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Trip Report Africa – after 10 years of waiting – an amazing and wondrous journey.

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This will be a l-o-n-g trip report but I will break it up to make it more manageable. As is probably true for most Fodorites, I like posting these trip reports to help me remember and relive the trip and to give back in a small way to other readers who might be considering a similar trip.

Going to Africa has been my #1 bucket list dream trip for over 10 years. When I was finally able to convince my husband to go I started to do my research on the forums. Since I knew we couldn’t afford to take the month long, $80K/person Africa trip that I saw advertised, I needed to figure out where we should go. In the end, we finally selected what is probably a typical Southern Africa itinerary…but the trip was anything but typical (at least for me). I worked with Liesl Matthews at Southern Destinations to make the arrangements. I had found her name mentioned via Fodor’s – so a shout out to her and a thank you to others who recommended her.

So here is our itinerary:
Day 1: SFO to DXB on Emirates – 15 hr, followed by 4 ½ hr layover
Day 2: DXB to JNB on Emirates (actually arrived early AM on Day #3) - 8 hr, followed by 5 hr layover
Day 3: JNB to VFA on South African Airways, arrived at about 12:30PM – 1hr 40min
Checked in to Victoria Falls River Lodge – Zimbabwe – 2 nights
Day 4: ½ day trip to Chobe (Botswana) – river cruise, followed by return to Victoria Falls
Day 5: Road transfer to Kasane, Botswana
1 ½ hr charter flight from Kasane to Shinde Camp (Ker&Downey) – 3 nights
Day 6 & 7: Shinde Camp
Day 8: 30 min charter flight from Shinde to Maun
Followed by MUB to CPT (Maun to Cape Town) on South African Airways Airlink – 2 ½ hr
Checked in to Cape Cadogan – 3 nights, dinner at Pot Luck Club
Day 9: Cape Town – Kirstenbosch Garden, Bo-Kap cooking class, winery visit, dinner at La Colombe
Day 10: Cape Town – Table Mountain, drive to Cape Point and back, dinner at Kloof St. House
Day 11: CPT-SZK (Cape Town to Skukuza on South African Airways Airlink – 2 ½ hr
Mala Mala Rattrays in Sabi Sands – 3 nights
Day 12 & 13: Mala Mala Rattrays
Day 14: SZK-JNB – South African Airways Airlink – 1 hr
JNB to DXB – Emirates
Day 15: 24 hr layover in Dubai for sightseeing
Day 16: DXB – SFO

I will write more at the end of this trip report as to the nitty gritty details about the planning. I figure it is more interesting to actually read about the trip itself.

My husband and I traveled with my brother-in-law (BIL) and his wife (SIL) - all of us are in our 50’s and in relatively good health (though more on that in a minute). We have frequently traveled together so knew we would be compatible. I had been waiting for so long to go on this trip (started planning 18 months in advance so that I could reserve everything a year in advance). So you can imagine my dismay when my SIL texted me that she had broken her foot – this with about 10 days prior to the start of the trip. But she is incredibly determined and tough, it was a hairline fracture and she was able to walk with a stabilizing boot. In the end who knew that that her disability would actually help us?

For this trip, we were fortunate enough to travel business class on Emirates. I really tried to work my frequent flyer miles but in the end despite spending endless hours researching I couldn’t find a decent way to get award travel on Emirates on the specific dates that I needed. So we ended up paying the fare – yes, a small fortune but far and away it was one of the cheapest business class fares available. It was definitely worth it as we were able to hit the ground running (so to speak) with very little jet lag. My husband and I took advantage of the complimentary chauffeur service to get to SFO. Check-in for the SFO to DXB flight was smooth; we spent a couple of hours in the lounge.

My BIL and SIL arrived a bit later and it was somewhat of a shock to watch her hobbling up with a walking boot on her foot. It looked so uncomfortable! The 15 hr flight to DXB was fine and I watched 4 movies and reminded everyone to take their first dose of malarone (malaria prophylaxis). In Dubai, we all took advantage of the business class lounge to take a shower and then got some sleep on the DXB to JNB leg. On arrival to JNB, Liesl had arranged for assistance for meet and transfer. My SIL had also emailed her about the foot injury and so an additional person met us with a wheelchair. Because my SIL needed the wheelchair, we were taken as a group to a separate immigration line which handled disabled passengers and flight crews. Essentially we didn’t really have to wait in line…ever. I felt guilty about it, but because we were handled as a group of 4 the staff providing the assistance insisted we go through together. In the end we joked that someone had to offer themselves up and wear the boot for the next international trip so that we could get the same treatment. The rest of us benefited from my SIL’s misfortune – though she was a good sport about it. She definitely needed that wheelchair though as the distance we had to travel from arrival to our South Africa Airways gate for our connection to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe was quite far.

So after about 34 hours of traveling (if you include the layovers) we arrived in Victoria Falls airport! This time, the wheelchair assistance doubly came in handy. Despite my obsessive planning, I had somehow blanked out on the fact that we would need a double entry visa for Zimbabwe (as we were doing a quick Chobe tour for 1 day with return to Zimbabwe). I almost had everyone fill out a single entry visa application which would have cost us an additional $60 (for 4 people) as well as wasted time and effort to refill out the forms on re-entry. Fortunately, the staff member who was assisting my SIL clarified this for us and then proceeded to take us to the front of the immigration line. As I was waiting for the immigration officer to manually complete my visa, I looked back and was taken aback at how long the line of arriving passengers had become. It is setup so that you arrive on the 2nd level and then work your way down a ramp that zigzags back and forth (kind of like Disneyland ride lines). With the amount of time it seemed to take to manually process the visas, I suspect passengers could easily be waiting for over an hour.

We went through quickly, found our luggage and were met outside of customs by the transfer driver. At this point my SIL and I were kind of anxious as we knew we didn’t have much time in Victoria Falls and had asked Liesl whether we could stop by the Falls BEFORE we checked into our lodge (which was located down river and a bit of a distance away) so as to be as efficient as possible. When we asked our driver about this he just nodded and said that he was taking us to our boat transfer to the lodge. At that point, my SIL and I gave up but were somewhat disappointed that it seemed as if our initial plans weren’t going to come through. BUT…we should have relaxed as everything worked out perfectly in the end (more on that later). In the meantime, he drove us a short distance through town in a comfortable minivan to a small boat dock, we loaded up into the motor boat and proceeded down the Zambezi River. It was a beautiful day, with the sunshine on the sparkling water contributing to a relaxing boat ride. We were met at the Victoria Falls River Lodge, which is located within the Zambezi National Park on the river’s edge. At check-in, the staff informed us that first we could go to our tented cabins, freshen up and then be taken with packed lunches and a guide to Victoria Falls National Park!

On our way down the dirt path to our cabin, my BIL and SIL peeled off first as they placed her as close to the main lodge as possible because of her foot. My husband and I continued further down towards our cabin. As we approached, a staff member who was sweeping leaves off the path suddenly motioned us to stop and then pointed over his shoulder. It was at this moment that I had my “OMG – I am finally in Africa (on my birthday, no less!) moment”. As if on cue, a group of elephants, including 2 baby elephants, came marching out to a nearby watering hole. They were literally maybe 50-100 yards away. My husband and I were ecstatic. He ripped out his camera and started taking photos and after a few minutes, I hurried back down the path to try to get my BIL and SIL out but they couldn’t hear me through the door. Not wanting to miss anything I returned to my husband where he was now looking at a younger male elephant that had come closer and was flapping his ears at us. The staff member had us just stand still and then he turned away and we turned to enter our lovely tented cabin. At that moment I knew that this trip was going to be an incredible experience!

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    Awesome trip report so far. My husband and I are doing a very similar trip in December. How long did it take you to go through customs in Johannesburg? We have 2.5 hours to make our connection to VFA and I’m a little worried. Thanks for any info you can share!

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    We arrived to JNB at about 5:30AM so the airport was pretty quiet and because of my SIL's need for a wheelchair we went through a different line that was very short. The interesting part is that all of us actually had to wait for about 15 min since none of the customs booths were open yet. My understanding is that you should have at least 2.5 hours. I think it really depends on what time of day you are traveling as on our flight out of JNB, the airport was crazy busy. Having the meet and greet on the way in was also helpful as I could see how you could get turned around in such a huge airport. Even though we are fairly experienced travelers, we did comment that it was nice to know that we weren't wasting any time getting confused.

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    we were to leave for our 25th to india and nepal last saturday and a week before i too found out i had broken a bone in my foot. we did cancel bc we had trip insurance. we were on safari in kenya this june/july and i did comment that it would be easier in a boot on safari than in india. hope she did ok.

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    plambers - I think you are right. Since most of the time we were being driven around on safari she did well. By the time we actually did more walking in Cape Town her foot was feeling much better - though I still think she is very tough and just bore with the pain. If she had done it the day before we were to leave, she would have cancelled as it was extremely painful at first and she couldn't do any weight bearing.

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    PART 2 - Victoria Falls, Chobe
    One of the reasons it was so hard to convince my husband and BIL to visit Africa was their fear of how rough the entire experience would be, including the accommodations. I think they may have envisioned one continuous camping trip with insects, disease and predators lurking at every turn. Well, starting our stay at Victoria Falls River Lodge certainly put us all in a relaxed frame of mind. While planning with Liesl I told her that we had gone around and around as to whether to even put Victoria Falls into the itinerary. Would it end up being worth it or would we be wasting our precious limited time in Africa? We aren’t the super adventurist type, i.e. we weren’t going to go whitewater rafting or take a microlight trip over the Falls. We were visiting at a time when the Falls have less water and we were worried that it might be like Niagara Falls: we would have a look and then say, “Now what?” In retrospect, I am so glad we went. Liesl suggested staying at Victoria Falls River Lodge as an easy introduction to what to expect when we moved on to Botswana. I can’t say enough about how much we enjoyed our brief 2 night stay here. The permanent tented cabin was extremely comfortable – it had AC (which I didn’t expect), set up to make your own French press coffee, a small refrigerator, a super comfortable bed (really important for my husband who has a bad back), indoor/outdoor shower, private plunge pool with views over the Zambezi River. What is not to like? The staff was warm and friendly, the meals were excellent (actually better than at Mala Mala Rattrays in South Africa) and the common areas, including the bar, were comfortable places to hang out.

    After we finished marveling at how nice our cabin was, we freshened up and then met back at the main lodge where we were introduced to our guide Roddy. He bundled us up into another comfortable minivan along with packed lunches. I was a little confused at first as I thought we would transfer back to Victoria Falls by boat, but he explained that the drive through would actually take us through Zambezi National Park. We also took the opportunity to eat our packed lunches when all of a sudden we saw 3 young male elephants by the side of the road. Roddy stopped so that we could watch the elephants as they ate the surrounding vegetation. At one point, one of the elephants turned to us, started flapping his ears and started approaching us. I was on the far side of the van and couldn’t suppress my instinct to back away. My SIL, on the other hand, thought that the elephant was being “friendly”. Meanwhile, our husbands were taking a zillion photos. When the vehicle didn’t react to him, the elephant stopped, stared and then turned away. I guess we were not that interesting to him – thank goodness.

    We arrived at Victoria Falls National Park (remember this is the Zimbabwe side) at about 4PM. The park “closes” at sunset though they were still letting people in as the sun was setting. I quickly realized that the lodge staff had timed our visit perfectly. By this time in the late afternoon, it was cooler and more comfortable to walk, the park was virtually empty, and the angle of the sun was shining in a way that brought out the beauty of the mist and produced endless rainbows! Our guide Roddy led the way down the path (about 1 ½ mile distance?) and over the course of the next 2 hours we stopped at the various points to view and marvel at the falls and of course, to take many photos. My SIL was able to manage it as the frequent stops provided natural resting points for her. While I am sure the Falls are even more magnificent earlier in the year, they were still pretty amazing to view. The rain forest environment was also unexpected - at times we were standing in a light rain as so much mist comes up from the Falls.

    After our return to the lodge, we were served a delicious dinner accompanied by a spicy South African Pinotage. We were actually surprised by the quality and flavor of the meal – it was a very enjoyable finish to a long day. That night though, just after we got into bed, I heard a snorting sound which sounded as if it was coming from right underneath our cabin. I nervously asked my husband if he had made that sound and he said, “No, I thought it was you.” When I denied it, he jokingly said “why don’t you go outside and take a look?” We had already been specifically instructed that we could not go outside at night unless accompanied by a staff member for our own protection. We had seen warthogs earlier and I comforted myself with the thought that it was probably a warthog making himself comfortable underneath our raised cabin. The next day I found out that it was actually the hippos in the river who were making the snorting sound and that they would come out of the river at night. I still don’t know whether that particular hippo was in the river but it really sounded as if it came from right underneath our bed!

    The next morning we were up bright and early, took pictures of the rising sun over the Zambezi River and then were bundled off with our packed breakfasts to the motor boats to catch our land transfer for our ½ day Chobe water safari. Motoring up the Zambezi in the early AM was fascinating – our boat driver would stop whenever he saw any hippos so that we could observe them and they could observe us. I was kind of morbidly fascinated when I was informed that each year hippos kill more humans than any other animal. I also didn’t realize that they can reach speeds up to 30km/hr. In fact, virtually every animal in Africa can outrun us so there is absolutely no point in trying to run away – it just won’t work. It was weird how these territorial animals would sit there in the river with just their ears, eyes and snouts poking up. When we would stop to look at them, they would all turn and start staring at us. Even though we Americans like to anthropomorphize animals as cute (think about those ridiculous hippos dancing in Disney’s Fantasia) these hippos looked more like a gang of street thugs waiting to see if we would invade their territory.

    After our mini-river cruise, we took a 90 min ride to get to the border with Botswana. Even though it was a bit of a tiring ride, we had the opportunity to eat our packed breakfasts. Wow – I don’t know how much butter they put on the toast but just thinking about the breakfast sandwich (egg/cheese/ham) they gave us makes my mouth water. It was scrumptious! Not only that, but when I first opened mine I was taken aback to see a freshly made croissant on top of the sandwich. I put it aside in case I wanted to eat it later – I was too full to eat it in the end. My husband, BIL and SIL; however, all ate their croissant as part of the sandwich. After all they reasoned, how else could they get to the sandwich!

    At the border with Botswana, the driver pointed out the many trucks that were gathered at the Kazangula ferry point. Apparently, there is only one ferry which can take only one truck at a time across the Zambezi from Botswana to Zambia. A bridge is being built but in the meantime, truck drivers typically have to wait 2 weeks before they can take their turn crossing on the single ferry boat. After clearing immigration, we were handed off to a Botswana based transfer and then driven to Chobe Safari Lodge where we boarded a comfortable, covered boat for a 2 hour river safari. Even though we were just at the entrance of Chobe National Park, the amount of game that we saw was spectacular. Towards the latter half of the cruise I began to get drowsy but then we rounded a final corner of an island and all of a sudden I was jolted awake by the “National Geographic” scene that was laid out in front of us. Elephants, hippos, Cape buffalo, kudu, red lechwe, and a variety of birds all spread out across the island in front of us – it truly looked like a centerfold spread from National Geographic (which is exactly what my son called it when I sent him a photo of the scene).

    Following the cruise we were served a tasty lunch buffet and then driven back to Victoria Falls. On our return, as we passed the town of Kasane (Botswana) I realized that here was probably the one part of the itinerary we might have improved. My husband really wanted to see Chobe but we didn’t realize that it was a significant drive from Victoria Falls to access the park. It wasn’t that the length of the drive was so terrible but we ended up repeating the same drive the next day when we traveled back to Kasane to board our charter flight to the Okavango Delta. I guess one way that might have been more efficient would have been to just stay one night at Victoria Falls and then check out the next morning and stay at Chobe Safari Lodge after the river cruise. On the other hand, I was really happy to stay at Victoria Falls River Lodge for 2 nights – it was definitely quieter, more intimate and scenic than Chobe Safari Lodge. Also, who wants to check in and check out that fast? Just something to consider.

    We were dropped off back in Victoria Falls to take our scheduled helicopter ride. Fortunately, even though we had a 4PM reservation, they were able to take us at 3PM when we arrived. I have mixed feelings about the helicopter ride. Personally, it was great- but that is only because I was the one who got to sit in the front seat so my views were spectacular. My husband, BIL, and SIL were crammed in the back with 2 other passengers with my SIL in the middle. So you can imagine that she was not able to see as much. In addition, they kept trying to upsell you – from increasing from a 15 min ride to a 25 min ride to taking photos and video of you to purchase after the flight. On the other hand, viewing the Falls from above really gives you a better sense of the geography and despite his back seat position, my husband was able to take great photos. I did feel that we had a complete look at Victoria Falls from both ground and aerial views.

    Our transfer arrived promptly once we finished the helicopter ride (and politely declined to purchase the video) and we arrived back at the lodge. While we were sitting in the main lodge, the barman asked us why we hadn’t come by the bar for drinks the night before. We asked him, “what bar are you talking about?” He pointed down a short ramp and said that he was located just around the corner and to please come when we had a chance to try a cocktail. I wanted to check it out and forced everyone to come with me and we were all happily surprised to see that it opened out into an open air bar situated closer to the river with excellent views of the Zambezi. We all picked out a cocktail – I had Monkey Balls- a bright blue cocktail which tasted great. I could not for the life of me understand the name until I saw a photograph at another lodge of a vervet monkey with a bright blue scrotum! We relaxed and watched the sun go down. Before dinner, my husband and I gingerly tried our private plunge pool – it was a little chilly! Later we had another excellent meal and retired to our comfortable beds to be up bright and early for our transfer to the Okavango Delta.

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    Here is the next installment - my apologies as to how long this is. It was such a great trip for me!

    PART 3 – Shinde, Okavango Delta, Botswana
    We arose early and stressed out a bit on how much our luggage weighed. I had read some horror stories about the perils of being over the weight limit especially for the charter flight that we would be taking to Shinde. I had brought my handy dandy luggage scale (very lightweight) and both my husband and I were just a little bit over. In the end, they didn’t even weigh our luggage/carry on at all. I am assuming that while loading our duffel bags (about 13-14 lb apiece) they didn’t really pay attention to our ginormous backpacks – okay they weren’t that huge, but they were heavy. Anyway, after the usual settling up of our accounts, we had our last lovely boat transfer up the Zambezi, and then transferred for the road trip back to the Zimbabwe/Botswana border on the road we had traveled back and forth on just 24 hours ago.

    And just an aside about tips – this was actually another area of stress for us as we oscillated from being cheap (how else did we save enough $$ to go on this trip anyway?) to not wanting to look completely miserly to also wanting to recognize good service with the understanding that $$ can go a long way for the staff – the boat drivers, the housekeepers, the waiters, maintenance crew. We were quoted an 80% unemployment rate in Zimbabwe – 80%!!! Yet the people we encountered were sincerely gracious and welcoming. Additionally, I can’t understand it, but the crime rate is very low. As we were leaving Victoria Falls after sunset, the various stalls selling souvenirs were dark and completely open. The shopkeepers had gone home but when we asked if anyone was around to watch over the merchandise, Roddy said “No, it was perfectly safe and no one would steal it.” In the end we elected to tip the staff at the conclusion of our stay with our credit card while paying the liquor bill – remember the wine and cocktails? Everything else had been prepaid/all inclusive. However, we also usually tipped the boat drivers in cash. Of course, Roddy our guide to Victoria Falls, we tipped separately in cash.

    Our drive to the border was pretty familiar by this point. We drove past the mess of trucks parked every which way waiting for their turn for ferry transport. At the border post, first we went through the Zimbabwe side – while standing in a short line I remembered to look for Robert Mugabe’s photograph that my husband had told me was posted on the wall. In addition, on the sparsely tagged bulletin board there was an old memo from 2014 talking about the Ebola outbreak. I kind of shivered at that one as first I saw the word Ebola and then I looked for the date of the posting and realized it was an old one. After that we walked a short distance across the border then went through Botswana’s border post (again), walked onto a disinfecting mat and then we and our luggage were handed off to our Botswana driver. I guess they don’t allow the drivers from each country to handle transfers across the border. We then drove down an initially terribly bumpy road, onto a better paved road and reached Kasane Airport shortly thereafter. For such a tiny airport, Kasane Airport was amazingly modern. They had recently renovated or built a new airport – I don’t know which but it was clean and comfortable, much better than the international airport at Maun which actually is the main airport for tourists coming through the Okavango Delta.

    We waited briefly for our charter flight – I wish I had taken a picture of the information card that was in the seat pocket in front of me. It was a fixed wing, single propeller (?) plane which seated 12 in pretty tight quarters. They do not turn off the engine as it is rated for a fixed number of operational starts and once they reach that number they must replace the half a million $$ engine. So the plane lands, taxis, propeller keeps going, passengers disembark, we embark, and off we go. The drivers seemed so young and I initially felt sorry for them as it was hot and pretty bumpy at times. But actually it turns out that it is extremely competitive to get this job and that these guys love it, flying around the bush, racking up their flight hours and eventually moving on to even better commercial gigs. Makes sense.

    Anyway, meanwhile back in the plane, my poor SIL (who is slightly prone to motion sickness) was trying to fight off the nausea. I usually don’t have problems either, but towards the end of the 90 min flight I had to break out some chewing gum trying to ward off the nausea. Initially it was pretty interesting to stare out the window and look at the changing geography. I could see the occasional giraffe and interspersed throughout the dry bush were darker gray areas (watering holes) with the small gray blobs that I could see were elephants. It was fascinating to see the increase in greenery and the waters of the Okavango Delta as we flew into Shinde. The flight actually landed first at one camp where one couple got out, engine and propeller still going, and then on to our camp where we landed pretty smoothly on a dirt landing strip. There was still one more couple left for a final stop – the poor wife had commandeered 2 seats as she loudly announced that she was claustrophobic and hoped she could make it through the flight. She proceeded to lay almost completely flat across her single seat, across a teeny aisle with her legs up on the seat across from her while her husband was in the 3rd seat. I thought she was acting a bit dramatically but at least she didn’t have a screaming panic attack in the air (which she was kind of intimating she would have to struggle to not do – LOL).

    We were met at Shinde by our guide Opie. I was excited as I had heard about him from the forum. We were loaded up into our shaded vehicle for the short drive to the camp. This is where we were introduced to the “African Massage.” Despite the name – Okavango Delta – this area is still part of the Kalahari Desert and some of the underlying ground is sand. The road/track that the vehicle drives through has shifting ruts so as you drive you are shifted side to side in an almost rhythmic fashion. Whenever they hit that type of terrain they do drive fairly slowly. I started laughing as I was in the third row and I was watching Opie’s head and my BIL’s head swaying like bobble heads in front of me. My husband and I also laughed that it was a good thing we were sitting apart from each other as you did run the risk of sustaining a concussion if you weren’t careful and knocked heads!

    As we drove in, we saw a gorgeous brilliantly red bird fly by. I am sure any bird watcher would immediately know that it was a Southern carmine bee eater, but none of us are serious bird watchers. It was so exciting to see such a beautiful bird but this was followed almost immediately by the Lilac breasted roller! After multiple attempts throughout the trip, my husband finally managed to capture a few photos of this bird in flight. Please Google it if you don’t know what it looks like. I don’t understand how one bird can have so many diverse colors at one time – think Joseph and the amazing technicolor dreamcoat. My BIL confessed that he always thought birdwatching was kind of lame, but that the birds of Africa had given him a real appreciation for this pursuit. I think that if we had birds like this in North America, more people would become birdwatchers. The brilliant colors and fascinating variety was captivating.

    We passed through a small herd of red lechwe and arrived at the main lodge of Shinde. It is located on a large island next to the Mananchira River. I began to appreciate (and continued to appreciate throughout the trip) that Liesl had coordinated all of our transfers to derive the maximum benefit from each safari stay. As I am sure the experience Africa Forum posters know, the daily safari routine at these all-inclusive camps is pretty similar – early wake-up with coffee, game drive with coffee break, either breakfast again, lunch, afternoon tea, afternoon/evening game drive with sundowner (wine/beer) break, dinner, bedtime and repeat. Our travel agent, Liesl made sure that we arrived in time to get settled in, catch the evening game drive, participate in 2 full days of activities and then the morning of departure we had time to do a morning game drive before checking out for our next transfer. I guess that the lodges can help you to make these arrangements if you book directly but I would have worried about making some errors in the process. My SIL and I can be control freaks and the day previous she had asked me what time our charter flight took off from Kasane as she didn’t see it on our itinerary. She was shocked when I told her that I didn’t know as usually I am so rigid about knowing exactly where/when we need to be somewhere for transfer logistics. I told her that all of our transfers during our stay at the Victoria Falls River Lodge with the activities that Liesl had arranged had gone off without a hitch so I had complete confidence that the arrangements would be fine. This was certainly the case and I was very appreciative that this continued to be the case throughout the entire trip. I did not waste any time during my trip being anxious (which I tend to do) that I may have made a mistake or had a miscommunication in arrangements.

    After checking in, we had lunch, orientation and then retired to our beautiful tented cabin to relax for a bit before afternoon tea. Shinde is a relatively small camp. My BIL and SIL were placed right next to the main lodge to minimize the amount of walking she would have to do (Liesl had informed the camp in advance). They did say that it tended to get hotter in the afternoon and in the early AM the sound of the vehicles driving up tended to wake them up a bit earlier than desired. On the hand, we were situated all the way at the end of the row (not that it was that far). Opie pointed out the electrified elephant wire strung up at about 6 ft high that left the rest of the camp open to any animal - so again, no walking around alone at night. We could go past the wire in the daytime to the small swimming pool which was positioned about 50 yards away but no further. Our permanent tented cabin faced onto the back of the camp with just an open vista of bush/delta. There was a watering hole nearby with fresh elephant tracks but sadly we never saw any animal use it while we were there. Again, the layout and comforts of our tented cabin blew me away. Though it did not have AC, the bed was huge and comfortable, there was a comfortable sitting area, desk, separate spacious bathroom, fresh cold water in a pitcher. At night, they would pull down the mosquito netting and put out some brandy and glasses (we never ended up drinking it as we were always so tired by the end of the day that we would just go to bed and conk out!).
    We unpacked and pulled out dirty clothes that would need to be laundered (service provided by the camp and which I took much advantage of). Then off we went to tea and for our first “real” safari drive.

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    ekscrunchy - yes - I think it was specifically your mention of Liesl which initially piqued my interest. Her enthusiasm and willingness to both answer my many questions and assist with ongoing requests really helped to make our trip so wonderful.

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    PART 4 – SHINDE, OKAVANGO DELTA, BOTSWANA

    Part of the problem with writing a trip report after the fact is that somehow the memories start to blend together. Which day was it that we saw the 2 leopards come down from their perch in a tree to start a hunt? Was it the 2nd day or the 3rd day that we did the mokoro trip into the delta itself? So I thought I would just list my impressions and not stress too much on when events actually occurred.

    - Our ranger, Opie, was a constant source of fascinating information delivered with a great sense of humor. I was always impressed by how he (and our other ranger in South Africa) was able to identify birds in flight, even though he would always be self-deprecating about it. Even though I felt a bit of a nerd, I would always try to check off the birds and other wildlife from the checklist provided by the camp. It helped to be able to go back during breaks to try to remember some of what we saw.
    - I would say that Shinde did not have quite as plentiful game watching as Mala Mala, though there certainly was no lack of game either. Shinde had been described as having a pristine, relatively untouched environment. I would agree with that. At times looking out across the landscape I would have to remind myself that there really was nothing else out at the edge of the horizon for many miles. The Okavango Delta was peaceful, serene, beautiful and refreshing. I loved the water trips that we took – the mokoro ride was peaceful and relaxing. The motor boat ride was fascinating for giving us a glimpse of how the Delta had evolved and developed.
    - Towards the end of our “water safari”, we pulled up at a bank where 2 staff members were waving their hands at us. I thought they needed assistance, but really they were there to give us a helping hand as we landed to celebrate sundowners at a fully loaded outdoor bar – set up on an old tree trunk, complete with wine, beer, spirits and appetizers. With the beautiful sunset in the background, I toasted my BIL and asked him if he had ever in his wildest dreams envisioned this type of trip? He said, “No!” He and the rest of us were just so grateful that we had this opportunity to share such a memorable moment.
    - Opie laughingly said that Disney had done such a disservice to the lions with its Lion King movie. In real life, Mufasa would not be trying to save Simba – instead his behavior would more than likely mimic that of Scar’s behavior. Scar acted much more true to the way male lions really behave. Also, what was with the song, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight?” First of all, the lions don’t live in the jungle, they live in the bush! (Tigers live in the jungle). Second, the lions sleep during the daytime and they had better be up and hunting at night if they want to survive. And finally, everyone fixates on the male lions with their impressive mane, but it is really the female lioness that is the best at hunting.
    - It seems as if for the majority of the wildlife, the poor young males of any given species eventually get kicked out by their moms and have to learn to fend for themselves until they are both old enough, big enough and strong enough to start fighting for females or territory.
    - The first night we drove up to 2 male lions that were just beginning to wake up in the cool of the evening. Here we are sitting in our open air vehicle not more than 20 yards away, when the first lion opens his eyes, rolls onto his stomach and then pops his head up. Again, for veteran safari travelers, this is not a new event. But we were all kind of apprehensive – after all, what’s to stop them from taking a few strides and then leaping up on us to gobble us up? After all, you could see that their stomachs were empty and according to Opie, they were having a tough time as they didn’t have any females to help them hunt and were in danger of eventually starving to death. It would seem that a vehicle full of humans sitting right in front of them should be a buffet, right? But no – they see you as a unit and they kind of ignore you…You just cannot stand up or get out of the vehicle.
    - Don’t ever get between hippos and their access to water. This is probably the most dangerous situation to be in. However, during our mokoro trip (traditional canoes used to navigate the Delta which are propelled by using a long pole – similar to a Venetian gondolier) we had pulled up to an island to have our mid-morning coffee break. We pulled the mokoros (actually now made of fiberglass) up on the landing point and were relaxing, when all of a sudden a young male elephant that we had seen previously came lumbering up. As soon as I spotted him approaching I scooted behind my husband – yeah, like that would do anything. The elephant stopped when he came even with us and turned toward us, flapping his ears and considering us for a l-o-n-g moment. He was NOT very far away and our guides told us to just stand still. All conversation came to a standstill. My BIL had been filming with his iPhone and then abruptly stopped and thought, “Oh sh#%, do I just stand here or do I run away?” There really wasn’t anywhere to run to as we had water at our backs and you can’t outrun an elephant anyway. We just obeyed our guides and the elephant finally turned away from us and walked directly away from us. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, finished our coffee, loaded up and finished our mokoro ride back to camp.
    - We watched a mother leopard and her adult son sunning and stretching themselves up in a tree. They were amazingly beautiful creatures. When they came down to start a hunt it was fascinating to try to follow them as they made their way through the bush – now you see them, now you don’t. Mom became confused and startled the bushbuck that the son was tracking just as he was about to start his run. Bloodthirsty tourists that we were, we were a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to see a kill.
    - Shinde was a very nicely appointed safari camp. Midday breaks were quite warm, but we enjoyed ourselves at the swimming pool – which was stocked with a cooler full of drinks, beach towels, deck chairs and patio umbrellas to protect you from the strong sun. The camp’s main meeting area had a central fire pit while a short ramp away there was an open air library which caught the Delta breezes. All meals were served family style and we ate with our rangers and the other guests at one long table. As an example, our first night we had tilapia, fresh peas, potato and carrots as well as salad and fresh bread. I had thought we might be “roughing” it but the meal quality was excellent.
    - It was fun and informative to talk with the rangers and to learn about Botswana. As an American, I know that I have many gaps in my knowledge of other regions of the world. One element of travel that I really appreciate it is how it motivates me to explore and learn more about a country. It would probably be more ideal to read up ahead of time, but I just don’t do it. At Shinde, they tend to see Brits and visitors from Europe, though certainly more and more Americans are starting to show up. As a country, Botswana actually appears to be a model country which has low unemployment, a relatively high standard of living and a stable democracy. Opie suggested that we watch the movie, “A United Kingdom” to learn a little more about King Seretse Khama and his marriage to a British white woman. I was actually able to watch it on the way home on the airplane and enjoyed it immensely.
    - I don’t know if the staff at Shinde always does this, but on our 3rd day, the staff served the 4 of us plus Opie and the camp manager, Buja, a private lunch in the “family” pavilion. If a large family party books a number of rooms then they can hang out together separately. During our stay, there was no such large party and the staff surprised us with the private lunch with vistas out over the Delta. It was lovely. We talked about a variety of topics, including politics as well as about conservation. Buja had started out as a statistician, then became an elephant trainer, and then transferred to work at Ker & Downey camps once the elephant training center was shut down. He had mixed feelings about the issue with the increasing numbers of elephants. They can be quite destructive. At one point, they were completely terrorizing the citizens at the local market in Maun and soldiers had to be called in to help. There is debate as to whether elephants need to be “culled.” He mentioned that in the past, some elephants had been relocated to Mozambique but that they had all eventually migrated back to Botswana! On the other hand, a shipment of white rhino coming from South Africa had been hijacked and all of the animals slaughtered for their horns. The next shipment was supposed to come by air with fighter jet escort. Poaching has moved into the big time with military grade equipment now being used.
    - We did a walking safari which was the only time Opie actually broke out a rifle. It is really a different experience to walk – you do see, hear and smell things you wouldn’t normally appreciate sitting up in the vehicle. One thing we learned is that poop is important! For example, Opie pointed out some zebra dung and told us that if a female zebra is ready to mate, the first male zebra who comes upon her poop can smell it in the poop and will then proceed to poop on top of it to cover up the evidence so that he can have first shot at her.
    - Our last night at Shinde, a fire started on a neighboring island. The bush is very dry and probably started through spontaneous combustion. The staff did downplay it but the flames didn’t seem that far away and we actually had some smoke drifting into our tented cabin that night. Buja and his staff monitored the situation closely, but despite the assurances, we were somewhat relieved that we were leaving the next morning. As we flew out we could see blackened areas that had burned and then died out as well as the area that was still on fire.

    I loved our stay at Shinde – the beauty of the Okavango Delta, the variety of wildlife, the excellent meals and all of the special little touches provided by the friendly and extremely professional staff made it a truly memorable visit. Next - on to Cape Town.

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    PART 5 – MAUN TO CAPE TOWN, CAPE CADOGAN

    Opie drove us to the dirt landing strip to wait for our charter flight. We had to scatter the red lechwe from their peaceful grazing. We turned to wait in the shade but I noticed that they had come back so we had to make a 2nd run over there to shoo them away. This time they stayed off the “runway”. Once our flight arrived, all of us, including Opie (he was returning home for a weekend break) boarded for our brief flight to Maun. Maun International Airport is surprisingly small and “old”. Of all the airports we used, it felt the most to me what I had imagined airports in Africa would be like – kind of like my elementary school building out of the 60’s.

    After saying a fond farewell to Opie, we checked our bags at the South Africa Airways Airlink counter. I couldn’t tell whether the agent manning the counter was bored or just the passive aggressive type (probably a bit of both) as she ran through her list of security questions. She spoke at the level of a whisper as in you could see her lips moving but you couldn’t hear anything. Shinde had built in plenty of time for the layover and we traipsed upstairs to eat our packed lunches in AC comfort. Then it was back downstairs to join a long single line through customs at 1 hour prior to departure. Once through passport control/security we were fortunate enough to find seats in a tiny, hot airless room as more and more people began to file in to wait for their connection. Our flight ended up being delayed about an hour. A couple of flights departed for Johannesburg which was quite confusing as the gate agent would just shout over the crowd with the flight number and the destination generating initial mass confusion. It seemed as if all of our flights were to leave at about the same time and there was much questioning amongst the crowd to try to confirm which flight they were calling. I guess we all had a lot of anxiety about either getting on the wrong plane or missing the right flight.

    Our flight was the last to leave and we walked out to the tarmac to board our flight – only to find that the plane was extremely warm and felt somewhat airless (even throughout the flight). I don’t mean to sound as if I am complaining – at the time it was really just a minor discomfort but I think in retrospect we realized why we were completely exhausted by the time we reached Cape Town. The crew was very professional. Upon arrival to Cape Town we were met with a wheelchair for my SIL which allowed us to yet again pass through immigration at the front of the line. Thank goodness as a large flight came in right behind us with a huge line of passengers materializing almost out of thin air. After collecting our duffel bags, we were met by our Cape Town guide, Charlie Ratcliffe. He bundled us up in his van and drove us to our hotel, The Cape Cadogan.

    My SIL and I had debated about using a guide in Cape Town. She prefers driving herself instead of being driven around. However, ever since the time our car broke down in Plitvice National Park in Croatia, I, my husband and my BIL are all a bit leery about dealing with driving. It’s not that we are afraid, it is more like we have a limited amount of time and why spend it on getting lost, trying to find parking and trying to stay ahead of the crowds? We were only spending 2 full days in Cape Town and having Charlie as our guide really helped us to make the most of our time. Plus you derive the benefits of having a native of the city to converse with in depth. We spent a lot of time talking about the geography, the history, the economy, the educational system and the politics of Cape Town and South Africa. Even though as my husband pointed out, we only had the “white” perspective – it was still quite enlightening to hear Charlie’s opinions as he would become quite passionate about the hopes and desires that he had for his city and country.

    The evening that we flew into Cape Town the weather was SUPER WINDY. I capitalize this as it felt as if a hurricane was gusting through at times. We were grateful that we were arriving in the evening as that meant that we were going against rush hour traffic as we entered the bottleneck that takes you into the city. We passed some shanty towns. We also passed the hospital where Christian Barnard performed the world’s first heart transplant (which my husband and I were quite excited to see). After check-in we retired to our rooms to rest (we felt pretty dehydrated and exhausted by this point) and to re-establish wi-fi connections to the world. At Shinde there had been one incredibly slow hard wired computer which really was pretty useless for even email. I actually didn’t mind at all except that I had forgotten to tell our daughter not to expect to hear from us for a few days as we left Victoria Falls. She confessed to me that she had started to get a little worried and had been just about to text her brother to see if he had heard from us and figured we didn’t have Internet. How much the world has changed! I can remember when we would just use a landline and call maybe once a week during international travel to home. Yet now in this day and age, my son could Facetime with us in the US as he wandered around in Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport when his flight was delayed for hours. This expectation of always being able to connect – no matter where you are is such a blessing. My adult daughter had even asked how often she should expect to hear from us – lol – I told her she was turning into me.

    After recovering our energy, our hotel provided free transfer to our dinner reservation at The Pot Luck Club. I admit that we are foodies and I have learned to try to pay attention to planning where we want to eat. In years past I didn’t care but many times that would result in wandering around aimlessly, an outburst of “hangriness” from someone in the group, followed by paying too much for mediocre food. I admit to my inner control freak but when I had asked Liesl about trying to get a reservation at Test Kitchen (which any foodie would know is one of the top restaurants in the world) I asked too late and she responded that it had become one of those almost impossible reservations to obtain. But we didn’t suffer – we had put a deposit down for The Test Kitchen’s sister restaurant, The Pot Luck Club. OMG – so good! It was quite an informal atmosphere with a very cool vibe. We were advised to select about 16 small plates – which was a bit too much food. But we weren’t complaining as it allowed us to try a huge variety of dishes: peri peri chicken, fish sliders, shredded confit duck leg (and I don’t even care for duck that much), beef tataki with hoisin sauce, etc. Our meal was very reasonably priced (at least as compared to what it would have been in the US). As we toasted with our tasty South African wine, we marveled at the ability to watch the beautiful sunrise over the Okavango Delta to enjoying a gourmet meal in Cape Town that same evening. The restaurant called a cab for us and as we came downstairs we noticed that the parking lot was full of limousines and a crowd of probably drivers/bodyguards talking and waiting. Test Kitchen was located just downstairs and it appeared that they were hosting some type of embassy function (diplomatic plates on the limos).

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    PART 6 – CAPE TOWN

    The next morning we met our BIL and SIL downstairs for a wonderful breakfast provided by the hotel. There were freshly baked croissants, a nice variety of fresh fruit and hot entree items made to order. We cracked up when our SIL told us that the night before she had screamed when she got into bed and felt what she thought was a small animal in the bed. She eventually figured out that it was a hot water bottle which she proceeded to hug closely all night long as she gets cold easily.

    The wind was still pretty active and so the Table Mountain cable car was still not running. Our guide, Charlie had originally hoped to take us straight up but switched off instead to a visit to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. We had worked out with Liesl a wish list of activities and a visit to the Gardens was definitely at the top of the list. We especially enjoyed the Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway – or Boomslang Bridge. Constructed using tubular steel, the design allows the structure to be quite flexible. As we started our crossing I could hear screaming slightly in the distance. When I asked, Charlie noted that it was probably a group of school children who had never seen something like this before. Sure enough a group of middle school children came around the bend, some reveling in jumping around to make the structure sway while others would hold on to the handrail screaming in a happily terrified way – sort of the way you might feel as you are about to embark on a roller coaster. I enjoyed watching their reactions. Once they passed we made our way across enjoying both the sleek bridge design as well as the spectacular views out into the Gardens.

    Though we spent a couple of hours, the visit felt very short but we moved on to the Bo-Kap district to meet Zainie for our Malay cooking class. We started with a brief walking tour to enjoy the brightly painted homes, learn a bit about the history of the Cape Malay people and do a little food shopping. We walked on to Zainie’s home where we learned to make a delicious lunch which included samoosas and dhaltjies and chicken curry. We met 4 generations of Zainie’s family from her parents to her grandchildren. Zainie, herself, is a remarkable independent woman who I didn’t realize until later was actually featured in a South Africa World Cup television campaign. I always try to find cooking tours and/or cooking classes as I enjoy getting a more intimate glimpse into culture while participating in one of my favorite activities, namely eating!

    Following lunch, the weather still wasn’t cooperating for a visit to Table Mountain so we switched gears and decided to go wine tasting. It was at this point that Charlie’s knowledge really became helpful. I was surprised to learn that many of the closer wineries actually closed quite early on Saturday afternoons. We are used to driving to nearby Napa Valley where the wineries usually don’t close until 4:30, 5:00 or even 6PM. Charlie asked us what type of wine we preferred and then selected two wineries to visit. In the end we only had time to make it to one, Rust und Vrede (which stands for “rest AND peace”, NOT “rest IN peace” Charlie hastened to add!). We had a lovely, relaxing tasting on the outdoor patio, enjoying a variety of primarily red wines – cab, syrah, a couple of blends. Charlie then dropped us off back at our hotel with plenty of time to digest and rest so that we would be ready for our dinner “marathon” at La Colombe, located in nearby Constantia.

    This was our second “special dinner” that Liesl had helped to set up for us. I had no idea what a treat this would be. Having had the pleasure of eating at Alinea (Chicago) we have been fortunate to have experienced world class dining. I would classify our meal at La Colombe in that category. They take the molecular gastronomy approach combined with creative presentation with unique flavor profiles to present a great dining experience. For example, we were a bit early and the receptionist pointed to a tray of what looked like a tiny garden positioned front and center of the podium. When she invited us to begin with our amuse bouche while we waited for our table to be ready, I initially thought “are we supposed to pull up a plant and start munching?” But on closer inspection, we realized that cleverly hidden throughout were tiny plates with small filled green gelatin balls. We each popped one into our mouth and by the time we were finished it was time to be seated. We definitely enjoyed the gourmet experience at this restaurant. After dinner, we ubered back to our hotel to snuggle up to our hot water bottles and a good night’s sleep.

    We were yp early again the next morning, as Charlie wanted to get us up to Table Mountain as the weather was finally cooperating – no clouds and no wind! As this was our last full day in Cape Town we drove immediately to the Table Mountain cableway. Given the previous few days of bad weather we all knew that the traffic and the lines were going to be horrendous. That same day the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon was also running which meant even more families in the city to do a bit of sightseeing. I had already pre-purchased the tickets online before we even arrived in Africa. Since they are good for 7 days from the selected date of entry and I think refundable (?) it saved us the time of standing in two lines. In the end, it was actually essential if we wanted to avoid a long wait.

    Charlie did a great job keeping us ahead of the crowds. We spent the day enjoying the vistas from Table Mountain, driving to Chapman’s Peak (where we stopped to watch a pod of whales and dolphins directly below us), eating a surprisingly delicious lunch at Cape Point (apparently they have really stepped up their service and food quality in the past year) and having a fun visit with the African penguins in Simonstown. I did have a hard time with the left hand side driving. I would frequently briefly close my eyes on the winding coastal road convinced that we were about to be hit by oncoming traffic. So strange how that type of habit is just so engrained.

    We arrived back in Cape Town by 3PM and enjoyed some wine while sitting on our BIL/SIL’s outdoor patio. Later we walked to our relaxed dinner at Kloof St House – fun eclectic décor with basic but solidly good food. We went to bed early so as to be ready for our early AM pickup to head back to the airport for our final safari in Sabi Sands.

    Reflecting on our Cape Town stay, timing the visit to fall between two safari stays worked well for us. After reading trip reports from others, I had really been gung-ho about just doing one safari after another. My husband nixed that and he was more realistic about this than I was. We probably could have worked in a bit more – a longer visit to the Gardens, walking around more in the Bo-Kap district, visiting the District 6 museum, a shantytown tour. My one regret is that the Zeitz MOCAA – the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa opened just after we left Cape Town. It looks amazing and I would have loved to visit. Maybe it will be part of an excuse to return some day. This might sound sacrilegious but the one tour we deliberately didn’t choose was to visit Robben Island. I know that it has immense historical significance but it seemed too much like the ferry tours on San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz Island. I didn’t want to spend the amount of time it would take to queue up for a crowded ferry ride to be herded through an empty facility. I guess in the same way tours of the Freedom Trail in Boston or looking at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia for some reason just doesn’t resonate with me.

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    PART 7 – MALA MALA RATTRAY’S, SABI SANDS

    Charlie picked us up early in the morning for our transfer back to Cape Town International Airport. Table Mountain had clouds surrounding it so I was really grateful that we had been lucky enough to have the opportunity to go up the day before. That morning we were grateful yet again that we were driving against rush hour traffic. Additionally, Charlie noted that a gypsy cab strike was starting which meant even more traffic as well as the possibility for protests complete with tire burning. We transferred smoothly to the airport. Our South African Airways Airlink flight was uneventful other than our surprise upon landing at Skukuza to find a tiny, elegant airport. I know that the infrastructure for safari tourism is quite well established in South Africa; however, we were very impressed with the level of quality and design of the “terminal” building. Our ranger, Ollie, was standing by to pick us up for the somewhat long drive to Mala Mala Rattray’s. I had deliberately selected this camp to be the final portion of our trip as I knew that the level of luxury and the abundance of game would be a highlight of the trip. The “khaya” or villas were amazing – his and her bathrooms, heated bathroom floors, heated towel racks, beautifully appointed sitting area, outdoor plunge pool, outdoor deck to watch game fronting on the Sand River. After check-in and a delicious lunch, off we went for the afternoon/evening game drive.

    Again, I am just going to note my impressions as we saw so much wildlife I almost had to pinch myself to believe it!

    - Our first evening drive we didn’t even get to the sundowners as we were too busy following three male lions that were waking up from their daytime naps. It was fascinating to watch as each of them went through their “waking up ritual” – grooming, stretching, then getting up to mark the territory and then ambling up the trail, followed by the next one, and the next one. We all had that brief “uh-oh” moment again when the first lion stood up and started walking towards our vehicle (we were only about 15 yards away to begin with). Again, we realized that our vehicle was just slightly in the way and the lion just turned and walked around us to get to the spot that he wanted to mark. It was interesting to smell the acrid odor that wafted over to us and again made me realize that despite at least my primary reliance on vision, the other senses are important also. This was illustrated the next night when we followed another male lion and were able to hear and record him roaring! I love playing the audio recording of his roaring to my friends and colleagues. It always gives me a thrill to hear it.
    - We were able to observe a mother leopard busy with her kill up in a tree. Then Ollie pointed out her cub playing around in another tree located about 50 yards away. I could barely see him until I used my binoculars as his coat blended in so well with the tree branches and leaves. Then all of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye I saw a large hyena slinking up the game trail headed towards the leopard cub. We were all distressed and started calling to the mother leopard to watch out for her baby (right, pretty stupid I know as if we could actually communicate with her). She alerted pretty quickly and started watching the hyena and eventually came down off the tree and started moving towards her cub. The hyena lay down and just started to patiently wait for scraps from the kill and the cub just kept on blissfully goofing off in his tree. Ollie noted that for the mom it could be a tough position as she was not large enough to fight off the hyena if he was able to grab the cub. Given the hyena’s strong bite, he could probably kill it almost immediately. At this point in the standoff we departed.
    - My husband was hoping to see at least one rhino and his wish was granted in abundance. From the single rhino we saw our first day, we saw white rhinos every day including a group of four rhinos grouped together on our last morning game drive. Again, Ollie would jockey the vehicle around so that we could get those “head on” photos. Personally, I would always start getting nervous looking down the barrel of that horn but they always remained quite placid and completely unfazed by our presence. We observed one especially large male marking his territory by adding to his midden. The rhino digs up dirt with his hind leg and starts a crater which he poops into. Over time the midden enlarges as he adds to it on his daily rounds. Other rhinos coming through the territory have to poop around the midden, kind of like showing respect. If they poop INTO the midden that is considered a challenge that will lead to a fight – perhaps to the death. We saw many middens with their accompanying rings of subservient piles of poop surrounding them.
    - Others have mentioned this, but the quantity of meals/food served is enormous. If you have ever watched the first Lord of the Rings movie when the one hobbit wonders whether Aragorn, the leader, knows about 2nd breakfast, tea time, dinner, supper, etc. then you have the exact picture of life at a safari camp. I felt like a hobbit though without the trekking part to burn off those calories.
    - We were able to watch two young male elephants tussling with each other. The smaller one was trying his best to display dominant behavior and at one point was able to push his companion back. However, it seemed as if the older and larger elephant was just humoring him as in the end he became more firm about showing the younger elephant who was truly dominant.
    - We saw another leopard up in a tree with his kill. This occurred at night and at first I couldn’t quite make out the impala carcass – was his head turned to the side? Then the spotlight really focused on the body and, nope, you couldn’t see the head as there was a jagged line at the neck and no head at all. The leopard was on another branch with a protruding tummy, fast asleep looking completely content.
    - Some of the other fun/interesting/fascinating sights included seeing hyena cubs of a variety of ages hanging out by their home in an old termite mound. They were quite curious with the older ones actually walking out to our vehicle to investigate us.
    - We watched an older elephant trying to help push a baby elephant up the river bank. He couldn’t quite make it and they ended up coming back down and traveling a little further down to try again at a less steep portion.
    - We came across what looked like a Cape Buffalo boneyard with a whole slew of skulls and bones scattered about. Apparently the year prior there had been somewhat of a drought with the Cape Buffalos migrating from Kruger over to Mala Mala where the lions proceeded to feast on them.
    - We were fortunate to come to a watering hole located on the north end of the property when a crowd of wildebeest and zebras traveled up and over to take a drink. They were very wary of us and the rest of the environment while in this most vulnerable position.
    - Ollie pointed out giraffes eating the leaves of the Tamboti tree which secretes a milky latex which is poisonous to humans.
    - And of course we saw a fascinating variety of birds from the lilac breasted roller to the secretary bird (it’s head reminds me of the Statue of Liberty) to the helmeted guinea fowl. This last bird really made me laugh – with its blue head and reddish bony knob on top - it reminded me of Yondu, the blue headed guy in the movie, Guardians of the Galaxy. I have to wonder how in the world this bird has managed to thrive in the bush – that sky blue head would seem to be a handicap to survival.
    - Our last evening at Mala Mala we drove up to the base of the tallest kopje (hill) in the area. We then climbed up a rather steep path to find elephant poop scattered here and there at the top. We were quite surprised that elephants could even get up there, but Ollie said that the elephants had absolutely no trouble climbing up even steeper slopes. I guess we should have known better – after all isn’t that how Hannibal managed to cross the Alps with elephants during ancient Roman times? Fortunately, we didn’t have to share our view with any elephants that evening as we celebrated our last sundowner.
    Our final morning at Mala Mala we squeezed in one more game drive. We saw a hyena couple with a male calling to the female – he actually sounded like a terrible vocalist warming up with scales. The female hyena proceeded to regurgitate into the grass and then threw herself down and rolled in it. The male then followed suit when she was done. It was interesting to watch though we were a bit grossed out. On that last drive it felt as if we were doing good-bye rounds as we saw a lion, a leopard, rhinos, elephants, wildebeest, zebras, giraffes and even a hippo in a short 2 hr circuit. Then it was time to take the bumpy road back to the Skukuza airport for our flight to Johannesburg. We checked in for our Emirates red-eye flight to Dubai which proceeded uneventfully. We ended up extending our layover for 24 hr to do some quick sightseeing in Dubai before we boarded our final 15 hr leg back to SFO. When I asked my husband where he thought he might want to travel to next, his response was that he needed time to come off the “high” from this trip as every other destination just didn’t appeal to him. Usually we start talking about where we want to go next as we are traveling home. However, every other destination seems to pale in comparison to Africa.

    I apologize for the length of this trip report. If you have managed to stick with it this far then you can probably tell that I was completely blown away by the experience. I feel extremely fortunate that we were able to take this trip and I hope that some of the above trip report will help others with their own dream trip to Africa.

    I have one last post to follow with the trip logistics.

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    Excellent that you got to eat in two great restaurants in Cape Town but a shame you didn't have longer there to explore more. Test Kitchen was absolutely worth the long hours trying to get a table following someone else's cancellation, like you we were too late booking at the moment reservations open, but we managed to get a cancellation for 4 on a Saturday night.

    Again, love the detail, others will benefit from this so much when they are searching Fodors for inspiration and advice.

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    tjhome1 - thanks for the kind words. I am envious that you were able to get that reservation! However, I really can't complain as our meals at Pot Luck Club and La Colombe were fabulous. I think sometimes having less expectations helps me as I find that I am more appreciative of where we did end up eating.

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    PART 8 – TRIP PLANNING: THE NITTY GRITTY

    I left this part for the end as only the most hard core Forum follower would probably have any interest by the end of this trip report.

    Choosing the Itinerary – At first all I knew was that I wanted to go to Africa. When I first started doing my research I was instantly overwhelmed at the number of choices. Of course, reading through the Forum trip reports was very helpful. I also had a friend who was very enthusiastic about Zambia and another friend who had shown me amazing pictures of Namibia. So my first question to the Africa forum was whether that would even be a reasonable combination – which in the end it didn’t really fit what we were all looking for. Then I began to understand that to some extent you could break it down to Southern Africa or East Africa. For better or worse, we decided we didn’t really want to transit through Nairobi. I had read magazine article years ago about riding mokoros in the Okavango Delta. The first time I read that article I was fascinated, yet repelled. Wouldn’t there be a ton of mosquitos? Didn’t you have to worry about hippos and crocodiles? But as the reality of actually getting to plan a trip to Africa sank in, I revisited my fears and decided that I definitely wanted to go to Botswana and see the Delta. I also knew I wanted to go on safari in South Africa near or in Kruger National Park. Then my husband and I debated and debated two more questions:

    1) Should we spend the time, effort and money to visit Victoria Falls?
    2) Should we go to Cape Town? The Cape Town question was tough because we had heard so many times that it was in many ways similar to Northern California. Living right next to world famous Napa Valley, having taken advantage of Michelin starred dining and having driven many a time down the scenic California coast we at first couldn’t justify spending over 30 hrs to go to a part of Africa that might seem just like home. But in the end, after discussing with Liesl, we did visit Cape Town and I am very glad we did. Not only was it was a perfect mini-break between our two safari camps, but I also feel that for the majority of the stay we were able to experience some unique aspects of the region.

    Packing – I found and collated multiple packing lists from the forums to use as my template. In the end I brought a bit too much clothing. I essentially never used my shorts as I preferred to protect my legs from the sun with lightweight long pants. I also brought a few too many tops. I didn’t need to bring insect repellent or that extra microfiber beach towel or the umbrella. For once, my husband and I only brought 1 tablet type laptop between the two of us, instead of one each.

    The items that I found ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL were:

    Binoculars/Camera
    Sunglasses/hat/windbreaker and/or fleece depending on your tolerance to cold
    A couple of lightweight long sleeved shirts for early AM layering (I love the ones available at Costco)
    Sunscreen/chapstick
    Comfortable walking shoes
    Daypack
    Plug converters/couple of headlamps

    Despite dining at very nice restaurants in Cape Town, the dress was surprisingly casual. Neat and tidy attire but not a suit and tie (though if you are eating at Test Kitchen then maybe you might need that?)

    Health - Even though we were told that malaria is virtually unheard of in Sabi Sands, my husband and I are physicians and I could not bring myself to skip taking malaria prophylaxis. We took malarone for the entire trip since both Zimbabwe and Botswana are also considered areas to have some risk for malaria. As we are physicians we were able to figure out what we needed and I made sure that everyone had taken their typhoid vaccine and were otherwise up to date with routine adult immunizations. I would strongly recommend that if you haven’t had a check-up with your doctor in the past couple of years, at least go and make sure to update your immunizations before traveling to Africa!

    Surprisingly we were always able to brush our teeth with the tap water. We were provided filtered water from the Okavango Delta and the remainder of the time we were served water from pitchers. I believe the only time we drank bottled water was when we ordered sparkling water at dinner. In comparison to our trips to SE Asia or South America, we felt completely relaxed about everything we ate – including fresh fruits and vegetables. We did not end up with any gastrointestinal issues.

    Photography – the irony is that I am a terrible photographer. Personally, it doesn’t bother me as I prefer just soaking in the moment without focusing on whether I was able to capture the photo. My husband on the other hand, loves photography. For us this works out well as I do all of the downloading and selection when we get home. I have to apologize as I have no links to our photos. I confess to feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the thought of trying to select from over 3000 photographs.

    I should note that at Shinde, one older British woman had a HUGE telephoto lens (it was probably the length of her arm). She was a very unassuming lady but when she brought out that lens, all of the photographers at the camp were instantly drawn to that lens like moths to a flame. They all started confessing that they had “lens envy.” It was hilarious. She did have amazing photos to show us but she many times had to use a monopod as that lens was very heavy.

    Since I wasn’t taking photos it was also easier for me to use my binoculars. At times my SIL would be trying to switch back and forth between the binoculars and the camera. I was very happy with my new pair of lightweight binoculars. At one point, I was focusing on a baby elephant as it was trying to learn how to use his trunk to pull up a tuft of grass. He kept tugging at it, then losing his grip and then was finally able to grab ahold of it and pull it out to eat. Without the binoculars I would not have been able to appreciate it at that level of detail. I think that Africa is the one place that you need to either be very comfortable focusing on detail either using your camera or your own set of binoculars. I would never have been able to appreciate the leopard cub hanging out in his tree without my binoculars. I would have hated even more having to wait my turn to share a set of binoculars.

    ...and finally cost – I will admit that our trip was expensive, maybe not the most expensive it could be (remember that $80K/person month long Africa itinerary that I had found) but still quite expensive. A significant part of the cost was from flying business class, but in the end it allowed us to be completely functional as soon as we arrived as well as allowed us to go back to work fairly quickly and smoothly. We chose to stay at more expensive camps/lodges and having a private guide in Cape Town was certainly a luxury that we debated. I know that you certainly can go on much less expensive safaris but I really wanted to have one vehicle and ranger to ourselves. Hearing and learning about the wildlife that we were encountering from our rangers was fascinating and fun! I know that we would not have seen and learned as much on a self-drive - after all we are kind of in the "city slicker" category. In the final analysis, all of us were extremely happy and satisfied with what was truly a trip of a lifetime. As I noted to Liesl in my thank you email to her after we returned: “Now I have to go to work tomorrow and try not to get depressed that the trip is really over.”

    If you made it to the end - Thanks for reading!

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    deladeb - your welcome! Have found the forums so helpful over the years for planning and getting ideas. I like to pay it forward -though the sheer length of this report might be a bit overwhelming.

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