Qatar, Ulusaba Safari and Johannesburg

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  1. SST
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    It's been six weeks now, and I am still amazed at this trip and the great times we had.

    Using UA miles, prior to the discontinuance of their partnership with Qatar Airways, I booked Air Canada Biz SFO-Montreal, then Qatar Airways Biz YUL-Doha for M and me, and a three night sleepover at the Sheraton Doha in Qatar, instead of the "W" hotel we stayed at last time. We took QR Doha-Johannesburg, connecting to a South African Airlink flight to Nelspruit in northeastern South Africa, then a road transfer to Ulusaba, Sir Richard Branson's private game lodges.

    Return was a bush flight back to JNB, three nights there, and QR in reverse back to JFK, and UA JFK- SFO.

    Air Canada was pleasant from SFO- Montreal, good food, good business class seating; however the Qatar Airways 777ER in Business was again superb, with even better service than we had last time between Washington and Doha. Meals were amazing, staff caring, and the whole experience superior. Got a good seven hour sleep after dinner, waking to breakfast and a couple hours of music prior to landing with their AVOD system.

    Doha arrival was a breeze for Biz passengers, out in a taxi and on our way to the Sheraton in a few minutes. No luck on the Starwood Preferred Guest suite upgrade I applied for a few months ago, but when we arrived we got a comped suite anyway! So great news and no upgrade nights burned-- we had a real living room/conference room, bedroom and a great large bathroom. View was over the sea and pool, and more modern construction to the east.

    The Sheraton is a peculiar "pyramid" design, reminiscent of Hyatts from the 80s, on the Corniche deep in the new business district full of high rises and signature buildings; however, as opposed to the W, this means a good walk along the Corniche is possible at night (remember we were here in May, so daytime temps were high. Nighttime was only a little warm.). We walked to a nice restaurant, about a mile, one evening, looking at dhows (Arabian boats) decked out for excursions on the bay, and enjoying Qatari families on the promenade.
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    On another day, we went Dune Bashing, heading out with a driver to the Southern Qatari desert in a 4-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruiser, and enjoyed some amazing climbs, descents, and the view of the Saudi mountains across from the peninsula of Qatar. That night, we ate in one of the restaurants at The Pearl-Qatar, a total upscale mall development a couple minutes' taxi ride from the Sheraton. Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food is the order of the day, naturally, with no alcohol but amazing cider. Really didn't miss my wine, and the hummus and other sides were amazing.
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    Skipped the museums to return to the Souk again on the third day, and caught the locals shopping before they closed for midday, when we took a taxi to Katara, which is an ersatz Qatari village, newly constructed, with a huge and beautiful amphitheater, multiple restaurants (including a super fish market where you can have things prepared just as you wish---- we couldn't get in without a reservation, fully committed--- with the most gorgeous display of seafood imaginable.)

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    The old Souk.

    The history of Qatar is as a pearl-diving and fishing place--- and while Katara really doesn't do this believably (it's too glitzy), the souk is a great remainder of old Doha, and even one remaining pearl diver's store remains. He is a sweet man, very welcoming in his store. Our last shopping stop was at the Central City mall, where we ducked in when it rained (??!!), something we were assured never happens....

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    In all, a nice intermediate stopover. We were ready to go after three nights, with the prospect of Virgin Atlantic chief Richard Branson's Ulusaba tomorrow.

    Link to my prior Qatar visit are deeper down in milepoint.
     
  2. SST
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    Katara:
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    The Sheraton let us stay in the suite until 6:00 pm, and we headed for the Premium Terminal of QR at Doha Airport, where we had a superb dinner of numerous tapas and middle eastern delights, waiting for the midnight-ish departure to Joburg. Didn't take a shower because inexplicably on a Saturday night, the place was packed and it looked like a long long wait for one of the showers, plus the restroom facilities were inadequate for the crowd, hot and steamy and stuffy and uncharacteristically unpleasant. Spent some of the time with the excellent single malt scotch the lounge features, caught up on some email (wifi didn't seem at capacity), and ate yet again. At the appointed hour, we were ferried to the Qatar 777ER and sank back into relative quiet and luxury.

    Because I'd had two meals over the last three hours, I picked only a couple items from the menu including the middle eastern plate and fish, both of which I ate sparingly, but which we're excellent. Several hours' rest on the eight-hour flight and it was morning in South Africa as we approached. My first view was of golden California-like hills. ORTambo airport (JNB) is a bit of a zoo at 8am Sunday, and we got a view of it all over in moving from International to Domestic, finding a working ATM which would also accommodate a US ATM or chip-and-pin card (Diner's Club finally worked). It was eventually off toward Nelspruit, the main airport for this area of Kruger National Park, the huge wildlife refuge.

    The countryside changes from urban to bush interspersed with farms and orchards amid growing hills and mountains, which are obviously covered in forestry projects as the trees are regular, and then we swooped down in the twin prop to Nelspruit's small airport on a plateau. Our driver, arranged by the Ulusaba resort staff, met us immediately and we aimed our rollaboards toward his car. Before we were a block away from the lot, we scored our first sighting of an Impala, a mother with a couple fawns in a drainage ditch near the edge of the airport property among some trees.

    It was a couple hours' drive through Nelspuit and White River and a few destroyed roads, some ruined by heavy mining trucks, some simply gravel, but most of the way the highway was OK. We saw an eagle, more antelope, and a Cape Buffalo in the distance before we got to the reserve gate. Ulusaba is in the Sabi Sands private game reserve, adjacent to Kruger with guests and staff of only seven lodges permitted thru the gate we entered. They had our names at the gate and we were permitted in, about 40 more minutes to drive down the reserve's gravel roads. On the way, we saw elephants crossing ahead of us, and at one point a giraffe. Signage was pretty good, and we cheered at the boundary of Branson's property. Only 10-12 more minutes, and we were let off at the lodge's "arrival lobby" near the airstrip, where we were given an overview, introduced to our ranger and tracker, and taken up to the Rock Lodge, one of the two lodges Sir Richard maintains at Ulusaba. There, we were introduced to the manager and several of the lodge staff, a couple additional rangers and trackers, given drinks and advised of meal times, and shown to our lodgings. And my, how very deluxe......

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    Our room was on two levels, bedroom and living room as you enter, and the gigantic bathroom down below, down a circular stairway. This lower level featured a gigantic tub, allowing you to see out over the plain from your bath, which I did after the morning game drive on the first day, and watched some elephants roaming in the distance. They were really the only animals big enough to be discerned from the tub, but of course I guess I could have taken binoculars into the bath for the first time in my life.

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    The Rock Lodge is located maybe 500 feet up above the plain of Sabi Sand, on a kopje, and the furnishings and lodgings are top notch. There is a pool, an amazing exercise room, a social room and a bar, with the dining areas adjacent. The dining room is dominated by a long table with bizarre antler chairs, which make you feel like you are in a castle at dinner time.
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  3. SST
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    A male leopard seeking his mate the first night. They made love repeatedly as we tracked them unobtrusively.

    Our game drives took place at 6am and at 4pm each day, for about three hours apiece. The ranger, Shawn, and our tracker, James, turned out to be experienced and expert in tracking down animals on request, and had a marvelous rapport with others, both from Ulusaba and the neighboring lodges, so we were treated to every animal in the entire area, save Cheetahs, who were not present within the Sabi Sand area while we were there. 3/4 of the way through the morning drive, we had coffee and a light repast each day, except that one day we had pancakes and a whole spread out in the bush.
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    3/4 of the way through the evening drive, we stopped for drinks and snacks at a wonderful view spot, and this continued each day. Shawn selected amazing places.
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    He also had an encyclopedic knowledge of animals, birds and their calls, and much about the South African ecology. James showed us tracks of all sorts of different animals, and generally taught us to look out more and more sensitively to find animals, until on the last day of our six he rode in the Land Rover with me for a while and let M sit in the tracker's seat up front on the bonnet.

    To say that we learned much about the country and its wildlife and environment is a total understatement. It was like a graduate seminar in zoology, ecology and ornithology, combined with tours of a new zoo twice a day. Young animals were especially interesting, and we saw leopard cubs, lion cubs, hyena cubs, elephant calves, young rhinos, and hippos, among others. The way they play is enchanting.
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    Each evening, our dinner was expertly prepared by a chef who announced to the 20 or so people at the lodge a choice of several entrees, mains and desserts, took orders, and made your dinner exactly as you wished, following an enjoyable cocktail session with your neighbors. We met people from all over, though no other Americans, mostly Brits, a few Italians, French and Germans, plus some South Africans. Everyone was lovely, and we made some lasting friendships.
     
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  4. jbcarioca
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    Nice photos. Thanks for posting.
     
  5. NYBanker
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    Wonderful report. Thanks for taking the time to post.

    We are working on formulating a similar trip soon!
     
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  6. milchap
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    Great report on the safari. Reminded me of my four days at Lukimbi private reserve . The evening sundownders were great. I always ordered gin and tonic to ward off malaria.
     
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  7. SST
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    The days continued. We were amazingly busy. Dinner and conversation usually took place from 8 to 11pm, then we got maybe 6.5 hours of sleep until the morning game drive. On our last day, we requested to leave at 7 instead, just to get another hour's sleep. On the fourth day, we changed lodges, and our belongings were delivered to an amazing room at the Safari Lodge, which Ulusaba maintains down near the river, on stilts with rope bridges to the rooms. The rooms were modern, light, full of windows and fantastic. It is also necessary that you double lock the places or baboons will "make this place look like a rock star just trashed it." We followed the instructions.
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  8. SST
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    There is a long, elevated series of walkways across the canopy of the trees and into the veldt, ending at a nice open-air lodge where a large watering hole offered an endlessly enjoyable view of hippos, including baby hippos (one born just the prior week) riding around on their mother's back.

    Again, the Safari Lodge features a wonderful dining room, a bar, an open air lunch restaurant, a wine cellar and a socializing room. There is a gift shop, a pool and jacuzzi, and all this seems amazingly YOURS since there were maybe 20 guests staying here as well.

    A word about the Ulusaba staff: first rate, incredibly pleasant, accomodating, and a pleasure to make friends with. Practically all of them knew our names as of the first day at each lodge, and all of them are committed to animals and conservation, and have interesting stories to tell, whether they are expats, transplants or locals. They seem incredibly devoted to the success of Sir Richard's enterprise, and they provide the highest level of personalized service I think we have experienced at any resort, anywhere. I would look forward to a return trip just to enjoy their company again, and continue the adventures into the bush.

    Quality of the food and beverage operation: again, top notch. Dinners were magnificent, done precisely as advertised and to your order, and the selection of beverages was a quality far above any other resort I've experienced, and of course all was included. Lunch was good, enjoyable sitting on the outside and observing nature as a resting period between game experiences. I thought I'd get some reading done: not a chance. There was plenty to do, just observing, from various points at each lodge, always with a comfy place to park yourself. Foxes, Impala, birds of all sorts, water bucks, vervet monkeys and baboons, all made appearances regularly near watering holes and near the lodge. Lunch watching was incredible. Add some sauvignon blanc, pate, and grilled fish and you've killed a couple hours without even knowing it.
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    Hippos abound in the ponds around Sabi Sand....
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    Here's a view from the Land Rover as we crossed one of the rivers..... No, James didn't get wet.
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    ...
     
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  9. SST
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    This is not an inexpensive place to visit. Without frequent flyer miles, a trip to South Africa from anywhere costs a bundle. Interior flights and road transfers are high under any scenario. The rates at Ulusaba are commensurate with the first class level of luxury service they provide, the relative isolation of the place within a privately managed game reserve (Ulusaba and Kruger Park together are huge. Kruger Park alone is 7500 square miles. Sabi Sands is another 150,000 acres, and there is now no fence between the two (although no one may come from Kruger to Sabi Sands, animals now freely roam between the two without fences).

    The enterprise supports a foundation, Pride 'n Purpose, which provides schools and improvements for the local South Africans living adjacent to Sabi Sands, many of whom work at Ulusaba and the other lodges. It was an amazing afternoon to visit the local community with the leaders of the foundation, and meet the children both at preschool and at the local primary schools. Highly recommended to get an idea where some portion of the lodging charges get funnelled, and the children are a wonderful insight into the future of Africa. We met our tracker, James', daughter in preschool, where our friends brought balloons we blew up and made the children very happy.

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    The resort has an excellent relationship with the local community, assisting them in recognizing the long term value of the wildlife protection, providing well-paying local jobs, and attempting to be a good neighbor. The resort is also in the vanguard of protecting the animals from poachers, employing numerous strategies to successfully reduce this scourge.
     
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  10. SST
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    We got quite familiar with the Sabi Sands area over the several days. Ulusaba provides quite a surprise for people. One night, as we were returning from the game drive, prior to dinner, we pulled into a clearing where there was a complete bar, food being grilled, and local people were doing traditional dances and songs. Directors' chairs were arranged in a semi-circle around a huge fire and we had a great time both kibbitzing with other guests and enjoying the dancing as we were educated on the traditions of the local people. The surprise pancake brunch in the bush was another nice touch. Each open Land Rover came with a pull-down bar on the hood which had all the usuals and anything else you requested special. Each vehicle also had hot water bottles and blankets, which we used a couple times. The rangers are experts at fording streams, managing the narrow paths without messing up the trackers' ability to stalk a particular animal, and coordinating the visits to any "finds", such as a group of female lions and their collective seven cubs, so that you got plenty of time to watch the fun, yet had only maybe one other vehicle of observers to contend with. They also judiciously use off-road techniques so that the environment is not harmed, the animals are not traumatized, and thus your successors and people for years to come can enjoy this amazing environment.

    I was personally most impressed by the caring, respectful, sustainable management of the resource they showed. It is clear that these folks love their environment, recognize that harming it is the greatest danger to their livelihoods, and have made allowances in their zeal to show you everything to make sure that the animals, birds, and plants are not harmed. The animals in particular have become attuned to the Land Rovers and know that they are not going to be interfered with.... It is as if the Land Rover is just another big animal, one that is not their predator and which comes and goes without impact. This is perfect for the inhabitants of the Land Rover: an amazing education into animals in the wild, undisturbed (mostly) by your presence, provided you are quiet, approach and remain still, and simply observe and marvel, then withdraw.
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    One evening we were able to observe repeated matings of Leopards; another time it was lions in the early evening, Multiple opportunities to see babies continued most days: Hyenas one day, a young leopard with his mother another, a baby rhino with parents a third, and of course elephants in herds with their little ones. I learned something new about this: almost all baby animals are cute, cartoonish versions of their full grown parents, never to be confused with adult animals. Baby ELEPHANTS, however, seem to be little scale models of an adult, and the tiniest ones are precious, hanging out under mom. I guess I'd never seen a newborn elephant before, so tiny.
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    I was very glad to thank Shawn and James on the last day for their expert guidance and getting to know us as we talked about life in South Africa, life at Ulusaba, their profession, world matters, and our considerably different lifestyle in urban California. They were almost as curious about our motivations as we were about theirs, and it was amazing sharing this considerable time with them over a week, getting to know their world. One afternoon, we went on a bush walk with them, guns at the ready, and tracked down a female leopard in a matter of about 15 minutes, carefully walking single file and making sure we didn't approach closer than prudent or necessary. It was a lifetime memory, and was a wholly transformative way to understand the bush, as every motion of birds, insects, the wind, and your footsteps became center-stage. These guys knew how to impress, and I am grateful for their time and teaching ability. The rest of the staff in the lodges were equally devoted to making sure your holiday was first class. We look forward to the possibility of returning.
     
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  11. SST
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    The bush flight out of Ulusaba was enjoyable, stopping at one other lodge to pick up the only other Americans we saw at Sabi Sands. Johannesburg was about 45 minutes away, and the small plane provided an enjoyable platform for viewing the route.

    We took the Gautrain into JoBurg, and had reservations at the Radisson Blu Gautrain, across the street from the station in Sandton. Turned out to be a nice stay, too. Walking to Nelson Mandela Sq. and its shopping and restuarants, was safe and quick.
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    Pool at the Radisson Blu Gautrain.

    Sandton itself is pretty upscale. We took the gautrain to Rosebank to visit the more traditional South African vendors, and see some street music. It, too, was a safe and enjoyable section of town.

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  12. SST
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    The Radisson had a good restaurant inside, but we truly enjoyed the Thai place in Mandela Square, and the Butcher Shoppe and Grill, for steaks. Both were first class and relatively inexpensive.

    We contacted a driver through the internet and visited the Sterkforntein Caves, about an hour's drive from the Radisson, where a descent down to where the original australopithecus skeleton was found proved educational. It's a nice excursion, and we finished up at the Cradle of Humanity museum, which is a bit kitschy, but would be amazing for kids.



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  13. SST
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    Friends just got back from a second excursion with Sean and James at Ulusaba; they were as jazzed as we were, and brought presents to James' daughter on this second trip, taking the Pride n Purpose excursion again. A further trip down to Capetown led to a cheetah reserve, stupendous pix of them with the animals. Damn if I am not itching for further Branson-quality adventures. The guy knows how to treat guests, and his staff is amazing. I am miffed that the VS points for this have gone up (ditto Kenya and Morocco) yet I have a bunch and I am in awe of the time we had at Ulusaba. It really is "all that". Bravo.

    I have trips booked thru May, maybe next summer/fall......
     
  14. jonspencer

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    cool trip report

    Qatar Airways could arguably have the best Business Class service of any carrier
     

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