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Trip Report: A First-Timer's Trip to Southern Africa (August/September 2007)

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Sep 16th, 2007, 06:14 PM
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Trip Report: A First-Timer's Trip to Southern Africa (August/September 2007)

I apologize in advance for the length and detail of this report – if you are interested in just the animals you will want to skip down to the Sabi Sands section! But I wanted to try to include information and details that I would have liked to have had as a “first timer” before taking this trip, so I’ve included some more practical information and planning information as well. I’ve broken it down by location, with more detailed accommodation reviews at the end of each section. I hope someone finds this useful!

Background

This trip came about in sort of a strange way. I have traveled extensively and have always had an African safari on my “must do” list, but figured that it would take quite a bit of advance planning, and that when I got around to taking that trip, it would probably be to Tanzania or Botswana. In fact, my vacation this year was supposed to be to the Balkans. Unfortunately it fell through at the end of June, leaving me with very little time to plan a replacement trip and get it on peoples’ schedules at work before the end of August. So I spent much of my free time the first week of July, including all day on July 4, researching different options. The North Korea trip I’d wanted to take was now booked full, Europe at the end of August didn’t really excite me, Southeast Asia would be terribly hot, I was thinking maybe South America? Then on one of the tour operator websites I was perusing I found a package trip to Cape Town. And I thought, hmm…I have heard phenomenal things about Cape Town, and everyone I know that’s been there groups it among their favorite cities in the world. That could be perfect!

As I continued researching, I realized that I could fairly easily add on a couple of days on safari at one of the private game reserves around Krueger National Park. None of the packages I was finding were exactly what I wanted, so I decided to call a travel agent and see if I could come up with a custom itinerary. I was slightly worried as it was now less than 2 months before I wanted to travel, and I’d noticed as I’d started reading Fodor’s and other message boards that people were planning trips upwards of a year in advance – I wasn’t worried about Cape Town, but was worried that all of the “good” game lodges would be booked.

Before calling the travel agent, however, I happened to be talking to my sister, who mentioned that it was her “life dream” to go on safari. I am not sure how much credence to give this as when I mentioned my planned January 2008 trip to the Caribbean to her a few weeks later she said that it was her “life dream” to go there as well…but who am I to stand in the way of my little sister’s lifelong dream, so I decided to bring her along.

I called Premier Tours, which is an agency that seemed to get uniformly good reviews, and spoke with an agent named Bob Berghaier. Bob assured me that it was not to late to book a trip this summer, spent a long time talking to me about different options, and was overall just very helpful, responsive and pleasant to deal with. After a bit more research, I’d decided that if we were flying all the way to South Africa, we might as well fit in a trip to Victoria Falls while we were in the region. Within a week after first talking to Bob, we had put together the following itinerary:

5 nights Cape Town (Table Bay Hotel)
3 nights safari (Exeter Leadwood Lodge)
1 night Johannesburg (Mondior Concorde Hotel)
3 nights Victoria Falls (Zambezi Sun)

The only downfall of the last-minute planning process was that I wasn’t able to come up with a way to get us to South Africa in first or business class. I looked into using my frequent flier miles, but there were no seats available at such a late date, and unfortunately, United does not fly to South Africa so I couldn’t upgrade us. I also looked into using miles or upgrading to get to Europe and then buying much cheaper business class tickets to Johannesburg from there, but that was also a no go during the busy summer travel season. Ultimately, while I can justify a lot, I just couldn’t justify doubling the cost of the trip to get out of coach. So I resigned myself to spending the 15-18 hour international flight from Dulles to Johannesburg in coach and called my doctor for a prescription for Ambien…

Pre-departure

After finalizing the itinerary and paying for the trip, I focused on getting to the travel clinic, reading up on Southern Africa, and, of course, packing. I consider myself to be very good at packing light, but packing for this trip would be slightly tricky, given that we would be traveling during winter in Southern Africa, and the weather in the various regions we would be visiting would range from highs in the 60s in Cape Town, to the 90s at Victoria Falls, with our time at the game reserve falling somewhere in between but likely very cold in the early mornings and evenings, when we would be out on our game drives. Thus I would need to pack everything from shorts and a swimsuit to a warm jacket, scarf and hat. Because of the fact that I hate to check anything and the given the weight limits for intra-Africa travel, fitting all of this in a carry on was a daunting task, but I managed it!

The Flight

Oh, I had been dreading this flight. The problem with getting used to flying in first and business class is that it becomes veeery hard to go back to coach, especially on a 15+ hour flight. I was scarred for life by a flight from San Francisco to Beijing in 1999 on Air China, on which my mom and I ended up in like row 87, in the middle of the center row of 5 seats, with air vents and lights that didn’t work. The entire plane was dark and everyone was sleeping except for us, but we couldn’t do anything except sweat and watch the excruciating movie selection, which was, I kid you not, a 1980s version of “Heidi,” starring Charlie Sheen as Peter. But I digress – back to this trip….

My sister arrived in DC from the west coast two days before our outbound flight. Our outbound schedule was a 15 hour flight from Dulles to Johannesburg, a 2 1/2 hour layover in Johannesburg, and then a 2 1/2 hour flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town. All in all, it actually wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, even though we were delayed leaving Dulles by about an hour and a half. All of the seats had video on demand systems with lots of movie selections, and the pitch was decent for coach. After dinner, I popped the Ambien, and when I woke up, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were only about 5 hours left in the flight. On arrival in Johannesburg, due to our late departure we were just able to make our flight, after clearing immigration and customs and walking from the international to the domestic terminal. The flight to Cape Town was uneventful, and arrived on time. We were met by a driver from our local operator, Southern Circle Tours, and quickly transferred to the Table Bay Hotel. Surprisingly, we found that we didn’t really feel too jet lagged, and so stopped down at the hotel bar for a drink and snack before turning in for the night.
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Sep 16th, 2007, 06:19 PM
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Cape Town

Pictures: http://www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=...&x=0&y=-igb0f5

Our first day in Cape Town dawned beautiful, sunny and clear. I opened the curtains in our room to find that we had a panoramic view of Table Mountain and the waterfront. After breakfast, we met our guide for a city tour – it was only us and one other couple. We went straight to Table Mountain, since it looked like a few clouds might be moving in, and the cable car to the top of the mountain only operates in good weather. After riding the cable car to the top, we spent a while just walking around and enjoying the view, which was phenomenal. By the time we came down, huge lines had formed, as we’d been told the cable car had not been operating for the past few days due to bad weather. We lucked out! We then visited the South African Museum, Company Gardens, and Castle of Good Hope, as well as driving through the Bo-Kaap.

For the afternoon, we had booked a tour of Robben Island. Unfortunately, we weren’t aware when we booked that the building where high profile prisoners were kept, including Nelson Mandela’s cell, was under renovation until the end of August, and so we would not be able to see it. It is about a 45-minute boat ride out to the island, and even though the weather was fine, it was a little choppy for me – I am not great with boats. On arrival, we were put onto buses and given a very rushed bus tour of the island. Our guide was speaking so fast that we really couldn’t understand much of what he was saying (and since English was not a first language for a large portion of the people on the bus, I can’t imagine they were getting much either) and I was beginning to question our decision to visit the island. The only interesting thing I noted from this portion of the tour was that the island seemed to be overrun by rabbits. But at the end of the bus tour, the guide gave a very impassioned speech about apartheid and racism and its continuing impact that was quite moving. After getting off the buses, we had the walking portion of the tour, which was definitely the highlight. Our guide for this was a former prisoner named Sparks, who had spent 7 years in prison on Robben Island for his political activities. Despite not being able to see Mandela’s cell, this portion of the tour was quite interesting and moving. Sparks took us to the cell where he had spent the majority of his time on the island, and spoke about the experience. One thing I found particularly interesting was that the prisoners were treated differently by “class” even in prison – for example, “colored” prisoners received better food rations and clothing than Black prisoners. We were shocked that during the tour numerous people took cell phone calls as our guide was speaking, not even bothering to turn away from the group – you have a guy talking about how he was beaten, branded as a terrorist and imprisoned for his political activities and you are answering and chatting away on your phone – so rude!

For dinner, we enjoyed the favorable dollar-rand exchange rate and were introduced to pinotage, South Africa’s signature grape variety. We ate at Balducci’s on the Waterfront, which was Italian food and pretty good – I had a seafood pasta. We had to do the exchange rate calculations a couple of times to assure ourselves that we were actually paying only about $10-15 for a bottle of wine, rather than a glass!

The next day, we had a full-day tour of the Cape Peninsula. The weather again was nice and sunny. Although there could have been up to seven people on the tour, it was just the two of us, and our guide, Pieter, was great. We drove along the coast, stopping at Hout Bay and to see whales in the harbor. We then stopped at the penguin colony at Boulders Beach, which was great – there are so many penguins and they are so cute! We continued on to Cape Point, but had to stop on the entrance road to view some of the famous baboons! A baby climbed up on and swung from the side mirror of the car across from us. On arrival at Cape Point, we took the funicular up to the top and hiked around for about an hour. There were beautiful views, the weather was pleasant, and it wasn’t terribly crowded, so it was nice. When we came down, we grabbed lunch at the restaurant there – I can’t remember the name, but the prices and food were great and a nice surprise, given that it was such a touristy location. After lunch, we stopped at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on our way back to town, which were beautiful, especially the protea garden. After a drink at Ferryman’s Tavern (enjoyable pub with nice crowd of locals), for dinner, we went to Ocean Basket on the waterfront – it was packed with locals and I had probably the best fish and chips I have ever eaten. Mmm…kingklip. It is actually a South African chain (we would later even see one in Livingstone) and a casual, family-friendly kind of place, but the food was fantastic.

On our third day, the weather turned cloudier, and when I pulled open our drapes I saw that Table Mountain was completely obscured by clouds – turned out we wouldn’t see it again during our stay! Up today was a full day tour of the winelands, and again, it was just us and our guide, Marilee. We started off with a visit to the KWV cellars, followed by a tasting. It killed us that the wines were so cheap and that because of the stupid U.S. carryon restrictions for liquids, we couldn’t bring any back. After the tasting, we continued on, stopping in Franschhoek, a delightful little town, to browse the shops and enjoy a terrific lunch of soup, sandwiches and wine, at Traumerei Coffee Shop & Restaurant.

After lunch, we toured Stellenbosch, and then headed to Spier to do a final wine tasting and, more importantly, visit the cheetahs! (We were so excited to get to the cheetahs that Marilee said we’d done the fastest wine tasting she’d ever seen!) Spier runs a cheetah outreach center dedicated to raising “cheetah ambassadors” to educate the public about these beautiful animals. As part of the process, the allow the public to actually enter the enclosure and meet a cheetah. After being educated about cheetah behavior and safety, we got to meet Enigma, who was purring happily while being stroked by a trainer. We were able to kneel behind him and pet him as well. After a few moments, he stretched and rolled over (the traditional “I’m a happy cat” move), so we had to switch sides to get behind him again. He was gorgeous, and it was a very cool experience. They were very clear that they do not force the cheetahs to do anything they don’t want to do – so for example, if there are no cheetahs interested in lying in one place and being petted, they won’t do encounters. After we left Enigma’s enclosure, we went over to view the four new cheetah cubs, including a king cheetah cub, that had recently arrived – unfortunately they were not yet available for encounters while we were there, they were so cute! Overall, the winelands experience was great, although I could have spent at least two days on it – one day doing tourist stuff, and one day just doing tastings!

After returning to Cape Town, we went to dinner downtown at a restaurant called Africa Café, which I think I first heard about on this board. While touristy, we really enjoyed it. Their gimmick is that for about $20, they serve you a set menu of about 16 courses, made up of cuisine from all over Africa. After you’ve eaten those 16 courses, you are free to ask for seconds of anything you particularly enjoyed, so it is essentially all you can eat, also including coffee and dessert. Each room of the restaurant is named after a particular African country (we were in the Egypt Room), servers are in traditional dress, and they do things like the “African hand washing ceremony” before you eat. The “menu” is printed on a vase on your table. The food was very, very good, and it was probably our favorite restaurant experience in Cape Town!

We had left one final “free day” in our schedule, figuring that if weather prevented us from going up Table Mountain or if we were not able to fit the Spier cheetahs in on the winelands day, we could do them on the free day. Since we had already done both of those things, and it was rainy and cold outside, we decided just to look around the waterfront and do some shopping. We were able to sleep in a little and it was a nice, low-key day. For lunch, we ate at Quay Four, which we selected because we’d seen it packed at dinner. The food was fairly good, but I wouldn’t say great. For dinner, we ate at the Cape Town Fish Market, which was very good (kingklip again). After dinner, we walked over to the bar at the Cape Grace hotel, which was interesting – it was packed with local scenesters, who were dancing their hearts out to tunes spun by a DJ…I can’t remember exactly what he was playing but it was 60s and 70s stuff. Too funny. My passionfruit martini was excellent.

Hotel Review – Table Bay Hotel

Pros: Our room, on the top floor, was great. I am blanking on the room number, but as you walk down the hall from the elevator, we were two doors past the Table Mountain Suite. The décor was average upscale chain hotel-ish, but the room was a very good size, bathroom was spacious and well-lit (a pet peeve of mine at many hotels), and our almost floor-to-ceiling window afforded a fantastic view of Table Mountain and the waterfront. The location also can’t be beat, as the waterfront is a great area to base yourself for a few days in Cape Town.

Cons: On check in, although we had reserved a twin-bedded room, the bed was made up as a king. This was rectified within about 1/2 hour by staff who appeared, separated the bed into two twins, and remade them, but at 9:00 at night and after traveling for almost 24 hours, was not ideal. We overheard some women talking at breakfast one morning who had had the same problem, although in their case the bed apparently had to be dismantled with tools and put back together, taking significantly longer.

A full breakfast was included in our room rate, but on 2 of the 4 mornings during our stay, when we arrived downstairs for breakfast we were told that the restaurant was full. On the first morning this happened, we accepted the suggestion to instead take a table in the conservatory restaurant area, however, the buffet in this area was simply pastries and fruit, and had no hot breakfast items. The second morning, we declined the suggestion to take a table in the conservatory area, and said that we’d wait for a table. We were seated almost immediately thereafter, and noted that there appeared to be numerous empty tables, so I’m not sure what was going on.

I was also extremely unimpressed with the concierges. Upon our return back to the hotel after our first day’s tours, we asked the concierge to recommend a casual restaurant that we could walk to in the V&A Waterfront area, preferably seafood-oriented, that we could head to right away without a reservation. He said that was “not possible,” but that he could get us a reservation at a very nice restaurant. We said that we were really just looking for something casual and wanted to go right away, but he assured us that we would love this restaurant and that reservations would be mandatory anywhere we went. Without asking us what kind of cuisine we were looking for, he then made a big show of calling the restaurant and asking for “their best table” for two “very lovely ladies,” etc., etc. The restaurant, Balducci’s, turned out to be Italian and was fine, as described above, but I was a bit put off by the concierge’s manner.

The next morning, concerned about securing a reservation for the evening since we’d been told the night before that they would be mandatory everywhere, we asked at the concierge desk about a reservation at a restaurant called “Ocean Basket” that our guide the day before had recommended. The concierge sort of wrinkled his nose and said that Ocean Basket was ok, but that he could make us a reservation at a much better seafood restaurant instead. I stressed again that we were looking for something on the casual side, and asked whether this other restaurant was the kind of place we would need to dress up for, and was told no, so we decided to take the concierge’s recommendation and book it. After we stepped away from the desk, a tour guide waiting for her clients stopped us to say that she had overheard our conversation with the concierge, and didn’t want us to be left with the opinion that Ocean Basket was not a good restaurant – she said that it was excellent seafood and very popular with locals, and that the other restaurant the concierge had recommended was also good but very upscale. When we mentioned the whole thing to our tour guide that day, he was quite angry about the concierge’s statement that we would need a reservation at any restaurant on the waterfront. He told us that was unequivocally not the case, and after further discussion with him we decided to cancel the reservation the concierge had made for us and make our own restaurant arrangements for the remainder of our stay, as I felt I could not trust the concierges. I can only assume that they recommend particular restaurants regardless of whether those restaurants meet the guest’s specifications and insist on making reservations because they are receiving some incentive from the restaurants to do so, which I find unacceptable.

Conclusion: We found the Table Bay quite pleasant, but given the service issues I’d probably try somewhere else the next time I visit. Based on our brief visit to the Cape Grace, it looked lovely, although we did not see the rooms.

Next up…our safari!!
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Sep 16th, 2007, 06:46 PM
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Very interesting, so far.

I note your reference to North Korea. Were you planning on visiting with Koryo (http://www.koryogroup.com/). I've looked into their tours, and they generally open them up to Americans (not sure if you have a US passport) only in October. I would be curious to find out if you found another avenue into North Korea that would have permitted a visit in the Summer.

Michael
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Sep 16th, 2007, 07:09 PM
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Detail is good. You address some of the concerns and fears of others going for the first time. Plus you'll have this account for yourself and if you don't put in the details, eventually you forget them. We can all skim if we feel the need.

It is nice to know that you could arrange a South Africa itinerary at such a late date and Premier Tours deserves credit for doing it.

I'll be looking at the Cape Town part more closely, since I have a first trip coming up to that city.

With so many life dream destinations, your sister may be doing a lot of traveling to a variety of places, unless she is now hooked on Africa.
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Sep 16th, 2007, 07:28 PM
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Thanks! Yes, the North Korea tour was with Koryo Tours. I believe for the last two years they have been able to get permission to run tours for Americans from August-October (coinciding with the Mass Games), although last year most if not all departures were cancelled because of the floods. It is still on my radar though as the articles and trip reports I've read are fascinating!
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Sep 16th, 2007, 08:26 PM
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Great report. We are going to South Africa for the first time next May. Cape Town for five nights Ngala Tented in the Timbavati for five and then to Exeter Leadwood for four nights. I am looking forward to hearing about your Safari. Could I ask how you found the Mondior hotel? We have a night in Johannesburg and still to book a hotel.
Many thanks
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Sep 16th, 2007, 10:12 PM
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Hey, thanks for your experiences in Cape Town. We have 4 nights there in Oct and your detailed day-to-day itinerary gives me a good idea of what we can do. That's if I can read the map quick enough, my husband is driving!
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Sep 17th, 2007, 04:50 AM
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Great report!
Were all the trips organised for you by your TA before you left? Do you know who they booked with?
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Sep 17th, 2007, 05:00 AM
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Great Trip Report so far! I can't wait till you get to the Exeter Leadwood part! We are going to be there in December!

KL
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Sep 17th, 2007, 06:07 AM
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Thanks all! I hope to have the Leadwood portion (w/pics!) up today.

kimac,
We met some guys on safari who had exactly the same itinerary as you, only I think they spent 4 nights at Ngala Tented and 3 at Leadwood. We had a great time with them at Leadwood and they said that they had loved Ngala as well. The Mondior Concorde was perfect for our needs on our short overnight in Jo'burg - a nice, modern, clean hotel very conveninetly located only a 5-minute shuttle ride from the airport. There is also a more upscale hotel in the same Emperors Palace complex (I think it's called the D'oreal Grande, or something like that), but we didn't see the need for it, given that we arrived late afternoon and left early the next morning. I'll include some more details in the trip report.

allycb,
Yes, pretty much all of our excursions and tours were booked by Premier Tours before we left. That is not generally how I travel, but it worked out really well. As mentioned, the ground operator in Cape Town was Southern Circle Tours, who I would highly recommend as they were always on time, groups were small and the guides were great. In Livingstone/Vic Falls our ground operator was Wilderness Safaris.
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Sep 17th, 2007, 07:00 AM
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Great trip report. And concierges everywhere in the world make their money this way, the difference is that some are more subtle than others.
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Sep 17th, 2007, 07:59 PM
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Thank you so much for this report. I am heading there on October 8 and you gave us some ideas about what/where; I am just planning now. We have been offered space in Ngala Game Lodge; I think that will be our safari experience. I look forward to reading about yours. We too are on the DC to j-burg flight; i hope it is as smooth for us.
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Sep 17th, 2007, 08:11 PM
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Now I read about Cape Town. How wise of you to leave a day for possible bad weather. That's funny you were labeled the fastest wine tasters ever.

I'll be looking forward to a passion fruit martini. Thanks for the hint.
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Sep 18th, 2007, 04:53 AM
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hi, hlg,

loving the report- we had a great time in CPT earlier in the year and your report brouight back so many good memories.

Keep up the good work with your report -I've hit reporter's block with mine, but i am trying to finish it.

regards, ann

PS the restaurant at the cape is called "the two oceans" and i agree - for a such a tourist trap, it's really good. Wish we could do the same here in the Uk at Land's end!

we never booked a restaurant at the Waterfront and ate there 2 nights out of our three in CPT. we had no problems getting table.

and isn't Table Mountain great. we were lucky enough to find there was a [free] guided tour starting just as we got up there and it was very interesting, showing us all the best vantage points and views.
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Sep 18th, 2007, 06:04 AM
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Sabi Sands

Pictures:
http://www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=...b&x=0&y=-1yck4

Although we’d enjoyed ourselves in Cape Town, the part of the trip we were probably most excited about was our safari. We flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg, and then took a flight to Krueger Mpumalanga airport, where we were met by a driver for the approximately 1 hour 45 minute drive to Exeter Leadwood Lodge. The only word I can use to describe Leadwood is “perfect.” We arrived shortly before the afternoon game drive and were greeted by managers Kelli and Thulini with cool damp cloths and homemade lemonade as we were shown to our room – I’ll talk about the accommodations in a bit more detail below, but it was heaven! We didn’t have too long to enjoy it though, as we had to hurry to get ready for our very first game drive!

We quickly met our ranger, Marcelino, and tracker Isaac, and the other six guests: a South African couple from Jo’burg, a gay couple from Texas, and a couple from California. The South African couple pretty much kept to themselves, but the other 6 of us really enjoyed each other’s company. It was quite lucky as we were all on our first trip (though the Texas guys had just come from Ngala and the Californians from Phinda, and had great experiences there as well) and had similar interests and knowledge levels. After the South Africans left we were joined by a newlywed couple from Boston who were also very nice and fit right in.

When we got on the vehicle, Marcelino asked what everyone wanted to try to see. The Californians immediately replied “leopards,” and Marcelino mentioned that there was a female leopard who had taken an impala kill into a tree a day or so earlier, so we could try to return and see if she was still hanging around. As we approached the tree, we could see the impala carcass hanging in the tree, one leg dangling down. Isaac quickly located the female leopard, sitting in the grass not far from the bottom of the tree, staring intently at something. Further investigation turned up a small leopard cub, flattened in the grass maybe 10-20 feet away, staring at the adult. Turns out we’d stumbled into a family drama worthy of a soap opera - Marcelino quickly explained that leopards are very territorial, that the adult was the cub’s grandmother, and that the cub and it’s mother had recently been venturing back into the grandma’s territory. In fact, it had been the mother who had killed the impala, but grandma had stolen it from her. He also said that if the grandma caught the cub, she would kill it. At this point I am thinking to myself, “oh dear god – I know it’s nature and all but please do not let me see a cute baby leopard get murdered on my first game drive.” We waited tensely for about 10 minutes as the two leopards stared at each other. The cub was flattened in the grass and obviously so, so scared – it’s eyes were very wide and it was breathing very fast. All of a sudden, the grandma took off toward the cub, and the cub ran away from her off into the bush. At the same time, a third leopard (mama) exploded from the bush from the direction the cub had run towards. Grandma caught the cub and picked it up by the scruff of the neck, but mama was in hot pursuit and chased her up into the tree with the impala kill. As they fought, grandma dropped the cub, which fell from the tree, unhurt. Mama ran down the tree to retrieve her cub, and grandma settled down to munch on the remains of her impala. Meanwhile a hyena had run out to sit under the tree in hopes that a piece of the impala might fall down to it in the kerfuffle. It was absolutely thrilling! I felt like I was in an episode of National Geographic.

On our return to camp, we were met with cocktails as the vehicle pulled in, and dinner was served shortly thereafter in the boma, complete with beautiful singing and dancing by the staff, and good wine.

The next morning, as we went out for our morning drive we had gone only a short distance from camp when we heard a barking noise that Marcelino informed us was a bushbuck alarming. He told us that it could have been alarming because of a leopard, but that it also could have just been a snake or something. We drove a short distance and saw the bushbuck, and Isaac went off into the bush in the direction it was looking to investigate. He quickly found the cause of the bushbuck’s alarm – another female leopard with her kill (can’t remember what it was) was tucked under an overhanging rock and some brush. We watched her eat for a little while before moving on.
After returning from our game drive and eating breakfast, we lounged by our pool back at our room. Soon, we had visitors – vervet monkeys! At first they were cute, but more kept arriving, and was it just me or were they eyeing us like they had something in mind? Soon they were on the deck, on the roof, in the trees, drinking out of the pool, and sitting on the wall by the outdoor shower. When one jumped up on my sister’s lounge chair, we decided it was time to move inside, and the darned things chased us! I swear one was running at me on its hind legs, baring its little teeth. Creepy! No sooner had we gotten inside than I realized that I had left my paperback book on my chair while fleeing from the monkeys. I realized this because I watched a monkey pick it up, thumb through it as if he was reading, and then take a bite. He carried it across the deck, gnawed on it some more, and then apparently decided it wasn’t to his taste and dropped it as he scampered up a tree. I braved the monkeys again to retrieve it, flapping my beach towel to keep them away. So I now have a copy of “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” with authentic monkey teeth marks, which I think is my favorite souvenir from the entire trip.

On our evening drive, what did we see again? Leopards, of course (aren’t these things supposed to be hard to see?)! We received the news that two male leopards had been fighting when two lionesses appeared, forcing them up into a tree. So there were two leopards who didn’t like each other AT ALL, trapped in the same tree, unable to come down as the lionesses were waiting for them. When we arrived, we could see both leopards, and it was clear that they were not happy. The larger, older male was on a lower branch, and the younger male was precariously balanced on a branch way, way at the top of the tree, and they were making all sorts of noise. As we drove around the tree to get a better view of the younger leopard, we came across the two lionesses (I think they were the two from the Sand River pride), languidly waiting just out of sight to see if the leopards would come down. At one point, our vehicle was almost directly below the branch with the bigger male sitting on it, only a few feet over our heads. Given his obvious agitation, it was pretty funny to see that everyone in the vehicle was visibly leaning away from him! On a non-wildlife related note, later in the evening we stopped to look up at the stars (I finally understand how the Milky Way got its name!), and actually saw the international space station whizzing by in its orbit.

On our second morning, the drive was pretty slow, at first. The male lions who are usually in Exeter territory had crossed over into Singita a few days before, where Exeter does not have traversing rights. We got a report that one of them was back on Exeter property, but before we could get to him he crossed back over to Singita. Later, we heard that a cheetah had been spotted, which was quite rare in this area, and so we went to see him. The cheetah had killed a duiker, and after eating was sitting contentedly on an open plain, face stained red with the duiker’s blood.

Thankfully, after our return to the lodge we were not bothered by the monkeys again during siesta time, though the room next to us was visited by baboons, which we could hear crashing through the trees. Instead, we watched several kudu feeding right in front of us, as well as elephants on the hills in the distance.

On our third evening’s drive, a highlight was seeing a large herd of elephants, including a tiny (well, by elephant standards) baby only about three days old. We took our sundowner stop rather late, as the sun had almost set by the time we stopped. As he parked the vehicle, Marcelino told a story about encountering a lioness in the area near where we’d parked. As we finished up our drinks and chatted around the front of the vehicle Marcelino and Isaac started packing up. As we were chatting, I heard a low growly sound, but before it could even register, I heard Marcelino say in a firm but calm voice: “everybody get in the car now, please.” Nobody questioned, but just quickly jumped in, drinks glasses and all. No sooner had we done so than a lioness came strolling out of the bush right behind the vehicle. We later learned that Marcelino, after stowing some of the drinks things in the back of the vehicle, had been standing at the rear of the vehicle looking up at the stars, when the lioness charged him, stopping short when she realized that she had a person in front of her, and not an animal. Apparently she’d been stalking him while he stood there. After Isaac and Marcelino quickly stowed the last of the sundowner gear we followed her for a short distance but she soon went into heavy brush down by the riverbed where we could not follow. She was one of the two sisters we’d seen the night before night, and apparently has young cubs in the riverbed. While very exciting, with two lion encounters in the same place, Marcelino said that he wouldn’t be stopping at that spot for sundowners again unless it was still light out!

On our last morning, the one thing I still really, really wanted to see were male lions, but I had pretty much given up hope that the coalition would cross back into Exeter’s territory from Singita. My hopes rose, however, when only a few feet out of camp, Marcelino stopped the vehicle and Isaac drew our attention to tracks he identified as those of two male lions. When we asked how he knew they were fresh, he replied that they weren’t there last night! And so we were off on a thrilling 45-minute quest to find the lions! We’d find the tracks, lose them, Isaac would pick them up again on the other side of a thicket, very exciting. One thing I noticed was that as we drove, Marcelino was calling other camps on the radio asking permission to cross into their property to continue to track the lions. I thought that was interesting, since I know we’d crossed property lines on other drives and didn’t remember hearing him ask for permission. I found out later that although the various properties have traversing rights, they are generally not permitted to traverse in the first hour of each game drive, to avoid spoiling any tracks that may be there and to give that property’s vehicles the best chance at any sightings on their land. About 30 minutes into our search, an Inyati vehicle joined the hunt, and we closed in on an area of brush where the trackers believed the lions were. The two trackers went in on foot, and sure enough – 5 of the coalition of 6 male lions were in there. We watched them as they leisurely strolled around, rested, and then ultimately walked off toward the riverbed and deep brush. Beautiful, beautiful creatures.

After seeing the coalition of lions, I thought my safari experience could not be more complete, but Marcelino had one more trick up his sleeve. He teased us at our morning coffee/hot chocolate/amarula stop about a great “surprise.” Turns out that although wild dogs had not been seen in the area for about six months, another vehicle had found a mother and I think three or four puppies that morning, which we got to see – I was like, are you kidding me?! The puppies were sleeping all piled up on one another – so cute!

After returning to the lodge we ate our last breakfast on the deck and watched a large breeding herd of elephants moving through camp below us. What a way to end our fantastic safari experience.

In conclusion, we both LOVED Leadwood. I actually teared up when it came time to leave, which has never, ever happened to me before when traveling. Though I don’t have any other safari experiences to compare it to, from the quality of the game viewing to the beauty and luxury of the accommodations, to the hospitality of the staff, I don’t see how it could have been any better. Over the course of our 6 game drives, we saw pretty much everything I could ever have imagined seeing on a first safari, and more, so I’ve only gone through the highlights here. Along with the leopards, cheetah, lions, and wild dogs, we also saw rhinos, giraffe, herds of elephants including the little 3-day-old baby, a rare albino duiker, gray duiker, kudu, impala, klipspringer, nyala, waterbuck, bushbuck, mongoose, hyena, zebra, hippos both in and out of the water, the vervet monkeys, baboons, crocodiles, Cape buffalo, wildebeest, Bateleur eagles, vultures, and lots of other birds whose names I can’t remember. I think it is also worth noting that of our 6 “big” sightings: the three leopard sightings, the cheetah, the wild dogs, and the 5-lion coalition, our ranger/tracker were the ones who actually tracked and first located three: the first two leopard sightings and the lions. I note this because along with the obvious benefits of being the first/only vehicle on a sighting and the enjoyment and excitement of the tracking process, I noted from listening to the radio and an overheard remark that there are some rangers/trackers at other properties that basically do no actual tracking but rather simply drive around listening to the radio constantly to try to be first to grab a “standby” for any interesting sighting – I don’t think I would find that to be as fulfilling a safari experience. By contrast, Marcelino and Isaac were fantastic, so passionate about their work, and if I retain even a fraction of the knowledge they imparted, I will consider myself lucky!

The only possible criticism I could have of Leadwood is that if it is full (there are 4 suites), then there will be 8 people on the vehicle, meaning two will get middle seats. Of our 6 drives, one had 4 people, two had 6 people, and 3 had 8 people. I was in a middle seat for two of the drives with a full vehicle and didn’t find it that bothersome, particularly given that our fellow guests were so enjoyable, but to a die-hard photographer I could see how it might be.

Otherwise, though I had read some negative comments about vehicle density in this area, I must say that other than at the cheetah sighting, I never felt that it was crowded, or felt rushed to leave a sighting so that another vehicle could move in. Instead, it seemed to be very well managed without feeling managed, if that makes sense. There is a strict rule of only two vehicles at a sighting at any given time, but the cheetah sighting, because the animal was in an open area and very relaxed and stationary, they allowed three vehicles at a time, and because it was on an open plain you could see other vehicles waiting to move in as well – that was the only point where it felt somewhat crowded.

Accommodation Review – Exeter Leadwood Lodge

So if you couldn’t tell, we loved Leadwood! I’ll just talk a little bit more about the accommodations and service here. There are only four rooms/suites and they are actually more like houses or luxurious cabins or chalets, as they are huge! We were in room 3, which had a very open floor plan with a living room area, bedroom area, dressing area, bathroom, indoor/outdoor shower, deck and private infinity-edge plunge pool, and all of the walls facing out to the bush are all windows. I am used to staying in pretty luxe places, but this was fantastic. The suites are situated so that we could not see the other ones from ours. The plunge pool was unheated and quite chilly while we were there, but my sister did go in – I think she was the only one to do so. There is another, larger pool in the common area as well. There is a fireplace in the suite (though we had great weather and it was not cold enough to use) and there is underfloor heating as well for those cold mornings (again, we did not use). For summer, along with the pool there are misters on the deck to cool you down. The room was stocked with cashews, dried fruit, and a mini bar that was all inclusive in our rate, and was supplied with fresh ice daily. They also supplied an adapter, bug spray, and laundry service. It was impeccably clean, though given the setting and all the windows, we did see a few moths/ants/spiders in the evenings – but even for bug-phobe me, it was not a problem.

The food: two nights we ate as a group with Marcelino in the boma – soup and dessert were served at the table and then the rest was a buffet, with a couple kinds of meat, salad, and numerous side dishes. The other night dinner was at individually set tables, with two entrée choices – I believe it was chicken and ostrich. We were asked about food preferences/restrictions when we arrived, and they seemed very accommodating. For lunch, individual tables were usually set, but we asked one afternoon if we could eat as a group and the staff happily rearranged the tables. Breakfast was served as a group in the main dining area two mornings (fruit, yogurt, toast, breakfast meats and eggs/omelets cooked to order), and Marcelino generally ate with us then as well. On our last morning, individual tables were set. The quality of the food was good (and some dishes very good) but I would not call it gourmet.

The staff: so friendly and helpful…and talented! Their singing and dancing took my breath away – on our last night as we drove into camp and they were singing right where the vehicle parked so we got to enjoy their beautiful voices while enjoying our post-drive cocktail. I will not lie – especially with it being our last night, I got misty-eyed. Although I do want to try other lodges as well, I would happily stay at Leadwood again, and I wish I had included more safari days in our itinerary, as 3 days was not nearly enough! My sister loved it so much that she is starting a “Leadwood Fund” in the hopes that she and her boyfriend will be able to save up and come back on their honeymoon.

Next up - our one night in Johannesburg and then on to Victoria Falls and our day trip to Chobe.
hlg22 is offline  
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Sep 18th, 2007, 06:20 AM
  #16
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Posts: 266
bobandvee,
For us, the flight IAD-JNB was ok, it was the one back that was the killer. But, kind of like childbirth (I've been told) the misery will fade into the glow of your wonderful safari memories. Even so, I highly recommend the Ambien. Enjoy Ngala!

atravelynn,
I think I got the idea to add a free day in Cape Town from someone's trip report here, though I can't remember whose. I'm really glad we did, even though we didn't end up needing it for Table Mountain. Our schedule had been so packed that it was nice to just have a low key day to explore the Waterfront and buy some souvenirs.

Re the passionfruit martini, I loved everything passionfruit! I don't think I'd ever eaten it fresh before. There's something about the sweet-tart pulp and crunchy seeds that is just great. I also really liked the guava juice we had for breakfast almost every day.

annhig,
If I don't write it all down now, I know I'll never remember it! My attempts to journal while I was there ended somewhere around day 3.

And yes! The Two Oceans. I knew the name was something water related.
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Sep 18th, 2007, 06:55 AM
  #17
 
Join Date: Jan 2005
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Amazing sightings and very well written. Where there 8 of you in the vehicle and if so what was the seating format, so that eight fit.
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Sep 18th, 2007, 07:28 AM
  #18
Alexgrace
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Hlg22; We were at Leadwood this summer and absolutely loved it also I dont know why it does not get better reviews as our game drives were just as awesome; the staff fabulous and the accommodations luxurious and quite different from what I expected. Even the pebbles beneath our toes felt like tiny massages! Was Colebert there at all? He was our tracker; along with Mac - who I believe got married and left. Janet was our waitress everyday and we just loved her. When we were there we had two days of being the ONLY guests, so we had private guiding. It was awesome. I guess the word is getting out and so it was full; but seems like you had a terrific time and I am so glad you shared it with Fodors.
We were in Chalet one, the larger of the four and it seemed like a private home. I could not imagine a better place to be on "safari".
I have also been to Ngala which we loved because of the tents, staff and the absolute enthusiasm of the guide and tracker.
You've given a superb indepth trip report and it was especially wonderful to know others shared our love of Leadwood. We ,too ,barely saw other vehicles and so much game we skipped the last morning drive to sleep in before heading back to the states, and had our own private viewing of over 20 some elephants crossing while we had our breakfast. It was as if they came to say Goodbye and come back soon!
Thanks for letting me relive my memories of Leadwood. Alex
 
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Sep 18th, 2007, 08:08 AM
  #19
 
Join Date: Apr 2007
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Woohoo, I just heard this morning we've been upgraded from Kirkman's to Leadwood for November 1-3. Great to read all these reviews!

Nancy
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Sep 18th, 2007, 08:28 AM
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WOW!! What amazing sightings you had! Also a great trip report. If you were to go on your 'first trip' again, would you still go to Capetown first or do all safari?
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