Trip Report - SA with younger children

Old Jul 11th, 2008, 06:56 PM
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Trip Report - SA with younger children

My wife and I have been taking advantage of my frequent flier miles and hotel points over the past several years to celebrate our anniversary in far away places without our kids (thanks to the two sets of fantastic grandparents!). Our youngest was turning 5 this year so we decided it was time to turn this annual event into a true family endeavor (our oldest is 8). We settled on Africa thanks to a conversation with our guide in the Daintree rainforest of Australia in 2007. He was a ranger/guide in Kenya in a prior life (until his partner was murdered – sad story) and, when we told him about our plans to include our kids in the next trip, he enthusiastically recommended a safari.

My original plan was a trip to Botswana and Victoria Falls, but that was just not in the cards because of the kids ages. East Africa was next on the list and I got a lot of help from the kind folks on this board in plotting out trip ideas (ideas I will use one day). When push came to shove, however, I could not seem to get past the costs of transportation to get from camp to camp and the amount it was going to cost for the children. So, I reluctantly started looking at South Africa.

When planning the trip, we had a few goals:

1) Teach our kids about the bush
2) Diversity in ecosystems
3) Experience different styles of lodging (tents, chalets and lodges)
4) To have the wildlife opportunities get better as we moved from camp to camp
5) To end the trip with “can’t miss” experiences

I am one of those people that will spend days, weeks, months trying to find the best “bang for the buck” no matter what I am buying. After extensive research, we settled on the following self-drive itinerary (after 5 days in London with the grandparents):

- Fly to Johannesburg and overnight in Bela Bela
- Pafuri Camp for 4 nights
- Mopani restcamp in Kruger for 1 night
- Olifants restcamp in Kruger for 1 night
- Gomo Gomo in Timbavati for 3 nights
- Elephant Plains in Sabi Sands for 3 nights
- Umhloti Lodge near Nelspruit for 1 night
- De Wildt Cheetah Lodge near Pretoria for 1 night

I picked everything but Bela Bela and Umhloti on my own. I booked through Rhino Africa and they made recommendations for those stops. My contact at Rhino was extremely patient (I like to plan almost as much as travel) and Rhino was able to save me some money.

We rented an automatic SUV on our own from First Car and had no issues (more on that later).
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Old Jul 12th, 2008, 06:07 AM
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I am a terrible writer and tend to babble, but here goes…

Day 1 – Bela Bela

Our flight from Heathrow arrived on time. We had to wait for our luggage (several of us joked that the wait was for them to pick thru what they wanted to keep). I was not too worried because I had both bags wrapped at Heathrow. Yes, that’s right, we only checked 2 bags for all of us. Before anyone starts to think we are amazing packers, I should mention that we carried on 7 bags – lol!

The rest of the family slept while I white-knuckled it thru outer Johannesburg on the way to Bela Bela. We made it to our B&B in Bela Bela at 10am. I think we woke up the 2 people running the place. The young lady at reception said she could show us our room, but could not let us check in until 2pm or “her boss would get really mad.” Keep in mind there is no one else there and our room was empty. She also mentioned that she could arrange for us to park behind the fence across the street if we felt uneasy about leaving our car in their open parking spots (uh, say what?). So, we asked for directions to the Forever Resorts nearby as I had read about their Hydro (indoor heated pool). As we are walking back to our car, a couple of questionable-looking guys approached and asked for a ride into town. I don’t think so.

We make our way to Forever Resorts and inquire about a day visit to the pool. In the back of my mind, I still can’t get past how uncomfortable I felt at the B&B (first time I’ve ever felt that way about a place in 20 years of traveling; the place was very clean, but something just seemed off). So I ask Forever if they have a room for the night (it’s gated, there is a pool and restaurants – safe). The initial answer was they only had hotel rooms available and we would need 2 of them (at a price much higher than I was willing to pay). I don’t remember what happened, but 15 minutes pass and suddenly they do have a family chalet available. We really enjoyed the Hydro for the afternoon, ate lunch and dinner at the restaurants and had a nice night in the chalet. I should mention that all throughout Bela Bela we got a lot of stares and no one seemed to be able to understand us. I’m guessing they don’t get many US visitors there. Oh, I should mention that we saw a vast number of empty chalets so I’m not sure why we were initially told none were available.

Days 2 thru 6 – Pafuri Camp

What we liked:
- Our guide!
- The camp and tents are stunning
- The camp is really well managed and the entire staff really embraced our kids
- The variety – not having to look at the same ecosystem every day was a blessing

What we did not like:
- The food (common theme for us and more a reflection on us)
- Off road would have been unbelievable, but we understand why it’s not an option

We departed Bela Bela around 9am. I have a Garmin Nuvi 350 and had purchased the SA maps in advance of the trip. Bad decision. The maps were ok around the major cities, but after Bela Bela, they were useless (had us turning on roads that did not exist, etc.). The drive took 7 hours thanks to some trouble finding the N1, but offered some interesting scenery (think Arizona). At one point, we drove at least 60 miles without seeing another car!

About 20 kms before the Pafuri Gate, there is another gate (I later learned it was to keep the cattle around). Just inside that gate is a small village. As we were driving thru, the people of the village were leaving their church. My wife and I were shocked at how well dressed these people were considering where they lived – we’re talking nice suits, dresses, etc. I have to say it is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen and certainly a mental image that will stick with me for a long time

Our guide and the hostess were waiting for us when we pulled up to Pafuri Camp (how did they know we were almost there?). We were late so there was a mad scramble to get oriented and off to our first game drive. I should mention that my wife had been extremely skeptical about the idea of sleeping in a tent. When we were shown to ours, however, the first word out of her mouth was “WOW”. I had some idea of what to expect, but even I was impressed. We had a family tent and the layout was perfect – our “bedroom” was towards the front and the kids had their own “bedroom” at the back. It was huge and really very impressive - perfect for being close together, but with the right amount of privacy for naps and early-to-bed children.

I chose Pafuri because they offered a “mini-guide course” for children. I was also interested in seeing the different ecosystems as 2 weeks of seeing the same dead trees would have driven me crazy. We knew going in the game viewing was not supposed to be great, but I thought it would be a nice place to start the safari since any animal sighting would have us excited.

I could tell right away we had made the right choice. The kids were given pens and really nice notebooks with all kinds of information about animals (behavior, spoor, etc.). Our 8-yr old spent hours pouring thru the notebook between the game drives. I should also mention the first night at Pafuri was our anniversary and the camp staff prepared a special candlelight dinner in the bush for all of the guests in our honor. It was very special to us and something we will surely never forget. Our first night on our very first safari and we’re eating dinner by candlelight in the bush!

I won’t bore everyone with too much detail, but our guide was simply amazing with the kids. Aside from teaching them about the animals we saw, he would get them out of the car to look at their tracks, identify their dung, etc. He stuck his hands in elephant dung, showed the kids a game that involved spitting impala dung (then demonstrated!), licked some kind sap off the tree like bushbabies (he later admitted to me that he had never done that before and that it tasted awful), painted everyone’s faces with the stuff off a Fever Tree, etc.. By the second day, both kids were riding shotgun next to him for every drive. I’m not sure how it started, but at some point he led them in a rendition of the Sponge Bob Squarepants themesong in the middle of the bush. The next day, a Sponge Bob doll was sitting on the dashboard of the Landrover and he accompanied us on all subsequent adventures.

The game highlight of the first 2 days at Pafuri was watching lions mate from 50-ft away! An incredible experience for everyone and very exciting for the Pafuri staff as it looks like their first real pride is starting to form (this male is new to the area and has accepted the 9-month old cubs from another roving male). We also saw a lot of elephants, buffalo, birds and antelope. We also saw rhino, leopard and hyena tracks, but never found them.
We were fortunate to have the owners of Karell Travel join us on the 3rd day. They seemed to enjoy watching the kids while I harassed them with questions about other places and camps in Africa. It was a real pleasure meeting them and I think (hope) they enjoyed our guide as much as we did. As if to say nothing was changing, our guide surprised us with a goofy eye mask and a set of bad teeth to start the morning game drive.

During this part of the trip we made the trek towards the Fever Tree forest and Cook’s Corner (where SA, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet). Along the way we ran across a large herd of elephant crossing the road from the river. There are a lot of little ones in this herd and 2 females took exception to our presence and mock charged us. They got within about 30 feet and our guide was able to calm them down. We have some great images of the two staring us down with one of the babies in between them. It scared my wife to death (and the video shows it!). The kids were up front with the guide and I would have paid a lot of money for a picture of their faces. A thrilling experience!

Towards the end of the Fever Tree forest (which is breathtaking in early morning and late evening light), we spotted lion tracks! Sure enough, we found 2 lionesses lying in the road ahead. We enjoyed being that close to them, but my wife was quietly freaking out about the kids up front in the vehicle. When we decided to pass one, the lioness was uneasy and seemed to be struggling with what to do. You can tell they are still getting used to the vehicles. I didn’t have the heart to tell my wife that we would be getting much closer to the predators at other stops (here we got to within 10 feet or so). I should mention that the kids were perfectly still and silent thru both the elephant and lion experiences.

Because of the ellies and lions, we made it to Cook’s Corner with little light left. We hiked down a little hill at the water, then round a corner to a spot with an unbelievable view of hippos and crocs. What a place for sundowners!

The next day we took the very bumpy road to Lanner Gorge. It’s a breathtaking view (there is a really nice picture of it on Pafuri’s website) and made the trip worth it.

We did not realize it at the time, but there are a tremendous number of impala, bushbuck, nyala and kudu in the Pafuri area. It’s no wonder the lions looked so healthy – they are at the all-you-can-eat buffet every day. With so much game, I’ve got to think it’s only a matter of time for the predator population to build. I can’t wait to see what a safari there will be like is 3, 5 and 10 years.

My last thought on Pafuri - one other reason we enjoyed it so much was the fact that we were participating in the tracking. Because there is no tracker, spotting can be a group activity. Often someone in our group was the first to make a significant sighting we were tracking. It just added more fun of the experience for us. I should also mention that our guide would find a track and then ask the kids to identify it and indicate which direction the animal was moving. He taught them how to identify fresh tracks from older ones, etc. On the last evening drive, the kids were given a final “test”. They had to track our guide who hid behind some rocks. They are supposed to get certificates in the mail for completing the course and I know my oldest will show that certificate to all of her friends at home.

We really can’t say enough good things about Pafuri Camp. I’ve not done nearly enough justice to how good our guide was. It’s been 3 weeks since we left there and my kids are still talking about him.

Up next is Kruger, then Gomo Gomo.
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Old Jul 16th, 2008, 01:36 AM
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Have read your trip report with much interest. We are also making our first BIG family trip this year to South Africa with our kids who are 8 and 5!! Are doing a very different route to yours though, which is from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town. So saying, on planning the trip, I have read so much about the country, that I doubt that it will be our last trip to South Africa, so I hope you keep going with the report!
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Old Jul 17th, 2008, 06:16 PM
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Before we get to the next stage of our trip, my wife reminded me that I left out something. The evening game drive after the ele / lion / hippo / croc experience was also interesting. We headed the opposite direction from the prior evening in search of the elusive leopard. Along the way we ran across another large breeding herd of elephants crossing the path after a late afternoon visit to the river. This time a couple of bulls made a fuss over us and stood guard while the remainder of the herd crossed behind them. I guess the previous evening’s experience had some impact on the kids because they both dove for the floor of the Landrover as soon as one of the males trumpeted! We have some great pictures of that scene – elephants in the background and the kids hiding in the foreground. Lest anyone be concerned, the kids were fine in later elephant encounters. My wife says otherwise, but I think she might have ready to jump down there with them.

The elephants finally cleared and we moved on for sundowners and the kids final guide “test.” As we are heading back, my wife asks the guide if we would run into that herd again (heading back the same way) – he responded with “I hope not.” Not 5 minutes later my wife says as we rounded a sharp curve “that looks like an elephant beside the road!” Sure enough, we’re 30 feet from one of the elephants from the herd we saw earlier. Apparently lights upset the elephants so guides won’t use them around elephants, if possible. He kills the engine and lights. As we’re all watching this large elephant looking at us in the dark, I start to notice other munching noises all around us. We couldn’t see it, but another elephant was eating the bush we were parked beside! I was really quite spooky, but exciting to be sitting in the midst of elephants without really being able to see them. I think my wife was about to pass out, but I was in heaven.

We finally got an opportunity to scoot thru the herd without disturbing the herd and my wife breathed a huge sigh of relief – until we ran across a lone bull walking in the road a half mile up the road. He was in must (is that how you spell it?) and not in the mood to deal with us. He moved up the hill, gave us a nice trumpet, then tried to knock over a huge tree to show us how big and strong he was. He didn’t get the big tree, but he did snap one about 6 inches in diameter nearby as if it was a toothpick. He finally moved out of the way, but gave us another warning trumpet as we passed. Awesome!

Days 7 and 8 – Kruger National Park

What we liked: a few good sightings details in a minute), not much; Mopani chalet was nice

What we didn’t like: Olifants was disgusting! No working ATMs at any of the restcamps, food was terrible; staff at the restcamps were borderline rude in many cases

I decided it might be interesting to make our way thru a good portion of Kruger on our way to the Timbavati private reserve. Charter flights were too expensive and we all agreed seeing animals would be more interesting than driving through the country outside the park.

We stuck to the tar road until Shingwedzi (sp?) and, to my wife’s chagrin, saw quite a few elephants. As we got closer to Shingwedzi we got our first look at giraffe, too. It was interesting to watch the environment change as we moved south – from some green to a little green, to no green at all. As we got close to our stop for the night, we spotted some ostriches and, within a mile or so of Mopani, a rhino! It was hard to get a good look at the rhino though because of where it was. We continued our luck with elephant sightings all the way to Mopani, too.

Since we were only staying one night at each restcamp, cooking in our chalet was not a great option so we had dinner at the camp restaurant using the same limited menu we used for lunch at Shingwedzi. Toasted cheese sandwiches and chips all around. As we would later learn, all of the camp restaurants thru Satara offered the same limited menu so we had the same toasted cheese sandwiches and chips for lunch and dinner the next day, too.

Our chalet at Mopani was nice, large and clean. The camp has a beautiful view over a lake with lots of birds. Food notwithstanding, this was a comfortable, relaxing stop.

The next morning we made it all the way down to Olifants. I took a number of recommended “gravel” routes, but did not have much in the way of sightings outside more elephant and hippo. This was our first foray into what South Africa means by “dirt” roads. Many of these were simply brutal, teeth jarring exercises. I stuck to them, however, as they were supposed to offer the best sighting opportunities. I did stumble into a mother elephant with her baby and we startled each other. Heart attack number 3 on this trip for my wife ensued on queue.

We rolled into Olifants just before sunset. I picked this restcamp because of its commanding river view and because I wanted to spend some time exploring the area around the camp without feeling rushed. There are only a few family chalets and we were not able to get one so we were relegated to 2 very small chalets. We found both to be dirty and downright disgusting and the view of the river was a let down (but likely quite impressive in summer).

We bolted out of there really early the next morning for Timbavati and Gomo Gomo. Apparently they have a big problem with baboons getting into the trash cans and refrigerators (the “kitchens” are outside the chalets). There was garbage everywhere when we left.

We found it slow going on the gravel roads so we decided to stick to the tar road for the remainder of our trip through Kruger. As we made our way from Olifants to Orpen Gate, we ran across a spotted hyena beside the road, then ¼ mile down the road, another hyena and 2 young cubs (we later learned via comparison with another spotting, these guys were probably a month or so old)! The cubs were right beside the road so we got some fantastic pictures of them.
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Old Sep 25th, 2008, 05:14 PM
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Statefan, I am very much enjoying your trip report - please don't stop now. We are visiting Kruger Park (Satara and Letaba) and Gomo Gomo - two nights at each - in December. I am very curious to hear your experiences at Gomo Gomo. We too are traveling with our "children" - aged 15 and 16. Please keep the info coming!
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Old Sep 26th, 2008, 05:02 PM
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Very enjoyable read. Looking forward to the next bit.
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