Thursday, August 13, 2015

Safari South Africa

We are serving as missionaries in the Ghana Missionary Training Center (MTC) and are busy every day. However, the MTC had to close for maintenance last July so we got permission to take a trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe. It was the perfect break!

Here's a peek at our  experiences in South Africa

So many friends have asked about the details - that I thought a fairly lengthy blog post is in order.

I must first give credit to our friend Alan Heilner who is a master travel planner - really! Our trip was perfection. I loved every minute of it.   After extensive research he selected a travel agency named go2africa and found a extremely knowledgeable agent named Tracey Payne.  Her email address is:


We had ten full days for our trip plus a good amount of touring time on our arrival and departure days. We flew from Ghana, but our friends who joined us flew from Utah. They found it cheapest to fly through Istanbul and they spent a few days there before arriving in South Africa.

Here's an overview of our schedule. Everything was wonderful except - I wish we'd had one more day in Cape Town. It's a gorgeous city and deserves more time.

July 7 Tuesday - depart Accra
July 8 Wednesday - connect through Johannesburg to Cape Town, arriving 10:50 AM
July 9 Thursday - Capetown - Robben Island and City tour
July 10 Friday -  fly through Johannesburg to Hoedspruit airport. Transfer to Simbavati River Lodge
July 11 Saturday - Simbavati River Lodge
July 12 Sunday - transfer to Arathusa Safari Lodge
July 13 Monday - Arathusa Safari Lodge
July 14 Tuesday - fly to Johannesburg, overnight at airport hotel
July 15 Wednesday - fly to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
July 16 Thursday - Victoria Falls
July 17 Friday - fly to Johannesburg
July 18 Saturday - tour Johannesburg, fly to Ghana

Cape Town

We stayed at the Four Rosmead Boutique Guest House - we loved it.  It's a small bed and breakfast type hotel nice and close to shopping and restaurants. We walked to dinner both nights and felt completely safe. 

our room :)

Reid and I explored the area after we landed, in search of a snack. We discovered Melissa's food shop and fell in love with the homemade rye break and hot chocolate. The exchange rate was definitely in our favor (12 Rand = 1 USD) - so I did a little browsing (and buying) in the cute shops.

The rest of our party arrived late afternoon. They were exhausted - so we relaxed and napped until supper time. 

Supper was so good! I have to qualify here. We've been living in Ghana with no good beef for a year and a half. Top priority for us was a good steakhouse. So we went to Carne on Kloof Street. It's the kind of place where they show you the diagram of a cow and you pick your cut (my kind of place). 


maybe because of our extend beef fast - but it was really really good.

The next day (our only full day in Cape Town) was packed. Unfortunately we just caught glimpses of places we would have loved to explore (hike table mountain, walk on the beach, drive through the neighborhoods, go to Cape Agulhas (southernmost tip of Africa) and dip our toes in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans). But the things were did were great.

Robben Island tour 

We caught the ferry about 9:00 am - after a DELICIOUS breakfast at Four Rosmead. Just out of the harbor we spotted whales. I didn't even know there were whales around South Africa - a bonus!

The views back towards Table Mountain were breathtaking

The Robben Island tour is sobering and fascinating. All the guides are former political prisoners. We saw Nelson Mandela's cell and learned about life for those who protested their oppression.

We caught a quick lunch at the wharf after our tour and then immediately jumped into a van for our pre-arranged tour of the Cape Town area. We passed mountains, vineyards, beaches on our way to see the penguins at the Boulders Penguin Colony. Another fun surprise - I had no idea there were penguins in South Africa.

We continued our drive to the Cape of Good Hope national park - close to the southernmost tip of Africa. There were many appealing hikes - if only we had the time. We did get a beautiful sunset photo of our group.


First thing Friday morning, we flew to Johannesburg  and connected to Hoedspruit airport.  Our game tour tracker met our plane and drove us to the Simbavati River Lodge.  The Lodge is situated in the heart of the world-renowned Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, which forms part of the Greater Kruger National Park, on the banks of the Nhlaralumi River – a dry riverbed in the drier winter months such as July when we visited.

When were were about getting close to the lodge (1 1/2 hours into our drive), we met our first adventure of the trip - the main road was blockaded by an angry large elephant who was not about to let us pass. We eventually had to turn around and choose another (much longer) route.

it's MY road!

The lodge is beautiful! It's rustic but luxurious at the same time. Isn't there something called 'glamping'? If so - this is it.

The rooms are tents - but with solid doors and built on wooden decks. There's a heater/AC unit in each tent and this kept our bed nice and warm. However, early morning trips to the bathroom (ensuit - just beyond the bedroom) were a bit chilly.

I think our room was called Water Buck - it was't in the best possible location for viewing the watering pool so there may be other rooms that are better.

And - there was an outdoor shower! (there's one inside as well)

The lodge is beautiful. It looks over a small watering pool so we say various kinds of antelope around the property - and heard hippos every night. 

Meals were delicious.

The schedule at Simbavati was: morning game drive from 6:00 to 9:00 am (with a hot cocoa/coffee break and snack another the way), followed by a nice big breakfast. The rest of midday was free (lunch at 2) -  then there was a second game drive from 3:00 to 6:00 pm. So we were able to enjoy the beautiful light of sunrises and sunsets out in the parks. Dinner was at 7:30.

Mornings were cold in July - it's winter in South Africa, but we were nice and cosy during our morning game drives. A hot water bottle and blanket was waiting on each of our seats. Average July temperature temperatures range from 45 to 63. Here is a website that give more information about yearly temperatures.

We were told that July is a great month to visit the parks because the vegetation is more sparse and animals are easier to spot. For me - the temperature was perfect. I loved the feeling of being cool, after living in Ghana for a year and a half.

Here's our Simbavati vehicle - the tiered seats made it possible to see from anywhere.

We loved our guide and tracker - Thambo and Moshie

This is the first animal we saw - silhouetted in the morning sky:

Our goal, similar to most safari participants, was to see the big five - lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino. And we saw all five almost every day!

How close did we get to the animals?

This close!

Here are a few favorite pictures from our Simbavati game drives:

And of course we saw the BIG FIVE

Arathusa Safari Lodge

After two nights, we transferred to  the Arathusa Safari Lodge, a three hour drive from the Simbavati. We arranged a private transfer. This lodge was also effective because of its prime location within the Sabi Sand Reserve, adjacent to the unfenced Kruger National Park. It too offered an exceptional safari experience on not only the game drives, but also because it is situated on a large waterhole, ensuring interesting game and bird viewing from the comfort of the camp.  We saw hippos, baboons, deer, and elephants at that watering hole just in front of our room.

We did not stay in a tent this time.

Here is our room

We stayed in Waterbuck (same room name as at Simbavati) - this time is was an upgraded room - extra large and with a perfect view over the watering hole. And another fabulous outdoor shower.

All kinds of animals came to the watering hold

those are elephants!
And there was a perfect little infinity pool looking over the watering hole

It was cold in the mornings - no hot water bottles on Arathusa drives, and the vehicle was not quite as well laid out as Simbavati.

The adventure of this trip had to be the angry elephant that started chasing our vehicle down the road.  It's a little unnerving to hear your drive yell "no" to the elephant as it come charging towards you.

The Sabi Sand Reserve is know for leopards - a difficult animal to see. We were so fortunate (lucky, they say) to see leopards on almost every outing. Not only did we see many leopards - but we saw a mother and her cub.

And lion cubs too!

plenty close

A few more favorites from Arathusa

my favorite picture of all - early morning light + dead tree + vultures = stunning 

Comparing the two Lodges

I throughly enjoyed both Simbavati and Arathusa. And staying two nights in each was perfect. We were able to experience different guides, views, and animals. 

The Simbavati lodge was more rustic (which I happen to like). We couldn't even walk around after dark alone, we had to call a guide. Animals were everywhere. We were warned over and over gain to lock everything up carefully because baboons often break in the tents and particularly love to play with electronics and open pill bottles (really). I liked seeing antelope right next to my deck chair. But the Arathusa room was spectacular, And the huge watering hole meant we were able to see all kinds of animals. 

Simbavatie had a pool, but it didn't have the gorgeous setting of the Arathusa pool.

Food - I liked Simbavati better - but Arathusa was more upscale.

Guides and staff - I much preferred Simbavati. Arathusa staff were not as welcoming and even a bit condescending. 

So which would I visit again? BOTH!

Victoria Falls

After our perfect visit to the game lodges, we flew to Johannesburg, overnighted at the airport City Lodge Hotel (very convenient and a nice hotel) and flew the next morning to Victoria Falls, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. (We did manage to slip in a visit to the Johannesburg MTC and drive by the Temple on Tuesday evening.)

Upon arrival in Zimbabwe, you must purchase a single entry visit, which costs about $30 US per person.  If you plan to cross over into Zambia while you visit, you would need a multiple entry visa which costs more.

Our lodging for the two nights was at the Ilala Lodge Hotel in Victoria Falls Zimbabwe. It was just OK, as far as rooms go. Our room was in the older area, below the main level. It opened out to green space, so it was plenty light. It just felt (and smelled) a little musty. There are newer rooms near the pool. One plus to the older rooms - one night Janice Heilner woke up to a sound, peaked out her sliding glass door, and there was a hippo looking back at her.

If you can afford it, a night a the Victoria Falls hotel  would be a treat.  We walked over and enjoyed  "high tea" looking over the bridge and the mist.

 The best kept shopping secret of the visit was a stroll through the "elephant's walk"  and artist's market shopping area.  The quality and prices of the items sold there were better than any spot we've found  in Africa.

Our first (arrival) night, we took a sunset dinner cruise on the Zambizi river (food - so-so, view - spectacular). You don't see the falls, but we saw crocodile, hippo, and a perfect sunset.

The next morning our tour guide picked us up to drive us to the Victoria Falls park - which was less than a mile away (so transport is NOT needed). Our guide took us to the park and walked us along the trail with a number of viewing points. Then we walked back and out of the park. Again - guide not really needed for this.

The falls are stunning. A few members of our group took a helicopter ride over the falls and loved it.

And adventurous - you can do all kinds of crazy things off the bridge. But not too many 69 year old men bungee jump (Alan Heilner did).

We saw wart hogs and baboons right in town.

Art and crafts (and people selling in a slightly pushy way) were everywhere.

Johannesburg (Soweto)

We wrapped up our visit to South Africa with a flight back to Johannesburg, another night at the City Lodge Hotel, and a fascinating tour of Johannesburg and the Nelson Mandela home in Soweto.

The story of the people of South Africa is stunning - and so are the many monuments remembering and celebrating the struggle.

What to bring?

Casual clothes with layers for winter.

Sun and bug protection.

A travel journal: I made a Midori style journal that was so perfect, that it's now on my 'must do' list for travel. I made booklets with our calendar and schedule details, plus information on the different areas we'd see. I added blank journal and watercolor booklets to record our experience. I made a pocked to hold all the papers and card we collected plus a card wrapped with washi tape to attach everything. 

A decent camera and telephoto lens (or bring me and I will take your pictures)

My equipment isn't expensive - but I was still able to capture some very special shots

We traveled with no computer, just an iPad and that worked great. I bought a special connecter cord so that I could upload photos direct from my camera's SD card. I sorting through and sharing (and oohing and ahhing) over each days pictures. I have a newish iPad with the lightening port.

Here's what I bought: Apple Lightening to SD Card Camera Reader

Apple Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader