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Jed's Journey to Southern Africa

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Oct 29th, 2007, 11:06 AM
  #1
Jed
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Jed's Journey to Southern Africa

1 - Preparations

Four seniors, Madge and Fred, and Arline and I , from Philly area, have travelled together about 15 times in the past 15 years. A few years ago we went to Tanzania, and now we wanted to return to Africa.

This is the trip report of our journey to South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana for 2 weeks in Oct. 2007.

On most previous trips we went with groups, but this time we felt that could do it by ourselves, which would give us more flexibility and personal choices. We had this private tour planned by Julian Harrison of Premier Tours of Philadelphia, who is a SA specialist.

After reading much on this forum, books, and advice from friends, we came to him with a list of possible areas, including Capetown, Johannesburg with the townships, safaris in Kruger and Botswana, Victoria Falls, Namibia Namib Desert dunes, and Skeleton Coast. We wanted a 2 week trip of medium cost and level of accommodation. We decided to eliminate VF since there was not much water in Oct. Skeleton Coast was eliminated because there was only one place to stay, it required a minimum of 3 nights, and would bust our budget. He recommended Bots Over Kruger camps.

So the final itinerary was :

CT - 4 nts - Radisson
Namibia -2 nts - Kulala Wilderness Camp
Joburg - 2 nts - Grace Hotel
Bots - 5 nts - Kwetsani and Duma Tao.

The cost was $9000/pp including local flights, guides in the cities, etc. We wanted to make our own international air reservations, to CT and back from JB. We were hoping to get BC seats from Philly or JFK, but we started only 5 months before, and try as I might, I could not find any on American, Delta, USAir, and all their many connections. My AMEX cards were useless.

Being older and more crotchety, we decided to go for PE seats. Between Virgin and British Air we chose Virgin, because the seats were bigger, the schedule much better, and it seemed cheaper. On the VA site, the prices for PE seats changed by the minute. We finally settled for about $2500/pp, RT JFK-JNB. We found it cheaper to do that instead of an open jaw, JFK-CPT, JNB-JFK. So in addition, we made a separate JNB-CPT reservation with 1time Air, which we got for about $50/pp. It was much cheaper than Mango, Nationwide, or Kulala.

Since we were taking 14 flights, we had to be concerned about all the restrictions and logistics of getting on the planes. Since some of the flights could have been on small 'bush' planes (no relation to GW), we got soft-sided bags which were lighter, and could be squashed into the small cargo spaces. Readng about the horrors of going through Heathrow made us apprehensive and cautious.

Arline and I bought 2- 27 in. Eddie Bauer soft-sided, wheeled duffel bags at Target for $45 each. They looked good. In addition, we took 2 light hand luggage. We were mindful of the 44 lb check-in and 13 lb/pp carry-on restrictions on the major flights, and 44 lb/pp total on the small planes. It turned out that our 2 check-ins totalled 57 lb, and our carrys were 22, so we took 79/couple all together. We packed lightly since we didn't need any fancy clothes, walking boots, and knowing that there was some laundry in the camps. Since we were not going with a group, we didn't have any one to impress.

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Oct 29th, 2007, 06:54 PM
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Good start Jed, been waiting for your report. Keep it coming!
Thanks!
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Oct 30th, 2007, 08:07 AM
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Looking forward to your Kulala stay, especially, since that's one I have not heard much about. Welcome home.

How nice to have compatible travel companions for so many trips. I bet you have lots of wonderful shared memories and laughs.
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Oct 30th, 2007, 08:16 AM
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Good start with lots of valuable info. Providing dollar amounts is very helpful.
Look forward to more.
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Oct 30th, 2007, 08:20 AM
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Jed
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2 - Getting there

We left Philly on the afternoon of Oct 9, and reached JFK in 2 hrs. We decided to park at Avistar, not at the long-term parking lot, because of the van service, the guarded parking., and the similar cost. I have seen some negative comments on Avistar here, but when we got there, it seemed to work well. It was about 15 minutes to Terminal 4. At that time, it seemed less crowded.

We had checked in online 24 hrs before, but needed boarding passes and to check our luggage in. As soon as we got into the terminal, there was a VA kiosk with 2 people helpfully showing how to use the machine to get our boarding passes. They tagged the checkins and we took them to a nearby x-ray machine where they were put on a belt, and we did not see them again until Heathrow.

When we got to security, they put us in a special line because we had PE. The regular lines were longer but moved quickly. We had no problem getting through carrying knitting needles, medication mixed in unmarked bottles, and 2 small empty water bottles. We were careful to avoid the scams and theft that we heard occurred in that area. We passed security at 5 PM, and since we figured that we would not get supper on the plane at 9, we had some nachos and beer.

We boarded our 8 PM flight an hour early. The weather reports were for some storms, but it was clear when the plane started to back up on time. The pilot then said that there was a problem with the runways, and delay because of storms to the East. The plane then proceeded to wander over the length and breadth of the airport, alternately stopping and starting every 5 minutes, looking for the perfect runway from which to depart. It started to rain, and then lightening, which added to the frustration. After 2 hrs, he found the runway, and we were off for our 6 1/2 hr flight.

We had a choice between taking a morning flight from JFK to LHR and connecting to an evening flight to JNB after a few hours, or taking an earlier night flight from JFK and staying in a day room near the airport to help with the jet lag. We chose the latter. We got to LHR about 10 AM, and after passing through customs with our luggage and getting pounds at an ATM, we took a taxi to the Novotel LHR where we had reservations for a room from 9 AM to 6PM. The taxi fare was 11 €. It was faster and cheaper than the 'hoppa' which would have cost 16 for the four of us, and would have taken a more circuitous route. We had a small, spartan room, but it was adequate for a few hours sleep. Back to LHR 3 hours before our flight, we checked in our one bag each, went through security which was not bad at all, had a small dinner, and wandered around the terminal until we got on the plane, which was one hour late leaving.

The PE seats on the A340-600 were 21" wide at the cushion, but the center arm constricted the opening to 18". The pitch was 38". We asked for, and got, bulkhead middle seats, so there was no one in front of us to put their seat back. Despite the small advantage of PE, we felt it was worth it. We were served dinner about 11 PM, which we felt was of the same quality as a regular economy meal. During the 10 1/2 flight, we watched movies, read, and slept for a few hours.

more.....
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Oct 30th, 2007, 10:07 AM
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Enjoying your report so far. Looking forward to more.
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Oct 30th, 2007, 10:09 AM
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Wonderful!
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Oct 30th, 2007, 11:30 AM
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Jed
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3 - Cape Town

Getting through customs at JNB was not a problem. Actually, we felt that JNB was disorganized. We collected our bags and settled in to wait for our flight to CPT via 1time. Unfortunately, for our third flight in a row, it was late leaving by 1/2 hr. It was a foreboding beginning. Fortunately, we were able to sit in an exit row. The few more inches are always helpful.

We were met at CPT by a van and taken to the Radisson Hotel where we were booked into a 'Mountain View Room', which was the cheapest. An upgrade to a 'Ocean View' would be $100/nt which we felt was not worth it. Perhaps it would have been better to have our travel agent book the room at first. But it turned out better than expected. M and F got a large, one bed corner room on the third floor with a partial view of the mountains and the waterfront. We got a very small 2 bed room on the first floor. We were thinking of asking for a room on a higher floor, but since we had a beautiful view of the ocean, with Robben Island in the distance, and since it was at the end of the hall and very quiet, we decided it was fine.

The Radisson is located right on the bay, about one mile west of the Victoria and Albert Mall. The hotel was quite nice, modern, with helpful personnel. It was a good choice.

After settling in, we decided to go to the V&A Mall for dinner. Getting there was either by walking, which you could do only in the daytime, by taking the free hotel shuttle which left on the hour, or taxi. We took the shuttle, which after 2 minutes left us off at the mall. It was a typical large mall, as anywhere n the US. One side bordered on the water, with many restaurants with inside and outside seating. As it was chilly, there were heating lamps which made eating outside tolerable.

We chose the Balthazar Restaurant.Madge and I had fish, and Fred had calamari, which were quite good and reasonably priced. Arline wanted lobster and prawns, so she ordered the small seafood sampler which cost $40, expecting a few juicy tidbits. What she got was a huge plate with a cornucopia of cooked and uncooked deep-sea denizens. It was much too much for her to eat, and she felt it was not tasty. After, since we just missed the shuttle bus back, we took a taxi which cost R30, about $4. We went right to sleep.

Next morning, the breakfast at the hotel was quite good. At 9 AM, we were met by our guide, a young South African woman of Boer background. She was pleasant and knowledgeable. We took the cable to the top of Table Mountain, walked around, and took our required pictures of the city and ocean below. Then we had a short visit to the Malay (Muslim) quarter, with their bright pastel covered houses. Then to the Castle of Good Hope in the center of town, built as a fort, to see the firing off of a tiny gun at noon. It was impressively unimpressive. Then a walk in town at Adderly Street, the Company Gardens, and Houses of Parliament.

At the end of the tour it was lunchtime, and Arline, remembering the high tea that we had in London some years ago, wanted to have high tea at the Mt. Nelson Hotel, but tea was not served until 2:30. We went there anyway, to have lunch. It was a beautiful hotel with beautiful grounds. We sat down on the veranda at the Oasis Restaurant, overlooking the garden and pool. We were going to get a small lunch from the menu, But Arline asked if we could get scones and clotted cream. The manager was outstandingly nice, went to the tea room, and brought back a gaggle of scones and clotted cream. With some strawberry and currant jelly, Arline was in heaven, and felt that her fondest memories were vindicated. They were indeed delish, and very cheap. It was a most pleasant experience.

We then went to the Gold Museum which has many African gold pieces, with quality varying from simple to astonishing. We were getting tired, and Arline said that she almost fell asleep standing up. So we went back to the hotel for a few hours sleep.

Back to the mall for a light dinner, we picked out San Marco, an unpretentious place. We sat outside under heat lamps and with blankets provided by them. The food was good, but unfortunately we had to wait for an hour before being served. We took the shuttle back and were asleep before we got into bed.

Next day was the day to see the Cape Peninsula, a tapering area of land shaped like Florida going south to the bottom of Africa. The first stop was the Kirstenbosch National Gardens, which is a World Heritage site. We walked around a large area of spectacularly beautiful flowers and landscaping. Continuing south, we passed through the Groot Constantia wine country, then through various small beach towns to the Boulders Beach to see a colony of 'African' penguins. These penguins are in six colonies along the Atlantic and southern area of the cape. Those we saw were mostly young, about 18 in tall. They were in the just maturing stage, but some still had brown feathers which are shed when they become adults. There were only a few adults among them, as most had gone to sea for the day to eat fish and krill, for themselves and their young which were waiting for their dinner.

Then down to the tip of the peninsula to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point, a rocky mountainous land covered with scrub brush. The first European to see it was Bartolomeu Dias in 1488, then by Vasco da Gama in 1497. There were a few lighthouses along with tales of many wreckages of ships that foundered n the area. We took the funicular up to the Cape Point lighthouse for a great view of the sea, looking south to Antarctica. Actually, these are not the most southern points of Africa. That honor belongs to Cape Agulhas, about 70 miles to the east.

All of the above tourist sites were crowded with visitors of various nations. We were told that Germans were particularly numerous. It was my impression that there were more Chinese groups than I had ever seen preciously. I wondered whether the marked prosperity of the Chinese economy of the past few years was and will be a driving force for their tourism in the future, leading to a spiraling expansion of the world economy and greater peaceful stability.

We all had a good snooze in the van on our way back to CT. For dinner, we opted for the buffet at our hotel, which was about $30, plus wine and tea. We grazed our way through the many yummy dishes and were enormously sated as we headed to welcome sleep.

more.....
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Oct 30th, 2007, 12:01 PM
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Thanks so much for posting. I plan on sending the whole trip report to my parents who can't figure out why I love Africa so much (and why I keep going there). Maybe if they read a trip report written by someone their age they might realize what a truly wonderful destination it is. (Even with 14 flights!!) My mom will love the scone story.

I look forward to hearing the rest!

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Oct 30th, 2007, 04:36 PM
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hi, jed,

I'm finding your report interesting - comparing your experiences with ours from our trip to SA four months ago. [is it really that long?]

i think that your friends had the same corner room at the Raddison that our kids got! fortunately ours was as good as theirs, else we'd have pulled rank. and the breakfasts - you must have had some pretty good hotel breakfasts to describe the Radisson ones as "quite good" - or are you simply a master of understatement?

looking forward to more,

regards, ann
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Oct 30th, 2007, 04:47 PM
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I found your length and breadth comment very funny as I pictured the slow moving plane. Probably funnier than when you were delayed.

Did you see any animals on your Cape of Good Hope trip? About what time did you arrive at the penguins?

Thanks.
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Oct 30th, 2007, 05:17 PM
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Jed
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Hi ann - We have had some outstanding breakfasts in Europe, Chna, and Thailand. So this was only 'quite good.'

atravelynn - I don't remember many animals near the Cape except an ostrich- probably very few. It was quite bleak.

We probably reached the penguins near noon - a picture of one that I have shows a slight shadow. The area was crowded with gawkers.

Indeed, the plane's wanderings became amusing only in retrospect.

You can see some pictures I took at:

http://www.worldisround.com/articles/338160/
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Oct 30th, 2007, 05:20 PM
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Jed
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4 - CT continued

Next AM, we took a 20 min boat ride to Robben Island. This was the notorious place where Apartheid opponents were kept since 1964. We were taken on a 30 min tour by one of the previous inmates who discussed the history of the place and exactly what it was like for those who spent years there. He showed us the small cell where "Comrade" Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years.

The history of the Europeans' treatment of the black natives since the Dutch arrived in 1652 is indeed abominable, and despite significant advances since 1994, some racism still exists. This may not be obvious to the traveller, since we see responsible positions in hotels, restaurants, etc, being ably run by blacks, and there seems to be amiable and cordial public social intercourse. We noted the interracial couples strolling the streets, and wondered whether this would have been allowed previously.

In the PM, we went for a tour of the SA Jewish Museum, synagogue, and Holocaust Museum, which had a small section on Apartheid. Knowledgeable volunteer guides spoke on the significant contributions of the Jewish immigrants, and of some of the fabulous fortunes made in the diamond, gold, feather, retailing, and other industries, and the part Jews played in the downfall of Apartheid.

Once more back to the V&A waterfront to Der Anker, a Belgian restaurant. A and I shared a tasting of 4 beers. She had a delicious North Sea shrimp salad, I had a delicious tuna, Madge has somewhat tough duck, and Fred had Springbok, a type of gazelle. So far the food has been good to very good, and moderately priced.

We returned to the hotel and packed, getting ready for our flight to Namibia.

more.....
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Oct 31st, 2007, 08:17 AM
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hi, jed,

wow - we must get to the far east soon to taste some of those great breakfasts.

Travelynn - when we were down on the cape, we saw dassies and baboons, plus some nice birds - southern booboo and seabirds of all descriptions.

it is quite bleak as jed says, and takes a surprisingly long time to get to.

it's well worth it though. one aspect Jed didn't mention is the Two Oceans Restaurant there which is in a superb position with lovely views, and has good, reasonably -priced food as well. well worth making sure you can work it into your intinerary.

regards, ann
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Oct 31st, 2007, 08:48 AM
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Jed
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5 - Namibia Ho

We woke up at 4:30 to get to the airport at 5:30 and have 2 hrs to wait to get on the plane. It is an Air Namibia plane, which is full. The seats have a 29 in pitch, which is the smallest seat I have ever sat in. When we get to Windhoek, we are met by our small-plane pilot, a young and dashing South African. He collects 13 people for our 1 hr flight. Most of the people are going to Little Kulala so he heads there first.

I was able to sit in the co-pilot's seat, which was a treat. The plane heads southwest, over a plateau. After 40 minutes, we cross an escarpment, and suddenly I see the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. It was an ethereal endless milky-white landscape punctuated by small dark mountains. It was surreal. It was breathtaking. After a few minutes, it turns pink-red. Breathtaking.

After letting off the first group on a pebbly strip, we fly 10 min to ours, where we are met by Jonathan, a 24 yr old Namibian who is our guide for the next 2 days. He is excellent. He knew a lot about a lot, was eager to please, and was innovative and competent.

After a short drive, we get to Kulala Wilderness Camp, with 10 rooms overlooking a huge flat plain with small scrub and only a few trees. We somewhat disappointed with first sight of the camp because the units were unattractive. Arline said they looked like cockroaches. They were on stilts, with a wooden floor, canvas sides, and thatched rook. The bedroom area was 20 ft X 14 Ft, plus a small porch and bathroom area. It was only 7 years old, but it already looked shabby. The furniture looked like it came from the Salvation Army. The floor fan was usable but falling apart. There was no ceiling fan. The bathroom was dark, hot, and the shower area was almost primitive. In the hot afternoon, when we wanted to cool off with a shower, the choice of water temps was either very hot or yeoooooow. When you sat on the toilet, you looked through a full window which did not have a curtain. Most interesting. The units faced west, so in the afternoon you could not sit on the porch.

And it was HOT. The manager said that it was 45C (113F)! There was a strong breeze both days from about 1 PM to sundown. Fortunately, by keeping the canvas flaps up, the wind made it slightly more tolerable. After unpacking a little, since there was minimal room to put anything, we lay down naked on the beds, unable to move because of the sweat, and slept for an hour.

At 5:30, Jonathan took the 4 of us in an old, decrepit Land Rover, which was probably used by Ernest Hemingway, to an overlook where we saw a beautiful sunset. He set up chairs, and we toasted the occasion with wine and snacks. It was wonderful. Everything else was forgiven.

Dinner was at 8. There were 21 guests around a large table on the deck of the lodge. The lodge itself was small, made of wood, and also less attractive. There was a small pool which faced west without shade. We did not go in. The dinner was good, with a choice of Oryx (which most people liked) or fish.

By that time, the area had become actually chilly, so we not have any problem sleeping, which was fortunate, since we were exhausted.
more.....

For some photos, go to: http://www.worldisround.com/articles/338160/index.html
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Oct 31st, 2007, 01:49 PM
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6 - DUNES

The next morning we were scheduled to see the dunes, which is what we came for. We got up at 4:30, had a small breakfast, and headed into the park. After a while we reached the dunes, which are lined up at 90 deg. on both sides of a wide canyon. They were huge, awesome, and sensational. Fortunately, there were no clouds, so we could see the magnificent color and shadows as we drove by. They were exactly like the pictures we had seen, but exponentially more thrilling.

We drove down the canyon some miles to Sossusvlei or the Sossus Pan. This was a small lake which has been dried out for many years. It was stark white with small dead trees which were calcified. In that area were large dunes, including Big Daddy and Big Momma.

Climbing these dunes was an experience so unique that it was hard to describe. The dunes are shaped like an ascending roof of a house, with a peak and sloping sides. The peak is a thin edge which rises to the top of the dune. The dune is climbed up not by the wide side, but astride the peak line, which slopes down 45-60 deg. to the floor. Big Daddy was a series of ascending tops, going to 600 ft. We started to climb up the edge. As you walk up, each foot is on either side of the peak, giving you the feeling that you could easily fall down. The footsteps pushed and sank into the sand. For us, it was frightening, and tiresome to our legs as we walked higher. Jonathan was most helpful in giving us a hand when needed.

When we reached the first top, about 200 ft high, we were exhausted and too frightened to go further. Most people descend simply by walking down, which is what I did. Arline was reluctant, and slid down on her backside. It was a once in a lifetime experience.

It was getting hot, so we went for brunch under a shady Acacia tree. The bathrooms were somewhere behind a bush. Jonathan spread out pasta salad, bean salad, chicken, and meatballs. The food was good, the scenery delicious, the experience gourmet.

Then back to the camp where we again lay immobile sweating in our beds. I don't see how people can stay in this area. I guess it takes getting used to.

Wilderness Lodges has 4 camps in this area. We stayed at Kulala Wilderness Camp. Others are Little Kulala, Kulala Safari Camp, and Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp. For our 'sundowner', we went to see Little Kulala, which is a premier camp, meaning very expensive. Built a few years ago, it is an outstanding in design, appearance, and decoration. And the cabins are air conditioned, although some of the guests said that it worked only partially. As we sat on the deck with our wine and tidbits watching the sun go down, we saw oryx gathering at the watering hole near the main lodge. Dinner was lamb or chicken. The lamb was not good, but the pumpkin soup and chocolate tart were excellent. By this time, as we were ready for sleep, the air had cooled significantly.

Next morning we slept in until 7, then a ride to a cave where drawings were of a man and woman which Jonathan said were 27K years old. I'm not sure I believe this. On the way to our flight out, we stopped at the Sossusvlei Camp. This was situated on top of a small mountain and had a great view. The place was modern and well kept. The cabins were very attractive, each with its own private plunge pool.

I felt that this Namibian sojourn was well worth it, even just to see the dunes. If I were to come again, I would probably choose Sossusvlei, although we were told that our camp was closest to the dunes.

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Oct 31st, 2007, 02:26 PM
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What a different experience you had at Kulala Wilderness in October than we had there at the end of June. We were always cold and had the camp almost entirely to ourselves!
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Oct 31st, 2007, 02:32 PM
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We were in Sossusvlei mid-September and it was about as hot as I can tolerate so I can't imagine going any later in the year. I think I suffered a mild case of heatstroke that day!
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Nov 1st, 2007, 06:00 AM
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Jed
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7 -Jo'burg

Our flight back to Windhoek was on a 4-passenger plane. The pilot said that since it was at noon, we could expect turbulence as we crossed the escarpment. Indeed we did, which which proved a challenge to Arline's tummy. Only by her lying down with her head in my lap was she able to tolerate the bumps. The view was not as good as it was on the way over, because of some clouds.

From Windhoek we flew to JNB, then a drive to our hotel, the Grace Hotel in Rosebank, a northern suburb. This was a lovely hotel and we had a standard room which was very nice. The hotel is connected to the Rosebank Mall, a huge maze of street level and second story shops and restaurants. For dinner we went through the maze to Primo Plati for pizza, which was a good change from our previous fancy meals. In general, food, wine, and beer have been slightly less costly than in the US.

The reason for us staying in Joburg was to see the townships, which we did the next day. In the morning, we were taken for a tour of the central business district, where many or most office buildings were abandoned in 1990 after the end of Apartheid. Many businesses were afraid of the communist-oriented business policies that they feared were coming. These buildings were either boarded up or inhabited by poor squatters, criminals, prostitutes, and a large number of illegal immigrants from other parts of Africa. This is the area known for crime. Large numbers of unemployed people filled the streets, some trying to make a living selling small things, looking for work, or just hanging out. Since the initial exodus in 1990, few companies have returned, because they still are not sure they can make a go of it in the uncertain South African economy.

Then we drove through Soweto, a contraction of Southwest townships, which is a large area to where the white government moved large number of blacks over many years from the better areas of Joburg which they wanted. The area now contains large numbers of old small brick homes, some dilapidated, and some fixed up. There were areas of tiny houses of brick, wood, and tin, mostly without water or electricity. There were also areas of newer small houses. In general, it was a depressing sight.

In the afternoon we went to the Apartheid Museum. Its concept, design, and layout were dramatic in its detailed history of Apartheid since 1948. We got an audio tour and saw the various exhibits for 2 hours.

We wanted to go for supper at an Italian place, La Cucina di Ciro, about 10 minutes from the hotel, and asked the concierge to make a reservation. He asked if we wanted a taxi, and I said yes. At 7 PM, our 'taxi', really a van, appeared and took us to the restaurant. When I asked how much it was, he said that the hotel would charge us. The dinner was good and inexpensive. When we wanted to go back, we asked them to call a taxi, which charged us R30 plus tip. Getting back at the hotel, I was floored to know we were charged R210 for the 1 way trip, or $30 vs. $4. I complained that we were not told it would be so expensive, but the manager would not reduce the fare to my satisfaction. More than the cost, I felt that we had been taken for a ride (literally). So beware of such situations. Other than that, our stay at the Grace Hotel was very pleasant.

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Nov 1st, 2007, 06:54 AM
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Jed, a clarification on "Since the initial exodus in 1990 . . .". You were either not given the correct information, or have misinterpreted what you were told.

While there might indeed have been a minority of companies that disinvested in S.A. pre- and post- the new democracy, the majority movement from the CBD was not out of the country, but to the northern suburbs. And that began long before 1990. Mostly to what what was then a different adjoining municipality, Sandton. (Sandton is now part of the Jo'burg Metro.)

In more recent years there has been some movement back to the original CBD. As well as more use by Government. And of course some major companies and institutions, one notable one being First National Bank (FNB), never left. FNB even expanded its footprint there.
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