London, South Africa and safari - April 2012

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  1. Slow_Mustang
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    The much anticipated day finally arrived and we headed to the airport for our first ever trip to the sixth continent - Africa. The FC check-in at LAX was fairly routine and the BA lounge was a bit crowded. Our flight left on time. Through trial and error I have found that JW blue label does wonders to relax me. So, that is what it was for the pre dinner cocktail hour. One of the items on the dinner menu was Shephard’s Lamb Pie. It turned out to be two slabs of mashed potatoes with half an ounce of lamb meat in between. I had to request for a second dinner entree of fish to fulfil my minimum daily requirement of protein. After an uneventful flight we landed at Heathrow the next day. The Fast Track had closed at 1:00 PM, so we had to stand in a long line, with a wait time of about 2 hours before we could get our passports stamped and find our way out of the terminal. The poor driver of the car that we had booked for airport to hotel transfer stood there holding a sign all that time, waiting for us. Drive to the Intercontinental by the Green Park took only about 35 minutes as it was a Saturday afternoon. The room was nice and spacious, but besides the 14 Arabic channels on TV all you could watch was soccer or news.

    Next day was dark and dreary when we headed out to visit the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. This was one place that I had intended to visit for a long time, but never found the time to go to on my previous swings through London. As we approached the top of the hill that the observatory is located on, it started to drizzle a bit. The observatory started out in a building where the royal astronomers started their stargazing activities. Now a days, the complex consists additionally of some museums, the Prime Meridian Line and educational interactive videos on astronomy. There was a long line for taking a picture on the Prime Meridian Line, which is the North-South zero longitude reference line.

    For the second day we had made reservations for a walking tour of Cambridge but the day turned out to be worse than day 1, as rain and winds made life, well not so pleasant. Not to be outdone by mother nature, we headed to the British Museum to revisit some of the treasures on display from various civilizations. Luckily for us, we made it over there after lunch when the crowds had thinned out a bit. We were told that in the morning so many people had showed up at their doors that they had to temporarily shut down the place for any additional visitors to avoid overcrowding. It brings such awe to see so many artifacts from different ancient civilizations in one huge complex.

    After breakfast in the next morning, we checked out, left our bags with the concierge and headed out for a walk through the Green Park over to the Buckingham Palace. The walking tour ended back at the hotel where we met up with the driver for our drive to the airport for a quick check-in, massage in the Concord Lounge before boarding the plane bound for Cape Town. An evening of JW Blue and dinner was followed by a restful night to get ready for the Cape Town adventure.
     
  2. Slow_Mustang
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    We landed at Cape Town in the morning and tried to get out through the 'nothing to declare' line. There were a dozen or so tables set up with a supervisor and 2 assistants manning each table. Everyone coming through was being asked to stop by and open all their bags for an inspection. Why have a separate 'nothing to declare' exit if you are going to rummage through everyone's luggage? What part of 'nothing to declare' don't you understand? Anyway, I did not want to deal with the taxi drivers and had the hotel arrange for a pick up. There were about 4 ATM machines in the arrival area which came in handy for acquiring some Rands before the ride to Westin. Westin is a nice, clean hotel but due to some maritime security conference going on in the building next door, the place was packed with reps from different Asian and African countries. Perhaps they were exchanging notes about the Somali pirates. The hotel has free shuttle service to the V & A Waterfront every half an hour. We had pre-booked tickets for a trip to the Robben island. So, after settling down in the hotel room, we left for the Waterfront. A quick bite and a short walk to the dock at the Waterfront and we were on our way to the island on a ferry. Upon arrival, we were given a tour of the island in a bus and then dropped off for a guided tour of the prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for a number of years. This prison tour is conducted by one of the former prisoners who was incarcerated there along with Mandela, so it is a first person account of the conditions that prevailed there during the apartheid era - A truly moving experience. There is a penguin colony worth stopping by on the left side as you walk back to the dock. Try to get to the dock ahead of the departure time to grab a seat on the top open deck to enhance the ferry ride experience. The whole trip took about 3.5 hours.
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    Mandela's Govt. furnished residence (jail) at Robben Island

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    Robben Island ferry


    Next day we waited for our friends to reach Cape Town. We were advised by some fellow guests at the hotel to buy tickets online for the Table Mountain to avoid long lines at the cable car station and also to save a few Rands. A cab ride brought us to the Cable Car station and with the crowds having thinned out in the afternoon, we were able to get into the first cable car going up. The ticket must be saved as it has to be presented for the ride down, with some people opting to buy one way tickets and hiking down on their way back, instead of riding the cable car. The views were breathtaking, but it being a clear day, the Sun was unmercifully hot. I was told that on cloudy days the temps at the top can be much lower than in the city and one requires a jacket to be comfortable. Also, strong winds can force a shutdown of the cable car operation. There is a restaurant at the mountain top for eating or just taking a break in the shade. Back at the hotel, the happy hour lasts from 5 to 7 on the 19th floor with some wine/beer and nuts. As in the previous evening, we availed ourselves of the hotel shuttle service to go to the Waterfront for dinner. The Waterfront is a lively area with lots of nice restaurants - steaks, sushi, Italian, Indian and more. Remember that you must not lose sight of your credit card, so they bring the swiping machine to the dinner table for payment. In the mall at the Waterfront, there is even a grocery store for the toiletries that you forgot to bring.
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    V & A Waterfront

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    Obligatory picture at the Waterfront for the female forum members

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    Cape Town from the Table Mountain
     
  3. Slow_Mustang
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    Next two days were spent on private day tours of the Cape Peninsula and the Winelands. All the regular tours seem to omit one thing or the other (like the penguin colony along the coast) from the Peninsula tour and list them as optional items. What is the point of driving along the coast if you don't stop and see the things along the way? I guess they just want to jack up their prices by making things optional. Some stretches of the Western side of the peninsula are very beautiful and seem awfully like the famed Italian Amalfi Coast. The drive to and around the Winelands area was quite scenic. Much like at the Napa Valley area of California, we did wine tasting of their local wines.

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    Penguins at the Boulders Beach, Cape Town


    The following day we took an early morning flight to Jo'burg and then a connecting flight to Livingstone, Zambia. The six day tour through Zambia and Botswana had been arranged by a travel agent. So things went smoothly. A $50 Zambian visa fee was not something I was happy with, but then we soak the visitors to the US for lot more than that. This, I was reminded of by the Zambian visa issuing person who must hear this complaint a million times every day from us visitors. $50 is for a single entry visa; you pay more if you plan on entering Zimbabwe for a day trip and coming back to Zambia. A jeep with cold water was waiting for us at the airport to take us to the Zambezi Sun Hotel (http://www.suninternational.com/Des...t/Accommodation/ZambeziSun/Pages/default.aspx) which is a 5 minute walk from the Victoria Falls. Some rest and we were off to a boat cruise on the Zambezi river and to behold the beautiful sunset. Included with the boat trip were some snacks, beer and wine. Back at the hotel, there were two choices for dinner - a very extensive buffet for $47, or a more reasonable entree for the normal restaurant prices. Needless to say, after snacks and drinks on the boat, we were not ready to go for the super heavy buffet meal and settled for a fish dinner.

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    Obligatory guy picture on the Jo'burg to Livingstone flight

    The next morning, after a sumptuous breakfast, we went on a guided tour of the Victoria Falls and to the bridge connecting Zambia to Zimbabwe. At the mid-point of this bridge between the two countries, you have a chance to do bungie jumping. I cannot get too excited with that activity and tempt fate, specially considering that about a month back, their cable snapped during one of the jumps and a young lady almost lost her life in the river below. I did see a fearless young woman make the jump and come back up safely. Zimbabwe starts from the mid-point on the bridge, so technically, I have stepped on their soil too. After lunch, I put on my swimming trunks, exchanged shoes for thongs and went back to get a more personal and close up view of the Vic Falls. Unlike other falls, you can't see the bottom of the Vic Falls. This is because massive amount of water from the Zambezi river falls into a narrow gorge and the force of the impact pushes lot of water/moisture to splash upwards, obstructing your view of the bottom of the falls. This water falls back on the spectators in the form of a heavy rain shower. There is a small bridge connecting two pieces of land in front of the falls and that is where you get splashed on the most, and that is also where you see multiple rainbows. In fact I saw one which stretched to over 330 degrees, with the narrow width of land below the bridge obstructing it from becoming a full circle. Getting drenched by the splashed up cold water from the falls under a hot sun while you watch the falls and the rainbows - few things match the exquisiteness of this experience. I prepared for this event by bringing a hotel laundry bag and a towel with me and stuffing all my things into the bag before walking off on to the narrow bridge. Vic Falls along with the Niagara Falls and the Iguazu Falls are the three biggest falls. With a visit to the last of the three, another item falls off the bucket list. Back at the hotel, there were half a dozen zebras and 3 giraffes roaming around on the property of our and that of the adjacent hotel, both owned by the Zambezi Sun co. A quiet evening at the hotel bar, some food and we were all set to move on to the next adventure the following day.
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    Rainbow over the Zambezi river above the Victoria Falls

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    Zambezi river water falling into a narrow gorge splashes up to form a big misty cloud

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    Mid-point of the bridge over the Zambezi River, between Zambia and Zimbabwe separates the two countries
     
  4. Slow_Mustang
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    From the Zambezi Sun Hotel in Livingstone, Zambia, a half hour van drive, an exit visa stamp, a 10 minute boat ride across the Zambezi river, getting the passports stamped by the Botswana immigration people, and another 20 minute van drive brought us to the Chobe Marina Lodge (http://www.chobemarinalodge.com/) in Kasane, Botswana, where a buffet lunch was waiting for us. Around 3:30 PM we went on a water game drive, in which a boat took us to the National Park to watch the various bird species and animals as they came out to take a drink in the Chobe river. The evening ended with a sunset over the river. Next morning hot coffee and muffins were awaiting us in the lobby at 5:30. I really needed that brew to wake me up. We got into an open 10-seater Land Rover and headed to the national park. I am glad I had a hooded jacket with me as the morning breeze in the open jeep was cold enough to freeze a person. The lodge did not provide blankets or any other protection against the elements. Once inside the park we were driven around on the established trails in search of the animal kingdom. There were plenty of impalas, elephants, baboons, giraffes and other animals. Drivers driving in the opposing directions would stop and exchange notes about the sightings. It was not until the afternoon game drive that we saw a female lion with two cubs. The whole operation looked very commercialized with so many jeeps criss crossing in a small area near the river in search of the wildlife. We opted out of the fourth and final game drive next morning and chose to sleep in late.
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    Graceful Giraffes at the Chobe National Park

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    Sunset over the Chobe River

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    Lazy Lions at Chobe

    After two nights at the Chobe Lodge, we took a 6-seater light aircraft from the Kasane airport to the Xakanaxa Camp (http://www.xakanaxa-camp.com/) in the Okavanago Delta formed by the River Khwai. At the airport we were met by a camp game driver who took us to the camp. This was truly a different experience as the camp is located in the Moremi Game Reserve with nothing else around it. We stayed in huge tent rooms, the insides of which were furnished just like any standard hotel rooms with complete bathroom facilities. Amazing, to what lengths they have to go to ensure that the pampered city folks feel like they never left their homes. They even took care of the daily laundry, if you have any, in one flat price charged for the stay. After the afternoon tea, we left for our first game drive in this new place and saw a fair amount of wildlife including a lion and her cub lazing around along a trail. After dark, light is provided with a liberal use of candles, tiki torches and old fashioned kerosene oil lamps. A small generator works till 8 PM and is used mainly for charging camera batteries. We were escorted from our tent to the thatched lounge area facing the lagoon around 7:30 for a drink or two, before dinner was served in the adjoining thatched dining area at 8:00 PM. The food was exquisite. On our first night, it was just the four of us in a 13 unit lodge. Each tent cabin faces the lagoon where frogs and crickets provide very loud music all night long. The ear plugs from the airline amenity kit came in handy to reduce the decibel level of this blues music. I was told that early in the morning, a couple of hippos had come out of the lagoon and made some grunting noises outside our tents. But I could not verify that story as I had my ear plugs on. This was real wilderness.

    This lodge is much smaller and a lot more classy, and on our next game drive in the morning (after some coffee and a toast), we were provided with ponchos to stay warm. At the Okavanago Delta, water is spread out and there are tons of lagoons. So, one has to look for animals in a larger area, as they don't all congregate at one place for their water needs. There was lot less jeep traffic there and more natural beauty. At lunch we were joined by six new arrivals and discussions over the meal became lively with different people from different places having diverse perspectives. The afternoon tea was followed by a boat cruise in the winding lagoons. Towards the end, our guide selected a site to park the boat for some refreshments that he had brought along, and that was followed by witnessing another beautiful sunset.

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    Luxury tent cabins at the Xakanaxa Camp Lodge

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    Xakanaxa Camp Lodge dining area - lighting is by candles and old style hanging kerosene oil lamps

    We again skipped our fourth and final morning game drive the next day, and instead packed up and relaxed around the campsite. Following lunch, we were driven back to the airport for another light aircraft flight to Maun, Botswana, and then connected to an Air Botswana flight to Johannesburg. Thus falls the 'Taking an African safari' off the bucket list.
     
  5. Slow_Mustang
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    At Johannesburg, we walked across the street from the airport and checked into the Intercontinental hotel. To make the best use of our next 24 hours, we had the concierge book us a day trip. After having had rich food for so many days in a row, we felt like something light and walked back to the airport, which has quite a few ‘quick bite’ type of restaurants and a nice bakery. With the dinner taken care of, we retired early for the long day ahead of us.

    The hotel staff was kind enough to let us keep one of the two rooms for a late checkout of 5:00 PM. The city tour started promptly at 9:00 and we headed towards Soweto. During the apartheid era there was a plague scare and the people of Joburg got relocated in an area South West of Joburg – blacks of different ethnicities into different towns, coloreds (mixed race people) into another one and these towns came to be known collectively as Soweto, SOuth-WEst-TOwnships. Asians, mainly Indians and Chinese were moved to Lenasia. Joburg boasts of two Nobel laureates (Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu) having lived on the same block, and also recognizes Gandhi’s contributions to the civil disobedience movement with a statue and a plaque installed (in front of the building where he once had a law office), in a little square called the Gandhi Square in the downtown area.

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    A Soweto shanty town

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    A plaque at the Gandhi Square in downtown Jo'berg

    After a drive through the poor neighborhoods of Soweto, we stopped at Nelson Mandela’s restored house which has been converted to a museum. To view different museum items and to be physically present in the house where Nelson once lived was very moving. Winnie Mandela still lives close by. Down the street is the house where Bishop Tutu once lived. We gave the Apartheid Museum a pass since that would have required 2-3 hours to do justice to it. Lenasia, connected to Soweto through a bridge is a relatively affluent area with mostly Indians living in big, fenced houses/mansions.

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    Mandela Museum - Declaration of honorary citizenship for Mandela

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    The Mandela family restaurant across from his old house (now a museum), run by Winnie, who lives close by

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    Street sign outside Mandela's old house. Both Mandela and Tutu lived on the same block.

    Entering the central part of the town from the South, we stopped at an Indian restaurant in Fordsburg for lunch and then kept traveling through the downtown. It was quite rundown with ‘Vacancy’ signs at most office buildings. We passed through the Gandhi Square and headed towards the affluent North side of the town. All the mansions there were surrounded by ten ft. high fences, and most of them were electrified to provide security for the residents. Nelson Mandela lives here on a quiet street in Houghton with his fourth wife. It is here that the elusive white folks of Jo'burg live and work and shop, with the Central and South sides being totally black with pockets of Asian neighborhoods. All the Hiltons and the Marriotts and the Crown Plazas are located in this neighborhood. There is a train/subway/metro from the airport to this area. Although people are free to live wherever they please, the economic reality keeps them segregated. Joburg is a far cry from the clean, orderly and uncongested Cape Town.

    The city tour ended back at our hotel. A quick shower and checkout was followed by a walk to the airport for the trip back home, which consisted of two 11 hour flights with a 7 hour layover in London. We had booked a cabana at the Concord Lounge and had made reservations for massage too. A shower, some rest and food and massage, and we were ready to face the next 11 hour segment from London to LAX. No surprises here - ate well, had some JW Blue label, saw some movies and dozed off for a couple of hours. The long flight terminated at LAX, and it was good to come back home.

    On a humorous note, the South African president, who married his fourth wife - the other three still live with him and were present at the wedding – few days back, has been mocked by one of the local airlines with a promotional “Fourth Wife Flies Free’ advertisement:
    http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/lifestyl...lula-airlines/


    -
     
  6. Slow_Mustang
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    Since there is a 5 pictures/post limit, here some more pictures that could not be posted with their appropriate posts:

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    Pain be gone

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    Cape of Good Hope

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    Cape Point

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    Okavanago Delta Lagoon


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    Wet/Dry Chobe elephant


    Some Footnotes:

    South Africa is a malaria free country but other countries in the African continent are not. So, one needs to take the pills for that and also shots for the yellow fever. It is much cheaper to take the yellow fever shots at a city/state run facility rather than from a private travel doctor. They try to have you take other shots too, but the one for yellow fever is all you need. While coming back to South Africa from other African countries, the immigration officer may ask to see the yellow fever card (issued by the doctor/clinic where you took the shots). One more thing, take the yellow fever shot (good for 10 years) well ahead of your departure date as some of the the city/county clinics do get booked up for 4-6 weeks in advance, or sometimes run out of the vaccine.

    Getting to the exit airport city a day earlier is always a good idea, specially when the flights from the exit city are self booked and not part of the total travel package. Even though our Botswana Air flight was scheduled to land in Joburg around 3:30 PM and the flight out of Jo'burg to London was at 7:30, we decided to not push our luck with the Botswana Air flight bringing us on time, and made it to Jo'berg a day earlier. That also gave us time for a quick city tour. The FC cabin on BA for the flight out of Jo'berg was packed with not an empty seat.

    I always carry a wad of one dollar and 5 dollar bills for tips, instead of having to keep currencies of all the different countries to be visited. With the Vic Falls and the safari trips being pre-paid and travel agent arranged, we just used CCs for hotel incidentals and used ATMs only in South Africa. In Africa, you never let your CC out of your sight, always have them bring the swiping machine to your table.

    A stash of Granola bars and nuts always come in handy when nothing else is readily available. Cargo pants/shorts provide lot of pockets for passports, boarding passes, cash and small water bottles.

    At the Concord lounge at Heathrow, a booking for back massage gets you a real massage, whereas one booked for neck/shoulders gets you mainly a seat in an automated massage chair and some neck/shoulder massage. Make this reservation as soon as possible to ensure availability during the time convenient to you.

    In FC, they do serve the meals at your convenience. So, you may opt to have it later than when they serve the rest of the passengers. Just let them know about 20 minutes ahead of time.

    The standard British breakfast has scrambled eggs, which did not taste that good. So, the second time around, I had them sub it with an omelet (from a different menu combination item).

    Some safaris are good for game drives in terms of the number/variety of animals seen, some are good for the location of their lodges within the park and their level of service, and others might be mediocre on both counts. Private game reserves might be moving the animals and place them strategically for the game drives, making it a totally staged operation. So, a thorough research is suggested to select the safari locations/lodges commensurate with one's expectations/budget.

    270K miles for the first ticket, companion flies free offer, and fuel surcharge for two was what BA charged for the four long haul FC flights that one has to take to get to S. Africa. To me that was a bargain for the luxury they provided.

    Thank you BA for another enjoyable set of flights and for making my bed each time I needed to lie down, even though I had to fork out a substantial amount as fuel surcharges on our award tickets. I just wish their immigration folks could find alternate ways to deal with salary disputes (or whatever it is that is bothering them), instead of inconveniencing the incoming passengers with a 2 hour wait in the line for a lousy visa stamp. Work slowdown hurts us, not their bosses.

    And finally some social commentaries,

    On Botswana: They have taken practicing safe sex to a whole new level, by putting condoms in Lodge/hotel bathrooms with the amenity kits. Also, there are billboards around the city with pictures of unrolled condoms and some message about using them. In an attempt to cut down the alcohol abuse (resulting in poverty and hunger for the family members), the liquor stores hours have been reduced by the new Prime Minister.

    On South Africa: As can be expected, lot of people got rich in the apartheid era because of their connections. With gradual transfer of such cushy jobs to the majority community, they have nothing left to do and would like to immigrate, but the Govt. does not want them to leave with all their wealth. This has resulted in the Govt. making laws against its citizens leaving the country with even medium amounts of foreign exchange. In a way they are right, as the country would be poorer with a sizable outflow of money. but it is a major sore point with those who feel imprisoned. It is a hardship also for people who would merely like to travel outside the country, as there is no foreign exchange to be had.

    Another thing is the language - the Afrikaan is a variation of Dutch, and is looked down upon unfavorably in relation to English, even though both the Dutch and the English were foreign rulers who occupied the country and ran it with an iron fist to the advantage of the colonials.
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  7. Slow_Mustang
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    More pictures in the following posts!
     
  8. Slow_Mustang
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    Some more pictures.....

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    African turtle at Chobe

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    Mama and cub by the trailside at the Okavanago Delta

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    Wild Boar - needs to bend down to be able to munch on the vegetation close to the ground


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    Chobe Marina Lodge


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    Chobe Marina Lodge bathroom sink
     
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  9. NYBanker
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    Great report. Thanks for sharing it.

    You mentioned two rooms in Joberg...did you have your kids with you?
     
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  10. Slow_Mustang
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    No, we had another couple in tow, for the two rooms in Jo'berg. But we did see some families with teen age kids taking in the safaris.
     
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  11. milchap
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    Thanks for the trip report. It reminded me of a similar trip taken a few years ago.
     
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  12. philatravelgirl

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    Great report, I'm doing this in sept and planning camps now-using SAA and staying at Westin Capetown with similar tours planned
     
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  13. slice19
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    Great report, I'm planning South Africa for this fall and your info on Cape Town was helpful, of course Table mountain was already on the agenda but I didn't pla to book tickets ahead.

    One point of clearification, South Africa is not totally Malaria free. The area around and including Kruger National park is in a Malaria zone and thus, pills and other precautions should be taken. My husband has already seen a Dr. and was given a perscription to start days before departure and bring along just in case.
     
  14. agsoccer32

    agsoccer32 Silver Member

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    Thanks for the great trip report! My fiance and I are leaving for South Africa in a month and this was very informative. Did you use any tour groups to book the peninsula tour or could you recommend one based on what you encountered there? How about for the winelands? Was there a vineyard or two that you recommend or on the other hand ones that you did not enjoy?
     
  15. philatravelgirl

    philatravelgirl Silver Member

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    I'm going in sept and just got my shots/malaria script today-my tours in Capetown were arranged by Rhino Africa (working with Niki Duncan) I met her at the NY travel show they are local in Capetown. Not sure who the vendors are yet but I'm doing tours to Table Mt, whale route, peninsula and wine lands -all small groups before the 2day Garden route to port Elizabeth tour on my way back to JNB for flight home.
    You can contact your hotel also to see who they use/what is offered before you go.
    I have colleagues from SA who recommended staying one night at Zevenwacht wine estate w/restaurant on a lake- since I am solo w/o car I'm not going here (this time)
     
  16. travelinmike33
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    If you are comfortable driving, the peninsula is easy to do on your own. I have heard that you need to be careful of baboons, but I didn't see a single one on my drive.

    For the winelands, there are so many vineyards, it's really tough to recommend. If you're not a connoisseur, then it's hard to go wrong, and if you are, then I'm no help :) If you have time/budget, I would recommend staying on one of the wine farms for a night or so. You can find some really nice places for not much more than you would pay for a night in Cape Town. Otherwise, it's probably a good idea to book a tour that will pick up/drop off in Cape Town so you don't have to worry about driving and can enjoy the wine.

    Enjoy your trip! South Africa is a beautiful country.
     

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