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A Photo Link, 100 words, and an Itinerary...

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Jan 12th, 2011, 08:43 PM
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A Photo Link, 100 words, and an Itinerary...

....At least those are the words atravelynn used to persuade me to get started on my long overdue trip report.

I didn’t think another report on Kruger and the surrounding area was necessary, but after taking a look at the Southern Africa Index of reports, and encouragement from atravelynn, I’ve realized one more can’t hurt.

My visit (September 2010) included Cape Town and a couple of private reserves in the Kruger area, namely Ngala Lodge and Exeter River Lodge, both managed by andBeyond. Tanya from Go2Africa has made arrangements for all my Southern Africa trips, including the one coming up later this year. Yes, yet another visit! If someone had told me two years ago that I’d be visiting the region this many times in such a short timeframe, I’d have thought they were nuts. I’ve got the fever bad!

I’d been to Cape Town before, but I wanted to visit again primarily for another walk with Baboon Matters. I enjoyed it very much the second time around, and would be happy to visit yet again. This time though, the baboons wandered off into an area off limits (for us humans) so our encounter did not last as long as I would have liked. We stayed with the baboons for twice as long last time, and I wanted more then. Maybe next time I’ll get my fill

I thought it might be nice to walk around Bo Kaap once more, and it was. The locals were quite friendly, which I really came to appreciate after realizing the amount of tourist traffic they have to tolerate. Funny thing is that as I was wandering around a local came up and asked me for directions! Nice to know I blend in so well.

Went whale watching in Gansbaai which was nice, but not nearly as interesting as going out on the shark diving boats. We saw a few shark boats while we were out there, as well as a few sharks which had been lured in, but the experience wasn’t as good as being on the actual shark diving boat. Getting good whale pictures is a challenge that will have to be mastered some other time. If I hadn't taken the pictures, I'd be hard pressed to identify any living creature in those shots.
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Jan 12th, 2011, 10:31 PM
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Thanks for your trip report. Even short reports can spark interest in something. For me, Ngala Lodge and Exeter River Lodge, how many days at each, and can you compare them?

regards - tom
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Jan 13th, 2011, 07:57 AM
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I laughed out loud when your title topped my list of posts.

Thanks for the Baboon Matters and whale watching shots. Another trip coming up? Hurray! Your reports can be a series of Photo Link, 100 words, and an Itinerary... #1, #2, etc.
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Jan 13th, 2011, 08:20 AM
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"If someone had told me two years ago that I’d be visiting the region this many times in such a short timeframe, I’d have thought they were nuts. I’ve got the fever bad!"

Me too! Glad to hear I'm not the only one. Have fun on the next one.
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Jan 13th, 2011, 12:57 PM
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Hey Femi - so where's the photo link??
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Jan 13th, 2011, 01:50 PM
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Ok, I'm pretty lazy, but even I realize I can do a bit better than a 100 words! I'll get to work on the photos cateyes, crack that whip!

After four nights in Cape Town we flew up to Nelspruit and, one 3 hr road transfer later, we arrived at Ngala Lodge. Even before we got to the lodge or entered the reserve area we started seeing wildlife. Although it was pitch black, a passing car had spotted lions. The car headlights picked out five (!) of them lounging against the perimeter fence. Surreal.

I enjoyed my four night stay at Ngala Lodge. The food was good, rooms were a tiny bit dated but more than adequate. Believe the staff when they insist that you 'lock' your doors using the little latches. The baboons are well versed in all manner of methods for gaining entry into the rooms and ultimately access to all the goodies they know tourists love. They roam the grounds trying the doors and windows and eventually are successful in finding the door that a hapless tourist has left unlatched because he'll only be gone for a second. I thought the baboons were pretty aggressive when trying to get into a room, but oddly enough, they were never near the restaurant (robber squirrel and cheeky bird territory) or if I was walking around they would avoid me. They definitely possessed a very different mien from the Baboon Matters baboons.

The wildlife around the lodge was almost as good as being on a game drive. There was a Nyala mom with a calf that was only a few hours old when we arrived, it was still wet from the birth and mom was licking it clean. It was amazing to watch the little one’s progress over the next four days. The warthogs were a hoot, and were the clowns of the show. Elephants came down to drink at the waterhole. One big male made it clear that it was HIS waterhole and everyone else complied with that royal decree. He took as long as he wanted, and only after he was done did the warthogs, impala and baboons scramble back down to drink. I would watch the bats, roosting up in the thatch of the breakfast area, snuggle up to one another and occassionally jockey for position. As with most lodges, an escort is required at night, and our first night there the escort commented that there were buffalo all around. I told him I wanted to see one, so he turned his flashlight to the right, and sure enough, not twenty paces away, there was a huge male silently chewing his cud. Unbelievable that he was so close and yet I had no clue!

Lyson was my ranger and he was great. I admire his patience in answering the same questions (from different occupants of our vehicle) over and over and over again. I also learned a lot from Jimmy our tracker. When we stopped for sundowners, he brought the spoor to life. It was like watching a movie; seeing which way the honey badger had gone, and the stiff black hairs he left in his wake. Lionesses who had wandered by, and the hyena who was lurking a short distance away, it was endless. Then one time a hyena did decide to invite himself to our little sundowner party. The hairs on the back of my neck are prickling even now with that memory. While in the vehicle I never realized how big and powerful hyenas actually are. This guy was stood almost 5 feet tall. He materialized out of the darkness and wandered over. He saw that he was outnumbered and, from the body language of the guides, not welcome. A few minutes later he melted away, but I could sense he was still nearby in the shadows. Very creepy.

I’ve observed the debate on the boards about sharing a vehicle with newbies, and I would have requested that I be placed with more experienced guests, but I was travelling with my sister who was a newbie herself. Overall it wasn’t bad, we were placed with newbies at both lodges, but I may request a change next time. I’m past the point of obsessing about checking off the big five and requesting that we make an extra effort to see ‘Lions!’. I thought it would make for some nice photo ops (and it did)so I didn’t mind too much.

Speaking of photos, Tom, I know you'd had issues with the guides understanding how to set up photo ops. I read your report on Ngala before I left, and I was a little concerned, but decided not to let photo ops (or the lack thereof) overshadow the focus of my trip which was really to learn more about wildlife. I've had one guide (at Kwandwe) who was fantastic at setting the scene, but then he was a pretty avid photographer himself. I've decided to stick with andBeyond because I value the knowledge and training of their staff. If I want to get really serious about my shots, I'll have to cough up a bit more dough for a private vehicle (this may happen sooner than I think) or go on a safari with an emphasis on photography.
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Jan 13th, 2011, 02:48 PM
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The promised photos:
http://picasaweb.google.com/FemiFrom...eat=directlink
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Jan 13th, 2011, 04:51 PM
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Thank you for sharing your adventure. I'm looking forward to your next installment and review of Exeter River Lodge as I'll be staying for 4 nights at the beginning of August.
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Jan 13th, 2011, 06:56 PM
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Femi, I'm flattered you remember my trip report of my safari in 2008. FWIW, if anyone else cares, here is link to it - http://www.fodors.com/forums/threads...4&tid=35161085

Being on game drive vehicles with newbies is a blessing and curse for me . Like you, I no longer "check off the big 5". And in fact am just as excited to see one of the little 5. Seen 3 still but missing 2 of them, the elephant shrew and rhinoceros beetle. Many newbies are fun for their excitement as they see and are so close to wildlife. But they also can "waste" your time. A really good experienced guide can satisfy both of you. But still not like having your own vehicle. I've had conversations with camp mangers about "alumnus" vehicles for experienced/previous guests. But the managers say sure - get a group together and come over, leaving it all up to me!! I think they feel the everyday logistics of it would not be worth the effort for them. Nor perhaps practical.

One more thing about Ngala. You mention driving into Ngala after flying into Nelspruit. So you got to Ngala to late for the game drive, right? Did Ngala still charge you full price for just the bed and dinner? Do you feel it would have been worth it to after flying into Nelspruit instead to stay over night there and drive into Ngala next morning? (Costing a hotel in Nelspruit but saving a nights cost in Ngala).

Looking forward to you report on Exeter. While I won't go back to Ngala Lodge, I would go back to the &Beyond camp Kirkmans. Kirkmans like Exeter is also in Sabi Sand but they are at opposite sides, or top/bottom. In fact, I was contemplating going to Exeter and Dulini in May of 2010 but did not. Maybe next year 2012?

thanks again - tom
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Jan 13th, 2011, 08:04 PM
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Thanks for posting the report.

I missed it in 2008, I was in Europe at the time for almost a month.

Glad to read it now .
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Jan 13th, 2011, 08:26 PM
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Thanks for this, Femi. We'll start our safari with 4 nights at Ngala Lodge this September, so I'm glad we're likely to see quite a lot of wildlife around the place while recovering from jet-lag, in case I don't feel up to two drives a day just to start with. Didn't sign up in time for River Lodge, so will be going to Dulini instead; looking forward to hearing about River -- it looks so wonderful. Not sure that Dulini's situation is quite so nice, but supposedly they have fewer in the game drive vehicle, so that may be a plus. Love the pictures!
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Jan 13th, 2011, 08:43 PM
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Tom, I never questioned being charged full price for that first night as that seems to be standard hotel practice regardless of location. If we had spent the first night in Nelspruit we would have ended up missing the game drive the next morning. That, or set out from Nelspruit at about 3AM b-(

And thanks for letting me know what happened when you asked for more experienced vehicle mates. I think I simply won’t bother now.

I've just taken a qucick look at what others have said about Exeter River Lodge, which I'm sure I did before my trip, but I now have a different understanding of what other writers were saying. More on that later.
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Jan 13th, 2011, 08:43 PM
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Tom, I never questioned being charged full price for that first night as that seems to be standard hotel practice regardless of location. If we had spent the first night in Nelspruit we would have ended up missing the game drive the next morning. That, or set out from Nelspruit at about 3AM b-(

And thanks for letting me know what happened when you asked for more experienced vehicle mates. I think I simply won’t bother now.

I've just taken a qucick look at what others have said about Exeter River Lodge, which I'm sure I did before my trip, but I now have a different understanding of what other writers were saying. More on that later.
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Jan 13th, 2011, 08:47 PM
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Oops. Sorry for the double post, my computer seized up.

We had good wild dog sightings at Ngala. Also a hyena den with pups and a flash of a mother leopard (very skittish) with a cub that was almost as big as she was. We saw the big five during our four night stay, and 3 kinds of mongoose. The terrain was covered in mopane trees that made finding animals more challenging. With an extended stay like ours, I think the rangers can relax a bit and move at a slower pace i.e. stop to enjoy the little things like a flap necked chameleon, in between looking for the vaunted Big 5. I think they try to match vehicle occupants by length of stay.

I forgot to mention that there are walking safaris available, and I went twice. They are scheduled after the late breakfast, so it was quite hot for one of them, but I was comfortable on another day. Also because of the timing, most of us found it very hard to muster up the energy and motivation to go back out, so for the second walk I was the only participant and of course found that to be more enjoyable. The goal of the walks is quite different from game drives in that the goal is to NOT run into any big animals while you are on foot. I was pretty happy with that! The focus was mostly on understanding the terrain and vegetation a bit better. It felt nice to be able to stretch my legs as there is very little opportunity for exercise during a typical day at the lodges. Even the staff get cabin fever. I heard that one of the staff was doing laps around the soccer field in their residential area, when another staff member looked out to see a leopard calmly watching the lady performing her morning exercise routine. Yikes!

After four nights at Ngala Lodge it was time to move on to the last leg of our journey, a road transfer to Exeter River Lodge which took about 2 hours. I had no idea it would take that long, nor did I realize that we would actually have to leave the park, head for the tarred road, and then re-enter to get to the next lodge. I had hoped that the transfer would simply be another game drive, except that we would end up at a different lodge, but it was not to be.
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Jan 13th, 2011, 09:51 PM
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"...being charged full price for that first night as that seems to be standard hotel practice regardless of location."

But you missed the game drive. At least here in USA most all hotels do not include a game drive in their rates . I understand that if you would have come in the next morning, you would miss the camp's morning game drive. But the way I look at it for the cost of that first night you still get one game drive. You did not, only a B&B. However, as they say - you pays your money and you takes your choice!!

Does not surprise me about the 2 hour drive between -private reserves-. Timbavati and Sabi Sand. Last time I did this I flew (Timbavati to Sabi Sand), private charter, $300 for 2 people. Takes about 20 min and I enjoy the bumpy little ride.

I encourage you to talk with &Beyond about grouping guests in vehicles by safari experience. And get back to us. Also about requesting a guide who is into photography. At one of my fav camps in the Timbavati, Kings Camp, I always have Patrick or Morne as our guide. Both carry cameras and understand why I may want to move the vehicle 2 feet one way or another.

Also, when I came back from a safari in May of 2007 I started a thread here about camps organizing vehicles by guest experience. (That May I had several newly weds on safari on honeymoon. Giving another meaning to "safari newbie"). That thread is here and had 87 replies - http://www.fodors.com/community/afri...-operators.cfm

See, what a 100 word report can start

regards - tom
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Jan 14th, 2011, 06:23 AM
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Ah, yes, that is indeed the thread I remember. Can't believe that much time has gone by! Thanks for pulling it up again, it certainly received many passionate responses and it was nice to also have camp owners chime in. Well, I think that answers my question; to get the experience I seek it would have to be a private vehicle.

The one condition I have before booking a private vehicle is that I must have already spent time with the ranger and tracker so that I know we get along and they understand my needs. No point spending all that money in the hopes of getting better photos, only to end up with a ranger who is not passionate about photography. Same goes for my other desire to spend as long as I want at any given site because I want to learn more about what we are observing. It would have to be with a guide who really 'gets' me.

So as I make my rounds of the various camps and lodges, I'm also looking for potential locations to which I would return.

Yeah, so much for 100 words atravelynn!
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Jan 14th, 2011, 06:31 PM
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I enjoyed all of your photos, but especially like the one where the Cape Buffalo is staring right at the viewer with a somewhat surley look, and the sunset was sooo lovely. But all were nice-thanks for sharing!
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Jan 15th, 2011, 09:15 AM
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That first 100 is the toughest.

What great accounts about Ngala! I'd love to see a newly born Nyala!

Looking forward to the photos of the great sightings you described around Ngala, including the camp itself.
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Jan 15th, 2011, 11:45 AM
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Agree, if having a private vehicle, you should know your ranger. He must be more than willing to get up earlier, take a breakfast box, and leave camp in the afternoon an hour before typical drives. And of course be willing to position the vehicle as you request. Of the around 15-20 different guides I've had, as simply assigned to by the camps, only about 5 were photographers.

atravelynn- Here's photo of Ngala Lodge room looking in from door. The nice large 2 sink bathroom is through door on left. The cloths closet is just to left out of picture.
http://tomgraham.smugmug.com/SAFARI-...12_XNaHQ/Large
This is the main large common area lounge. The breakfast and lunch and sometimes dinner room is at the far end ahead. (Also a boma). The bar is to left out of picture. A very nice large comfy area.
http://tomgraham.smugmug.com/SAFARI-...55_pLmsd/Large

I liked the facilities at Ngala Lodge, but I had just come over from Kings Camp (close by) where are even better, IMHO. (FWIW, at Kings Camp two great photographer guides, Patrick and Morne).

regards - tom
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Jan 15th, 2011, 04:04 PM
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Thanks Karn. That buffalo was one of about 600 that surrounded our vehicle as they came up from drinking at the waterhole. Our guides had a lot of experience with cattle, 600 is their estimate. I didn't have a clue!

Lynn I don't have photos of the lodge itself (thanks Tom for adding the link) but the animal photos are included in my post on Jan 13, 11 at 2:48pm

The rooms at Exeter are huge, and tastefully decorated. One of my criteria for lodging was that a heating/cooling system had to be available. I didn’t use the system at Ngala, but I did at Exeter. In fact I was really happy to have it at Exeter because of the mosquitoes (no mosquito nets). I tried using the fan at first, but it wasn’t enough to hold them at bay. I hunted high and low for insect spray in the room (the kind that kills them, not a repellant!) but was out of luck. The breeze from the system worked, and seeing as it was on, I adjusted the temperature to my liking rather than trying to make do and save energy. I came away from Exeter with a few mosquito bites (made me glad I decided to take Malarone after all), but I’m not sure exactly when they happened.

I was amused by one guest's description of a little brown snake crawling out of the drain as he was using the outdoor shower. I didn’t find it quite so charming when I went to sit out on my deck and almost sat on a snake that fit the same profile. I don’t know which of us (me or the snake) got the bigger shock! He beat a hasty retreat, after which I decided I was better off standing while I watched the elephants frolic in the river below.

Food at Exeter was very similar to that at Ngala. We spent most of our vehicle time with a couple who were on their first safari trip, but had already stayed at another lodge and so had seen the big five and were familiar with the basics. Luckily for me one of them was also developing an interest in birding, so that became more of a focus for us.

Animals were easier to find at Exeter, and when we did find them they were comparatively much tamer. Especially the leopards. If your goal is to see leopard, this is the place to be. Also the vegetation here allowed for better visibility.

Now for the not-so-good news; I enjoyed the game drives at Exeter the least of all the andBeyond lodges I’ve visited. I could see our guide was very knowledgeable about some things, and overall I still had a good experience, but it was not of the caliber I have come to expect. I felt like I was seen as more of a commodity than an individual, and that staff were more jaded than at other locations. My ranger did say in the very beginning to let him know from the start if I wasn’t happy with anything rather than wait till the end, but there were so many little things, it didn’t seem worthwhile. The chatter on the radio was what drove me the craziest, it was incessant. At one point I considered switching vehicles, but after observing the behavior of other guides, it seemed easier to just stay put.

There was a lot of vehicle traffic at various sightings and we’d have to wait our turn, and then I felt like we couldn’t really sit and enjoy what we were looking at because the clock was ticking and we had to move on to make room for others. I thought if we found our own sighting things would be better, but not so. Understandably we had to notify other vehicles if we found something, so they could share the experience. I came away feeling frazzled rather than rejuvenated.

After this trip I can understand why Kruger is such a popular destination for safari, most especially the Sabi Sands area. I think this is the closest I’ve been able to get to wildlife as the animals here are much more accustomed to traffic. I really, really wanted to like Exeter but in the end, I would not return. I would consider returning to Ngala, especially if I could have the same ranger and tracker again. I enjoyed Ngala most because of the company of Lyson and Jimmy.
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