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Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa AKA Durbs, Joburg, Ellies and The Nellie: A Trip Report

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Sep 17th, 2007, 07:26 AM
  #1
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Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa AKA Durbs, Joburg, Ellies and The Nellie: A Trip Report

It seems so long yet so short a time ago that we first decided to 'go on safari' and I searched the Fodor's Africa board.
In August 2006 I gleaned so much information that I was totally flummoxed!! I contacted a few companies, and booked with Julian of Timeless Africa. Dear, dear Julian. If he had only known what he was taking on I'm sure he would referred me elsewhere!!
First of all we wanted to go in August as we had heard the weather would be great and the sightings wonderful, didn't know quite which camps to go to, didn't want to spend a fortune on what I came to know as 'premier camps' yet wanted basic luxury (!!) and needed dates when we could upgrade on BA with miles. Thus started my several times a week for 52 weeks email contacts with Julian. He is totally responsible for a fabulous vacation and I don't know what we would have done without his guidance and expert planning.
Julian made some suggestions, most of which I agreed with. We definitely wanted to go to Botswana and see the Falls and Zimbabwe was suggested as a way to keep the price down. We travel all over the world, so I figured I could manage South Africa myself. I would probably have tried to arrange the camps too, but Wilderness Safaris, who seemed to have beautiful camps from the photographs plus great locations with small numbers of tents, demands bookings through an agent. Actually, just as well, as in hindsight I did not have the knowledge to determine exactly where to go and would not have benefitted from the vast amount of advice on all aspects of visiting Southern Africa which I received from Julian. Our safari itinerary:
3 nights Little Vumbura
3 nights Chitabe Trails
3 nights Selinda
1 night Victoria Falls
2 nights Somalisa
3 nights Makalolo Plains
We were a little nervous as we don't like 'tour groups' and being 'herded around', but our fears were allayed and the experience was nothing of the sort. We studied the BA web site, kept extending our return date and we were away for 5 1/2 weeks including a few days in England, and visiting Durban, Johannesburg and driving the Garden Route ending with a few days in Cape Town.
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Sep 17th, 2007, 02:39 PM
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We flew to London and after a few days in the north of England flew back to London and then on to Johannesburg. Our plane was an hour late, and delayed even further when we had to return to the gate after departing for take-off. A passenger was sick and had to deplane. We arrived in Johannesburg only 2 hours late as we had made up about an hour, but I had only allowed a two hour connection time for our flight to Durban. What a nightmare; a two hour wait for passport control and then another hour for the luggage. Helpful hint: keep a keen eye on the 'South African States Passports' line; they open that up to the fastest runners from the 'Other Passports' line when those passengers have been processed. Heathrow is a dream compared to Joburg!!!! Obviously we missed the connection and were told that we would be put on the 4pm plane to Durban. We had a booking on ComAir through BA. I let them know (nicely) that this was unacceptable and with no problem we were put on an SAA flight at 1pm. What a surprise when we were upgraded to Business Class. Oh but what an experience. The food on SAA was basically inedible but we did arrive safely and no car was waiting. We had tried to get a message to the hotel but not to worry, Avis transports for 'Quarters' hotel so we talked to a rep. and all was well. Our plans for UShaka were shelved because of our late arrival. The room was lovely and we went onto Florida Road to eat. It was said to be safe and we felt mostly okay, except that I had read that gangs of teens were potential trouble and we did see a couple of groupings of teenagers along with occasional beggars which was a little disconcerting when the light was fading.
The following day I had booked a private tour for the two of us and we went out to Valley of a Thousand Hills after a fabulous breakfast. I don't know why but breakfast is possibly my favourite meal of the day when we are on vacation! We learned a lot about life in South Africa from the viewpoint of our white tour guide and there is still a lot of tradition in the Zulu culture. We had tea and cake before the obligatory tour of the crocs, but skipped the shop! We went on to tour the city sights and stopped at Victoria Market where the Zulu bead collection was quite vast. I bought several strands of traditional beadwork from a vendor who supplies the beads and the women bring the necklaces back to her. Our guide said she paid a fair wage and the quality was excellent. There is much building along the seafront and we were told that the cost of housing is up 1000% over the past few years. A very pleasant walk ensued before we went off to the Botanical Garden. It was only then that I really realized that this was the reason we had flown to Durban for two nights! My husband had known Earnest Thorp after whom the Orchid House is named. The gardens were beautiful and we had curried mince sandwiches and 'crumpets with the works' in the tea room. We ate at the hotel that night and the following day guess what--back to the Botanical Garden for another hour and then on to UShaka (sea world and aquarium). This was very interesting but once is enough. We had had the gardens call a taxi for us to take us to UShaka, and we arranged for the same taxi to pick us up, drive to the hotel to get our luggage and take us on to the airport. We were picked up at 2pm and in the airport lounge before 3pm having checked in and gone through security. How fortunate I had been to make the 'Silver' level on BA before leaving the USA, so we could use the business class check-in and the lounges even though I had booked economy for our internal flights. Onto the computer to check email and a glass of fabulous SA pinotage and off to the gate to find we were upgraded. What a difference between ComAir and SAA!! Sparkling wine was served before take-off, our drinks orders taken for after we had taken off and sandwiches and cheeseplates were served. Also, a huge carrot cake with cream cheese frosting was perched in the middle of the trolley and the flight attendants served slices of it for dessert! After being warned by my husband to avoid the biltong as he had dislodged a filling once when eating jerky, I took the package with me to try later! Another safe arrival and we were met by a staff member from the guest house where we were staying for two nights. This was a great place to stay; it was near the airport and trasfers were included. More later.
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Sep 17th, 2007, 03:48 PM
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hi, philbill,

I'm struggling with my trip-report, so pleased to find yours to read instead. I so agree with you about breakfast, especially in SA - we were never let down and some were just spectacular.

looking forward to the rest,

regards, ann
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Sep 17th, 2007, 03:54 PM
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Thanks Ann! I am doing this so I don't forget (a little selfish I think!) and also hoping that someone may pick up a helpful detail or two as I have done through reading many Fodor's trip reports.
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Sep 18th, 2007, 01:31 PM
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HI Phil! Great start. I got an email this morning from Sophia (African Bushcamps, Somalisa) saying they now have a rhino on their concession, pops around in front of camp in the morning while guests are having coffee. Did you see any rhinos while there?
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Sep 18th, 2007, 02:38 PM
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oooh fab, trip report!
Can't wait for the rest!
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Sep 18th, 2007, 04:07 PM
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Next installment soon...but yes, we did see a rhino whilst at Makalolo Plains (next to somalisa). Somalisa is absolutely great by the way, and I will go into some detail later.
I was surrounded by elephants who came to drink from the pool while I was aiming at taking a siesta on the lounge under the umbrella. Needless to say being able to count an elephant's eyelashes was an experience never to be forgotten!
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Sep 18th, 2007, 09:03 PM
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We were nervous about Joburg but wanted to get a cursory feel for the city with only one full day for touring. As we had heard from being in Durban the 2010 World cup is a BIG deal, and stadiums are being built and renovated in Cape Town, Durban and Joburg. No offence to Johannesburg, but how the city will manage to house spectators is a question to us. In fact, we were told by another tourist that Sydney has been put on standby for the World Cup. No South African we talked to had heard this, and to give South Africa credit the building of the stadiums and the expansion of infrastructure we saw in all 3 cities was impressive. The country appears to be doing its best to prepare and is very proud.
As I said, we stayed at a guest house close to the airport which was inexpensive and very welcoming. We were somewhat aghast to note that all other guests were hunters. Apparently the place is well advertised amongst the hunting population in the USA. Anyway, the staff were there to drive us to one of three recommended restaurants for dinner. We chose Italian and had some of the best Italian food ever and SO inexpensive. There was so much that we took the leftovers back with us. At the end of the meal we had the restaurant call the guest house and we were picked up. We were a little surprised to see that the door had to be buzzed open and that there was indeed a second security door. The guest house was surrounded by a wall and locked gates also. The owner had called Lords and as I had read about the quality of their tours on Fodor's that seemed great. We were picked up for our day tour at 8am the following morning after a lovely breakfast. The morning tour to Pretoria was wonderful and we learned 'African Time' meant that you make time for everything! However, about 1pm, after literally stopping at a gas station for us to buy a sandwich, we were transferred to a mini van which seated 14 people. As we were two of the last four on board the four of us got to crawl to the back 5 seats. It was claustrophobic and not pleasant at all. We went on a city tour of Jozi. We did not get out and saw what must have been the worst part of the city. Hotels and office buildings were deserted and we were told that squatters were living there. Afterwards we went out to Soweto which was interesting as far as the huge size (we were told 4 milloin people lived there) and seeing the mansions surrounded by the shacks. I had visited Kayamandi outside of Cape Town a couple of years' ago and was truly moved by meeting the people and being invited into homes. This was a tourist visit in Soweto and we just drove through some of the streets, but we did visit Mandela's previous home and the Hector Pieterson Museum. We hit rush hour...oh the traffic! On arrival back at the guest house about 6pm we were exhausted and the wonderful owner showed us the fridge which stocked soft drinks and wine at rock bottom cost (just tell me what you take) and we heated up leftovers in the kitchen after which we packed and went to bed! Another lovely breakfast and off to the airport. The owners will store luggage and deliver it to the airport (two weeks' later for us) for a minimal charge and so we left a large suitcase, taking our safari duffles with us. We had bought LLBean duffles (large size,) but as we had a 12kg limit for Zimbabwe we packed light. Off to the airport and to the lounge, slooooow internet connection and off to Maun. About half an hour before landing I took half a Valium. I had requested these from my doctor as I was panicked about the light aircraft. Consequently I fell fast asleep about 10 minutes before landing! At Maun the bags were weighed and an English couple were given duffles from Sefofane and asked to transfer their luggage from their large wheeled suitcases. Obviously their agent had not quite explained about the size of the baggage hold! We were surprised to be taken out to a 12 seater and we carefully squirmed towards the steps to the aircraft of the so that we could get seats at the front (as I had been told that these were less bumpy). The flight went surprisingly well except that we had a stop before ours and that was disconcerting as everyone knows that taking off and landing are the most dangerous parts of flying!!!!!! Still, I managed I am proud to say! We landed at the Little Vumbura airstrip (complete with toilet!) and were met by M.D.. (Note to Precious Ramwotse fans..you know who you are...apparently they were filming in Maun as it resembles Gabarone as it used to be. I assume the movie will be based on 'Number One Ladies' Detective Agency' as I believe that was the first book, but I am not sure.)
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Sep 18th, 2007, 09:09 PM
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By the way, forgot to say I am honoured that you are even reading my trip report Kavey! I learned so much from your postings!!!!!!
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Sep 20th, 2007, 05:43 PM
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You and Julian came up with an outstanding itinerary.

Good thing you heeded the biltong warning and avoided a dental disaster.

Counting an elephant's eyelashes is a privileged safari pastime indeed.

Thanks for the tip on the #1 Ladies' Detective Agency!
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Sep 20th, 2007, 09:39 PM
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3 nights at Little Vumbura
What a fabulous location and the staff are so wonderful. The camp was reopened at the end of April after complete rebuilding from what I gather. After the vehicles, one has to board a motor boat to get to camp which is on an island. In my husband's words; 'Paradise 2'. Paradise 1 was when we stayed in the Amazon jungle outside of Manaus, Brazil, a year and a half ago. The tents are beautiful with linens and accessories rivalling a top hotel! The loo with a view is wonderful and the shower has a view too. From our deck we could sit and soak up the Delta landscape. The public areas were lush and I believe the pool was the largest in the camps which we visited. The food was the only drawback as that was not top-notch at all. Dinners were acceptable and the rest of the meals/snacks were barely passable. The South African wines were excellent! The location of this camp offered a wide variety of activities. We went on vehicle safaris, a walking safari, a boat safari and of course the fabulous mokoro ride...unbelievable.
Well, I had re-written my notes on the first few days and decided to write some quick notations in the back of my notebook on our first safari drive (intending to transfer them to my actual journal at the end of the day). I have to humbly admit that I wrote backwards in my rough notebook for the rest of the trip. Who would know there was so little time for reflection and the writing of 'journal standard' prose??!!!! We were caught in a whirlwind. I had checked with Julian whether there were paperback book exchanges at the camps as I read a lot and because of weight could only take three paperbacks. I need not have bothered. I didn't even finish two books in the two weeks of safari and the only time I had to read was a few minutes before I fell into a deep, exhausted sleep. Who could have thought that just sitting in the back of a jeep could be that exhausting??
We were awoken at 6am each day and were picked up to be escorted to breakfast at 6:30am.. This was the only camp where we were not allowed to walk to breakfast after the staff had checked the status during wake-up. A quick breakfast and off on the vehicle..or rather the boat to the jeep. We had 2 to 4 people with us during this 3 night stay, and we were informed that no Wilderness vehicle takes more than six passengers so that no client has to sit in the 'middle'. I took the best piece of equipment I can possibly recommend, a $3 inflatable 'camping pillow' from REI. This was the one thing I could not do without. It cushioned my back and it was malleable so I rode with the flow so to speak. I HIGHLY recommend it if you have back problems (or even if not). It was FREEZING cold in the mornings (mid August) and we had a couple of very cold nights in the tent. No bush babies here (hot water bottles). I certainly needed my gloves, earwarmers and hood together with five layers of clothing! I did not take a scarf but would do next time. My hooded fleece was great and I would definitely recommend a fleece with a hood attached. I also had a thin nylon windbreaker with a hood (so lightweight it could fit in a pocket) which worn over the fleece was perfect. We had a fabulous guide who gave us non-stop information and whom I couldn't say enough great things about, but the downside was that our drives were too long. I can just hear some of you voicing, 'is she nuts or what...too long..there can never be too long of a drive in Africa'. Our drives amounted to 9 1/2 hours a day, with 1 1/2 hours between the end of brunch and tea followed by the next drive which arrived back at 8pm. I just needed a little more down time. At night we froze even with the wonderful blanket lined ponchos, and getting back to camp at 8pm was just too late for me. We did get back earlier after the boat ride! This, I hasten to add, was just the pattern of our guide who was there on relief. By night two I was dreading the rest of the 12 nights and trying not to let my husband know!!!!!!! When our jeep companions told us they were skipping the afternoon/night drive one day I was so green with envy!!!!! Oh to have an afternoon in that beautiful camp!! But, I was too afraid of missing some wonderful sight that I never did miss a drive...and even though we obviously saw many of the same animals throughout the trip; each sighting was so different and so unique. Each day was a gift. I was nervous about having to go to the bathroom in the bush so monitored my intake of liquids at LV!! By the end of the two weeks I had a real problem along the Garden Route as I was so used to popping behind a bush that I had a hard time adapting to civilisation.
There was so much bird life and driving with water coming up to the hood/bonnet of the jeep was a kick. We had many great sightings: lions (two different prides), wildebeest, elephant, zebra, giraffe, impala, red lechwe, waterbuck, warthog, mongoose, sable antelope and tsessebe. The highlights were observing 4 hyenas and 8 pups and tracking the position of the lions from observing their markings in the sand. On the way to the airport the last day we saw a cheetah! We also went over a hippo on the river safari so we are lucky to be here to tell the tale! The mokoros were certainly unbelievable and we had no idea that we would be going right through the reeds and all the beautiful birds and plant life, not to mention the elephants, which we would see. We went on walks in every camp and loved the different perspective of the bush. I was aiming, as our guide so aptly put it, to become a certified crapologist! Dung tells a whole lot about animal life (civot middens, content of droppings etc. etc.!!!!!!!!). Sausage trees and the baobab were just two of our favourite trees in the delta, and my husband was absolutely fascinated with termite mounds!!!!! Wilderness has a wonderful booklet listing all the animals, birds, trees etc. etc. and our guide was wonderful about reviewing this with me so that I could record most of what we saw.
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Sep 21st, 2007, 07:11 AM
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Reading your trip report is such a pleasure! Thanks for posting. 5+ weeks - lucky you! It sounds like you had a great trip.

I love game drives but have to agree that 1.5 hours per day of down time is definitely not enough. And I completely identify with jotting notes in the back of your journal and then keeping up with the trip backwards!

Was the guest house you stayed in the Afton? We stayed there before and after our trip to Botswana and it was very nice. Nice breakfast. (There weren't any hunters while we were there.) We chose steaks for dinner both nights and the restaurant was excellent (and cheap!).
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Sep 21st, 2007, 07:53 AM
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Yes, it was the Afton and I have nothing but good things to report. I think it was $100 a night including a continental and cooked to order breakfast and also included were round trip transfers to the airport. Not to mention being taken to a restaurant and picked up at night. The Italian was fabulous and I heard the steak place was too. We paid 100 Rand (7 to the dollar) for two huge meals which were wonderful plus the bread they bring (yummy) and wine!!
For Fodorites like us who are passing through and don't want to explore alone in Joburg, this is perfect. Lords (the tour company) came to the guest house to pick us up and dropped us off there. I know a lot of people literally pass through Joburg and have to spend a night because of connections. This place is perfect. www.aftonguesthouse.com
You may see it referred to as Aftonio also, not sure why!! Annelise is the owner. Highly recommended.
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Sep 21st, 2007, 08:21 AM
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Phil, are you kidding? I haven't been back to Africa since the looong trip in 2004 (though I'm working on a trip for next year) so I live vicariously through everyone else's wonderful trip reports!

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Sep 21st, 2007, 08:26 AM
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BTW I'm surprised they didn't provide hotwater bottles in the beds as this is a WS staple at all camps, so i thought, during winter months...

Did they provide the thick, waterproofed blanket ponchos during the game drives?

Also, I usually find myself wanting longer game drives as the standard hours (in June) at WS camps I've been to are about 4 hours in the morning and 4 max in the afternoon. 9.5 is a lot of hours to do everyday, and although I'd love it some days, I don't know about every single day!!!

MORE MORE MORE!
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Sep 21st, 2007, 09:16 AM
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No hottie bs at all in LV. In fact the night I had the stiff neck and could not move it they said they would try to find one for me but never did.
The thick ponchos which were blanket-lined were great.
In CT we took the hot water bottles on our game drive (good old Newman suggested it!).
A note which I was going to mention later: We saw such prolific game going from the airstrip to the camp at Selinda around 2 or 2:30pm that we all wondered why at least sometimes they did not plan an earlier afternoon game drive and have sundowners at the camp.
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Sep 21st, 2007, 09:31 AM
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hi again, Philbill,

I do so agree with you about the time between game drives. I soon found that 2-2/1 hours was my limit that I wanted to spend jumping around in our landy. Perhaps if it had been warmer /less windy I'd have been keener. also if there had been more cats around, but they didn't like the weather either.

we came across a family of hunters, who were teamed with us in our landy at schotia. I hope that we didn't show our shock too much on learning what they'd been doing for the rest of thier holiday. the impression we had was that their teenage daughters aged 16 & 13 had not really enjoyed themselves.

As for hot water bottles, I heard a story about people [Virginia Wolf from memory] who went to stay in a stately home. When bed-time arrived, they were told that there weren't enough hot water bottles to go round, so they could choose - a bottle or a cat!

looking forward to reading more,

regards, ann
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Sep 21st, 2007, 09:40 AM
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Great trip report! And thanks for the tip about the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency movie, which I was able to find on imdb: http://imdb.com/title/tt0874957/ - looks like most of the cast is local, but Precious Ramotswe is being played by Jill Scott (the singer) and Grace Makutsi by Anika Noni Rose (from Dreamgirls). It's also being directed by Anthony Minghella, which I think bodes very well!
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Sep 21st, 2007, 12:30 PM
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Can't wait to see the movie! Thanks for the link hlg22. I must say that at LV we wore socks to bed and my husband even wore a beanie!! It was sooo romantic! In the morning we rolled out of bed and straight into our clothes. No showers for us! Just bundle up and prepare the backpack for the day. One thing I hadn't thought of Day 1 was to warm up my camera as it was stone cold, so I put it in the bed until after breakfast!
Welucked out, Ann, as the weather was actually quite nice in the afternoons, and as the days went by the mornings even got warmer. Wind was not an issue at all.[BTW Between a cat and nothing I would take nothing!!!!!]
As for children we came across a couple of families and most of the kids were bored and one or two a problem but they didn't affect our enjoyment. I wanted to shake them and let them know how fortunate they were to be on safari in Africa!
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Sep 21st, 2007, 06:42 PM
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Philbill, great trip report so far. Sorry to see the food wasn't up to snuff at Little Vumbura as we're heading there in November (also Chitabe Trails). Perhaps the regular cook was on leave? Oh well, maybe I won't come home 5 pounds heavier this time. Can't wait to get there. And 9 1/2 hours safari does seem awfully longo for most.
Leslie
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