Diane's Trip Report Part IV: Singita

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Apr 8th, 2004, 05:26 AM
  #1
dlm
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Diane's Trip Report Part IV: Singita

Continued trip report:

On March 30, we left Botswana talking about how much we wanted to return (I couldn't believe my husband was even thinking about this -- it took months of negotiations to get him to travel outside of the US/Western Europe -- so now he is FINALLY bitten with the travel bug -- YIPPEE!).

The flight from Maun to Johannesburg was very easy. The Air Botswana flight was on a jet that seemed quite new.

One of the frustrations of combining Botswana with Kruger/Sabi Sands is that you have to overnight in Johannesburg unless you book a charter flight. Due to flight times, there is no way to get from Maun to Singita (or the reverse) in one day.

As it turned out, we had a wonderful overnight in the MOST charming inn. It's called A Room With A View, located in Melville. See aroomwithaview.co.za. It's like a tuscan villa/tower. Decorated wonderfully. Country, yet also funky. For R1000, we stayed in one of their best rooms -- with a sitting area, amazing views, comfortable bed with great linens, and an exceptional bathroom. In fact, it had the best shower I've ever seen in a hotel. A two-person Italian-tiled shower, with 2 separate shower heads, both with PERFECT water pressure. Not having had the pleasure of long hot showers with this kind of pressure for three days, we stayed in there until we almost passed out. Although we were there for just an overnight, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

I think most people with an overnight in Jo'berg either stay at the airport or in Sandton. Consider Melville! The Airport Sun, although convenient, is very expensive. You'll pay less (even with transfers) by staying in Melville (and the ride was just 30-40 minutes). And although I've never been to Sandton, it sounds like it has an upscale shopping mall ambience. Yes? No? Melville, by contrast, is hip and funky. It's similar to Greenwich Village in NY or Berkeley in California. The main strip is full of bookstores, neighborhood restaurants, and young couples. We enjoyed an excellent meal at Sam's Cafe. We were told to take a cab from the hotel to the restaurant (a 3 minute ride) because it is not safe to walk at night. We did, but quite honestly, it seemed perfectly safe. There were lots of residents walking around. The nighborhood is quite nice. But I guess it never hurts to be cautious.

The next morning, we were off to Singita on Federal Air. Federal Air is a very well-run professional organization. We were promptly met at the airport by a Federal Air representative and driven to Federal Air's own departure lounge to await the flight. They show wildlife videos in the lounge and provide food/beverages. The plane itself was a Cessna Caravan, seating 12 people. The ride was perfect. I really preferred the comfortable ride of the Caravan over the Cessna 206's of Botswana.

There had been some talk on the boards recently about the quality of the flight to Singita (Roccco, STD, I think you had a bad experience?) Neither going there nor coming back did we experience any turbulence to speak of. However, our guide at Singita said he won't do the flight because the 2 times he did it the turbulence was so bad it took him days to recover. So you have to cross your fingers. Our guide said the risk of turbulence is higher in the hot summer. Someone with more knowledge of flying than myself could undoubtedly explain why. But suffice it to say: our flights were great -- thankfully! The pilots were much older than the Botswana pilots, and were very nice and friendly.

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Apr 8th, 2004, 06:46 AM
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Flying in to Singita is much less dramatic than flying in to the Delta. First because there is nothing in the world like flying into the FLOODED delta. Just spectacular. Second, there are cities and towns right nearby. So you don't have the feeling of being OUT OUT OUT in the bush. And finally, the drive from the airstrip to the lodge is just 5 minutes over very good dirt trails. Nothing like the 40 minute adventure in Botswana of driving over and through lakes and fallen trees.

Then we arrived at the Lodge. WOW. Singita is not to be believed. I can't imagine that we will ever stay in a nicer place in our lives. Just so you know, I am an interior design junkie. The only thing I love as much as planning trips is combing through interior design magazines and planning interiors. I'm a sucker for good design. The first thing I did at Singita was photograph all the details I loved. You never know, some day I may need to design an enormous fireplace the size of a small house . . .

The service was also wonderful. We were immediately served their homemade lemonade, which was the best lemonade I've ever had. I had 2-3 glasses of it daily for the duration of my stay.

Our room was not a room -- it was a villa. Again, I loved every aspect of the interior design. My husband is going to protest putting photos of throw pillows next to photos of leopards in our safari album -- but they really were exceptional throw pillows.

We stayed at Boulders. Everything was wonderful. Our private pool, the outdoor shower, the VIEWS!! They even provide you with watercolor paints and paper in case the views inspire you to get creative. We actually used the watercolors (my husband and I had a 30-minute paint-off to see who could better capture the view).

Advice: If you stay at Boulders, try to stay in rooms 1-7 -- they all have sweeping views over the river. We were in No. 6 and it was perfect. Rooms 8 and 9 face a different direction and have inferior views (we were told this by the guests in both 8 and 9).

Then, we were off on our first game ride. Our game rides were a mixed bag. Our first three were excellent --the last three much less so. We right away saw the Big 5 (3 of which we hadn't seen in Vumbura) and much more. Rhino, lion, zebra, owl, elephants, giraffe, leopard, hyena, buffalo, warthog, hippo, wildebeest . . . There were probably three favorite sightings for me. First, a leopard who had just killed an impala and dragged it up into a tree, where her and her 2 cubs were waiting to eat. Meanwhile, a hyena was lazily skulking nearby, waiting for the leopard to make a wrong move and drop the impala. When we came back later that afternoon, we learned that the hyena had won, as there was no sign of the leopard or her spoils.
Second, a large herd of buffalo (200+)around a water hole. We had not seen any buffalo in Botswana and were surprised at how rambunctious they were. They were snorting, running into each other, running into the water, running out of the water -- they were just cavorting. It was lots of fun to watch. And finally, we saw the most enormous porcupine on one of our night drives. I had never seen one with its quills all at the ready. They are such funny creatures. Very very interesting.

Our guide was somewhat of a disappointment. The quality of the guide is crucial to a safari experience but you just have to cross your fingers that you get a good one. Our guide was very very knowledgable and we learned a lot from him, but he just lacked enthusiasm. He actually seemed somewhat bored. It's not that he did anything wrong, it's just that he didn't have enthusiasm. Everyone in our group commented privately about this. Sometimes we would drive for 20 minutes without him saying ANYTHING. Also, he clearly had a preference for viewing cats. If we didn't see any cats on the drive, you could tell that he thought the drive was a bust. This was our biggest disappoinment with Singita.

The rest of the staff there was exceptional. The meals were wonderful and they served each dinner in a different setting. One night, it was in their Boma under the stars. The next, in the dining room. On our last night in Africa, we requested a private dinner in our room. When we got back from the game drive, not only was a table for two all set up for us, but they had filled the room with candles and rose petals, filled the tub with hot water and bubbles (with champagne nearby) and put lit lanterns all around the pool. It was just lovely. It was a great way to spend our last night in Africa.

We really loved Singita. Would we return? Truthfully, no. First, because of the price. It is now $2000 a night (for a couple). Which is just outrageous, in my book. And second, in our opinion, it lacked that special je ne sais quoi -- "ambience" -- that is so so crucial. You always have the feeling that you are in a gorgeous, pampering lodge -- which is a great feeling, yes -- but not like the feeling in Botswana, like you're in the middle of Africa with just you, the wildlife, and the endless stars and sky. There is also a lack of intimacy at Singita, I thought. Since it's always full, there are always 18 guests -- I like something a little smaller. Also, only dinners are together. For all other meals, you sit at private tables with a wait staff serving you. Nice? Absolutely. But it doesn't generate that friendly feeling of intimacy you get from shared meals at other places. Also, everyone whispers in the main dining room -- like you're in a fancy restaurant in New York.

To sum up Singita, I loved the pampering and I loved the luxury. But I learned that I really don't need that kind of luxury when on safari. I'd rather have the ambience. Nor do I need to pay $2000 a night.

And so, on April 3, our trip to Africa ended. The flight back home to the US was a killer (much harder on us than the flight there). When will we be back? Not sure. But boy do I yearn for a return trip.
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Apr 8th, 2004, 07:17 AM
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Great to hear your report of Singita because it really covers the things I would want to know in a way few other reports have done for me.

Sounds like a truly marvellous trip, thanks for sharing...
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Apr 8th, 2004, 09:05 AM
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DLM - Who was your guide at Singita?
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Apr 8th, 2004, 09:14 AM
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Thanks for your terrific reports. You've provided a lot of details that are critical, but that are not available in guide books or web sites.

Although Singita sounds lavish and comforting, it's a lesson worth repeating that even at theses price points nothing is guaranteed. Guides and trackers are human beings like the rest of us, and vary infinitely. And that "Je ne sais quois" will come when we least expect it.

One question: Did you get the impression that Federal Air uses the 12-passenger Caravan exclusively, regardless of the number of passengers flying? How many others were on your flight?

Thanks again for your observations and generous reports.

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Apr 8th, 2004, 09:19 AM
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dlm:

Thanks for a great report.

On my visit there in December 2003 I also felt my ranger lacked enthusiasm,wonder if it's the same ranger?

Does he have an Irish name?
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Apr 8th, 2004, 09:24 AM
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Steveboy,

I can assure you that Fedair also uses planes that only seat 4 - 6 passengers, as was the case on my nasty flight back to Johannesburg from Singita.

When I return to the Sabi Sand in the future, I will more than likely fly into Hoedspruit or Nelspruit on a South African Airways Express jet.
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Apr 8th, 2004, 09:25 AM
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Diane, I'm really enjoying your report. My experience at Singita last year was so different. Our guide (who may not be there anymore) and tracker were fantastic - totally excited and present, just a joy to be with. We always had meals with our car mates and they were lively affairs. Lots of joking and fun at dinner and interaction between tables so I think that just depends on the chemistry of the people at the time. I would hate that whispering. And the brunch/lunch was a buffet - has that now changed? There was great care from the management to be sure that everyone felt welcome. At the boma dinner if your car mates hadn't arrived yet they would have someone from staff join you at cocktails - but they were also sensitive if a couple wanted to be alone - perfect hosts in that regard. To anyone going there, be sure to take one lunch at the other camp, Ebony, so you can look around there and meet more people.

Yes, wouldn't you like to recreate that villa at home? The stone work in the floors just amazed me. What a peaceful setting.
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Apr 8th, 2004, 09:35 AM
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Diane-
You have fed my soul. Even your report on Singita, which I have no desire to visit, dropped references to Botswana that remind me just what it is about the Delta that yanks my heart strings. I think most people here know that I rarely have made reference to where we stayed there, but rather it is about the things about the Delta that creep into your heart when you are there. Thank you. Liz
 
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Apr 8th, 2004, 10:13 AM
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dlm
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I'm glad everyone enjoyed the report. To answer the questions:

1. The guide's name was Alan. Very nice guy, provided pleasant conversation at dinner, but he just seemed burned out. Maybe he needs a change of scenery. He even admitted that he spends more time doing administrative work than guiding, which I got the sense he preferred.

2. Yes, I did get the sense that Federal Air always or almost always uses the 12 seaters to Singita. It may be that this is a recent thing and that accounts for Roccco's experience? I'm not sure. But everyone we spoke to at Singita flew on the Caravan. And when we left, they had 2 Caravans on the runway waiting for people to board. On the way out, the flight was almost full (1 empty seat) and they made stops at Sabi Sabi and one other camp before depositing us at Singita. On the return, the flight was also full.

3. Yes, the lunches are still technically a "buffet," but it's not really social because everyone sits at their own private table for 2 and there are servers who bring you drinks and offer to get the food from the buffet for you.
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Apr 8th, 2004, 02:59 PM
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Diane - loved your entire report and know that while we had planned to spend some time in the Delta this past year, it was postponed - now we must do it.

As to your ranger at Singita, I wonder whether anyone made mention to management as to his non-plus attitude? Some of these guys/gals can burn out and especially since a guide/ranger can make or break a safari, a good one is especially needed at Singita's prices. And management at Singita always seemed responsive to guests' interpretations or feelings about everything done there.

As to the mingling of guests or not, I believe more has to do with who the guests are. There are some people who are naturally friendly and welcoming to others; some are just plain stand-offish. I've also found that many people aren't receptive at Breakfast - the slow starters, even if they've been out on the 6:30am game drive. But we found that by lunch, most were sharing tables, joking, telling stores, whatever.

On our day of arrival we were introduced to a young honeymoon couple who sat next to us and conversation was great and learning that my partner actually knew the best friend of the "brides" mother - small world. They stayed mainly alone for their drives and meals, but at other times shared in with the rest of us.

And our first dinner was with one of the couples in our vehicles along with our ranger, and the following morning we had breakfast with this couple. They left after breakfast, but that evening we had dinner with our ranger and the three of us actually closed the restaurant, bar and anything else that needed closing. Then shortly after getting under the covers we heard lions roar and came out in our "jammies" to see what everyone was excited about. There was the entire camp staff, manager, rangers, trackers watching the lions across the river with a kill. So the bar reopened and we all watched, told stories and finally all departed sometime after 2am - and actually made it for the game drive 4-hrs later.

Guess it's the luck of the draw who the other guests you meet anywhere.

Did you by chance see the copy of Simply Safari - a coffee table book of the interiors and designs of many of the hi-end lodges in Southern Africa. Some great design ideas there. I paid $45 Stateside, as I didn't want to lug it back in my bag where it would have only cost about $30 (with the then exchange rate). If interested, it can be found in the home furnishings or interior designs section of a good bookstore

Again, thanks for a great trip report.
 
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Apr 8th, 2004, 04:03 PM
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Great Singita info. Thanks so much for sharing!
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Apr 8th, 2004, 04:53 PM
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dlm

''Our first three were excellent --the last three much less so. We right away saw the Big 5 (3 of which we hadn't seen in Vumbura) and much more. Rhino, lion, zebra, owl, elephants, giraffe, leopard, hyena, buffalo, warthog, hippo, wildebeest .''

Did you only see 2 of the big five in Botswana?

My ranger's name was Shaun, also a very nice guy but didn't seem to get excited about anything.

I would rate the following rangers as the best I've had in Sabi Sands:

1]Jaco Buys,currently at Simbambili,started at Chitwa Chitwa

2]Chris Daphne at Mala Mala Main Camp

3]Jonothan Harley at Londolozi Safari Lodge.

4]Karl Langdon at Ulusaba,works at Safari and Rock Lodge.

5]Nils Kure Mala Mala Main Camp.

6]Edwin Neeb at Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge.

7]Greg Seymore at Londolozi Tree Camp.

8]Joe Mathebula Notten's Bush Camp.

9]Jobe at Ulusaba Rock Lodge.

10]Leon van Wyk Mala Mala Main Camp.
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Apr 8th, 2004, 06:22 PM
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DJE
 
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Dim,

Have enjoyed the continuation of your wonderful report. I have similar feelings about our stay at Chobe Chilwero Lodge in Botswana. It's close to a small town and altho the accommodations were quite lovely ( not as luxurious as Singita ) I never really felt like I was in the wilds of Africa like I did at Mombo and Kings Pool.

The wildlife was wonderful to see and we saw lots, especially large herds of elephant, hippo and buffalo as well as many other types of animals, but riding around in the park with many more vehicles around etc. just didn't give one that special feeling. We were originally scheduled to stay at Singita but then opted to spend that additional time in the Delta area instead.

I was glad that this was our first stop in Botswana and the best in terms of atmosphere and location was yet to come. Thanks again for the report.
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Apr 8th, 2004, 07:32 PM
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Diane, once again...a great report and very fun to read. Loved the comment about the throw pillows going into the photo album. When I first walked into my 'villa' at Ebony, I felt like running around yelling for joy. It really was heaven. However, like you, it will most likely be my last visit there...hard to justify the expense, when other properties are comparable (and more relaxed socially). Maybe after this year's trip to Botswana, I'll never want to go anywhere else. Hurry May, I cannot wait to experience the Delta. -nancy
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Apr 11th, 2004, 10:54 PM
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Diane,

A Room With A View looks like a fabulous place and an excellent alternative to all the hustle and bustle of Sandton. You are correct in your characterization of Sandton. While it is nice, it is really nothing more than a giant compound housing a couple major hotels, a huge shopping center, a performing arts theater and plenty of restaurants. I did enjoy the Michelangelo very much, especially since I got a great deal from Luxury Link, but I just don't think that two nights in Joburg is necessary, at least not in Sandton. It is like being at the mall for two days and nights.

I do think that for next year, before proceeding to Botswana, that I would like to stay one night in Johannesburg, since I will have been travelling for 24+ hours by the time I touch down in Joburg.

One question, how much were the transfers in each direction from the Joburg airport to Melville? Also, did you book directly with the hotel or through which website. The room that I would like to occupy is probably the same one you stayed in, the "Main Suite." On the website, the tariff is 650 Rand per person sharing, so either the prices were recently raised, or you received a discount through another operator.

Thanks for any additional feedback you may provide.
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Apr 12th, 2004, 05:40 AM
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dlm
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Roccco:

The suite we stayed in was actually a "Prestige Room" -- R500 pp. It was just lovely. Didn't see any other rooms. I just checked out their website and their rates/categories have changed. We were in what is now called "luxury twin rooms" - the bed was twins made up as a king.

Also, we booked the transfers through the hotel. For 2 people, the transfer was R 190 ($30) each way. They used a company called Guardian Travel for the transfers, which were in a Volkswagon van. My only complaint with the transfers were that they were late arriving to the airport to pick us up; we had to call them from the airport to find out what was was happening. It turns out that they got stuck in traffic. They handled the problem well, though. I got apologies from everyone -- the van company even called the hotel to alert them of the problem and the proprietor called the driver on his cell phone, asked to speak to me, and continued to apologize and see if I needed anything.
Going back to the airport the next day was especially nice. To avoid highway traffic, he gave us a tour of some very beautiful suburbs of Jo'burg. The contrast betweem the white and African areas is just shocking, as you know.

Hope this helps --

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Apr 12th, 2004, 05:43 AM
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Diane,

Thanks, that was a tremendous help. I would love to see another part of Joburg other than Sandton and that place does look fabulous and the perfect way to rest up after a long flight before spending a small fortune each night while on safari.
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