A luxurious first-time trip to Southern Africa

By Robert Ono
This article appears on page 18 of the December 2014 issue.
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Evening at MalaMala.

Despite lifelong interests in wildlife, my wife and I had never been to Africa. After looking through a variety of safari brochures, we found it was easy to become overwhelmed by the many travel options. 

We were faced with a number of questions, such as do we time our trip to watch the Great Migration or are there other equally outstanding viewing options? What time of year should we go? Which safari lodges would best fit our interests? Do we need a rental car? How do we avoid becoming part of a large vehicle pack converging on a rare animal sighting? Can we arrange an African safari for the two of us or do we need to join a group? And how many days should we stay at a particular camp for optimum animal viewing? 

Trying to find answers to these questions on the Internet had us confused. 

Several friends had shared with us their wonderful travel experiences to Africa arranged by Fish Eagle Safaris (Houston, TX; 800/513-5222, www.fisheaglesafaris.com), an ITN advertiser, so we decided to call Bert Duplessis, the company’s owner, to better acquaint ourselves. This was a great start to our planning efforts.

Creating a plan

With more than 20 years of experience plus making frequent trips to review existing and new lodges and camps, the Fish Eagle staff is well acquainted with travel in Africa. Their website was also very helpful to us as we started to define our plans. 

With Bert’s guidance, we were able to develop an itinerary with the objectives of including broad opportunities for game viewing; avoiding the primary malarial season: traveling during a time of year that offered moderate temperatures; limiting viewing competition among guest-laden vehicles during game drives; scheduling minimal driving time between safari locations; building the expense of all meals and game drives into our tour cost, and visiting both Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park. 

We chose to stay in lodges rather than tented camps, as I am a rather light sleeper and thought the evening sounds, however exciting, would be sleep disturbing. 

After much consultation with Bert, we finalized our first-timer’s African safari, incorporating stays at MalaMala Game Reserve in South Africa, Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe and, finally, a stay at the Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana’s Chobe National Park. 

A watchful kudu at MalaMala Game Reserve.

This trip would cover about 20 days and cost a total of $18,000. This included all intra-Africa flights, land transportation, accommodations, meals, refreshments, game drives and a Victoria Falls guided walk for two. 

Fish Eagle Safaris arranged all aspects of the trip except our travel from San Francisco to Johannesburg, South Africa, and return. 

Getting there

Over the past few years, we’ve been using business class for long-haul international flights from California. I’m no longer willing — or able — to squeeze my 6-foot-tall frame into a limited-legroom coach seat for more than eight hours. So, even though we had enough points for only one frequent-flyer ticket, that ticket dictated our rather long flight schedule. 

The “free” ticket had us flying from San Francisco to Chicago, laying over for five hours in Chicago before departing on an 8-hour flight to Heathrow, then having a 9-hour layover at Heathrow before taking an 11-hour flight to Johannesburg — about 37 hours of traveling in total!

With several flight delays due to equipment and weather problems on the day of departure, the somewhat long layovers helped us to avoid any missed connections. 

At O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, Fish Eagle Safaris had arranged for us to be met by a representative of Wilderness Safaris, a large African travel operator. The representative assisted us in picking up our luggage and finding a nearby ATM. 

As our flight to MalaMala Game Reserve wasn’t until the next morning, we were escorted to the airport’s City Lodge Hotel, which reminded us of a Holiday Inn. (The alternative was the airport’s InterContinental Hotel, which was almost twice as expensive.) Our room was clean, reasonably sized and within short walking distance of the airport terminal. 

Living in luxury

After breakfast the next morning, included in our room cost, we made our way down to the Federal Air charter kiosk in the airport. There we loaded ourselves and our luggage into a van and were transported to the nearby Federal Air terminal, where we boarded a 19-passenger Beechcraft for a 55-minute flight to the MalaMala airstrip. 

Arriving at our first safari lodge, we were immediately aware that this trip would be special. We were met with cold drinks and facecloths upon check-in and were introduced to Grant Roodt, our ranger during our stay at MalaMala.

While our reservation was originally for a room in the larger Main Camp, we were upgraded to the more intimate Sable Camp next door. Sable Camp can accommodate 14 guests, with no guests under 12 years of age. 

The MalaMala lodge area was a visual oasis surrounded by broad game-viewing areas near the Sand River. The lush grounds and well-maintained suites, pool, dining area and central lodge facilities were beautiful. 

Our room was a rather luxurious air-conditioned stand-alone suite with a living room, a veranda, a bedroom with a king-sized bed and three bathrooms — yes, three full bathrooms, each with heated towel racks. One bathroom had an open-air shower. The tap water in the suite was safe to drink, and our stay included laundry service. 

After lunch we had an hour to relax before boarding a Land Rover for a 4-hour afternoon safari. Grant would turn out to be the best ranger we met during our trip to Africa, in respect to his knowledge of plants, trees, flowers, birds, animals and tracking, not to mention his interest in showing guests as much of Africa as possible. 

The afternoon game drive ended with our following a leopard through a rough area of bushes, trees and gullies. Stopping to observe a glorious orange sunset, we snacked on chips, dried fruit and biltong (a dried South African meat snack) and were offered adult beverages, which included gin-and-tonics, wine and/or beer — quite a way to end our day! 

After our “sundowner,” the temperature gradually cooled, and we slowly added vests and jackets as we made our way back to the lodge, all while periodically observing game with the help of Grant’s handheld searchlight.

A leopard stops for a drink in Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve.

Dinner was served in a boma, a circular outdoor dining enclosure, typically with a campfire in the center. Our 4-course buffet meal included a few game offerings. 

Completing dinner around 9:30, we were escorted back to our suite by Grant. Though we never saw any wildlife during our after-dinner walks to our room at MalaMala, there was nothing to prevent wildlife from entering the compound.

Settling in 

For the next two mornings, hot coffee and pastries were delivered to our suite at 5 a.m. We had breakfast at the dining area at 6, and at 7 we departed for our morning game drive. Apparently, this was the typical winter morning schedule. (During the summer, the higher daytime temperatures require an even earlier morning start and a later afternoon game drive to avoid being out during the hottest part of the day.) 

With over 33,000 acres in the MalaMala Reserve, we had many areas to visit. During our game drives we saw a broad range of birds, such as vultures, swallows, weavers, owls, lapwings, go-away-birds, rollers, shrikes, sparrows and storks. We also observed many animals, including lions, white rhinos, zebras, impalas, duikers, steenboks, nyalas, monkeys, hares, civets, mongooses, wildebeests, cheetahs, Cape buffaloes, giraffes, leopards and elephants. 

Each morning, we would stop mid-drive for a coffee-and-pastry break. Sometimes we hiked up a small hill to observe the reserve from a higher perspective. Grant pointed out animals, insects and plant life along our walks, all while balancing a large-caliber rifle over his shoulder. 

During one afternoon game drive, we came upon a leopard eating a freshly killed kudu. Soon, hyenas were gathering to watch the feast and, within a short time, they displaced the leopard. Shortly thereafter, 30 to 40 vultures gathered to eye the kudu carcass. As the hyenas moved away, the vultures quickly dove in and picked the carcass clean to the bone. The unfolding scene provided a harsh view of life, all in a single location. 

On to Mashatu 

One of our travel requests was to avoid long drives between distant safari locations. As airstrips were available at MalaMala and Mashatu, our next destination, Fish Eagle Safaris arranged a charter flight for us. A 4-passenger Beechcraft took us to Polowkwane International Airport in South Africa and then on to Limpopo Valley Airfield in Botswana. 

The drive to Mashatu Main Camp took about 30 minutes through a rather dry, sparse landscape. Once at the camp, we each were given a cool towel and a cold glass of juice, then we met Bashi, our personal ranger for our stay there.

Our room was very luxurious, with air-conditioning, a sitting area, a full bathroom with a separate shower and bathtub and an additional half bathroom. Internet service was available via a single desktop computer in a common lounge. Our stay included all meals but did not include laundry service. 

While not all of the Big Five could be seen at Mashatu, the wildlife was still abundant. We saw cheetahs, wildebeests, jackals, elands, kudus, mongooses, monkeys, leopards, giraffes, zebras, klipspringers, ostriches, hyenas, baboons, warthogs and the ever-present impalas.

There were also many varieties of birds, including babblers, hornbills, ducks, bustards, cormorants, doves, eagles, egrets, fish eagles, francolins, guineafowl, kingfishers, lapwings, plovers and herons. 

The elephant herds at Mashatu were the largest we saw during our time in Africa. 

Dinner was again served in the traditional boma around a roaring campfire. Four courses plus dessert were offered. With so many food selections, no one ever went hungry. 

Back to South Africa 

Our transit from Mashatu to Victoria Falls began by car. We left Mashatu at 8:30 a.m. on our way to the Pont Drift Immigration and Customs station. The drive took about 45 minutes. 

From Pont Drift, we left our ranger, Bashi, and rode in a 4-person, open cable-car gondola over the Limpopo River, crossing from Bostwana into South Africa. (The higher river level prevented our Land Cruiser from crossing.) Once over the river, we were met by Allen, a South African driver, in a Mercedes sedan, as arranged by Fish Eagle Safaris. We quickly cleared South African Immigration and continued on a 2-hour drive to the Polowkwane Airport. 

Due to commercial flight schedules, we couldn’t travel to Victoria Falls directly from Polowkwane, so we flew back to Johannesburg first. We picked up our duffels from baggage claim and walked the familiar path to the City Lodge Hotel, since our flight to Victoria Falls was scheduled for early the next morning. 

As we walked through the terminal the next morning, perhaps looking somewhat lost, we caught the interest of a stranger who offered to help us find our check-in counter. Allen, our South African driver from the previous day, had warned us about unofficial airport helpers who offer their assistance. Some will ask to inspect your tickets and passports as they help you through airport processing. To get these documents back, you are then asked for payment. 

I recalled the location of the South African Airways counters, so we declined this assistance. While the offer may have been completely innocent, while traveling in a foreign country we are sometimes a bit wary.

On to Victoria Falls

The flight to Victoria Falls airport took about 90 minutes. With turkey sandwiches and a small pastry served during the flight, we were set for lunch. 

After landing in Zimbabwe, the 150 or so passengers queued for Immigration, and the slow process took about 45 minutes. There were too many passengers for the two agents to handle. 

A driver from Wilderness Safaris met us in the airport terminal for the 20-minute drive to the Victoria Falls Hotel. Built in 1904, it had the feel of a historic hotel in a US national park. The hotel was nicely maintained and the staff was very helpful. 

Our hotel room was beautiful, decorated in a style reminiscent of the era in which it was built. However, we didn’t spend much time in our room, as we had a 3:30 p.m. car departure to take us to the river dock for a cruise down the Zambezi River. 

View from a walk along Victoria Falls.

The Zambezi Queen was a large, 3-decked riverboat. The $60-per-person fare included all drinks and six different delicious hors d’oeuvres. As we cruised down the river, we watched the other boats on the river, the crocodiles, the hippos and the birds. The sunset was beautiful, and by the time the cruise ended at 6:00, we were too full to eat a complete dinner.

We met our Wilderness Safaris guide for the next day’s tour of Victoria Falls at 8:30 a.m. As part of our walking tour, we received admission tickets to the falls along with water bottles and a long rain jacket for the walk.

It was dry at the beginning of the walk, but soon the heavy mist from the falls made it feel like hiking in a rainstorm. We had to stop taking photographs, as it was no longer possible to keep the camera lens dry. 

After our walk, we stopped at the Rainforest Café in the falls area to dry off and have coffee and a very large slice of chocolate cake. 

Despite the rain jacket, it would be nearly impossible to stay dry while visiting the falls during high to moderate river levels. We were glad to have worn shoes and clothes that could dry quickly.

Later in the afternoon, we took a brief walk to a lookout point over the Zambezi River, near our hotel. At the lookout point there were kids harnessed to the Flying Fox cable slide zipping halfway over the river before being pulled back. As the ride’s origin was in Zimbabwe and the other end of the cable was in Zambia, cable riders could not completely cross the river; otherwise, they would be obliged to pass through Immigration! 

Chobe National Park

Victoria Falls was not very far from Chobe National Park, our final stop. After an hour’s drive to the Zimbabwe/Botswana border, we were met by a Botswana-based Wilderness Safaris driver who took us on a 20-minute ride to Chobe Game Lodge

Our lodge stay included all meals, all game drives, laundry service and Wi-Fi access. Our room, which had a deck overlooking the Chobe River, had air-conditioning and, among other amenities, contained a king-sized bed, a telephone and a bathroom en suite. 

We joined a small family from Spain on our introductory river game drive, with Gobe serving as our river guide and boat captain. We saw fish eagles, skimmers, buffaloes, hippos, elephants and crocodiles along the river. 

We returned to the lodge to clean up and get ready for dinner at 7:30. I appreciated the earlier dining schedule, as I found MalaMala’s 8 p.m. start time often meant we finished our meal at a late, for us, 9:30. 

Each morning, we departed the lodge for a game drive at 6:00. As we were not in a private reserve but in a national park, our vehicle was restricted to the park’s existing dirt roads. This meant we could not pursue the viewing of animals beyond the road. Consequently, binoculars and my telephoto lens provided the best wildlife viewing. 

One morning, no more than 200 feet from the lodge gate, we saw a leopard, a small pack of hyenas and a large impala herd. Within minutes, the leopard killed a smaller impala, dragging its kill to the brush. One of the hyenas must have heard the impala herd issuing an alert cry, as it circled back, looking for the kill. Soon the single hyena spied the leopard and impala and the leopard gave up its meal. The hyena sat in the bushes and proceeded to eat. 

Our room at the Victoria Falls Hotel.

This was a recurring sight on our trip. Unless a leopard was able to drag its kill into high tree branches, it was willing to leave its meal if threatened by the smaller but fierce hyena. 

Each morning at 10:30 we joined other lodge guests for game viewing from a riverboat. It was very peaceful as we motored down the river. One distinct advantage of being on a boat was that we could get closer to the animals, though disembarkation was not permitted. 

During afternoon vehicle-based drives, we watched elephants, giraffes, wildebeests, warthogs and impalas and tried to get good views of the big cats. With the off-road restrictions in this park, we quickly had a greater appreciation for how we were able to track and follow animals at the private game reserves we’d visited previously. 

One afternoon, our Chobe Game Lodge vehicle was among 16 others jockeying for the best position to see a single leopard. As the big cat moved and the vehicle drivers kept changing positions, it became hard to view anything, so we decided to move on. This type of contention never occurred in the private reserves. 

For our last dinner at Chobe Game Lodge, we were seated at a quiet table on the lodge’s wooden deck overlooking the river. The table, lit by candlelight, was nicely set, and the atmosphere was very relaxing. We were served sirloin steak and a Niçoise salad, with pecan pudding for dessert.

Our visit to Africa was amazing. We saw scenery, wildlife, trees and plants that we had never seen before, met many new people and greatly expanded our understanding about life in Africa. We also learned a bit about the characteristics of each lodge we visited and the different safari experience each provided. 

Our favorite safari lodge was Mala­Mala. While the accommodations and dining were terrific, we were most impressed by the knowledge of our MalaMala ranger, Grant Roodt, who had an unsurpassed interest in sharing his knowledge of Africa with us. 

Some suggestions

As guidance to others thinking about a trip to Africa, I would suggest scheduling a winter-season visit. Our trip during this time avoided extremely high daytime temperatures, and we could easily layer clothing during the cooler mornings and early evenings. Also, during the dry winter season (May-August) the malaria risk is reduced, and animals may be more likely to be seen as they seek drinking water from receding sources. 

Using air travel, when possible, to reduce driving time between safari camps is also recommended. If you have limited time available for your safari, you really don’t want to spend a large part of your time in a car. 

Try to include a safari camp on or near a large water source. We particularly enjoyed seeing birds and animals living and/or feeding along the Chobe River. It was amazing to see the water habitat and watch the animal herds that came during the day to drink along the riverbank. 

Determining if you want a more intimate small-party Africa experience or are willing to travel with a larger group is important. At one camp, we were the only passengers in our game-drive vehicle, which gave us more ability to focus the drive on the game we wanted to see. On the other hand, it was fun to share exotic animal viewing experiences among three or four other guests.

A fish eagle in the Chobe River.

Spending at least three nights at any safari location will give you two full days, or at least five opportunities, to see wildlife common to the area you’re visiting. 

I would suggest consulting an Africa travel specialist for guidance in planning a safari. Agencies such as Fish Eagle Safaris, with staff who continually visit African locations and publish helpful trip reviews and travel recommendations, are valuable planning resources. Using a travel specialist greatly reduced our worry about selecting individual safari lodges, figuring out how to deal with moving from one safari location to another and selecting and arranging activities such as our Zambezi River cruise and Victoria Falls tour. 

Although we have trips lined up for the next couple of years, our first-time trip to Africa whetted our appetites for a return visit. Viewing the Great Migration remains on our bucket list.    

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Evening at MalaMala.

Despite lifelong interests in wildlife, my wife and I had never been to Africa. After looking through a variety of safari brochures, we found it was easy to become overwhelmed by the many travel options. 

We were faced with a number of questions, such as do we time our trip to watch the Great Migration or are there other equally outstanding viewing options? What time of year should we go? Which safari lodges would best fit our interests? Do we need a rental car? How do we avoid becoming part of a large vehicle pack converging on a rare animal sighting? Can we arrange an African safari for the two of us or do we need to join a group? And how many days should we stay at a particular camp for optimum animal viewing? 

Trying to find answers to these questions on the Internet had us confused. 

Several friends had shared with us their wonderful travel experiences to Africa arranged by Fish Eagle Safaris (Houston, TX; 800/513-5222, www.fisheaglesafaris.com), an ITN advertiser, so we decided to call Bert Duplessis, the company’s owner, to better acquaint ourselves. This was a great start to our planning efforts.

Creating a plan

With more than 20 years of experience plus making frequent trips to review existing and new lodges and camps, the Fish Eagle staff is well acquainted with travel in Africa. Their website was also very helpful to us as we started to define our plans. 

With Bert’s guidance, we were able to develop an itinerary with the objectives of including broad opportunities for game viewing; avoiding the primary malarial season: traveling during a time of year that offered moderate temperatures; limiting viewing competition among guest-laden vehicles during game drives; scheduling minimal driving time between safari locations; building the expense of all meals and game drives into our tour cost, and visiting both Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park. 

We chose to stay in lodges rather than tented camps, as I am a rather light sleeper and thought the evening sounds, however exciting, would be sleep disturbing. 

After much consultation with Bert, we finalized our first-timer’s African safari, incorporating stays at MalaMala Game Reserve in South Africa, Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe and, finally, a stay at the Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana’s Chobe National Park. 

A watchful kudu at MalaMala Game Reserve.

This trip would cover about 20 days and cost a total of $18,000. This included all intra-Africa flights, land transportation, accommodations, meals, refreshments, game drives and a Victoria Falls guided walk for two. 

Fish Eagle Safaris arranged all aspects of the trip except our travel from San Francisco to Johannesburg, South Africa, and return. 

Getting there

Over the past few years, we’ve been using business class for long-haul international flights from California. I’m no longer willing — or able — to squeeze my 6-foot-tall frame into a limited-legroom coach seat for more than eight hours. So, even though we had enough points for only one frequent-flyer ticket, that ticket dictated our rather long flight schedule. 

The “free” ticket had us flying from San Francisco to Chicago, laying over for five hours in Chicago before departing on an 8-hour flight to Heathrow, then having a 9-hour layover at Heathrow before taking an 11-hour flight to Johannesburg — about 37 hours of traveling in total!

With several flight delays due to equipment and weather problems on the day of departure, the somewhat long layovers helped us to avoid any missed connections. 

At O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, Fish Eagle Safaris had arranged for us to be met by a representative of Wilderness Safaris, a large African travel operator. The representative assisted us in picking up our luggage and finding a nearby ATM. 

As our flight to MalaMala Game Reserve wasn’t until the next morning, we were escorted to the airport’s City Lodge Hotel, which reminded us of a Holiday Inn. (The alternative was the airport’s InterContinental Hotel, which was almost twice as expensive.) Our room was clean, reasonably sized and within short walking distance of the airport terminal. 

Living in luxury

After breakfast the next morning, included in our room cost, we made our way down to the Federal Air charter kiosk in the airport. There we loaded ourselves and our luggage into a van and were transported to the nearby Federal Air terminal, where we boarded a 19-passenger Beechcraft for a 55-minute flight to the MalaMala airstrip. 

Arriving at our first safari lodge, we were immediately aware that this trip would be special. We were met with cold drinks and facecloths upon check-in and were introduced to Grant Roodt, our ranger during our stay at MalaMala.

While our reservation was originally for a room in the larger Main Camp, we were upgraded to the more intimate Sable Camp next door. Sable Camp can accommodate 14 guests, with no guests under 12 years of age. 

The MalaMala lodge area was a visual oasis surrounded by broad game-viewing areas near the Sand River. The lush grounds and well-maintained suites, pool, dining area and central lodge facilities were beautiful. 

Our room was a rather luxurious air-conditioned stand-alone suite with a living room, a veranda, a bedroom with a king-sized bed and three bathrooms — yes, three full bathrooms, each with heated towel racks. One bathroom had an open-air shower. The tap water in the suite was safe to drink, and our stay included laundry service. 

After lunch we had an hour to relax before boarding a Land Rover for a 4-hour afternoon safari. Grant would turn out to be the best ranger we met during our trip to Africa, in respect to his knowledge of plants, trees, flowers, birds, animals and tracking, not to mention his interest in showing guests as much of Africa as possible. 

The afternoon game drive ended with our following a leopard through a rough area of bushes, trees and gullies. Stopping to observe a glorious orange sunset, we snacked on chips, dried fruit and biltong (a dried South African meat snack) and were offered adult beverages, which included gin-and-tonics, wine and/or beer — quite a way to end our day! 

After our “sundowner,” the temperature gradually cooled, and we slowly added vests and jackets as we made our way back to the lodge, all while periodically observing game with the help of Grant’s handheld searchlight.

A leopard stops for a drink in Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve.

Dinner was served in a boma, a circular outdoor dining enclosure, typically with a campfire in the center. Our 4-course buffet meal included a few game offerings. 

Completing dinner around 9:30, we were escorted back to our suite by Grant. Though we never saw any wildlife during our after-dinner walks to our room at MalaMala, there was nothing to prevent wildlife from entering the compound.

Settling in 

For the next two mornings, hot coffee and pastries were delivered to our suite at 5 a.m. We had breakfast at the dining area at 6, and at 7 we departed for our morning game drive. Apparently, this was the typical winter morning schedule. (During the summer, the higher daytime temperatures require an even earlier morning start and a later afternoon game drive to avoid being out during the hottest part of the day.) 

With over 33,000 acres in the MalaMala Reserve, we had many areas to visit. During our game drives we saw a broad range of birds, such as vultures, swallows, weavers, owls, lapwings, go-away-birds, rollers, shrikes, sparrows and storks. We also observed many animals, including lions, white rhinos, zebras, impalas, duikers, steenboks, nyalas, monkeys, hares, civets, mongooses, wildebeests, cheetahs, Cape buffaloes, giraffes, leopards and elephants. 

Each morning, we would stop mid-drive for a coffee-and-pastry break. Sometimes we hiked up a small hill to observe the reserve from a higher perspective. Grant pointed out animals, insects and plant life along our walks, all while balancing a large-caliber rifle over his shoulder. 

During one afternoon game drive, we came upon a leopard eating a freshly killed kudu. Soon, hyenas were gathering to watch the feast and, within a short time, they displaced the leopard. Shortly thereafter, 30 to 40 vultures gathered to eye the kudu carcass. As the hyenas moved away, the vultures quickly dove in and picked the carcass clean to the bone. The unfolding scene provided a harsh view of life, all in a single location. 

On to Mashatu 

One of our travel requests was to avoid long drives between distant safari locations. As airstrips were available at MalaMala and Mashatu, our next destination, Fish Eagle Safaris arranged a charter flight for us. A 4-passenger Beechcraft took us to Polowkwane International Airport in South Africa and then on to Limpopo Valley Airfield in Botswana. 

The drive to Mashatu Main Camp took about 30 minutes through a rather dry, sparse landscape. Once at the camp, we each were given a cool towel and a cold glass of juice, then we met Bashi, our personal ranger for our stay there.

Our room was very luxurious, with air-conditioning, a sitting area, a full bathroom with a separate shower and bathtub and an additional half bathroom. Internet service was available via a single desktop computer in a common lounge. Our stay included all meals but did not include laundry service. 

While not all of the Big Five could be seen at Mashatu, the wildlife was still abundant. We saw cheetahs, wildebeests, jackals, elands, kudus, mongooses, monkeys, leopards, giraffes, zebras, klipspringers, ostriches, hyenas, baboons, warthogs and the ever-present impalas.

There were also many varieties of birds, including babblers, hornbills, ducks, bustards, cormorants, doves, eagles, egrets, fish eagles, francolins, guineafowl, kingfishers, lapwings, plovers and herons. 

The elephant herds at Mashatu were the largest we saw during our time in Africa. 

Dinner was again served in the traditional boma around a roaring campfire. Four courses plus dessert were offered. With so many food selections, no one ever went hungry. 

Back to South Africa 

Our transit from Mashatu to Victoria Falls began by car. We left Mashatu at 8:30 a.m. on our way to the Pont Drift Immigration and Customs station. The drive took about 45 minutes. 

From Pont Drift, we left our ranger, Bashi, and rode in a 4-person, open cable-car gondola over the Limpopo River, crossing from Bostwana into South Africa. (The higher river level prevented our Land Cruiser from crossing.) Once over the river, we were met by Allen, a South African driver, in a Mercedes sedan, as arranged by Fish Eagle Safaris. We quickly cleared South African Immigration and continued on a 2-hour drive to the Polowkwane Airport. 

Due to commercial flight schedules, we couldn’t travel to Victoria Falls directly from Polowkwane, so we flew back to Johannesburg first. We picked up our duffels from baggage claim and walked the familiar path to the City Lodge Hotel, since our flight to Victoria Falls was scheduled for early the next morning. 

As we walked through the terminal the next morning, perhaps looking somewhat lost, we caught the interest of a stranger who offered to help us find our check-in counter. Allen, our South African driver from the previous day, had warned us about unofficial airport helpers who offer their assistance. Some will ask to inspect your tickets and passports as they help you through airport processing. To get these documents back, you are then asked for payment. 

I recalled the location of the South African Airways counters, so we declined this assistance. While the offer may have been completely innocent, while traveling in a foreign country we are sometimes a bit wary.

On to Victoria Falls

The flight to Victoria Falls airport took about 90 minutes. With turkey sandwiches and a small pastry served during the flight, we were set for lunch. 

After landing in Zimbabwe, the 150 or so passengers queued for Immigration, and the slow process took about 45 minutes. There were too many passengers for the two agents to handle. 

A driver from Wilderness Safaris met us in the airport terminal for the 20-minute drive to the Victoria Falls Hotel. Built in 1904, it had the feel of a historic hotel in a US national park. The hotel was nicely maintained and the staff was very helpful. 

Our hotel room was beautiful, decorated in a style reminiscent of the era in which it was built. However, we didn’t spend much time in our room, as we had a 3:30 p.m. car departure to take us to the river dock for a cruise down the Zambezi River. 

View from a walk along Victoria Falls.

The Zambezi Queen was a large, 3-decked riverboat. The $60-per-person fare included all drinks and six different delicious hors d’oeuvres. As we cruised down the river, we watched the other boats on the river, the crocodiles, the hippos and the birds. The sunset was beautiful, and by the time the cruise ended at 6:00, we were too full to eat a complete dinner.

We met our Wilderness Safaris guide for the next day’s tour of Victoria Falls at 8:30 a.m. As part of our walking tour, we received admission tickets to the falls along with water bottles and a long rain jacket for the walk.

It was dry at the beginning of the walk, but soon the heavy mist from the falls made it feel like hiking in a rainstorm. We had to stop taking photographs, as it was no longer possible to keep the camera lens dry. 

After our walk, we stopped at the Rainforest Café in the falls area to dry off and have coffee and a very large slice of chocolate cake. 

Despite the rain jacket, it would be nearly impossible to stay dry while visiting the falls during high to moderate river levels. We were glad to have worn shoes and clothes that could dry quickly.

Later in the afternoon, we took a brief walk to a lookout point over the Zambezi River, near our hotel. At the lookout point there were kids harnessed to the Flying Fox cable slide zipping halfway over the river before being pulled back. As the ride’s origin was in Zimbabwe and the other end of the cable was in Zambia, cable riders could not completely cross the river; otherwise, they would be obliged to pass through Immigration! 

Chobe National Park

Victoria Falls was not very far from Chobe National Park, our final stop. After an hour’s drive to the Zimbabwe/Botswana border, we were met by a Botswana-based Wilderness Safaris driver who took us on a 20-minute ride to Chobe Game Lodge

Our lodge stay included all meals, all game drives, laundry service and Wi-Fi access. Our room, which had a deck overlooking the Chobe River, had air-conditioning and, among other amenities, contained a king-sized bed, a telephone and a bathroom en suite. 

We joined a small family from Spain on our introductory river game drive, with Gobe serving as our river guide and boat captain. We saw fish eagles, skimmers, buffaloes, hippos, elephants and crocodiles along the river. 

We returned to the lodge to clean up and get ready for dinner at 7:30. I appreciated the earlier dining schedule, as I found MalaMala’s 8 p.m. start time often meant we finished our meal at a late, for us, 9:30. 

Each morning, we departed the lodge for a game drive at 6:00. As we were not in a private reserve but in a national park, our vehicle was restricted to the park’s existing dirt roads. This meant we could not pursue the viewing of animals beyond the road. Consequently, binoculars and my telephoto lens provided the best wildlife viewing. 

One morning, no more than 200 feet from the lodge gate, we saw a leopard, a small pack of hyenas and a large impala herd. Within minutes, the leopard killed a smaller impala, dragging its kill to the brush. One of the hyenas must have heard the impala herd issuing an alert cry, as it circled back, looking for the kill. Soon the single hyena spied the leopard and impala and the leopard gave up its meal. The hyena sat in the bushes and proceeded to eat. 

Our room at the Victoria Falls Hotel.

This was a recurring sight on our trip. Unless a leopard was able to drag its kill into high tree branches, it was willing to leave its meal if threatened by the smaller but fierce hyena. 

Each morning at 10:30 we joined other lodge guests for game viewing from a riverboat. It was very peaceful as we motored down the river. One distinct advantage of being on a boat was that we could get closer to the animals, though disembarkation was not permitted. 

During afternoon vehicle-based drives, we watched elephants, giraffes, wildebeests, warthogs and impalas and tried to get good views of the big cats. With the off-road restrictions in this park, we quickly had a greater appreciation for how we were able to track and follow animals at the private game reserves we’d visited previously. 

One afternoon, our Chobe Game Lodge vehicle was among 16 others jockeying for the best position to see a single leopard. As the big cat moved and the vehicle drivers kept changing positions, it became hard to view anything, so we decided to move on. This type of contention never occurred in the private reserves. 

For our last dinner at Chobe Game Lodge, we were seated at a quiet table on the lodge’s wooden deck overlooking the river. The table, lit by candlelight, was nicely set, and the atmosphere was very relaxing. We were served sirloin steak and a Niçoise salad, with pecan pudding for dessert.

Our visit to Africa was amazing. We saw scenery, wildlife, trees and plants that we had never seen before, met many new people and greatly expanded our understanding about life in Africa. We also learned a bit about the characteristics of each lodge we visited and the different safari experience each provided. 

Our favorite safari lodge was Mala­Mala. While the accommodations and dining were terrific, we were most impressed by the knowledge of our MalaMala ranger, Grant Roodt, who had an unsurpassed interest in sharing his knowledge of Africa with us. 

Some suggestions

As guidance to others thinking about a trip to Africa, I would suggest scheduling a winter-season visit. Our trip during this time avoided extremely high daytime temperatures, and we could easily layer clothing during the cooler mornings and early evenings. Also, during the dry winter season (May-August) the malaria risk is reduced, and animals may be more likely to be seen as they seek drinking water from receding sources. 

Using air travel, when possible, to reduce driving time between safari camps is also recommended. If you have limited time available for your safari, you really don’t want to spend a large part of your time in a car. 

Try to include a safari camp on or near a large water source. We particularly enjoyed seeing birds and animals living and/or feeding along the Chobe River. It was amazing to see the water habitat and watch the animal herds that came during the day to drink along the riverbank. 

Determining if you want a more intimate small-party Africa experience or are willing to travel with a larger group is important. At one camp, we were the only passengers in our game-drive vehicle, which gave us more ability to focus the drive on the game we wanted to see. On the other hand, it was fun to share exotic animal viewing experiences among three or four other guests.

A fish eagle in the Chobe River.

Spending at least three nights at any safari location will give you two full days, or at least five opportunities, to see wildlife common to the area you’re visiting. 

I would suggest consulting an Africa travel specialist for guidance in planning a safari. Agencies such as Fish Eagle Safaris, with staff who continually visit African locations and publish helpful trip reviews and travel recommendations, are valuable planning resources. Using a travel specialist greatly reduced our worry about selecting individual safari lodges, figuring out how to deal with moving from one safari location to another and selecting and arranging activities such as our Zambezi River cruise and Victoria Falls tour. 

Although we have trips lined up for the next couple of years, our first-time trip to Africa whetted our appetites for a return visit. Viewing the Great Migration remains on our bucket list.