We just spent 8 weeks in 4 countries: Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa) and a Kingdom (Swaziland) in Southern Africa. We did 30 game drives, 5 days of biking, 6 days of hiking, played golf, visited family and friends, and ate a mountain of good pastry in that old British tradition of tea and treats. Truly mind blowing and fabulous. We wish everyone could go on african safari once in their life, although not everyone can climb in and out of the elevated, open air, range rovers and withstand the bumping, sliding, jarring, bouncing, and shimmering that is part of what our guides called, an “African Massage”. We learned that the guides leading the game drives are extremely knowledgeable about the flora and fauna in their assigned parks and reserves…regardless of how much you paid for your tour. We tested this with 3 tours ranging from mid-range (OAT) to adventure (biking and hiking) to budget safari.
Some seasons (September, too dry and hot for any pretty foliage to obscure great animal spotting) and some parks just offer more sightings. Chobe NP in Botswana (featured image, and above/below) is the best for enormous herds and close encounters with a diversity of large mammals…like seeing over 200 hundred elephants and hippos in one afternoon crisscrossing the Chobe River a few feet from our boat) while lions, leopards, giraffe, impalas, and wildebeast look on from the shore. The guides also can drive off road to pursue a sighting, so you are not stuck looking at a valued “leopard in a tree”, being able to see only the tail or the torso…and those darned wild animals just will not accommodate your impaired viewpoint by moving into range!
These are $350/day (all inclusive) safaris because you have to jump bush planes out of Johannesburg and Livingston to tiny landing strips with nearby seasonal tent camps. It really is out in the bush as guides on land have to block the ostrich, elephants, and wildebeasts from crossing the landing strip as planes takes off or land. Really fun if you get to sit co-pilot as Sal did on one leg! She had practiced for hours on the free flight simulator (an entire room dedicated to one pilot training at a time) at our unique hotel in Joberg, a former airplane hanger.
Although the tent bathrooms with hot showers are en suite, they are open air and you cannot leave cosmetics or clothes there or the monkeys will grab them. You also will require an armed escort to your room at night, and can be admonished not to “leave your tent for a dawn breakfast until those 4 cheetahs sleeping 20 feet in front of your tent move away”.
You may have unique experiences like hearing a hippo serenade from the river below your tent, leopards walking and “huffing” through camp at night, and most mind blowing of all….find a huge bull elephant standing a foot behind you at dinner, undecided and confused about where he should go…because the staff set up the dining room table in the elephant’s usual pathway out on the savannah one night. You cannot believe how big a bull elephant is when you are sitting and he is towering over you. He meant no harm and our guide Godfrey waved some burning logs near him until he moved away. Godfrey moved fast and was clearly very scared for us; we just didn’t appreciate the risk at that time. OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) was a fabulous experience for food/accommodation/guides/close cultural encounters. If you book with them, please feel free to mention our names for a discount on your trip.
The budget safaris are $100/day and leave from Joburg for a 7 hour drive to Kruger NP and nearby reserves. The accommodations are very basic but charming when in tree houses over the river…
…and the food…inferior….volume starch and runny eggs. But warthogs sleep by the fire and baboons with babies wander through the camp. With no predators, you can wander freely at any hour on the large property.
Again, the game drives are wonderful and each park and reserve has unique features. Game walks with armed guards are nice for learning tracking and small animals, but the night drives were a waste of time. Avoid them.
One reserve, Tshukudu Game Lodge, has two cheetahs that had to be hand raised as young cubs when a lion killed their mother; they are used to human physical touch….including ours, but otherwise they are your usual hungry predators. The guides call them and reward their approach with fresh bottled water!
The game drive part of our two week biking/hiking safari ($150/day but did not include meals) was mostly in Kruger NP and we still saw a lot without going off road (disallowed). The guide and driver were lovely and knowledgeable but the organizational part was below standard, especially a biking day with no place to buy lunch (as promised) in the middle of an 8 hour bike day. Our cycle day in Soweto Township was marred by insufficient helmets for our group and no one picking us up at the end of that tour. The Township houses 60,000 people and does not vote for the dominant political party (African National Congress) thus receives no funding; it is a fascinating place with the most poverty stricken shanty town we’ve ever seen with open sewage, 2 public toilets, and one faucet to serve hundreds of people, but with lots of new BMW’s and Mercedes just a block away still in the Township. Still, it felt good to get some exercise after 3 weeks of great bush camp pastry and 8 hours of African Massage daily in the open air Range Rovers. Although most of the bikers were not thrilled with the communal “ale” (home fermentation of ???) at the greatest dive bar in a shipping container with a 4.5 foot ceiling, and a ton of flies…Steven did his part, engaging in local custom…and didn’t die!
However, the hiking was terrific at Bourne’s Potholes and the Royal Natal NP in the Drakensberg Mountains.