Experiencing all that Southern Africa has to offer — in luxury

This article appears on page 36 of the June 2008 issue.
The bedroom of our cottage at Tongabezi Lodge in Zambia.

by Andy Cubbon, Marietta, GA

My wife, Lisa (pronounced Lissa), and I had Africa on our list of places to visit for quite a while. 2007 was to be the year. The only question was whether to do Southern Africa or Eastern Africa. We opted for Southern Africa because we also wanted to see Cape Town and its wine country.


We had read a couple of articles in ITN about African trips that had been arranged by Rothschild Safaris (Denver, CO; 800/405-9463 or 303/756-2525, www.rothschildsafaris.com). The writers had raved about how smoothly everything had gone for them.

So Lisa contacted Rothschild Safaris and told them what we were interested in doing. They sent us a couple of detailed sample itineraries, which we reviewed and refined with Leora’s help.

We extended our stays at a couple of the camps and in Cape Town and dropped Chobe. We ended up with a 3-week trip leaving Atlanta on Sept. 17, 2007.

The tour cost a little over $20,000 for the both of us, excluding the airfare to Johannesburg but including all hotels, camps and internal transportation plus two tours in Cape Town. The only additional costs were for some of the meals in Cape Town, tips, drinks at one of the camps, laundry at one of the camps and two special activities at Victoria Falls (and souvenirs, of course).

We used frequent-flyer miles on Delta Air Lines to fly business class from Atlanta to Jo’burg by way of Dakar, Senegal.

Cape Town

It was a long trip there — eight hours from Atlanta to Dakar, then an hour and a half in Dakar to change crews, recater the aircraft and go through a security check. Passengers were not allowed to deplane, as we had to stay near our seats for the security check. We had to identify all our carry-on bags or they would be removed from the plane. Then it was another eight hours to Jo’burg, where we caught a British Air flight to Cape Town.

In Cape Town we were met by Linus de Toit, who would be our guide for our private wine tour and would drive us back to the airport when we left Cape Town.

We had six nights in Cape Town, where we stayed at the Cape Grace (www.capegrace.com). It is located near the Victoria & Albert Waterfront entertainment and shopping area. We both agree it is one of the best hotels we’ve ever stayed at. They cannot do enough for you.

When we got to our nicely quiet end room (No. 301), there was a bottle of Spice Route Malabar waiting for us in the room. We still don’t know how they knew this was one of our favorite wines.

The room was quite large and had its own balcony overlooking a private marina, plus a view of Table Mountain.

Table Mountain

On our first full day, we noticed from our balcony that Table Mountain was cloud free, so we decided it would be a good time to visit. The hotel provided us with a complimentary car and driver to take us to the base of the cable car.

We spent several hours on top enjoying the views and some of the wildlife up there, including several small lizards and a beautiful orange-breasted sunbird. We had lunch at the cafeteria on top before returning to the hotel by taxi (about 100 rand, or $15) rather than wait for the hotel car to pick us up.

That evening we strolled the Victoria & Albert Waterfront and had a lovely dinner at the Paulaner Bräuhaus (phone 021 418 9999, www.paulaner.co.za). Lisa had Schweinshaxe (pig knuckle), which she said was sinfully delicious, and it was a selection of sausages for me; we each had their “Taster Trio” of beers. The tab came to R188 ($27) plus tip.

Wine tour

The next day, Linus picked us up at the hotel for our all-day wine tour. A licensed freelance South African tour guide, Linus conducts his own private tours in addition to contracting to various large tour companies in the Cape Town area. We would highly recommend him for any private tours in the area (e-mail sunchaser@telkomsa.net).

A male leopard passed right in front of our game truck.

We quickly learned that he is also a birder, so our first stop was the Eagle Encounter at Spier (www.spier.co.za/whattodoatspier/eagle.htm), a raptor rescue center in Stellenbosch where we got to see lots of eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and vultures plus one secretary bird.

Lisa asked the founder, Hank Chalmers, one question about the spotted owls and we got a 30-minute guided tour of the facility. Hank obviously was very dedicated to his mission of rescuing raptors.

Before lunch, we stopped at two wineries. The first, Thelema Mountain Vineyards (www.thelema.co.za) in Stellenbosch, is a relatively small operation. We tasted some lovely wines there. Our next winery was Boschendal Wine Estate (www. boschendal.com), a much larger operation. The setting was lovely, but we weren’t wild about their wines.

We had lunch just outside the town of Franschhoek at Le Petite Ferme (Franschhoek Pass Road; phone 021 876 3016, www.lapetiteferme.co.za), located on a hillside with a beautiful view of the wine country and surrounding mountains. The view was exceeded only by the excellent food.

I had the choux pastry, rainbow trout and Granny Smith apple crumble; Lisa had the baked pear and the slow-roasted lamb — yummy! The cost, up to R165 ($24), was included in the price of our tour.

Our last winery of the day was Fairview Wine Estate (www.fairview.co.za) in Paarl. This was the one winery we had wanted to visit, as we had sampled and liked many of their wines previously.

This winery is probably best known in the U.S. for its Goats do Roam family of affordable wines in the French style, but they also have a more upscale Fairview collection and they own and operate the Spice Route winery in Swartland. Unfortunately, many of these wines are hard to find in the U.S. We went for the more expensive tasting and sampled many of their wines.

In addition to wines, Fairview has a fine selection of cheeses. In fact, the farm started out making goat cheese, from which it gets the “Goats” name for some of its wines.

Peninsula tour

The second tour we had prebooked for this trip was a small-group tour of the Cape Peninsula, with stops at Clifton, Hout Bay and the Chapman’s Peak overlook. Chapman’s Peak Drive was closed because earlier heavy rains had weakened the road cuts, so we reversed course for a short visit to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden followed by lunch at Seaforth, a visit to the nearby African (jackass) penguin colony and, finally, Cape Point.

That night and on the next two nights we had dinner at onewaterfront, our hotel’s restaurant. The food and service were excellent, as was their extensive wine list. Our first meal cost R721 ($103), including wine and tip. The next two were considerably less expensive.

A few last Cape Town stops

Lisa had heard of the Greenmarket Square crafts market from friends who had visited Cape Town, and she wanted to go. This would be our only chance to visit because it is closed on Sunday, which happened to be our last day in Cape Town. The hotel’s driver dropped us off at the market, where we shopped for trinkets and gifts in the stalls and nearby shops.

We spent most of our last day in Cape Town at Kirstenbosch. However, instead of focusing on the plants, we were there for bird-watching (an interest for me, mostly, but Lisa is an excellent bird spotter). We spent most of the time in the protea gardens because that is where all the sunbirds were.

We would highly recommend a day at the gardens for anyone interested in fynbos plants or birding.

We had lunch at Kirstenbosch’s Silvertree Restaurant. We both had ostrich burgers but were not impressed with them.

Into the bush

After the luxurious stay in Cape Town, we headed for the bush and some big-game watching. Our first stop was Notten’s Bush Camp (www.nottens.com). Traveling to the camp, we had our only bad travel experience of the trip.

We had to leave the Cape Grace at 5:30 in the morning to make our early flight to Jo’burg. In Jo’burg we were supposed to take a flight to Skukusa in northeastern South Africa, where we would be picked up by someone from Notten’s and driven to the camp. When we got to Jo’burg, we were informed by our contact there that the flight to Skukusa had been canceled due to technical difficulties and we had been booked on a later flight to Nelspruit, with a connecting flight on a 6-seat Cessna to Skukusa.

This required that we downsize our luggage earlier than we had planned and check the larger bag at Locked-Up Luggage in the Jo’burg airport for R40 ($5.75) per bag per day. We had planned to do this after our stay at Notten’s.

Unfortunately, in our rush to repack, we inadvertently left the charger for our videocamera, plus a few other items that we would have liked to have had, in the checked bag. We learned later that there was a direct flight from Cape Town to Skukusa that left at a more reasonable hour and would have saved us a lot of travel time, not to mention the luggage issue. This was the only thing that Rothschild Safaris could have done better for us.

We arrived at the camp at 3 p.m. after a 35- to 40-minute drive from the Skukusa airport over dirt roads.

The camp

Notten’s Bush Camp is located on a private game reserve west of Kruger National Park in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. The camp is small at approximately 800 hectares (1,875 acres), but it has a reciprocal traversing agreement with the adjacent Sabi Sabi game reserve, which provides another 15,000 acres of land for game drives.

Our cottage, No. 5, was at the end of the row of cottages overlooking the small savannah in front of the compact camp. It had a large comfortable bed, a bathroom with a tub, toilet and sink, and an outside shower. There was a wall that screened the shower from the rest of the camp but not from the savannah.

Although the camp had full-time electricity, the cottages did not have electric lights; they had oil lamps to enhance the rustic bush feel. I would recommend a headlamp for those who like to read in bed at night and a big flashlight just to see your way around.

With only one single and five double cottages, Notten’s was quite an intimate experience.

They run only two game trucks, usually with six or seven guests per truck. When you arrive, you are assigned to one of the trucks and its guide and spotter. Our guide was Thomas, who had been with Notten’s for over 20 years, seven years as a guide. Ronald was our spotter and a guide in training. He rode in a chair mounted on the front left fender of the open-topped Land Rover.

Game drives

We arrived at Notten’s just in time for the evening game drive, which started at 4:00 after an English-style tea at 3:30.

Each subsequent day of our stay started with an early wake-up visit from a staff member. I need a bit more time in the morning, so we got up at 5 instead of the scheduled 5:30. There was a Continental breakfast served at 6 followed by the morning game drive from 6:30 to about 9:30, with a coffee/tea break about halfway through. This was followed by a full cooked breakfast/brunch around 10.

Sometime around noon there was an optional bush walk with an armed guide.

The remaining middle of the day was for relaxing, visiting the pool or getting a massage at the spa. Afternoon tea was served at 3:30 followed by the evening game drive from 4 to 7, with a stop for cocktails at sunset. A full and delicious dinner was served at 8, with cocktails starting around 7:30.

We saw the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo) by our third drive. Surprisingly, the last of these for us was the elephant.

Bush walks

The bush walks were to look at things such as tracks, bones, plants and various types of animal dung. The walks were easy, about 1½ miles long, and stayed within a half mile of camp.

We did encounter the occasional large animal on these walks, including a mother giraffe and her baby. The most dangerous was an African buffalo that watched our group from about 500 yards away.

On our first bush walk we unearthed one of the Little Five, an ant lion, a predatory insect that creates conical depressions in sand or dust that traps ants, which it eats. The other four of the Little Five are the leopard tortoise, elephant shrew, rhinoceros beetle and buffalo weaver (a type of bird).

Notten’s had created a watering hole in front of the camp to attract animals, which it did quite well. The bird-watching here was also very good. Even the starlings were very attractive, with iridescent deep-blue or teal feathers. Thomas was a huge help in identifying all the different birds we saw; nearly all were new ones, for me.

Okavango Delta

Our next stop was the Okavango Delta in Botswana. From Skukusa we flew in a 12-passenger plane to Jo’burg, where we stayed overnight at the Southern Sun O.R. Tambo International Airport hotel (www.southernsun.com).

Andy, Lisa and our driver, Kennedy, aboard Liwa, a young female African elephant, near the Zambezi River.

One fortunate thing happened in Jo’burg. When I was counting out my medication for the next day, I noticed I was short. I figured I’d have to ration the remaining pills for the rest of the trip and hope for the best. However, we discovered that I could get the same medication at the airport pharmacy the next morning without a prescription and at a reasonable cost.

After replenishing my medication, we took an Air Botswana flight to Maun, Botswana, located in the Kalahari Desert on the southern edge of the Okavango Delta. From there we took another 6-seater Cessna to Camp Okavango.

The Okavango Delta is a unique environment. The large Okavango River comes out of the highlands of Angola and spreads out into a huge delta in northwestern Botswana. Instead of emptying into an ocean, it empties into the Kalahari Desert. Most of its water evaporates in the dry desert air and the rest sinks into the sands.

At full flood, in June and July, water covers over 16,000 square kilometers (6,000 square miles). It shrinks back six months later to about 9,000 square kilometers. Ideally for the animals, it is at full flood during the height of the dry season, providing a refuge for them.

We were there in the middle of its seasonal recession at the end of the dry season, which meant that the mosquito population was very low. I saw only three of them during our six days there — and all three bit me.

Camp Okavango

Camp Okavango is operated by Desert & Delta (www.desert-delta-safaris.com). After landing at the camp’s airstrip, we walked to camp with a guide, having to leave the path at one point to skirt a wild elephant that was browsing nearby.

The central compound of the camp had a lounge with a small library, a bar, a covered open-air dining area and a fire pit. There was also a pool, and at the edge of the island, near the boat dock, was a raised platform that afforded a panoramic view of the delta.

We were in tent No. 1 at the end of one of the two rows of tents, which were 20 to 30 yards from each other. These are upscale tents, each having a full bathroom with shower, flush toilet and sink.

During our orientation briefing, we were told we couldn’t leave our tent after dark and we had to be escorted to it each night. We also would be escorted to breakfast in the morning before sunrise. During daylight, we could come and go on our own.

We also were told that the generator was shut down at about

10:30 p.m., which meant that only a few battery-operated lights would work in the tents: the two bed lamps and one light in the bathroom. This also meant that the fan stopped at night, which could have been an issue if the nights had been hotter than they were.

Rothschild Safaris had suggested two nights here, which was just right.

Camp activities

There were three activities offered at Camp Okavango: a canoe ride with a guide, an island walk and a boat ride. Guests were divided into two roughly equal groups, each group doing a different activity. We were assigned to the group doing the canoe ride on the afternoon we arrived.

Fiberglass canoes replaced the traditional mokoros (dugout canoes), each holding two people and a guide. Our guide, nicknamed Limit, used a pole to move the canoe along like he would have done with a mokoro.

We took a very leisurely trip through the shallows near camp — a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

In the evening, dinner started with a soup. The main course was a buffet of two meats and several vegetables, followed by dessert. This was typical of the main meals at the camps at which we stayed. They occasionally included “venison,” which might be kudu, impala or steenbok — all of which were quite good and tender.

Animal encounters

Our morning activity the next day was the island walk. Our group of six or so was guided by John and Obed. We took one of the motorboats a short 1½ miles to Mboma Island.

John was born and raised on this island so was very familiar with it. We were instructed to stay close together in single file with a guide at each end. Unlike at Notten’s, the guides had no guns, so we had to rely on their experience to keep us out of trouble.

On our way back, our guide got a radio call from another group’s guide telling us to hold up. That group had been charged by a lone male buffalo; fortunately, no one was hurt.

Walking through the soft sand between termite mounds was a bit tiring on the nearly 4-mile walk, and we were glad to get back to the boats.

Back at camp we discovered that our tent had been raided by a troop of baboons, thereafter referred to by Lisa as “those damn baboons.” They had gotten into some of Lisa’s medication thinking it was food. They took my backup camera out of one of our bags but left it on the deck outside the tent along with the can of bug spray.

The camera was fine, but Lisa was a little short of some of her medication. Fortunately, this was the limit of the damage.

Recommendation — when staying in tents, always lock up or at least put out of sight anything that might look like food. If the baboons don’t see anything of interest inside, they are less likely to break in.

Our last activity was the boat ride down the river. We cruised along narrow channels with tall papyrus stands on either bank. It reminded us a lot of the movie “The African Queen.”

About halfway to the turnaround point, we encountered a large male elephant belly deep in the water browsing on reeds. The channel was too narrow to pass by, so Obed stopped the boat and backed off a bit.

Lisa was ready to go back, but John had another idea. He took over driving the boat, revving the engine. The elephant didn’t much care for that and turned, flaring out its big ears to return the perceived threat from the boat. After a few more loud revvings, the elephant turned and trundled down the channel and around a bend. We pursued it down the channel for about 20 minutes until it found a place to leave the channel.

Moving on

I suppose we could have flown to the next camp, Camp Moremi, in another small plane and it would have taken only about 20 minutes. Instead, we took a boat. Both Okavango and Moremi are operated by Desert & Delta, which facilitated our transfer. The Camp Okavango boat was to take us about halfway, where we would be met by a boat from Camp Moremi.

Our guide had to chase this elephant down the channel in the Okavango so we could continue back to camp.

We were very fortunate with our guide at Moremi, Kagiso (pronounced, more or less, kah-hee-so), who had outstanding vision. He could spot and identify small birds at distances I had trouble seeing with 10x binoculars.

We learned about the extensive training and rigorous testing that guides have to go through to get certified in Botswana. They have to know not only all the big game but all the birds and their calls, most of the reptiles, many of the insects and most of the plants, including their scientific names.

The routine at this camp was similar to the others, with the 5:30 wake-up call, early breakfast, morning game drive, big brunch, afternoon siesta time, afternoon tea and evening activity, which could be either another game drive or a boat ride into the nearby lagoon, then cocktails and a full dinner around 8:00.

The birding here was outstanding. On one game drive I saw and, with Kagiso’s invaluable assistance, identified 52 species of birds, counting a total of 77 species for the day.

On to Zambia

Leaving Camp Moremi, we next took a flight to Kasane, Botswana, then transferred to our accommodations on the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls in Zambia.

Rothschild Safaris had booked us at Tongabezi Lodge (www.tongabezi.com). It was more upscale than the camps we’d been staying at yet not up to the level of the Cape Grace. However, we did have our own valet, Nyambe (nee-am-bay), who was there to serve our every need.

Our cottage was lovely, with full-time electricity, a full bath with a fancy shower, and an outside covered veranda. It was situated right on the shore of the Zambezi River with a view across to Zambezi National Park in Zimbabwe.

There was mosquito netting over the bed that wasn’t just for decoration. Nyambe would put it down each evening while we were at dinner.

There wasn’t any air-conditioning here either, but there was an Internet terminal in the office area for guests to use at no additional charge. Lisa almost kissed our host when she was told this.

Surprisingly, this was the only place we stayed where we were told it wasn’t safe to drink the tap water. The water at Notten’s and both Okavango camps was pure, deep well water and was quite safe to drink, as I can attest to, having suffered no ill effects.

The schedule was more relaxed here than at the camps, though there were many included activities, plus several others offered for an extra charge. Included were sunrise and sunset cruises on the river; a visit to Victoria Falls and the nearby craft market; a picnic on Livingstone Island, on the lip of the falls, with the option of swimming in a protected pool, and game drives.

We didn’t do the game drives or the picnic, but we did the others (though only I did the sunrise cruise). We also scheduled two of the optional events: an elephant ride and a helicopter ride above Victoria Falls.

At Tongabezi, breakfast was from 7 to 10, lunch from 1 to 3 and dinner at 8 on the deck overlooking the river. Our valet would bring coffee and/or tea to our cottage in the morning around 7, and on the first day he even drew a bubble bath for Lisa.

Before dinner we took the relaxing sunset cruise up the river on one of their “sampans,” a platform suspended between two sealed canoes to create a sort of catamaran with an outboard motor at the back.

A table and folding chairs were set up on the platform, and our guide, Mike, took us up the river on the Zimbabwe side, where we saw several new birds and a few familiar larger animals on the shore. Drinks were served about halfway through the cruise as we drifted back downstream.

Elephant ride

On our first full day at the lodge we did the elephant ride, a 3-kilometer safari through the bush and down to the river. The ride was not too uncomfortable, though sitting astride the elephant’s broad back made my old hip joints a little sore.

This is one of three rare wattled cranes we saw in the Moremi Game Reserve.

On our second full day I got up for the sunrise cruise, hoping to have better light for photographing some of the birds we saw. It was very pleasant, and most of those cruising with me were also there for the birding.

This was also our day to visit the falls by foot and by helicopter. Visiting the falls at the end of the dry season meant there wasn’t much water flowing, especially on the Zambia side, which just had a scattering of narrow cascades. However, it did allow us to clearly see to the bottom of the gorge that runs along the face of the falls. We were told that when the river is full, the mist from the falls completely obscures the view of the cascade and the gorge.

After a long, hot walk along the ridge which runs parallel to the face of the falls, we stopped at the craft market for some shopping. Then we were driven to the heliport for our flight.

There were five of us on this flight and, since we arrived first, we got our choice of seats. The view from the air was more impressive than the one from the ground, as we could see the entire length of the face and get a real appreciation of its size and geological formation.

A lovely ending

After the helicopter ride, we stopped at Kubu Crafts, a small craft shop in downtown Livingstone that Lisa had heard about from another guest at the lodge. Their crafts were of much better quality than those at the Victoria Falls market.

That evening, Rothschild Safaris treated us to a private dinner on one of the sampans anchored offshore in the Zambezi River. Our courses were brought out to us one at a time by our valet, Nyambe.

When the dessert course came, in the boat with Nyambe was a chorus of local singers who serenaded us. It was a lovely way to end a fantastic trip.

That this trip went as smoothly as it did was thanks to the work of Roths­child Safaris. The hotels, camps and lodges they chose provided unique and different experiences at every stop, and their assistance in planning and making all the arrangements was invaluable. We would highly recommend Rothschild to anyone planning a trip to Africa.