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swtravelbug Jan 21st, 2007 07:42 AM

Trip Report - Londolozi, Bongani & Cape Town
This is a trip report from a family vacation Oct. 1 - Oct. 12, 2006. My family of four left from Dulles and flew into Johannesburg on South African Airways. The flight stops in Senegal to refuel. Altogether, the 15 and 1/2 hour flight was not bad. For this long of a flight, I would definitely recommend face wipes, bottled water, saline nasal spray, eye drops (also handy on safari) and a small travel pillow. We booked our vacation through EcoAfrica. They worked with CCAfrica to plan the safari end of our trip and a local tour company Hylton Ross for the Cape Town portion of our trip. It was very economical and the whole trip was for just the four of us - not for a larger group.

In Johannesburg, we were met by a CCAfrica rep who took us to the domestic departures gate (separate building). Our domestic flight took us to Nelspruit, where we were met by a driver from Bongani Mountain Lodge. It was an 1 and 1/2 hour drive to Bongani, but a beautiful drive. We arrived at the Lodge at dinner time and were escorted to our suite. Bongani is situated in the Mthethomusha Game Reserve and the lodge consists of a main lodge with a gift shop, lobby and dining area and then a small grouping of huts/lodges along the cliffy mountain side. Our suite was the Nelson Mandela presidential suite, as this was the first place Mandela visited after being released from prison and all of the staff likes to mention this. The suite, #30, has two large bedrooms, each with their own two bathrooms, closet, sitting area and balcony, each bedroom is connected to the main great room, kitchen and deck by a small hallway with an exit outside and also a balcony. The deck overlooked the entire valley area in front of the lodge and one could sit and watch animals at the one large watering hole.
The food at Bongani is served buffet style, except for lunch, and typically the tables are set for all the people from each safari vehicle. So we got to know the couple we road with everyday very well. Our guide was William and our tracker was Elliott. They were great, William has been guiding for years and went out of his way to find things and to stop and show you every little thing along the way. We did opt for a massage in our suite one day. The staff here is fantastic, they go out of their way to make you feel at home. They even bought batteries for my sister, whose batter recharger broke. And our guide stopped at the nearby town, Matsulu, so we could check for batteries at the grocery store.
We saw 4 of the big 5 the first safari drive. (You get a wake-up call at 5am, tea and biscuits at 5:30am, by 5:45am we were loading the jeep. The afternoon drives are around 3:45pm and get you back by dinner.) We also saw hippos, impala, nyala, kudu, klipspringer, zebra, giraffes, baboons, vervet monkeys, terrapin, eagles, and an assortment of other animals. It was fairly cool there, especially first thing in the morning and at night. We layered our clothes for each game drive. William always got us right up to the animals, so a telephoto lense wasn't required, although I used mine a few times. Also, my binoculars came in handy occasionally. William always found a great location to take a break and have a snack during the drive. The mountain terrain allowed for some breathtaking views.

From Bongani, we were driven to Londolozi, about 2 hours away. The drive was interesting, we passed several small villages and the last 1/2 hour we drove through reserve area and saw many animals. The Londolozi staff is brilliant. At the gate to the lodge, you receive a note that the staff is anxiously awaiting your arrival. Witness from Pioneer Camp (there are four camps at Londolozi) met us at the entrance to the camp. He escorted us to the open sitting area next to the open eating area and served us drinks while we filled out paperwork. Then we were escorted to our suites. Each little lodge has a big main room with a sitting area and a large bathroom and deck. They also have outdoor showers (which I used and have to say it was an experience to have lizards in the shower with you). I found that everything I could think of had already been taken care of by the staff. You are served meals at a table just for your immediate group. It was nice to have a meal just with the family. The chef, Virginia, was amazing. We had Melvin as a guide and Milton as our tracker. They are quite hilarious and entertaining. We saw all of the big five here (including the Leopards of Londolozi). The animals are much easier to see here (although the mountain terrain is more breathtaking). Some things we saw here and not at Bongani include, crocodiles, wildebeest, hyena, and warthog. The local village of staff is fun to visit and has a great craft store. We also did a bush walk, which was very interesting. We saw many more groups of big cats here. Londolozi is reverting back to being managed by the family who owns it this February - so it will no longer be a CCAfrica property. The managers are leaving and some of the guides, but it appears that most staff want to stay here.

From Londolozi, we caught a small plane (they have their own small runway) and flew back to Nelspruit where we caught a flight down to Cape Town. In Cape Town we stayed at Southern Sun waterfront Cape Town hotel. It is akin to a holiday inn or sheraton. The rooms were comfortable with great views of Table Mountain, Signal Hill, the waterfront area, and Lion's Head. The buffet breakfast here was decent and the staff very pleasant.
We were met at the airport by Christine from Hylton Ross tour company and she guided us each day. Our first day we went to the waterfront (the hotel also has a shuttle here for free for guests) and caught the boat to Robben Island. Robben Island is amazing. Former prisoners give the tour and it is well worth the visit. The island itself is interesting, aside from the prison tour, there are amazing views back towards Cape Town and Table Mountain. We weren't able to go up Table Mountain on the cable car the first several days because of the wind. We did a city tour and visited the natural history museum. We went to some of the local markets for buying crafts. For dinner we ate at the Fish Market in the waterfront mall. It was good - excellent fish.
The next day we went to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. We stopped along the way and saw some right whales and did a short boat ride out to an island full of seals (not the one with all the great whites - but we did see a fin). The Cape of Good Hope was beautiful, we saw ostrich, didn't see the baboons, and we stopped at Boulder's Beach to see the penguins (I could have spent all day there). We at lunch in Simon's Town and then headed to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. These gardens on the back side of Table Mountain, are absolutely amazing. Even my husband, who is not a garden person, was in awe of the plants, sculptures and views. They also have an amazing assortment of birds. For dinner we ate at Belthazar at the waterfront, call ahead for reservations, you will not be disappointed. They have an amazing wine list, lots of local meats and fish, and the service was great.
The next day we went out to Hermanus to whale watch. Hermanus is a quaint town with a little market area, some shops, and of course the cliffy shore where you can sit and watch right whales. We saw quite a few and could have sat there all afternoon. It was fun to see all the locals enjoying the right whales as well as tourists.
From Hermanus, we drove back through the mountains to the winelands. We stopped at Spier Vineyard and went to the Cheetah Encounter program. This is part of the Cheetah Outreach program, which is trying to educate local populations about cheetahs and to purchase guarding dogs for local farmers. For a small fee, you can go into an enclosure with cheetahs and pet them and learn about them. All the cheetahs at the facility were handraised since they were babies and they are very laidback (the two cubs we were with fell asleep while we were petting them). The staff really tries to educate you about the species, which is in real danger. It was amazing to see these animals up close and to learn about them. The program there takes these handraised cheetahs back to local areas to educate schools and villages and then sends the cheetahs to other locations around the world to help diversify the population.
We also went to Saxonburg Vineyard - it's very small, but the wines were fantastic. We ended our trip with a ride up the cable cars to the top of Table Mountain - the views are spectacular.

We did have problems going back home. The one plane SAA runs between Dulles and Joburg broke down at Dulles and so they told us we would have to stay an extra night (they were providing accomodations). However, we needed to get back. For no cost, were able to get on a flight to JFK that same day and then we were provided with a commuter flight back down to Dulles. We ended up getting home only 6 hours later than planned. People had called and checked that the plane was on schedule that morning. So your best bet is to get there really early. We were first in line for a 6pm flight at 1pm and were able to get onto the other flight. I'm guessing some people weren't so lucky. One thing to note, is that you cannot bring the small clear bag of toiletries or liquids bought from the secured area on board the flight coming back home. We ended up buying a cheap backpack and putting our wine and toiletries in that and checking it at the gate. Also, on the way home when you land in Senegal there are several TSA security procedures and the plane is sprayed (going both there and home) with a bug spray.

We had a great time in South Africa. The people, the animals, and the scenary are all amazing. Some packing suggestions. We each took a rolling duffel bag and a small carry-on backpack. On safari, I had brought two pairs of zip-off pants, but ended up just needing one pair. I usually wore one short sleeve top under a fleece or button-up. My hat came in handy - I wore it everyday. In Cape Town, I saw many tourists wearing their safari clothes, I did pack a pair of regular pants (khaki's and wore them with tee shirts and definitely a jacket - it's windy there). A pair of "dressy" sandals was more than fine for dinner and walking around in the city, most people just wore their safari shoes.
One thing I did learn which I will share. In order to save space coming back, we shipped some of our souvenirs home. In the Waterfront mall there was a CVS, drugstore type shop (CNS or something like that) and it has packing boxes, bubble wrap, and tape. We wrapped up the stuff ourselves and took it to the Post Office at the waterfront. It was about $20 to ship home two large masks and a few smaller souvenirs. It took one month and two days to get to Washington DC from Cape Town by sea. Thomas Cook office at the waterfront offered fed ex but for a rather small box it was going to cost $400 dollars by air. So we opted for by sea with the Post Office, once it gets to the port you can no longer track it on their tracking system online. So we were unsure if they would get home, but they did. We highly recommend visiting South Africa. It is truly an amazing experience!

atravelynn Jan 21st, 2007 12:38 PM

Thanks for the report and welcome home. I was especially interested in your Cape of Good Hope trip with the penguins. How long did you spend with the cheetahs at Spiers? How many days total in Cape Town?

swtravelbug Jan 21st, 2007 02:40 PM

We spent 5 days in Cape Town and spent all day touring for three days. I would have prefered to spend one more day there and break up some of the tours a bit. The three days we toured were very packed (8-5pm).
The Cape of Good Hope is not as close to Cape Town as I thought it would be. We spent a little over two hours driving there, including our stop to go out to the seal island. The main road around the peninsula takes you through some beautiful scenery, which makes the drive seem a little shorter. The actual Cape has a lighthouse, a small gift shop and eatery and a little cablecar that takes you up the hill. The views from up there are fabulous! Boulders Beach is just off this main drive as you go back around to Cape Town. It is literally right on the beach in Simon's Town. You have to pay a small fee to go out onto wooden walkways that meander through the beach area where the penguins live. The penguins though are free to walk around the town and beach (we saw a penguin crossing sign, but no penguins in town). The penguins are very vocal and will walk right up to the boardwalk area. They are quite amusing to watch. We got there right before a large tour group, so I imagine that it can get very crowded along these walkways. We also saw whales from shore just pass Simon's Town and then headed to Kirstenbosch on our way back. We left around 8am and didn't get back till almost 5:30pm. So it's a long day, but the sights are amazing!
As for the Cheetah Encounter program, I would highly recommend. Mostly because the money goes towards a great cause, but also because the experience is awesome. Our family of four signed the release form and paid the fee (which was higher if you wanted to spend time with two cubs rather than one adult). We spent about twenty minutes in the enclosure. They make you take off shiny glasses, jewelry before going in. Then the keepers put the cheetahs on leashes and walk them over and lay them down on the side of the enclosure. Once they have them laying down they allow you to come inside. There were two handlers that day who sat with us and educated us about the cheetahs. The other staff takes pictures of you with your camera if you would like. They tell you things like don't touch their heads and don't make sudden movements. However, these two cubs starting purring immediately and one cub laid it's head on the other and by the end of our 20 minutes they were fast asleep. The program had just set up another enclosure with some birds of prey and some educational buildings, which had a good video but were a bit sparse. Hopefully that portion of the program is more together now. It was definitely worth it!

swtravelbug Jan 21st, 2007 02:42 PM

Sorry, I should have added the Cheetah Encounter website, it's:

Thembi Jan 21st, 2007 04:06 PM

Howdy swtravelbug - sounds like a great trip. Boulders beach (at Simonstown) is a treat - it is a beautiful story of conservation and the local population living with the penguins. Don't know if you might have seen a documentary about the penguins at Boulders but if you can find a copy it is a an interesting look at co-habitation and also the heart-touching look at how the locals pulled together after an oil-spill affected many of the resident penguins - it is called CITY SLICKERS - A TALE OF TWO AFRICAN PENGUINS and is distributed by Animal Planet.
A couple of nights after returning from our 2005 trip (where we too visited Capetown, Cape of Good Hopem Cape Point and Simons Town) we were really excited to have this documentary appear on free-to-air TV. What a treat!
Thnaks for your lovely report.

swtravelbug Jan 22nd, 2007 02:19 PM

Thembi - yes I have seen City Slickers. It is a terrific documentary! Also, I should mention that I bought a copy of "Leopards of Londolozi" by Lex Hes at Bongani. Londolozi also has copies. I know some people were looking for copies - so you can still get them!

atravelynn Jan 22nd, 2007 03:50 PM

Thanks Swtravelbug, for the detailed information. Sounds wonderful.

cary999 Jan 22nd, 2007 04:08 PM

Good report Swtravelbug, many thanks.
regards - tom

SteveGC Jul 28th, 2007 01:08 PM

Your trip sounds great. We're starting to plan an 08 trip. How much of your time in Cape Town and the surrounding area was spent on your own (as opposed to with your guide, Cristine)? After she met you at the airport, did you simply meet at your hotel each day? We'd heard from someone who's been there that even in Cape Town, you have to "watch your back" and be on the alert for criminals.
Thanks, Steve

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