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All Aboard! Southern Cross Journey on the Shongololo Express.

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Dec 1st, 2009, 06:55 PM
  #61
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If I had planned a private trip, I would not have included Great Zimbabwe on the itinerary, but I am so glad I got to visit.

Day 10. Antelope Park.
Another great day. Even better than I imagined. It started out rather chaotic as it looked like the park staff were a little overwhelmed by the size of our group, but they made up for it as the day went by. There are a multitude of activities on offer at the park, but it turns out no one asked the elephants how they felt about the schedule, because by the afternoon the elephant activities were abruptly curtailed.

Upon our arrival there were sign up lists for
Walking with the elephants
Riding the elephants
Swimming/bathing with the elephants
Boat ride on the creek/river (no shade)
Horse riding
Riding on the horse cart
Walking with the lions
Watching lion feeding
…and probably a couple more that I forget.

The lion feeding and walking with the lions were prearranged and we were divided into groups with different time slots. The price of these activities were already included and the others were extra. It seemed rather strange, but the train staff brought soft drinks along in coolers, for us to buy during our stay. The park served lemonade, as much as we wanted, and this was one of the few times on the trip when my thirst was adequately quenched. No alcohol was served on the premises. Apparently they thought the better of combining alcohol with wild animals in close proximity, and the value of this rule was proven that afternoon.

I had been speaking with the elephant keepers in the morning because I was curious about the difference in training for African elephants in comparison to Asian (African are more difficult). The African elephants definitely have a mind of their own, and they weren’t afraid to show it. Right after a ride was completed by some guests from the train and they had alighted, one of the elephants refused to cooperate any more, threw off his keeper, pulled off the blanket upon which the guests had been seated, and ran for the river. He dove in and made a beeline for the opposite bank. The other 2 elephants had seen all this and then they too became restless and barely controllable. Long story short, all elephant interactions for the rest of the day were cancelled. Make sure you watch the sample video playing in the gift shop before you decide to go swimming with the elephants. They seemed far more boisterous than their Asian counterparts. You sign an indemnity form before you are allowed to participate in most of the activities.

Walking with the lions was a great experience, my group walked with three 9 month old rambunctious cubs. Lion moms really have their work cut out for them! Another group walked with older (18 months) cubs, and I can’t imagine how much harder it might have been to keep them in line. The guides go over the pack rules with you before the walk, and remind you as you go along.

The staff at the park were very professional, and what was most obvious was the interchangeable roles they played. The staff who guided us on our walk with lions also waited on us during lunch, etc. They were a very professional and capable bunch. The grounds are idyllic, and well manicured. The location is used for weddings and other events.

There was a marimba band composed of school boys that played for most of the day. This counted as an extra curricular activity for them.

After a long exciting day we closed with a visit to the local school, located very near the train station. The kids performed dances and skits and recited poetry. You could tell they had been practicing for a long time and had been looking forward to the day as much as we had. At the very end, the teachers took us on a tour around the classrooms.

As the train was less than a quarter of a mile away, I asked to walk back but was told no. I felt perfectly as there was a steady stream of kids of all ages along the way, but no reason was given as to why I could not walk.
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Dec 1st, 2009, 08:47 PM
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Wow sounds like quite the day! Your write ups are wonderful. Did your group have any gifts for the school class or make a donation of any type?

I'm wondering if you have any comments on the Natural History Museum and the Bushman Cave?
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Dec 2nd, 2009, 05:33 AM
  #63
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Some people had brought pens and other small items for the children, and that was placed on a table during the gathering. One of the teachers passed a can around for cash donations.

We visited the bushman cave the next day (I had actually forgotten about that)I'll write more about it. Are you referring to the natural history museum in Maputo? or a different one?
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Dec 2nd, 2009, 07:35 AM
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Day 12 - Bulawayo & Matobo Park - references visting the Natural History Museum - one of the best of its kinds in the Southern Hemisphere also an Art Gallery as off rail activities.
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Dec 2nd, 2009, 05:15 PM
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Hi, Femi - I just returned from a trip and am having a blast getting caught up with your trip report. I actually booked a while back before going away. Leanna and I will be meeting up - we are old friends who met up on this forum about 6 years ago. We have met twice and keep in touch but this will be the first time we have done a trip together. Anymore Fodorites want to join up? Thanks again for your great coverage.
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Dec 2nd, 2009, 06:33 PM
  #66
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Hmm now that I am reviewing the itinerary it seems that I was supposed to either visit an art gallery or the railway museum. Somehow it seems I did neither. Not sure how my group missed that. Others who made it to the railway museum reported that it was just ok, and that the art gallery was not worth the time or effort, and these reports were from more than one source.

Wow, now I'm reading about the natural history museum! Sorry I missed that! I've pulled up pictures on the web to make sure I haven't simply forgotten about the visit, but no, we really did not go in. I do remember driving past though...
I also looked at the pictures of the trip that were posted by Monique and she does not show any evidence of having gone in either. It does look like she visited a very different caves though. Our site consisted of granite boulders balanced on top of other boulders which created an overhang, and there were drawings on the sides of the boulders. Looks like Monique got to visit actual caves.

Louise, how cool is that? I can't think of a more extraordinary situation for a get together.
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Dec 2nd, 2009, 06:35 PM
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Day 11. Matopos.
Even though it was the weekend, Bulawayo was still much more quiet than I expected. My impression was one of lots of space; Wide empty boulevards flanked by blooming Jacaranda trees, expansive lawns, houses on big lots. We got picked up in 4x4s and rode through the suburbs on our way to Matopos. I felt rather anxious about riding in an open topped vehicle on the freeway (no roll bars, no seat belts). Oh well, we made it there and back intact.

It was another day of wonderful weather. Warm sun with a nice breeze. No shade though. We had some very good guides from African Wanderings. Our guide Norman was very knowledgeable about the local flora. He showed us plants that could be used as a sort of wild soap (wish I could remember what it was called). Apparently Matopos is famous for the high concentration of leopard. Alas there were none to be seen by us. Norman camps there frequently and told us he had seen leopard spoor around his tent on several occasions when he would emerge in the morning.

It was a nice walk up huge slabs of granite to the final resting place of Cecil Rhodes. It was easy to understand why he chose that spot. Lovely views in every direction as far as the eye could see.

Here were split into groups, separating those who opted to go Rhino tracking from the rest of us. Reports were that it was a worthwhile experience. My group then headed off to view the cave paintings of the San. They didn’t actually live in the caves, but left paintings that were descriptive of the wildlife of that time.

After a stop for lunch at a hotel on the outskirts of Bulawayo, my group proceeded to Chipangali animal orphanage (R270). I enjoyed being able to see the animals at such close quarters, but the unfortunate reason for this is that it is because there is a lack of space and the enclosures are rather small. They are aware of this and are looking for ways to enlarge some of the enclosures, but because of the economic situation in Zim, funding is very tight. There were several leopards and lions, a warthog, a side striped jackal, monkeys, birds, crocs...I could go on and on. Most animals had been rescued (orphans, poaching, bushfires) and will probably never be able to be returned to the wild.

We did a sort of mini city tour of Bulawayo, but there was not much to see that was of interest to me.
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Dec 2nd, 2009, 07:52 PM
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Great information Femi; enjoy your writing style.

When you move onto Hwange Park I'll be interested in reading your comparison of it with previous parks and game drives. Is there a different topography or a greater number of certain species? Do you have any information about the optional overnight stay at Sikumi Tree Lodge? Thank you.
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Dec 3rd, 2009, 07:13 PM
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Day12. Hwange.
I met the best ranger of my trip in Hwange. Cleopatos was living his dream, having wanted to be a ranger ever since he was a kid. It took a few moments for him to open up after our usual (for us) semi-chaotic departure from the train. His passion soon became evident and it was a wonderful experience. He told us that his family is now used to his late arrivals at events because he is always wandering off course to get a better sighting of one animal or another, and then loses track of time. He was very knowledgeable, and had no problem answering any of my questions.

The vehicles were an entirely different matter. The 4x4 we were in had worn brake pads, so every time we came to a halt at an animal sighting, we were accompanied by a screech that was like nails on a blackboard. Amazingly, it did not appear to frighten any of the animals. Another vehicle had to be push-started every time it was allowed to stall.

Cleopatos more than made up for all of that though. He enjoyed sitting and watching just as much as I did if not more. I was extremely disappointed that I was not able to ride back to the train with him as he was scheduled to be with the guests who were spending the night at Sikumi lodge. We were warned by the staff on the train that it was rustic, but in spite of that the guests were in for a bit of a shock when they saw how basic the rooms were. It apparently took a few hours to get the water turned on. I heard one guest tell another to be sure he kept both his eyes and mouth closed while in the pool, others thought it best to just abandon the idea altogether. The buffet lunch was ok for $15. The best thing about the lodge was that it had a great view of the nearby waterhole and the steady parade of animals coming down to drink.

List of sightings:
Bush pigs
Warthogs
Black backed Jackal
A few Ostriches with about 20 chicks.
Huge elephant herds (loved it!)
Lion
Giraffe
Sable
Baboons
Buffalo (hundreds of them going to the waterhole for a drink)
Birds: African Hoopoe, Gray Lorie, and a drogon chasing off a bird of prey.
I think we saw more, but this was all I wrote down. Guests who spent the night at Sikumi saw leopard.

We would stop for a closer look at a bird or something else, and like ghosts, the silhouettes of dozens of elephants would materialize. It was dry season with no leaves on the trees, but the ability of the elephants to hide in plain sight was stunning. I did worry about the amount of foot traffic along the tarred road that ran right through the reserve. There were elephants less than a 100 feet away from where people sat by the side of the road waiting for a ride. Cleo said it was a matter of mutual respect between the people and the elephants. When I commented that it seemed we were in the perfect terrain for ostrich but hadn’t seen any, Cleo made a left turn and drove about 500 feet and waved his arm at all the ostrich couples strolling about with little chicks in tow!

Beachnut to answer your question about topography, the soil was sandier than anywhere else I’d ever been and Cleo said it was because of our proximity to the Kalahari. The trees were very dry and looked dead, but that is apparently because it is the dry season, and they come to life again with the rains.

The 4x4 I was in for the ride home was not in alignment and kept veering right, requiring both hands and the full attention of the ranger. Little wonder that the only sightings we encountered on that three hour drive was impala and a giraffe that stepped into the road right in front of us (we swerved to avoid him). The afternoon drive and the trip back to the train was painfully silent and seemed interminable. It is the first time I've ever wished a game drive would come to an end. I asked the ranger how long he had worked there, and it had been several years. I wasn't very sympathetic when one of the other guests complained that they had seen 'nothing' on the morning drive, but now the reason was agonizingly clear.

We were welcomed back to the train by a local dance troupe. Nine high school kids ranged in age from 13-18 and I thought they were very good. They were dancing for tips, but when I stopped for a chat, they were seeking sponsorship so they could become more professionals. As it was they had created costumes by cutting up blankets, and wanted instead to wear matching shirts, ties and trousers. They also gave me a two page handwritten letter explaining detailed goals and objectives of the troupe. I asked the train manager if he would help me coordinate something for them, but he wanted no part of it. I couldn’t figure out how to get the supplies on my own, and I didn’t want to leave cash. The boys put on a brave face, but I don’t know who was more disappointed, me or them.
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Dec 3rd, 2009, 09:11 PM
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I'll have to remember to prepare for the dance troupe. You must have kept great notes daily.
At your next stop, Livingstone; did you see the Livingstone Museum ? I've heard that the souvenir shopping in town is varied and good. Any thoughts / did you get anything special?
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Dec 4th, 2009, 05:55 AM
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Femi-Great report. I was interested in what you said about your "safari from the van" in Kruger because I spent 4.5 hours in a bus on safari in Kruger and saw just as much as I saw the following day in a safari vehicle. I was told before going that you cannot do a safari from a bus, but this clearly was not true. And the time spent on the air conditioned bus was a lot more comfortable than the 9 hours spent in the safari vehicle the next day. Both were fun and I am glad I experienced a safar both ways.

Looking forward to more of your report.
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Dec 4th, 2009, 04:34 PM
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Thanks Shelley.

Beachnut I didn't see anything appealing for souveneirs of Livingston. Maybe we were not taken to the shopping area because we were running short on time.

Day 13. Zambia
We were going to be calling the Victoria Falls station home for the rest of the trip. The town of Vic Falls is quite small and easy to navigate on foot and the train station is in a central location behind the Victoria Falls Hotel. We had high tea there one afternoon, looks like it would be a great place to spend more time.

The people who had chosen to spend the night at Sikumi Lodge were not with us this day, as they were scheduled to visit Zambia in a couple of days. Turns out a few of them decided it was not worth the trouble and chose to spend the time in Zimbabwe instead, and so they never got to see Livingston.

We rode to the Zambian border with the train's vans, and we got to walk across the border bridge on foot which was an enjoyable way to stretch our legs. It was also our first sighting of the falls and it was definitely a wow moment even though we would soon experience closer views.

Our first stop in Livingston was the Natural History Museum. Initially I thought the museum was just ok, but I had wandered away from our assigned museum guide and our huge group. By the time I completed my solo tour, the group tour was still in progress and so I decided to tag along again. By this point several other people had also drifted away, so the group was smaller and I was able to pay closer attention to the guide. His tone was very monotonous, it seemed like he was in the habit of leading large groups of children around and had a set speech. In spite of this he turned out to be quite knowledgeable, and I learned more than I had on my own.

As we were again running short on time we were driven through the market, rather than being allowed to wander around on our own. This was fine with me as it was a market for the locals, and driving past was enough to satisfy my curiosity.

There is a lot of construction going on in Livingston in preparation for the World Cup next year. A few of the countries in southern Africa are expecting to capitalize on the influx of tourists, and are hoping most tourists will plan to spend some of their time with South Africa’s neighbors.

We had lunch at a nice location beside the Zambezi, but service was incredibly slow. The guides must have been aware of this though, because they gave us more time than usual for lunch here. Those that opted for the lunch time boat cruise reported that they had an enjoyable time.

We ended our visit to Zambia with a tour of the falls. Even though it was low season it was still impressive. I found Vic Falls made more of an impact than Iguassu falls because the height of Vic Falls adds to the drama of the setting.

This was our second evening for dinner off the train (the first was in Maputo). We were driven a little way out of town to a restaurant called Elephant Wallow. It was a challenge finding the location in the dark. The evening turned out to be just ok. The food was ok and the dancers that provided the entertainment felt very commercial. Although I can understand the sentiment behind this arrangement, a few of us agreed that we would rather have had dinner on the train.
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Dec 4th, 2009, 05:50 PM
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Low water level is still lots of water for the falls.
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Dec 5th, 2009, 12:20 PM
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Very true Lynn. I think it has to be seen to be believed. I now wonder if visiting in the dry season allows for a better appreciation of the falls because you have a better perspective on the height and width when the rocks are not obscured by water.

Day 14. Chobe.
Yet another wonderful day! I know I keep reiterating this, but as our itinerary relied so heavily on good weather, I appreciated our incredibly good luck daily.

We drove to the Zim/Botswana border and got picked up by Botswana staff in 4x4s on the other side. Each time we crossed the border (into Zam and Bots) I thought the change in the demeanor of the locals was palpable. No more casual waves and ready smiles. But then I guess most people would appear to be relatively grumpy when compared with Zimbabweans. I kept reminding myself that people in the other countries were displaying behavior that was closer to what I was used to at home. Indeed sometimes when I return from a particularly friendly destination, I have to remind myself that I don’t need to say hello to every single person in my local grocery store!

Our activities were arranged by the Chobe Marina lodge. We were split into two groups. One group went on the game drive first and the other went on the river cruise and then we swapped in the afternoon.

I chose to go on the game drive first. It started out well enough until our ranger turned to us in the 4x4 and told us not to be mad at him if we didn’t see all members of the big five. This is when I came to realize the pressure that rangers must feel. Funny thing is, I don’t think any of us had any expectations until he said that.

It took some skill to navigate the roads in Chobe because of the sand. Once again we saw tons of elephants and I loved every minute of it. One of the other guests reported that an elephant had approached their vehicle and stuck its trunk in to sniff her! Luckily she remained calm (not sure I could have done the same) and her ranger kept whispering assurances that everything would be ok. Once the elephant was satisfied, she turned away and went about her business.

Our ranger wasn’t as sensitive, and he actually revved his engine and pulled up very close to elephants that were walking along the road in an effort to get them to hurry out of the way. They would not go faster than the slowest member of the herd, a baby in this case, who was running in an effort to keep up. After a few seconds of our ranger’s poor behavior one member of the herd stopped and turned to face us with a glare. He gave a short, shrill trumpet accompanied by flapping ears and our ranger got the message and gave them more space. In our vehicle, most of our conversation consisted of ‘Stop’, ‘Go’ an ‘OK’. and not much else.

Traffic was heavy and there were vehicles everywhere, and I think the elephants looked stressed because of this, but they seemed to be coping as best they could.

The estimate was that we probably saw about 600 elephants during that drive, and there were lots of babies. One guide referred to them as ‘Chobe Cockroaches’ because there were so many. There is also concern that so many elephants are eating themselves out of the habitat, and government agencies are trying to figure out a way to control the population.

Back to the Chobe Marina Lodge for a buffet lunch which was one of the best of the entire trip, then down to the dock for the river cruise. The guide on the boat was very good, and not only pointed out the animals, but the behavior we were witnessing.

Here’s a list of sightings from our day in Chobe:
Red Lechwe
Impala (of course)
Kudu
Puku
Sable
Lots of elephant, hippo and buffalo.

Birds-
Red hornbills
Shrikes
Glossy Starlings
Glossy Ibis
Open billed stork
Marabou Stork
Egyptian geese
Vultures (forget what kind)
Egrets
Bulbuls (or is it boubous?)

In doing my research for the trip, some of the material mentions that the tour includes Namibia. And although technically we did not set foot in Namibia, the cruise is on the Chobe River which forms the border between Namibia and Botswana.
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Dec 5th, 2009, 12:30 PM
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I forgot to mention that the night before our visit to Chobe, the train staff alerted us to the fact that Zimbabwe had changed the rules for Visas.

Previously tourists could go in and out of Zim on a single entry visa as long as they did not spend the night outside the country. So when we first entered Zim the staff had purchased single entry visas on our behalf. Now those visas were no longer sufficient, and we were going to have to pay for new double entry visas. To make things more confusing, Canadians were being charged about twice as much as everyone else for a double entry visa. We weren't the only group to be caught by surprise, and the line at customs to get back into Zimbabwe snaked around the building while officials tried to reorganise things as best they could.

Because of the new rules several Canadians decided not to go on the trip to Botswana. The train staff accommodated them by creating a tour around Vic Falls which they said they enjoyed.
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Dec 5th, 2009, 04:26 PM
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Thanks Femi - your reports have been wonderful. I believe the itinerary calls for two nights in Victoria and then the trek home.....is your next report how they handled your transfer back from Victoria Falls? Which airport did you fly out of? return to Johannesburg and them home?

Would also appreciate any overall comments you may have on the merits of the trip. I believe one of your first entries indicated that the survey asks - "would you recommend this tour to others"....having done the trip and returned home with time for reflection - any insights you can share?
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Dec 6th, 2009, 10:01 AM
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Hi Fermi - hope you are working on a comprehensive summary response -- your comments have helped us a lot in formulating our plans for this train trip. Looking forward to your next installment.
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Dec 6th, 2009, 12:58 PM
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Day 15. Vic Falls
This turned out to be a very busy day, taking care of all the ‘now or never’ activities. We started out with a tour of Vic Falls from the Zim side. We were given two hours at the falls and I felt like this was enough time to see all I wanted without rushing. There were a few Japanese groups that had their members at an all out run in the struggle to keep up with the pace. I did enjoy the falls more from the Zim side, perhaps because we had more time on site. Also the area around the falls on the Zim side felt larger and not as crowded as the Zam side.

The afternoon was dedicated to shopping and the multitude of optional activities. I think I missed lunch because I was so busy. I had one package wrapped for check-in at the Fed-Ex office, they did a fantastic job.

It was time to make my final souvenir purchases, and I just could not bear facing the guys at the market. They were definitely the most aggressive we’d encountered during the entire trip. Tourists are constantly hounded. I had to be very direct in order to get them to leave me alone. I chose to shop in the sort of strip mall just north of the train station and I was able to shop in relative peace.

Then it was time for my helicopter flight over the falls. There was a lot of debate amongst us passengers as to wether this trip was worth the cost, and several times I came close to canceling. In the end I am glad I did it. It was my first time on a scenic helicopter flight, and it was like nothing else I have ever done. The ground staff and flight crew were very professional and this boosted my confidence and put me a little more at ease. The views were breathtaking. I did the 15 minute flight (R1200) and I was happy with that. Hard to say if it would have been worth going on the 30 minute flight as one can only tell in retrospect.

Then it was time for a hurried high tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel. They get lots of point for atmosphere and service. Fewer points for the food which turned out to be a little stale. Taking the economic circumstances of the country into consideration, I wasn’t going to quibble.

Then I had a brisk 5 minute walk back to the train so that I would be in time to join the cruise on the Zambezi (R400). Definitely worthwhile with a professional crew. This was just as enjoyable as the Chobe river cruise with several elephants coming down for an evening bath. Hippos popped up and disappeared at random and crocs and birds sunned themselves on outcrops of rocks. We stayed long enough to see the sun go down. A wonderful experience.

Then it was a rush back to the train (too late for first seating at dinner), and packing.



Day 16. Departure.
We were organized into different departure times and shuttled to the airports or nearby hotels for those that had decided to stay on. Those who were departing from Livingston had to pay for another visa to get to the airport. Check-in at the Vic Falls airport took a long time, but for once we weren’t in a hurry to be elsewhere so it was no big deal.

The flight on SAA to Joburg was uneventful. The flight attendants didn’t seem particularly pleased to be with us, and were just barely civil, a different experience from other SAA flights I have taken.

I spent the night in Joburg, and flew home (via Singapore again) the next day.

I hadn’t thought to summarize my thoughts on the entire trip until you asked Beachnut. Overall I think it was an incredible series of experiences, which I would not have been able to achieve without a tour. From what I had seen on the internet I knew it was not a luxury trip, and so I was somewhat prepared for the standard of the accommodations. I was not prepared for the lower standard of the game drives and was rather disappointed with those.

I want to explore Namibia in the future and would consider comparing another Shongololo tour (if they offered the desert tour again) with a private tour. From where I stand now though I would probably go with a private tour, because a Namibia trip would only involve one country. The logistics of a Southern Cross tour done privately would be a nightmare. In the end, knowing what I know now, would I do this trip again? Most definitely yes. But that’s not unusual for me, as I tend to enjoy just about all my trips.

Thanks to all those who followed along and chimed in. This trip report turned out to be much longer than I anticipated. I remembered more than I thought I would!

Louise and Leanna, please post when you return. I would love to hear what you think of the trip. Beachnut let us know what you decide!
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Dec 6th, 2009, 07:51 PM
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Femi......THANK YOU!!!! This has all been fascinating and I have made lots of notes. Louise and I are going to have a great time I can just tell. Its going to be a true adventure.

BTW...I have a pal who has been all over the world and seen EVERYTHING....and has done several safaris and trips to all parts of Africa. She says if you can only see one African country Namibia is it!!! She loved it there. So there you go.....more journeys await!!!

We wont go till next oct...but we will check back in ...and again...THANK YOU VERY MUCH. I know I feel much more confident about things now.

Travel safe! xoxoxo
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Dec 6th, 2009, 08:27 PM
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Fermi -- agree with Leanna - many thanks for all the information you have shared. You have confirmed some of our initial decisions and offered thoughts for additional ones.

This is the "best" review of this train we have discovered -- THANK YOU!

Now you have caught my attention with Namibia comments and I'm wondering if they will be offering the Good Hope Trip as well in 2011.You may hear from me yet with a few more questions. Thanks again!
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