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Possible 2009 Itinerary: Phinda + Mashatu + MM or other?

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Now that my 2008 safari is booked (Kafue + N&S Luangwa), I’m kicking around some alternatives for next year. I’m a cat fan (big and small) and, from what I have read in this forum, Phinda is a good choice for Cheetah (plus on-foot Rhino tracking), and Mashatu for Leopard (and maybe Lion). I have been to Mala Mala on my first safari and, of course, it is good for Leopard and Lion, but not so much for Cheetah. All three would likely be good for the variety and quantity of other wildlife. So I am considering 15 days between these 3 locations and have a few questions.

1. Access to Phinda appears to be via Federal Air from JNB. To Mashutu via SAA Airlink from JNB to Polokwane and then by charter to Limpopo. And to MM via SAA Airlink from JNB. As I will be traveling solo, charters between locations will not be affordably feasible. So, is there any way to get from one to another without having to do 3 round-trips out of and back into JNB and staying overnight in Joburg 3 times? As Mashatu and MM are under the same ownership(?) or management(?), is there any connecting travel linkage between the two? Is it possible (and reasonable) to obtain a driver for affordable road transfers between locations?

2. I’m pretty much sold on Phinda Forest, in the north of the reserve. If spending 5 or 6 nights at Phinda, is there any reason to divide the time between north (Forest) and south (Mountain or Rock)?

3. Likewise, I’m pretty much sold on Mashatu Tented Camp but, if spending 5 or 6 nights at Mashatu, is there any reason to divide the time with Main Camp? (I should mention that relative luxury or comfort is not a discriminating factor for me, either at Mashatu or Phinda).

4. While I have been once to MM and enjoyed it, are there other SA locations you might recommend instead that would fit well with this itinerary, keeping in mind my interest in great animal encounters (and cats) and that MM is at the top of my price tolerance?

5. Finally, Mashatu hosts ongoing research programs on Leopards, Lions, and Elephants. “Volunteers” can participate in these programs at a cost of about $900 per week (meals at the lodge and shared accommodation included). Does anyone have any experience with this program or have any further information on it, other than what is published on their website?

Many thanks for any info, advice, or insights you can offer…

Rick

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