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tripplanner001 Apr 5th, 2016 03:13 PM

A First Journey to Southern Africa: Cape, Falls, and Animal Safaris
 
Africa! The word evokes images of vast, open lands teeming with rich wildlife and a melting pot of diverse cultures. A trip to Africa has been on our minds in an on-again, off-again sort of way. While we’ve had dreams of an African adventure, we’ve been put off by the large financial costs associated such a trip, especially when we are interested in maintaining some of the creature comforts we’ve grown used to on our other travels.

Serious consideration of a trip to Africa, in what would be our first, began in the spring of last year, upon our return from Sri Lanka. We’ve thought about making return visits to Japan and Australia, both countries we’ve enjoyed immensely, as well as new destinations ranging from Burma to Iran to Central Asia. At the time, I had an itch to take a look at how our home currency, the U.S. dollar, as performing against other currencies and noticed that the exchange rate against the South African rand was at historic highs and thought to ourselves, this may be our opportunity. (At the time, one dollar purchased about 11 rands; today is around 15!).

We’ve contacted about half a dozen or so travel agents, including recommendations from some of you (special thanks to ekscrunchy, christabir, diannelovestravel, and DarrenHumphreys who answered several of my questions) as well as those that come recommended on other websites and in guidebooks. Through the process, we settled upon Dave Patterson from The Africa Safari. I don’t know what it was, but we hit it off over email. He was very responsive and was willing to work with us on a whole ‘nuther level, and I developed a comfort level working with him that I hadn’t with the others.

Together we developed an itinerary that would check off our interests - Cape Town, Victoria Falls, and time on safari - as follows:

Cape Town (Mount Nelson) – 5 nights
Franschhoek (Akademie Street) – 3 nights
Sabi Sands (Kirkman’s Kamp) – 4 nights
Victoria Falls (Ilala Lodge) – 2 nights
Chobe (Chobe Under Canvas) – 3 nights
Johannesburg (54 on Bath) – 3 nights

We leave for our first trip to Africa tomorrow. I haven’t settled on whether or not this will become a live report or it be easier for me to share our experience upon our return, but I look forward to sharing our journey with you.

progol Apr 5th, 2016 05:46 PM

Enjoy your trip, TP! I know I'll be enjoying following it here -- whenever you are able to write it up.

tripplanner001 Apr 6th, 2016 03:53 AM

Paule, thank you. I'm very excited.

thursdaysd Apr 6th, 2016 05:23 AM

Signing on. Hope you have a great time.

DarrenHumphrys Apr 6th, 2016 10:36 AM

Have a ssssssuper safari, tripplanner001. Sunny, windy and some rain showers here in Cape Town at the moment...situation normal, in other words :-). We've also had some very welcome rain in the Greater Kruger as well as the Zambezi-Chobe-Okavango region...so looking forward to your trip report/s.
Darren Humphrys

annhig Apr 6th, 2016 01:03 PM

Bon Voyage, TP.

looking forward to your TR, whether live or not!

tripplanner001 Apr 6th, 2016 01:48 PM

Thursdays, Darren, and Ann, thank you. Heading to the airport now. Will check in when I land - two days later!

nina88 Apr 6th, 2016 04:55 PM

Bon Voyage tripplanner001... will appreciate it if you can share the TA that you considered. We are planning a similar itinerary albeit a bit shortier than yours. Thanks.

sartoric Apr 7th, 2016 09:10 PM

I'm signing on too. Always enjoy the vicarious travels with you TP - no matter when you get to writing about it, Africa is on my list :)

welltraveledbrit Apr 8th, 2016 12:06 AM

I've just been reading your Mexico City TR so looking forward to reading this one too, have fun! I have to say we've picked or prioritized lots of trips based on the exchange rate ;).

DebitNM Apr 8th, 2016 10:48 AM

I'll be following too as we were in the same boat for our 1st trip. Had always wanted to go, but cost and the complexity held us back.

Sounds like your trip will have a lot in common with ours, can't wait as I suspect it will bring back wonderful memories of our trip.

ekscrunchy Apr 9th, 2016 09:51 AM

I look forward to your reports!

tripplanner001 Apr 9th, 2016 02:30 PM

Nina, we went with Dave Patterson of the Africa Safari. I have a list of the other agents we considered at home and would be glad to share them with you when I return. Unfortunately, I cannot remember them from the top of my head.

Sartoric, I hope I can continue to live up to your expectations.

Brit, hope my Mexico City report gives you some ideas. The exchange rate is the primary reason we went with South Africa this year and was one of the reasons we went to Brazil a couple of years ago.

DebitNM, thank you for following along. Your report was one I used during my research.

Ekscrunchy, thank you for the tips you've given to me as I was planning this trip. Glad you're following too.

With that, here's an installment of my report:


Arriving on African Soil

We traveled from Washington, DC, to Cape Town, South Africa, via London and Johannesburg on British Airways economy class. Our intercontinental flights were uneventful and rather straightforward. The service was friendly and the food onboard better-than-expected. Our flight from DC to London was on a Boeing 777 aircraft while we flew on the A380 from London to Johannesburg. The A380 flight was more comfortable than the one on the 777, especially with our upper-deck seats.

We departed Washington, DC, on time and arrived in London a bit earlier than scheduled. Given that our London to Johannesburg flight did not leave until 7pm that evening, we had nine hours of layover time in London and decided to hop on the Tube into the central part of the city for lunch and a quick stroll. From Heathrow Airport, we travelled to Leicester Square, a convenient area to explore as it is served by the Piccadilly Line (the same line that runs to the airport). We spent about 4 hours in the area where we enjoyed a nice dim sum lunch at Golden Phoenix in London’s Chinatown. We ordered a variety of dishes and each was absolutely delicious. The dim sum prepared by Golden Phoenix ranks among the best we’ve had from dim sum establishments in most parts of the world.

We headed back to the airport for our flight to Johannesburg mid-afternoon and spent the remainder of our time in the British Airways Galleries Lounge. Unfortunately due to some issues at Heathrow, our flight from Africa experienced a 30-minute or so delay upon arrival in Johannesburg. Normally I’m not too bothered with flight delays but I began to worry in this particular instance. The reason for our concern was that the flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town was issued under a different airline reservation, apart from the flights between DC and London and London and Johannesburg. The delay meant that we would have about 75 minutes to connect at OR Tambo International Airport, with extremely long lines at passport control as well as security. We proceeded to the front of the lines in each case and were met with sympathy both times. We arrived at the gate for our Cape Town flight with about 20 minutes to spare before boarding started.

We landed in Cape Town at approximately 11am, withdrew some South African rands from the ATM, and grabbed a taxi to take us to our hotel, the Belmond Mount Nelson (thanks ekscrunchy for your excellent recommendation). Situated in the Gardens neighborhood of Cape Town, the Mount Nelson is a historic hotel. The property is gorgeous with its pink façade, beautiful flowers, and views of Table Mountain. There is a charm to the place that makes me feel like I was transported back to the Victorian days when South Africa was still a British colony. We took advantage of a sale several months ago, along with the favorable exchange rate, and booked two junior suites in the Green Park building; the rooms are sizeable tastefully appointed.

We dropped our luggage in our rooms, took quick showers, and dove into Cape Town. We made advance reservations for a trip to Robben Island for 3pm this afternoon, so we were on our way to the ferry departure point at V&A Waterfront via taxi.

To bed now. More to come…

annhig Apr 10th, 2016 02:59 AM

TP - you are braver than me. perhaps I'm a bit of a nervous ninny when it comes to such things, but worrying about getting back to LHR in time for my onward flight would have given me indigestion, no matter how good the dim sum, and then the strain of worrying about missing a trip I had booked on the day of arrival would just about have finished me off!

looking forward to more...

Emmie_1997 Apr 10th, 2016 04:28 AM

Look forward to hearing more.....have a Tanzania trip coming and would love to go to Cape Town after!

diannelovestravel Apr 10th, 2016 06:13 AM

Hey there tripplanner001!

Keep the posts coming! Enjoy your trip and safe travels! Happy to have been a source of info for you!

Best
Dianne
Africa Direct USA

tripplanner001 Apr 10th, 2016 01:30 PM

Ann, I hear you and it really wasn't about the food or any sightseeing, but with nine hours at Heathrow, we knew we had the option of not staying in the airport for the entire time.

Emmie, you should definitely try to include Cape Town on your itinerary if possible. I don't know your preferences but I feel like I've fallen in love with the city just like I have with a few others.

Dianne, thank you again. Glad you are following along.


Robben Island

With a late morning arrival into Cape Town following two back-to-back redeye flights, we wanted to ease our way into our trip on our first afternoon on African soil. We decided on visiting Robben Island for our introduction to Cape Town given its significance to South Africa’s modern history, the ability to view the city from the water, and the relative ease of organizing a visit. Robben Island was where the country’s political leaders opposed to apartheid, including Nelson Mandela, were infamously incarcerated.

From our hotel, we made our way via taxi to V&A Waterfront with some time to do a quick stroll around the waterfront before it was time for our ferry departure. Despite its existence largely as a tourist hub with restaurants and souvenir shops, we enjoyed our brief time here. The area offered a lively vibe, and the views towards Table Mountain and surrounding peaks and the water were gorgeous. We were especially lucky when it came to the views as it was warm, sunny, and clear during our visit.

We made our way to the ticket desk and ferry dock for Robben Island about 45 minutes prior to our scheduled 3pm departure. We had made advanced reservations for Robben Island as we had known that there would be a possibility that it would be sold out when we wanted to visit. Located at the ferry dock is a small but interesting museum that houses exhibits about South Africa’s recent history with apartheid and the struggle for freedom. I enjoyed learning about some of the key individuals who made a difference in the country’s movement towards democracy although I was not aware of some of the key names such as Robert Sobukwe, the founder of the Pan-Africanist Congress. The exhibits gave me greater appreciation of what I was about to experience on Robben Island.

The ferry departed the dock at 3pm sharp and it was smooth sailing to Robben Island; the journey took approximately 45 minutes. Once on the island, we were divided into groups and herded onto a bus for an orientation tour of the island. On our bus tour we passed by key sites on the island including the prison buildings, a cemetery, and rock quarries where the political prisoners were forced to work. We even saw a handful of African penguins along the way. The tour consisted of three stops – at the home in which Robert Sobukwe was in incarcerated, a restroom and refreshment break, and at the main prison complex. At the restroom and refreshment break we were treated to gorgeous views of Table Mountain across the water as well as a rather unexpected colony of African penguins along the shore. The final and most important stop of the tour is the main prison complex, where we were met by a former political prisoner for the remainder of our visit to the island.

All the guides of the actual prison complex on Robben Island are led by former political prisoners who had served time here and ours was no exception. In addition to viewing some of the cells and common facilities, I appreciated hearing firsthand from our political prisoner guide about what life was really like as a prisoner on Robben Island, down to their segregated diets. Towards the end of the tour we were able to view former President Mandela’s jail cell.

While I typically dislike group tours, especially those that involve large numbers, we believed that the former political prisoner turned guide offered value and color to our visit in a way that we would never have experienced otherwise. Besides we did not mind having to sketch out and follow a self-generated itinerary only hours into our vacation.

The prison visit was followed by a ferry ride back to the waterfront, possibly the day’s last. What resulted was a long time of waiting for fellow guests but most importantly employees who worked on the island. Thankfully the return journey took just under 30 minutes.

Back at the dock we made our way to Baia Restaurant, an upscale seafood place located inside the Victoria Wharf shopping complex, for dinner. The restaurant is Portuguese-themed and serves a good variety of local seafood. We were particularly pleased with our appetizers, tempura lobsters and abalone, but had mixed reviews when it came to the main entrees. The seafood platter I ordered was decent but not the best. One of my traveling companions ordered fish and came to the same uninspiring conclusion. Another ordered a beef steak and was satisfied with his choice.

Following dinner, we walked over to the Victoria and Alfred Hotel, from where we hailed a taxi cab back to our hotel.

Table Mountain

We gave ourselves two options for our first full day in Cape Town – either a self-guided walking tour of the city’s central core or a hike up Table Mountain. The first order of business on Saturday morning was a check of the weather conditions on Table Mountain and it was a “go” given the warm and sunny outlook for the day. We initially hesitated on visiting Table Mountain so early into our stay in Cape Town, especially given the amount of physical activity required and our inability to recover from our long international flights yet. However we did not want to risk a downturn in the weather on our remaining days in the city and decided to go for it.

Fortified with a significant breakfast at our hotel, we took a short taxi ride to the entrance to the Platteklip Gorge hike, not too far from the lower station of the aerial tramway. There are numerous trails up and down Table Mountain but we decided upon Platteklip Gorge as it was the easiest and most straightforward. The hike up Table Mountain took a little over three hours for us, although it could easily be done in about two to two and a half hours with shorter breaks; we took our time with our ascent given that we were still coming off our international flights and still felt a bit “lazy”. There was nothing technically challenging about the hike and could be done by anyone with a reasonable degree of fitness. The trail goes up the front face of Table Mountain, mostly up staircases and along gravel paths. Along the ways are views up the front face of the Mountain along with Devil’s Peak and Lions Head as well as the city below. We also spent time to admire the geology of the Mountain, which became more interesting in the final section of the ascent.

From the top of Table Mountain, we turned left and made our way along the table towards Maclears Beacon. The trail towards Maclears is mostly along flat paths with a couple places that offered any type of elevation. We were surrounded by fynbos throughout much of this walk as we had experienced during our hike up the mountain. We also noticed the difference in geology among various sections of the table. For example, the area around Maclears was carpeted with rounded boulders while the previous section had rocks that were more square and rectangular in shape. All around were gorgeous views of the scenery below; we saw parts of Cape Peninsula clearly from up above as well as the city below and Robben Island just off the coast.

The walk to Maclears Beacon and back took about an hour and from there it was another hour or so to the aerial cableway’s upper station. The walk to the station was again supposed to be quick and relatively straightforward, except that we lingered at various viewpoints to take in the magnificent scenery all around us. It was along the way to the station that we saw the best sceneries of the day.

Near the cableway station is a nice café with a good variety of food options. We ate a long, late afternoon lunch at the café and spent some more time admiring everything that was around us.

The views on top of Table Mountain rank among some of the best we’ve seen throughout our travels. Perhaps it’s because of the surrounding mountains with the city and the blue waters below, but Table Mountain very much reminded me of the views we experienced atop Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. As a matter of fact, much about Cape Town reminded me of Rio.

We made our way down Table Mountain via cableway around 4pm. The ride down was only a couple of minutes in duration on a rotating cable car, which I did not expect nor had I experienced in the past. From the bottom of the mountain, we waited about five minutes for a taxi cab, which we took back to our hotel for showers and short afternoon naps.

For dinner we headed to Carne SA, situated in the Gardens neighborhood just off Long Street, an easy walk from our hotel. Known for its high-quality meats, we really enjoyed the food offered. The steaks were divine and went very well with some South African wines. My only complaint was that the service was very done on the night we visited, which we understood was the result of a sudden temporary shortage in the kitchen.

Today was another glorious day in Cape Town and we spent it touring Cape Peninsula by car. Tomorrow we’re off for a self-guided tour of the downtown areas and Tuesday will be spent at Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens and hopefully another hike or two. More to come later…

annhig Apr 10th, 2016 01:42 PM

I agree TP that Capetown should be part of anyone's first visit to SA [and probably their second and third too!] Like you we were lucky enough to have a clear day on our first day there so we grabbed the opportunity to go up the mountain, in our case using the revolving cable car to go up and down as we wanted to go to Kirstenbosch gardens in the afternoon.

something to remember when you get there - the shop has one of the best selections of beautiful souvenirs that I remember seeing anywhere. Take your credit card!

Lolazahra Apr 10th, 2016 01:47 PM

Capetown is one of my favorite cities in the world, having visited four times with a fifth coming in July. Even so, reading your TR brings a smile to my face. Thank you and keep it coming!

nina88 Apr 10th, 2016 04:52 PM

Thanks, tripplanner001... looking forward to your TA list when you come back. Meantime, enjoying your TR and getting excited to our future SA visit.


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