Trip report - Jun19 South Africa trip

Jul 3rd, 2019, 12:37 AM
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Join Date: Apr 2015
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Trip report - Jun19 South Africa trip

It's been a very long while since I have written a report after a trip, however, I just had to this time with the endless hours spent in discovering/ researching SA and planning the trip....and being so so happy and overwhelmed with its conclusion. I am of the travel types that loves to do a lot of research before the trip. and likes to book everything well in advance - and I must admit that planning this trip has been the most complex one. Maybe because, there were just too many things that we wanted to do in this trip. I was faced with a lot of questions and choices which I will comment upon during the report, and will also elaborate on our experiences, so please don’t be perturbed if you find them mixing with each other. My purpose is to make it a little easy for someone who is planning the trip for the first time, and also to share the amazing times we had.

We are a family of three including my wife and three+ year old daughter. Having experienced Masai Mara in Kenya a couple of years ago, we were hooked onto the wildlife experience and wanted to do something similar this SA became a good choice with its ease of connectivity to India and the other varied experiences it provides.

My primary source of research was reading reports on Fodor's, blogs on internet, and getting invaluable help from Fodorites for my queries. Besides, got immense help from a friend of mine who has stayed in SA for many years, and knew the country very well ...the super smooth execution of the trip wouldn't have been possible without his help. Time and again (before and during the trip), we bothered him with queries and clarifications, and we was always so forthcoming.

Basis initial research over a couple of weeks, we were deciding on Delhi-JO-KNP (Madikwe reserve)-Botswana (Chobe)-Victoria Falls-Port Elizabeth-Garden Route-Cape Town-JO-Delhi. However, it was getting 1. way over budget 2. little complex due to cross border travel (between SA and Botswana) and because 3. SA itself had so much to squeeze in a 2.5-week itinerary, so we thought of parking Botswana and Zimbabwe for another trip.

I must stress here that you get intrigued for travel to Botswana and Zimbabwe when travelling to SA, because of 1. short travel distances 2. ample direct flight to the respective countries from Jo’Burg (even from KNP) and 3. SA being the main gateway to these countries, atleast from India. Also, it is very much doable if time and budget allows - and I suggest choosing Madikwe Game reserve if planning a trip to Botswana (Chobe) as they are adjoining and cross border can be done via road. Also, Madikwe is a malaria free zone.

So we travelled for a total of 17 days in SA which included almost 2 days in travelling international flights, 6 nights in Kruger National Park, 4 nights in Cape Town, 4 nights on the Garden Route (with 1 night in Stellenbosch, 1 night in Gansbaai and 2 nights in Knysna).

We arrived at OR Tombo airport at 8pm and first things first, took a 1-month MTN mobile card with 3gb data and 200 minutes talk time (includes international talk time) - costed about 500 rand. The connectivity was very good throughout and data was just sufficient to last until the end (however, very limited connectivity in KNP, though you hardly need it – thanks to the excellent road infrastructure within). Thereafter, we picked up our car from Europcar after the initial paper work and were off to our overnight hotel adjoining the airport - Proteo Hotel. Very convenient hotel and perfect for an overnight stay.

Next morning, we started our onward journey to KNP early as we wanted to drive through Panorama route (detour of ~100kms, and additional 2-3 hrs), which has multiple stop overs to experience heavenly nature in terms of waterfalls, canyons, mountains etc. In the interest of time, we choose to stop by at God’s Window and Blyde River Canyon which were both stunningly beautiful. The stark beauty of the mountains and the canyon underneath was incredible, and our 30mins short overhaul was far too less. We would suggest spending a full day to explore the Panorama route (and stay overnight in a hotel), and include a visit to the Pot Holes, something we missed but later realised it’s a world heritage site and inescapable.

Now the choice travelers have is to either self-drive to KNP or take flights to airports very close to it (Hoedspruit and Nelspruit). We were also faced with similar dilemma and having worked up several options, decided to self-drive and cover about 400kms to KNP (one-way). The decision was also made easy as we also decided to self-drive within KNP, for 3 days of the total 6 days there. More about on that later.

There is an absolute mention required here of the roads in SA which are just brilliant, I would say the best we have ever traversed through. Even better than our experience in the US. Besides, the jaw dropping scenic beauty across the route will literally make you fall in love with the country. You will cross countless orange farms, vineyards, cattle grazing farms, stunningly criss-crossed roads that you can see for kms at a stretch....point being you'll be on your most memorable ride. Just put your car on a cruise control, sit back and relax and soak in the beauty – you should arrive at KNP in about 5-6 hrs.

To make the overall driving experience worthwhile, I would recommend hiring an SUV with an automatic transmission and cruise control. It will cost a little more, but will be totally worth it. SUV is important as it will really help in sightings in KNP, because of the high seats. Like India, SA has left side driving which was very convenient for us, we stuck to the speed limits and rules; and things went easy for us. There are petrol stations at regular intervals, and each station is equipped with a small departmental store for light snacks or for loo breaks.

Now planning 6 days in KNP was a mammoth task simply because of its enormous size of 2 mn hectares which is even bigger than some small countries, like Israel. Also, like our experience in Kenya where we stayed in conservancy and also in Masai Mara national park, we wanted to do something similar in KNP.

For simplicity, in conservancy you can go off road and extremely close to the animal, while in national parks you must stick to the tarred roads. The lodge operator in the conservancy leases the land from the tribal community, whose members also operate the lodge (as staff) - a two-way system which benefits the ecosystem. There are strict restrictions on the number of rooms in the whole conservancy, which in effect limits the cars on the game drive.

We were thrilled to learn that KNP also has a similar model, and conservancies here are called private game reserves, which are spread across KNP. There are no fences between KNP and game reserves so animals move freely between them. We started mailing the lodges asking for quotes, and finalised on a lodge in Balule game reserve (north of KNP) - Mohlabetsi, mainly because it was the only lodge (must have mailed like 50 lodges) which allowed our daughter on the game drives. We had a fantastic experience, saw number of animals up close (like literally lions eating their kill next to our car) including all the big 5 number of times. The service was excellent within the lodge and they went their way out to make us feel special. The food was also delicious and we ended up over eating every time. The overall experience was memorable, which me and my wife still think and talk about often.

The daily routine was simple - morning game drives from 6-10 followed by breakfast, free time until lunch, then evening game drive from 3.30-7 and finally dinner. Balule as a reserve was quite dense and bushy, and significant elephant population had uprooted large number of trees, making it scary at times. Also, it is huge so one had to be patient for sightings, especially for the big cats. We were so lucky to be rewarded with beautiful ones ample times - 5 lionesses eating everything out of an impala, black and white rhinos (unfortunately without horns), lion pride of 24 relaxing on a hill top, herd of wild buffalo's, heads up collision with a group of elephants blocking our way, 7 giraffes grazing in the backdrop of sunset, tracking Leopard for 3 days to be found on a termite hill etc etc etc.

Couldn’t have asked for more – only advise for first timers is that don’t expect anything like what we all see on NatGeo or Discovery, it takes months and years to shoot that video. You must be very patient on game drives, and not be too greedy for the big cats…lol. Me and my wife would be appalled by the beauty of untouched lands and pristine nature

Next up are the details of our planning for the self-drive trip to KNP and the thrill of it.

To start planning, I would recommend to first print a map of the KNP and take a couple of minutes to understand it briefly. This is important because, as noted earlier, it is massive in size and you will be faced with number of options, which an understanding of the map will help.

1. Self-drive in KNP - an option should not be missed as the authorities have created a very convenient and world class infrastructure within the park to explore the wildlife at your will and convenience. This is something that I guess can be done only in KNP with so much ease.

There are close to 40 government run lodges spread across and mostly everyone has got restaurants, places for Braai, petrol pumps, car wash, camp sites, stores, coffee shops, activities can take breaks, stretch your legs and refresh at any of them. Some of the lodges were even bigger than the biggest resorts we have been to, like a small functional city.

2. To stay inside or outside the park - KNP has ~10 entry and exit gates, which open and close at ~6am and 5.30pm respectively. There is the option of staying in a hotel outside KNP (or outside the gate) and enter/exit the park at the above noted timings (as day visitors). Or else, stay at any of the lodges inside the park for the duration of travel and enter/exit once. The lodges differ in comfort, luxury and amenities offered (called bushveld camp, rest camp and campsites), but you would not be disappointed in either of them. You have the option of choosing from tent, bungalow, guest house, satellite camp etc. in the lodges.

We choose the latter option and planned to stay inside KNP for 3 nights, entered from the Phalabora gate as it was the closest to Balule reserve (which was our previous destination) and exited from the Malalane gate which is the closest one from Jo’Burg.

3. Lodges to choose - this would depend on a couple of things - 1. Which areas you would want to explore in the park and 2. Popularity of the lodge. KNP is extremely famous not just with foreigners, but also with SA locals who have been regularly travelling year on was so knowledgeable and enriching to interact with many of them during our 3-day Self-drive tour. As a result of popularity, the famous lodges get sold out pretty quick, sometimes 6 months in advance and so it becomes important to book them as soon as possible.

In our case, we finalised our plans only a couple of months before the travel, by which time most of the popular lodges were sold out. Nevertheless, with a map in front and brief internet search about the lodges, we finalised 1 night in each lodge - starting with first night in Shimuwani, second in Skukuza and third one in Bergendal. Shimuwani and Bergendal were strategically chosen as the former is close to the Phalabora gate from where we planned to enter, and the latter is close to Malelane gate from where we exited.

All the lodges are in different park locations, and you explore wildlife en-route from one lodge to the other, and in areas around the lodge. This may be a little confusing for someone who has just started planning the trip to KNP, but believe me, it will all make sense once you are on ground zero.

In general, it is said sightings in Southern areas of the park (areas like Malalane, lower Sabie, Crocodile Bridge etc) are better than the North (areas like Shimuwani Shingwedzi, Bateleur). However, our experience was not such and we witnessed incredible sightings in North as well, plus density of cars around was way to less in North.

4. How to book - Sanparks is the name of authority which manages not just KNP, but all the national parks within SA. Their website is super easy to navigate, gather information and make bookings not just for lodges, but also for activities like sunset drive, night drive, bush walks etc. You'll have to create a login ID to start with and thereafter, should be a simple and transparent process.

5. Daily routine - like the gates of KNP which open at 6am in the winter, the lodge gates also open and close at the same time. We were right at the gate at 6am for the early morning drive when the animals are most active. Thereafter, would drive the whole day, and only stop at a lodge in between for breakfast and lunch or to refuel.

The excitement to sight a wildlife on your own is inexplicable, only explained by our increasing impatience to hit the road back during stopovers.

The lodge gates close at 5.30pm during winters, so it is quintessential to return by then. The lodges would still allow you to enter after that, however, with a heavy fine. Once in the lodge, you'll fresh up, plan for dinner, have a conversation with fellow travelers over braai/ bonfire and star gaze (man, we had never seen so many stars in the sky, even shooting stars). You would hear animal noises through the whole night, and can even watch some animals just next to the boundary fence of the lodge...scary it may sound, its completely safe my friends.

6. Sightings - KNP has a dense population of wildlife, and you will surely see them in abundance. The jungles are dense, and your best chances of spotting carnivores are mostly next to either side of the tarred roads - we got lucky with 4 lion brothers eating a giraffe (you read it right, it was a giraffe), cheetah family ripping an impala apart, Leopard relaxing on a tree and another one having a leisurely walk next to the road, pride of lioness having a sumptuous meal of wild beast and couple of hyenas making loud calls to their fellow tribe for reinforcements, etc etc.

Often, there will be hoards of cars around a cat, and it will only increase as time passes by, also creating jams. The pristine joy to have them entirely to yourself is something we missed, and will look forward to next time. Another thing we terribly missed was to spot wild dogs, who are just not territorial and extremely difficult to come by.

Though, we were more than satiated with a big family of spotted hyenas that surrounded our car on one of the evenings, just about 5kms from our lodge when we were calling it a day. We were with them for almost 40 minutes during which time, and our heart beats must have pulsated to very high levels and there was pin drop silence in the car. We ended up reaching our lodge at 6.10pm but thankfully, escaped the fine.

7. Things to carry - a good set of binoculars, top quality torch and camera are a must. Besides that, warm clothing, gloves, hats covering ears and another one which protects from the sun, sunscreen, mosquito repellent are strongly recommended.

8. Malaria - KNP is a malaria prone zone and it is advised to take the required medication before your travel. However, the risk substantially reduces during the winter season. Nevertheless, we went to the doctor to take the vaccination a couple of days before travel, but were advised not to as it can have side effects. We guarded ourselves with mosquito repellents and patches, which seemed like enough. Besides, we also took precautions by wearing full clothes always.

Things were progressing well for us when we realised on the last day that our booking is in a camp site in Berg-en-dal. Which meant that it provides for only a parking space in the lodge, and the rest of the camping equipment must be brought on your own. Frankly, at the time of booking, I had no clue what a camp site is, and it seemed just a difference in the name (compared to a bushveld camp).

On inquiry, we were informed that there are no rooms are available in any of the 40 other lodges in KNP (which meant the only option left was to sleep in the car overnight). Hence, we decided to cut short KNP by one day, and returned a day earlier to Jo’Burg - a decision we didn't regret. We exited from Malalane gate, and drove straight to Jo’Burg, the return journey took us about 5 hrs.

We got last minute reservation in a very safe locality in Jo’Burg (Sandton), and we spent the evening visiting malls, Nelson Mandela square and having dinner at a fine Italian restaurant – a very nice and a safe place to visit when in Jo’Burg.

Next up, will be the balance report on our time spent in Cape Town and the Garden Route, which I will write in a couple of days. Hope you all enjoy reading the part until now.
Rachit1983 is offline  
Jul 3rd, 2019, 06:59 AM
Join Date: Jun 2010
Posts: 2,252
Enjoyed reading this! Thanks.
shouldbewriting is offline  
Jul 3rd, 2019, 07:01 PM
Join Date: Jan 2010
Posts: 5,933
Enjoyed reading this as we have also just returned from South Africa. I so agree with you about the beautiful farms and scenery in general, also the quality of the food and wine was fantastic. I come from a big beautiful country myself and did not know what to expect of South Africa and was very impressed.
I think our six nights in 2 safari camps was the most fun I've had in years.

Look forward to the rest of your report.
raincitygirl is offline  
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