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Trip report - Botswana and South Africa

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It's been a while since we returned from our trip in August and September of 2007, but this board was so helpful when we were planning our trip, that I thought it would be good to post a trip report.

We left the US on August 20th (from Charlotte, NC) and flew through JFK to Frankfurt, spent a day in a day room near the airport (we've done this several times before and it makes the trip much more relaxing), flew to Jo'burg and then on to the Madikwe airstrip for our firstnight at Mateya in the Madikwe Game Reserve. We arrived just in time for lunch on the terrace. Mateya was gorgeous, the food was fantastic and our ranger, Philip was one of the best we've ever had (this was our 3rd trip to Africa). I would definitely recommend Mateya for the intimacy and luxury. My only complaint was that it felt a little removed from the bush. The lodge was fenced so there was no wildlife coming through the property. Some people may love this, but we like the feeling of truly being in the wild. That said, there was a water hole in view of the dining terrace and it was almost constantly in use. When we arrived there was a pride of lions (about 8) and a small group of baboons at the waterhole. When we went out on our afternoon drive, we watched these lions for over an hour. I've never seen lions so active and playful. The whole time we were there they were chasing each other up trees, sparing with one another and generally just having fun. There were two very old males with the pride and we were sure they wouldn't be able to hold on to the pride much longer. It was sad to see these two old guys in the waning part of their lives. This same pride played for us again the next morning around a dam and kept us entertained for over an hour this time. This is probably a good time to mention a big advantage of Mateya. They only put 4 guest in a vehicle, and since there are only 5 rooms, obviously there aren't many Mateya vehicles around. Another curious thing we'd never witnessed before was that the trackers stayed on the front of the vehicle even when there were predators close by. I asked our tracker, Adolph if this bothered him and he said he couldn't see any reason to be afraid since he had lived in the bush all his life and knew how to read the animals pretty well. Adolph and our ranger, Philip were a superb team and Philip had a great sense of humor and we all started kidding each other as soon as we started out. This made for a very fun time. Philip was also a very good photographer and help me with my meager skills. The animals at Mateya look very healthy and since the park was only recently populated, the animals are well-known to the rangers. We enjoyed Mateya, but the wildlife was somewhat sparse on our visit, although there had been wild dogs a few weeks before we arrived. We saw a wonderful group of about 60 elephants around a waterhole and it was a terrific sighting. We stayed three nights before heading to Botswana. In summary, I'd say that Mateya was a good first stop because it was so restful and easy. It gave us a chance to get over our jetlag in grand style. The food and service were outstanding and they didn't miss any detail. But for me it still felt a little cutoff from the wild and Madikwe itself did not live up to expectations. I'd give the entire experience about a B+.

We left Mateya by hired car to drive to Gaborone to catch our chartered flight to the Chitabe airstrip. The ride was enjoyable and we were very impressed with Gaborone. Our charter was long (about 3 1/2 hours), but uneventful. Fortunately we could land directly at the Chitable airstrip without having to go through Maun.

We stayed at Sandibe, in the Chitabe concession. I haven't read much about Sandibe on this site and was a little apprehensive going into it. We had stayed at other CCAfrica properties, however, and always had wonderful experiences, so this helped our comfort level somewhat. I must say the the level of accommodation was lower than we had expected, and the food was not good either. However, even with these to fairly big negatives, we had a wonderful time at Sandibe and I can say that it was the most fun place we visited. The staff was very warm and accommodating and since we were there for 5 nights, we felt like family before we left. Elephants were everywhere (even in camp) and each morning I woke up about 4am to the sound of an elephant splashing in the water just in front of our room. While I wished he'd come a little later, I loved this exciting wake up call. At Sandibe, we truly felt a part of the Delta and the experience was just the opposite (in a great way) from what we found at Mateya. While we were at Mateya we saw a leopard briefly, but followed an African Wild Cat for over 30 minutes on the road, we finally had to drive around her to make it back to camp. She seemed to love our presence. We also saw several servals. We got to know a small lion family; 3 cubs (about 6 mos. old), an older cousin (about 18 mos. old, and the mother of the three cubs. Our excellent ranger (Tsabo) told us the outlook for this group was not very good because the mother was having a hard time getting enough food for the 4 cubs. On our last full day, however, we were lucky enough to witness not only a kill, but the first kill by this older cub. She was able to take down a warthog by herself, and while the kill was not clean or fast and that made it difficult to watch, it was wonderful to know that now that she can kill, the small family has a much better chance of survival. To top off that wonderful day, we saw 4 honey badgers that evening at sundowners! In summary, I'd recommend Sandibe for the wonderful staff and rangers and for the abundance of wildlife we found on our visit.

Next we took a break from our safaris and headed to Franschoek (sp?) for some wine tasting and to see Cape Town. We stayed at Le Quartier Francais and had a wonderful time. The restaurant there did not disappoint us. Great service and beautifully presented delicious food. We spent one day visiting the wineries (including Spier for some interaction with the cheetahs and birds of prey) and a second day driving around Cape Town.
Unfortunately it rained our entire visit and the fog was so bad that we couldn't go up Table Mountain. We drove down the coast, saw the penguins at Boulder's Beach and made it to the Cape. We saw just enough to know we'd like to return in better weather and with a few additional days.

After this quick break we were ready to get back in the bush and headed to Ngala Tented Camp in the Timbavati area. Our first gamedrive was spectacular. We stopped to see a giraffe on the road near a waterhole and while we were watching him, we heard baboon alarm calls near the waterhole. We searched briefly and came to a mother lion with three cubs. The cubs were being playful, and just like in Sandibe, I could have watched them all day. In a few minuted we heard a ruckus and looked over to see that a huge male elephant had joined us at the water hole. Then within a few minutes a bachelor herd of about 8 Cape buffaloes were also with us. So, sitting at this one spot, we had a giraffe by the road, baboons in the trees, a family of lions on our left and an elephant and herd of buffalo on our right! What an incredible feeling. After a while, the elephant ran off the mother lion and as he was walking away, the bravest of the little cubs gave the ele a good chase. This is one of my favorite pictures! But the evening wasn't over. We were called to see a leopard in a tree with 3 elephants hanging out below. We got there with enough light for a few good pictures of the prettiest leopard we'd see on our trip.

The other major animal highlight of Ngala was the last day we heard noises and when we investigated we saw that we had just missed a huge kill. A pride of about 12 lions had taken down 2 wildebeest and 2 impalas at the same time. We got there just as they were beginning to feed. This was a very wild pride of lions. Our ranger and tracker told us that this group lived in a totally wild area of Kruger and is seldom seen out of that area, so they were not accustomed to our vehicles or certainly not to us. Our ranger (who was not very experienced....more on that later) did not want to stay, but our tracker, Sandros, said that he had seen the pride and thought we were fine. Nevertheless, while we watched, they never took their eyes off of us and we held our breath the entire time. This is the first time in Africa where we've witnessed a kill and I felt a heightened sense of danger. We got some incredible pictures, especially of the eyes of these cats that never left us for a moment.

Regarding staying at Ngala Tented Camp, this was our most disappointing experience. First and foremost, we had a ranger with very little experience and he was also a "fill in" from another lodge (Phinda), so not only did he have little experience, he did not know his way around the park. Our tracker, Sandros, had a great deal of experience, but he and Justin (our ranger) were clearly not compatible. They didn't seem to respect each other and it made it very uncomfortable for all of us. I think either would have been good on their own, but together they were a terrible combination. (By the way, I have expressed our concerns with CCAfrica Management and receive an immediate and supportive response). The other thing I didn't like about Ngala was that the tents were very close together, so you could hear everything that went on in the other tents (some of it quite interesting!). Needless to say, if you like privacy (we do) this needs to be a consideration of staying here. On the positive side, however, the camp management was great, as was our "butler" David. Also, the tents were beautiful, just too close together for my taste.

After Ngala we headed to Singita. this was our second visit to Singita. The last visit was so long ago that they were a CCAfrica property at that time. We went back because we were traveling with another couple and we wanted them to see how amazing the property is and also how abundant the animals are in Sabi Sands. The physical property was just as wonderful (maybe moreso) than we'd remembered and the service and food were also superb. But what made this the best experience of the trip was the fantastic ranger we had, Marc E. (there are several Marcs.) It was clear that he didn't want to just go where others were going and we felt like we were truly tracking the animals. (On our first trip to Singita, one of our complaints was that it seemed to much like a zoo.)
Everyday was special and we saw all the big five the first day. The best day was when we left, just after daybreak, and were called back to the lodge because a leopard was on the roof of one of the rooms. Well, this turned out to be our room, so we claimed this to be "our leopard". This young male was born in the rock outcropping nearby and Singita was in his territory. During the time we were there he made many appearances and the ability to get good daylight photos of this beautiful guy was almost a daily treat. He also stole things from the lodge. While we were there he stole a hot water bottle, a spray bottle, a towel, a zebra skin rug, and several pillows. After we returned, our "butler" Linda sent us a picture where he had taken one of the guests jackets and taken it into a tree! While this was exciting and great fun for us, there was a serious concern that the leopard hadn't gone away to establish his territory yet. There was a coalition of 6 male lions in the area and there was fear that the young leopard would meet an unhappy end.

One night, after dinner, Marc asked us if we wanted to go back out with him to investigate some lion roaring not far from the lodge. He really wanted us to be able to hear a lion roar closeby. So, about 10:00, we got back in the vehicle and heading toward to place where we had left the lion before dinner. It took a while to find him, but there he was. It was perfectly dark and we were the only people anywhere around and soon he began his series of roars. We were probably only 4-5 feet from him and I have to say that this was one of the most memorable moments in my life. The entire vehicle shook as his roars reverberated off the hills. We had heard roars before, but never so upclose and never in the pitch of darkness. I'll never forget this experience and will always be grateful to Marc for spending this extra time making our visit so special.

The last night we were at Singita, Marc and Linda planned a special night for us. They decorated the airstrip and "terminal" for cocktails and dinner just for our vehicle. They had set out a telescope in the middle of the airstrip and Marc gave us a good astronomy lesson to boot. It was a sensational way to end a fabulous stay. My one and only complaint about Singita is that many of the guests there seem to be the type to "check it off the list" rather than truly be there for the wilderness. It was the only place we saw "designer" safari outfits and that women wore makeup and jewels on gamedrives. However, nothing could take away from the perfect time we had at Singita.

After Singita it was sadly time for the long trip home.

For pictures, we posted a few at:

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