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Wonderful Family Trip to South Africa, Botswana and Victoria Falls

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Jul 23rd, 2018, 03:33 PM
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Wonderful Family Trip to South Africa, Botswana and Victoria Falls

Once again a recommendation on Fodor’s Travel Forum resulted in a wonderful three-generation family adventure for us. Our family (ages 9 through 75) just returned from two weeks in southern Africa where we celebrated our 75th birthdays. My husband and I had previously visited southern Africa (South Africa, Botswana, Victoria Falls, and Namibia) in 2010 and Tanzania in 2012. The current trip was created by Liesl Mathews at Southern Destinations which is based in Capetown. Liesl was recommended by Fodorite Ekscrunchy, and Liesl provided us with exceptional advice and service. EVERYTHING about the trip was flawless! Granted I initiated the planning effort more than two years prior to our departure, but Liesl was there with me through every decision and detail. She proposed exceptional accommodations, the most efficient transitions from one locale to another, and she did all this with humor and cheer through countless email exchanges. I would send off a message in the evening (California time) and would wake up the following morning to find a comprehensive reply from Liesl. About six months into our planning effort we were fortunate to meet Liesl for lunch during her visit to Los Angeles. That lunch helped her understand our goals for the trip and we got to meet a delightful person.
We join the chorus of those who recommend Liesl and Southern Destinations! It was a job very well done.

Full trip report will follow... soon!
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Jul 23rd, 2018, 06:25 PM
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Thank you for sharing. I look forward to your experiences in one of my favorite parts of the world.
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Jul 30th, 2018, 05:15 PM
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Here is the first installment - Windsor, London and the first safari lodge

The following are the details of our adventure that I will post in chunks.

Our family consists of us (the 75 year olds), our son, his wife and two sons (16 and 14 years) plus our daughter and her 9 year old daughter. We live on opposite coasts, so these family vacations are vital. On Wednesday, June 20, 2018, we each flew from our homes in Los Angeles County, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Brooklyn NYC to Heathrow. We then used Windsor Cars Limited for car service to an Air BnB five bedroom town house on Claremont Road in Windsor, about 30 minutes from the airport. During our three night stay we spent two days as tourists in London and two half-days exploring Windsor. It was the perfect solution for adjusting to the time differences between home and southern Africa, which is only one hour before London time. Our first outing was a short walk along the Long Walk leading up to the gate at Windsor Castle. We took Southwest trains into Waterloo, used Oyster Cards for The Tube and Thames Clipper to get from place to place, and purchased all tickets for the attractions online prior to arrival. We did not try to do everything, but each of us had something we wanted to see. We went to Tower of London and the British Museum one day, the London Eye (Arranging for a private capsule was one of our best decisions), Borough Market for lunches, and Greenwich for the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian.

In between these tourist stops we walked through various areas of London, we explored the town of Windsor, and spent a few hours at Windsor Castle – unfortunately the Doll House was closed due to too many visitors on site! In London we had a marvelous Italian dinner at Da Paolo near the museum and in Windsor we had an equally delicious Indian dinner at The Viceroy. Other meals were always seated in a restaurant and leisurely. All of this during our short visit to London and Windsor fulfilled our goal of adjusting to the time change and sharing some interesting sightseeing with our kids and grandkids.

On Sunday afternoon, June 24, 2018, we returned to Heathrow for an 8:00pm Virgin Atlantic overnight flight to Johannesburg where we arrive early Monday morning, June 25, 2018. After much discussion with Liesl we decided to take a one hour Federal Air shuttle to our first safari lodge in Madikwe (malaria free zone) rather than a four to five hour drive. That meant we had more than four hours between passport control and baggage claim at JNB and the 1:00pm shuttle flight departure. That proved to be no problem since the Fed Air lounge is comfortable; it serves all sorts of snacks, beverages, and treats, so we were well fed and had ample space to spread out and relax. The 12 passenger shuttle flight was a new experience for the younger generations, but it was smooth and prompt. We were met at the East Madikwe airstrip by guide Evan and tracker Gummy for our four night stay at Morukuru River House. Within a few minutes of our arrival we had our first animal sighting – four lions dozing under a bush after feasting on an African buffalo kill! Our guide Evan and tracker Gummy explained that Madikwe Game Reserve was established from former agricultural land in the early 1990s, when Operation Phoenix relocated entire breeding herds of elephants, Cape buffaloes, black and white rhino, and various species of antelopes. Following Operation Phoenix, Madikwe has also successfully reintroduced rarer predatory species such as lions, cheetahs, spotted hyenas and wild dogs, bringing the total large mammal population of the reserve to over 10,000. There are currently more than 60 species of mammal in the park.

In less than an hour we arrived at River House which is an exclusive use lodge just for our family. It was gorgeous! We walked in and were wowed with the decor and the attention to details. Our guide Evan and tracker Gummy were excellent. Evan and Gummy taught us something about Africa on every drive - we learned about the plant life, the history of the region, animal behaviors, etc. We spread out into the four bedrooms, unpacked a bit and met the staff who would be caring for us. Besides Evan and Gummy, Ilse was our hostess (some refer to her role as a butler) and Funanani was our chef. There were also housekeepers and maintenance personnel who were shared by the three Morukuru exclusive use lodges. They showered us with attention, special events for our birthdays, and made us feel at home. We were seated on one of the decks surrounding River House and served lunch before departing with Evan and Gummy on our first official game drive. It was wonderful and we were all very impressed.

In general our daily routine for the next three days beginning Tuesday, June 26, 2018, would include a 6:00am wake up knock at our door, some hot chocolate and muffins, and then a three to four hour game drive as the sun was rising. When we returned we had a full breakfast, relaxation time, and a late lunch before departing around 3:00pm for the afternoon game drive which included a sundowner stop. We returned to River House by 7:00pm for dinner. Every game drive was unique and we were rewarded with a plethora of sightings. The highlights were lions, cheetah, rhinos, wild dogs, elephants, a variety of birds, and every imaginable antelope. Evan and Gummy also introduced us to beautiful landscapes and every stop included a nature lesson about the local flora. One early afternoon four of us went on a game walk with Evan, Gummy, and a trusty rifle when we were surrounded by a group of ornery bull elephants. We were told to be quiet, move slowly, and refrain from using our cameras until we were a good distance from the elephants. Evan was the perfect guide for the younger generation’s initial safari experience; he was enthusiastic and thrilled at each sighting as though it was something new and different for him as it was for us. Gummy could point out something as small as a lilac breasted roller on a tree a hundred yards away or find lion tracks at the end of the dirt road.

Our son and his wife spent a night at Morukuru’s elevated hide which was next to a small pond where a couple elephants and buffalo came to drink. The following night my husband and I also spent the night at the hide, but we failed to see any visitors at the pond perhaps because it was fairly windy that night. The hide was quite posh with electric lights powered by batteries and solar panels, and even a flushing toilet! The venue for each meal was always a surprise – sometimes at River House, other times in the bush. The meals were beautifully executed with smears and dribbles of sauces on each plate, but more importantly the food was delicious. We were feted with birthday and anniversary celebrations and we were taken care of in every way. River House was beautiful and the service was impeccable – every detail was perfect and we were truly pampered. Nothing was lacking and we were very pleased with the accommodation.
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Jul 30th, 2018, 07:17 PM
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What a perfect start to your African adventure! So awesome that you were able to make it a multigenerational affair too.
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Aug 1st, 2018, 11:35 AM
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Next installment - Chobe River and Victoria Falls

At 5:00am on Friday morning we were off by van to the Botswana border, we switched to a different van on the other side of the border, waited for our turn at passport control, and eventually arrived at the new Gaborone airport about 90 minutes prior to our 10:00am two hour flight to Kasane in northern Botswana. At the Kasane airport (another new facility) we were met by Lips who was our guide when we stayed at Muchenje Lodge in 2010. We chose to return to Muchenje for three nights so our kids and grandkids could experience the Chobe River with its large population of elephants and hippos. We knew that Lips was a a very energetic and enthusiastic guide.

After the one hour drive to the lodge we were warmly greeted and welcomed back. Muchenje is a typical safari lodge with eleven chalets surrounding the lounge and dining room. The individual chalets were great for our son's family since it separated parents and teen boys from one another for three days! The family unit was perfect for our daughter, granddaughter, and my husband and me since we were together but with separate bedrooms and bathrooms. It was a traditional setting, casual and very comfortable. The lodge is on an escarpment overlooking the Chobe River flood plain which was full of water from the annual flood. Our previous visit was in September when the river had receded, but in June there was an abundance of water. All meals at Muchenje are buffet style, which was a nice change from being served plated meals. After lunch Lips loaded us into the safari vehicle and we set off to Chobe National Park. There is no off-road driving within the national park which differed from the off-road experience we had in Madikwe. As soon as we descended into the park we were greeted by dozens of giraffe which was really exciting for the younger ones. We drove along the river’s edge and Lips spotted a variety of wildlife and birds for a couple of hours. We then returned to the lodge for dinner and immediately to bed since it was a very, very long day of travel.

The plan for the following day was an early departure for the morning game drive, breakfast in the bush, then boarding a pontoon boat for several hours cruising and lunch on the Chobe River before driving through the park back to the lodge. The boat ride was exceptional! We saw dozens of elephants and hippos along the river, and numerous sightings of impala, waterbuck, warthog, baboon, giraffe, and countless birds. The antics of the elephants ranged from chasing buffalo out of the mud pits to constant movement and re-grouping along the river bank, and to an aggressive male chasing a female in circles with a very specific intent. We also watched a leopard go after an impala as the impala tried to escape by leaping to several small islands in the river and then turning around and making a dash into the bush. The day proved to be too long, so we modified the plans for the following day with a much later start at 10:00am after breakfast at the lodge. The second boat ride was even more sensational with hundreds of elephants wading, swimming, and eating grasses growing in the river. At one point there was a line of elephants spanning the entire horizon. During lunch on board a huge mama hippo charged the boat when she decided we were getting too close to her small calf. It was surprising how fast a hippo can move! All this was exciting and interesting for all of us. The game drive back to the lodge was filled with lions, more giraffe, a herd of African buffalo, and a gorgeous sunset. We arrived in time for dinner and a short night drive looking for the smaller forms of wildlife.

We thoroughly enjoyed our return visit to Muchenje and were happy the younger generations experienced a traditional safari lodge setting. Having the same guide, Lips, again was fun and his exuberance and energy were still evident. The animals at Chobe were over the top - especially the elephants and hippos. We were able to enjoy the river cruise on two days, and the game drives were also impressive. The days were long but our family handled it well.

On Monday morning, we were scheduled to leave Muchenje at 9:00am, but there was some confusion about the transfer from Muchenje to Victoria Falls, our next destination. We called our safari consultant Liesl early that morning and expressed our concern about how we were actually getting from one place to the other. In short order she confirmed and explained the details of the road transfer. This was the perfect example of the benefits of using a safari consultant based in Africa and not one in the US. Lips drove us to the Kasane airport where we met the transfer van which drove us to the Botswana-Zimbabwe border. After an hour long wait to purchase the KAZA visa we changed vans again and drove through Zimbabwe.

After an hour drive we arrived at the Ilala Lodge Hotel in Victoria Falls about 11:00am for a one night stay. We waited for a while with hopes of an early check in. After waiting more than an hour and having lunch at the hotel, our rooms were finally ready. We stashed our bags in the rooms and went off to explore the falls, decked out in our colorful disposable rain gear. The falls were amazing – so much more water, spray, and mist than our September visit in 2010. We were soaked and glad we had waterproof cameras for photographing the falls. We walked from the Devil’s Cataract to the bridge and back again. Portions of the falls were shrouded by the heavy mist and spray, but in other areas the rainbows were magnificent. We needed to be back at the hotel for a 3:30pm sunset cruise on the Upper Zambezi River, but the 90 minutes exploring the falls proved to be sufficient time. The cruise was lovely and relaxing. We were served snacks and beverages as we encountered some small wildlife and of course an elephant.

After sunset on the historic boat we returned to the hotel for an included dinner in the dining room. The food was excellent and everyone found something they liked on the menu. To add to the festivities the hotel provided a bottle of champagne in honor of our birthdays. Three of us planned to revisit the falls at sunrise, but the rest of us planned to sleep in until about 8:00am. The included breakfast buffet the following morning was also excellent. We met our goals of having the kids and grandkids experience Victoria Falls, having quiet time on the cruise, and avoiding any hassles of searching for restaurants by eating in the hotel. One night was sufficient and then we were back to South Africa for more safari experiences.

More to follow - soon!
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Aug 3rd, 2018, 11:43 AM
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Aug 3rd, 2018, 02:49 PM
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The Chobe is magnificent, isn't it? Thank you for reminding me of life's wonders on that river.
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Aug 4th, 2018, 02:07 AM
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Sounds like a great trip!
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Aug 4th, 2018, 09:55 AM
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Amazing time at Tintswalo Manor House in the Manyeleti Game Reserve

It was a short drive with our guide Francoise and tracker Mpho in the dark from the Manyeleti Game Reserve gate to the Manor House where we met our “butler” Elvis and chef Emma. The house had five bedrooms, so the first order of business was to decide where everyone would sleep. Our two grandsons took two adjacent ensuite rooms on one side of the house and their parents took another ensuite room on the other side of the house; these rooms were entered from the outdoors. Our daughter and granddaughter chose an ensuite room off the main living room and my husband and I took the ensuite room on the second level. The décor of Manor House was not luxurious “Architectural Digest” style, but we thought the eclectic and homey furnishings evoked a relaxed environment. Since we were arriving at night we did see a few flying and crawling bugs, but nothing too extreme. Elvis and Emma provided us a very nice dinner at the outdoor dining table where we served ourselves family-style which we preferred to Morukuru’s plated meals and Muchenje’s buffet service. Francoise and our tracker Mpho explained the schedule for the next few days but emphasized we could modify the plans. We decided on 6:30am wake up knocks on our doors and 7:00am departure on our first morning game drive. Tintswalo Manor House is in the Manyeleti Reserve which is adjacent and unfenced to Kruger National Park; this means animals are free to roam between the two areas. We decided to start our first game drive at 7:00am; everyone agreed and we were off to bed to be rested for our exploration of a new area.

After a good night's rest we fell in love with Tintswalo Manor House. Nothing pretentious, comfortable yet eclectic furnishings, absolutely great food served family style at the table, and a sensational guide and tracker. We lucked out with Francoise who was a contracted individual - he was superb: articulate, interesting, passionate about everything, a true treasure. Mpho was training to be a guide and shared a lesson about the marula tree. At 7:00am sharp on July 4, 2018 (Happy 4th of July!) we were in the vehicle and ready to see what there was to see. The drive began with sightings of impala and wildebeest which we saw every drive. We also observed a lone bull elephant which would become a familiar site on every drive at Manyeleti. Of course there were the familiar antelopes – namely waterbuck and kudu. The landscape was greener than Madikwe with more large bushes and more trees dotting the scenery. We stopped to examine the bleached skeleton of a hippo that our younger grandson tested by opening the jaw function. We were surprised to see that the large canine teeth have spaces to fit into, so the mouth can close completely. We continued on to a small lake were impala and wildebeest were drinking. Our guide Francoise and tracker Mpho noticed a single lion walking on the other side of the lake. Then they noticed two other lions in the bush near our location. The lions were very interested in and watching closely the animals that were drinking at the lake. Then, all of a sudden, the three lions disappeared into the bush! Another guide at the lake thought the lions had seen an anti-poaching ranger on foot nearby and they were spooked so ran into the bush. Even though they disappeared we had an extended time watching them and of course photographing the first of many lions during our stay at Tintswalo. Later that day on the afternoon game drive we found a group of about six or seven young male lions that were finishing off a zebra kill. They lions were in the throes of total relaxation with full tummies. They would rearrange themselves, but not very much and not too often. We ended that day by following a female white rhino and her calf through the grasses at sunset. It was a great day with a mix of routine antelopes, two lion sightings, and rhinos at sunset. Adding to that we had three terrific meals and quiet time in the middle of the day, so we were a very happy safari family.

On the following two days the sightings continued. Early the first morning we saw hyena and vultures, so we knew there was a kill nearby. Soon our tracker Mpho saw an impala hanging in a distant tree which was a clear sign that a leopard was nearby. Francoise drove closer to the tree and we could see the leopard sprawled on a limb before it decided to quickly get down from the tree which we captured with our cameras. The leopard was headed to a nearby drainage creek, but the terrain was too rugged for us to pursue. We finished the morning drive with wildebeest, kudu and of course impala. After brunch (we reduced breakfast and lunch to a single meal at noon) four of us went on a game walk with Francoise and Mpho and we encountered African buffalo and several bull elephants, but did not get too close to an area where lions had been reported. The rest of us watched the parade of visitors to the water hole in front of Manor House. During the game drive that afternoon we were intimidated by two bull elephants that each blocked our road for a few minutes. And before sunset we were rewarded with the full sequence of the same leopard as it slowly came down from the tree, and we captured it all with our cameras. It was a memorable experience! After a beautiful sunset we learned that a large pride of lions was nearby. There were about a dozen lions lolling about in the grass and under a few bushes. They were jammed packed together, nuzzling and grooming one another, and looking generally content. The light was getting low but we still tried to capture the scene with our cameras. When it was too dark to see anything we headed back to Manor House where we were feted with barbeque dinner at the boma, songs and dances, and a chocolate and strawberry cake for our birthdays and anniversary. Yes, a superlative day of leopard and lions, plus a wide variety of other wildlife.
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Aug 6th, 2018, 09:43 PM
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The remainder of our visit to Tintswalo in the Manyeleti Game Reserve

The next day was equally rich with animal sightings. Following a gorgeous sunrise we were treated to the third act of our leopard encounter. In the glow of sunrise we watched it walk through the tall grass before disappearing once again into the bush. The lighting was very dramatic, so the photographs were exceptionally good. After coping with a group of elephants that blocked our road we experienced a special sighting. There are only about 7,000 cheetahs living in the wild in all of Africa and that morning we saw five of them in one sighting, and we shared those moments with only one other vehicle! We were speechless. The lighting was great and the cheetahs behaved as though they were models on a fashion shoot. The rearranged themselves into different poses and we recorded it all with our cameras. The cheetahs were definitely one of our favorite sightings. This was proving to be a very photogenic morning!

During the midday break and brunch we watched a group of about eight elephants visit our water hole and chase away a couple of thirsty buffalo. During the afternoon drive we met the small group of young male lions again; they were once again sleeping and lounging about. And just before sunset we finally found a male white rhino; he was wandering around all by himself. As the sun was setting we stopped at a picnic area where the Tintswalo staff was hosting a sundowner with extensive nibbles and drinks. It was a lovely setting and our granddaughter was delighted to see marshmallows on skewers, but the winds were too strong for a fire pit so cold marshmallows had to suffice. As we were heading back to Manor House for dinner we heard reports of lions on the move. We found them and using spotlights we followed them as they wandered about in the dark. The last major sighting of our visit to southern Africa was a night time encounter with the same group of young male lions we observed earlier. Our final vacation dinner ended with a very chocolaty dessert that we had requested. It was a super day of lions, cheetah, a little bit of leopard, and more lions. The sightings were off the charts in Tintswalo! We saw so many lions that we lost count; the elephant encounters were really unique. Add three opportunities to see the same leopard and we found the perfect mix.

Saturday morning, July 7, 2018 was the last game drive of our family’s African adventure. Francoise and Mpho wisely decided that sunrise at a beautiful location was the best option for what would become a very long 36 hours of travel. We drove to an escarpment overlooking a wide expanse of the bush and learned about the rock formations we were seeing. The quiet and beautiful setting was a great way to end our family's safari vacation.

We still had many miles to travel. At 11:00am we were picked up for an hour and a half road transfer to the Hoedspruit Eastgate Airport. The little airport was crowded with travelers since several flights were delayed including ours. Unlike the delay we encountered at Livingstone Airport in Zambia, we were given regular updates on the status of our flight and eventually, about 90 minutes after scheduled departure we boarded the flight to Johannesburg. We had a six hour layover before our overnight flight to London Heathrow, so we were not concerned about the delay. Once we arrive at JNB we claimed our luggage, checked into our next flight, re-checked our baggage, went through security, found a place for a meal – breakfast for some, lunch for others, and bought snacks for the next long flight. The eleven hour flight to London was long but we all fell asleep in varying amounts, had a miserable breakfast on the plane, and landed at Heathrow almost on time. We had three separate flights to New York JFK, Los Angeles LAX, and San Francisco SFO after layovers of about two hours. We each boarded our flight on schedule, but the flights to LAX and SFO were both delayed more the 90 minutes which made the long travel day even longer. Our daughter was back in her apartment in Brooklyn before noon on Sunday, July 8. 2018. The Californians arrived in their homes later that afternoon. So ended our adventure! Next was sorting and weeding the thousands of photographs, dealing with laundry and accumulated mail, and returning to our normal routines. We shared wonderful times together as a family and we created memories which will last for many years.

Hopefully I will gather a few thoughts and even a recommendation or two to conclude this report in a few days.
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Aug 6th, 2018, 10:32 PM
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The cheetahs must have been very memorable. Thanks again for sharing what an incredible adventure.
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Aug 8th, 2018, 10:42 AM
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Final thoughts and comments...

We were fortunate to have had these experiences, especially with our kids and grandkids. Here are a few things we learned:

Using a safari consultant who is based in Africa is essential in our book. Being able to text or phone Liesl Mathews at Southern Destinations in real time was reassuring and also very convenient. We see no reason to consider a USA based safari “expert” – sorry if you disagree, but we feel very strongly about this. All three of our trips to Africa were planned by an Africa based consultant.

Everyone sets their own limits on how much to spend, but don’t try to make this a budget trip if at all possible. We blinked and looked at one another when we learned the quotes from the accommodations, but in the end we know aiming a bit higher yielded benefits to each member of our family. The demands of game drives are exhausting – early wake up, bouncing around in an open vehicle, being too hot or too cold, and sometimes being disappointed by the lack of sightings. If nicer creature comforts are possible they can make a difference in the overall success of a safari vacation.

If you are traveling with a group of six to eight members - either friends or family, then an “exclusive use” option might be ideal for you. We found the two exclusive use lodges, Morukuru River House and Tintswalo Manor House, to be wonderful. We could set our own schedule for game drives, we could change the preferred times for meals, we could spread out in a big house, and we got to know the people who were there to take care of us. All in all this type of accommodations contributed to the overall success of our trip.

We also found that having a three night layover in Windsor, England, a great benefit. We arrived in Africa essentially in the same time zone. The long flights from the US to Heathrow and from Heathrow to Johannesburg were split with three days of being tourists – walking around, sleeping comfortably or eating when needed, and just generally relaxing and enjoying ourselves. We therefore started the exciting part of our trip feeling good and not overtired!

Finally, if you have thought about a safari trip, then do all you can to make it happen. The scenery, watching animal behaviors, sharing these experiences with friends or family will make you feel so good! We liked it so much that we smile and say “Eighty in Africa” sounds like a good idea! Time will tell if that becomes a reality.
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Aug 24th, 2018, 12:38 PM
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Wow--fabulous! And such interesting lodges!

I imagine if you are like me, you are already dreaming of your NEXT safari! I am always so happy to read good reports about Liesl. I recommend her so highly that I wonder if people think I am getting some kind of commission. The answer is a resounding "NO!" I am just a regular client but Liesl, and the agency, is so terrific that I would be selfish not to share.

I agree about the merits of using a local agency, and this one even has an 800 number so you would never know they are a continent away, but having them nearby certainly helps in case of a glitch in the plans. We took the BlueTrain from Capetown to Pretoria on my first southern Africa trip. The train was many hours late, so we were in danger of missing our scheduled flight to our first camp, in Sabi Sands. The fact that I was able to call Liesl, who was in the same time zone and not far away, made all the difference, as she arranged a transfer to the local airport and a private flight to Sabi Sands, at no extra cost, so we did not miss the afternoon game drive at Lion Sands. I wonder if a last minute fix like that would have been possible had my agent been many time zones away.
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