Of course we don't get any explanation as to "why" - and it is only on the cruise that you realize the Captain has to swing over to the side and give "Water Border Guard" a copy of the list and there is a nose count to ensure that it matches -- we don't realize we cross from one country to another as part of the cruise - so documentation is a must! This is a busy place with a lot of boats!

    The cruise is quite pleasant - your onboard guide pointed out the animals: baboons, cape buffalo, hippos, yellow crocks, elephants, water monitor lizard, birds...by this time we are getting a little into animal overload and some were finding it a good time for a nap. The cruise lasted from 9:30 - 11:45 and then we are back at the hotel for lunch and after that off to the park at 1:30. Most interesting part of the cruise was when the hippos in the water (eyes and ears showing - sometimes a back) decided to climb back up on land as a group...quite the event.

    The elephants were plentiful at the waters edge and we spent some time waiting for them to enter the water - they seemed hesitant -- all of the sudden a hippo emerges and gives us a great yawn - the elephants never did enter the water.

    Lunch was $15 USD and apparently was a very nice offering.

    1:30 as a group we are off in safari vehicles into the National Park. First we must all disinefect our feet again by walking across chemical pads and then back into the vehicle. In meantime the tires on each vehicle are also being sprayed. They take Foot and Mouth Disease seriously here!

    The National Park was created in 1967 and there is one private lodge still within the park which was built prior to it's designation as a National Park. The soil is very white and sandy so traction can be a challenge - you need to have a good driver. We saw one vehicle where the passengers had to get out and walk while the driver tried to get traction up the slight incline.

    There are over 100,000 elephants in the park (some guests said their guide indicated 300,000 not sure who is correct). You see herds everywhere and the destruction they do as they move though the forest is quite evident. On the flood plain we could see groups of: Warthogs; Zebras; Impala; Kudu; multiple groups of elephants; pods of hippos on the land.

    After our tour it was back to the border. Time to purchase another visa and confusion over immigration forms (some guests were not given immigration forms in advance by their guide as often guides cannot get the forms in advance) - and we all crossed back to the Shonogololo vans and continued back to the trian.

    Tonight's Dinner: Avacado & Pasta Salad, Tomato salsa in pancake with tomato dressing sauce; Galinha Peri Peri served with savoury sauce (translation: Chicken in sauce); Dessert: Pear and Almond Flan

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    DAY l5 - VICTORIA FALLS

    Today's tour is to Victoria Falls - we are given a general orientation and then left on our own to walk the trails - take a jacket if you don't want to get wet. The afternoon is at your liesure - lots of options activities to do: Helicopter Flight over the falls - a popular choice; White Water River Rafting; Elephant Riding and Bungee Jumping from the Livingston Bridge.

    Some took the opportunity to enjoy High Tea at Victoria Falls Hotel. Others just last minute shopping and start packing for the trip home.

    We booked the sunset cruise on the Zambzie River (400 Rand/pp) pick up time 4:00 pm and you are back by 6:30. An enjoyable way to end your stay in Vic Falls and 24 guests took this option. At the last minute there was an option offered for a Steam Train ride over the bridge you see from the Vic Falls Hotel - some took that option and enjoyed it as well.

    Dinner tonight: Wrapped Greek Salad; Butternut Soup; Grilled Rump Steak with mushroom sauce, baked potatoes with cream cheese and roasted vegetables; Dessert: Chocolate & Amaraulia Cheesecake.

    You had a to pay your bill between 4 and 8 PM with the Train Manager and all drinks the last day were paid in cash.

    Dining staff, Chef/Kitchen Staff and Train Manager - did a little closing song to end our stay with Shonogololo Express.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    I hope this report provides those considering the Southern Cross Trip with the information they need to make a decision.

    Did we enjoy the trip - Yes Indeed and would certainly recommend it as an "adventure" to other travellers. You need to come with a flexible attitude and take each day as it comes. You will get tired at times (it is a hectic pace) and you may not enjoy all of your travelling companions - however that is not something the train can control. You will meet some very nice guests and some excellent staff, that are working hard to make your trip memorable. Just remember it is Africa -- lots of things are beyond anyone's control.

    As Femi said - Hopefully the others who frequent this Board and currently on Southern Cross Journey Southbound - will also file a report on their experience.

    My thanks to Femi and others who assisted us in making our decisions.

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    Great sightings at Kuger! I loved the semi-tame animals that hang around the rest areas.

    I wondered what it would have been like to spend the night at Lion Sands, but thought it too much trouble to pack an overnight bag, and possibly forgetting essentials. Funny that the people from my tour who chose that option also raved about the tub and the bed, LOL! In the Lion Sands vehicles were there two or three people per row?

    Helpful observations on day 8. The menu I experienced was different from yours but just as varied and surprisingly creative. I must admit I was pretty hungry the first couple of days, but then somehow got used to the portion sizes after that. The first few meals we thought the salads were individual portions, rather the actuality-meant to be shared by two people.

    Will continue reading later. Considering you had no plans to post a report, this is wonderful! Thank you.

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    Thanks Femi - heading of out town for 10 days and realized that it was "now or never" to get it done yesterday. Hopefully it assists future travellers.

    On the food - I think in North America we have a problem because we have "supersized" everything. The portions we got really did match the Canada Food Guide or even Weight Watchers for an appropriate amount. Our salads were always done in individual portions.

    I was pleased when I returned home that I was only .8 lb up from when we left - pretty good considering I drank way more than we normally do at home and was missing my morning 5km walk.

    I think that those that choose to skip lunch everyday would likely have been a lot more hungry and of course one of the challenges on the trip is there is not a lot of opportunities (or availability) to pick up a chocolate bar or a snack as you proceed farther along. One really should pack some of your own granola bars to be safe.

    At Lion Sands we had three people per row but the vehicles were the largest we saw the entire trip.

    Interesting - had we taken the trip from Vic Falls to Johannesburg we likely would not have booked the Lion Sands ($1,200 CDN) as by then we would have seen a great deal of animals and not felt the need. We also would have likely paid the extra visa amount to go into Zambia since visa costs would not have seemed so shocking as we would be just starting the trip.

    Everyone will have their own priorities and perspectives.

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    You are quite right about the meal portions. Although I was a little hungry in the beginning, after I got used to it and observed what was served, it was a relief to eat whatever I wanted without having to worry about excessive calories.

    You mention you enjoyed the off train dinner in Vic Falls more than Maputo, and I thought the reverse. That's the benefit of having more than one report to review.

    Sorry you were not able to enjoy the lion walk to the fullest extent with the big crowd. Visiting Antelope park was one of my most enjoyable days. We were not given the option last year to overnight at the park so this is new. I think the accommodations may be a little rustic though from what I could see from outside.

    I was very sad to hear that one of the workers from Chipangali was killed by a lion recently.

    I could have sat and watched the waterhole at Sikumi Tree lodge all day. You've reminded me of the steady parade of animals that came down to drink

    LOL! I never realised we crossed the border during the Chobe river cruise! A lady in uniform came on board and did a nose count, but I never understood why. Duh! Some of the train literature counts Namibia as one of the countries visited. I thought the itinerary must have changed, but I guess this was where we crossed the Namibian border?

    Hope you have a great trip and thanks again for posting.

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    Just realized I missed Day 7. Here it is to complete the report:


    DAY 7 - PANORAMA ROUTE (Temp 13/34)

    Today is a very full day of driving 380 Km starting at 7:30 am. Itinerary is to visit the village of Pilgrim's Rest, a living museum and declared National Monument. Further along the escarpment you pass Blyde River Canyon, a gorge of 26 km long and 800m deep carved from the face of the escarpment. The Three Rondavels present an unforgetable view and Bourke's Luck Potholes are strange deep cylindrical cavities formed by river erosion and flood water.

    Apparently it was a very good day from all we talked to - however we choose to stay back - enjoy a day alone and outside of a travelling vehicle. We walked the Kaapmuiden area (the train did not move to Nelspruit as scheduled) and spent some time talking to the locals.

    It was a most enjoyable break. We got a good overview of the activities the train staff take while the guests were touring - The Train Manager was one very busy fellow either delivering carpet (we were carrying three additional cars that were being rennovated on route and would be used on return trip) or restocking the Bar. Looks like we are a very thirsty group of passengers!

    Today the Sunrise Balloon Experience was offered - only two spaces were available and quickly booked. Those that went said it was a great experience - they did not see any animals during their flight.

    Dinner tonight: Green Salad; Stuffed Eggplant; Grilled Kudu Steak with cranberry sauce, roast potatoe wedges with honey/olive oil and vegetables; Dessert: Brandy Pudding with custard.


    Louise/Leanne - if you are back from your Southbound adventure would love to hear how your trip went.

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    Hi, there - I loved the trip. The train was in need of a little TLC but was clean and comfortable and the food was great. The crew and guides are so hard working and wonderful and strive to make everyone happy. I am not going to write an extensive report as the others have been so much better than what I would write.

    I had been to VF and Chobe 12 years ago but during the high water season so it was great to see everything in a different perspective. The rest of the trip was a new experience for me as I had only seen Africa previously from the "bush" and never experienced the cities and beautiful countrysides. I particularly was impressed by Swaziland and South Africa. Would love to go back and drive South Africa.

    Our day on the train traveling to South Africa was delayed for hours - the train was running electric engines and during the night electrical lines were stolen which left us stranded until a diesel was found. Later in the afternoon we were delayed another 3 hours because another train was delayed for the same reason on the track and had to be removed with a diesel so we could proceed. Just part of the fun of the whole experience.

    It was exceedingly hot for the first part of the trip and entering South Africa we managed to find some relief from the heat.

    One of the things I really wanted to do was stay at Lion Sands. Because of a South African holiday, there was nothing available. I wanted my niece to have the experience. Our replacement lodge was Bongani Mountain which borders Kruger. Very much enjoyed the difference of seeing the wildlife in mountain terrain. It was a real "off road" safari. We saw a good variety of wildlife but no big cats (except 2 lion waiting in a large enclosure to be released after quarantine). The lodge is in a beautiful location in the rocks overlooking a valley with a waterhole where we could see the animals come. Our first game drive started with a thunder and lightning storm and heavy rain but the drivers were all prepared for those situations. Once the rain let up the rest of the drive was fine. It did become very cold and the heat was turned on in our cabin and there was a fire going in the lounge.

    I enjoyed making friends with all the passengers on the train. Most were Canadian, Australian and German as far as I could determine but a good mix of other nationalities also. There were 2 full sittings at meal times.

    If I were to do the trip again, I would prefer starting in Johannesburg. I particularly like the wildlife aspect of Africa and although I thoroughly enjoyed the rest, I did feel a bit of a letdown ending up in cities.

    Leanna continued on to Capetown for 4 days so you will not hear from her for a couple days more.

    So, all in all, a great experience and I may consider another trip in the future to Namibia.

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    Hi Louise - thanks for the feedback. Sorry you were unable to stay at the Lions Sands - it was a most enjoyable experience.

    Our weather got warmer as the trip proceeded and we did wondered if southbound would have been better choice. We choose northbound ending in Vic Falls as we wanted to "end with the best scenery" and then return directly home.

    Sorry you ran into some rain - that was another reason we choose the September rather than October trip...however even without rain I did manage to get quite a few mosquito bits in Mozambique. Did you encounter bugs as well?

    Also which of the "off the train" dinners did you preferred? You will see from my write up I enjoyed the Vic Falls Bush dinner (we had a great table of guests) but Femi enjoyed Muputo more (we only had limited seafood at our dinner and all of it was deep fried - not my favourite).

    We were told your trip would have more guests (they were actually constructing some of the rooms that your guests would occupy during our trip) and a greater number of Germans than usual. They were bringing on an additional German Guide to assist Jorge and Vincent was going to just be a driver for your trip. Any other guide changes?

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    Ok Im alive!! :) But barely!!! I keep sleeping at odd moments but fortunately not at traffic lights

    I had a ball!!! It was crazed, mad, wild, jerky, unorganized at times..its Afrika never forget, funny, rainy, a bit buggy, HOT HOT HOT (at the beginning), loooong days of doing stuff, not enough days of just being left to loll in your 1x1 cabin and to stare out the window as Afrika rolls by!

    I was lucky and got a super cabin....CH B....everything worked and I swear it got a bit larger each day as I adapted to no space. I do recommend just getting a cabin unto yourself unless you are sharing w/ a mate...good gal/guy pals could become a bit grumpy trying to deal w/ the space for all those days.

    The gang that works the train: Nelson, Mary, Wilamenia, C etc are just amazing....and do a perfect job! As for the cook....how how how does he do it.....great food.....very consistant.

    It was horrid ugly and intensely hot at the beginning. At the antelope park place I sat there and wiped my fore arm and then watched it bead up again w/ water. I have NEVER seen that....my fluids were draining away in front of my eyes! But now at least I can understand what they mean when I read, "the heat of Afrika!"

    Also I enjoyed seeing the rain as I had heard it was a deluge when it fell....so that was great to enjoy also and really as I remember it was just a couple of afternoons we were out in it.

    We did see the MOST beautiful and perfect rainbow I have ever seen in Kruger........all the colors of the spectrum were there.....and it lasted for about 30 min or more. Truly inspirational!!!

    We had fun groups from all countries and by the end most everyone, I think, felt like family!!!! I sure dropped a few tears when it was time to actually move on.

    I personally liked getting to Joburg last as it seemed we stared w/ the old traditional Afrika in Vicky Falls....and then ended w/ the museum in Joburg.....and into the new decades of freedom.....seemed right to me.

    I do think if you want to see game then Kenya and Tanzi are the best places. I saw the Big 5 within the first 2 hours there....so had no appreciation that its really hard to accomplish this. I think people who have never been on safari and game drives before were a bit disappointed in the parks we visited. Also Kruger to me was like a Disneyland park compared to K&T. The roads alone......most all nice and paved.....luxury!!!

    What else? Hmmm? Beachnut ..you did a great job describing everything.....and I agree w/ most you said....even though we did diff trips.

    As for Capetown...ah!!!! I had no idea those views and vistas would be sooo spectacular. I think its THE most beautiful coast line I have ever seen! And I live in Calif!! They were having horrid winds while I was there...an odd late spring....so never got to Table Mt....but finally after 3 days did get to Robbin Island which was very important for me. Found it very moving....as I was also reading Mandela's book....so things were matching from book to real life.

    What else!! Yes I am glad I did this tour.....as it was one of the most fun experiences I have had traveling.

    AND

    I would like to say that years ago I met Louise on this very bulletin board and we struck up a friendship......we did meet a few years back but this was our first time to travel together.....and it was delightful. So this board is really a good spot..for info and new pals as well!!!!

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    Hi Leanna - so glad you had a great trip. I'm amazed how different our weather was. When we started our trip (Jorburg) we actually used the heavy blankets they leave in the train cabins on a few nights - by the time we got to Vic Falls it was hot - but not as much as you experienced. It was an awesome trip. Glad yours was as well. Agree with your comments on this Board.

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    Welcome back Leanna :)

    So funny about the weather. My guess is that it was in the mid-70s just about every day we were there, and I also ended up using the blanket at night. We had rain once in Nelspruit, and you've just reminded me of the gorgeous rainbow we saw afterwards.

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    Thanks everyone,from another Australian very interested in doing a train trip in Africa.

    Your comments about the jerky ride reminded me of my Dad. He was a great horseman and on rough horses, roads & small planes, told us to, "sit loose in the saddle & go with the gait." He was right.

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    Hi, I did the Vic Falls to Jo-burg Oct 6, 2010 (with Louise and Leanna). Beachnut your review was great even though we did it in the opposite direction. I have posted a video of that trip on Youtube if you would like to see it. It was difficult to cut it to 10 minutes and still show a highlight for every day. To see it search for "Shongololo Express Oct 2010" by DBus. If there is no sound try..... "http://www.youtube.com/user/42dbus"

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    DBus - thanks for posting the video - you did a great job - it really brought back some memories.

    I was amazed to see how much the foliage changed in one week after our trip...amazing what a little moisture brings!

    It truly was the "trip of a lifetime".

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