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Recommended Tour Operators - Honeymoon in South Africa or Botswana

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My wife and i would like to honeymoon in South Africa/Botswana and go on a safari (and maybe take a side trip for shark diving if at all possible) sometime between January and March 2012. We'd like to spend approximately 9-11 days on the ground and would like to have as much of the trip arranged as possible (e.g. pickup/drop off at airport, itinerary, travel to destinations, etc.).

I was hoping to get some recommendations for reputable (high-end?) tour companies or local safari agents in Chicago, IL that may be able to help us plan a memorable trip. We're fine with pre-packaged tours or having a more custom tailored itinerary. Are there any significant differences between going on safari in one country vs. another?

I would also be interested in any recommendations for any game reserves or destinations that would be considered "must sees" as it's our first trip to the region. Thanks in advance for your help.

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    Wow – nice choice for a honeymoon. You will have a blast. Shame you don’t have more time to spend on the ground. Could you squeeze out a few more days?

    I will try to touch on all your questions. Just so you know my frame of reference, I have made 25+ trips to Southern Africa over my life and I have been to more than 40 safari lodges in Botswana in the past five years across many of the major brands/chains. I have also been to Botswana in every season. I have visited every lodge owned by Wilderness Safaris. I have been to most of the safari lodges in South Africa that are mentioned frequently in popular guide books and on these forums. There are over 800 lodges in South Africa so it is impossible to see them all.

    Legend:
    IMO/IME = in my opinion/experience.


    IMO the Sabi Sands is the best general big five animal viewing area in Southern Africa. If you stay at the right lodges and especially ones on the Sand or Sabi River you will likely see the big five every day during your stay. Being much closer to civilization vs Botswana and also on the national power grid, the Sabi Sands lodges are much more outfitted with resort style amenities (spas, extensive wine lists, lots of food options, electricity, and AC) vs Botswana. In Botswana, almost all the lodges I recommend in the Okavango Delta are only accessible by aircraft and they have no roads leading to them, no power lines, no internet, no cell phone connectivity etc. Botswana is fantastically remote. Botswana is a year round safari destination and March would be the best time out of January-March. Also, with the special out there through March 31 a safari at Kwando, Wilderness Safaris, or Sanctuary is very cheap compared to the last several years using certain camps.

    pppn = per person per night

    In South Africa I suggest you look at Lion Sands River Lodge in the $600 pppn range. In the $900-$1100 pppn range perhaps look at MalaMala Rattrays, Lion Sands Ivory, or Londolozi Tree. In the $1200 pppn range perhaps consider Singita or Londolozi Private Granite. Stay three nights (or four at Lion Sands to use stay4pay3) then fly to Vic Falls for one night before continuing on to Botswana.

    In Botswana, there are a ton of choices and without going into too much detail I would enlist the help of this forum and/or a good safari agent in Chicago to sort through them. Most people stick with one “chain” (there are about eight) and then choose several lodges within that chain. Sanctuary and Wilderness have a strategic partnership this green season so you can work among both these lodges on a long stay special. In the “classic” range I think Savuti, Little Vumbura, and Chitabe make an awesome Wilderness circuit or perhaps Jao and Mombo or Vumbura and Mombo on a premier circuit. 6-8 nights in Botswana is perfect and especially if you want to take advantage of the specials out there.

    Agent in Chicago? Off hand, Nicky Glover, the owner of Eyes on Africa would be a great person to contact. She used to manage lodges for Wilderness Safaris in Botswana. I am going to call Rose Loggi from our company tomorrow morning. She was the Africa director at Abercrombie & Kent (located in Chicago) from 2004 until she joined our company in August this year. Rose is a long time member of APTA in Chicago and she can tell me at least 5 really good agents in Chicago that know Southern Africa well. I will try to get you some more names tomorrow. You don’t really need a high-end tour company. You just need a safari advisor that is very familiar with the luxury camps and also has decent contracted rates with all of them.

    Other ideas: South African Airways just launched a sale to South Africa today. If your time is tight (11 days max), you can fly to JFK on the last evening flight from Chicago on United then continue the next morning on JFK-JNB with South Africa. You can work all day on the day you leave. SAA is in Star Alliance with United. On arrival in the morning in JNB, you can continue straight to the Sabi Sands on a light aircraft and start your safari that day (buy insurance during blizzard season). You may need to overnight in Jo’burg between Sabi Sands and Botswana if you can’t catch the flight from Nelspruit to Livingstone direct.

    Shark Dive – not a good chance of seeing them in Jan-Mar. The water is murky and some of the operators don’t even operate that time of year. July-September is peak shark season. I would not build a trip around seeing sharks in Jan-Mar.

    I will try to follow-up tomorrow but I am heading to Africa this weekend.

    Craig Beal – owner – Travel Beyond

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    Here is an economical itinerary that would take advantage of all the current specials (stay4pay3 at Lion Sands, SAA new special, and Seven Country in Botswana).

    Day 0 Depart in the evening. United ORD-JFK. Overnight near JFK.
    Day 1 JFK-JNB on SAA (Star Alliance earn UA mileage)
    Day 2 Land JNB. Light aircraft to Lion Sands River Lodge stay4pay3
    Day 3,4,5 Lion Sands River Lodge
    Day 6 Light aircraft to JNB. Overnight at airport hotel
    Day 7 Fly JNB-MUB on Air Botswana. Spend six nights total at two Wilderness Safari or Sanctuary Lodge camps. Good choices? Tubu Tree and Duma Tau (must stay six nights to get Seven Country special rates).
    Day 8,9,10,11,12 Safari.
    Day 13 Fly home.
    Day 14. Land JFK. Arrive ORD around noon.

    Cost: $8500 per person (+/- 10%) round trip from ORD including all flights on UA, SAA, Air Botswana, and light aircrafts in Botswana and to/from Lion Sands. Variables would be SAA seat class restrictions, exchange rate, availability of cheapest rooms at Lion Sands, hotel choice at JFK and JNB etc.

    If this is too long can you add three days for travel?

    Craig Beal – owner – Travel Beyond

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    Thanks for all the helpful info Craig. We could probably allot up to 14 days (including air travel) for this trip. We'll definitely giving Nicky Glover (or one of the other local agents you may recommend) a call to help in planning our trip. Given our time constraints, would it make more sense to spend the entire trip in one country? Should we try and spend any time in Cape Town or Johannesburg or is our time better spent spending more time on safari?

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    Here are two more resources I can recommend:

    Sherri Wenzel at Safariline http://www.safariline.net/about.html
    Lisa Greyhill at Adventure Travelers Society http://www.adventure-travelers.com/

    I don’t recommend Johannesburg except for overnights when needed but if you want to do something other than safari, Cape Town or Vic Falls would be the most common side-trips I would recommend.

    You could easily stay within Botswana for safari then add Cape Town and/or Vic Falls or you could stay in South Africa only. Either way, you will leave Africa feeling fulfilled.
    For South Africa only, perhaps combine Sabi Sands with a place like Phinda or Tswalu or a lodge in the Madikwe like Madikwe Safari lodge or Molori?

    If you do Botswana only for safari I would increase the time spent on safari to 8-9 nights at 3 camps. Vic Falls makes an easy ending to Botswana. I don't recommend Vic Falls as a stand-alone destination if you are not going on safari in Botswana.

    Craig Beal – owner – Travel Beyond

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    We have been VERY pleased with go2africa -- lots of safari options and they could book direct flight we wanted from Washington, D.C., to Johannesburg as less than we could find. Communication, etc., outstanding. Our booking is in June so can only base it on booking process...

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    Congrats on your honeymoon.

    Agent in Chicago?

    Eyes on Africa. I used them and all was great. The wife of the team is South African. I see Craig mentioned Nicky, above.

    As for "high end" they are reliable and can sell you the most expensive places to stay all they way to the no single supplement room at Mala Mala like they did for me. That's true for most agents.


    The pickup/drop off itinerary you request is very typical and what I did when I used EoA. They were helpful in giving me instructions on where to be for pickup/drop off at the airport in Joburg because it was under construction and things changed. Everything on the trip with them was 100%.

    I think you should do a custom trip that is prepackaged in that you have everything planned in advance for just the 2 of you. You go from camp/lodge to camp/lodge, all places you choose, on pre-arranged transport and join others in a vehicle for the days you are there. Again, that is very typical and what Eyes on Africa and many other agents do all the time.

    You ask about time in Cape Town or on safari? Definitely allot adequate time on safari, but Cape Town is a unique city with outstanding nature attributes. If you want to do shark diving, then you'd already be in Cape Town. You'd probably do a private guide in Cape Town. Either EoA will have one or I'd recommend Wayne of Take2Tours.

    Check this out for things to do in Cape Town
    http://www.fodors.com/community/africa-the-middle-east/top-ten-things-to-do-in-cape-town.cfm

    I really liked the sharks, penguins, Robben Island, Kirstenbosch Gardens, and Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve.

    You ask what's the difference between Bots and SA? Craig covered it pretty well. The Sabi Sands would give you the most variety of animals people hope to see on safari in the shortest time. Even though I really like Bots and would love to do a March Kwara visit (Kwara has been highly productive in the wetter, rainer, less costly March wet season making it a big bang for the buck), I think you should stay in just South Africa to minimize traveling around, probably minimize costs, and get good variety.

    Assume 14 nts

    I'd do 4 nts Cape Town up front.

    You can likely fly in early morn from Cape Town to Joburg, then catch the Federal Air Flt that is part of the Phinda package. Of course, all this is arranged by your agent.

    4 nights Phinda, a cheetah sanctuary with lots of other animals. You can do additional activities here such as canoe/kayak, tracking rhino on foot, cultural activities, all of which I enjoyed thoroughly. Plus aerial safaris, walks, leopard tracking, etc. It is your best chance to see cheetah and it has 7 distinct habitats, all very lovely. Phinda's Forest Lodge has award-winning glass cottages, quite spectacular in the sand forest where you can walk the trails unescorted during the day. There are 4 places to stay in Phinda. It is logical to stay 2 nts in north and 2 in south. I spent a whole week in north at Forest Lodge. Phinda, which means Return as in returning habitat and animals to the former wild state, is a fenced reserve of 55,000 acres.

    In between Phinda and Sabi Sands, you probably need an o/nt in Joburg.

    4 nts at one of the many Sabi Sands options. Elephant Plains has gotten very good reviews as having really nice accommodations, great wildlife, all at a lower cost. There tend to be more people in the vehicles there (like 8-10) which is a problem if you are a keen photographer who wants minimal movement in the vehicle. You can still see well. People get good photos too, probably not Nat Geo quality, though. I'd like to try EP some time.

    The legendary standard in Sabi Sands is Mala Mala. Been there the longest so animals are very relaxed. Occupies a large area, including some of the Sand River, for more access. Not as expensive as some of the options. I thought the rondavels were just great with their trademark his and her bathrooms. Certainly very comfortable. There are some more luxurious accommodations offered by Mala Mala as well. A few years ago a management-labor dispute resulted in Mala Mala getting rid of their trackers. Most other Sabi Sands places have trackers, which is an advantage because it is more eyes trained to spot animals. But Mala Mala and the other places all employ radios for the guides to communicate with each other and find animals together.

    Be sure to let your travel agent know it is your honeymoon so they can arrange some nice surprises for you along the way.

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    Give Carrie at Moonrings a call. Honeymoons are their speciality and safaris are their passion. I reckon this is a match made for all safarimooners. And no I didn't honeymoon with them.. But know them from others. They are in Chicago city itself.

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    I will second what AT says about MalaMala, been there three times since 2005.

    Safari_Craig is always knowledgeable and helpful. Check out also sandi (poster here, but in NY) at Africaserendipity.

    regard - tom

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