In May of 2013 we (my wife Sue and I) took a safari trip to Africa. It was an absolutely spectacular trip and one we relive every time we look at photos or read my notes (or when I write a trip report!). I don’t have the creative writing skills of some of the folks whose SXM reports I have read over the years, but I tried to write this to give you an idea of how we went about it and what we did and what we saw. I hope this inspires someone to plan a trip of their own. You won’t regret it.
This report is pretty long and rather photo-heavy so I split it into several parts.
In truth, though, words wouldn’t do this trip justice even if I was a great writer. I therefore refer you to some of our photos: here and here. Keep in mind, what you see are the best of the approximately 10,000 stills and videos we took. Enjoy!
Like many people, I suppose, we have always dreamt of a trip to Africa. To see all those animals, in the wild, not cages, would be fantastic! The things that made such a trip seem out of reach were safety, the complexity of planning such a trip and the expense. Well, we thought, maybe someday… Hearing of the sudden deaths of a couple of friends not much older than we are, and a health scare of our own just a few years ago, made us ask ourselves: if we can address those concerns, what are we waiting for?
So, Africa is a big place. Where to go? That led to: what do we really want to see? Answer: animals. A safari, not hiking through the jungle, whacking at vines, trying not to get eaten by lions, but more “civilized”, safer, guided. Does such a thing exist? Emphatically, yes.
A quick visit to the “Africa” section of TTOL gave us some guidance. Carol Hill wrote a very detailed report for their trip in 2005 link. That, with a bit of further research (the internet is a wonderful thing!), convinced me that my worries about terrorism, violence amid tribal warfare, kidnapping, etc were greatly overblown, at least in some areas of Africa. As it happens, the travel objective that motivated Carol and Eric was exactly what we had in mind: wildlife viewing. Botswana is great for this. It is a stable democracy, relatively prosperous and quite safe. The government there has made a conscious effort to attract smaller numbers of tourists on high-end trips, so if you can afford it you can avoid crowds and have a more personal experience. The Okavango Delta in northern Botswana is a great place to see wildlife in numbers and variety.
Logistics were the next concern. I contacted a number of travel agents and ended up with Fish Eagle Safaris, the same folks Carol and Eric used. They’re a company based in Houston, not that it matters these days; all our communications were via email. FES responded promptly to my (many!) questions and put together a great package that met our requirements. I don’t use travel agents much anymore, but for specialized locations someone with personal experience in a certain area can provide a very valuable service (Jim Ruos in the case of Orient Beach, Fish Eagle in Africa).
Regarding the expense, this isn’t a trip everyone can afford, certainly not as a casual vacation. Having said that, we saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list trip and we were willing to splurge. Echoing our original motivation for this trip, what are we saving for, if not something like this? Details of cost later.
We hoped to travel during May and as it turns out, for Southern Africa, this is my all-time favorite travel time: shoulder season, almost as nice as high season but less expensive. Northern hemisphere summer is high season for them as it is dry and cool and the animals congregate around the dwindling watering holes. Our winter is what they call the green season as it is (relatively) wet, but also hot and humid. I think our timing was perfect. We had some rain in Johannesburg but, as expected, none in Botswana. Days were sunny and quite warm, probably 80 degrees or so. Nights were chilly, into the 40’s. This differential made it necessary to carry extra clothes on each game drive, to shed as the morning warmed or to cover-up as the night got cool.
Six months before departure essentially all the arrangements were made (and for safaris that would be considered last minute!). It was a very long six months. Dreaming, researching and planning are a big part of the fun of travelling, so when there’s not much left to do I get a bit antsy.
We decided to fly into Johannesburg, South Africa and spend two nights pre-safari there. This was partly to give time to adjust to the time change and partly because airfare leaving on a Friday (vs Saturday) was $200 less, which covered most of the cost of the extra day in Jo-burg (as we world travelers call it).
Our itinerary in Africa included a total of 8 nights on safari. We stayed in camps run by one of the best (I think) companies, Wilderness Safaris. They have exclusive rights to large parcels of land. There are undoubtedly many other ways to experience Africa but we went with a trip featuring stays at semi-permanent camps in isolated areas, with guided game drives. Fish Eagle scheduled us for a total of eight nights in three different camps. This sort of “sampler” is pretty typical, I believe; you get to see different environments and somewhat different wildlife.
Our final itinerary was:
Friday May 17: CLT to ATL, then board the ATL to JNB flight
Saturday May 18: arrive JNB early evening.
Sunday May 19: Johannesburg
Monday May 20: Air Botswana flight from JNB to Maun, Botswana. Met by Wilderness Safari reps and flown to our first camp. Three nights at Tubu Tree Camp.
Thursday May 23: fly to the second camp. Three nights at Savuti Camp.
Sunday May 26: fly to third camp. Two nights at Mombo Camp.
Tuesday May 28: return flight to Maun, then to Johannesburg and board the flight to ATL
Wednesday May 29: arrive ATL early AM, flight to CLT arriving 10:30AM
Packing, immunizations and other pre-trip details
Baggage is severely limited on safari as we flew very small planes to and from the individual camps. Our “checked baggage” was required to fit into the compartment under the plane, which has a hatch opening that is only 10 inches high, so we used duffle bags from REI that were 10 inches in diameter and 20 inches long. “Carry-on” baggage consisted of a backpack, containing primarily photo equipment. The total weight allowance (all baggage) was 20kg, about 44 pounds, per person.
For clothes packing we generally followed the advice from Wilderness and Carol and Eric Hill. Neutral shades (avoiding bright colors), layers to allow for comfort on cool mornings and evenings as well as hot afternoons, light in weight. Daily laundry service at each camp made it possible to carry only a few of each item. We used most of what we packed so I think we got it right: we didn’t carry a lot of things we didn’t need and rarely wished we’d brought more. Mornings and late evenings were cooler than we expected so the layering concept was critical.
I wanted to preserve, digitally, as much of this trip as I could so camera equipment was extremely important. I already owned a digital SLR, a Canon T2i. Several months ago, for reasons too complicated to get into, we bought another, somewhat less expensive DSLR, a Canon T3, so we had two good cameras with lenses that could be interchanged. Sue hasn’t used a camera of this type very often so we made time to practice before we left. She took a number of good shots. The usual consumer telephoto zoom for this camera is 55-250mm. I really wanted something longer so I rented a 100-400 from lensrentals.com. It performed beautifully and I was very glad I spent the money: $180 for 2 weeks, shipped and insured. We stocked up on digital memory cards and, believing in a “belt and suspenders” approach, I bought a portable card reader/hard drive and made a backup copy of each card, every afternoon. The two backpacks served as camera bags. They were carry-on baggage, only, of course, and doubled as storage for extra clothes during our game drives.
Electronics and cameras made up a substantial fraction of our weight allowance. We carried our Kindles but we were so busy there wasn’t much need for them. Sue took her iPad but without wi-fi or cell service it wasn’t much use on safari. It did come in handy to email family from Johannesburg.
Safari camps in Botswana are completely isolated. Very comfortable, even luxurious, but if they are not exactly in the middle of nowhere, “nowhere“ isn’t far away. Electricity from generators and/or solar panels was available at least part of the day, but there was no phone service of any kind. I imagine there was a radio that could be used to contact help in an emergency but there was just no easy way for us to communicate with the outside world. A satellite phone would have worked, I suppose, but I didn’t see that as worth the expense.
For travel to Botswana the CDC recommends hepatitis A and B vaccines and a current tetanus shot. I was still Hep-B immune from a series of vaccines 25+ years ago but Sue needed that and we both got Hep-A and tetanus. We took malaria prophylaxis pills called Malarone; they are rumored to cause unpleasant side effects in some people but we had no problems whatsoever. Whether such medication was truly necessary is another matter. Apparently people who live or work in the area don’t bother; the risk is low and the pills can be expensive over there.
We live not far from Charlotte so we typically fly USAirways, because we can get most places non-stop (SXM, Las Vegas, NYC, etc.). This was not an option to Johannesburg. Our best choices were CLT to NYC then to Johannesburg (non-stop or one-stop), or CLT to Atlanta then non-stop to South Africa. We had a strong desire to minimize time in airports even if it meant one very long flight so we chose the latter. I booked Delta, CLT to ATL then ATL to JNB. The main leg of that itinerary is a flight of about 15 hours. For that reason I purchased what Delta calls “Economy Comfort” seats. The first few rows in coach have slightly greater pitch so there is more legroom and the seat recline is extended a bit. The seats are no wider than regular coach. The extra legroom was nice but neither of us is very tall. The extra recline was not really noticeable; sleeping was still not easy. The other supposed benefits of Economy Comfort (early boarding and free cocktails) were not very important to us. Service and food were standard coach. For this long flight the upgrade was $159 each, each way. Was it worth it? I guess so although I certainly wouldn’t pay the extra for anything but a very long flight.
We had a three hour layover in ATL and several hours to wait in Johannesburg before the return flight so I bought a 30-day pass to the Delta Sky Club (there is no Delta lounge in JNB but the Delta membership gives access to the Air France lounge). I had visions of napping, maybe even showering after the safari. We didn’t do either but the quiet place to chill, and the snacks, made it worth the $90.
A few months before this trip we enrolled in the Global Entry program. Reviews here have been mixed but we thought it was well worth it. Our boarding passes in CLT indicated “TSA precheck” so we zipped through the security line and kept our shoes on. Nice. Upon return to the US, in Atlanta, we went to a kiosk, scanned our passports and the immigration officer waved us through with the flight crews. We also skipped the line at customs, once we had reclaimed our luggage.
All flights were smooth and on-time. The long flights were on 777-200 planes with the economy section split 3-3-3. Each seatback had a video screen with games, music and video programs. All the movies were free. Each of us watched one or two movies, between naps. The flight to JNB left around 7:30PM EDT and arrived about 5:00PM local. We were served dinner shortly after takeoff, a snack midflight and another substantial snack closer to landing. The return flight left at about 8:00PM and arrived in ATL early in the morning, around 6:30AM. The meal schedule was similar. The meals were OK, nothing special.
Sleeping proved to be difficult. Even with the window shades down and noise-cancelling ear-buds, we just couldn’t get comfortable. A sleeping pill, or something, seemed to work for the guy next to me in the window seat on the flight back over the Atlantic. 15 hours and he didn’t budge! Sue and I each got 4to 5 hours of shut-eye, in chunks of an hour or two at most. We arrived stiff and a little bleary-eyed but we just pushed through until local bedtime and slept soundly the first night.
We’ve travelled a fair amount, almost all of it in the US. The international nature of JNB was pretty cool. To look at the arrival and departure monitors and see flights to Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas was amazing. I guess JNB is a crossroads.
The immigration hall is enormous and the masses of arriving passengers made it look like the wait would be long but it really wasn’t bad. Baggage claim was relatively quick and customs pretty much non-existent.
After a stop at the ATM for local currency (Rand) we looked for the driver I had arranged for transport to the nearby hotel. Couldn’t find him so eventually I had to figure out how to use a payphone to call the hotel (How much does a local call cost in South Africa, any idea? Me either, but it wasn’t much.) The hotel insisted I must have just missed the driver but I don’t see how that’s possible. I started to have a bad feeling, but as it turned out that was just about the only glitch on the whole trip.
I had arranged two nights at a hotel near the airport, the Peermont L’Oreale Grande at Emperor’s Palace.
This is a complex of hotels of various grades connected to a sort of mall with a few shops, several restaurants and a casino. I figured we would not want to explore Johannesburg this time, just stay close to the hotel, eat a few meals, lose a little cash into a slot machine and rest up. A bit over $200 a night for the best hotel in the group. Not a bad place to stay. Comfortable, convenient, excellent service. The shopping/restaurant mall reminded me of The Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, right down to the fountain with statues in the center.
We had a decent dinner at one of the restaurants, spent a little time in the casino (I generally don’t care for the “penny” slots in Vegas, where each “credit” is $0.01, you play 10 or 15 lines and 5 or 10 credits per line. I can never figure out how much I am losing. Then, add the confusion of playing 0.05 Rand per credit, and a Rand is about 11 cents, and I have no idea what I am doing!). Suddenly the fatigue hit me and I had to head to bed.
Upon arrival at the hotel we had been “upgraded” to some sort of special floor, with a breakfast lounge. I wasn’t expecting a lot, but wow, I was so wrong! The lounge has key access, two or three attendants and an amazing variety of foods. A number of things I didn’t recognize, a lot of things that looked too pretty to eat. Full service at tables with a view of the gardens, newspapers, TV, even a bell on the table to ring if you wanted more coffee. Very luxurious and relaxing.
We didn’t venture out of the complex the whole day. It was windy, cool and raining on and off, anyway. We got quick massages at the hotel spa, ate a couple of OK meals, lost a small amount of money at the casino (again, hard to calculate exactly how much!) and retired early. In general we found things such as meals, etc., even at a place like Emperor’s Palace, to be very reasonably priced compared to in the US.
We packed and grabbed breakfast in the lounge. We were severely underdressed in our safari clothes; the rest of the guests were clearly businesspeople from all around the world. The driver returned us to the airport. We checked in at the Air Botswana counter and did the security-immigration dance again. I was not expecting immigration on departure; leaving the US is easy, getting in is more complicated (or is supposed to be), but it’s different in other countries apparently. We saw that sequence each time we passed through an airport.
JNB is a very large airport with many high-end shops so we had a little time to pick up some extra clothes. It was cooler than we expected and the jacket Sue bought there was put to good use later. Our flight to Maun was almost an hour late arriving in Johannesburg and those in the know did not seem surprised. We had time to talk to other travellers, from the US, the UK and New Zealand among others. On the bus that took us across the tarmac to our plane we spoke to a nice family (German, I think) who actually live in Maun and we mentioned our “once-in-a-lifetime” trip to Africa. They just chuckled and told us we would catch the “Africa virus”. Sounded a little scary, like ebola or something worse, but I gather it’s sort of like the well-known “dreaded island fever”?? They were right, of course...
The Air Botswana plane was a nice turboprop, leather seats, 2x2. It was half full at best. The flight to Maun was only about 90 minutes so the light snack was sufficient.
Maun’s airport is small, obviously. Smaller by far than the old SXM airport. Not much of a terminal, really; just two or three gates. We were met quickly by the Wilderness rep, “Chippa”, who supplied a bottle of water and a damp ice-cold cloth. Very nice. We were then paired with a couple from Connecticut who were also travelling to Tubu Tree.
Carrying our duffle bags, camera bags and other miscellaneous baggage we were escorted out to meet our pilot, a petite young South African woman. She jammed our bags into the hold while we took photos and then we squeezed into the seats of the tiny plane.
Sue had fully intended to use some pharmacologic assistance to keep her anxiety in check; a plane so small you can barely sit, much less stand, is not her idea of a fun time. To my surprise she cheerfully climbed in and buckled up. Once again she proved to me she could do anything she set her mind to.
The flight to Hunda Island, in the western part of the famous Okavango Delta and serving several camps in the area, took 40 minutes.
The other passengers saw elephants along the way but I somehow missed them. Still, though, it was a thrilling flight and a smooth landing on the airstrip.
We were met by the man who was to be our guide for the three days, Seretse. By the time we put our bags into the Land Rover the tiny plane was gone. That’s the key to on-time air service: don’t turn the engine off, just drop your passengers and get back into the air.
Hunda airport “terminal”
Tubu Tree transportation department
A five minute drive on the dusty path got us to the camp where we were met in what we came to understand is the usual way: several staff members standing at the entry to camp, cold drinks and cool damp cloths ready for us.
As mentioned, we split our safari among three camps. Fish Eagle set all this up for us. I just asked for a variety of camps, and requested a couple of nights at Mombo (based on the rave reviews). They proposed three nights at Tubu Tree, followed by three nights at Savuti, then returning to the Delta for two nights at Mombo. The first two are what Wilderness calls Classic Camps and Mombo is in the Premier Camp category. An excellent mix, as it turned out.
Although each has its individual layout, all these camps are built in a similar way. Guests stay in “tents”. There are perhaps 8 or 10 tents per camp. These things are not like any tent I have ever seen. First of all, the tents (and all common areas such as lounges and dining areas) are elevated on sturdy wooden decks, and connected by walkways, so at all times in camp we were 8-10 feet above the ground.
Secondly, each tent had an extremely comfortable king-sized bed with wonderful linens and insect netting, deluxe bathroom facilities (one shower inside and one outside, double sinks, commode, mirrors, etc.), a sitting area with desk and lighting and an outdoor deck. Other than having screens and canvas sides and not having heat or A/C, they were as comfortable as any hotel room. And the view!! Sitting on the deck, looking out across the Delta (or Savute Channel), with no neighbors in sight, was heaven.
All camps are completely open. No fences. Having the buildings up on stilts gives the illusion of safety, I suppose, but at Savuti the elephants walked among the tents (mostly at night, and they are not quiet animals!) and sometimes broke walkways or railings. Tubu also had a small gift shop but they had to keep the doors closed after monkeys got in and stole jewelry. We were told a staffer encountered a leopard on the walkway one night while we were at Savuti. At Mombo baboons strolled the walkways and, if you didn’t lock your doors, they would steal your belongings. Don’t want to see your underclothes in the trees! Having said all that, we never felt unsafe. We were not allowed, at any of the camps, to venture outside of our tents after dark. A staffer escorted us to and from our tent at night (after dinner, for example); when we asked what help the diminutive young woman would be if we encountered a dangerous animal, they suggested we trip her and run for it.
The center of activity at Tubu was the bar.
A gorgeous piece of wood, possibly a large tree branch, carved and polished to be both beautifully natural and functional. Nearby was the dining area with a single long table. A lounge with a spotting telescope on the deck. A “loo-with-a-view” (open to the Delta). A small swimming pool, a circular seating area down on the ground, with a fire ring.
Every tent and common area at Savuti overlooked the Channel.
There was a similar assortment of buildings as at Tubu. Slightly more dated and worn but still very nice. A beautiful fire-pit area on a deck, and another dining area on the ground in a boma, a sort of fortress surrounded by wooden stakes.
Mombo is probably the flagship camp for Wilderness Safaris. As recently noted it was named, by the readers of Travel and Leisure magazine, the best hotel in the world. I can’t disagree although it is hard to compare Mombo to a “normal” hotel. The luxury bordered on the ridiculous. I personally can’t imagine spending much time at the exercise center, running on a treadmill while looking out over the Okavango, but I saw a few people doing just that. Our tent measured 15 feet by 75 feet.
As usual, indoor shower (actually, a double) and an outdoor one, double sinks and mirrors, etc. A nice sitting area with an electrically chilled cool box, fully stocked with all types of beverages. A coffee service.
A carafe of sherry, with glasses (I didn’t know I liked sherry, but I guess I do). An outdoor futon in addition to the deck running the length of the tent. Public areas were similarly elegant. The lounge had a large fully stocked bar: “There is usually someone there to serve you but if not, just step behind it and help yourselves.”
Rather than a single large dining area there were smaller tables for two or four, like at a restaurant.
In Johannesburg we were struck by the numbers of people, at the hotel or at the restaurants, practically falling over each other to be helpful. Staff at the Wilderness camps were more reserved but we were very well cared for, indeed. I was told the ratio of staff to guests is 3-to-1. Many of them were behind the scenes, cooking or cleaning but you could tell they were there. At each camp we got to know the managers and the other senior staff. Most or all of the food service, housekeeping staff, and drivers/guides were Botswana natives. It appeared that most of the managers, etc. were South African or European.