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Trip Report Out of Silicon Valley: How we learned to stop worrying and love the Bush

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We have been back from our 3-week trip to S. Africa for about a week now. I picked up some kind of virus with a nasty cough, and have been at home trying to get better all this time. I am finally getting to my trip report, in stages. Here is the first stage, covering our flight and the 24 hours or so we spent in Johannesburg.

As we flew off into the San Francisco night, I breathed a deep sigh, marveling at how we'd managed to get my, my husband's and our two daughters' things all stuffed into our soft-sided, non-wheeled luggage just 2 days after the last day of school. I'd wrapped up all my Room Mom duties, finished putting on the early 10th-birthday party my youngest insisted on having before we left since she had to have the INSULT of having her 10th birthday in Africa of all places! We were FINALLY on the plane!

I pondered all the things that might go wrong. Could I survive a 15+ hour flight without panic attacks and claustrophobia? (I am a nervous flier whenever there is turbulance, and just the idea of being cooped up on a plane for that long made me feel panicky! I did procure some medication from my dr. just in case, but it turns out I never used it). Would my kids be bored and complaining for the whole plane ride or, worse, the entire trip? Would my extremely picky almost-10-year-old find anything she would eat for the 3 weeks we'd be in South Africa? As it turned out, my fears were mainly for naught.

We (a middle-aged Mom and Dad with two daughters, one 13 and the other about to turn 10 on our trip) were heading off for our first trip to Africa. The only place our kids had been out of the country before was Costa Rica about a year and a half ago, so taking them on this trip seemed a bit adventurous to us. However, I had decided we should take this trip to celebrate my 50th birthday. I've always wanted to go to Africa to see the animals and we even considered it for our honeymoon 16 years ago, but decided at the time it was too expensive. We’d do it some time in the future. Then life and kids and work happened, as they do, and the trip never did. In thinking about turning 50, I had the sense that this was a momentous occasion, that life is short and 50 is not that young any more. We never know how long we have on this earth and I wanted to do this now. I spent many months planning and agonizing over minutiae, with the help of many on various forums, and with the help of my great agent, Petro from &Beyond, and now the day was finally here!

We were flying on Emirates via Dubai and then on to Joburg. I'd have preferred to go via London and spend a few days there. My kids haven't been to Europe and I know they'd enjoy London - Especially my youngest, a budding Anglophile and huge Harry Potter fan. But with flying time and all the things we'd planned to do IN Africa, we'd already be gone 3 weeks - my husband couldn't take any more time off from work than that. And with the budget already stretched very thin from the Africa activities, adding more hotel nights and activity costs didn't seem wise. When we realized that flying on Emirates via Dubai saved us about $500 per ticket over almost any other airline or route, that clinched the deal.

Emirates is famous for it’s in-seat entertainment, and it was pretty sweet. We each could pick individual movies and tv to watch and there was a plethora of it. Between the first flight to Dubai and the second 8-hour flight to Joburg, my husband must have watched 7-8 movies. The kids had plenty of content they enjoyed watching as well, movies and tv. To help break up the trip, we were glad that Emirates gives you a free hotel room and meal at the hotel if you have a layover more than 8 hours. Since our layover was 9 hours, they put us on a bus to the hotel, which was only about 5 minutes away, and we were glad to have a shower and a meal that was not being eaten off a tray in tight quarters. It was a buffet and, while not gourmet, decent enough considering it was free. After a nap, we were back to the airport and on our second flight. Let’s just say from now on, a 5-hour flight to the east coast or Hawaii will be a breeze! However, I think it’s kind of like childbirth (sorry, guys) - it’s bad while it’s happening but the result makes you forget how bad it was and willing to do it again - i.e. I’m already planning my next trip to Africa!

Johannesburg: We were picked up at the airport by Ilios Travel, prearranged by my agent. They had all our vouchers for all the lodges and activities that we’d pre-paid, and after taking out some money from the ATM and picking up our pre-reserved SIM card at Vodacom, we were off to our hotel. Our driver told us interesting facts about Joburg as we drove there, pointing things out, but we were pretty much zombies and I’m not sure how much I remember. We stayed at the Protea Balalaika in Sandton. When we arrived, our guide who was going to give us a tour of Soweto was already there waiting for us (he was early). We quickly checked in, put our things in the room, and came down to meet our tour guide.

His name was Bongani from KDR Travel, and he was extremely articulate, knowledgable and interesting as a guide. I had read about him on Tripadvisor, and had requested he be our guide. He is one of the principals of the company. I was sad to hear that he plans to be less involved in doing the actual tours in the future as he is starting an additional business doing autobody repair! He implied he wasn’t making enough money doing the tour guide work alone, which I thought was a shame as it seems so worthwhile to do. However, I’m sure plenty of people also need autobody repair. He drove us through more than just Soweto, taking us into Johannesburg CBD as well, and told us all sorts of history and facts about the City and Soweto. When we drove by Nelson Mandela’s house, there was a police officer there that Bongani knew guarding the house. He stopped for a minute to say hello to him, then asked us if we’d mind giving him a ride as his shift was over! We did not mind, of course, and that was an interesting experience - probably wouldn’t happen in the U.S.! It was interesting to see how even in a big city, Bongani knew several people along the way.

We stopped and got out at the Hektor Pietersen museum. This was very moving, but it was hard with the kids who were literally asleep in the car and we had to wake them up and drag them out (their body clocks were so messed up). Also, they were freezing - even though we’d told them it would be cold, none of us were quite prepared for how cold it was inside some buildings - many buildings in Joburg don’t have heat and it was just freezing in the museum.

By far the most interesting and moving part of the whole tour was when Bongani took us to Kliptown. Kliptown is a very poor township within Soweto with which Bongani has a relationship. He is on the board of the Kliptown Youth Program, which is seeking to improve conditions for the poverty-stricken community members there. A community of 44,000, Kliptown is without running water in the homes, without schools, legal electricity or proper sanitation. The people use a giant line of porta-pottys as their bathrooms. They must line up outside at one of the spigots that provide water and gather it in buckets to bring inside to bathe and cook with. Their homes are tin lean-to type shacks. Although this way of living is so disadvantaged compared with how people live in most of the U.S., Kliptown is being enriched greatly through the Kliptown Youth Program which provides tutoring, use of computers, food for kids who may not be getting enough at home, sports and arts programs, etc.

We were given a tour by a very enthusiastic young man named Mo, 24, who heads up the tutoring programs there. He made sure to point out to our kids and us as we stepped out of the comfort of our tour van into the dusty, smoky atmosphere outside that we were welcome there, and that he was going to give us a tour not to scare us or upset us but just to show us how they live and what they are doing there to improve things for themselves. I could immediately see why he had given us that introduction, as it would be easy for the kids to feel scared when one first steps out into such an unfamiliar environment. The conditions under which the residents of Kliptown live are sobering for us coming from the First World and privilege of Silicon Valley. I can tell you my kids sure woke up when we got out to take this tour. My eyes filled with tears when Mo looked at my kids and said very sincerely that they should be grateful their parents took them on a trip like this and for every little thing they have because, as they could see, many children have very different lives. We were invited into a home and sat on a couch with the family while the mother was cooking dinner and saw the computer center where the kids are tutored after school. We also were treated to a private Gumboot Dancing performance by some of the kids! These kids were excellent, and have actually traveled around the world performing. It is ironic that they have travelled to parts of the world I have not, yet their day to day lives are so impoverished. Here is a video I took of them with my iphone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGzYaoEFhqs&feature=youtu.be

I don’t know where they get all their funding, but they did mention that they have a strong relationship with some donors from the Boston, MA area. Before we left, we bought two t-shirts commemorating their 5th year of having this program in place and this helps provide a little financial support to the program. Bongani also gave some of the money we’d paid him for the tour to Mo to contribute to the programs. I think it was an extremely worthwhile visit, and I encourage everyone to visit Kliptown when you are in Joberg. You could do it through Bongani and KDR but can also contact Kliptown directly. You can read all about them and how to contact them on their website here: http://www.kliptownyouthprogram.org.za/home They are very warm and friendly and welcoming and I really wish the community there the best of luck. It was a very emotional and interesting beginning to our trip.

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    P.S. Johannesburg addendum. I neglected to mention a little glitch that occurred when we arrived in Joburg that first day. After we’d gotten off the plane and were standing in a big line to go through customs or passport control or whatever it was called, I suddenly realized I didn’t have one of my carry-on items: my CPAP machine. In case you’re fortunate enough not to know, this is a thing with a mask you wear at night if you have sleep apnea - you have to plug it in to an outlet and it forces air into your airway so you don’t stop breathing or snore! By the time we got through passport control and were able to ask some folks from the airline about it, they found out the plane had been cleaned and had left for another gate and was flying out again in a few hours! They said they’d try to find my item (and trying to explain what it was was not easy). They gave me a number to call and I gave them the name of my hotel. I was worried.

    When we got back from our tour of Soweto and Kliptown, though, we had a message the airline had called and they had my CPAP! I didn’t want to go get it that night and I knew we’d be back at the airport the next morning to go to Londolozi, but not to the same area so I asked the hotel did they have anyone going to the airport to pick anyone up that might be able to get my machine? Luckily, they did and they picked it up for me. That was the good news. The bad news? The damn thing never worked the entire trip. Yup. I dragged this heavy thing around on tiny planes and big planes and in landcruisers up and down hills for no reason! At each lodge we tried with our converter/adaptor thing (which worked with any other American plugged device) and it wouldn’t work. Some of the lodges told us other people had been able to use CPAPs there, others said that people had had problems. When we got home .... it wouldn’t work either! I thought maybe the airline had tried taking it apart thinking it was a bomb or something and put it back together wrong? Well I took it to the CPAP dealer and the plug and big black square power thing were dead. So who knows if it was just coincidence as to when it died, or if the airline dropped it, no clue. I had debated not bringing the darn thing and I wish I had just left it at home!

    LONDOLOZI

    After a pretty good night’s sleep, We were picked up from our hotel and dropped off at the Federal Air portion of OR Tambo Airport. We’ve never flown on a plane quite like this - where it’s not part of the main airport terminal. We were flying on a little plane that only held 19 people. I was pretty nervous about the small plane as I thought it would be bumpy and bumpiness scares me. I enjoyed the time in the Fed Air lounge - met a few very interesting people, one in particular who had gone to my college but years before me and was just a fascinating person. The flight turned out to be not so scary as I anticipated. It was loud, but I had my noise-canceling headphones and listened to my ipod. It was interesting looking out the windows and seeing the landscape change. It was bumpy at the beginning and end as we were starting to descend, but other than that it wasn’t so bad, and it didn’t take too long, only about an hour.

    When we landed, our guide/ranger (the words seem to be used interchangeably) Alfie was at the airstrip to pick us up. In the five-minute ride from the airstrip to the camp, we saw animals, including a large water monitor lizard. We were greeted by two women, camp managers Georgia and Kerry. They were both very sweet and lovely and willing to try to do anything we needed or asked for. We were greeted with champagne for the adults and juice for the kids in the main dining area, which was lovely. After learning how the schedule would work, we were taken to our rooms, which were a short walk from the main lodge and were two interleading identical rooms. The rooms were spacious and had everything one could need, including a minibar with soft drinks, waters, juices and alcohol, all included in the price of the room. I must say, we don’t drink much alcohol and we felt we were constantly being plied with it in S. Africa! I don’t know if most people drink a lot more than us, but we left a lot of alcohol on the table so to speak (or in the fridge or what have you!)

    We went to lunch and were able to go on a game drive that afternoon with Alfie and our tracker Bennett. We had the vehicle to ourselves for the entire time we were there, though we hadn’t requested it or paid extra for it - but it was nice. We saw lots of herbivores on our first drive, lots of general game, including warthogs with a baby, which became one of my favorite sites. The warthogs are just so cute, even the adults, especially when they run! We did not see any big cats on that drive, but it was fine as everything was new to us and we were very happy to see the giraffe, zebra, impala, etc. that we saw.

    Our impressions about our guide, Alfie, was that he was extremely knowledgable about everything - animals, plants, the history of particular animals that frequent Londolozi (i.e. each leopard and who it had mated with and what cubs it had had, and which were still alive, etc. etc.!) and he sometimes volunteered that knowledge and other times, we felt we had to ask questions to draw him out. He worked a lot with his tracker, Bennett - I think they had been a team for a long time. Since both of their first language was Shangaan, they would talk to each other sometimes about what they were looking at and where we were going next, and Alfie didn’t always volunteer to us what the plan was. But they worked hard and found us a lot of good sightings, so we were happy with the results overall.

    Sleeping at Londolozi was interesting in that we heard a lot of animal sounds outside! We actually heard lion roar every night/early morning - which was pretty scary since we didn’t know how close or far they were. They sounded very close but apparently they were not as close as they sounded! Also ... there were lots and lots of vervet monkeys! However, we found this part of the fun of being on safari, and kind of missed the animal sounds when we didn’t hear them much at night at the other lodges.

    I was excited to find that my kids got up easily and excited to go on game drive even though they were being woken at 5:30 a.m.! My younger daughter had expressed reservations about going at all on this trip - wouldn’t like the food, didn’t want to be away on her birthday, loves animals but only if she can pet them, etc. etc.! Well I think it was on day 2 at Londolozi, our first full day, that she announced “You know, I’ve always wanted to go on an African Safari!” Oh, really? At some point in the next few days, she also announced that we should go on safari every year to celebrate our birthdays!

    On Day 2, we saw a juvenile hyena guarding a den that Alfie knew had 2 pups, but we never got to see the pups. (I had told all our guides I love baby animals and would enjoy seeing them when possible. There were supposed to be some lion cubs around but Alfie told us one had been killed just 2 days before we arrived by a male lion, and the lioness had taken her remaining 4 cubs and left Londolozi - I think she went over to Mala Mala. So, sadly, we never saw her and the remaining cubs). While watching the juvenile hyena, we were alerted over the radio that there was an interesting scene going on elsewhere which we raced over to see: a leopard (the Marthly Male) was up a tree with a baby impala kill. When we arrived, we found quite a scene: the leopard eating the impala, a hyena waiting under the tree for any morsels that might slip, a female leopard lying down a little ways away also waiting for a share, and a young warthog that was sort of frozen in place - we think it was unsure if the female leopard might go after it, though Alfie said it wouldn’t, that the warthog was too big for her alone, but it felt trapped. After we arrived it kind of made a few movements and then skittered away. We then spent a long time watching the scene of the leopard eating its kill, sometimes dropping bits which the hyena happily made off with. We never saw the female leopard get any. It was fascinating to watch, though - and we were surprised by the crunching sound of the bones!

    That day we also saw a large male rhino (white) walk over from the Mala Mala side to the Londolozi side of the road and mark his territory with scratching the ground and spraying urine. We also saw hippos and crocs, which we enjoyed and various birds and game.We also saw elephants, more water monitor lizards, Cape Buffalo, yellow-billed hornbill, Nyala, Bushback, another male leopard scent-marking and walking about 5 feet away from where I sat in the vehicle! We also drove at night looking for nocturnal animals and spent some time looking at the stars - we realized we’d never seen the Southern Hemisphere sky and Alfie was also knowledgable about the stars and the constellations. While my husband was talking to Alfie about the stars, I was talking to Bennett, our tracker, about how his father had been a tracker and his grandfather had as well. Bennett had several children, and thought one of them might be interested in carrying on the tradition.

    That second night was our daughter’s actual birthday and our travel agent had told the lodges about when our birthdays were. It turned out my daughter and husband were having their birthdays while we were in Africa, while mine would be after we returned. We normally had dinner in the boma, which was lovely, and this night the staff brought out a cake for our daughter and sang happy birthday to her, then proceeded to sing and dance beautifully, and ended up enticing my daughter and some other kids there to come dance with them. It was a very special celebration, which I’m sure she’ll never forget - she had a grin ear to ear - and I know I’ll never forget it!
    I should also mention the Londolozi Cubs program. I wasn’t sure what exactly it was - I knew they did something there to entertain and engage kids between game drives. It turned out they had a fun young woman named Cinzia that both my girls liked a lot. There was a family with 2 boys there before we arrived and they overlapped with us for a day, and then they left and a family with 2 girls arrived and also overlapped with us for a day, so my kids did (optional) activities with Cinzia and each of those other sets of kids on different days. I didn’t know that my older one (13) would want to but she enjoyed going along as a sort of helper-big-kid. Londolozi, along with the other two lodges we went to, gave the kids little backpacks or knapsacks with various goodies in it and my older one always wanted one too :) One day they went on a picnic with one of the rangers in between drives and that was instead of lunch for them. They climbed trees and played soccer and did other fun things. My kids really liked this aspect of Londolozi and my younger one wants to write email to Cinzia. They even got onto Londolozi’s blog with their picnic!

    The third day, we tried to track lion on the north side of the river, which was more wild. We didn’t find them (well, eventually Bennett did but they were in an area inaccessible to our vehicle) but we had fun crossing the river and going on really bumpy off-roading and looking for them! On the way back, we were surprised with a breakfast in the bush that they staff had set up for us, cooking eggs and all out there! The managers of the camp came along for the breakfast as well. It was such a nice, small intimate setting there at Varty Camp, and they treated us more like family than guests. That afternoon, we had what I wrote in my journal was an A+ drive. We saw hippos mating in the water, a large pod of hippos running full speed into the water, almost trampling on a croc who’d been sunning himself on the bank (he kind of arched his back and quickly slid into the water and out of their path); a hunting pair of eagles (not sure what kind of eagles) a young kudu nursing; and lion, finally, our first ones of the trip. It was a male with 4 lionesses, all resting when a large male kudu came into view. The lions looked to have eaten recently, but they seemed to decide to take the opportunity. First one, then another, then eventually all 4 females got up and started stalking it, splitting up with 2 going one way and 2 the other to surround it. However, it started to run and seems it got away. That was a very interesting sighting for us. Also, we came upon was a large breeding herd of elephants with about 4 babies. We got right up close to them and they were eating leaves. They moved closer to us to get more leaves and, eventually, surrounded us! It was very cool to be in the middle of a big herd of elephants who were just munching on their leaves and not minding us.

    On our last morning, we tried to follow tracks of a male leopard and we went deep into some thickets, way off road - we were running over small trees and bushes - the kids loved it! I hadn’t realized quite how much off-roading and bumping and flinging ourselves from side to side of the vehicle there might be on safari, but we quite enjoyed it! We finally did find the leopard and followed him for a while through the bush - very exciting! We were sad to leave Londolozi. The staff were all very warm and friendly, the food was delicious (and they did make pasta and various other things for my daughter that she’d eat). Hugs were exchanged all around as we left for our next destination.

    As a reward for reading this far, here are some photos we took at Londolozi: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28672638@N05/sets/72157630380406526/with/7483909436/

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    Great report and pictures! You really had some great sightings. What did the girls make of the leopard eating the impala in the tree? Was it interesting to them or gross?

    I was glad to read good things about Emirates airline, I'm getting ready to book with them for the first time. I didn't know the bit about getting put up in a hotel if the layover was a certain length - will have to check into that.

    Looking forward to your next installment!

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    Leslie, the girls found the leopard eating the impala interesting! We had watched some videos before leaving showing preadators chasing and catching prey and some eating prey so it wasn't entirely unfamiliar. Though I have to say it is different in person than on a video - I'm sure any of you who've visited Africa have had that experience that seeing any of these beautiful animals in person is quite different than on video - it just takes your breath away to be so close to them in their natural environment - in a good way!

    atravelynn, you said on to Londolozi - for me, I posted that part above so now it's on to Phinda - i.e. I must write that part and then I will post!

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    Thanks for your detailed report Jane!

    Am looking at flying Emirates from Seattle in 2013 so information on the airline and Dubai stopover were very helpful.

    Boy you're all really bundled up in those photos! Will be next door at MalaMala around the same time next June so may have to re-think my wardrobe. Knew it was going to be chilly just not freezing.

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    Thank you for the wonderful, informative report. We are staying next to Londolozi, so I particularly, loved your photos.

    I greatly appreciate your tips on the JB guide. We will be there for 2 days and are going to Soweto, Apartheid museum and other spots. i will ask my agent if it is possible to reserve this guide. I found a guide/ poltical historian in Cape town but have not found one yet in JB.
    I definitely want my son to see Kliptown.

    What lodge did you stay in at Londolozi? And how did you choose that over Kirkman since it is &Beyond?

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    KathBC - yes, Emirates worked out very well for us. You just need to request the free hotel & meal before you go - I think I called them about it to make sure way before the flight. Then when you check in for your flight in Seattle, make sure to request the vouchers and they'll give them to you with your boarding pass. It's all very well organized in Dubai - the hotel might even be owned or run by Emirates, they have it down to a science - they told us what time we'd need to be back downstairs for the bus back to the airport and told us what time they'd be giving us a wake up call, and then did so. By the way, I was worried about dressing modestly in Dubai - even for our short layover, I did not want to be disrespectful - it was very hot there and my kids normally wear short shorts and sleeveless shirts all year round, even my 13-yr-old who I thought shouldn't there - the flight attendant I asked on Emirates said wear whatever you want, so for what it's worth, I pass that on.

    Yes it was really really cold in the mornings at Londolozi! It had been very cold in Joburg then too, so maybe it was a colder snap than usual. I heard tales of snow both in Joburg and Cape Town during the month we were there! I agonized over what clothes to bring. One of my guides confirmed color doesn't matter in the car but if on a walking safari, then yes wear traditional safari colors. I wore sometimes a long underwear top, fleece and jacket on top plus, as you can see from photos, hat, scarf, gloves. The face and neck and head seemed to get really cold as you drive along. By midday though, it would often warm up nicely so layers are the key! I would often start the afternoon drive with shorts or capris! For some reason, the one thing none of us ever wore was our convertible pants! In the morning, they just didn't seem warm enough - they seem more designed for tropics (we wore them in Costa Rica) or maybe Africa in summer.

    mtonio, do try to get KDR Travel/Bongoni if you can - I hope he's still doing tours himself then. But if not, try to see Kliptown anyway. We stayed at Varty Camp at Londo. My agent did offer &Beyond camps but was also able to book non-&Beyond camps and I just got this great feeling about Londolozi and wanted to go there. When I first booked, the other two places I booked were &Beyond camps (Phinda and Kwandwe) though before our travel, Kwandwe ended up going independent. I think it was Kirkmans that had animal heads hanging on the walls in the photos? Being a vegetarian and anti-hunting (as I'm sure most of you are - anti-hunting that is) I did not want to stay at a place with the animal heads on the walls. I know it is the history of most of the lodges that hunting took place - even at Londolozi - but I don't want to surround myself with reminders of that, if that makes sense. Working on the next part of my report now!

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    I went on KDR site, then link to Soweto tours & saw Bongoni listed as a guide. I'll check tomorrow.
    Originally we were booked at Phinda but are now doing mala mala & a safari accessible from Victoria Falls. I hear it is beautiful.
    Not a hunter either. Was there good vegetarian fare?

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    Ok going to post the next part of my report in two parts as it's longer than I realized. But yes, the vegetarian food that I was provided in all the lodges was delicious!

    PHINDA

    Alfie drove us back to the Londolozi airstrip and we got on an even smaller plane to go to Phinda! This one was only an 8-seater, and we were the first 4 passengers to get on. The front 4 seats were 2 facing backwards and 2 facing forwards, so our family could all sit facing each other. We took a 5-minute flight over to another lodge, Exeter River Lodge, where we picked up 2 couples. I was glad we had the seats we did, as the others were smaller and farther back. I felt sorry for the men as they really had to hunch down to walk back to their seats! Again, I was nervous about how the flight would be for me but it was less scary than I expected and again, not long, only about an hour. When we arrived it was drizzly, which I hadn’t expected! I somehow hadn’t registered that it could be rainy there at that time of year, I was only prepared for rain in Cape Town at the end of our trip. But it wasn’t too bad. We were picked up by our ranger Paul, an attractive young man from Zimbabwe. He was funny, always ready with a joke or quip, but also very knowledgable about everything, all the animals, plants etc. I was constantly amazed by how much these rangers and trackers knew about everything - there was almost nothing you could ask them that they didn’t know!

    Paul told us we’d have another couple driving with us while we were at Phinda. At first we were a little bummed, as we’d grown used to having our own space and doing whatever we wanted to do, essentially. Also, I was worried our kids would annoy the couple. The kids, having seen pretty much “everything” at Londolozi, were now sophisticated safari-goers after 3 days, ha ha (said sarcastically) so they were not quite as excited over every sighting as they originally had been. It took more to ‘wow’ them. And there are sometimes long periods without seeing much new. The kids took to playing make believe games on the drives when they were bored, which was ok so long as they didn’t get too loud so as to distract or annoy the rest of us! Then we decided to let them bring their kindles - this worked great so long as it was light and not raining and they didn’t run out of books - for several days they each read in between sightings and were nice and quiet. The older one also brought her ipod to listen to music. As it turned out, the other couple were sweethearts and we really enjoyed their company. They were from Durban, and try to visit Phinda once a year or so, as it’s only a few hours drive from their home, and it was interesting to have some other adults in the vehicle to talk to as well as the guide and tracker. We exchanged email and facebook information with each other and plan to keep in touch.

    Our impressions of Phinda (we stayed at the Mountain Lodge) the Lodge itself were less favorable than of Londolozi, though we still had a great safari experience. We just felt the lodge was too big and impersonal after Londolozi’s wonderful intimacy. The manager who met us was nice and we met many nice staff, but there were so many of them and we didn’t always know who to ask what. There was a ‘child-minder’ there too but as far as we could tell, no planned activities as there had been at Londolozi with their Cubs programme. This woman was very sweet and smiley, and she gave our younger one a little welcome bag of goodies, which older sister then requested also. She would always come over and say hi to us when we came back from game drives or at meals, but that was the extent of the interaction. If there was anything more that she had to offer, we never heard about it. We also didn’t enjoy the food as much at Phinda as we had at Londolozi. It was ok, but seemed more fussy and fancy, and we preferred the slightly more down-home food at Londolozi. There was a chef who came out to tell us the menu each night, who seemed kind of snooty to us, though by the end of our stay he seemed less so. At Londolozi, a woman chef came out to tell us the menu too but she just seemed very folksy and like a home cook. We also were kind of bummed that we had the rooms that were the farthest from the main lodge. We had debated about having rooms that connected via a balcony as we were nervous to have the kids in a whole separate chalet from us, but we’d been told those rooms were smaller, didn’t have a nice view, etc. So before arriving, we switched to having two separate rooms with the nicer view. We weren’t sure if we’d put one adult in each room with one child, but by the time we got there, we decided we felt comfortable having the kids in their own room. So long as the phones worked, we figured they could call us with any problem and we could get a guard to walk one of us over - the rooms were close to each other and they are old enough that I didn’t worry one of them would go out without a guard since it had been emphasized one could not do this after dark. It worked out just fine, and the rooms there were really lovely with a gorgeous view. Same mini-bar with free drinks, as well as some candy the kids enjoyed!

    Each room had a private plunge pool though we didn’t actually use them, we did lay out on the chairs next to the pool and enjoy the view. This was the warmest of the three safari lodges we visited, and I actually did go in the large pool with the kids one day - it was pretty cold but it was still fun. One day we had an interesting surprise. We’d been warned to make sure we kept the sliding doors closed and locked when we were out to keep out the vervet monkeys. However, my husband had not realized that they could get in through some little windows that had no screens and had left one of those open while we were in the room. He was outside lying by the plunge pool and I’d just gotten out of a shower when all of a sudden I saw movement to my right - I whipped my head around to see a large vervet monkey running through the room! I shrieked with surprise and my husband jumped up saying “what?!” I explained, and he ran in just in time to see the little critter running back out the window through which he must have come. We did not notice anything missing, so I think he (she) didn’t manage to escape with anything of ours. We didn’t see as many of them at Phinda as we did at Londolozi, but this was certainly the closest encounter we had with one!

    On our first afternoon drive, we went to see some lion that Paul thought would still be at the site of a kill he’d seen them at the day before, and sure enough they were still there. It was interesting because Phinda is a fenced in reserve and the lion pride had apparently killed not one but 2 wildebeest after cornering them at one of the fences. They may have gotten an electric shock first and then the lions killed them, no one seemed sure. In any case, there was a group of several lions that were lazy and sleeping kind of spread out on an embankment just adjacent to the fence. We were able to drive along the track next to the fence and hang out very close to them. We saw the carcasses of the two different wildebeest still there, and then one young male lion got up and started eating from one of the kills. After a while he stopped and started lazily walking and we thought he would lie down again, but he went to the other kill and started trying to eat that one as well. It seemed like it was hard for him to ‘get into it’ or else he was just playing with it, practicing his pouncing skills, as he amused us for a while by eating a bit, then jumping on it and tumbling over the other side of it! It was kind of macabre but also amusing. We tried taking pictures but they didn’t come out that well as it was shadowy where he was. At night we briefly saw a genet.

    The next morning we went out and found a large herd of elephants feeding on leaves and moving around in the red dirt there. Some of the adults were taking the red earth and putting it onto their backs with their trunks. There was a nursing baby and also something unusual that even our guide, Paul, said he’d never seen before. There was a large, probably juvenile, elephant that was also trying to nurse, but it was so tall that it had to drop onto it’s ‘knees’ to do so! We figured it was probably an older child of the nursing mother and had been pushed out by the younger baby. We also saw a mother warthog with 4 babies at the airstrip.

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    PHINDA, Continued

    On the next game drive, I didn’t write down too much of note - I think I stopped writing when we saw general game as I sort of took it for granted that we would. We did see a mama zebra with a baby and also two crocodiles back to back.

    On our fourth ‘game drive’ which would have been the morning of June 16, my husband’s birthday. Paul had asked if at some point we’d like to do something different, a riverboat ride instead of a game drive, and my husband was up for that so we decided to do it that morning. The boat was going on a catchment area/river that had been dry recently so they hadn’t been doing the boat trips, but now there was water so we were able to go out. When we got to the river and stopped the car, an old canoe was at the entrance to the river. Paul says “Oh I forgot to mention, this boat has no motor.” I said “Whaaaat?” He was hysteridal laughing - one of his little jokes - no, we weren’t going on a canoe! The riverboat was a very enjoyable outing. It was just us and our fellow guests with Paul, our tracker Sifiso, and with one fellow who ran the boat. It was nice to take a break from the bone-jarring Landcruiser rides and do something a little different. We don’t know a whole lot about birds, but we saw a lot of them on the boat ride - I didn’t write down what they all were, but I will just list a few for those who are interested:

    Southern Banded Eagle (Paul says they are rarely seen, even at Phinda)
    Narina Trogan (also rare I know - just had a glimpse)
    Malachite Kingfisher
    African finfoot

    We also saw several large crocodile, a big pod of hippo out of the water including babies, large and small water monitors and the coolest thing, a baby Crocodile - less than one foot long - so cute! I have a picture of it in my set of Phinda photos.

    That afternoon we were back to driving, and saw yet another banded eagle as well as a Marshall Eagle. Also, another mama warthog and babies - I always throw them in when seen! We had decided to head to the sand forest area because I thought it sounded interesting to see. We had debated about maybe staying in the sand forest for a couple of nights as the little glass houses look so pretty and I’d wanted to see the little deer that walk around there under the houses. So instead, we decided to take a drive up there. It takes a good hour or so to get there from Mountain, but it was worthwhile. We never did go to where the Phinda housing there is and I didn’t get to see the little Suni antelope. I never made it clear to Paul though that I was expecting to go see that area, and thought we might see the Suni antelope elsewhere but, alas, it was not to be. We did, however, have one of the best sightings of the whole trip there.

    We knew that a mother cheetah and her cubs had been seen somewhere in this area that morning, but we weren’t sure exactly where. Then Paul saw some Landcruiser tracks so we decided to follow them into a big open field of tall grass and there was the mama with three cubs. I don’t know why but this was just the most magical moment for me. We were the only ones there with them for probably 10 or 15 minutes, though Paul did radio in the sighting after we had a few minutes alone with them, so others could come and share it. The Mom was just very relaxed with the cubs and they were all playing - there was one that was the strongest and most playful with the Mom, and the others were a little more hesitant. Then Paul explained that there had been 4 cubs but one had been killed in an attack by 2 male cheetah. As the babies started to move, we realized that the other three were injured too in varying degrees. The strongest one only on his ear, it seemed, and the other two had limps, one worse than the other, on opposite legs. Still, they played and cavorted in the beautiful late afternoon light and it was a beautiful sight to see. The Mom saw some possible prey and took a little run towards it, but then decided to stop. Paul thought she may have been mindful of the cubs’ injuries and worried to leave them. We took some video and I will upload that and post a link.

    We saw Phinda posted on Facebook some photos of a mother cheetah and cubs after we got home and I commented on the page that I wondered if it were the ones we’d seen when we were there. Someone (Paul maybe) posted that no, the ones we saw had unfortunately all been killed by the North pride and the 2 male cheetah in the north. I have to say, my husband and I were really struck by how sad we felt to hear that, and didn’t have the heart to tell the kids. Nature is so cruel, but I’m so glad we had that time to spend with them, it was really special. I wrote down Genet - I think we breifly saw one that night on the way back.

    The next day was an exciting drive. We were trying to find lions, and we’d heard there was a buffalo carcass and were driving around looking for it, thinking we might find lion there. We never actually found the carcass but we found tons of vultures in trees so we were nearby for sure - they were interesting to see. As we were driving around looking for the carcass, we got stuck in a gulley - that was also fun! We called another vehicle in the area to come help us, and my husband and the other male guest tried pushing the car out along with Sifiso, our tracker - you’ll see a picture in my set of that! As the other car was on its way to come help us, Sifiso decided to take a try - he turned the knob, engaging the lock on teh 4WD on the front right wheel and voila, we were out! It was pretty funny when the other vehicle arrived to help us right after, only to find we were already out - “Oh, come on!” the female guide from the other vehicle exclaimed! On that drive we also saw a junior Battleur Eagle, and other birds, including stork, heron, etc.

    After this, we’d arranged to go on a special trip Phinda offers which is a visit to a Zulu village. We were driven by Pila, a Phinda employee who is also from this community. It was very interesting to be taken by Pila, as he gave us some information before we arrived on Zulus and how to greet the Zulu villagers when we arrived. We learned how to say hello, what to say in response if they said hello first, and the proper handshakes for regular Zulu and for someone to whom we were showing respect because they were older. The Zulu villagers we met seemed impressed that we knew this! When we were first walking in to the village, we noticed some livestock and Pila told us a rather horrifying story. He said that some years back they were having a problem in their community that someone was stealing cattle. They asked the police but they weren’t doing anything. Finally, Pila said the community determined who was doing the stealing and burned the men alive. This was only 18 years ago!! I was kind of shocked, and he told us this rather matter-of-factly. It was fascinating to see how someone like Pila could live in two worlds, the modern world of working at Phinda, and the more traditional world of his Zulu people.

    We met with the “grandmother” of the village, and she spoke no English but Pila translated everything she said for us, and translated our questions and comments back to her. She brought us into the ceremonial hut, where she showed us various cooking utensils and described how they used them. She also chose my younger daughter and dressed her up in some clothing and beads that a young virgin would wear. Zulu men can have more than one wife and as she was dressing my daughter up, Pila explained that she was saying if a virgin sees a man and wants to be his second wife she can give him one of her two necklaces, and that would be her indication that she likes him and would marry him. He explained he’d have to give cows to her father in order to seal the deal. He told my husband he’s give him 12 cows for our daughter. My husband asked is that typical? Pila said yes it was about average. My husband said “fine, then I want 13”! This whole part of the trip was very interesting.

    We also visited a Sangoma, or traditional healer, at the village. He did a dancing and singing performance for us, in which he supposedly was talking to his ancestors and in a sort of trance. It was interesting though some of us felt it went on a bit too long. We were told he could also tell our fortune if we had any questions we wanted to ask. Pila told us that they used to include that standard in all the tours, but some guests complained as they didn’t like the fortune they got! We all decided not to have our fortune told!

    Pila also told us about how Phinda had helped the community there by helping build a medical clinic with nurses and a doctor who came several times a week. They also helped build some schools there, and had agreed when they took over the land that 2/3 of the employees at Phinda would come from the local community. The community also continues to own the land and Phinda leases it from them, holding a 99-year lease. In exchange, of course the local community had to give up hunting on the land, etc. It seems to be working out fairly well from what we could see. All in all, a very interesting and worthwhile trip.

    On our last drive at Phinda, we saw the only snake of the trip, a rock python. Though we did at one point come across a green snake-like object in the road which Paul tried to convince us was a snake, but it was only a hose! The last drive was very special because then we came across a wonderful sighting, the other thing Phinda is known for besides cheetah: black rhino. According to Paul, they tend to be very skittish and usually if you see them, you only see them for a quick sight and they disappear. However, for whatever reason, this pair of rhino was not worried about us, and we got to spend quite a long time with them. We got to watch them walking together and saw they were walking down to a watering hole, so we were able to follow and then watch them drink from the other side of the water. Paul was very excited about this, as he had never seen black rhino drinking - he said it normally happens only at night! We also got some video of the rhino, as well as pictures, and I’ll post that as well.

    We had never found the mother lion and older cubs/juvelines we’d been looking for the whole trip, which was a little disappointing. The next morning, when Pila began driving us to the Durban airport, we had only been driving 5 minutes and were still on Phinda property when who do we see but the mother and the 3 cubs literally crossing the road right in front of us! The cubs even sat down and posed on the other side for photos! That was really lucky and a great way to end our stay at Phinda!

    Here is a link to photos from Phinda: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28672638@N05/sets/72157630398591802/

    And here's a video of the mother cheetah and cubs http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLBx2_mqt1I&feature=youtu.be

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    Very nice! And fun pictures, too. I hope the girls had enough books on their kindles. Funny how fast it gets to be old hat - people's attention spans these days are not what they once were.
    We were nearly pooping our pants when we saw our first impala - such a thrill! - and then after the hundredth one that first day, meh, not so much.

    Your village visit sounds interesting. I think I would've had to hear my fortune, though!

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    Interesting sleeping is always good in addition to the day time activities. Sad about the cubs. Nature is not always nurturing.

    Nice place for a birthday! Looking forward to the photos.

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    Thanks, so glad you're enjoying it roadwarrior, Leslie, atravelynn and sf7307. atravelynn I always love reading your trip reports- they always make me want to go to the place you describe.

    sf7307, I'll try to explain the terms but someone who has more experience than me can definitely feel free to jump in and explain better! Londolozi and Phinda are what are called private Game Reserves, I'd say. They are basically privately owned and managed land which have boundaries and have their own places to sleep for guests and serve meals and have their own ranger/guides that drive the guests to look for animals. In the case of Londolozi, it is in the Sabi Sand area, a privately owned piece of land that is divided up into smaller parts. It is adjacent to the famous Kruger National Park. You can only go on the land of the Sabi Sand reserves if you are staying there, whereas anyone can drive onto the land at Kruger. Londolozi is not fenced, so animals can wander at will between Kruger, Londolozi and the other adjacent reserves. Phinda is in a different area, the Kwazulu Natal, and is fenced, so their animals stay on their reserve. It had been farm land for many years, and Phinda made an agreement with the locals to restore the land to be used for animals, as I described.

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    Jane,your trip report is fabulous! We leave for ours in a little over 3 weeks. It will be our 4th trip (after their 1st trip our kids never wanted to go anywhere else!) but our first time at Phinda. So that was great to hear about.

    I have a minor question. Since we are starting our "packing phase" was the "soft sided no wheeled" luggage really required? We have received the same instructions and we are definitely packing light but there will be 7 of us and although most of us are just using duffle bags I was wondering if small soft sided luggage with wheels would be allowed?

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    agswimmer: I don't know the answer to that. Some of the planes are very small and their "hold" area tiny so what I heard (just anecdotally from forums) was if you bring something with wheels, there's no guarantee that it won't get damaged. Having seen the planes, I can believe that it could get damaged being squashed. To be honest, I didn't pay attention to what any other people brought but we went with the no wheels - though my husband's bag was larger than what was suggested. Maybe ask the airline you'll be flying on - is it Federal? Where will you be taking the plane into Phinda from?

    The nice thing is that we really didn't have to carry the luggage without wheels ourselves much, i.e. there were always free luggage carts or someone who was carrying it for us it seemed. Just when we later went to Jeffreys Bay, we had to schlep them up stairs ourselves but that would have been true even with wheels!

    I will be working on more of the trip report this week - next up is Kwandwe!

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    Jane, we're not flying directly INTO Phinda. We're flying from Cape Town to Durban and unforunately ground transport from there. When we leave Phinda we'll fly directly from Phinda into the Singita air strip. I have a feeling that will be a pretty small plane. I think you're right about the non-wheeled luggage. We probably won't have to carry it much.

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    agswimmer, so that last flight into the Singita air strip will likely be the small plane on which you will have your luggage squished into the small hold, yes.

    Ok, here's the last safari installment of the trip report, though after that I'll continue with the last two stops of our trip, Jeffreys Bay and Cape Town.

    KWANDWE

    Getting to Kwandwe was a long travel day. First, we were driven 3 hours to the Durban airport, but the drive was perfectly pleasant. Next, we took a 1-hour or so flight to Port Elizabeth. Last, we picked up a rental car at the Durban airport and drove ourselves to Kwandwe, about an hour and forty-five minute drive. Unfortunately, it was raining when we arrived at Port Elizabeth, so my husband had to drive on the “wrong” side of the road (for us) and shifting with his left hand (we’re used to using the right hand to shift) in the rain! He did very well though, and we reached Kwandwe without incident. I was personally very nervous about the whole driving part since I had been in a car in Jamacia (where they also drive on the left) almost 30 years ago and my aunt, who was driving, got into the wrong lane and was killed in a head-on crash. Ever since then, I’ve been a nervous car passenger in general and, as you can imagine, driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road brings up bad memories and fears for me. I’m glad to say that nothing bad happened for us on this trip, though we did have a few close calls driving in Cape Town.

    When we drove onto Kwandwe’s grounds, we started seeing wildlife, and it was kind of cool to for once be driving ourselves while the wildlife appeared. A big baboon bounded across the road, for instance, and we saw various game as we drove towards reception. Upon arrival, it was about 4 p.m. and getting dark, but we met our ranger, Ryan, who asked if we’d like to go on a bit of a game drive before settling in to our rooms. We said yes, we would, as we felt the whole day had been travel. Ryan was an absolute delight. he was definitely the kids’ favorite ranger and I heartily recommend anyone who visits Kwandwe to request him - especially if you have kids, but even if you don’t! He has endless energy and enthusiasm, is always seemingly in a good mood, and of course knows everything about the animals and plant life as well. He came up with all sorts of fun and inventive games and ideas to keep the kids interested and engaged, and was constantly full of positivity. What a joy to be with.

    Some of the fun things Ryan and Andy did with us and the kids:

    -- got them - and my husband - to try impala dung-spitting (apparently a popular activity in this part of the world!)

    -- Binocular game: look down at ground through wrong end of binocs while trying to walk a straight line - harder than it sounds - I tried this one too!

    -- try to pull a small tablecloth out from under a tin teapot

    -- gave the kids driving lessons on the Landcruiser!!!

    -- let the kids try sitting in the tracker seat

    -- taught older daughter to open a champagne bottle with a knife by cutting the top right off!

    -- offered them candy if they spotted things before he did

    He always had something up his sleeve!

    On our first little 1-hour drive, we saw quite a lot. Here’s the list I made from that drive:

    Oryx
    white-tailed gnu (also called black wildebeest)
    Ostrich!
    Baboon
    a Cheetah and cubs
    waterbuck
    crowned lapwing
    spotted eagle owl

    This was pretty great as many of these animals we hadn’t even seen on the whole trip. We all especially loved the black wildebeest. These are the ones with blond tails. We had only seen the other kind, that are all dark including the manes and tails. Ryan explained to us that each reserve is only supposed to ahve one or the other because they had been interbreeding and it was decided to try to keep each breed pure. Though I don’t know how that would work in Kruger where the wildlife isn’t ‘managed’ in that way. It was very cool to see wild ostrich as well, and the oryx’ markings were beautiful.

    When we were dropped off at our lodge, which was Kwandwe Ecca, as it was getting dark, we were really wowed by how lovely, elegant and comfortable it was. There was a great lounge with comfy couches and a fire, and everything was very modern design but totally comfortable. We happen to be partial to modern, mimimalist design, so it was very much our taste. We met the manager, Bongi, who was the first black manager of a lodge that we met, and it made me happy to see a black female manager. She was very nice and helpful as well. Our butler was Cindy, and she was very nice as well. It was interesting, this was the only lodge where our butler showed us to our room and showed us how everything worked in there. The rooms were HUGE and lovely, with fabulous views. The only design element we weren’t mad about was a sort of cracked mirror design against one wall by the bathtub, it looked kind of dated, but I am not going to quibble about one tiny thing. There are a few pictures of the room in my photo set so you can see it there.

    The dining room was small and intimate - there were only I think 6 rooms at Ecca. In fact, the first two nights we had the place to ourselves, so it was VERY quiet and intimate! The food was very good and we always felt the service was excellent. They had a coffee machine that seemed to use those pods, but for some reason the coffee was absolutely delicious to me.

    The next day, we again saw many creatures we hadn’t seen before. Again, here is my list, and I hope I’m spelling things correctly, but I apologize if not:

    Kori bustard
    Common Fiscal (Shrike)*
    Bokmakierie
    Steenbok
    Courser bird
    Helmeted Guineafowl
    Southern Black Korhaan
    Skull of a Gnu (white-tailed wildebeest)
    Red Hartebeest
    Goshawk
    Red-necked Franklin (spurfowl)
    Ostrich
    Oryx
    Porcupine skull and quills
    bones and feathers from an ostrich kill that Ryan had seen happen
    Hornbill

    *the interesting thing about this bird was that it should have had a black head but instead, it was white. Ryan hadn’t seen one like that before.

    Next Drive:

    meerkat (!! That was cool, didn’t expect to see them!)
    Mongoose (also very cool - they were so cute and playful with each other)
    Eland
    Two big bull Elephants - spent time with them very close-up!
    Fork-tailed drongo
    Malachite Sunbird
    Double-collared Sunbird (both greater and lesser)
    Weaver
    Springbok
    Steenbok
    Eagle owl
    2 cheetah stalking eland - we patiently watched them for a long time but they did not end up chasing the eland.

    On our second full day, we decided to do something special we’d been planning on the whole trip. My girls are really into playing soccer - they both play on competitive teams - and my husband is a big soccer fan and plays himself in an adult league. We wanted to do something for some kids we encountered in our travels, and Petro, our agent, had told us that Kwandwe had a community center and preschool that we could easily visit. We’d prearranged to have Kwandwe purchase for us about 20 soccer balls. We’d decided to give a few of them to the kids at this preschool and then have the Foundation give the others away to other children they help who are farther away. We also brought about 6 deflated soccer balls of our own from home, as we have more than we need, and a small pump. In the middle of the next game drive, Ryan and Andy drove us over to the community center. We were greeted with lovely singing by the women who work at the Center, and then given a tour of the classrooms and told about what they do there. They take care of kids from babies through about age 7 and have different classrooms for different ages. These kids seem mainly to be the children of people who work at the Kwandwe lodges. We also got to see the craft center where a small group of women have a cooperative that makes beautiful dolls by hand - my daughters each bought one and it is a great souvenir. They also sell them at the lodges themselves.

    Then, finally, we got to give the balls to the kids. There were maybe 30 kids out playing with each other and their teachers, and I think they had two or three balls initially. They were using them for everything from basketball to kicking to tossing and catching. We had pumped up our balls and threw out about 9 or 10 balls into the playground. We then hung out for about an hour while the kids went nuts playing with all the balls. It was really a joy to see. My husband, Ryan, Andy and my older daughter also kicked the balls around with the kids and had a great time! I’m really glad we were able to do just a little something to help the kids there have a happy day, and hopefully they’ll enjoy the balls for a while to come.

    Next Drive

    African Harrier Hawk being harried (ha ha) by black-shouldered kite
    Brown-hooded kingfisher
    Fish Eagle
    Rock kestral
    Common Daiker
    Melikee bird
    Glossy starling
    A female leopard (one of only 12 to 20 on the reserve and I was the one to spot her!)

    We had gone up to the north part of the property across the river, where it is wilder and in some ways harder to spot animals, apparently, but we were trying to see if we could find lion or leopard up there. We had stopped for a snack and, while we were stopped, our tracker Andy had gone on a walk to look for tracks of anything interesting. We got back in the car and started driving and almost immediately, I saw something spotted run across the track on which we were driving! I said “Leopard!” rather breathlessly as it had been rather close and I was kind of surprised that I was the one to spot it! No one else saw it and at first I think everyone doubted I’d actually seen it. I pointed to the spot where I saw it go into the bushes on the other side of the track and after a couple of minutes, our tracker saw its face in the bushes! It then came out and walked back across the track rather slowly so we got a good look at her, and then she kept disappearing and reappearing so we saw her about three different times. Ryan was really thrilled that we saw this leopard, as he had not seen her for over a month he said (though he had also been on vacation for part of that time).

    Next Drive

    This was the afternoon of the day we’d seen the leopard. We found a male and female lion who are their own little pride, just hanging out and relaxing and were able to get very close and spend some time observing them. Then, we heard that the same cheetah mom with cubs that we’d seen on the first drive we did at Kwandwe was nearby, and this time we were able to get quite close and observe them for a while. And finally, there was yet another pride of lions that we ran into as the light was dying - it was interesting observing them in the almost-dark. This day was very special as we realized we had seen all three big cat species in one day: leopard, lion and cheetah - that was pretty remarkable! We also saw some elephants, but from a distance, and that evening, we saw a porcupine, which I enjoyed.

    Last Drive

    On the day we were leaving, we awoke to totally foggy skies. It had rained on and off throughout our stay there and we almost thought about skipping the last drive, thinking we might not see much with the heavy fog. However, we decided to give it a shot, and were glad we did. We saw one of the prides of lions, a female and her 2 brothers, that we had seen the day before and the best look we’d had the whole trip of a jackal. We got a last look at one of my favorites, the warthog, some Cape Buffalo, some zebra, and some baboons. And we also saw some birds, of course, including Hadidas, an ant-eating chat, some wagtails and some South African shelduck.

    We have very fond memories of Kwandwe and it was definitely hard to leave.

    Here are some pictures from Kwandwe: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28672638@N05/sets/72157630457415176/

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    Hi Jane. Great and informative TR. My wife and I are thinking about a South African safari next May or June. It would be our first, too. We are in our mid 50s. I've done a fair amount of reading on this site, just enough to be fairly confused, lol! So I'm hoping you can offer some planning tips.

    For instance, how soon should I start lining up an itinerary and booking the camps?

    Did you use a South African tour agent? Any pointers in picking one?

    How did you select the camps and guides? Would you make any changes to your itinerary or camps, knowing what you now know?

    One of the difficulties I'm having is trying to figure out how many days to actually spend on safari without the process becoming redundant. We love wildlife and nature but aren't students of it, etc. We'd like to see the big 5, I suppose, but more importantly, we'd like to see different animals each day without a lot of repetition. Any thoughts?

    With kids, I realize your travel timing was a bit limited. From what I've read, May and June are good for South Africa safari but not so much for Cape Town. Do you think it makes any difference whether one picks May or June?

    Any planning or other tips would be greatly appreciated.

    Looking forward to your Cape Town report!

    Thanks!

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    sf7307 you're welcome and I'm glad you're still enjoying the report - yes, the community center worked out very well! Leslie, the balls did seem to be a big hit, which was very hearwarming to us!

    Hi dcd - I understand what you mean about reading enough to be confused. There are so many options, it's overwhelming.

    I started researching the trip in September or so of last year. We had made all our reservations and gotten our plane tickets by the end of the year. I remember having to change our itinerary to start one day earlier because Londolozi didn't have room for us for 3 nights on the original days I planned. So the popular places definitely book up 6 months or more in advance sometimes, it seems - they are not terribly big, so that is part of it. And we wanted the adjoining rooms there. You won't have that issue.

    I don't know honestly about May vs. June. We could only look over summer (our summer) since we wanted to go for 3 weeks - the kids don't have any vacation that long except in June/July/August. Originally, our plan was for July as my birthday is early July, but we changed it to June because we learned that many of the camps had rates about 25% lower up until June 21 I think it was - because then the S. African kids got out of school for THEIR winter break and because those families would theoretically also be traveling to some of these lodges, it was then more peak season. So we decided to go earlier and take advantage of the lower rates. But yes, we'd heard it was a good time to go for game viewing and we also appreciated that it would not be too hot. The Cape Town part was added on after the original plans were made - main purpose of trip was for animal viewing - then we thought so long as we were there, we should see Cape Town but wouldn't have planned around good weather for CT. We did get pretty lucky though - one very bad weather day in CT and the rest were good.

    We did use a S.African agent - Petro Kilpin from &Beyond. It just happened that I'd emailed several companies whose lodges looked interesting to me for some more information, not thinking that whoever I contacted would end up being my agent for the whole trip. She responded when I contacted &Beyond and was so nice and helpful and mentioned that she could help us with booking any lodges, not just &Beyond, that I ended up wanting to work with her for the whole trip. I liked having an agent in country, in case anything went wrong. And I liked that she happened to have managed game lodges before, so she really knew a lot about these places. We ended up arranging to meet her in person while in Cape Town, and that was fun!

    How I chose lodges: well I read a lot about a lot of places, and I knew I wanted to go to Sabi Sands once we settled on S. Africa (at first, I wasn't even sure what country or countries I wanted to visit, and was really interested in Botswana but we decided to save that for another trip for several reasons). Petro gave me her ideas on what lodges had great game-viewing, great experiences and were family-friendly and then I read more about those places and narrowed it down. I liked Phinda as a contrast to Sabi Sands since they had more cheetah which were harder to find in Sabi Sands. I liked Kwandwe because it was down near Jeffreys Bay where my husband wanted to go surfing, and also because it seemed they had a greater likelihood of seeing some of the more unusual and nocturnal animals. They also had the "safari suits" that they give out to winter visitors - which I forgot to actually mention in my report I think but which you no doubt saw me wearing in a picture - the kids thought that was a fun experience!

    As for how many days for safari, I did struggle with that. I knew that I'd want a lot of days but I didn't know if my kids or husband might get bored. Actually, my husband ended up being as into it as I was and he wasn't really ready to leave the bush when we did - nor was I. I think it was probably just about the right amount of time for the kids - 11 days/nights. We had considered doing one more lodge for a total of 14 days - I think I would have been fine with that, not sure if too much for the kids. We did see some of the same animals more than once of course, but in the case of the big cats, I never minded that, it was always exciting and interesting. I would have liked to see more of certain animals and there were some we never saw so ... I don't know how helpful that is but I think 3-4 nights at one lodge is probably good and then moving to another in a different area is good to give variety.

    Good luck in your planning, I found it to be a lot of fun to plan the trip!

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    Hi Jane,

    Boy, thanks for taking the time to post such a thoughtful and in depth reply. I really appreciate your comments and feel much better about how to go about planning this trip. Like you, I enjoy trip planning but safari planning seems to be the proverbial different kettle of fish! I did see and enjoy your photos. My wife gets cold easily so she'd have to dress appropriately in the mornings! Thanks again.

    Dave

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    dcd, I'd like to comment on the question about how many days on safari and not wanting to repeat animals etc... One thing that we learned very quickly is that no matter how many times you "go on safari" you ALWAYS see something new. For example, over the years we have seen many, many, many giraffes. But this last trip we came upon a group of male giraffes. The ranger was explaining to us that the were all bachelors when all of a sudden one of them started trying to "mate" with one of the others. It even took the guide by surprise and we couldn't stop laughing. He was very persistent but needless to say, unsuccessful. But that, along with the pics, was one of the funniest stories of all of our safaris. The animals are so unpredictable you can see something extraordinary from a very ordinary animal. So my answer to how many days is...as many as you can afford! :)

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    Thanks agswimmer! Great story indeed. Because we have run into so many people during our travels who have raved about Africa and their safari experiences, we moved it to the top of "the list". And it seems that many folks get addicted to the experience. But since there are so many places we have yet to go, I'm a bit concerned that may happen to us, lol!

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    Love the giraffe story - and I was going to say the same thing as agswimmer - we saw elephants multiple times but it wasn't always the same experience. The one time we saw the almost adult-sized elephant drop to his "knees" to try to nurse from his mother was quite a sight, and even our ranger had never seen that kind of thing. So it's true, you never know what you're going to see out there and that is part of what makes it exciting and interesting even if seeing the same kinds of animals. I already am planning my next trip back to Africa, so I think yes, the safari bug that bites so many has bitten me :)

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