TRIP REPORT–BOTSWANA, LONDON AND VICTORIA FALLS, MAY 13 TO 28, 2005
I will never forget beautiful Africa....
At our first camp in the bush, Savuti Camp in Botswana, they served us a wonderful dinner at a large table outside by the campfire, under the sparkling stars. The ladies sang a wonderful song that went, “ I will never forget beautiful Africa, I will never forget beautiful Botswana, I will never forget Savuti, I will never forget my new friends...” I cried that night around the campfire upon hearing that song, and cried again the night before we finally left Africa, remembering that song and all our wonderful memories. I don’t know how long it will be, but I very sincerely hope and pray we will return to beautiful Africa. It was just a wonderful, amazing, indescribable experience. I hope it is one that those that read this report will be able to share, at least in some measure, by reading this report and the pictures which accompany it. We had some incredibly high expectations about the trip before we left and our expectations were exceeded to an unbelievable extent.
This was our first trip to Africa and we are not at ALL experts on Africa, and are just reporting our own personal experiences. Our purpose in writing such an extensive report is two-fold–one, for us to be able to remember in detail all the wonderful, glorious experiences, and two, for the report to hopefully be of some assistance to others like ourselves who travel to Africa for the first time. I am sure that there are many inaccuracies here in the report, but we are just reporting our personal experiences in (sometimes excruciating) detail. For those who have traveled to Africa before or who have done their own research prior to this, much of what we say here will be things they already know. We looked in vain for such a report as we are posting here, before our trip. We took extensive notes while in Africa, both on notepads and many notes on the laptop we took along, so this report was some 15 pages long before we even got home from Africa, so hopefully you can forgive the length of the report.
First, a word about how this report is organized. This report is long, unbelievably so. I don’t anticipate anyone is going to want to sit down and read it in one sitting. Therefore, I will be posting the report as several different notes, initially in chronological order which somewhat make sense. For anyone that’s interested in just reading the report specifically in order, or in printing out the report to read, without the distraction of the individual notes, here is a link to the full report in straight chronological order, with no pictures....(link will be here when the report is done....)
For those of you that don’t know us from Traveltalkonline, let me tell you a little bit about us. Eric is in his early 50's, I not quite there yet. He is in accounting, I am a lawyer. We had previously done trips to Europe and to Tahiti, but this was our first trip to Africa. We have traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean since our honeymoon there in 1979, and we have visited most of the islands there several times, and we often feel most comfortable there, particularly in St. Martin, which is our particular favorite. An outgrowth of our love of the Caribbean is www.traveltalkonline.com, which is a travel related bulletin board which we own and operate, and which we normally refer to as TTOL. TTOL is mostly devoted to the Caribbean, but we do have other sections, including now, one devoted to Africa. Most of our travels have not involved long distances and before now we had very little exposure to the rigors of jet lag, which can do some peculiar things to the body.
OUR ITINERARY–(All times are local times)
May 13, 2005–Leave Washington Dulles on Virgin Atlantic 7 PM, bound for London, arriving London Heathrow 7 AM. (After a full day of work for both of us.)
May 14–Spend day in London, foregoing sleep, in favor of a tour of London.
May 14–Depart London Heathrow on Virgin Atlantic 9 PM, bound for Johannesburg, South Africa, arriving 9:15 AM May 15.
May 15–Spend night at Holiday Inn Airport, Johannesburg
May 16–12 noon flight on Nationwide Air from Johannesburg to Livingstone, then road and boat transfer to the River Club for 2 nights.
May 18–Road transfer to Kasane Airport for Sefofane small plane transfer to Savuti, for 3 nights.
May 21–Sefofane small plane transfer to Little Vumbura for 3 nights.
May 24–Helicopter transfer to Mombo Camp for 3 nights.
May 27–Sefofane small plane transfer to Maun, then Air Botswana to Johannesburg, then Virgin Atlantic flight from Johannesburg at 8:15 PM to London Heathrow, arriving London Heathrow 6:15 AM. Virgin Atlantic flight from London Heathrow at 11:30 AM, arriving Washington Dulles at 2:40 PM. (Whew, TOOOOOO many planes in 36 hours!!!!!!)
All of our transfers, airplane flights, etc., were without any appreciable incident EXCEPT the Sefofane airplane flight from Kasane to Savuti, which qualified as a semi-disaster, although there were no plane crashes involved.. ...........
So, back to the beginning..
WHY BOTSWANA??? Eric and I started out this adventure to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, which was in June, 2004. Our normal trips these days are to the Caribbean, and we have traveled there many times over the years. We wanted this trip to be somewhere special, exotic, someplace we hadn’t been before. We toyed briefly with the idea of Europe and discarded it as not exotic enough. Besides, we had been to Germany, Holland, and Switzerland on a trip several years ago. We thought about Australia and decided we needed to go for a longer period of time than we had available to do it correctly. Eric suggested “Africa??” and we both went “YES!!”
At that point, we still had to decide WHERE to do within Africa. Eric was the one who chose Botswana, but I totally agreed with his choice. We had started out with the proposition that we were going in the middle of June. So, first, we wanted to see where would provide us the best wildlife experience in June. I don't think that May is much different, in terms of wildlife experience, and for this year, we decided to go a tad earlier, to hopefully get a little warmer weather. Anyway, our first criteria was where would we have the best wildlife experience in June.
Our second criteria was where we would have the best wildlife experience, PERIOD. We were not interested in having to fight crowds to see the animals and were not afraid to spend the money to get a premium comfortable experience which wouldn't have any resemblance to camping. My personal idea of ‘camping’ is the Holiday Inn. We weren't that interested in seeing desert, per se, or big cities. We wanted to see ANIMALS. We wanted to go somewhere that we felt the government was stable, and that we would hopefully be fairly safe, in terms of personal safety. Reading about Botswana in general, it seemed to suit our style--high end, low volume tourism, and a commitment to wildlife preservation. (Please note that for Vic Falls, we stayed on the Zambian side, not in Zimbabwe.) So, that's how we decided on Botswana.
Those of you that are paying attention out there note that our trip was in May 2005. We had made all our plans, made deposits, etc., when circumstances conspired that we were unable to take the trip as planned, in June 2004. Fortunately, we were able to transfer most of our deposits to basically the same trip about a year later, in May 2005. We did lose some deposits and the premium for our travel insurance, but it wasn’t a total loss.
Originally in 2004, we were planning on taking the South Africa Air flight either from JFK or Atlanta, but we ended up getting cold feet over the prospect of 17 hours in a straight shot in the air (or longer), so we decided to check out other options. There are a few different options, but we decided Washington Dulles to London and London to Johannesburg, South Africa would probably work best for us. BTW, as of July, 2005, South Africa Airways is flying from Washington Dulles, with a refueling stop, direct to Johannesburg. SAA ran some specials of $850 R/T for those flights, right after we booked our air tickets. SAA wouldn’t have helped us anyway, as they don’t start flying from Dulles until July, 2005. We waited endlessly, trying to get flights from the DC area to Africa for less than $1500 per person, and by 60 days out, I was getting pretty antsy. We had almost booked British Airways out of Baltimore which had a special for their World Traveller Plus flights to and from London (a kind of premium economy, with an extra 8 inches of leg room), and regular economy from London back and forth to Johannesburg. Then a friend on TTOL directed us to Premier Travel in Philadelphia. Through Premier, we were able to get tickets on Virgin Atlantic for $300 per person less than the British Airways flights would have been, so we opted to go with them. (Is TTOL good or what?????? ) Premier is very busy and there was initially a mistake by them in my flight dates, so just make sure you look at everything closely before you pay. I would use them again, as we saved $300 a person.
For those of us without a zillion frequent flyer miles and who aren’t millionaires, to be able to afford business or first class, there is a big difference in the types of planes being used by the various carriers. For example, British Airways, as of this writing, is using 747's which are configured 3-4-3, which means that there are no 2 seat combinations by themselves, the optimum combination for a couple traveling together. One advantage that BA does have, though, is that they are currently flying TWO 747's basically an hour apart, back and forth to Johannesburg from London, so one would think during off season, you might be able to spread out more. Virgin Atlantic flies Airbusses with 2-4-2 configurations on the flights both from DC to London and from London to Johannesburg. Since we booked so late, and at the time we booked, the flights were still pretty empty, especially in the rear cabin, we booked the 2 seat combination back and forth to London, but for the flights back and forth from Jo’berg, we elected to take a chance and book two aisle seats, in an attempt to get extra space. We constantly checked the web for the flights after we booked, to continue to check the status of bookings, to see whether we might be able to get extra space on the plane.
We went to Botswana and anyone traveling to Africa needs to consult your individual physician about what types of shots/etc are required for your individual destination. Our doctor recommended, and we received, booster shots for polio and tetanus, as well as a prescription for Malarone, for malaria. By the by, one understands why the locals do NOT take Malarone, as the retail price for it (our insurance paid everything except a $25 co-pay), was $218 for a one month’s supply!!! He recommended that we receive a Hepatitis B series, especially since we travel to the Caribbean so much, but since it took 90 days to receive all the shots and we did not have 90 days prior to our departure, we did not do that. Our doctor also gave us two prescriptions for ‘travelers diarrhea’--one for symptoms, and one an antibiotic. We took our malarone with our evening meal, starting two days before we left home, and did not have a problem with it making our stomachs upset. I personally brushed my teeth everywhere with bottled water and drank maybe two drinks with ice after we left Johannesburg, but Eric generally used the water from the tap for brushing teeth and he drank many drinks with ice during the trip. I ate salads almost every day at the Wilderness camps and quite a bit of fruit. Neither one of us had any stomach problems during the trip.
I bought a (digital) Nikon D70 about a year before the trip, including a 18-70 mm lens and a 70-300mm lens. We purchased a doubler for the lenses, which we only actually used once or twice. The problem is that the doubler caused the autofocus to not work, and I really don’t know how to work the camera well enough to use it manually. We purchased a Panasonic GS 15 video camera a couple of months prior to the trip. We had one pair of Bushnell 10 x 50 binoculars (fairly big and heavy) which we had had for a while and we purchased another pair of 10 X 25 Bushnell binoculars a month or so before the trip–VERY light and small and not nearly as good as the big ones.. We basically ended up sharing the larger binocs, as the smaller ones just weren’t that great. Eric had owned an Olympus Camedia C-3000 digital camera for some time and we took it along, just as an insurance policy, in case something happened to my camera. We took only a few pictures with that camera. I did very much understand why some people take two camera bodies, one with a long lens and one with a short lens, as I basically kept the long lens on the camera all the time, but there are some times when you just can’t take the picture you want with a long lens.
Eric had also purchased a Flashtrax by Smart Disk with a 30 gig hard drive to download pictures to. It’s a neat little gizmo, maybe 6 inches by 4 inches, with a little mini 2 ½ inch screen. If you don’t want to mess with taking a laptop, it is a great small option to download pictures to. Eric bought his from Tiger Direct refurbished for $199. New Flashtrax were selling for around $400. It has a really fast download speed. We were SO happy when they announced an increase in the air weight allowance for Botswana around April 1, so we could take our laptop to download pictures to, along with the Flashtrax, which made us not have to worry about getting a huge number of memory cards.. We used a “belt and suspenders” approach to downloading our pictures, ensuring that we had duplicate copies of all pictures. Our standard operating procedure was that with each flash card, we would download it to the Flashtrax, then to my laptop, so that we had duplicates of all pictures, then re-formatted the card to start over. After we arrived home, we were very glad for that procedure, as we discovered after we got home that somehow we had forgotten to download the pictures from London to the laptop, so we were happy to have the copy we had downloaded to Flashtrax. We generally did that during the afternoon siesta period, as well as making notes for the trip report on the laptop. If I had it to do over again, I would do exactly the same thing. We had direct power which we could use to charge camera batteries, computer and the Flashtrax, at River Club, Savuti and Mombo, but NOT at Little Vumbura. I can’t imagine taking the number of pictures that we took–something like 3,000--and having to pay to have them developed. The instant gratification of knowing what type of shots you got that day was also great.
For those that haven’t traveled to Africa before, if you are doing small plane transfers between the camps, which is basically what almost everyone does, you cannot take regular suitcases, as they literally STUFF your bags under the plane in the Sefofane plane transfers, and thus regular bags do not fit. We bought 2 sports-type duffle bags for the trip, around $20 each. Each was around 24 by 12 by 12. Everything we have listed here fit into those two bags, plus the laptop computer bag, which is your standard very slim laptop bag. Wilderness Safaris did us a HUGE favor about 2 months before our trip, when they announced that, as of April 1, 2005, the luggage allowance per person for Botswana ONLY safaris was raised from 12 KG to 20 KG per person. Wilderness increased the luggage limit so that if your safari – on the parts where you use Sefofane transfers – is totally within Botswana, the new luggage limits apply. This made a HUGE difference in our planning, in that we were not nearly so paranoid about what we packed and we decided, based on the new limits, to take my laptop. With the new restrictions, we took more clothes than what we would have otherwise. With the old luggage restrictions, there was no way that we would have taken the laptop, as the computer and case were around 15 pounds. Our purpose in taking the laptop was two-fold–one, for an additional place to download pictures and two, to allow me to work on the trip report while we were gone.
Eric’s packing list
3 pairs khaki or tan pants, 1 pair jeans
4 short sleeve shirts, 2 tan, 2 misc
2 long sleeve shirts
1 bathing suit
1 jogging suit
2 pairs shorts, tan
1 pair canvas type boat shoes
Carol’s packing list
3 pairs tan pants, 1 pair jeans
4 short sleeve tops, 3 tan, 1 pale green
2 pairs shorts, 1 tan, 1 black
1 long skirt and matching top
1 bathing suit
1 flannel PJ’s
1 pair canvas type boat shoes
Medicines (malarone, traveler’s diahhrea meds, my regular meds, aspirin, decongestant, immodium)
deodorant, shampoo, creme rinse, toothpaste, toothbrush, comb,
glasses, extra contacts
inflatable neck pillows
A word here about colors of clothing–we took mostly tan clothing, although I did have a few black items, and some multicolored items. For game drives, we did wear mostly tan clothing, but be advised that the guides in particular generally wore tan shorts or pants, and various shades of dull green tops or shirts. And, btw, DON’T bring any clothes that are delicate or cannot be ironed, and expect to give them to the camps to launder for you. All the Wilderness camps in Botswana–as well as the River Club, provided free laundry service, which was wonderful, but it’s not meant for delicate fabrics. They do a wonderful job, and I understand that they DON’T have any dryers at all, and many camps do the laundry by hand, but they can’t work miracles. Another couple of tips regarding laundry–many camps do NOT wash underwear for you, but they will wash socks. River Club and Mombo did do underwear for us, so that was very helpful. And, finally, when you get your clothes back from the laundry–check and make sure all your stuff is there, as we got some of our stuff confused with another camp visitor at one of the camps.
Things I am very glad we brought–an extra pair of shoes! We wore tennis shoes most all the time, and we were very happy to have another pair of shoes to slip into for times around camp. We bought a cheap pair of boat-type shoes, wore them in Africa and threw them away before coming home. Things I would bring different–a hat that stays ON!!!! Possibly a sunvisor type instead of the dufus safari hat I bought. I bought a sunvisor hat at Mombo, which was the only one of our camps that had any kind of a shop. The others had extremely limited shops, with just a couple of shirts. I would have brought more shorts and more short sleeve shirts, as the weather was warmer than we expected. Trust me, we weren’t upset, but it was actually quite warm in the afternoons, maybe around 80 to 85 each day, and we enjoyed the warm afternoons immensely. Eric never wore his warm up suit that he brought. I did wear my flannel PJ’s to bed, and I was happy for the bedwarmers in the bed most nights, although Eric just shoved his out on the floor or pushed it to my side of the bed.
We weighed the bags a couple of times, and for our final test pack, which included everything except a couple of batteries, was a total of 56 pounds, plus the laptop at 15 pounds, for a total of 71 pounds, well under the new limits for Botswana, and actually as much as we would want to carry, for sure. We had always planned on just carrying on our bags, but as it turned out, as we were waiting to check in with Virgin Atlantic at Dulles, we decided that there was no way we wanted to carry on that much weight and lug it around. I was very glad afterward that we didn’t even try, although they told us as we were checking in that the carry-on luggage maximum weight is 15 pounds, although I have no idea if they enforced that or not. As it turned out, they never weighed us, ever, as far as our personal body weight, and they weighed ONLY the regular bags, not the hand luggage, so we didn’t need to have worried about the computer after all. Other folks from England also reported that their hand luggage was not weighed. They weigh your stuff on the first flight, when leaving bigger airports, but at bush airports, there are no facilities to weigh stuff, so effectively you don’t need to worry about it after the first flight.
We went during shoulder season, sort of equivalent to our fall, and we thought the weather ideal. The temperatures at night were quite chilly–maybe around 45 to 50–but the temperature warmed up quite nicely most days by mid-day to around 80 degrees or so, but not hotter. We did get into the pool at River Club, but not at the other three camps after that. There was no rain during that time period, of course. The game drives in the morning were chilly, but not deathly cold, and they do provide nice warm ponchos in the jeeps, which we used every morning and many evenings. Another advantage of going before “high” season was that it was not really that dusty. We did run into some dusty times, but nothing like what has often been reported. I wore my contacts the whole time, and there was only one occasion when I had to take them out and wear my glasses, because it was way too dusty and my contacts were giving me a problem. Overall, I would very much recommend the time period we went, as we though the weather was beautiful.
There is very little shopping to be done in the areas we were in. There are some nice shops in the airport at Johannesburg, particularly at the store Out of Africa, and there are quite a few craft type places just outside Victoria Falls. However, if, like us, you to go Vic Falls at the beginning of your trip, you really don’t want to buy a bunch of stuff and have to lug it around all over the camps. There was a nice shop at the Holiday Inn in Johannesburg, a very small shop at River Club, a MINUSCULE shop (with basically only a couple of clothing items) at both Savuti and Little Vumbura, and a little larger shop at Mombo. In all, we bought very little except a few small wooden figurines of animals and a couple of necklaces at Vic Falls. I bought a warm sweater vest at Mombo (I didn’t really need it for the warmth, just wanted something with Mombo on it), and a sunvisor hat at Mombo, and two books about Mombo. Africa safari camps are definitely NOT a shopping destination.
Eric did all the preliminary research on the trip and he decided on Botswana because it seemed to offer the best all round wildlife viewing for the original time period (mid June) and we were interested in pretty high quality accommodations, and felt we were prepared to pay the associated cost for a high quality, personalized service type of trip. Once we had decided on Botswana, there were a couple of choices, but Wilderness Safaris seemed the most logical, as they have the most lodges there in Botswana, as well as a lodge in Victoria Falls. We decided on Bert, with Fish Eagle Safaris, based on some recommendations off the Fodor’s Africa board, AND after talking to Bert ourselves. Bert is very knowledgeable and very patient, with the myriad of questions we posed, at least at the beginning. We did talk to a couple of other tour agents, but Bert impressed me with his knowledge and with his patience with us. We did get a couple of other quotes from other travel agents, but didn’t do a side by side comparison, asking various travel agents to book the same exact trip. Frankly, we’re just not in to that concept of trying to get something 50 cents cheaper from one travel agent and setting them against the others. And, other than Mombo, we didn’t really request any specific camps. We told Bert that we wanted to go to Mombo and that we wanted to see the most animals and we left it otherwise up to him. I am enormously grateful for his choice of camps, as I can’t conceive of a better itinerary than he picked for us. River Club was enormously restful, Savuti we saw an extraordinary abundance of game, Little Vumbura was restful, and then Mombo was, well... MOMBO!!!!!!!!!!!!! We were extremely happy that Mombo was last, as it is very difficult to go anywhere else, once you go to Mombo.
Travel insurance is required by most tour operators, but they don’t require all types of insurance, including coverage for pre-existing conditions. Be advised that pre-existing conditions also include pre-existing conditions of OTHER people, not just of yourself. So, if your father is ill, and he is taken to hospital because of that same condition, and you wish to cancel your trip because of that situation, you need to have pre-existing conditions covered, for the insurance to do you any good. Also, most insurance requires that you buy and pay for your insurance within a very limited time of your ORIGINAL booking–like 7 to 10 days– to get pre-existing coverage. CHECK YOUR POLICY. Some policies do cover a LOSS OF JOB also, if you have a certain amount of seniority at your job, if you are riffed, etc. Again, check the policy, BEFORE YOU BUY, to see what it covers and what it doesn’t. There are several good websites out there that compare different policies. We bought coverage for $15,000 on the price of the trip for approximately $650, through Travel Insured International.
READING MATERIAL–we were lucky enough to meet up with Hans and Anne Meevis in St. Martin, jewelers now living in SXM who previously had lived in Botswana for some time. They loaned us several of their books to read, including the following:
Signs of the Wild by Clive Walker (a field guild to the spoor and signs of mammals of Southern Africa)
Trees of the Okavango Delta by Veronica Roode
Visitors Guide to Botswana by Mike Main (fairly old book, not that helpful, as it was mostly for self-touring.)
Tippi of Africa, by Sylvie Robert (didn’t read this one..)
Wild Ways by Peter Apps (a field guide to the behavior of Southern Africa mammals–good book, just wish it had photos instead of drawings..)
This is Botswana, by Darly Balfour and Peter Joyce (FABULOUS pictures in this one...)
When Hippo was Hairy by Nick Greaves (Interesting very readable little book with local tales from Africa, plus some good facts about various animals..)
Namibia Holiday Travel–an advertising type book (didn’t read this one..)
Some of the books were fairly old, but they did give us an outlook on what we might expect to see.
I don’t feel like we missed out at all with not buying any books ourselves, with the possible exception of Newman’s bird book, which is kind of the quintessential bird book. All the guides seemed to use it, and while there were reference books at all the camps, and at Mombo, they even had a field guide to mammals in the room (sorry, don’t remember which one it was), Newman’s didn’t seem to be around anywhere at the camps, probably because they knew that it would probably walk away if they did provide it... It was available at a bookstore in the Johannesburg Airport, and I looked at it there, before our first camp, and DIDN’T buy it, one of an extremely few regrets I had with our trip. Even if you don’t have time to buy any books before you leave for Africa, you can pretty much find anything you need at the Johannesburg Airport, so take advantage of it.
BUGS, MOSQUITOS AND OTHERWISE...
I suspect it was partially a function of the season that we went, but we really saw VERY few bugs. Mosquitoes were very rare. There were mosquitos nets at all the places we stayed, except at Little Vumbura. Every camp provided Peaceful Sleep, the standard African spray for mosquitoes, as well as Doom (for ants, etc.) Despite the Expedia commercials, when we went, anyway, the mosquito nets may be required, but there were no huge bugs perched on the nets that we saw. We did have a lot of ANTS in our tent at Savuti. One of our mates from our game drives had a HUGE problem with ants at Savuti. Just make sure you check around your room and spray with Doom if you see any ants. And if you see a LOT of ants, let the camp know as soon as possible, so they can bomb your room and clean up.
There is a perception that travel to Africa is not safe. As I said before, one of our criteria in picking a country for our journey included a consideration of safety, and Botswana in particular is a very safe, stable country. And at Wilderness Camps, anyway, their first job is to ensure your safety. The animals are wild, that is for sure, but the guides are all extremely experienced, and they will not put you in any jeopardy. Of the three bush camps that we stayed in, 2 of the 3 were raised up off the ground, so that animals could walk past under the walkways. Little Vumbura was not raised off the ground, not sure why, although we did hear animals in the camp from time to time. At ALL the bush camps we stayed at, we could travel around the camp without escort during the day, but it was required that you be with a guide whenever you walked about the camp at night. Once outside the camp, unless it was a specified game walk, you are generally required to be in the vehicle at ALL times. The only exceptions were once during the morning and evening game drives, there was a short break for a snack and to stretch your legs, but those times were planned by the guides, after surveying the surroundings.
What was really astounding to me was that, especially for predators like the big cats, they tended to TOTALLY ignore the jeep. The guides warned us not to stand up in the jeep while we were in the vicinity of big cats, which folks seemed to abide by, and the cats walked right by the jeep, within 3 or 4 feet ALL the time. It was disconcerting the first dozen times or so.. My perception is that they determined that somehow we were not separate from the jeep, and that the jeep was bigger than they were, thus they didn’t try to attack the jeep. Plus the jeep was no competition to them in search of food. And, in the areas we were in, at any rate, the animals had not been hunted by humans for some 40 years, thus they didn’t associate humans with any kind of danger. The prey animals, like zebras, wildebeast, impala, etc., were more skittish than the predators, and they generally did scurry off when the jeep came close. I never did really get used to the elephants, though, as we often seemed to come upon MANY elephants at the same time, and they got grumpy when they had babies around. And, elephants are rather large.......
OK, so enough of the general stuff, on to the trip report!!!!!!
Link to next section of trip report