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Zambia & Mozambique Sister Safari - August/September 2019

Zambia & Mozambique Sister Safari - August/September 2019

Old Aug 11th, 2020, 10:51 AM
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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: Trip Report: A First-Timer's Trip to Southern Africa (August/September 2007)), 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.
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Old Aug 11th, 2020, 11:26 AM
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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?
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Old Aug 11th, 2020, 12:18 PM
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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 )
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Old Aug 11th, 2020, 04:25 PM
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janisj - oh no! What a bummer about your trip. I'm hoping things return to at least close to normal by next summer.
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Old Aug 11th, 2020, 05:09 PM
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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.





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.



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Old Aug 12th, 2020, 07:52 PM
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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.
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Old Aug 16th, 2020, 10:30 PM
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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.

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Old Aug 17th, 2020, 04:49 AM
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Originally Posted by janisj View Post
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.
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Old Aug 17th, 2020, 10:08 AM
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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.





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.


(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…



​​​​​​
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Old Sep 4th, 2020, 04:57 PM
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Talk of insects/spiders in an African Trip Report? Yeah, I may have seen that before . . .

Following along . . .
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