On safari in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
By Katie Tarbox
My dream of traveling to Africa began, strangely enough, at a doctor’s farm in Poolsville, Md. There I sat sipping champagne looking at a stuffed lion and lioness similar to the creatures that I had been enchanted by at the Museum of Natural History. There wet bar was furnished with a rhinoceros foot ice bucket with an elephant foot umbrella holder leaning against the wall and zebra rugs all over? all souvenirs from a recent Africa hunting trip. In rare form, I was actually quiet while I listened to the doctor and his wife relay tales of hunting on big game safaris. I found it to be thrilling ? to me Africa represented the wild and the untamed. It was a forbidden fruit; an unknown territory for me. I wanted to go.
“Africa?” my friends questioned with a sense shock as we sipped cosmopolitans. “Yes, Africa, and I want you to join me,” I retorted. After a few quizzical looks, and a few more drinks, my excitement and enthusiasm was enough to coax two of my friends, Ashley Taylor and Katherine Kennedy, to join me on my dream. So after, we booked our two and a half week trip.
BIG FIVE DREAMING
After injections of everything from hepatitis to measles vaccines, we were on our way and I was out of my comfort zone. I felt anxious and nervous leading up to the trip even though I had been to remote parts of Thailand and Asia. I bought over $300 of medication from my CVS fearing I would never see a drug store again. I even made it a point to visit my parents the weekend before I left after hearing odd stories of people spontaneously dying or being attacked by villages while on safari.
Our safari began in Johannesburg after 20 hours of flying and a connection through Heathrow. There is no quick and easy way to get to Africa. South African Airways offers one direct flight from Dulles, but it’s usually double the fare of flying through Europe. From Johannesburg we traveled to a small airport, KMIA, in the Kruger National Park and transferred to a chartered flight that would eventually take us to legendary private game reserve Mala Mala.
When I conjured up going on chartered flights, I thought of luxury, privacy and going to remote places, I wasn’t thinking this would be a four-person plane the size of a small boat that looked like it didn’t belong in the air. I held my breath and closed my eyes tightly for almost the entire 20-minute flight to our camp, the Mala Mala Game Preserve. As we began our descent, I opened my eyes enough to see a herd of elephants traveling toward a river. I was calm and I realized why I came to Africa: getting a chance to see the Big Five ? the lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros and being overwhelmed by the beauty of an unspoiled country.
I chose Mala Mala, the largest and oldest of the private game reserves in the Sabi Sand Game area, for its reputation for luxury and great Big Five viewing. While many safari camps are popping up in the Sabi Sand area with unreal amenities (day spas, five-star cuisine), I wanted something more authentic while offering luxury. It’s an unspoken guarantee that you will see them. We were there … and, wow, it was cold.
July in South Africa is winter, I bundled up in my warmest Patagonia fleece, North Face jacket, gloves and a hat for our first game drive after we arrived. Temperatures at dusk were near freezing. Even after I put blankets on, I was shivering as the 16-seat open roof Range Rover pulled up with a rifle adorned on its hood. Our ranger Andrew, a handsome young “chap” from South Africa, took one look at us eyeing the rather imposing gun, laughed and assured us he’s never had to use it.
We traveled at about 40 miles per hour across the bush and over streams until our game tracker spotted “dung.” The car came to a halt and Andrew jumped out to inspect. “It’s fresh,” he shared. I never been so excited to see feces before because it meant a lion was close. Our tracker jumped out of the car, rifle in hand, walked a few yards and found prints ? they were also fresh ? the car quickly took off like in a scene in “Jurassic Park” and followed the tracks till we saw a male lion resting in tall grass. We pulled close enough that I could have almost touched it.
“They are used to the cars, but if you get out, they will eat in less than five minutes,” Andrew explained rather matter-of-factly. I didn’t move at all as I rapidly shot snaps with my digital camera. Suddenly, the king of the jungle began roaring … actually he more bellowed like he was in pain or constipated. Before the night was over, we had seen over 100 baboons, many giraffe and a rare monkey that looked more like a bat than monkey.
GAME TO EAT
Secretly I dreamed that I would be sick in Africa contracting a rare parasite from some meat I ate that would allow me to lose 20 lbs. in three weeks. The reality was in the middle of Africa I was eating proscuitto, mozzarella, creamy mashed potatoes and crusty bread. It wasn’t Citronelle or Cityzen, but it was as good as some of the finer restaurants in Washington. I remarked to Ashley that we could be the elephant viewing when we got back the food was so delicious.
I mentioned that my Beef Wellington had a strong taste to our guide. He leaned over and shared: “You remember seeing the deer at about noon today, the Kodu?” I nodded back affirmative. “You’re eating Kodu Wellington,” he remarked. I won’t lie, I became slightly disgusted ? I was devouring Bambi Wellington … and it tasted rather good.
The camp workers ended the night with traditional songs around a campfire while I sipped a fine South African pinot noir, and soon we were off to bed after a very successful first day on safari. The rooms were luxurious, the sheets were French linens, and the bathroom was ensconced in marble. I marveled at how they were able to construct a five-star luxury accommodation deep in the heart of nowhere.
“Knock, knock,” Andrew chirped entirely too enthusiastically for 5:30 a.m. It was time for our sunrise safari. In winter, morning safaris begin at 6 a.m. sharp, while during summer, departure is at 5 a.m. The afternoon heat becomes unbearable and game viewing is best in the mornings. Over the next thee days, we spent up to ten hours a day bumping through the bush clinging to the safety of our Range Rover. I had transformed from the girl refusing to ride in my ex-boyfriends Hummer to counting down for the next game drive.
Sometimes we stopped for cocktails and snacks in the bush, but for the most part we were traveling to find and observe game. We were fortunate enough to see the Big Five in one day! Sitting in a car, where the only goal was to watch animals and soak in the beautiful African landscape, was surprisingly more relaxing to me than being in the Caribbean on the beach. At night, Ashley, Katherine and I would sit out under the sky and drinking South African wine. It was the most fun I’ve ever had.
ONTO SOUTH AFRICA
From Mala Mala we traveled back to Johannesburg where we over-nighted at the Westcliffe and started our tour with Orient Express, which has become a leader in the African safari tours. The chic boutique hotel provided us with a chance to catch our breath and relax. I was warned not to venture outside of my hotel in Johannesburg, but has become the de facto gateway for luxury safaris, and the city now is also home to many galleries and museums. The Nelson Mandela Apartheid Museum (www. www.apartheidmuseum.org) is highly recommended.
Fine-dining wise, there are a few solid choices in Johannesburg, but perhaps one of the best is La Belle Terrasse at the Westcliffe. The elegant restaurant deftly combines European and traditional African dishes, for example steaks rubbed with a combination of spices.
The hotel is former upscale apartment building with a homey feel thanks to the large rooms and separate lounge areas. A small spa, tennis courts and a state-of-the-art business center are also on property. If it weren’t for the anticipation of traveling on to Botswana for more safari, I could have gladly stayed longer at Westcliffe.
We traveled to Botswana on the Orient Express … which is not exactly roughing it, as the renown travel company takes pride in taking care of our every need. (Everything on the Orient Express safaris are all inclusive, while the $1,000 per person per night rates are not cheap, you are left with a peace of mind that everything is taken care of and safe.) We first landed in Maun and then connected via charter flight to the Orient Express Khwai River Lodge on the Okvongo Delta. On arrival, we are greeted by elephants playing in the distance.
Botswana is known for large concentrations of big mammals, especially buffalo and hippos. Khwai River Lodge is so remote that it is only reachable by a satellite phone that charges over $50 a minute, which meant that while I safaried, I simultaneously recovered from my Blackberry addiction (I haven’t relapsed since my return.)
The property is a 15-room lodge that sits on the edge of a leadwood and fig tree forest. The rooms are elegant tents raised on wooden platforms with traditional African thatched roofs. There is heating and air-conditioning along with all the amenities of a modern hotel: fully-stocked mini-bar, room service, etc. At night, the maids put a very snuggle-able teddy bear shaped hot-water bottle under our covers. Though I couldn’t reach any store for hundreds of miles, I never thought about what I didn’t have with me. It made me realize the luxuries that are necessities (a large walk in marble shower) and which others seemed frivolous (my prada handbags).
The Orient Express operates safaris at a more leisurely pace than in Kruger. While some safari camps micro-chip and bait animals, or stock their grounds, the Orient Express relies on expert guide know-how. It works. We spotted crocodiles and hippos as well as a large hundred-strong herd of buffalo in the bush. Typically, viewing such large numbers of game only occurs in Kenya, which is known for its annual zebra crossing.
Our safari ended at the Orient Express’s Eagle Island Camp. It’s similar to the Khwai River lodge in that there are twelve small bungalows overlooking a river, but unlike camps that only offer hour-long game drives, Eagle Island Camp provides options such as an afternoon sunset marsh cruise, canoe rides and walking safaris. Our guide told us that we should treat lions like house dogs as we were tromping around in the bush.
At night, we sipped cocktails and watch hippos frolic at the Fish Eagle Bar, which the New York Times voted as “one of the most romantic bars in the world.” Our evening concluded with a seated dinner under the stars. Some guests stayed up late around the campfire, but my friends and I retired early in anticipation of another early morning wake-up call.
Our good-night sleep rewarded us with one of trip’s more memorable days. We traveled to a village in the middle of the Okovongo Delta where local villagers have built huts using aluminum cans and then cemented them using dirt from moist termite mounds. Although near-freezing, the children wore only t-shirts. We are all impressed by the intricately hand-woven baskets the women in the village sell to tourists. I was most impressed by the happiness the villagers created for the wealthy tourists, which I would have guessed to be the opposite.
FALLING OVER ZIMBABWE
From Botswana we flew (North) to the Zimbabwe border and headed to one of the seven wonders of world: Victoria Falls. Zimbabwe is a land of contradictions. We were questioned heavily at the border, and were surprised to learn locals wouldn’t accept their own currency, and instead demanded U.S. dollars. The current political climate notwithstanding, this part of Zimbabwe is safe ? tourism is a vital part of the economy here.
The locals were happy to have visitors and went out of their way to make us feel at welcome. Our hotel, The Victoria Falls Hotel is almost as impressive as the falls. It has a rich history, having hosted both queens and kings from various parts of Europe over the years. The exquisite colonial-era décor makes us all feel like royalty and the grand ballroom transported us back to a bygone era.
There are lots of activities around the falls including guided elephant tours (about $100 per person and can be arranged through the hotel) and white-water rafting (also about $100). There is even a zipline across the falls, which my travel companions went across and lived to tell me it was “the most awesome experience of their lives.”
Our trip wound down in Capetown, a modern coast-side city reminiscent of San Francisco with its quaint cafes and unique art galleries. We were able to jam a day of touring the Cape of Good Hope and wine-tastings, but it was rushed. South African vineyards have become popular internationally, and there are several vineyards that are worth a visit Klein Constantia, which Napoleon’s favorite wine and the only wine he took with him when he was exiled.
We stayed at the Mount Nelson, the “pink gem” of Capetown. Like the other Orient Express hotels, it has many unique touches, right down to the cute elephant-patterned toilet paper, our butler was even named, “Princess.” The rooms are large and overstated. My only complaint was that the Internet connection was not wireless.
The hotel serves an impressive complimentary breakfast and The Star Gazer Lounge is very hip (Leonardo DiCaprio had just finished his stay just a few days before we arrived). The concierges are more than capable of trip planning and steering you right at the many downtown boutiques which sell animal goods (ostrich leather goods, carved wooden items, etc.).
Before I left for Africa, most who described the continent to did so using a slew of superlatives. I was afraid to put those expectations on the trip, but it’s ok, because in terms of vacation there are few experiences that are as exotic, luxurious and, quite honestly, overwhelming. While I was there I felt I was a part of something I couldn’t
Spotting the Big Five, experiencing luxury hotels, and witnessing extraordinary natural wonders make traveling to Africa a rare opportunity, and certainly one of the most memorable travel experiences one can have.
African travel tips
Get Vaccinated Foxhall Immunizations, (202)362-4467, ext. 240, can review your itinerary and determine what shots are appropriate for you. There are about five shots required for African travel and malaria pills are necessary for most destinations in Southern Africa.
Bring Small Items Bring over t-shirts, pants sneakers, crayons, battery-operated gadgets and paper. Locals were more excited about bargaining with physical goods than cash. For my puma sneakers, I could have had a lifetime supply of hand-carved salad tongs.
Budget Accordingly One hotel general manager told me, “Plan your trip, cut your itinerary in half and double your budget.” An average luxury African safari for two starts at about $25,000, the itinerary I went on for three people was about $60,000.
Travel in U.S. Summer June to August is the most ideal time to head to Africa because it is their winter, and there are very few mosquitoes.
Pack as little as you can Most of the chartered flights only allow you to bring 20 Kilos, and they mean it. We had to leave our co-pilot behind in Botswana in order to accommodate our luggage!
Contact information and rates:
P.O. MalaMala, Skukuza, 1353, South Africa
Telephone: + 27 13 735 9200
Fodor’s 2006 Top Ten Hotels to stay at worldwide
Rates begin at $1,000 per person per night
67 Jan Smuts Avenue
Westcliff, Johannesburg, 2193, South Africa
Telephone: +27 (0)11 481 6000
Rates begin at $350 per night.
Orient Express Safaris
PO Box 786432
Sandton, 2146, South Africa
Telephone: +27 (0)11 274 1800
Rates begin at $1,000 per person per night
Victoria Falls Hotel
Telephone: (263 13) 44751/60, 44203/5
P.O. Box 10
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
A member of the Leading Hotels of the World
Rates begin at $200 per night.
Mount Nelson Hotel
76 Orange Street
Cape Town, Republic of South Africa, 8001
Telephone: +27 21 483 1000
Rates begin range from $175 – $5,500 per night