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Out of Silicon Valley: How we learned to stop worrying and love the Bush


Jul 10th, 2012, 09:15 AM
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agswimmer: I don't know the answer to that. Some of the planes are very small and their "hold" area tiny so what I heard (just anecdotally from forums) was if you bring something with wheels, there's no guarantee that it won't get damaged. Having seen the planes, I can believe that it could get damaged being squashed. To be honest, I didn't pay attention to what any other people brought but we went with the no wheels - though my husband's bag was larger than what was suggested. Maybe ask the airline you'll be flying on - is it Federal? Where will you be taking the plane into Phinda from?

The nice thing is that we really didn't have to carry the luggage without wheels ourselves much, i.e. there were always free luggage carts or someone who was carrying it for us it seemed. Just when we later went to Jeffreys Bay, we had to schlep them up stairs ourselves but that would have been true even with wheels!

I will be working on more of the trip report this week - next up is Kwandwe!
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Jul 10th, 2012, 01:16 PM
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Jane, we're not flying directly INTO Phinda. We're flying from Cape Town to Durban and unforunately ground transport from there. When we leave Phinda we'll fly directly from Phinda into the Singita air strip. I have a feeling that will be a pretty small plane. I think you're right about the non-wheeled luggage. We probably won't have to carry it much.
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Jul 11th, 2012, 08:08 PM
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agswimmer, so that last flight into the Singita air strip will likely be the small plane on which you will have your luggage squished into the small hold, yes.

Ok, here's the last safari installment of the trip report, though after that I'll continue with the last two stops of our trip, Jeffreys Bay and Cape Town.


Getting to Kwandwe was a long travel day. First, we were driven 3 hours to the Durban airport, but the drive was perfectly pleasant. Next, we took a 1-hour or so flight to Port Elizabeth. Last, we picked up a rental car at the Durban airport and drove ourselves to Kwandwe, about an hour and forty-five minute drive. Unfortunately, it was raining when we arrived at Port Elizabeth, so my husband had to drive on the “wrong” side of the road (for us) and shifting with his left hand (we’re used to using the right hand to shift) in the rain! He did very well though, and we reached Kwandwe without incident. I was personally very nervous about the whole driving part since I had been in a car in Jamacia (where they also drive on the left) almost 30 years ago and my aunt, who was driving, got into the wrong lane and was killed in a head-on crash. Ever since then, I’ve been a nervous car passenger in general and, as you can imagine, driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road brings up bad memories and fears for me. I’m glad to say that nothing bad happened for us on this trip, though we did have a few close calls driving in Cape Town.

When we drove onto Kwandwe’s grounds, we started seeing wildlife, and it was kind of cool to for once be driving ourselves while the wildlife appeared. A big baboon bounded across the road, for instance, and we saw various game as we drove towards reception. Upon arrival, it was about 4 p.m. and getting dark, but we met our ranger, Ryan, who asked if we’d like to go on a bit of a game drive before settling in to our rooms. We said yes, we would, as we felt the whole day had been travel. Ryan was an absolute delight. he was definitely the kids’ favorite ranger and I heartily recommend anyone who visits Kwandwe to request him - especially if you have kids, but even if you don’t! He has endless energy and enthusiasm, is always seemingly in a good mood, and of course knows everything about the animals and plant life as well. He came up with all sorts of fun and inventive games and ideas to keep the kids interested and engaged, and was constantly full of positivity. What a joy to be with.

Some of the fun things Ryan and Andy did with us and the kids:

-- got them - and my husband - to try impala dung-spitting (apparently a popular activity in this part of the world!)

-- Binocular game: look down at ground through wrong end of binocs while trying to walk a straight line - harder than it sounds - I tried this one too!

-- try to pull a small tablecloth out from under a tin teapot

-- gave the kids driving lessons on the Landcruiser!!!

-- let the kids try sitting in the tracker seat

-- taught older daughter to open a champagne bottle with a knife by cutting the top right off!

-- offered them candy if they spotted things before he did

He always had something up his sleeve!

On our first little 1-hour drive, we saw quite a lot. Here’s the list I made from that drive:

white-tailed gnu (also called black wildebeest)
a Cheetah and cubs
crowned lapwing
spotted eagle owl

This was pretty great as many of these animals we hadn’t even seen on the whole trip. We all especially loved the black wildebeest. These are the ones with blond tails. We had only seen the other kind, that are all dark including the manes and tails. Ryan explained to us that each reserve is only supposed to ahve one or the other because they had been interbreeding and it was decided to try to keep each breed pure. Though I don’t know how that would work in Kruger where the wildlife isn’t ‘managed’ in that way. It was very cool to see wild ostrich as well, and the oryx’ markings were beautiful.

When we were dropped off at our lodge, which was Kwandwe Ecca, as it was getting dark, we were really wowed by how lovely, elegant and comfortable it was. There was a great lounge with comfy couches and a fire, and everything was very modern design but totally comfortable. We happen to be partial to modern, mimimalist design, so it was very much our taste. We met the manager, Bongi, who was the first black manager of a lodge that we met, and it made me happy to see a black female manager. She was very nice and helpful as well. Our butler was Cindy, and she was very nice as well. It was interesting, this was the only lodge where our butler showed us to our room and showed us how everything worked in there. The rooms were HUGE and lovely, with fabulous views. The only design element we weren’t mad about was a sort of cracked mirror design against one wall by the bathtub, it looked kind of dated, but I am not going to quibble about one tiny thing. There are a few pictures of the room in my photo set so you can see it there.

The dining room was small and intimate - there were only I think 6 rooms at Ecca. In fact, the first two nights we had the place to ourselves, so it was VERY quiet and intimate! The food was very good and we always felt the service was excellent. They had a coffee machine that seemed to use those pods, but for some reason the coffee was absolutely delicious to me.

The next day, we again saw many creatures we hadn’t seen before. Again, here is my list, and I hope I’m spelling things correctly, but I apologize if not:

Kori bustard
Common Fiscal (Shrike)*
Courser bird
Helmeted Guineafowl
Southern Black Korhaan
Skull of a Gnu (white-tailed wildebeest)
Red Hartebeest
Red-necked Franklin (spurfowl)
Porcupine skull and quills
bones and feathers from an ostrich kill that Ryan had seen happen

*the interesting thing about this bird was that it should have had a black head but instead, it was white. Ryan hadn’t seen one like that before.

Next Drive:

meerkat (!! That was cool, didn’t expect to see them!)
Mongoose (also very cool - they were so cute and playful with each other)
Two big bull Elephants - spent time with them very close-up!
Fork-tailed drongo
Malachite Sunbird
Double-collared Sunbird (both greater and lesser)
Eagle owl
2 cheetah stalking eland - we patiently watched them for a long time but they did not end up chasing the eland.

On our second full day, we decided to do something special we’d been planning on the whole trip. My girls are really into playing soccer - they both play on competitive teams - and my husband is a big soccer fan and plays himself in an adult league. We wanted to do something for some kids we encountered in our travels, and Petro, our agent, had told us that Kwandwe had a community center and preschool that we could easily visit. We’d prearranged to have Kwandwe purchase for us about 20 soccer balls. We’d decided to give a few of them to the kids at this preschool and then have the Foundation give the others away to other children they help who are farther away. We also brought about 6 deflated soccer balls of our own from home, as we have more than we need, and a small pump. In the middle of the next game drive, Ryan and Andy drove us over to the community center. We were greeted with lovely singing by the women who work at the Center, and then given a tour of the classrooms and told about what they do there. They take care of kids from babies through about age 7 and have different classrooms for different ages. These kids seem mainly to be the children of people who work at the Kwandwe lodges. We also got to see the craft center where a small group of women have a cooperative that makes beautiful dolls by hand - my daughters each bought one and it is a great souvenir. They also sell them at the lodges themselves.

Then, finally, we got to give the balls to the kids. There were maybe 30 kids out playing with each other and their teachers, and I think they had two or three balls initially. They were using them for everything from basketball to kicking to tossing and catching. We had pumped up our balls and threw out about 9 or 10 balls into the playground. We then hung out for about an hour while the kids went nuts playing with all the balls. It was really a joy to see. My husband, Ryan, Andy and my older daughter also kicked the balls around with the kids and had a great time! I’m really glad we were able to do just a little something to help the kids there have a happy day, and hopefully they’ll enjoy the balls for a while to come.

Next Drive

African Harrier Hawk being harried (ha ha) by black-shouldered kite
Brown-hooded kingfisher
Fish Eagle
Rock kestral
Common Daiker
Melikee bird
Glossy starling
A female leopard (one of only 12 to 20 on the reserve and I was the one to spot her!)

We had gone up to the north part of the property across the river, where it is wilder and in some ways harder to spot animals, apparently, but we were trying to see if we could find lion or leopard up there. We had stopped for a snack and, while we were stopped, our tracker Andy had gone on a walk to look for tracks of anything interesting. We got back in the car and started driving and almost immediately, I saw something spotted run across the track on which we were driving! I said “Leopard!” rather breathlessly as it had been rather close and I was kind of surprised that I was the one to spot it! No one else saw it and at first I think everyone doubted I’d actually seen it. I pointed to the spot where I saw it go into the bushes on the other side of the track and after a couple of minutes, our tracker saw its face in the bushes! It then came out and walked back across the track rather slowly so we got a good look at her, and then she kept disappearing and reappearing so we saw her about three different times. Ryan was really thrilled that we saw this leopard, as he had not seen her for over a month he said (though he had also been on vacation for part of that time).

Next Drive

This was the afternoon of the day we’d seen the leopard. We found a male and female lion who are their own little pride, just hanging out and relaxing and were able to get very close and spend some time observing them. Then, we heard that the same cheetah mom with cubs that we’d seen on the first drive we did at Kwandwe was nearby, and this time we were able to get quite close and observe them for a while. And finally, there was yet another pride of lions that we ran into as the light was dying - it was interesting observing them in the almost-dark. This day was very special as we realized we had seen all three big cat species in one day: leopard, lion and cheetah - that was pretty remarkable! We also saw some elephants, but from a distance, and that evening, we saw a porcupine, which I enjoyed.

Last Drive

On the day we were leaving, we awoke to totally foggy skies. It had rained on and off throughout our stay there and we almost thought about skipping the last drive, thinking we might not see much with the heavy fog. However, we decided to give it a shot, and were glad we did. We saw one of the prides of lions, a female and her 2 brothers, that we had seen the day before and the best look we’d had the whole trip of a jackal. We got a last look at one of my favorites, the warthog, some Cape Buffalo, some zebra, and some baboons. And we also saw some birds, of course, including Hadidas, an ant-eating chat, some wagtails and some South African shelduck.

We have very fond memories of Kwandwe and it was definitely hard to leave.

Here are some pictures from Kwandwe: http://www.flickr.com/photos/2867263...7630457415176/
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Jul 11th, 2012, 08:56 PM
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Thanks for the explanation Jane, still loving your report. Our family is very into soccer, too, - your trip to the community center sounds like a big success!
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Jul 12th, 2012, 06:59 AM
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Hi Jane. Great and informative TR. My wife and I are thinking about a South African safari next May or June. It would be our first, too. We are in our mid 50s. I've done a fair amount of reading on this site, just enough to be fairly confused, lol! So I'm hoping you can offer some planning tips.

For instance, how soon should I start lining up an itinerary and booking the camps?

Did you use a South African tour agent? Any pointers in picking one?

How did you select the camps and guides? Would you make any changes to your itinerary or camps, knowing what you now know?

One of the difficulties I'm having is trying to figure out how many days to actually spend on safari without the process becoming redundant. We love wildlife and nature but aren't students of it, etc. We'd like to see the big 5, I suppose, but more importantly, we'd like to see different animals each day without a lot of repetition. Any thoughts?

With kids, I realize your travel timing was a bit limited. From what I've read, May and June are good for South Africa safari but not so much for Cape Town. Do you think it makes any difference whether one picks May or June?

Any planning or other tips would be greatly appreciated.

Looking forward to your Cape Town report!

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Jul 12th, 2012, 07:10 AM
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Looks like the soccer balls were a bit hit - very cute pix!
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Jul 12th, 2012, 07:23 AM
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Great report! What a fantastic experience to share with your daughters.
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Jul 12th, 2012, 07:49 PM
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sf7307 you're welcome and I'm glad you're still enjoying the report - yes, the community center worked out very well! Leslie, the balls did seem to be a big hit, which was very hearwarming to us!

Hi dcd - I understand what you mean about reading enough to be confused. There are so many options, it's overwhelming.

I started researching the trip in September or so of last year. We had made all our reservations and gotten our plane tickets by the end of the year. I remember having to change our itinerary to start one day earlier because Londolozi didn't have room for us for 3 nights on the original days I planned. So the popular places definitely book up 6 months or more in advance sometimes, it seems - they are not terribly big, so that is part of it. And we wanted the adjoining rooms there. You won't have that issue.

I don't know honestly about May vs. June. We could only look over summer (our summer) since we wanted to go for 3 weeks - the kids don't have any vacation that long except in June/July/August. Originally, our plan was for July as my birthday is early July, but we changed it to June because we learned that many of the camps had rates about 25% lower up until June 21 I think it was - because then the S. African kids got out of school for THEIR winter break and because those families would theoretically also be traveling to some of these lodges, it was then more peak season. So we decided to go earlier and take advantage of the lower rates. But yes, we'd heard it was a good time to go for game viewing and we also appreciated that it would not be too hot. The Cape Town part was added on after the original plans were made - main purpose of trip was for animal viewing - then we thought so long as we were there, we should see Cape Town but wouldn't have planned around good weather for CT. We did get pretty lucky though - one very bad weather day in CT and the rest were good.

We did use a S.African agent - Petro Kilpin from &Beyond. It just happened that I'd emailed several companies whose lodges looked interesting to me for some more information, not thinking that whoever I contacted would end up being my agent for the whole trip. She responded when I contacted &Beyond and was so nice and helpful and mentioned that she could help us with booking any lodges, not just &Beyond, that I ended up wanting to work with her for the whole trip. I liked having an agent in country, in case anything went wrong. And I liked that she happened to have managed game lodges before, so she really knew a lot about these places. We ended up arranging to meet her in person while in Cape Town, and that was fun!

How I chose lodges: well I read a lot about a lot of places, and I knew I wanted to go to Sabi Sands once we settled on S. Africa (at first, I wasn't even sure what country or countries I wanted to visit, and was really interested in Botswana but we decided to save that for another trip for several reasons). Petro gave me her ideas on what lodges had great game-viewing, great experiences and were family-friendly and then I read more about those places and narrowed it down. I liked Phinda as a contrast to Sabi Sands since they had more cheetah which were harder to find in Sabi Sands. I liked Kwandwe because it was down near Jeffreys Bay where my husband wanted to go surfing, and also because it seemed they had a greater likelihood of seeing some of the more unusual and nocturnal animals. They also had the "safari suits" that they give out to winter visitors - which I forgot to actually mention in my report I think but which you no doubt saw me wearing in a picture - the kids thought that was a fun experience!

As for how many days for safari, I did struggle with that. I knew that I'd want a lot of days but I didn't know if my kids or husband might get bored. Actually, my husband ended up being as into it as I was and he wasn't really ready to leave the bush when we did - nor was I. I think it was probably just about the right amount of time for the kids - 11 days/nights. We had considered doing one more lodge for a total of 14 days - I think I would have been fine with that, not sure if too much for the kids. We did see some of the same animals more than once of course, but in the case of the big cats, I never minded that, it was always exciting and interesting. I would have liked to see more of certain animals and there were some we never saw so ... I don't know how helpful that is but I think 3-4 nights at one lodge is probably good and then moving to another in a different area is good to give variety.

Good luck in your planning, I found it to be a lot of fun to plan the trip!
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Jul 12th, 2012, 08:17 PM
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Especially liked your Phinda cheetahs. Sad to think of their fate.

Your family will have photos and memories to talk about for years!
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Jul 13th, 2012, 06:38 AM
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Hi Jane,

Boy, thanks for taking the time to post such a thoughtful and in depth reply. I really appreciate your comments and feel much better about how to go about planning this trip. Like you, I enjoy trip planning but safari planning seems to be the proverbial different kettle of fish! I did see and enjoy your photos. My wife gets cold easily so she'd have to dress appropriately in the mornings! Thanks again.

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Jul 13th, 2012, 02:53 PM
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dcd, I'd like to comment on the question about how many days on safari and not wanting to repeat animals etc... One thing that we learned very quickly is that no matter how many times you "go on safari" you ALWAYS see something new. For example, over the years we have seen many, many, many giraffes. But this last trip we came upon a group of male giraffes. The ranger was explaining to us that the were all bachelors when all of a sudden one of them started trying to "mate" with one of the others. It even took the guide by surprise and we couldn't stop laughing. He was very persistent but needless to say, unsuccessful. But that, along with the pics, was one of the funniest stories of all of our safaris. The animals are so unpredictable you can see something extraordinary from a very ordinary animal. So my answer to how many days is...as many as you can afford!
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Jul 13th, 2012, 03:14 PM
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Thanks agswimmer! Great story indeed. Because we have run into so many people during our travels who have raved about Africa and their safari experiences, we moved it to the top of "the list". And it seems that many folks get addicted to the experience. But since there are so many places we have yet to go, I'm a bit concerned that may happen to us, lol!
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Jul 16th, 2012, 09:59 AM
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Love the giraffe story - and I was going to say the same thing as agswimmer - we saw elephants multiple times but it wasn't always the same experience. The one time we saw the almost adult-sized elephant drop to his "knees" to try to nurse from his mother was quite a sight, and even our ranger had never seen that kind of thing. So it's true, you never know what you're going to see out there and that is part of what makes it exciting and interesting even if seeing the same kinds of animals. I already am planning my next trip back to Africa, so I think yes, the safari bug that bites so many has bitten me
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