South Africa - What a place!!

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Feb 20th, 2003, 12:57 AM
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South Africa - What a place!!

I just returned from a 2 week trip to South Africa. What a wonderful country! This was my second time there and the place just blew my mind all over again.

I received a lot of useful information from this board, particularly regarding driving in SA and Swaziland, so thanks to those that helped make our trip so successful!

We stayed in a gorgeous country lodge right near the Blyde River Canyon, then spent five nights in the Kruger park (Letaba, Olifants and Berg-en-Dal), followed by one night at Phophonyane Lodge in Swaziland, and then a fabulous 4 night stay at Kosi Forest Lodge, located in the most beautiful wilderness area on the edge of a unique lake system by the Indian Ocean.

The food, the people, the wildlife, the scenery... by far the best holiday ever!!
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Feb 20th, 2003, 03:34 AM
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More more more!!!

What were each of the accommodations like & what did you see in each place?

What did you like best/ least!

What was the weather like?

What were your guides/ rangers like?

More more more please!!


Kavey
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Feb 20th, 2003, 05:14 AM
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Glad you're interested
So, here are a few more details of our trip.

We arrived at Jo-burg at 6.30 am on a British Airways flight from Heathrow (not bad at all - quite confortable, food edible...!!) and were immediately struck by the friendly chaos surrounding us in the airport. Stopped for coffee and juice at an airport café before picking up our rental car from Avis. We hired a Toyota Condor (looks like a 4WD but is only 2WD), which cost us around 7500 rand for 2 weeks with full insurance cover and limited excess. It was a great car, easy to drive and powerful, nice and high up (for optimum game viewing!!).

We drove to the Blyde River Canyon Lodge (5 hours from Jo-burg) located in the Blyde River Botanical Reserve, just outside the actual park and not far from the Aventura Swadini resort. This lodge does not appear in any guide books (we found it via the Web), but it really is a hidden treasure (http://blydecanyoncountry.com/accommo/blydelodge.html). Our confortable room had air-con and opened out onto a little patio and beautiful gardens beyond (900-year old jackalberry trees, flowers, little ponds and streams...). The place is run by a lovely lady called Vicky who made us instantly feel at home. The home-cooked food was delicious - we ate breakfast and dinner on the covered deck overlooking the gardens and pool, and watched zebra and wildebeest wander by.

On the second day (weather warm, sunshine and clouds, about 85°) we drove the scenic route to the Bourke's Luck potholes - strange rock formations carved out by the swirling water of the Blyde river. It's maintained by the Mpumalanga parks board and cost about 20 rand to get in - but the wooden walkways over the gorge and waterfalls were lots of fun! We then drove about 20 minutes and stopped at God's Window, a stunning scenic viewpoint of the valley, with various pathways to different lookout spots.
We then drove to the nearby town of Graskop for lunch. We were obviously the only tourists in town that day, as the street hawkers all descended on as before we'd got out of our car, trying to sell us macadamia nuts. We eventually boughts some in an attempt to appease them, but it just encouraged them further!! "Buy some from me, now, too!" was the general cry. We escaped to Harrie's Pancake house where we ate delicious stuffed spinach and cheese pancakes and drank homemade lemonade for about 30 rand each.
We drove up to have a look at the town of Pigrim's Rest, which was recommended in our guide books, but it seemed rather tacky and full of tour-buses, so we didn't stop there for long. The drive back to the lodge was something of an experience - we drove past a lot of farmland and small villages, so the roads were pretty hairy - minibus taxis pulling out left right and center, cows crossing the road, kids playing on the road, and hitchhikers all over the place. Fortunately we made it back without hitting anything (or anyone!!).
(Continued below)
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Feb 20th, 2003, 05:15 AM
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(Continued)
The following day was quite cloudy, but warm, and we set off from the Blyde River Canyon Lodge to the Kruger park. It was only a 45-minute drive to the Orpen gate, and from there we made our way slowly up to Letaba camp, stopping off at Satara for cold drinks on the way. Within 20 minutes of entering the park we were watching a bull elephant lunching on a nearby tree, and then found ourselves squinting to watch a leopard taking a nap up a tree by the roadside. Many giraffes, zebras and baboons followed, and we arrived at Letaba at around 2 o'clock (4 hour drive from orpen gate). Our accommodation (a 2 person hut) was OK, but nothing special. A little grotty, in fact, so I was disappointed as I'd heard that Kruger accommodations were fairly pleasant. Still, we weren't there to lounge around indoors, so we didn't mind too much.
We booked sunset and morning game drives at the camp, which I would thoroughly recommend. You get to see the camp when no-one else is around, and the guides often drive onto small roads that the public can't access. We came across hippos grazing out of the water, a huge bull elephant thundering down the road towards us in the dark (on his way to find a mate - he was *not* going to let a little thing like a landrover get in his way!! Our guide stepped on the gas to get us away from him), a lonely lion having a nap, a huge crocodile running across the road and plunging into the river, the ubiquitous zebra, impala and giraffes... and many, many incredible birds (eagles, hornbills, vultures, bea-eaters, herons...). On our first night at Letaba, we ventured to the restaurant for dinner, hoping to get a light meal. Having been ushered into the dining room, we perused the menu, only to discover that there were no choices! Just one 5-course meal. So after soup, fried fish, half a roast chicken, vegetables, salads, we had to say no to the pear and caramel pudding that was being offered for dessert (before the coffee, and cheese and biscuits, of course). The whole meal cost 85 rand a head. We could barely waddle our way back to our hut after that! Needless to say, the next night we opted for home-made sandwiches !!
After 2 nights at Letaba, we drove the short drive down to Olifants camp where we would spend another 2 nights. By this time, the weather had got very windy and was much cooler than the previous days 90° temperatures. We were thrilled to see our accommodation - we'd booked a hut with a river-view, and it was absolutely stunning. An open air kitchen looked down onto the Olifants river below, where we could see hippos, crocs and water-birds with our binoculars. The wind was pretty blustery as we were quite exposed on an outcrop, but the cooler temperatures were quite a relief. We went on more game drives from Olifants (much busier - more busloads of tourists - than Letaba). The absolute highlight was when we watched a leopard stalking impala while a terrified jackal barked hysterically nearby. The restaurant at Olifants was a pleasant, buffet-style affair - again, set price of 85 rand. I was amused to discover that the "chocolate" cake i'd selected for dessert was, in fact, Christmas pudding! Not exactly "warm weather" food in my book, but it made me giggle!!
(continued below)
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Feb 20th, 2003, 05:16 AM
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Our last stop in the Kruger park was Berg-en-Dal, down in the south. We'd been advised to spend a night in the south, as due to the lack of rain in the northern parts of the park, many of the larger animals were more abundant in the south. It turned out to be good advice, as there are many different habitats throughout the park, and it would have been a shame for us to restrict ourselves to one area only. The drive down was quite long (6 hours) and it was extremely hot (it must have been over 100°, and very humid).

We really liked Berg-en-Dal camp, as it was modern and pleasantly laid out, surrounded by rocky hills, with a great restaurant and grill, and lovely big swimming pool. We stayed in a brick bungalow which was very spacious, with its own patio, and even a colony of cockroaches that decided to stage a surprise party for us in the kitchen on our return from dinner. We foolishly hadn't brought any bug spray, so spent a frantic half hour whacking at them with a shoe. What fun.

We went on an early-morning drive the next day and had some excellent sightings, including a pack of wild dogs lounging in the road (very rare!), a lioness wandering down the road next to our vehicle, and a group of rhinos enjoying breakfast by a waterhole.

We really felt we'd made the most of our time in the Kruger, and so we were looking forward to our trip into Swaziland. We'd decided to go there out of convenience, really, as it was the most direct route south to Maputaland. It took us an hour or so from Malelane gate to the border post at Jeppe's reef (as I've already mentioned in a reply to another post).

The border formalities were minimal - they didn't even require authorization from Avis for us to take our rental car into the country.

Swaziland is a beautiful place - we felt the difference immediately. It was so green and lush as we drove through the rolling hills to Phophonyane Lodge and Nature Reserve (www.phophonyane.co.sz). It was a little cooler too - around 85-90°, though it was humid. I found this lodge through an entry in the Greenwood Guide on the internet. I'm so glad we stayed there - another hidden gem - perhaps even the highlight of our entire stay. As we arrived near Pigg's Peak, we took a gravel track into the forest, past pines and eucalyptus forests, bumping slowing up and downhill, through ever more lush vegetation, till we arrived at the lodge itself. Shady trees and plants all around gave the air a cool, green tinge that was a welcome relief from the dry heat of the Kruger park. We were thrilled when we were shown past running streams and green ponds, to our cottage, a beautifully laid-out, open-plan room with lovely big shower, dressing room, little kitchen, and a private patio, with a pond set in the rocks at the bottom of the private garden! We ordered a snack lunch (homemade pitta with tuna and salad) which we ate on the communal dining deck by the lodge's gorgeous swimming pool. All around were plants, hills, valleys, and the sound of bubbling water from the Phophonyane falls - a little trail led down from the lodge to the falls, across little bridges to another swimming pool set in the rocks by the cascading water. It was like the garden of Eden.

That evening, we had a delicious meal and sat chatting in the gardens listening to the sounds of the night birds, frogs and insects chirping and chirruping. I would thoroughly recommend this place - it was so reasonable (I think we paid under 400 rand per person)
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Feb 20th, 2003, 05:19 AM
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The next day (Valentine's day!) we had a leisurely breakfast by the pool, and then set off to drive across Swaziland and down to KwaZulu Natal. In all, it took us about 4 hours to get to the border post at Golela. The weather was humid and cloudy, and we were very glad to be cool as cucumbers in our air-conditioned car!! The roads in Swaziland were no worse than those in SA, but there is no shoulder, which makes passing a bit more tricky. We enjoyed the drive, via Mbabane and Manzini, and saw that the northern part of the country seemed to be much greener - and richer - than the south-western part.

Again, border formalities were quick, and we soon found ourselves back in South Africa, where we realized that things did feel different from Swaziland, especially in socio-economic terms.

We had arranged to be at the town of Manguzi (not far from the Mozambique border) at 4pm, where we would leave our 2WD and be taken by 4WD to Kosi Forest Lodge, the last stage in our trip. On the map, it looked like we were driving into the middle of nowhere - no towns, only one road... but the reality was quite different - there were people and signs of habitation everywhere! The grassy hills were peppered with reed huts and brick homes, and lots of people, schoolchildren and livestock were walking along the road, not to mention the minibus taxis, logging trucks, and "bakkies" everywhere.

When we arrived at Manguzi, it was extremely hot and muggy - it felt like a thunderstorm was on the way, but it never came. We were met by the guide from the camp, who loaded our bags on to an landrover with rows of seats in the back, and we drove off over sand and gravel roads to the forest camp.
What a place! Totally different to everything we'd seen, this camp is set in the sandy forest by the Kosi Lake system. We stayed in a luxury tent overlooking the forest, with the most incredible open-air bathroom, surrounded by a reed wall and with only the treetops as the ceiling. Taking a bubble bath while lying looking up at the trees and listening to the birds and monkeys - not an experience i'm likely to forget!!
The lodge had no electricity - the tents were lit by paraffin lamps, which made it all very beautiful. But it was extremely hot when we were there (over 95° every day) which meant that it was hot and sticky at night - took a bit of getting used to. The main areas of the camp - an open-sided bar, lounge and dining area surrounded by trees - were lovely. And the cuisine was excellent - worthy of any Parisian restaurant! The atmosphere was very friendly, and after dinner we were soon chatting and sharing stories with the other guests. The place only has 16 beds, so everything's very personal and small-scale, which is lovely.
(continued below)
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Feb 20th, 2003, 05:24 AM
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(Continued - last instalment!! hope you're still awake!!!!)

The next day we woke early, and went on a canoe trip with a guide from the camp. Well, he paddled, we just sat back and relaxed! We paddled down the "black" river which flows into one of the freshwater lakes in the system, spotting birds such as the palm-nut vulture and admiring the incrediable raffia palm forest on the river banks. Apparently the river is full of crocs, but "only little ones, and they're not hungry" (as our guide put it).
We returned to the camp for breakfast, and then set off with the other guests to Kosi mouth, the estuary where the lakes feed into the sea. We were ony a mile or two from the MOzambique border.
As the sandy lagoon filled up with sea water as the tide came in, we were provided with snorkelling equipment and spent a wonderful couple of hours splashing around amongst the brightly coloured fish. It was very hot, and the strong sun meant that we couldn't stay out too long, so we retired to a shady corner of the beach where our guide laid out the most delicious picnic. Bliss!

The next day we spent all morning on a canoe trip around one of the lakes.It was quite scary to be in the water with the hippos, and all the big crocodiles, but it was beautiful and peaceful nonetheless. Unfortunately the relentless hot sun and lack of shade meant we got a little redder than intended...

After four days at the lodge we drove back to Jo-burg airport (8 hours) and reluctantly boarded our flight home.

Just a couple of general observations:
The South African and Swazi people that we met on our trip were so kind and friendly, so helpful and pleasant, it really made our holiday. The country has a reputation as being dangerous and crime-ridden - and perhaps it is - but we had absolutely no problems whatsoever. Driving was fine - no scarier than driving in France, once you get used to the crazy minibus taxis and using the shoulder to allow fast drivers to overtake.

Needless to say, we're already planning our next trip to South Africa as I can't get enough of the place ;o)
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Feb 20th, 2003, 02:05 PM
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This is a FANTASTIC trip report, thank you soooooo much!


What a wonderful pleasure to get home and sit back and read all that!
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Feb 20th, 2003, 03:11 PM
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Hani,

Have to agree with Kavey. Amazing report that is excellently written. I could actualy visualize the whole journey as I read the report. Furthermore the trip report is full of lots and lots of very interesting facts.

Thank you bigtime for your input.

Selwyn Davidowitz
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Feb 20th, 2003, 10:42 PM
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Thanks
I really enjoyed writing it - I've only been home a couple of days but it all seems so far away already. I suppose by writing it all down, it'll stay fresh in my memory for longer...
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Feb 21st, 2003, 09:07 AM
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Yes, thank you, Hanl! We won't be in that part of the country on our May trip this year, but you've got me already planning the next trip after this one!

I am so jealous that you saw leopards.

I can tell it was just a fabulous experience.

Celia
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Mar 5th, 2003, 12:36 PM
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Thanks for the trip report. We will be in SA in November and have reservations at Lower Sabie & Olifants, so I was especially interested in what you had to say about Olifants. We've reserved a river view bungalow with a kitchen, so I hope we are as fortunate as you were in terms of getting one with a good view. I was surprised to hear that the food offered is only a multicourse meal for a fixed price. Maybe we should stop at a grocery and stock up on a few things before we get there. Also, is there anything you didn't bring that you wish you had (or anything you brought that you wish you hadn't?).
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Mar 7th, 2003, 01:40 AM
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Cool!! Thanks for posting!!
 
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Mar 7th, 2003, 05:43 AM
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Hi Lisa
I'm pretty sure that if you've booked a river view bungalow at Olifants, you'll have a fabulous view. From what I could tell, they all did!

The restaurant at Olifants was different to the one at Letaba - it was more of a buffet style (though still at a set price of 85 R) and so there was more choice. The food at Olifants was quite good, but the options were quite heavy, meat-oriented, and the salads were served with a lot of rich mayonnaise (not to mention the infamous Xmas pudding!!).

You probably won't need to stop off at a supermarket before you get to Kruger, unless you have any particular food requirements. All the camps have a small shop (the biggest one is at Skukuza I think) selling souvenirs, basic toiletries and groceries, plus things like knives and forks, but obviously the choice is limited (especially as regards fresh fruit and veg). We tended to alternate visits to the restaurant with picnic-style meals (bread,tomatoes, ham, cheese, chips...). It was hardly 5-star luxury but we were happy!!

The kitchen at Olifants had all the utensils that we needed, but none were provided at Letaba, so you might want to check that everything will be provided at Lower Sabie.

I don't *think* we brought anything we didn't need, except perhaps our raincoats! Just make sure you take plenty of bottled water when you go out on game drives, and take a good pair of binoculars! Although they say that the water is perfectly safe to drink at Kruger, we were warned by a local to avoid it and stick to the bottled stuff. Don't forget the malaria pills, either (although we didn't get bitten once in the park it's better to be safe than sorry!!)

If I can help you with anything else, feel free to ask!
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Mar 7th, 2003, 03:36 PM
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What a wonderful trip you had!
Thanks for sharing.
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Apr 15th, 2003, 10:48 PM
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Topping for Ella
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Apr 18th, 2003, 06:52 AM
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What malaria pills did you take and how is it administered.
Thanks
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Apr 18th, 2003, 09:30 AM
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Hi, we took Malarone - one tablet a day at the same time each day, starting 24 hours before entering the malaria-risk area and continuing for 7 days after leaving it. Malarone is expensive (we paid 45 euros for each pack of 12 tablets) but we experienced no side effects whatsoever.
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May 25th, 2003, 12:43 PM
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Hani,

I just finished reading your wonderful report and I have a couple of questions.

Did you plan this trip yourselves or did you use a travel agent? How much was the total trip, including airfair, car rental, lodging, food, and the safari tours? I would like to plan a similar trip next year. Thanks.

Pat
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May 26th, 2003, 11:28 PM
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Hi Pat

We organised and booked the whole trip ourselves. I started by reading the Lonely Planet guide to South Africa, and picked out the places we wanted to visit. Then I did the rest on the Web - booked the car, the accommodation and our flights, and of course I hunted for a lot of background information on this board and the Lonely Planet site's message board.

I hope I can give you an accurate cost breakdown as we paid for everything in dribs and drabs, as we reserved it, so I haven't actually totted up the total until now! And i'm afraid it'll have to be in rand, or euros (when I was there, the exchange rate was about 10 rand to the euro)...

Two round-trip flights with BA from Lyon (France) to Jo-burg, via London Heathrow, cost us 1350 euros in all. We booked them on www.opodo.fr and the same fares were not available directly via British Airways. We did see similar fares being offered by the Nouvelles Frontieres travel agency.

2 weeks travel insurance came to 70 euros.

Car hire (Avis) for 12 days (2WD Toyota Condor) was around 7500 ZAR. Could have got this cheaper but decided at the last minute to opt for a bigger, higher vehicle, rather than the sedan we'd originally booked. Petrol was much cheaper than in France

2 nights at Blyde River Canyon Lodge came to about 1600 ZAR (approx 400 per person per night) including breakfast. The 3 course dinner there was 80 ZAR each, and the wine we chose was around 60 ZAR.

Lunch at Harrie's Pancakes in Graskop was about 60 ZAR for 2 of us.

5 nights in the Kruger park cost us about 2100 ZAR. Apparently the park entrance fees have gone up since we were there, so you'll need to factor that in too. For our breakfasts and lunches in Kruger, we bought bread, cheese, fruit, etc. from the store and picnicked in our hut. Dinner in the restaurants at the different camps cost about 85 ZAR, wine was extra (but inexpensive compared to European prices).

Game drives at Kruger ranged from 90 ZAR to 160 ZAR per person, depending on the length of the drive. The guided bush walk may have been slightly more expensive due to the limited group size.

1 night at Phophonyane Lodge cost about 700 ZAR for 2 people, staying in cottage 3 (the only 2-person cottage). Lunch was about 50 ZAR each, and again, dinner was about 80 ZAR per head.

4 nights at Kosi Forest Lodge cost about 8500 ZAR. All meals and snacks were included, but drinks were extra. Our bar tab was about 300 ZAR (including the wine we had at dinner). Activities (snorkelling, canoing on lake/river, beach trip, etc) were all included.

The total cost (including food) seems to be around 37040 ZAR for our 12 day trip, excluding petrol and mobile phone calls (we hired a phone from Avis, which was free, we just paid a refundable deposit and the cost of the calls - very reasonable!).

Given the current exchange rates, this comes out at 37040 ZAR = $4,621, or 3896 euros.
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