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Trip Report Trip Report: June, 2016 S. Africa, Zambia and Malawi

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TRIP REPORT: Vegan Semi-Retirees First Trip to South Africa, Malawi and Zambia—AWESOME

With all the great assistance on this forum, I was able to navigate the many choices for our family of 3 and we had an amazing African vacation in June, 2016. I had promised myself I would do a trip report for others once I returned. What I’ve found is that I surely benefitted by the great forum posts of many past passionate travelers, but I really don’t begin to approach the level of detail memory and note-taking when I am on a trip. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to provide a trip report that might help others planning a visit to some of the areas we enjoyed.

We determined our shortest flight would be British Airways from LAX to Cape Town, 2 non-stops connecting in Heathrow. But we wisely decided to lay over and enjoy a few days in London rather than deal with that much time in Economy cramped up and recovering from jetlag. Flew out on a Friday night, and arrived midday Saturday. We spent 4 nights in a small Airbnb studio near Buckingham Palace. Got settled in the flat and rode The London Eye Saturday night. Sunday and Monday just rode the Hop on Hop Off Buses and the River Tour and walked bridges and areas where we felt like it. Tuesday we had a nice lunch at the Darwin Sky Garden Restaurant and then returned to Heathrow for a night flight to Cape Town. We left most of the “hop off” visits—Tower of London, British Museum, and even West End theatre night for another visit or layover. We hopped on and rode most of the circuit each time.

Several things that would cause me to suggest this to anyone like us--a first timer to Africa and someone who hasn’t done much international travel—if you can add in the time. First, it definitely broke up what would have been 2 red eye non-stop flights, and we actually recovered surprisingly well with each one of them when they were 4 days apart. Conversely, on the return trip my husband was exhausted even though he was gaining 9 hours on the way back. Second, looking back it helped me to be in an English speaking country where the currency conversion is easier to calculate as I adjusted to the 8 hr. time zone change and the driving on the left hand side of the streets—prepping me for that upside down feeling as a passenger during a month in Africa. Granted, South Africa is English speaking, but 4 days in London I was still in the Northern Hemisphere and in summer and the without mosquito nets, Other avid safari repeat travelers will consider this heresy—to trade off time that could be spent in the bush in a jeep for a day or two of sightseeing in London. But if it helps one person to package the trip to get a timorous spouse to make the bucket list trip, it will be a help. We are retirees, so forget it if you are 30-something and full of energy. I wouldn’t listen to this kind of advice back then either.

We arrived in Cape Town about 10 Wednesday morning, and our wonderful Airbnb host Ian, greeted us at the airport, and gave us a running commentary as we entered the city. He took us up to Signal Hill and through the colorful Bo-Kaap community. The 2 bedroom 2 bath condo had an amazing view of the V & A Waterfront, Green Point, the stadium and we had a sunrise and sunset view from the Master Bedroom and Living Room—hard to leave and so we didn’t that first afternoon—instead just relaxing after an all-night flight.

Thursday, we walked to the waterfront and caught the Hop On Hop off Bus. We got a 10% discount for repeat customers since we brought our receipt from London. We rode the entire loop without getting off and then on the second go round we transferred to the Downtown route where we rode most of the route and got off and walked at the Castle, arriving right at the noon Keys Ceremony. We then walked to visit the District 6 Museum—highly recommended. We met Noor, the founder and had such a great lunch at the café, that we ordered food “to go” since they were able to provide us vegan soup and sandwiches and our daughter was arriving that afternoon and as we knew she would, she enjoyed the food and not having to go out after traveling all day. We hiked back through The Company's Garden, a lovey and historic park that is watered from Table Mountain, which was quite clouded over.

Again, Ian provided transport, and drove us to the airport so we could meet her upon arrival from Malawi after 15 months apart. Unfortunately, she was fighting a bad head cold so it caused us to skip the trip to Robben Island planned for Friday morning, but we took Uber up to Table Mountain Friday afternoon and we had a spectacularly clear, although chilly, view. We did the mid-length hike, and returned just before sundown to the base. Another Uber took us back to V & A Waterfront for dinner and then back up to our condo.

Saturday we did an all day tour to Cape Point with a detour to the Penguin colony. Again, the weather cooperated and we were pleased to have come during off season winter and avoided any rain. Had a very nice vegan lunch along the coast on our return and stopped for a lovely view from a winery late afternoon. Between Uber and the Hop On bus, and the all day tour, we did not need a rental car.

Then Sunday was a travel day and we were off for Kruger. We flew non-stop from Cape Town to Skukuza. We were picked up for transfer to Rhino Post Safari Lodge by arrangement with the lodge at booking. The driver paused several times on the short drive to point out antelope, Nyala, which we did not see in Kruger and numerous birds so we began our safari sightings immediately. We were in shoulder season and had booked on a special which provided 4 nights for the price of 3 and no single supplement for our daughter in her private room/tent. There is very limited space where the Wi-Fi works and the lodge is eco-friendly with solar power and since we are left wing green freaks that is what we wanted. The accommodations were lovely, and upon arrival we were sitting on the deck watching a white rhino and cape buffalo at the watering hole BEFORE our first safari ride.

We spent two nights at the Lodge and then we were transported to the Plains Camp, a bush camp about 10km away where we enjoyed walking safaris and a hike and sleep out in tree platforms the second night. I cannot speak highly enough about the overall quality of the accommodations, quality of staff and the incredibly good tracking and luck that we received throughout those 4 days. I know we are novices and many of the posters at this forum are safari zealots with multiple visits to various reserves with lots of sightings. But for us, this had everything under one management with minimal transport—something we truly were grateful for.

As one forum poster pointed out to me when I was suggesting my original itinerary—you are planning to do way too much. Travel between locations takes much longer in Africa. Believe me, that is the understatement. Don’t underestimate how exhausting it might be as a passenger to be riding around on the left hand side of the road in unfamiliar areas. There is a built in hypervigilance in me that was more stressed on the paved roads in traffic going between locations on what seemed to be the wrong side to my brain--than on foot with wild animals around on the walking safari.
We saw 5 black rhino during those 4 days and between 15 and 20 white rhinos, some babies with mom! I now realize how fortunate we were in sightings of that species. Moreover, the first night we saw and followed a herd of more than 10 wild dogs before sundown and a pack of hyenas after sundown. Daily we saw many many elephant, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, cape buffalo and all variety of antelope, including 2 sables. We also saw hippo and crocodile. So out of the Big 9, the only thing we did not see was the cheetah although the cats were definitely our scarcer number of sightings. We saw mother lions and juveniles sunning one day with no males, but the next day we spotted 2 pairs of lions and we observed the second pair mating. The only leopard sighting was at night and via spotlight of his backside retreating.

The walking safari included observing lots of tracks and scat of these big game and the beauty of the land as well as animals that are accustomed to a small stream of respectful visitors who are guided by knowledgeable rangers and trackers—we were at 7 guests maximum on our walking safaris. And the final night sleep out in the tree platforms was definitely a highlight of the adventure.
Rhino Post was quite accommodating for our vegan dietary requests and we would highly recommend both camps to others, and gladly return.

Until our departure, all things went incredibly well. The transport from Rhino Post to Nelspruit was “my bad.” Somehow, we thought we would enjoy doing a one-way car rental to take our time driving a few hours without being passively driven by shuttle drivers and tour guides so much of the time. It could have been worse, but definitely an abrupt case of spoiling a wonderful relaxing trip with the stress of navigating traffic on what our mind/body says is the wrong side of the road, regardless of what our brain, the road signs and culture tells us. We arranged for a car to be delivered to the resort and we planned to drop it off at Nelspruit airport the next morning, allowing us the flexibility to take our time and drive to dinner etc.

My advice is first to not drive yourself, but if you do, be sure to pay extra for the GPS. I use my iPhone at home, but not so good elsewhere and with limited battery and data. Also, seriously consider just using transport recommended by your travel agent. We ultimately called our agent and arranged for transport to the airport. It was a workday and we would be trying to drive across town during rush hour. The driver was great and well worth the extra drop off fee. Only one part of the trip did I cut corners and try to go DIY planning and it was here. We stayed in a lovely hotel, Shepard Boutique Hotel, and the Manager was extremely helpful. However, we got there late because of poor navigating on my part and had to leave before the breakfast service. She opened breakfast early for us and helped us try to locate a cab, but the service in Nelspruit is not as reliable, she advised. Fortunately, our fabulous travel agent, Olivia at Adventura Africa, was available at night and on short notice made the connection I should have deferred to when she initially recommended it. Her guide would have picked us up and given us a marvelous transport from Kruger as he was a former ranger. And we would have saved the hassle and cost of the rental car. I was so glad we worked with a local travel agent. They helped so much with both our international and connecting flights and were able to handle some last minute issues in real time that would have been problems with a US Agent dealing with the time lag as we were. Several times we awoke to “problem solved.”

From Nelspruit we flew to Blantyre, Malawi via a several hour layover in Johannesburg. We were able to stock up on some nice foodstuffs duty free, which we needed to do timewise. Our daughter had urged us to hang loose for this segment of our trip as she has been in Malawi for 15 months with Peace Corps and it was definitely an adjustment. She had arranged for a driver to transport us to Zomba Plateau to a private cottage. He arrived late at the airport because of traffic, no seat belts in rear seats, the speedometer did not work, there was a huge crack in the windshield, the roads were packed with pedestrians carrying firewood, children, arts and crafts and it was a 2+ hr. drive on a late winter Friday afternoon. I reminded myself this is my daughter’s way of life and she is alive so I just mellowed out in the back seat. We arrived after dark on a very rugged dirt road, grateful that it wasn’t the rainy season. We had food we could cook for dinner and the next day we awoke to an amazing view from the plateau. Each day we walked about a mile to the lovely Sunbird resort for our main meal, and enjoyed breakfast and another light meal at the cottage by the fireplace. We arranged for a guide to take us on a long hike one day to the Emperor’s View, the Queen’s View and a delightful waterfall. Zomba Plateau was the Queen’s favorite place in Malawi when it was a British colony, understandably so.

We stayed 3 nights at the top of the plateau and then decided to stay at a backpacker inn at the base for a few additional nights within walking distance to the town of Zomba. All of us were weary of long drives and preferred to just enjoy the time together. This was the town closest to our daughter’s village and she knew the good vegetarian spots. After that, our last several nights were at Game Haven Lodge, a conference-type facility south of Blantyre which was quite western culture oriented. It seemed several US families were there with a parent on business, and it seemed more like a Palm Springs resort with a mosquito net. There was the ONLY 9 hole golf course in all of Malawi, and it is in a fenced game reserve where these beautiful herbivores wander across the greens. Game walks are included with the accommodations and you can see Giraffe, zebra, waterbuck, up pretty close and lots of variety in antelope. Definitely not Kruger, but it was a good choice for the vegan accommodation in meals and being close to the airport. We decided not to venture out to the Tea Estates or to some of the more remote areas in Malawi which would have been lots of travel time for a very brief adventure. If we had more time and if we had NOT seen so many Rhino in Kruger, we would have definitely gone to MVUU safari lodge at Liwonde National Park as they have a special Rhino Sanctuary. But it was going to add more commute and pack/unpack stops, and our daughter had been to the park several times, and she was especially aware of our need to pace ourselves.

From Blantyre, we said goodbye to our daughter and flew to Livingstone, Zambia with another full day of travel and long layover. We spent 2 nights at The Victoria Falls Waterfront Hotel which was lovely. We went to the Falls on the Zambia side only and found them amazing but we were told that in a month the Zambia side would be dry and one could walk across where the falls were flowing. At the hotel restaurant, there were many younger folks who had enjoyed more of the adrenalin type activities—rafting and zip lining, but we were winding down, and having used the forum, we knew that 1-2 nights was plenty for us to see the falls. It’s definitely a must-see, but we were fine with only exploring the Zambia side and avoiding the other tourism activities.

At this point our 3 week family trip was over, and my husband flew back to LAX via Johannesburg and Heathrow as he was due back at work. In retrospect, he wished he had the break we scheduled on the trip over. As he gained 9 hours, he also spent 2 red eyes on the plane and arrived exhausted. Unlike me, he does not sleep well on planes.

Since I didn’t need to return, I had added on 2 more adventures from my bucket list. I stayed in Zambia, but flew Northeast to Ndola where I was met by African Impact for a 2 week volunteer vacation at a Chimpanzee Sanctuary 5 hours away on roads that made the Malawi highways seem tame. The sanctuary is off the grid, but has solar power and running water in the shower block that warmed up nicely each afternoon. I was there for 2 weeks, and totally enjoyed the opportunity to observe 120 chimpanzees living in huge enclosures that allow them to forage and live safe from the poaching that had decimated their numbers. There are 7 that were rescued from being raised as pets that we were able to interact with. The volunteer work was varied and each day was different—cleaning the maximum security enclosure for the Chimp “escape artists”, harvesting food from the farm, preparing food for the daily feedings for 120 chimpanzees, assisting in the local school, clearing overgrowth on roadways and trails, inspecting the perimeter of the enclosures, removing overgrowth in the mango grove. It was a 3 hr. drive to the internet café and grocery shopping each week. Definitely a different view of Africa than we had in South Africa tourism areas.

I made one more re-entry into South Africa which involved an overnight layover as I left Zambia late afternoon. Olivia booked me at the Peermont Court which is quite close to the airport with a free shuttle and everything I needed for the 24 hours I was there. The breakfast was great and I used their Business Center to catch up after being off the grid for 2 weeks. I was able to arrange a late checkout and moreover, I spent the afternoon at the spa getting an amazing series of pampering treatments thanks to the Rand exchange. I was able to use plastic for everything so I needed very little cash in Rands and I had neglected to save any. When I tried to exchange at the airport, I was way below the minimum. Thankfully, this complex of several hotels connects with a casino, and I was able to go to the Casino cashier to exchange $30 for gratuities. The other thing I totally forgot was that I would need the unique South African converter to recharge my cellphone. I sent it home with my husband and kept the UK and European converter for use in Zambia and Spain. Yet, between the spa and the Business Center, the customer service was excellent and they accommodated me so I left on my flight with a full charge even without a converter.

Overall, I was in Africa 5 full weeks, and I loved every minute. But I also added another 2 weeks in Spain. My timing was such that I was able to connect with a Southern CA group that was doing one of the shortest versions of the Camino pilgrimage, the Camino Ingles which is 118 km. So I was again able to break up those long flights home. I was hesitant to be living out of a suitcase that long, but it had the benefit of another bucket list item when I was already adjusted to the time zone in Spain, and the cargo pants for safari were perfect for the hike. But the details of that portion belong in another Fodor’s forum. Suffice it to say, I would recommend to those who can afford the time and the layover, to spend a few days back in London (or as in my case Madrid +Santiago) rather than scheduling such an extended flight connection series back. I’m well aware that sometimes flights get delayed or missed and a return trip that is already exhausting and barely tolerable when on time becomes a nightmare with greater delays. I felt that I left enough time to allow for delays without compromising my health and the serenity and wonder I enjoyed abroad and wanted to return home with. And gratefully, I only had one delay of more than 1 hour out of all my jet-setting.

I finalized this Trip Report as we began our next adventure, but waited to post it when we returned since we were again off the grid for an 8 day tugboat cruise in the Inland Passage in Canada, and unable to comment if anyone had questions. And of the 12 passengers on our small wildlife cruise, 2 UK couples had lived in South Africa for almost 40 yrs. They helped me identify some of my wildlife photos and assured me that the Black Rhino sightings were very unusual. I was able to get more perspective on the political history and discuss the decimation of the wildlife by poachers—all as we viewed Grizzlies and Bald eagles and much more but that’s for another trip report.

Again, thanks to the many folks who helped me plan my first African trip, which ended up being 53 days with my European add-ons. The packing lists were soo very helpful, and the experienced and wise counsel on my unrealistic sense of time. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.

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