Trip Report - Safari South Africa 2012

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Jul 20th, 2012, 08:34 PM
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Trip Report - Safari South Africa 2012

It’s difficult to begin this trip report of my May 2012 safari by starting at August 2011 but that’s probably the best place to start. British Airways in summer of 2011 had a 2-for-1 miles promotion going so I use 60,000 of my miles for flights from California (LAX) to/from Johannesburg South Africa (JNB). Sure, “free” FF flights using FF miles – free except for the additional $1,100 in fees, taxes, fuel charges, etc by BA. (I also had a minor class upgrade to Traveler Plus). So back in August I picked dates in May 2012 of leaving May 6 and returning May 26. Works out to be 19 days on safari. Which safari camps - perhaps I’d make those after arriving at JNB by calling safari camps and getting a great rate bargain on vacancies?? Then life happened and things got more complicated between August and May. Rather than going into many details, I’ll just say that I decided to not to try and find safari camps after arriving JNB but instead have them set up before leaving home. And the end of that story is I stayed all 19 nights at Kings Camp in the Timbavati reserve (adjacent to Kruger). I did contact other camps in the Timbavati and seriously considered staying at two others plus Kings. But Kings and those camps (and others) share the same game drive traversing areas. So when you are out for the two three hour game drives you’re all seeing much the same sightings.

A bit of perspective about my safaris. Since 2005 I’ve been on safari eight times to countries: Kenya, Zambia, Botswana, Tanzania, and South Africa. Well over half of my safari time has been to South Africa in the Kruger area, Kruger National Park, and the reserves Sabi Sand and Timbavati. On safari I love to take wildlife photos so much of my safari enjoyment is striving for those photos. I use Nikon DSLR cameras and all photos I “keep” are worked in Photoshop. I also take video which also has to be severely edited. I have about 20 photos up from this safari at – http://tomgraham.smugmug.com/SAFARI2012. Photos from previous safaris also there. This safari was frustrating for my photography. Probably the least photographically satisfying of all my safaris. It seemed that all the pieces for a great photo, i.e. light, composition and subject, very seldom came together. For example, a highlight was the two wild dogs in late afternoon. But where were they? Walking and lying along side the main Macadam/asphalt road along the Timbavati border. Every photo of them has that black asphalt road in it.

So then, this safari all my time at Kings Camp. I had been to Kings five times before so obviously I love it plus I know two of the rangers there, Patrick and Morne, two of the best ever, both into photography. I love the camp rooms and facilities, managers Warren and wife Lisha and all of the other staff are so warm and helpful. I did not see how it could be better in the Timbavati. May-Sep is low rate season and with my super long stay they gave me a much lower rate than the advertised long stay discount of “pay for 6 stay 8” nights. But I was still curious about what kind of deal you might find by using the approach of calling a camp when you are “in country”. And if they have vacancies making a great rate deal. However, I still don’t know the answer! Even after talking with staff, other guests, and travel agent guests. There was even a South Africa resident couple, from Nelspruit, who drove up to camp for three nights. I talked with them about making last moment camp rate deals and they thought it a good idea but had never tried it. The only general agreement was that during low season camps have vacancies and you could find (continuous) nights by calling around camps. But as to if or how much rate discount you could get, no one seemed to have a clue (or would talk). Maybe it simply varies so much from day-to-day and camp-to-camp that there is no good general answer. Maybe you really do have to just show up at the registration desk and ask for a deal.

Staying 19 nights at a place, camp, resort, you notice and find things I’m sure the 3 night guest would not notice. Example - about every fourth day the meal service for lunch or dinner just fell apart. Also, with my back surgery recovery I’m very aware of rough walking surfaces and hand rails by steps. And also rails in the room bathroom. And a couple of room issues, for example, they have replaced the wall-to-wall grass mat floor rug with by simply painting the concrete floor. Feels most uncomfortable with bare feet. And the couple of small zebra area rugs were more of a trip hazard than help (I had them removed). But these were minor problems at Kings for me and I suspect there such are problems at most safari camps. So be aware if you have even minor “mobility” “or “disability” issues and are planning a safari. I noticed them because of my recent back problem and because in the USA these issues are well addressed in public and commercial establishments.

A few words about the cyclone rain that hit the area, Kruger area, mid January 2012. It did a lot of damage, many roads of all types washed out, the main river (dry most of the year) cut new banks and moved huge boulder piles. Erosion control berns and small dams were totaled washed away. When I was there the last bit of Timbavati Macadam road repair, a washed out water underpass, was finished. But had I known nothing about the disaster in January, as I’m sure most guests did not, I would not have been aware of the huge problems caused and extensive remediation.

I love game drives, to see all types of life as it is being lived and struggled for as only you can see in Africa. For your game drives your guide/ranger is the single most important part. And guide/ranger Morne Hamlyn deserves mention for his honor in 2011. In 2011 he was selected as one of the top eight finalists for ranger of the year in all of South Africa by the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa. So on to the game drives, but first, I hold the Kings Camp record for the most consecutive game drives by a guest – 38. Yes, I did not miss a drive!! And here’s some basic statistics for my drives (after each drive I made notes). On most of my drives there was myself and three or four other guests. Never did my Land Rover have more than five guests. For five game drives I was the only guest. Seeing the big five. Lions, saw them on 23 drives. Leopard, saw them on 18 drives. Elephants, saw on 21 drives. Buffalo, saw on 12 drives. Rhino, saw them on 11 drives. On no drive did I see all 5 of the big 5, and on two drives I saw none of the big 5. Note, all these counts are for a sighting on that drive. Multiple animals, (lion pride of 10) or a species more than once counted as only one sighting for that species on that drive. (My notes have individual animal counts). Other sighting highlights were a pair of wild dogs, male and pregnant female, seen twice. A rhino mama with her three month old female calf, unbelievably cute. A glimpse of a black rhino that had all guides from all camps excited (but no one got photos). Hippos five times. A hyena den with adults outside. Saw no actual kills happen but of course many of the lion and leopard sightings were of them feeding on kills. And sure, zebra, giraffe, kudu, impala, stenbok, jackal, hyena, waterbuck, African wild cat, civet, mongoose. Of course many birds, lilac breasted rollers, giant eagle owl, hornbills, vultures. Cheetah, nope saw no cheetah, which did not surprise me, the Timbavati low bushveld terrain is not cheetah friendly.

A good safari, a long safari, and it did indeed seemed long. As I get more into my senior years, I’m feeling physically more vulnerable. Those two 11 hour flights seem endless and the airlines and airports seem to want to add to my discomfort and aggravation. Could possibly be my last African safari. Again about 20 photos up at – http://tomgraham.smugmug.com/SAFARI2012.

Regards - tom
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Jul 21st, 2012, 06:26 AM
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Tom, what an excellent account of your unusual trip, very detailed, informative, especially for us who have followed you through some of those previous eight safaris.

As you recapped it all here, I recalled the trials and tribulations of getting there and the evolving format of the trip.

That little tip about throw rugs could save the trip for somebody.

The animal counts are helpful too. I'm surprised at the scarcity of hippos. But I recall I saw zero of them in nearby Sabi Sands.

Were you given an award for most consecutive game drives? That is quite an accomplishment! Even merits some sort of ceremony. At least of shot of amarula, which you could do as a personal tribute at any time or many times.

Your very extended stay rate may have bested what you could have gotten elsewhere by just showing up. Thanks for sharing all you learned--actually what you didn't learn--on that. I'm curious about the showing up approach too but have been able to gather only one account of specifics from a couple who went to Bots about 5 years ago and as I recall the discount was not quite 50% of published rates.

Some of your frustration with photography may very well be a product of so many past safaris and so many successful ones. Our standards of photographic excellence tend to go up with experience so fulfilling our expectations for photos that combine all the elements (light, subject, background, foreground, activity) are harder to meet. You could probably figure out the equation of the line for that relationship.

It has to be sad thinking you may have left Africa for the last time. But how many people have made it there nine times!?

As you think about future photographic forays into the wild, maybe consider something closer to home. How about Custer National Park and Badlands? I just got back from a 2nd trip to Theordore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Now that's a photographer's paradise with the best pancakes ever at the beautifully restored Rough Riders Lodge, where Teddy actually stayed. Not sure how much walking around you want to do, but little was needed for good shots in those places. Maybe you've fully explored Yellowstone where great shots can be taken from the car or road, as well as on foot. Go after those wolves in Lamar Valley in winter, or anytime of year.

Have you spent much time in Alaska? How about going for the classic "fish in the mouth of the bear" shot? It's not that hard to capture. Brooks Falls offers the opportunity. It is about a half mile walk on safe, easy flat trails to get to where the bears fish for salmon. Or to avoid the crowds and their tripods, fly in to one of the bays along the Katmai Coast and stay at lodge there or do boat-based. I think Wilderness Lodge in Kukak Bay does not do that much walking. Some of the other Katmai options have you on foot a lot more, requiring the now-famous waders.

How about the Pantanal in Brazil? If you can tolerate many hours in a motor boat over several days, you have an excellent chance for nice jaguar shots, plus all sorts of other animals like capybara, anteaters, foxes, caiman, and you could really perfect your bird photography down there.

Galapagos? Slow walking on lava trails.

Do you have nice redwood pictures? Don't overlook your backyard.

Well check out the Top 20. That averages to about a photo a day.
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Jul 21st, 2012, 06:47 AM
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Interesting to hear about such a long stay at one camp. We were at Kings Camp for 5 nights 2 years ago and loved it but to be honest I was read to move on at that point. I gained about a pound a day there - the food was amazing and coming at us non-stop. I'm wondering what you meant by "the meal service fell apart" -- any details worth sharing on that?

We also had Morne as a guide and agree he was fabulous.

I will be really shocked if you do end your time in Africa with that trip. It seems so much a part of you! Over the years I've read so many of your posts here - I just can't imagine that ever ending! Maybe breaking up the long flights with overnights in Europe en route?

The 20 pix were great - will you add to that group?
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Jul 21st, 2012, 10:06 AM
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Thanks Lynn and thanks for your thoughtfulness, kindness, and great suggestions.

No, I have no trophy for my 38 consecutive game drives - but I deserve one! A couple times I thought about skipping the afternoon one but when it came time I just had to go. With game drives you never know when or what you will see and my pulse still goes up in anticipation!!

You're right about photography expectations. After seeing lion/leopard feed on impala carcass 40 times you start looking for more, something different, or better composition, lighting, etc.

Your suggestions for USA travel are excellent. I have been to most of those in western USA but they are all wonderful to visit over and over. And all within a day or two easy drive for me. I've spent little time in Yellowstone and Grand Tetons and they are spectacular. Need to go back. And Yosemite is only a days drive away. I've not been to Alaska nor Galapagos but I'm serious about never getting on another airplane!! Still, still, nothing like the variety and quantity of wildlife and life struggle you see in Africa.

A good photo a day, not even that! First five are of Kings! Thanks again for your most thoughtful and generous reply.

regards - tom
ps - my walking and general leg strength is good and improving, just not as fast as I would like. Back/spinal surgery is a strange cat.
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Jul 21st, 2012, 10:33 AM
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Leslie_S thanks for your reply, glad you also enjoyed Kings. Agree, the food at Kings is amazing, I very much looked forward to every meal. I said - "the meal service fell apart". Example, about third night before leaving we had dinner in the lovely dinning room. Two large tables, a group of about 10, tour group, at one table and at my table me and two other couples. Everyone went into dinning room from the bar. Cut to the end - the group of 10 were finishing dessert and our table had not received our main course. I finally mentioned the poor service to our table and everyone agreed it was bad. Another time at lunch - I was by myself at a table and after 15-20 minutes I was still waiting on the simple lunch dish. I told the server I was tired setting at the table and I would be in the library, get me when lunch was served. (Another 5 minutes or so).

Ranger Morne is fabulous (and into photography) and very much deserves his FGASA award. It was a real competition, real world, not just counting votes.

Probably only those photos of it now up on smugmug. I've been through them all (about 500, many duplicates) and not much I really like.

I agree, my yearly African safari was something I really looked forward too. We'll see, maybe in a couple years I itch to go back. But those two 11 hour flights to get there (and back) and all the hassle at the airports is really wearing on me. Staying overnight half way might be a better way.

regards - tom
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Jul 21st, 2012, 11:36 AM
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You're most welcome, Tom!

I would have been begging at the tour group table by dessert time. Or just charge, dessert fork in hand, hoping to spear a sweet. I hope your tablemates were good company because it appears you had a lot of time together before any food arrived.

You picked the good light photos to post and may have hit a kudu personal best. Lots of people would love to have those leopards.

Why don't you parlay your camp photos into a discount on your next trip for use of them on the Kings Camp website? Then you'd have to go back. The burger and chips photo has me ready for another lunch right now.

Given enough time, you could drive to Alaska, no airplane needed. But to get to the bears, you'd have to board a sea plane for about 90 minutes of flying time.

Perhaps the migrating red sided garter snakes of Narcisse, Manitoba? Self-drive.
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Jul 21st, 2012, 05:36 PM
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Love your shots of the leopard and enjoyed the details of your report. I guess we've all pondered how to get the best rate at lodges. If there was a single correct answer I think we would have figured it out by now.
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Jul 21st, 2012, 06:30 PM
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Interesting trip report, Tom. And the photos are great, even if they are few. (I don't have many from my Kenya trip either.) I laughed when I saw the giraffe/lion shot. What I saw of the thumbnail - the giraffe hide - morphed into a giraffe with a lion's head as the image was opening. My poor confused brain didn't see the lion's body at first.

Would you stay at the same camp that long again? (if you were going back) The longest I've been anywhere is 6 nights (Mashatu, MalaMala and recently at Lion Porini) and I could have stayed at any of them much longer. Well, maybe not MM.

I'm sad to hear you may not go back to Africa because I know how much you love it but hopefully you will find some great spots where you can drive in the US and Canada. I'll have to second Lynn's suggestion of bears in Alaska. I skipped Africa one year to go to Alaska a 2nd year. And Chas has a group up there now and I'm jealous.
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Jul 21st, 2012, 06:31 PM
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As Lynn said, 9 Africa trips in so few years is quite an accomplishment in itself, but I do hope you'll get all fired up again in a year or two and give in to the lure of that 10th safari!

Thank you for a very informative report.
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Jul 21st, 2012, 07:08 PM
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"Would you stay at the same camp that long again?". Think it would depend on the country/reserve. In the Timbavati reserve probably yes. In Kenya would split the 19 into probably 3 camps.

Thanks all for your well wishes. If I should not go back, my only regret would be not doing more safaris in Kenya and Botswana.

regards - tom
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Jul 21st, 2012, 07:20 PM
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Thanks Tom for a very interesting report from a different perspective. Methinks though that after a few months your resolve to never return to Africa may weaken Oh I know you'll say "nope, won't happen" but I bet it will...you'll get the itch!

And wonderful photos, even if only 20. I hope you will eventually process more and let us know!
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Jul 21st, 2012, 07:46 PM
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Thanks for the informative report on your South Africa Safari.

I too have read many of your postings here and enjoyed them all.

Great 20 pictures ,clear and vivid, one can tell you like photography.

I know what you mean about those looonng trip from the west coast of North American.

It seems like forever just to reach the Atlantic Ocean.

Hope your back condition is much improved now.
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Jul 21st, 2012, 08:09 PM
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Thanks for the report Tom and interesting observations on things those of us of a certain age think about when travelling. Seriously staying over somewhere for one night to break up the trip isn't bad at all!

Always enjoy your photos and will forward to the rest.

All in all thought you were pretty brave going on safari so soon after back surgery. I was in my mid thirties when I had mine and it took well over a year to recover as fully as one does after these things.

"Never say never" as the saying goes and I suspect and really hope later next year Safari #10 starts formulating in your mind.
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Aug 4th, 2012, 02:23 AM
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I hope this is a case of temporary safari fatigue. I had this once after a particularly arduous trip- long bumpy road transfers being attacked by tsetses. I didn't go quite as far as to decide I wasn't going back, but I definitely decided my next holiday wasn't going to be a safari. It didn't take long for the bug to come back. The next trip wasn't a safari but the next four after that were!

On the last minute bookings question- I have done this in Botswana. Walk in rates are the same as residents rates, which isn't particularly helpful I know as most camps don't advertise these rates. However, any in country agent should be able to tell you. My guess is that they are around 40% less than normal rates. You can usually book "walk in" rates up to 2 weeks in advance. That's the way it works in Botswana anyway.

I did this in July 2010 at the end of a period of volunteering. Bookings were down due to the world cup, but for the dates I wanted I was offered options at Sandibe, Chitabe Lediba, Lagoon and Lebala- I had specified I wanted to go somewhere with good wild dog sightings.

I think that doing a last minute trip like this would be perfectly feasible- as the rates are available 2 weeks in advance it would be possible to set up the itinerary before departure, rather than on the spot. Obviously you would have to be not too fussy about where you go.
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Aug 4th, 2012, 01:18 PM
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Stokeygirl, where and when did you get safari fatigue?

Tom I'm suspicious that we all have some bad moments or days on safari. I can recall on most trips there is a time when I wonder why am I here and why did I think this was fun. Then when you factor in the big dollars and the very LONG flights (I'm coming from the west coast of US too) I think I must be crazy. I've always ended on I high note though and usually by the time I get home, recover from jetlag, start viewing my photos then I forget the bad and start planning the next safari.

My Kenya trip this year was a fairly bad experience but I came home with some pretty decent photos so I'm getting over it. Your photos are great but wow, not very many to show for the time you were there. That is tough! Don't let 1 bad trip knock you off though because you are an excellent photographer and there is no place like Africa.
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Aug 4th, 2012, 04:39 PM
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Interesting stokeygirl. You confirm what I have heard indirectly from a good source (agent in Maun) that if you're actually in Maun, you can get camps at big discounts.

Thanks wildlifepainter. I read your Kenya Feb-Mar 2012 report and you put up with a LOT more than I did. (And BTW your good photos too). But don't know what is worse, your (mine) own physical problems or problems caused by someone else. Even now, 3 months later I'm still swearing I'll never fly again!!! Yeah, only about 6 photos of mine I like. Maybe I'm getting hard to please in my "old age"?

So very much agree - there is no place like Africa !!!

regards - tom
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Aug 5th, 2012, 01:51 AM
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I don't think you actually even have to be there. The rates are available to book 2 weeks in advance so if you use an agent in Maun you could book the whole trip from home last minute. You could even book the international flights last minute- probably the amount you'd pay extra for the flights would be more than made up by the savings on the camps. Sometimes the rates are available even more than 2 weeks in advance- i've been organising a trip for Jan with an agent in Maun and she mentioned that Kwando were offering all their space for the whole of July at walk in rates (this was in June).

My safari fatigue was in 2008 when I did a trip to South Luangwa, and to keep costs down we drove in from Lilongwe, then we had some long drives between camps. The transfers were in the open vehicles and often through tsetse infested areas, and we had fairly short stops at each place. We ended up driving in from Lilongwe (6-7 hours), then on the same day 3-4 hours down to Island bush camp, then 2 nights, then 3-4 hours back to Kafunta for just 2 nights. Then we drove all the way to Luambe (about 8-10 hours) then flew to North Luangwa, flew back, then drove all the way back to Lilongwe. I was also with my parents, who found it tough going and they didn't really enjoy the walking safaris. Also, we flew with Kenya Airways and had an 8 hour wait in Nairobi on the way back. I think the lesson I learnt was that it's better to stay longer in one place, suck it up and pay to fly in, and pay the extra to fly direct! Oh, and never try and take my parents on a walking safari! The individual places we stayed were great but the itinerary just had too many long driving transfers and too many short stops. So it wasn't a bad trip, just an exhausting one. At the end of it, I was rather over being bumped around on terrible roads being attacked by tsetses. Plus I felt a bit responsible that my parents hadn't enjoyed the trip as much as I'd hoped as South Luangwa was (and still is) my favourite park in Africa.

I think at the time I'd been considering an India tiger safari for my next trip but I felt I couldn't face any more bumping round in a vehicle. It didn't take me long to get back in the saddle and the following year I ended up doing 3 safaris, then taking a whole year out in Africa in 2010. Now I come to think of it, the "safari fatigue" probably only lasted a few weeks but I definitely remember the feeling.

It certainly hasn't put me off South Luangwa- I'm back there in a couple of weeks (sans parents as I will be doing 4 days solid walking). Oh, and they have also been back to South Luangwa last year without me- they stuck to driving and had a wonderful trip- a leopard almost every drive, they said. I've also taken them on a trip to Botswana this year, which they loved, and they are coming to Botswana with me in Jan.
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Aug 5th, 2012, 06:16 AM
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Tom, thank you for your trip report. I always appreciate your perspective on things. I can totally relate to the long flights being from the Seattle area, but I do try and forget about those experiences soon after my return or I would never go back.

I've heard of King's Camp but have never been there myself. It is certainly somewhere I would consider for future trips. And I think you should have at least gotten a bottle of wine for your accomplishment of the most game drives! I enjoyed the photos - especially the lions with the full tummies...I don't think I've ever seen one looking so...satisfied!
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Aug 5th, 2012, 11:13 AM
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Thanks stokeygirl. I've been to S. Luangwa in 2005 and 2006, Robin Pope camps. Flew into Mfuwe then about an hours drive to camps Nsefu, Tena Tena. Strange but in over 10 nights both trips we saw leopard only once briefly. But the Nsefu(?) lion pride was active and saw puku kills. Have not been back since then because raised rates and I question value. But S. Luangwa is so beautiful, primal, like going back 10,000 years.

"...gotten a bottle of wine for your accomplishment of the most game drives!"
Kings Camp is nice in that all beverages are inclusive in rate, bottled water, Cokes, beer, wine, liquor, cocktails, and a well stocked in room mini bar of same. Only expensive alcohol is not, e.g. champagne. For sure now CarrieT you'll have to go there . Stuffed full lions, either eating or sleeping (flat cats), that's what lion do best!!

regards - tom
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Aug 5th, 2012, 01:36 PM
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Tom, well now I will certainly have to check it out! I just went and looked at their web site and it looks like they don't charge extra for singles - that would be a huge benefit to me given I often do travel alone. The wild dogs are certainly something I need to go back and see since I missed them when I were there in 2010.

My next trip is supposed to be India for a tiger safari in March, but they may ban them to some extent and if that happens, I'm planning to go to Namibia and swing by South Africa instead so Kings Camp may be on my list sooner than I think!
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