A dream realized in Southern Africa

By Dorothy Botnick
This article appears on page 6 of the July 2019 issue.
Cape Town’s harbor, with Table Mountain in the background.

Sometimes, when you dream of a trip for a long time and begin planning far in advance, you wonder if everything will live up to your expectations. In our case, our adventure to Southern Africa (May 20-June 11, 2018) was almost everything we wanted it to be, and we returned home excited about having taken one of our best trips ever.

Making plans

I began planning this trip about a year and a half in advance. As part of my research, I looked at articles on the International Travel News website. One article, in the February 2013 issue, caught my attention: “Spending 20 Fantastic Days in Southern Africa” by George Anderson.

The author recommended BushBaby Safaris (KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa; phone +27 [0] 34 212 3216, www.bushbaby.co.za), a husband-and-wife operation in South Africa that arranges custom tours. Karen and Pierre Duval, the owners of BushBaby, have been in business for 20 years.

My husband, Ben, and I prefer to work with a travel company located in the destination we’ll be visiting, and we like to design our own tours rather than join prepackaged ones. I contacted Karen and outlined my preferred itinerary, and after email messages back and forth and incorporating some of Karen’s suggestions, we agreed on an itinerary that included Victoria Falls (on the Zimbabwe side); Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta in Botswana; the Skeleton Coast, the desert and the dunes in Namibia, and Cape Town, the Winelands and the Garden Route in South Africa.

The entire journey would take three weeks and cost $8,400 per person, including airport transfers, seven internal flights, lodging, private tours and most meals. We used airline miles for our international flights.

Considering all that we did, the top quality of our private guides, the excellence of the guest houses in which we stayed and the care and attention to detail Karen took with our itinerary, it was almost a bargain! (I checked a few package tours, and they were comparable in price, and a couple cost even more.)

Johannesburg and Victoria Falls

Ben and I flew from Dallas, connecting at London Heathrow and continuing to Johannesburg (Joburg), arriving on May 20. In Johannesburg we stayed at the AfricaSky Guest House, about 10 minutes from the airport.

After a light lunch and a brief rest, we took a personal tour of Johannesburg conducted by Henry Zeiler, a retired Joburg firefighter who now runs his own tour company, Catz Tours & Safaris (www.catztours.com). Henry, while acknowledging the problems of his home city, is obviously proud of the area and gave us an interesting tour, relating its history along with some personal stories and observations.

The next day we flew to Victoria Falls. While the rest of Zimbabwe is emerging from decades of an iron-fisted dictatorship and has a lot of catching up to do, Victoria Falls, situated on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, was pretty much left unscathed during the Robert Mugabe years. (He understood that the area was a tourism gold mine and that leaving it alone would help finance his regime.)

After landing and waiting more than an hour to go through passport control (nothing is automated and information is handwritten, using carbon paper for copies), we arrived at the Victoria Falls Hotel (victoria fallshotel.co).

What a sight! The hotel was, indeed, something out of the British colonial era. While more than a century old, it has been beautifully maintained and modernized.

That afternoon, we had a personal tour of Victoria Falls, and the sights were as magnificent as all the guidebooks described.

Staying just one night at the Victoria Falls Hotel was probably my only mistake of the trip. Karen suggested two nights, but I thought one would be enough. Technically, it is if you want to see only the falls, but that hotel is so wonderful, we did not want to leave!

Okavango Delta

Elephant near Gunn’s Camp in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

Our adventure continued when our driver from Shearwater (shearwatervictoriafalls.com) picked us up in the morning and took us to the Zimbabwe/Botswana border. After we cleared passport control, another driver took us to the Kasane, Botswana, airport for our flight to the Okavango Delta.

Ben and I boarded a bush plane that held just the pilot and three passengers. (For anyone considering going to the Okavango Delta, be aware that you should use soft-sided luggage, preferably without wheels or a frame. A duffel bag is perfect. The planes are tiny and do not have much storage space.)

Because these small planes can fly low, we had beautiful views of the delta and a bird’s-eye view of wildlife.

A little over an hour later, we put down on a dirt landing strip where staff from Gunn’s Camp (gunns-camp.com) were waiting to meet us and take us to the tent that would be ours for the next three nights. Situated on a large wooden platform, the tent was plenty comfortable, with a front deck on which we could sit and look at the elephants that were almost always nearby and the warthogs rooting in the grass.

Inside was a sitting room, a bedroom and an area with a WC and sink. Outside on the back deck were the shower and a large bathtub. High canvas walls assured privacy while bathing.

Each morning at 6:30, a Gunn’s Camp staff member brought tea and coffee to our tent and woke us for the day’s exploration. After a hearty breakfast, we would board a boat with our well-informed guides, Titus and Jeorjeo. Those men knew everything about the area and taught us so much.

After our morning adventures, we would go back to the camp for a rest and lunch, then we were off again. Each boat safari lasted about three hours.

We saw dozens of hippopotamuses and elephants, several Cape buffalo, monitor lizards and baby crocodiles.

One day we did a nature walk and happened upon a Cape buffalo (almost too close for comfort), giraffes and plenty of birds.

Another afternoon, we explored the marshes by mokoro, or dugout canoe. We saw tiny reed frogs, each no more than a quarter inch in length, and all sorts of birds — fish eagles, marabou storks, kingfishers, herons, hornbills and many more.

Gunn’s Camp was a joy. The staff was friendly and welcoming, our guides were superb, and the food was delicious.

Chobe National Park

Leopard in Chobe National Park, Botswana.

We were hesitant to leave such a special place, but more adventure beckoned. We boarded the small bush plane to fly to Kasane, where the driver from Kubu Lodge, our next destination, was waiting for us.

Kubu Lodge (kubulodge.net), on the Chobe River, consists of 11 spacious, comfortable chalets spread across the property. Our chalet overlooked the river, and we spent time sitting on the front deck watching the bushbuck and guinea fowl that roamed the lawns.

As at Gunn’s Camp, the staff was warm and friendly, and the food was uncommonly good.

On our first afternoon there, we took a boat ride on the Chobe River and saw an enormous crocodile and much birdlife. Early the next morning we were up for a safari in Chobe National Park.

Chobe is known for its elephants, and they were almost everywhere, along with lions, leopards, tortoises, hundreds of impala, kudus, giraffes and dozens of types of birds.

The owners of Kubu Lodge sponsor a preschool for children 2½ to 6 years old who have been orphaned or live in single-parent homes or with grandparents. We took books and school supplies for the school and got to spend time with the children — a very special visit. The children were adorable and their teachers, welcoming and appreciative of the supplies.

An unexpected obstacle

After three nights at Kubu Lodge, we flew back to Joburg to spend the night at AfricaSky Guest House before flying to Walvis Bay, Namibia, the next day.

I had wanted to go to Namibia for almost as long as I can remember. The desert, dunes and Skeleton Coast have sparked my imagination for decades. This is the part of the trip I was most looking forward to.

While having drinks in the lounge at AfricaSky, I received a telephone call from Karen Duval. Her downcast voice told me something was wrong.

SA Express, the airline on which we were to fly to Namibia, had all of its planes grounded by the South African Civil Aviation Authority that day due to serious safety risks! Karen explained that there was no way to get us to Namibia, since the flights from other airlines were already booked. And even if she could get us a flight to Walvis Bay, she was afraid she couldn’t find a return flight.

Situations like this make me glad I use a reputable travel agent in the country I am visiting. Karen was right on top of the situation and had, I’m certain, spent all afternoon on the phone rearranging our trip.

She had already booked us at a private game camp in Kruger National Park and gave us the option of going there or flying to Cape Town early and spending extra time there. We opted for Kruger and are glad we did.

The Big Five

We stayed at Gomo Gomo Game Lodge (gomogomo.co.za), situated in the prestigious Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park. We were there for three nights and had the usual early-morning and late-afternoon game drives.

It was there that we completed our sighting of the Big Five when we saw seven rhinos late one afternoon. We had seen Cape buffalo, elephants, leopards and lions in Botswana.

Gomo Gomo had a watering hole behind the main lodge, and we spent plenty of time on the terrace watching a troop of baboons plus giraffes, zebras and a herd of about 30 elephants drinking and playing in the water.

Then it was on to Cape Town, where we stayed at Blackheath Lodge, a wonderful guest house in a residential neighborhood but still close to lots of restaurants and nightlife.

Cape Town had been in a record drought, so we tried to be as careful as possible, following the city’s guidelines for water usage. As of (our) late summer 2018, Cape Town had received much-needed rainfall, so the drought isn’t as desperate as it had been in the spring. Still, it’s a good thing to be water wise.

Because Blackheath Lodge required a 2½-mile drive over sometimes hilly terrain to get there from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront (the only negative about the place), we used Uber to get to and from the popular area (never paying more than about $3 for a trip) as well as to Table Mountain and the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

The V&A Waterfront was a lively place with many restaurants and shops. We took nearly all our meals there, and each restaurant was very good.

There is also a variety of stores, some with just tourist souvenirs and others with quality wares. We purchased four Zulu woven baskets at Indaba Curios (waterfront.co.za/stores/indaba-curios), which specializes in African crafts and design.

Cape of Good Hope

View of historic Simon’s Town, South Africa.

One day we had a private tour of the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, which contains the most southwesterly point of the African continent and one of the highest sea cliffs in the world as well as indigenous plant species, some of which occur nowhere else on Earth.

We also visited Chapman’s Peak, the road leading us there cited as the most scenic marine drive in the world. Other area sites included Boulders Beach, home to a colony of African penguins, and historical Simon’s Town, a naval village.

At the end of the tour, our guide took us to Steenberg Vineyards (steenbergfarm.com) in Constantia, about 30 minutes from Cape Town. It was a beautiful place — very contemporary and rivaling anything in the California wine region. It was a great way to end an interesting day.

After spending a third day in Cape Town on our own, we rented a car and drove to the Winelands, stopping first in Stellenbosch. A young woman at Blackheath Lodge had advised us not to bother, saying it’s just a big university town. She was right.

We didn’t linger but drove on to Franschhoek, a lovely town with lots to see and do. We had a special lunch at La Petite Ferme (lapetiteferme.co.za), a winery with luxury accommodations and a restaurant. The dining room was beautiful, with views of the perfectly manicured lawn, the vineyards and the mountains.

Our lunch cost about $25 each, including a dessert that we shared and wine for Ben only, since I was driving.

After lunch we drove a few hours to Robertson, our stop for the night, where we stayed at the Fraai Uitzicht 1798 Guesthouse & Winery (www.fraaiuitzicht.com). Robertson is not much of a town and we wouldn’t have gone there on our own, since it’s far from Cape Town and Franschhoek.

The guest house was even farther from the town, and we had trouble locating it. It was so remote, even townspeople didn’t know about it, and GPS was no help either. We finally made our way there, finding a guest house that was superb in every way, and the surrounding area was beautiful.

Our dinner that night was delicious. I enjoyed some of the best steak I’ve ever eaten, and I live in Texas.

After breakfast the next morning, we were off on another driving adventure, this time to Oudtshoorn, ostrich capital of the world. Along the route from Robertson we passed through spectacular scenery, much of it reminding us of northern New Mexico.

That night we stayed at the De Zeekoe guest house (dezeekoe.co.za), 7 kilometers outside Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo. The area offers ostrich farms and a meerkat conservation site to visit, as well as the Cango Caves, with vast halls and towering formations.

We decided not to play tourist, since we arrived at the guest house around 3:30, deciding instead to enjoy a lazy afternoon. This is another area I might have skipped.

The Garden Route

Finally, for the last portion of our trip, we headed for the Garden Route. We stayed at the Point Lodge, just outside Knysna.

This guest house is the only one that disappointed, the shortcomings too numerous to mention. I brought this to Karen’s attention, because all the other places in which we stayed were almost perfection. She apologized and said she had not visited the Point Lodge in several years. The guest house she likes to use was closed for a few weeks. Anyway, she said she will not be using it again.

I had heard so much about the Garden Route and was excited to see the area. Knysna is a pretty waterfront town catering to travelers. Since we were there in early June, there weren’t many visitors, but I imagine in high season things get hectic.

We took a 1½-hour dinner cruise in the harbor one evening, though Ben and I usually do not like these types of cruises; the food is rarely good, and the time usually goes slowly. This one was an exception, however. The food, prepared on board, was fresh and served hot, and the guide was interesting.

We drove the next day to Tsitsikamma National Park, one of the largest marine protected areas in the world. The area is beautiful, with many nature trails to explore. It reminded us of the Oregon coast, with mountains plunging into the sea.

In early June 2017, exactly a year before we toured the area, horrendous wildfires broke out in the Knysna area of the Garden Route. More than 1,000 houses burned, 10,000 people were evacuated and seven people lost their lives. Evidence of the fires was still obvious as we drove along the Garden Route. Still, it’s beautiful country, and I’m glad we took the time to see the region.

The Garden Route was our last stop on this wonderful trip. From Knysna, we drove to George and flew to Johannesburg, then home.

If you are planning a trip to Southern Africa, keep in mind that the flights are incredibly long. It’s much like going to Australia or New Zealand. We traveled about 30 hours going over, but that is the only way to get there, so you just deal with it. Once you arrive, though, you’ll be delighted to be in Africa.

If I were to go again (and I hope I do), I would use BushBaby Safaris to help plan the trip. Karen did a wonderful job for us. She is detail-minded and uses top-notch guides and properties. Yes, there are some things I would change, but, in all, I give this trip an A++.