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Two Safari questions--one photography and one about gratuities

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Jul 29th, 2015, 11:01 AM
  #1
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Two Safari questions--one photography and one about gratuities

Hi, Boston Harbor here, normally of the Asia board.

I am heading to South Africa and Botswana (Mala Mala and Mashatu) for a nine day photo journey on August 31. Flying Delta out of Atlanta non stop to JNB. Miles ticket in business class--very happy girl.

My questions.

First (esoteric camera-nut) question: Are there any photographers in the Fodors who have taking an infrared modified camera on safari? I am already taking two full frame camera bodies and three Nikkor lenses and I'm vacillating on taking another camera body. However, if anyone in Fodors who is a camera fanatic, has traveled with their IR camera and has advice on IR photography and african animals, I would love to hear from you. (for those who haven't heard of IR, it captures "invisible" light and you need a modified sensor in your camera body. Green grass looks white/yellow-ish and objects look dreamy) Here is a great example: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/38913984253504295/ )

Second question : I have scoured the forums for this answer, but have come up short. I am on a private safari (just me) which includes a private vehicle every day at both camps. (note: my trip didn't start out as a private safari, I was made an offer that I couldn't refuse). I've seen suggested tips of $10-15/day per person for drivers and $5-10 trackers--or vice versa--can't remember . (I'm all set,with what I'm tipping my photography guide) Since I am the only person in the 4X4, what is a fair/good daily gratuity for the driver and tracker? I'm a generous tipper normally, but I'm just not sure what is expected/normal in this instance. Is the expected tip 4X the "normal" per-person tip since I'm one person where normally there would 4-6 in the vehicle, or something in between? Any advice from those singles or couples who have hired a private vechicle in camps would be greatly appreciated.

This is my first safari. I have been lurking in the forum and found invaluable information, so thanks to all of you who have shared so generously. I'm an avid photographer and having the opportunity for a private safari is something I never dreamed of. I'm pretty excited.
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Jul 29th, 2015, 05:53 PM
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Mashatu is one of my favorite places. Great combo.

As for tipping, I tip USD20 for ranger (I'm guessing what you are referring to as driver), USD10 for trackers and others like mokoro guides, USD5-10 for staff plus extra for great service. All per person per day. The current exchange is about 12.5 Rand/USD, so do the exchange to tip in Rand. I get Rand at an atm in JNB before we go to our first camp (tell your bank you will be traveling to S Africa!) and bring thank you notes for giving tips. We have been alone (by chance) on quite a few game drives and chose to tip extra - I would ask your safari agent. Either way, I would choose to be generous, assuming great service. At Mashatu, we did a great walk - if you want to, arrange it before you go. There is extra training involved, so it is not uncommon for many rangers to not have the training. Your private ranger might not. They also have bike and horse safaris if you are interested - great stuff! I also believe the hides need to be arranged ahead as well. You might be able to do hides during the day between game drives.

That's a lot of photography equipment. Can you meet the luggage weight requirements for the flights? Many have very low allowances - unless you buy an extra seat. On charters, that can add up. Double check before you make final decisions. A few solo travelers here have been known to wear a safari vest and stuff every pocket with whatever they can in order to meet the luggage allowance. They don't weigh you, just the luggage!

Have fun! Report back, please.
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Jul 30th, 2015, 04:43 AM
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christabir, thanks so much, that's exactly the information I needed on tipping! Thanks for the correction on the description of "ranger". I've never been on a safari so knowing the right titles is helpful.

I also appreciate your suggestion to bring along thank you notes! I would have not done that and would have been kicking myself. I will also get plenty of Rand at the airport for tips. I know I would have forgotten that too.

I do, in fact, have a photo/travel vest and will make sure to pack it well. I'll look like i'm from an old "I love Lucy" episode getting on the airplane, lol. I know I'm taking a lot of equipment, but I really need the three lenses, as this is an intensive photography trip and I'm a fairly "advanced-enthusiast" photographer. I've checked the weight limits on all my flights and the limits are all 20kg. All my gear right now, including my IR camera, batteries etc, weighs a total of 9.0 kg. My camera bag itself around 1.0kg. My clothing duffel bag weighs 1.2 kg. So, I need to keep my clothing to around 6-7kg to stay within the limits. I've requested extra weight allowance--we'll see what happens. My So. African photographer guide and I are traveling together out of JNB the first day, and he said we'll organize my gear between the two of us. My guess is he travels pretty light clothes-wise.

I'm so happy to hear that you loved Mashatu. I have two hide sessions already booked, so I'm good on that front. A walking safari would great as well. I'll check on that.

Again, thanks for the great information.

I feel so fortunate to have this opportunity with a top wild life photographer as my guide. I'm seriously over the moon. I'm hoping to get some unique images. Fingers crossed. I will definitely report back.

Thanks again.
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Jul 30th, 2015, 02:40 PM
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Happy to help. I sometimes go overboard with info, so I'm glad the extras were so helpful. It really sounds like a wonderful opportunity, but be careful. Africa gets into your heart and won't let go. You'll be planning your return trip before you land at home.

About clothes - take less. It's pretty cold in September sometimes, so take a fleece jacket and a sweater and/or long sleeved tee (layers - it gets hot during the day!). I always take gloves and ear muffs. The game drives can be very cold in an open vehicle going thirty miles an hour. Anyway, they do your laundry at both of those camps for free or a very small fee. Just take a little soap (or use the shampoo provided) for "smalls" - underwear - which they don't do. I wash those in the sink every couple of days so they have time to dry before we pack up. I don't wear beige (it's just a thing), so I take grey and olive green. I make sure everything matches each other and then take enough for three days. That's it. I take trail sneakers and another comfortable shoe (wear the heavy ones on your flights) and my travel slippers. Both camps will have bug spray and most toiletries. We take as little as possible, even on a three week trip we only took carry-on. My husband takes two lenses and all that goes with that and I take binoculars and still just take a regulation duffel, so I can squish it into any small space, and small backpack each. It does help a lot that there are two of us.

I tip more than most - but I figure if I can afford the trip I can afford to be generous. I was horrified at Mashatu when another customer was thrilled about one of the staff fixing her bag - it had ripped on her travels - and I asked if she would tip her for the great service and her reply was something like "No, why would I? It's her job." I think that's above and beyond and learned to tip according to our own comfort level. Many suggest tips at half the rate that I do. My first agent, on a high end safari like yours, suggested USD20/10/5 and am comfortable with that. We now stay at much less expensive lodges and continue to tip at that rate. Just wanted to put that out there.

Some prefer guide instead of ranger. I use them interchangeably, but find many rangers prefer ranger. Try to get to know your ranger and tracker a bit. They live interesting lives and I find it fascinating to learn about them. If you get the chance, I also like to learn about other staff members too. They all usually are living away from their families, so really enjoy talking about them. Hopefully you will find fellow travelers from other countries besides the US. I find it disappointing sometimes when we go all the way to S Africa and only meet fellow Americans. I don't know about dining at Mala Mala or Mashatu Main (we were at tented). Many camps do communal dining, which we enjoy. If you prefer it, you may invite other diners to join you and tell the staff who will arrange tables for you. We always invite solos and some couples to eat with us when communal dining isn't offered - and some do, some don't. It's all personal choice. But just know your ranger will likely join you for some meals - not sure about the arrangements you've made with your personal photo guide.

As you can see, we enjoy southern Africans a lot and love Southern Africa.

Have a great time! You will love it.
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Aug 1st, 2015, 08:58 AM
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Boston Harbor,

This sounds like a wonderful trip. I can't add anything to christabir's great advice, except that we brought enough money for the daily recommended tips as advised, and then brought half as much more because we did tip higher depending on the service etc. Note paper and envelopes were a great suggestion that I saw here before we went.

We were in SA in early to mid-September and I wore a shirt, fleece, and jacket in the morning, gradually taking off layers as the day warmed up. And did the reverse in the evening. We always were one of the latest people back at dinnertime, and there was no need or time to change clothes.

Make sure any clothes to be laundered are okay for washing and air drying. I had mostly cotton and a pair of nylon pants that I washed out myself and they were always dry the next morning.
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Aug 1st, 2015, 10:22 AM
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christabir, OMG, you have been SO helpful! I just discovered that the small plane from Mala Mala to Mashatu is fully booked on the day I'm flying, so no extra allowance for me no matter what I'm willing to pay. With your advice, however, I'm going to pack very lightly with clothes, as the lenses and cameras are just too important to me--they make the first cut and whatever's left goes to clothes. I wasn't going to bring a fleece as I thought the first week of September was warmer. However, fleeces are light, so I'll toss one in. Gloves are easy and, of course, I have that travel vest that I am going to pack and look like the Michelin man. I've got a new attitude towards my weight allowances, and decided to make packing a personal challenge rather than an annoyance : ) I travel a lot, so have plenty of light pants and shirts. Fortunately I'm not going anywhere else but these two camps, so I don't need any dressier clothes at a all. I'm taking a black top, black pants, and a few lightweight scarves to change the look for dinners where I feel like dressing up a bit.

I had no idea they would have bug spray. That's great. That's a couple more ounces saved. I'm counting every ounce right now, as 55+% of my allowance is already taken by my cameras and lenses. But I'm only going for images, so everything else is expendable.

I feel very fortunate that I can take this safari, It's nice to hear that people will invite "solos" to their tables. I've travelled alone a lot, so I'm super comfortable with meeting new people--I love it. I believe Mashatu has communal dining, not sure about Mala Mala. My photo guide used to work as the full time photo guide at Mashatu, so I'm sure that it will be a fun place to be with him--he should certainly know every nook and cranny.

Thanks for your tip advice--I think it sounds perfect. And, thanks again for all your tips. You have made a lot of my decisions very easy!
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Aug 1st, 2015, 10:26 AM
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And, cw, thanks for the reinforcement on the bringing the fleece. I seriously wasn't going to and it now sounds like mornings and evenings would have been uncomfortable to say the least. I have a great super lightweight fleece that I'll bring. I think I'm going to be in good shape. Fodors community is so great!

Many thanks! I'll post my images and safari thoughts upon my return.
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Aug 1st, 2015, 11:54 AM
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In early September at our camps in SA it was in the 50s in the early morning. So riding in the open vehicle was cold. I think our vehicles did have blankets though on those coolish mornings. I didn't have a scarf, and could have used the extra neck warmth. I didn't wear gloves.

I think your guide dines with you at Mala Mala from what I've read before. But most people are friendly and want to talk about their sightings that day. I found the "personality" of the camp would change depending upon the mix of guests. We had lovely travelers at two of the three camps we visited.

Our luggage was never weighed on our flights from JNB to the camp and between the other camps. It was squished into the hold (soft-sided duffles), and you can probably carry a small bag on your lap. They really want to discourage the tourists who think they have to travel with 26 inch wheeled suitcases.
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Aug 1st, 2015, 07:55 PM
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Happy to help.

Ask your agent and/or photo guide about preferred tip currency at Mashatu. It's in Botswana but you won't have an opportunity to get pula anywhere. I'm not sure if they prefer tips in Rand or USD. We used to do all USD, but then realized that they lose a lot in the exchange. It used to be preferred usd in Bots, not sure about now - it's on the SA border. Ask before you take a whole bunch of Rand out at an atm before leaving the airport. Tips are really your only expense - everything else can go on credit cards (your best bet for the best exchange and you don't have to worry about a lot of cash) - so definitely figure that out before you go. I'm thinking usd. Rand at MM. Tell your bank at least twice that you will be traveling to SA - they have a terrible banking reputation. We have had problems with using credit cards and atm cards because one call was not enough, I guess. Now I call twice and once from the airport before we leave just to make sure.

So it seems you will be traveling at MM and Mashatu with some of the same people. I don't have to tell you to be nice, but try not to let anyone drive you crazy - you might see them again! I don't find a lot of empty seats on any planes lately. We flew non-stop ATL to JNB last time and there was not a single empty seat on either flight - and it's like 13 hours!! But a full charter from mm to Mashatu sounds nuts. I'm glad to hear more people are visiting Mashatu, though. Just know there aren't any rhinos (my current obsession) or buffalo. But I still love it. You'll see them both at mm.

I've never "dressed" for dinner, and we've stayed in some pretty nice places. I almost always wear my fleece because I'm always cold, so no need. It's not really practical to wear black on safari (too hot during the day and gets so dusty). I would bring nice beige or grey pants (I have a pair of loose cotton dressy pants that I take in case I need them. Haven't yet) instead so you can wear them anywhere and any time.

If it's cold, they will provide hot water bottles. So nice. If you think you'll be cold on any game drive, request a hot water bottle and a blanket if not already on the vehicle. Your ranger will be the one to ask for that stuff. If you have an unusual drink you prefer outside of wine, beer, gin/vodka tonic, Coke Light (Diet), request ahead and they might be able to get it. Sundowners (drinks) are special out in the bush. Try the amarula! My favorite. If you are a wine drinker, you will be very pleasantly surprised by the great SA wines.

The staff at Mashatu was one of our favorites. Hopefully your guide will have insider info. Sounds like fun. Try to find time for the San Art.

Don't just go for images!! The experience is SO much more than just the photos. Enjoy, no, relish, every minute. And don't spend all your time looking through your camera. You will miss so much.

Have fun. I just showed my elderly mother the viral video of the baby elephant chasing birds in Kruger. It made her want to go back. I always want to go back. You might catch the bug too. We are trying to go next year for Botswana's 50th anniversary in September. Holding thumbs! We are going to try a less fancy camp near Mashatu on the same reserve, I think, plus a few more. I'm just not sure I can visit SA and skip Kruger. Ugh. I need to play lotto so maybe I can win.

cw - I totally agree that the guests make a huge difference. Sorry to hear one wasn't so great. We've had those experiences too. But never with S Africans!! We now visit less luxurious lodges and find mostly locals. It works for us. Plus, spending less, we get to return more often!
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Aug 2nd, 2015, 09:01 PM
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christabir and cw, Im enjoying an "embarrassment of riches" of priceless information. Christabir, I agree with you about the flight between Mala Mala and Mashatu being full. I think they are blowing smoke and just wanted to shut me up asking about additional weight allowance. I bet there are just a couple people on the airplane. From all I've read, there are never more than a four people on the airplane between the camps. I wrote to Mala Mala and inquired in an innocent way about the flight. I'll see if I hear back.

I've weighed most of my stuff and bought an ultra light camera bag (to match my ultra light clothes duffel) and I think I can actually deal with the restrictions even with all my camera gear.

I will heed your advice about not just being behind my camera. I remember times best when traveling is when I put my camera down.

Oh, and that baby elephant chasing birds video is too adorable for words.

thanks again!
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Aug 3rd, 2015, 05:43 PM
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You're going to have a great time. You have the perfect outlook. Stuff will happen. If you are flying biz, you can carry on both of your bags. Coach, no. Don't check ANYTHING you really need or is valuable. I don't trust the airlines not to lose everything I check. I even prefer gate checks. Many airlines have an app you can use to track your bags to make sure they make it so you can make arrangements if needed (like buy underwear at the airport!)

The charter between MM and Mashatu only holds 10 people (it's probably a caravan, one of the safest planes ever built). Even if they don't have 10 passengers, and you are 2, they also take cargo between the camps as well as workers if they need to. So it may not be sold out, but it could be full in theory, or they plan to make sure they can take extras. Take Dramamine if you may be affected (effected - I'm not sure. Don't tell my English teachers!). It's interesting landscape - look out the window. There are power plants, gold mines, open space, including Blyde River Canyon, water, towns.

If you have time on the way back to JNB to get a driver instead of the flights, I highly recommend it. I know, it's already paid for and arranged, but if you can, driving through that beautiful country is quite an experience. Funny - a town is not really a town unless it has a kfc. A few, the ones with a stop sign or two, have one on each end! Driving really gives you a different perspective. We flew from Mashatu to Polokwane on a two seater charter (loved it!) and then commercial from Polokwane to JNB. It took at least as long as it would have taken to drive.

I think that video went viral in part because we needed a happy thing from Africa. It was a tough week, for good reason.

Have a great time. Let us know how it went when you get home - and tell us when you'll be going back!
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Aug 3rd, 2015, 08:39 PM
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christabir & cw have given you some great advice so I don't have much more to add but have been green with envy reading about your plans!

You haven't said if you're at Mashatu Tented or Main.

I was at Mashatu Tented (my absolute fav!) and MalaMala in 2013 as a solo and was amazed at the animal sightings at both. They really raised the bar for future safaris that's for sure! Tons of leopard at both but sadly no cheetah and not many lions. They say that when there's lots of lion & cheetah then the leopard is elusive and vice versa.

We sat in the midst of a herd of 80 eles in Mashatu, an experience I'll never forget.

Open vehicles means no doors, no windows & no windscreen so it can be cold. Check my avatar taken at MM in mid June. That was my start of day look at both camps. Layer, layer, layer - just so you can unlayer as the temps get warmer, the reverse in the evenings.

At Mashatu we all ate together and sat wherever we wanted. At Mala Mala my ranger sat with me, altho a nice guy I did sometimes feel sorry for him having to always be "on" and sometimes I would have preferred eating on my own.

At MM they're very strict about escorting you back to your room but that was when the Rattrays (previous owners) were living on site, not sure if they still are so it may have loosened up a bit since then.

Try to sit behind the pilot on the flight between the two. Wonderful!

Please report back!
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Aug 3rd, 2015, 10:36 PM
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Hey KathBC -

I'm glad you chimed in - I remember you did that trip, too, as a solo. I'm pretty sure BH is going to Main Camp.

It's so funny how everyone has entirely different experiences. Every game drive is special. It always surprises me when people choose to skip a drive. Not me, no matter the weather.

Rangers work such long hours and never seem to have much time to themselves. We had the great experience of other English speaking staff dine with us at Mashatu to give our ranger a break. It is odd that unless we tell them not to, someone dines with guests. I'll have to remember to speak up and give them a break.

The Rattray's don't own MM any more!? I thought their kids took over, but I know they are/were having a heck of a court fight over the property being "taken" during apartheid. Not sure how that panned out. Last I heard was More community involvement, but I don't know.
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Aug 3rd, 2015, 11:21 PM
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BostonHarbor - I'm already looking forward to the pictures and you haven't even left. Have a great trip, I'm sure you will! I was in Botswana years ago visiting my godfather in Gabarone but I've never been on safari there. 'm afraid seeing the photos you post could be very expensive for us if it moves Botswana higher up on our list!
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Aug 4th, 2015, 12:33 PM
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Hi there christabir!

Always like to chime in on some of my favourite spots!

Here's what was scheduled to happen in 2013 with the SA gov't purchasing back MM at an exorbitant price. Wasn't able to find anything recent online as to how that all went or if indeed it did.

http://www.timeslive.co.za/politics/...a-game-reserve
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Aug 4th, 2015, 07:21 PM
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Christabir, Yes, the airplane between the camps is a 10 passenger Caravan. I actually wrote to Mala Mala and discovered that the plane was not full at all; that a group "had not been able to commit" and cancelled. Who know where the truth lies? Anyway, to get any extra weight I would have to buy a seat to the tune of (hold on to your hat) $640 one way. Um, I think not. I'm weighing my camera gear first and then whatever is left goes to clothes. However, now I know that my photo guide and I might be the only ones on the airplane and he knows all the players having worked at Mashatu, so I'm not going to worry about a kg or two. Besides, I have my "Michelin man" vest ; ) I've also been told that I can carry a handbag as a personal item that doesn't get weighed, (is this true?) and I think I might be able to slip one of my big lenses in it. It will be fine between my vest and my purse.

I am flying biz Delta from Atlanta to JNB, and I'm trying to carry everything on board. My duffel might be a bit too big. We'll see if my "trying" works.

KathBC. What fun you were on my exact trip! I burst out laughing at your avatar. The weather should be a bit warmer the first week in September, but based on everyone's advice, I'm taking warm clothing and a multi use pashmina. I'm staying at Main camps at both MM and Mashatu. Can't wait! 25 days from today.

Welltraveledbrit, you are such a gracious fan of my photography. : ) I'm hoping to get some great shots. My photography guide is a well known SA photographer named Mike Dexter http://www.mikedexter.com . I'm mad for his work, and the chance to have his expertise all to myself for nine days is beyond amazing. I've shared some of my photography with him so he'd have a sense of my work. After reviewing my photos, he asked me if I would like, since we will have our own vehicle and there are just two of us, to do things like get out and lie on the ground outside the 4X4 to get some unique shots and do star photography. Um, yes. please. He's arranged for a tripod for me at Mashatu which is so great. I'm super psyched and feel this is a photography and adventure chance of a lifetime. I can't wait to share my images with those of you who have been so helpful.
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Aug 5th, 2015, 09:46 PM
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Thanks KathBC - I haven't heard anything lately either. I thought they agreed to a community share, but I can't find anything either. the SA govt passed a doozy of a law this year - foreigners can't own over xxx hectares (I can't remember the exact figure). I misread it originally and interpreted "property" to mean any property, not "land". Apparently Phinda is getting caught in the battle as &Beyond is not an SA company and Phinda is huge. It bummed me out because we would like to buy a retirement home in KZN. Since we aren't buying Phinda, I think we'll be ok.

wtb - Botswana is a fantastic country. They seem to be doing things right. If you ever get to visit again, the Khama Rhino Sanctuary is nearby Gabs. We are planning a visit next year for the 50th independence anniversary. We may also visit the Mashatu area at a smaller self catering lodge, but the same wildlife.

BH - you'll be fine. We brought home a 40 lb carved wooden hippo in biz a few years ago. They never checked the weight. Just make sure you can squish the duffel into the size they require - but they usually don't even check. We used that flight last year in coach. Ugh. Long and my 6'4" husband hates me for it. But it was free, or less than $50, with miles. We had to use our limited DL miles before they changed the rules this year. Any time I can travel in SA for a couple of weeks for less than a domestic trip, I'll take it!

I have a very vivid picture in my head of you in your Michelin vest.

Do you have a bean bag? If not, just take a few ziplock bags and ask for dry rice when you get there. Many people use it on the metal bars on the vehicles to steady their cameras. Very effective.

Those charter flights are ridiculous! They are scheduled, not arranged special for you. I guess it's all profit for any number of passengers after the two minimum. They do the same to the camps near Kruger. But with more money than time, it makes sense.

25 days!
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Aug 6th, 2015, 07:48 AM
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Hi Christabir, Yes, I'm taking a beanbag for the 4X4 and hides, and they have filler (beans/rice) at the camps. Mike Dexter has also arranged a tripod for me at Mashatu, which is SO fabulous--the last thing I needed was to drag along a tripod, but you can't do proper landscapes and stars without one.

Relative to Mala Mala, the Rattray's do still own it. They sold back two pieces of the reserve bordering Kruger and are now leasing it back (and made a killing on the deal) . It was a pretty good deal for the Rattrays--they have their cake and are eating it too. Here's the final settlement story: http://www.bdlive.co.za/business/agr...mala-claimants

Thanks again for everyone's impeccable and useful information. I know i can do it now : ) I'll take a picture of me in my vest getting on the bush plane, lol. It will be something to behold.

24 days!
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Aug 6th, 2015, 06:52 PM
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BH - keep an eye out for the President of Botswana at Mashatu Main Camp - he flew himself in when I was at tented, goes there several times a year I was told.

Thanks for the info on MM but we'll look forward to an update on that situation after you've been and found out more for us. I'm curious as to how it's all going. The elder Rattrays take their meals with the guests most days and Mr likes to schmooz during pre-dinner cocktails.

I just about had to pay for 2 seats on that little charter as no one else was booked to fly on the same day as me. $1600 for a short trip like that is way over my budget! I was assured someone would eventually also book it, which they did but I still had a few months of nail biting on that one!!
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Aug 12th, 2015, 04:53 AM
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KathBC, I certainly will keep my eye out for the president of Botswana! : ) I'll get the inside scoop on the Rattrays and MM as well.

I did read where there was a minimum of 2 seats required for the flight. Glad someone else showed up and you didn't have to shell out that cash. I am indeed already paying for two seats as I have my own photography guide for the entire trip. It was having to purchase the 3rd seat that made me chafe. That being said, I have figured out how to stay at 20kg, even with all my equipment. My cameras, lenses, camera bag, computer, binoculars, and supporting paraphernalia all come to 10.5 kg. My clothes duffel weights 0.82 kg (Eagle creek no matter what M) leaving me with around 8kg/17lbs of clothes. I can offload a couple kilos in my vest, so I'm good. If I need something else, I'll buy it in the gift shop at MM and wear it on the plane in my African version of looking like the Michelin man.

Going on safari is amusing in what it does to you relative to packing. I look at absolutely everything these days as weight. Toothpaste? Hummm, what do you weigh? Batteries? Damn, you are heavy little critters.

They probably won't weigh anything. LOL.
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