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hlg22 Aug 11th, 2020 10:51 AM

Zambia & Mozambique Sister Safari - August/September 2019
 
It's been a long time since I was active on this board, but with extra time on my hands due to quarantine and missing travel (even though I squeaked this year’s big trip in right before the lockdown…but that’s another trip report!) I decided it was time to complete a trip report for my safari last year. My sister and I went on safari in South Africa in 2007 (trip report here: https://www.fodors.com/community/afr...2007-a-736915/), and definitely caught the safari bug. I loved it so much that I went back the following year to Tanzania with our mom. Unfortunately though this board was super helpful in the planning of that trip life got away and I never got around to writing a trip report for that one. Anyway, my sister and I had been wanted to do a follow up “sister safari” ever since our first trip, and finally decided that 2019 was the year, due to a stash of British Airways miles I’d accumulated.

Planning

We were kind of all over the place on planning…we considered gorilla trekking, Madagascar, Kenya/Tanzania, South Africa, and Zambia at various points. As mentioned, I was booking our airfare on British Airways as I had miles and a companion award certificate, and on looking for award availability a year out I was not able to find great options into Nairobi, but was able to find pretty ample availability into Johannesburg, which narrowed down our choices. I ended up succesfully booking IAD-LHR-JNB-LHR-IAD first class awards, departing August 24, returning September 10. After much discussion, we honed in on Zambia for our safari and with the help of Elizabeth Rand at Explore, Inc. We ultimately decided on a combo of South Luangwa and the Lower Zambezi, followed by a few days at the beach in Mozambique. Our itinerary was:

2 nights London (Conrad London)
1 night Lusaka (Southern Sun Lusaka)
5 nights South Luangwa (Mfuwe Lodge & Zungulila bushcamp)
3 nights Lower Zambezi (Sausage Tree)
1 night Johannesburg (Intercontinental JNB)
3 nights Mozambique (&Beyond Benguerra Lodge)


Next up...some unexpected complications.

hlg22 Aug 11th, 2020 11:26 AM

An unexpected complication…

About a month before our trip, I started to hear rumblings of the BA pilots going on strike. I didn’t think much of it at first, but as our flights neared and a deal still had not been reached with the union, I started getting nervous. Under UK labour laws, unions have to give two weeks’ notice of a strike. So I was able to breathe a sigh of relief when that magic date passed and our outbound flights were safe. Unfortunately, however, the same was not to be for our return flights…

August 23 was my last day in the office before vacation, so I was frantically trying to get things done. That morning, however, I started seeing alerts from the Points Guy website and others that the BA pilots’ union had called a strike for September 9 and 10, the exact days we were supposed to fly back from Johannesburg via London. I quickly called BA, and got through to an agent who told me that my flights hadn’t been canceled yet so there was nothing they could do. About an hour later I got the official notice that our return flights had been canceled, called again, and was told that my only option was to take a BA flight leaving JNB 5 days later than our scheduled departure, and that if I accepted that option I would not be able to make any further changes to our itinerary. I declined, and started frantically searching for other options. By the afternoon, some of the blogs were mentioning rerouting people on other carriers so I started researching potential alternatives and tried calling BA back to see if that was an option, but could not get through as the news of the strike had spread and phone lines were now overwhelmed. Out of desperation, I booked backup business class awards from Johannesburg to DC via Abu Dhabi on Etihad using American miles (I love AA – they will let you hold awards for 5 days even if you don’t have the miles in your account). I figured we would try to get BA to rebook us in person at the airport, but I would have the AA awards as backup just in case. All in all, a very stressful day in which I completed almost none of the work I needed to get done before vacation – luckily my boss was sympathetic. I will say in retrospect, however, that this experience really showed me the value of miles and points knowledge (and having a backup stash of points!). I had to book the backup awards by calling AA’s Australia call center, something I would never have known had I not read on FlyerTalk about this known issue.


Seriously, could we catch a break?

So our return flights were up in the air, but at least our outbound flights wouldn’t be an issue, right? Ha. Saturday, August 24 was the day we were scheduled to leave. My sister had flown out to DC a few days earlier, and with our flight not departing until around 9:30 pm we’d planned a leisurely day of brunch, some last minute shopping, getting mani/pedis, and finishing our packing. We were at the mall shortly after noon, waiting for our nail appointments, when I got a text alert on my phone: “your British Airways flight has been canceled. Contact us for assistance.” Yes, yes, I know, our return flights are canceled. Then I looked closely…it was our IAD-LHR flight that night that had now also been canceled, due to a mechanical issue. Arrrgh…

I immediately went to Manage My Booking on the BA app, but could do nothing there and had to call. Due to the hordes of people trying to get through to rebook their strike-affected flights, we were on indefinite hold. After ½ an hour on hold, we canceled our nail appointments and rushed home to quickly shower, finish packing, and head to the airport 4 hours earlier than planned. (We stayed on hold with BA the whole time, but were still on hold 2.5 hours later when we finally hung up (because we were walking up to the BA counter at Dulles). The BA agent was able to get us on a United flight that evening, which was good. The bad news was that we were downgraded to business class and the flight left in about an hour, which meant that I didn’t have time to move my car out of the expensive daily parking garage to long term parking, as I’d planned, were we able to get a flight. We also didn’t have time to try and get our return flights sorted with the agent – we just rushed to the UA counter for our tickets and seat assignments, and then straight to the lounge.

Next up...do we finally make it out of the USA?

janisj Aug 11th, 2020 12:18 PM

Really looking forward to your full report - this Aug/Sept was (finally) going to be the year I made it to southern Africa and was deciding between Zambia/Botswana/SA or some combo of same. Of course that flew out the window - so hoping upon hope to make it next year.

Too much stress just flying out for sure - I've had more problems w/ BA than any other airline between cancellations/re-routes/'other stuff'. I'm sure it worked out eventually (or we wouldn't have a TR ;) )

hlg22 Aug 11th, 2020 04:25 PM

janisj - oh no! What a bummer about your trip. I'm hoping things return to at least close to normal by next summer.

hlg22 Aug 11th, 2020 05:09 PM

Finally starting to feel like a vacation

With all the flight uncertainty, my stress level was through the roof. But we made the UA flight, it had their new Polaris biz class seats (and not the terrible old “flying dorm” seats) it took off on time, and we actually ended up arriving in London a few hours earlier than originally scheduled, and witnessed a beautiful sunrise as we were landing.

https://cimg8.ibsrv.net/gimg/www.fod...b2240cec1b.jpg



After landing at Heathrow we made our way to the UA Arrivals lounge for a quick shower, light breakfast, and change of clothes, guessing (correctly, it turns out) that our hotel room might not be ready given our early arrival. Thus refreshed, we headed to the Tube to take it to our hotel, the Conrad London St. James.

After dropping our bags at the hotel, we headed out to explore. We’ve both been to London a few times before, but not for several years, so it was time to reacquaint ourselves. We wandered around past Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, had lunch in Covent Garden, and then in the afternoon, we were able to get the mani/pedis we’d had to cancel in DC. Before turning in we enjoyed G&Ts at the pub next door to our hotel. Things were looking up, though there was still that pesky issue of how we were actually going to get HOME from Africa…

A visit to Hogwarts

We woke up very early the next morning as we had tickets for something special – the Harry Potter tour at Warner Brothers Studio London. Getting there was a bit of an adventure – you have to take a train to Watford Junction, and then pick up a bus there for the studio tour. Sounds simple, but when we got to the train station and asked for directions, we were told a segment of the line was closed, and we would instead have to take a much more convoluted route. We did so, even though it made us about 20 minutes late for our timed ticket (which I was concerned about, but which ended up being a non-issue). Still not sure why, as my rail app had no alert and on the return we had no issue and the line was open, so it’s possible the woman who “helped” up was just mistaken.

Anyway, if you are a Harry Potter fan, the studio tour is great! It is at your own pace (with audioguide) and there is so much stuff from the movies and so many great photo ops you could spend all day. We spent about 4 hours and then had lunch before heading back into London. In the afternoon, we did the Buckingham Palace tour which we had not done before and thought was quite interesting, particularly as it is only open at certain times of the year.

https://cimg3.ibsrv.net/gimg/www.fod...4d687bde25.jpg

https://cimg2.ibsrv.net/gimg/www.fod...4c513bad4c.jpg

janisj Aug 12th, 2020 07:52 PM

I've been to London countless times but hadn't yet made it up to WB . . . That was supposed to happen early this July :( . . . another trip postponed until (hopefully) next summer.

How did you like the Conrad? I was thinking of staying in St James's next visit - its such a nice are.

Songdoc Aug 16th, 2020 10:30 PM

I LOVED the Harry Potter exhibit outside of London. It FAR exceeded expectations.
My trip to Kenya was due to start in 3 weeks. Hopefully, next year.

I'm looking forward to your report.


hlg22 Aug 17th, 2020 04:49 AM


Originally Posted by janisj (Post 17143096)
I've been to London countless times but hadn't yet made it up to WB . . . That was supposed to happen early this July :( . . . another trip postponed until (hopefully) next summer.

How did you like the Conrad? I was thinking of staying in St James's next visit - its such a nice are.

The Conrad was ok. As you mention, the area was great - directly across the street from the Tube and very walkable to lots of the main sites, but we had several issues. First, once we finally got into our room (not ready until after check-in time, at which point we'd been wandering around a very hot London for hours), all we wanted to do was take showers and head to an early dinner, since we were tired and sweaty from walking around all day. I went in to take the first shower, while my sister stepped out of the room for a few minutes. When she came back in, she started pounding on the door and said “um, do you know the room is flooding?!” I quickly shut off the shower and looked down – the way the shower door worked, I had not noticed it was not aligned and not closing properly, and that water was flowing from the shower into the bathroom and beyond, soaking the carpet in the entry. We immediately called, but it took about 20 mins for an engineer to get up to the room and fix the issue, and then another 20 mins. for a housekeeper to come up and start cleaning up the water. Both of them honestly seemed annoyed (when the housekeeper arrived, she sighed and said “you wanted the bathroom cleaned, again?”) and the whole thing took about an hour, during which of course we could not continue getting ready to go out.

Second, I am Hilton Gold and also booked through Amex Travel, both of which entitled us to free breakfast. We received a letter at check-in (and were told by the front desk agent who checked us in) stating that breakfast was served starting at 6:30, which was important to us given our early departure for the Harry Potter tour. So, we turned up right at 6:30 the next morning…only to find the lights off, and restaurant clearly not open. I went out to the front desk, asked when breakfast started, and the front desk agent looked at his watch and confirmed 6:30, and said that they should be open now. So I walked back to the restaurant…which was clearly still not open – at this point, there was another guest with a small child who was similarly perplexed. We finally could see an employee inside the restaurant and were able to get his attention – only to have him state that because it was a bank holiday they weren’t yet open and wouldn’t be for another ½ hour. So it was back to the front desk…where the front desk agent finally gave us an access card for the lounge so we could eat breakfast there – while I appreciated the resolution, by this time 15 minutes had passed so we had to seriously rush through breakfast in order to leave in time to get our train.

Overall, it seemed more like a business hotel - our Amex rate also included the equivalent of a $100 F&B credit, and we tend to like to use that hanging out in the hotel bar before dinners recapping our day. We tried that on one occasion at the Conrad and were the only customers in the bar - despite that, service was glacial and we actually ended up just not using the rest of our credit and instead going to the much more lively G&T pub next door. So, I'll probably stay somewhere else next time. I actually have access to the Marriott associate rate through work, and we were originally planning to stay at the Edition, which looks fantastic and I'd been able to snag the discounted rate which was about 1/5 the cost of the regular rate. Unfortunately when we decided to add a second night in London, the rate was not available for a twin room and I was not interested in paying £500+ for the second night, and I couldn't find any equivalent Marriott properties for less than the Conrad for our dates.

hlg22 Aug 17th, 2020 10:08 AM

I promise we'll be getting to the safari part soon...

In which we find out whether we’ll be getting home from Africa

On Tuesday morning, we again had much of the day to spend in London, as our flight was not scheduled to leave until 9:30 pm. We did the Kensington Palace tour in the morning, and then walked through Kensington Gardens. After that, my sister wanted to go to Notting Hill, so we did and walked around a bit. I was flagging by this point…I may have neglected to mention that it was HOT (90s Fahrenheit!) the whole time we were in London, so I was ready to be indoors.

https://cimg4.ibsrv.net/gimg/www.fod...fb90cdaf4d.jpg



We decided to head to the airport early, as we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to (hopefully!) sort out our return flights. Unfortunately I made the terrible call to take the Tube rather than the Heathrow Express to the airport…I’d looked into it and they both would take about the same amount of time, but the Tube stop was right across the street from our hotel, while we’d have to take the Tube to the train station and then switch to the Heathrow Express. This was a big mistake. Remember how I mentioned that it was HOT? Rather than sitting on the nice air conditioned Heathrow Express, we were crammed in like sardines on the standing room only, non air conditioned Tube. I started getting seriously concerned about passing out. It hadn’t been an issue on our ride to the hotel, but it hadn’t registered to me that we’d arrived on the Sunday of a holiday weekend, but were departing on a weekday during the afternoon rush. Whoops.

We finally made it to Heathrow dripping in sweat and into the blessed air conditioning. After I’d figured out how to cash in our Oyster cards, we headed to the BA First Wing to check in for our flight and (hopefully!) get our return flights sorted. I’d flown BA First in the past but never originating in London, so I’d never been to the First Wing before – it’s BA’s separate check-in area at Heathrow solely for First Class. You’re supposed to sit down and have a cold drink and then they’ll escort you to the next open check in counter, so you don’t have to stand around in lines. That sounds nice in theory. In practice, no one was policing it, so people who were coming in after us were just wandering up to a counter when they saw it was open and getting helped before us. It ultimately took about 45 minutes (we had to wait for one of the two agents who was doing rebookings), but we were able to get our return flights! They were basically putting you on any airline you wanted, so once again, it really helped that I had researched flight options…the agent first suggested putting us on a direct flight JNB-IAD on South African Airways, but I knew they did not have First and their business class is not the greatest, so took a pass. We instead first asked for Lufthansa, since I knew they flew a flight with first class from JNB-FRA, unfortunately they were full. With few/no other first class options from JNB, we ended up deciding to route JNB-AUH-IAD on Etihad– the JNB-AUH segment in business class, the 15 hour AUH-IAD flight in First. Relieved to finally have that sorted, we headed to the lounge – one fun quirk of the First Wing is that they have their own small security checkpoint and shortcut directly to the Galleries First/Concorde Room lounges. As we had gotten to the airport quite early, we decided to shower and change after our sweaty Tube ride, do a little shopping, and then head back to the Concorde Room for dinner and a drink or two before the flight - it was very quiet, likely because of the upcoming strike. Soon enough, it was time to board.

https://cimg0.ibsrv.net/gimg/www.fod...ca7b7ffa40.jpg
(Very quiet Concorde Room terrace)

LHR-JNB

Out of the four flights I’d booked a year earlier on BA, this was the only one we actually ended up flying. British Airways crams 14 first class seats into the nose of their 747. By contrast, Lufthansa First (which I actually ended up flying 2.5 weeks after this trip on my way to Oktoberfest in Munich - again, thank you, miles and points!) has 8 in the same space. The result is that it does feel quite crowded, not very private, and is definitely not even close to the best international first class product out there – it’s like a pretty good business class. We had a mixed fleet crew, which I have found on BA means they are young and friendly, but not quite so polished. That was definitely borne out here. I did not sleep much…the plane was quite warm, it was a bumpy flight, and there was also a bit of excitement when a large spider materialized on the wall next to 1K (I was in 2K and am a huge arachnophobe, and couldn’t see what happened to it/where it went). My sister, knowing this, asked our FA and was able to obtain confirmation that the gentleman in 1K had squashed it, which I appreciated. Spoiler – this would not be the last, or the largest, spider encountered on this trip…



​​​​​​

Ian Sep 4th, 2020 04:57 PM

Talk of insects/spiders in an African Trip Report? Yeah, I may have seen that before . . . ;)

Following along . . .

hlg22 Oct 6th, 2020 10:30 AM

Finally, Africa!
 
Yikes - it has taken me a long time to get back to this, mostly because I've been trying to figure out where to host my photos rather than trying to resize/add them here...I've created a dropbox folder that is available here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/8vf4dpnu4..._RFZj-8-a?dl=0. Click on the little comment box to see my notes on the photos.

We arrived in JNB on time, and found a Priority Pass lounge to while away a few hours until our connecting flight to Lusaka. On arrival in Lusaka, one thing I found interesting was all of the signs in Chinese. I asked the driver who picked us up at the airport and drove us to our hotel, and he said that the Chinese have invested a lot in Zambia (and are building a new airport), but contribute very little to the Zambian people – they don’t even hire Zambians to work their construction sites, instead importing labor from China. We made it to our hotel, the Southern Sun, in late afternoon. Rooms were quite nicely decorated and modern, and they actually initially tried to upgrade us to a lovely suite but since it only had a king bed we passed and requested our originally booked room with two beds. We had drinks on their terrace (the hotel surrounds a little pond area with weavers’ nests, turtles, and even mini-crocs, and our rate also included dinner at the buffet. The restaurant was an interesting mix of tourists (few) and mostly what appeared to be local Lusaka movers/shakers. Interestingly, if you watched the Rob Lowe/Kristin Davis Netflix Christmas movie "Holiday in the Wild" you can see both the hotel and the restaurant featured briefly. It was a nice place to spend a quick stopover.

Mfuwe lodge

In the morning, it was back to the airport for our flight to Mfuwe airport in South Luangwa. On arrival, we were met and it turned out that there were three gentlemen from our flight who were also headed to Mfuwe Lodge. They were an interesting bunch…two Germans and an Aussie. We were never able to figure out whether they were friends, or business associates, or what, only their nationalities and that they’d been on safari (and to Zambia) before. We’ve found that usually on safari fellow guests are happy to chat. These three were not interested in talking to us at all and rebuffed our conversational attempts. As we’re driving from the airport to the lodge, the road, as in many places in Africa, was not the greatest – dirt, rutted, etc. Our driver, who clearly must drive it multiple times/day, is doing his thing when one of the Germans FREAKS OUT, starts screaming at the driver to slow down, he’s going to kill us all, etc., etc. I was not nervous at all (and safaris aside, I do not have a particularly high risk tolerance) – as mentioned, it was standard African road, and was straight and flat so you could easily see traffic coming the other way, we were not swerving into oncoming traffic, etc. I’ve certainly been more nervous in other countries with crazy drivers, no visibility, blind hairpin turns, etc. So the driver pulls over, and German Guy finally ends his rant and explains that he had been injured in a bad taxi accident several years earlier. Which ok, I understand why that might make him a little more sensitive, but it did not at all excuse how rudely he spoke to our driver. Anyway, we proceed at a crawl the rest of the way to the lodge while the 3 guys made what sounded to me like snide comments in German (they’d mutter something in German and then all laugh). So they were just delightful.

After that unnecessary excitement, we finally arrived at Mfuwe Lodge – it is very nicely appointed, though more of a “hotel” like feel than a small camp - not typically what I prefer but fine for two nights to ease into safari. We got settled into our room, and almost immediately saw several elephants and some impala crossing the riverbed from our deck. I had a less pleasant encounter a little while later – using the toilet when a gigantic spider appeared on the wall 6 inches away (apparently a Zambian wall spider – huntsman like/sized). I started screaming bloody murder, which seemed to scare the spider as it quickly scuttled back into the crevice between the window and wall it had come out of. My sister still doubts the size of it but I put her on spider patrol for the rest of our stay – she had to check all around the bathroom, the toilet paper roll, etc. before I would use it, and even so, I would do “the lean” to stay as far from the wall as possible every time I had to use the toilet. And while I am sure someone will chime in with a snide comment and “but spiders are beneficial!” Yeah, yeah. I get it, I do. It's a phobia - I know it’s an irrational fear. I’m not afraid of rodents, lizards, snakes or most other insects, not afraid of heights, not afraid of flying, literally no issues with any of the other common phobias but I really freaking hate spiders. Luckily I did not see this one again (or any of his comrades) for the rest of our time at the lodge, though I would meet a few of his brethren later in the trip...

After that little burst of adrenaline it was time for tea and finally our first afternoon game drive! When we reached our vehicle, there were two guys on board from Tahiti of all places! Their English was not very good but I speak a little French so between us we were able to converse and they were very friendly. They had taken the second row, so my sister and I took the first row. We waited for several minutes and most of the other vehicles had already gone out, so I was starting to get a little frustrated. At that point, our guide introduced himself and told us that “we’re just waiting for three more…oh here they come!” My sister and I looked at each other and grimaced – sure enough, it was the Germans and the Aussie. They looked at the vehicle in horror and immediately started complaining – they couldn’t be expected to sit in the last row, one of them was NOT going to sit in a middle seat, etc. Luckily, after a few minutes of ranting they ultimately elected to get a private vehicle as there was availability to do so and so it was just us and the Tahitians, thank god. Highlights of that first drive included elephants throwing water at us and a sleepy lion. Our guide was nice, but didn’t really volunteer a lot of info, and it seemed like more driving around than actual tracking was happening.

The next day, the Tahitians were gone and we had a new crew on the vehicle, including a Peace Corps volunteer and her visiting parents, who were on their first trip out of the US. Everyone was really nice and since they were all on their first safari it was fun to see their excitement with every animal we would see. Oh, and I was that idiot who unthinkingly put her iPhone in her pocket only to have it bounce out and fall off the car with the first bump we hit. Luckily I noticed it fall, and I’ve got to give credit to the iPhone 10 – despite quite a drop (we were in the top/third row for that drive) onto the rocky dirt road, it was totally fine. During siesta, we availed ourselves of a unique feature of Mfuwe and got massages in their “bush spa.” A spa is not necessarily the first thing I look for when choosing safari accommodation, but they have open air rooms that jut out over the hippo pool, so the soundtrack to your massage is grunting hippos, not Enya. It was great. Our final night drive highlights included a leopard in a tree and lots more ellies. We also had a surprise when heading back to our room after dinner – a juvenile hippo came running past right in front of us on the path! Our escort said that he is a frequent visitor to camp and while startling he was very cute.

Next up...we head further into the bush to Zungulila.


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