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Trip Report KwaZulu Natal and Kruger - sort of a Trip Report

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We (a middle-aged California couple) just returned a couple of weeks ago from our third lovely trip. I started out putting together some notes just for myself, but it mutated into a trip report, so here it is.

I am including pricing and flight details in case anyone is interested to see what our two weeks cost. We were a bit disappointed in KZN, but Kruger was great as usual. Our friends cannot believe that we can spend so little, relatively, and have such a great time in this faraway place.

This time, I put my report details into categories instead of a daily log. My husband says that this mode isn't as much fun to read, so I apologize for the boringness, but for all you folks out there who might get some useful info out of it, you are welcome.

Here are the money bits:

Friday September 19

Virgin flt. 024 LAX to LHR, 10:00p – 4:35p (10.5 hrs)
Seats 42 H & K $2,959.00
Virgin flt. 601 LHR to JNB on the 20th, 9:00p – 9:05a on the 21st (11 hrs)
Seats 61 H & K
(res. #DL60Y6 under Daniel Michael Bartlett)
S. Africa Air flt. #551 JNB to DUR, 12:10p – 1:20p (no seats) $411.80
(res. #74EJOU)

Sunday Sept. 21
Salt Rock Hotel & Beach Resort, Salt Rock KZN B&B&Din $152.15
Phone 27 32 525-5025 1 night
2:00 check in

Monday & Tuesday Sept. 22, 23
Lodge Afrique, St. Lucia KZN B&B $215.00
Phone 27 35 590 1696
2:00 check in, 10:30 out

Wednesday & Thursday Sept. 24, 25
Hilltop Camp, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi park, KZN B&B $263.00
Phone 27 35 562 0848
2:00 check in, 10:00 out

Friday & Saturday Sept. 26, 27
Tembe Elephant Park, KZN all meals $450.00
Phone 27 31 267 0144
12:00 check in, 2:00 lunch, 3:00 drive. Out approx. 11:00.

Sunday Sept. 28
Swaziland – Ndlovu Camp at Hlane park pay for din & bk $65.23
Phone 268 528 3943 1 night
2:00 check in, 10:00 out

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday Sept. 29 – Oct. 3
Lower Sabie camp, Kruger
Phone Sanparks 27 12 428 9111 $387.00

Saturday October 4

S. Africa Air flt. #8846 Nelspruit MQP to JNB, 4:40p – 5:30p incl. above
(res. 74EJOU) – no seats
Virgin flt. #602 JNB to LHR 8:10p – 6:35a on the 5th (11.5 hrs)
Seats 41 A & C incl. above
Virgin flt. #007 LHR to LAX 11:15a – 2:35p on the 5th (11.5 hrs)
Seats 61 H & K

Rental Car
Budget – pick up at DUR Sept. 21 2:00p, drop at Nelspruit MQP
Oct. 4 at 3:00p - res. #43972904US3
MQP office closes at 3:30 $492

Total: $5,395
(3371 air, 492 car, 1532 lodging)

Cash from ATMs, 6 withdrawals $5 fee per withdrawal: $1,220
Hilltop bar & tips & dinner & conservation levy, charged after: $128
Tembe bar & conservation levy, charged after: $47

Total trip cost: $6,790
(gas & gifts all paid for out of cash)

Parking at LAX, Sam’s Park, 16 days: $128

Driving Distances

DUR King Shaka airport to Salt Rock hotel Sunday 26km, ½ hr

Salt Rock hotel to St. Lucia Monday 192 km, 2.75 hrs

St. Lucia to Hilltop Camp – game drive thru Imfolozi Wednesday 73km, 1.5 hrs
St. Lucia to Nyalazi gate of Imfolozi “ 53km, 1 hr

Hilltop Camp to Tembe – via R22 Friday 172km, 3 hrs

Tembe to Swazi border at Golela – via Jozini & P522 Sunday 143km, 2 hrs 40 mins
Golela border post to Hlane/Ndlovu – via Big Bend “ 129km, 2 hrs

Here is the other stuff:

Front door at home to hotel at Salt Rock: 36 hours 15 minutes. This includes leaving home at 5 for a 10:00 flight because of heavy Friday traffic. Note to self: Don’t fly out on Friday night.
King Shaka airport at Durban is nice and new, if we never see the inside of terminal 3 at Heathrow again we’ll be happy. Going home was about 40 hours, checking out of Lower Sabie on Saturday morning to our front door Sunday afternoon. Barf.

DRIVING – 2185 total km driven, 1355 miles, 4 – 5 tanks of gas
My collection of Google maps of our various routes, printed on 8x11 paper, worked quite well.
People drive too fast and not very safely, no presence of anything like a highway patrol. Nearer Durban we saw some cops with radar, further north, nothing. On the two lane highways slow traffic will pull over on the shoulder and expect you to pass, even if it isn’t completely safe or legal to do it. Nice that they aren’t road hogs, but too chancy. The goats and cattle are amazingly road savvy, maybe only once had to really stop quick for a crossing goat. Terrifying that you seem to miss hitting the people walking on the shoulder by mere inches, at 120k/hour.

Drive from Durban to Salt Rock very easy, Salt Rock to St. Lucia easy, St. Lucia up to Hluhluwe still good highway but starting to get smaller with occasional villages and cows on the road. Hluhluwe a not very pleasant looking town with people hanging about trying to get tourists’ attention. Hluhluwe to Tembe via the eastern road along the edge of Ismangaliso, lots of timber plantations, got smaller as we headed north, more and more poor villages as we approached Tembe, nowhere to go for a pit stop.

Only got lost once for maybe an hour, after leaving Tembe we missed a turn towards Jozini and ran into a road construction detour, the road kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller and going uphill through tiny villages where no tourist would go, note to self: pay attention to the little stone numbers, they indicate the highway number. Finally asked a young girl on a hillside with a goat, which way to Jozini? Back the other way. Tembe to Golela border gate to Swaziland via Jozini very poor, lots of animals & people, Jozini looked rather scary. Golela border crossing busy and confusing, get in a long line at one building, pass through a gate, park again, get in a long line at another building. More than half of the road from there to Hlane was terribly potholey (our poor rental car, BANG then BANG then BANG again) and small, but less populated than SA. Hlane on to border crossing at Mananga much better road, cane fields and employed people, Mananga much smaller gate and easier. Mananga to Komatipoort getting better and better, Komatipoort Spar great stop for food before Croc Bridge at Kruger. Exited Kruger at Phabeni gate, easy drive through Hazyview and Whiteriver although the road is hilly and windy and fast with lumber trucks on it. Whiteriver nice prosperous town, Hazyview not so much.

Kruger roads: We mainly drove the tar roads around Lower Sabie, the animals were so concentrated around the big rivers. The H-10 up to Tshokwane, the H 1-2 from Tsh. To Skukuza, the H 4-1 back down to Lower Sabie, the H-5. With detours on to the S29 Mlondozi road where there are lots of zebras and rhinos and to the S128 Old Tsh. Road where we saw three lions. We had lots of luck on the H-10, loads of buffalos, eles, hyenas, giraffes.

Salt Rock Beach Resort: very aged, needs lots of TLC, great location. “Expensive” for this trip, $150 dinner/B&B for one night. Nice ocean view room but very old and tatty in places. Rock hard double bed. Nice friendly cat in the dining room. Lovely beach but heavy surf when we were there, old stone swimming pond built into the shore being used by loads of happy children. Some keeping out of the surf, some enjoying the surge and whitewater.
Lodge Afrique in St. Lucia: One of the nicest hotels we’ve ever stayed at. Lovely gardens, comfy quiet thatched rondavel, comfy double bed, TV but no fridge, friendly talkative manager ladies and excellent breakfast. On a quiet residential street only a couple blocks to “town”. We didn’t see the hippos that walk around town every night. Town was small and safe enough to run around in the morning, watching for monkeys and mongoose and guinea fowl in the front yards. The poor town was having a water crisis, river had dried up and people had to haul water and fill up large tanks, the hotel was nice enough to stay open but did ask us to be conservative. Brought a bag of Em’s outgrown clothes to donate, they went to a local family whose father had been murdered!

Hilltop Camp, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi reserve: Great hilltop location, very large comfortable room with a great view and deck, nicer than we expected. Rock hard twin beds, TV and a fridge and a sitting area. Enough room for a walk around the camp plus they have a little trail along the fence, through a forest. Great bar deck set up high which we couldn’t enjoy because of the wind. At dinner we hear singing in the kitchen, somebody’s birthday? No, a dance! The wait staff gave us a great Zulu dance/song show in their regular work clothes. Some grumpy diners looked irritated at the interruption to their meal, most of us enjoyed it immensely.

Tembe Elephant Park: Interesting arrangement with the reserve being managed and for the benefit of the Tembe local people, landscape prettier than Kruger, forest and green flat swampy area, but just not very many animals to see on the drives. Way up in the far north west corner of the country, rather out of the way. OK/really good food, nice people. 2-1/2 minute walk over sand from reception to our tent, all of them extremely spread out. Funny little cold pool which they electrify at night so the elephants don’t drink from it. Some local adolescent school girls and boys gave us a Zulu dance after dinner, led by their dance master/teacher guy, in costume with the girls topless except for necklaces! We Americans would have whooped and hollered it was so much fun, but the other guests mostly clapped politely. One Alaskan couple, a Canadian family, a local couple, a few Brits, an Aussie family and some Chinese. Our guide, Kulu, is an aspiring comedian, a real hambone.

Ndlovu Camp in Hlane Reserve, Swaziland: This turned out to be a little treat for just one night. Easy to get to, the road passed right through the reserve. No electricity, just paraffin lamps in your rondavel that stink and don’t put out as much light as a good flashlight. Good shower though. Excellent food, at the time my grilled chicken seemed like the best I’d ever eaten. Lovely dining area with large bats about, very clean. The reserve is loaded with rhinos and only a couple hours from Croc Bridge, perhaps might make a fun addition to Kruger next time, just for a couple of days, go out on one of their rhino drives. 10 rhinos right at the waterhole you can see from the bar/restaurant and a lion calling nearby. Awfully quiet though, only us and two other couples. The wait staff is very sweet and very quiet.

Lower Sabie camp, Kruger: Oh boy, they are working on the tents so instead of our perimeter tent they gave us a river view bungalow with an actual inside kitchen and huge deck! One of the best bungalows you can get! Kruger luxury! And it doesn’t smell bad! Unlike our first stay in ’09 when it smelled like creosote. Looking right out at the river past the lawn and electric fence, hippos and elephants and birds and a bushbuck family right there. The bungalow has 3 beds so the kitchen has only 3 of each for the various tableware items, plus 1 dish towel, 1 dishrag and a bottle of strong dish soap. Plenty of fresh bathroom towels each day. Beware the tiny ants in the kitchen that will materialize on the tiniest drop of food on the counter, then just as magically disappear when you wipe it up.

Quite good overall! The rains hadn’t started yet, so all the landscape was still brown and crunchy. No bugs yet! Our first few days were extremely windy, really messed up the sightseeing in Isimangaliso, the beaches were just out of the question with blasting sand. Sunny, though. One gray overcast day in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi then sun, our one full day in Tembe started out baking and by evening was very cold. It turned so cold we were considering skipping the morning drive and heading on to Swaziland, but we didn’t. Very glad we had our down jackets!! Still didn’t see much though. Our one Swaziland night we had a bit of overnight rain, then several glorious clear sunny warm days in Kruger. One gray day, then more glorious sunshine on our last day. Gray is bad for pictures!

Huge improvement this trip and amazingly cheap! Both nights at St. Lucia we ate at the Ski Boat Club, great steak dinners with yummy pumpkin and sautéed spinach, calamari appetizer, 4 huge glasses of beer – 300 Rand or so about $30, and excellent. Also had a nice gray lap cat who appreciated the steak bits. Salt Rock had an OK buffet, knew we were gonna be tired so I just booked the dinner & B&B rate. Hilltop had our most expensive dinner buffet, 165 Rand per person, about $16 each. Lots of normal buffet food, not great but decent, nowhere else to go! Absolutely delicious dessert, some sort of spicy ginger carroty cake with vanilla sauce.
Tembe some great some just OK, yummy pasta lunch with chicken, sort of alfredo. Kudu kebabs. Ndlovu Camp dinner was fantastic, grilled delicious chicken & steak, great mashed potatoes. Breakfast was delicious unusual French toast with honey for me, English breakfast for Mike. Full English breakfast everywhere until we got to Kruger, then it was mid-morning toasted cheese sandwiches at Tshokwane Picnic spot, delicious and cheap! The monkeys bothered other people this time, not us.

No more bad food in Kruger, the Mugg & Bean at Lower Sabie was delicious, good variety and cheap. Kind of miss the ratty atmosphere of the old deck, though, the Mugg & Bean space was all slick and upscale looking, could have been in Brentwood. The deck itself isn’t changed, still a beautiful spot to watch the sun go down, the elephants cross the river, the storks fly to their roosts and the bats stream out from underneath.

The Skukuza restaurant wasn’t finished, they had some outdoor kitchen arrangement, but we had the nicest fresh salads for lunch two days, one with steak and one with chicken, yummy dressing. All of about 690 Rand, $6 each. With fresh squeezed orange juice. They tore down the thatched roof where the fruit bats roosted!

Beer: Castle everywhere, some Hansa,Windhoek, Sibebe in Swaziland. Got 4 6-packs of tall Castles in Komatipoort for about $20. All good except for the warm Heineken on the airplane, really disgusting. Note to self: Next time drink wine.

Self-catering in Kruger: Buying frozen meat at Skukuza in the afternoon worked really well, did this twice, and by the time we got back to Lower Sabie it was nearly defrosted. Plus, the nice Indian lady next door had given us some homemade biriyani (sp?). Now Mike likes Indian food. The beef in SA is very tasty, so is the chicken although it’s chopped oddly with the back still attached. And they had these veggie packs for about $1, plenty for two people with beans, squash, new potatoes, zucchini, onions, excellent boiled with just a little water. Kruger food prices are just ridiculously cheap for us. 100 Rand is about $9. Tshokwane sandwiches for two and OJ = 65R. Dinner for two at Mugg & Bean = 300R. Bag of groceries at Skukuza including meat, charcoal, matches, vegs & some other stuff = 100R. Charcoal is a whole lot easier to use in the braai than wood.

We spent MAYBE an average of $50 a day on food and beer, lots of beer, for the two of us.

St. Lucia has a thatch curio shopping area on McKenzie street and people selling crafts near parking lots, wish I’d bought some things from them instead of the overpriced shop near the Reef & Dune restaurant in town. Never did get a carved monkey ball, a little round gourd thing.

The Memorial gate into Hluhluwe has a great curio shop right there, tons and tons of pretty things, lots of the same stuff over and over again but very inexpensive. Wish I’d stocked up there, especially with the Zulu beadwork, beautiful. Nifty wire baskets, lots and lots of little wooden and beaded wire animals and wooden bowls.

Got some beautiful Swazi things at the reception at Ndlovu, a basket & a sculpture.

Skukuza and Lower Sabie have the usual national park things at their shop, somehow not as interesting as it seemed on previous trips! Note to self: Next time do NOT skip the curio shop at Croc Bridge, nice things in there. On the outside of the gate, must shop before entering Kruger.

A curio stop in Hazyview right across from a HUGE mall, the ladies all called me Mami and immediately dropped the price of anything I picked up, all very quietly and pleasantly.

The bored young black waitress at Salt Rock, cute girl, somehow we got talking about London and how she would love to go there but it’s expensive, better find yourself a rich husband, haha. Then she blurts out, “I don’t do black guys, I’m an Oreo!” Holy Cow, never heard that outside of the US, I thought it was a terrible insult. We all cracked up.

Tessa and Else at Lodge Afrique, as nice as your favorite aunt, although we were almost the same age.

The kitchen and waitstaff at Hilltop Camp with their fabulous Zulu dance. What a blast!

Kulu, our guide at Tembe, a comedian and hambone, not exactly with A-one ranger skills. A Canadian guest asked him about scat. “Scat?!? What is that word?” Upon explanation, Kulu says “Oh, you mean poo! Scat! I learned a new word today! Scat scat, haha!”

The girls at Tembe who sing you a welcome song and the young Zulu dance troupe that performed for us one night. Like learning folk dancing at home I suppose, Kulu knew their steps at bit too.

The very quiet and very polite server girls at Ndlovu, you just wanted to whisper and smile.

The children at Kruger in the bungalows near ours. All 5-6 years old running around like baboons, 2 Indians (of Indian heritage anyway, they are South African), 1 conservative Jewish girl with long dress and head covering, 2 rough little barefoot Afrikaaner boys. All digging into some sweet stuff the Jewish girl had brought, digging in with fingers and sticks until Indian grandma gave them spoons. Wish our little granddaughter Emma was there, but she’s only 2-1/2.

All our fellow Krugerites out on the roads, pointing out good animal sightings. Except when they were all clumped up in the road vying for the tiny slot in the brush to barely see the lion/leopard.

The lady on the bridge while we were watching elephants below screaming at the idiots who had gotten out of their car and spooked the eles, “Are you $*%&^$ STUPID? Get back in your *$&%^)$ CAR!!”

The friendly guys at our last gas stop in Whiteriver, one of whom washed the car before we could stop him. “Los Angeles, is that in Europe?” “Oh that’s right, it’s in the US, you have FIFTY states?!? Must be a very big place!” “And you have one President Obama who runs it all but each state has its own leader?” Pretty much, yes.

We have learned to return the polite Good morning and how are you sir? with a big American smile We are just great and how are you? Lights people up a bit. The South Africans, black and white, seem quite serious and glum. I suppose if we’d had their recent history and current situations, we’d be glum too.

EXTRA SPECIAL ANIMALS – all in Kruger unless noted!
Leopard crossing right in front of us, just a few minutes from our exit at Phabeni gate.

Teenage ele boy crossing the road with his family who postured and shook his head at us, almost brushing our front bumper.

Three lions stalking the zebra & kudu we had just passed. Zebra & Kudu say, “We see you Mr. Lion, let’s bolt!” No breakfast today.

Ele family in the river bottom clumping up and protecting their babies when they were startled by the moron who had gotten out of his car on the bridge.

The eles in the sandy dry river bottoms digging holes with their feet to make the water seep in, slurp!

Big ele bull pushing over an entire tree to get at the top leaves, crrrrunch….

Bushpigs, they look an awful lot like warties only they are red.

Very large spider in my Tembe bathroom glass early in the morning. Must not have been in there when I had my midnight drink without looking at the glass. I hope.

At Emdoneni Cat Sanctuary, the cheetah and serval who let us pet them, and the caracal who walked around our legs.

A secretary bird!

2 honeybadgers flashing across the road for a couple of seconds’ view.

2 nice calm rhinos right next to the road, thanks for the closeup view.

Zebra with a 18” open bloody slice in his side thanks to a lion, really shows just how incredibly sharp those claws are, one slice to cut all the way through a zebra hide.

All the beautiful nyalas at Tembe.

All the hundreds and hundreds of elephants, especially in the Lower Sabie and Sand riverbottoms. Thanks for parading in front of our car so we could watch you move and eat and look at your silly babies and take lots of nice pictures.

Dozens of baboons doing their always entertaining baboon things, thousands and thousands of gorgeous impalas, lots of always cute warthogs, dozens of beautiful zebras acting like little horses, huge buffalo herds, so many giraffes we only slowed down if they were right next to the road, many lovely kudu bulls with their spectacular spiral horns.

2 cheetahs, a leopard tortoise, klipspringers, 3 hyenas walking all around our stopped cars.

Lions every day in Kruger, most quite far away. 4 leopards, saw the same one twice.

Crocs and hippos from the boat on the St. Lucia river.

The usual lovely birds, this time we saw a harrier hawk. I wish our begging birds at home were as pretty as the glossy starlings at Tshokwane, they are colored like little peacocks.

We paid cash for EVERYTHING except for checkout expenses at a couple of the lodges. Last trip, our credit card number was stolen at the Skukuza shop, so no hassles this trip.

Had a fun horseback ride in St. Lucia with Bhangazi stable, near zebras and warthogs.

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