This blog describes Jim & Debbie’s SmarTours tour to South Africa with extension to Victoria Falls, October 23 to November 8, 2012. It was our first visit to Africa, and it was great! Seeing African animals in the wild has always been on Debbie’s bucket list. Animals aren’t my thing . But, I do like cities, culture, and history. So this trip was terrific for the both of us.
This was the first time we have traveled with a pre-arranged tour group. We have traveled previously making our own arrangements in Greece, Istanbul, Cuba and Costa Rica. Traveling with the group was very enjoyable and we will be keeping in touch with several new friends.
Were there any glitches? Only one. On departure day at the airport in Vancouver BC, for a minute I thought that I had left our passports at home on the other side of the Strait of Georgia with no good way to recover them. Fortunately, they turned up in the wrong pocket. The rest of the trip was problem and anxiety free!
- SeaAir Nanaimo
before Day 1, before Oct. 23 Our trip started Sunday Oct. 21 when we left on board a turbo Beaver float plane at 2 pm from Nanaimo harbour to land about 20 minutes later in the Fraser River on the south side of Vancouver airport. Weather is 8C with sun, clouds accumulating, windy. From there we caught a free shuttle up to international departures. That gave us a 10 hr. layover at the airport. We had to do that in case fog rolled in and the float planes couldn’t fly, in which case we could have walked over to B.C. Ferries and taken the 3 pm boat for a 2 hr. ride to the mainland, followed by transit buses and a sky train ride out to the airport. That would have put our arrival about 4 hrs. before boarding, 1 hr. before the recommended check in time. But, the day was sunny if a bit windy and bumpy flying over. The only significant moment of anxiety for the entire trip happened in Vancouver airport, when Jim couldn’t find the passports and thought he had left them at home. Supper at Koho’s in the airport. We flew out of Vancouver on Cathay Pacific, non stop to JFK New York. The seats were comfortable with ample leg room, Cathay Pacific gave us an excellent meal just after take off, and then provided a light breakfast before arrival 4.5 hrs later at 7 am (New York time), Oct. 22. After immigration and customs, we caught the airport train and went from terminal 7 over to terminal 4 to check out the next day’s departure terminal. Bright blue sky, 52F and windy. We looked around a bit, then caught the airport train followed by the free shuttle out to our Hampton Inn hotel, arriving just before 10. Debbie is badly dehydrated. We knew we were too early, but wanted to leave our bags there. Instead, they said a room was available and we were just in time to catch the complimentary buffet breakfast! Great! Thank you Hampton Inn! We had a bite to eat, then up to the room for a nap. Later in the afternoon we went for a walk around the block, really not much to see, and then into the Hilton lounge next door for happy hour followed by supper in their restaurant. A little tough getting to sleep tonight as we are time shifted 3 hrs. already. We went to be at 8:30 pm., to wake up at 05:30 am next morning.
Day 1, Tues. Oct. 23, Hampton Inn, Jamaica, New York
Up at 05:30, complimentary breakfast at 0600, shuttle bus at 0700 to JFK terminal 4, looked at shops, check in at 0745, in boarding lounge at 0845 waiting for 1115 South African Airlines departure. Airbus 600, 2 seats over the wing, good legroom. Afternoon dinner served shortly after take off – chicken, potatoes, Greek salad, dessert. Watched a movie then dozing for 10 hrs. Altogether the flight was 14.5 hrs. Arrived Johannesburg at 0830 local time. Now it’s Oct 24.
Day 2, Wed. Oct. 24, Johannesburg to Cape Town
Arrived Jo-burg 0830. Overcast, cool, feels muggy in the airport. No problems with immigration and customs. Waiting until 1200 for domestic flt to Cape Town. 2 hr. flight with lunch snack & beverages. At Cape Town airport, collected by tour guide Ron McGregor. Total group is 43 (Richard & Kathy, Gene & Rachel came ahead of time in advance). Checked into Protea President Hotel at 420 pm. Down to the poolside terrace at 6 pm for wine, then to the dining room at 7 pm for buffet supper which included several South African dishes. Back to roomat 9 and in bed/asleep by 10. We both woke up at about 1 am and talked for 1.5 – 2 hrs., wide awake.
each toilet is shared by 4 families
Day 3, Thurs. Oct. 25
SmarTours says, “Sheltered beneath the dramatic shape of Table Mountain, Cape Town is indeed one of the world’s most unique cities. This morning, a local expert leads you on a sightseeing tour to explore the charms of the city. Ride by cable car to the top of Table Mountain for glorious city and bay views. Descend and travel through the Malay Quarter and the city center for a chance to view and photograph impressive Table Mountain from a distance. Your tour ends at the vibrant V&A Waterfront where the balance of the day is at leisure. You may relax at one of the many cafes, stroll around and browse the craft and art shops or sample South Africa’s renowned wines. (B)”
Wake up call at 6:20. Sunny blue skies. Buffet breakfast at 7 was very good, lots of choice. On the bus by 8:15. Cable car to top of Table Mountain. Sea fog rolled in limiting the view but the sandstone rock and vegetation was very interesting with many flowers. Back down the cable car at 10:20 and then… the bus wouldn’t start. Waited for a replacement vehicle about 45 min., affecting the schedule so a part of the City Tour was put over until tomorrow. The bus dropped us off at Regent St. so we could get fast food warps and smoothies for lunch. Then back onto 2 buses – 8 of us on the smaller one with Patrick to go on the optional Cultural Tour. We saw District 6, a grass covered empty area on top of a rubble mound where 60,000 Coloureds used to live before pushed out by the government who had great (unfulfilled) plans for white neighbourhood redevelopment. Next to one of the townships where we got off at a women’s co-op textile manufacturing shop, and escorted, went into “Poppa”s” 2 room shanty. Next to a school in the township where we were treated to a young persons’ choir and invited to join in the singing and the dancing. Amazing contrast. In the earlier walkabout I felt like an intruder – no smiles. In the school the experience was moving. But you couldn’t get to the school experience without going through the shanty town walkabout experience. This was an optional tour and proved to be well worth the cost. Then back into town, dropped off Ed and Helen at the waterfront and we returned to the President with Richard, Kathy, Gene and Rachel. Rachel is still feeling poorly so they won’t be doing supper. Debbie wants a break and a shower. I went to the lounge for a glass of house red and to catch up on my journal.
- Cape of Good Hope
Day 4, Fri. Oct. 26
SmarTours says, “A memorable full day excursion to Cape Peninsula begins with a scenic drive passing steep mountains, secluded coves, and sweeping beaches en route to Cape Point at the southern tip of the Peninsula. Stop at the fishing village of Hout Bay before arriving to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. The reserve is rich with flora and fauna and you may see baboons, rheboks and Cape Mountain zebras. Savor the stunning views of the coastline where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. After lunch at a famous seafood restaurant follow the majestic coastline along False Bay and stop at Simon’s Town, where you’ll visit the Penguin colony. Lastly, visit the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and enjoy the magnificent display of indigenous South African flora before returning to Cape Town late this afternoon. (B,L)”
Up at 5:30, down for buffet breakfast at 6:30, out to bus at 7:45. Today is about 13C (~56F) in the morning, cloudy, overcast and drizzling. Same bus as yesterday. Guess what? it quit again about 1/2 hr. into the trip. So we parked by the misty sea and waited. Replacement bus arrived and then off to Cape of Good Hope’s nature reserve. We saw a big baboon picking through a garbage can at Hout Bay. Weather is misty and blowing at Cape Good Hope. I climbed up to the first level viewing station, seeing numerous dessies that look like marmots or ground hogs and are quite unafraid of visitors. On to the Cape visitor centre; note signs about poisonous snakes in the bush – Cape cobras I understand. Lunch provided at a restaurant in Simon’s Town followed by a walk down the lane to see the penguin colony at Boulders Beach. Then a drive back around the far side of Table Mountain to North Cape?; arriving at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. We walked from the top to the bottom of the gardens, returning to the visitor centre at the main entrance. Back to the hotel for a 20 min. stop then free bus ride to the Victoria Waterfront Centre. Walked through and found the Ocean Basket restaurant recommended by Ron McGregor. Supper for 2 plus 3 glasses of wine was R240 which is less than $30. Then a casual walk and window shopping in the mall, Debbie bought a scarf. Standing outside in the dark wondering if we were in the right place when the Seapoint city bus showed up. Fare was 8R each, which is about $0.90. Back to hotel by 8 pm. Debbie took a shower and I was in the lounge drinking red merlot and catching up on my journal. Tried to use the IPOD touch to contact Robben’s Island office to tell them we won’t make it by 11 am tomorrow, told them to make the space available to someone else for that tour and asked if we might pick up the 3 pm tour instead. The, watching cricket on tv. There are 9 tribes in South Africa plus the Boers or Afrikaaners if you include all people of Dutch descent, plus the English. The tv commercials included ads for McDonald’s Monopoly game, auto insurance, hair colour, movie Snow White and the Huntsman, movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, soccer, rugby and Tibetan train travel!
- at Kirstenbosch winery
Day 5, Sat. Oct. 27 SmarTours says, “Today is at leisure for independent exploration, shopping or relaxing! An optional excursion to the charming winelands region just outside Cape Town is available. (B)”
We took the optional tour to Stellenbosch today. So up at 5:30, clear and sunny, 14C in the morning, forecast to go to 22C this afternoon. Breakfast at 6:30 then walked down the hill to the beach to catch the bus at 8:00 with 23 others. Arrived Stellenbosch university city at 9:30. 1 hr. walkabout and a coffee at a streetside cafe. Market day in the cental square, full of people selling goods, eating and kids playing. 10:30 off to Boschendahl winery for tasting, 5 varieties with hostess Maxine. Toured the manor house. Bus returned to Cape Town, dropped off at V&A waterfront. Went to Robben Island office to discuss our change of plans. Kathy E had booked the 6 of us to go to the prison island at 11:00 but Debbie had really wanted to go to Stellenbosch on the optional tour which didn’t return in time. When I tried to call Robben Island office yesterday to change the tickets, Gene’s phone was out of power and we got back to the hotel after the office had closed. So I had sent an e-mail using Deb’s Ipod touch. So we went to the ticket counter and they said we were out of luck as the 3:00 tour was full. Upstairs I saw an info desk with computers behind it and I asked the woman if our e-mail from last night would have shown up there. She checked, found it, read it (it might have still been unopened) and said to stand by, she would do something for us. After some to and fro with the ticket counter people again, we received tickets for 3:00 tour for a R10 change fee (R100? 10 doesn’t seem like enough). We met Richard & Kathy, Gene & Rachel disembarking from the ferry. They were pleased to hear that we got the tickets sorted out although when Kathy had asked earlier about it they also told her that it couldn’t be done. Off to Robben Island at 3:20. First we took the bus drive around part of the island (could have skipped that) and then through the prison with a former inmate political prisoner who had spent 7 yrs here after training as a rebel in Angola. 6 pm ferry back to Waterfront where we bumped into Richard & Kathy again. By now, Deb and I hadn’t eaten since 6:30 this morning – lost lunch time dealing with the tickets. We were right next to Hildebrand’s recommended by Ron McGregor. So Deb and I decided to go in to eat while Richard & Kathy went off to find Gene & Rachel. About 1/2 hr later they all showed up in the restaurant as we were finishing our supper, but by now the restaurant was busy so service had slowed down. We finished and left at about 8 while they were just ordering their meals! Walked back through Victoria Waterfront. I picked up the Rodriguez movie sound track CD – he’s a Mexican American presently living in Detroit who was popular in South Africa in the late apartheid era. We caught the Seapoint bus and had an engaging conversation with an 11 yr. old girl “Durba” and her mother. She was talkative and precocious. Back to the President hotel at 9. I settled our account in preparation for departure tomorrow, we showered, I journalled, Debbie did internet and in bed at 10.
Day 6, Sun. Oct. 28 SmarTours says, “Cape Town/Zululand/Hluhluwe. Board a morning flight to King Shaka International Airport on the Kwazulu Natal North Coast, just outside the bustling port city of Durban. Journey to the charming resort village of Salt Rock, where you may enjoy a stroll on the golden sands of the Indian Ocean shoreline. Later, travel northwards through canefields and timber plantations to Zululand, home to one of the most famous of the African tribal peoples. Arrive at your hotel located near the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, renowned for saving the white rhinoceros from extinction. Hluhluwe Hotel and Safaris (B,D)”
Up at 4 am, bags out by 4:30. Downstair for coffee, juice and croissants. Depart 5:30 for Cape Town airport. Sunny after sunrise. No problems checking in. 7:30 flt to Johannesburg which is somewhat cloudy, then 9:30 flt to Durban which is overcast. Down to the beach to get our feet wet in the Indian Ocean. On the bus for the long drive to Hluwehule Park. Stopped at a large gas station and we shared a Steers mushroom burger & soggy fries for lunch. Rain commenced for rest of drive to the park, Protea Hotel arrival at 6 pm. Because we are further east, the sun is setting noticeably earlier. Because we are further north, it seems to drop below the horizon faster. Constant light rain fall. We were first put in room 136 which I would describe as “Old Colonial decor” with small bed, tv not working right and room smelled of mold. Went to lounge and found Ron McGregor already changing the room for us – 222 in the newer wing with Richard & Kathy, Gene & Rachel. Down for large buffet supper at 7 followed by Zulu dancers at 8. Debbie and I danced. Debbie was cranky tonight so after a quick stop in the room I grabbed my SF pocket book and returned to the lobby for some reading. Back to room and in bed by 11.
Day 7, Mon. Oct. 29. SmarTours says, “Hluhluwe Game Reserve/Zululand. An exciting day begins with a morning game drive in open safari vehicles to explore the magnificent animals and species in the fascinating Hluhluwe Game Reserve. Later, visit Damazulu Village and experience the everyday life of the Zulu tribe, renowned for its warrior culture. Witness traditional customs such as tribal dancing, spear making and a ceremony of beer drinking. A special Zulu lunch will be served. The balance of the day is at leisure. (B,L)”
Up at 6. It rained hard last night. Down to breakfast buffet at 6:30 with Richard & Kathy, Gene & Rachel. Chocolate syrup on my yogurt and granola! Then out to the bus at 7:15 to Hluweluwe Park for a game drive. Nissan jeeps wide open sides and canvas tops. Overcast with mix of humid, mist and light rain. Very little game seen at beginning, then towards end we see rhinos (wide mouth = white rhinos), antelope, zebras, elephants and Cape buffalo. After 3 hrs, over to Damazulu Village for language lessons (Yabo!), explanation of crafts and medecine, visit to a hut, watched ceremonial dancing and drumming and had a lunch that was largely pretty ordinary food. Back to the hotel. Debbie did not want to go on the afternoon game drive as it was still poor weather and she had been cold in the morning. So we stayed in and relaxed – showers, clean up etc. Debbie’s room key wouldn’t work, then the room’s built in hair dryer didn’t work. I journaled and checked internet for Facebook messages and e-mail, nothing there. Talked to Ed and Shirley until 5:30 then Debbie went to the hotel’s souvenir shop and I went to Richard & Kathy’s room. Gene showed up, then Debbie and Rachel. We shared some wine. Richard & Gene went to local supermarket for snacks for supper. Debbie, Rachel and I decided to eat in the hotel bar/lounge as Rachel had found out they had an a la carte menu and we didn’t have to do the buffet. We waited until 7 then went down. Vern and Betty were already there. The waiters were very pleasant – Pilasandi and Thulenia. Larry and Martha showed up later. Debbie had soup and pizza, I had another pizza with hot stuff on it recommended by Pilasande. Richard, then I played pool with Pilasande. Then we all parted amicably at 9:30, lights out by 10.
Swaziland candle factory
Day 8, Tues. Oct. 30 SmarTours says, “Hluhluwe/Swaziland. Today, continue your scenic drive north and cross the border into the tiny Kingdom of Swaziland. Shop for unique African souvenirs at the colorful markets and see basket weavers at work. Lugogo Sun Hotel. (B)”
Up at 6, bags out at 7 then down to buffet breakfast; omelette and yogurt with granola, dark chocolate pieces, white chocolate pieces and chocolate sauce! Breakfast with Richard, Kathy, Vern and Betty. The Zulu women do the work; men work at being warriors. One example of how this appears in a modern environment is that our baggage was delivered to our rooms and removed back to the bus solely by women. By the way, this place has no elevators to the second floor. Depart Hluhluwe at 8:30. We (our 1/2 of the group are called apostles, the other half are known as hippos – Ron McGregor’s classification, reason unknown) are sitting in the front of the bus again today. It’s raining quite strongly. We hit an almost closed up roadside travel refreshment spot that had little for refreshments and a very small souvenir shop. Then we got to the S. Africa/Swaziland border. Swaziland is an independent country. It took about 45 min. to get everyone through the border as they have just started using the computer to track incoming visitors. At least is was warm and sunny here – blue sky patches. Then down the road to the candle factory for late lunch. But by lunch it was raining hard again and there was lightning and thunder in the distance. Restaurant service was extraordinarily slow. I went and got the menus for our table and the table next to us. I had a quiche and glass of red wine. Back on the bus but we stopped at a Woolworth’s strip mall to get cold medicine from a pharmacy for a number of our group including Debbie, and I picked up some wine resulting in a return of Swazi dollars and coin which can’t be used in any other country. The rain restarted with a vengeance including lightning and thunder and stranding some of our group under cover away from the bus. All aboard! and off the the Lugogo Hotel. They gave us the key for room 215 but when we went in we saw luggage, eye glasses, left over food – the room was already occupied although no one was in it at present! So back to the desk and we were switched to room 232 which was the other side away from the pool, next to the parking lot with a diesel bus left running. The bed linens looked dodgy, no safety deposit box and the sliding door wouldn’t lock closed. I called the front desk and asked for another room, they said they didn’t have one and would send up the maintenance man. 1/2 hr. later and he hadn’t shown up as I write in this journal. Stand by! I finally went down to the front desk as they weren’t answering the phone. The woman expressed surprise that the maintenance man hadn’t showed up. So, back to the room to wait for another 15. 2 guys showed up, then a 3rd. They took the sliding door right off the track, tipped it and adjusted the wheels to raise the door and the lock up higher. It worked – all fixed by 6 pm. Still, room has no chair and no luggage rack. Really not very good. So Debbie went to take a shower but it started running too hot so she got out of the tub, but then she couldn’t reach the taps to turn the water off. She called me in and I reached under the shower curtain and shut it down – the spray on my arm was very hot. Debbie resumed her shower getting the temperature right. Then the electricity went off for about 30 sec. Of course, the bathroom is now pitch black. It’s ok though, Debbie is laughing about it! 6:30 went to R&K’s room then 7 down to the lobby where we met Vern and Betty. We caught the shuttle to the casino hotel and checked out Planter’s restaurant. They were full suggesting a 1.5 hr. wait. We didn’t want to do the buffet, so we wandered around the casino as someone had suggested there was a spot in there for food. But it was quite smoky. I found a poolside lounge that would serve into the lobby sitting area but by that time the others had made a deal with Planter’s hostess and were ordering wine at the restaurant’s bar. Once seated, we were joined by Terry and Sonya. But! about an hour wait after we ordered! I had the sardines, 6 large ones from Portugal – very tasty. Well it took so long to get dinner that we didn’t get back to our hotel by shuttle until after 10. Very quickly off to sleep.
- Supper at Protea Kruger Gate
Day 9, Wed. Oct. 31 SmarTours says, “Swaziland/Kruger National Park. Drive through the beautiful countryside of the province of Transvaal to the world famous Kruger National Park. Encompassing some of the most stunning and diverse terrain, the park is South Africa’s premier game sanctuary. An unforgettable game drive in your own motor coach this afternoon takes you in search of the wild. Your upscale lodge is located near the park’s gate. Protea Kruger Gate Lodge. (B,D)”
Up at 5:30 this morning. Just as well that we had our own travel alarm as the hotel’s wake up call never happened. Packed up, bags out at 6:30 then down for another buffet breakfast – poorly organized. “Are you in the fruit line up or the egg line up?” Departed hotel at 7:15 under sunny blue skies. 8:46 we’re in lodgepole pine and eucalyptis, man made forests near Pigg’s Peak in the Drakensburg mountains. Exiting Swaziland and entering South Africa again was strange – no problem exiting, just get a stamp from the Swaziland customs agent. But entering S. Africa, had to get a passport stamp, fill out a form full of various questions, get the form stamped by a young lady who didn’t even look at it, then turn the form in (collected, altogether) at the gate as the bus drives through. Bureaucracy in action. Then a 30 min. drive and entered Kruger Park. Did a safari drive for about 2 hrs. then stopped for lunch. That was really disorganized too! To get my Kudu sausage, bun and sauce – had to pay in the order line, gave Debbie her slip for the ham cheese and tomato sandwich and then presented my other slip to the boma (bbq) girl manning the outdoor charcoal grill. Meanwhile Debbie couldn’t get her hot chocolate because it had been listed on my receipt that the bbq girl kept. Debbie had to go back into the order line to sort it out. After lunch, another 2 hr. safari drive, then a bathroom stop near a souvenir shop before continuing on to the Protea Kruger Gate hotel at 5. 2 things: what did we see? antelope, gazelles, zebra, water buck, giraffes, elephants, wild boar, wildebeest, hippo, crocodiles. Last thing – ask Debbie about her very own very special Africa experience! Then completed drive through Kruger Park Stopped at an information/tourist souvenir shop near the main gate, and out. Saw some hippos in the river just outside of the main gate. Then checked into the Protea Kruger Gate hotel. We have a great room and really appreciate the decor/surroundings. I don’t even remember what we did for supper tonight.
at Kruger Gate hotel
Day 10, Thurs., Nov. 1 SmarTours says, “Your safari today includes a morning game drive, in open vehicles, in search of the parks many residents including the “Big Five”: Lion, elephant, buffalo and rhino and hopefully the more elusive leopard. You may also spot hippopotamus and crocodiles as well as zebras and giraffes. Plains game and bird life also abound. Have your camera ready! After a lunch break, return to the park for an afternoon open-vehicle safari. (B,D)”
Sunny, clear, about 12C this morning. Up at 4:30, coffee and dpt. at 5:15. Kruger Park gate opened at 5:30. Cool with the wind whistling through the jeep, blankets handed out. We saw 3 male lions, baboons, hippo, 3 rhinos, giraffe, kudu, antelope. Back to the hotel at about 9:30 for breakfast. Then caught up on Ipod and journalled. Now time for a walkabout until next game drive at 3 pm. Walked around, saw some places that looked like private residences – for staff? and 1 kudu standing inside the electrified fence. About 1:30 I walked out of the hotel grounds, back down the highway and out on the bridge to view the hippos in the river. Back to the hotel then dpt. 3 pm for afternoon game drive. We asked to look for a leopard, no luck. Distant giraffe, nearby antelope, hippo out of water. Returned to hotel at sunset at 6 pm. Found out Betty has lost her purse – very upset. Back to room for Deb’s shower and Jim’s sundowner glass of Obikwa red wine. So we saw very few animals in the afternoon game drive. Somewhat disappointing but it is what it is. Guide Basil tried hard and we all tipped him. So Betty’s purse hasn’t shown up by supper time and she’s feeling so bad she can’t eat. I offered Vern the use of my Mastercard but he returned it later and said let’s wait for tomorrow. We had another excellent supper. I started with a piece of cake which threw Joel and Shirley off track. Also some singers showed up (from the Shensula? tribe). Then off to the internet room where I downloaded Skype (did I bring my Skype log in name and p/w?). Settled the room bill and returned to the room at 9:30 with Debbie already in bed and probably asleep. I was in my shorts and short sleeved shirt all afternoon but I was cold at times. Good night!
en route to Jo-burg
Day 11, Fri. Nov. 2 SmarTours says, “Kruger Park/ Mpumalanga/ Sandton (Johannesburg). Drive through Mpumalanga (formerly Eastern Transvaal) panoramic wild countryside and enjoy unparalleled views of densely forested mountains, valleys, rivers and waterfalls. Arrive in the magnificent Blyde River Canyon, one of the greatest spectacles of Africa. Proceed to Bourke’s Luck Pot Holes, a place of African legend containing bizarre holes cut into rock by powerful river erosion. Later relish sweeping views from God’s Window. Proceed to Sandton, a flourishing suburb of Johannesburg, the commerce and diamond mining center. Balalaika Sandton Hotel. (B)”
Up at 5:10, wake up call at 5:30, shower, pack up again. Bags must be ready for pick up by 6:30. Sunshine with some cloud cover. 3 kudu went by our ground floor patio door this morning! Then breakfast and dpt at 7:15. Today promised to be a long drive. Up to God’s Window where the Bushman threw the coke bottle off the edge of the world in the movie “The Gods Must be Crazy”. Next stop was at the Pot Holes where Ron McGregor had to negotiate our entrance into the park through a group of protesters. Third stop was at a viewpoint overlooking a huge “green” canyon, Blyde River. Then on to a lunch stop in Lydenburg where we ate at the Red Rooster. Service was super slow and threw Ron’s schedule into tatters. Also the Red Rooster had the singular honour of having the worst washroom of the entire trip, a single user with no lock on the door – step back and brace closed with your heel. Next rest stop 2 hrs later at Middleberg for 10 min. only. ETA at Johannesburg is now after 7 pm. Land is flat like the prairies, now in the upper high altitude interior plateau. Some earlier parts looked like the foothills. Towns are few and far. A lot of roadside trash in and near the towns. Sunset at 6:17, we’re at Diamond Hill toll booth about 15 miles away from the mine that produced the largest uncut diamond in the world. Arrive Protea Hotel Balalaika at 7:20. Checked in, down to _____Bull at 8. Met some people, decided to check the Terrace – no good, it’s outside and inside is too smoky. Back to ______Bull and had red wine, springbok and a rice curry – all very good! Back to room shortly after 10 then set up to go to bed by 2300 anticipating tomorrow’s 5:45 wake up call.
Pieterson photo, Soweto
Day 12, Sat. Nov. 3 SmarTours says, “Soweto Excursion. This morning learn more about South Africa’s turbulent past and it’s hope for the future on a fascinating tour to Soweto, a sprawling metropolis on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Peek into the past – hostels, Freedom Square and the struggle for liberty. Tread the paths to greatness by Nelson Mandela and visit his former house. The afternoon is at leisure back in thriving Sandton. Tonight, celebrate with your fellow travelers at a farewell dinner feasting on a traditional South African buffet. (B,D)”
In Sandton, a suburb of Johannesburg. Elevation 5500 – 6000 ft. Gas R11.97/l, diesel R11.86/l R100 = $1.10 or so, you do the math… Up at 5:15 then downstairs for buffet at 6:30. On the bus at 8 in sunshine and calm blue skies. First we drove through downtown Johannesburg – what a war zone! The city is rotten at the centre (razer wire, abandoned buildings, broken windows) and reportedly dangerous. From there, out to Soweto for a drive through. We stopped at Nelson Mandela’s house for a tour and saw Winnie Mandela’s house in the “Hollywood” district within Soweto. Quite an updated community in this area now. Then up the street about 4 blocks to where the black students were killed in the June 16, 1976 demonstrations against mandatory Afrikaans language teaching in the schools. From there to the Pieterson museum which recounts the events of that and the following days. It was a very touching set of displays. After that, off to a wholesale souvenir warehouse which a lot of our group found to be too touristy – but where Richard & Kathy bought a giraffe and a painted egg. The optional Pretoria tour people left us from there and we returned to the hotel at about 2 pm. We regrouped and walked the long block to the Nelson Mandela shopping centre. Probably about 20 of our group that we saw there. Debbie did a fair bit of shopping. We bumped into Vern and Betty and stopped at an outdoor cafe for beer, wine and a cider for Deb. We walked back to the hotel and I went across the street to Nedbank to take out R2000 for the remainder of the trip. (Jim’s note – when we checked out of the hotel in Zimbabwe, the charges were R1980, which I still had!). Back to the room, Deb had a shower and I journalled, sent some pics on Facebook. Dinner finale is at 7:30 tonight. 7:30 – Farewell dinner in a private dining lounge. We received complimentary wine upon arrival. Had dinner with Richard & Kathy, Vern and Betty. Of the 43 in our full group, 29 are continuing on the SmarTour extension to Victoria Falls, 10 are returning to New York tomorrow and Richard & Kathy, Rachel & Gene are making their own way to Zimbabwe and a different lodge there. Ron McGregor signed his book “The South African Story” for us. We circulated and said goodbyes to the 14. Goodman the driver joined us as well. Dinner was over at 9:30, in bed by 10:30.
Jo-burg airport to Zimbabwe
Day 13, Sun. Nov. 4 Depart South Africa. Today was the departure date for the basic 14 day tour. The original group of 43 basically went in 3 directions. 29 of us caught a plane heading for Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe; another 4 went separately also to Vic Falls to a different safari lodge; and ten of our friends had to return to home by way of JFK New York. For the people carrying on to the extension, SmarTours says, ” Transfer to the airport for your flight to Victoria Falls. You’ll be met and escorted to your deluxe hotel. Join a Sundowner cruise on the mighty Zambezi River. Marvel at the vegetation on the river’s banks and the spectacular sunset.”
Up at 5, wake up call by 5:15. Luggage out at 6, off to breakfast. It was nice to see that many of the 14 got up early to share b’fast with us. Relaxing 1/2 hr. in the lobby then on the bus at 7:15 out to the O. Tambo airport. Warm, sunny, scattered clouds this morning. Airport was chaotic with long lines of people waiting for check in. ~30 min+ in this line. I processed my receipts for VAT tax refund and rejoined the line. Our group managed to stay together. After receiving boarding tickets and getting rid of checked bags, we said goodbye to Ron McGregor. Through security, then I lined up for VAT tax refund but the line of about 6 people just didn’t move an inch. Stepped out of the line at 10, found Debbie in the souvenir shop and headed to our boarding gate for 10:15. Onto a bus and out to the plane on the tarmac, an Airbus 319-100. Guess what! Debbie and I had no third passenger in our row so it was quite comfortable! Beef sandwich and juice/H2O for lunch. Arrived Zimbabwe Victoria Falls airport at 1215. We are the only 2 Canadians left in the SmarTour group of 29. So it cost us $150US to enter (single entry) instead of the $30 for American citizens, who all bought a double entry visa for $45. I guess Debbie looked suspicious because they stopped her at customs and made her open her bag for inspection. Hah! Gentle bearded Ben was there to greet us. While we waited I took a video of some locals dancing outside the airport entrance. Then all on the bus for 30 min. drive to Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. Check in, welcome orientation. We have room 5 with a good view over the water hole. We went to the bar with a similar view and joined Vern and Betty for drinks (local beer for me). At about 3:45 Debbie noticed the animals coming down to the water hole. We had to leave at 4:15 for the Zambezi River booze cruise (free drinks and appetizers). We cruised up the river, then down and back up to see the sunset. We saw crocodiles, hipps and birds. Then back to the hotel lodge at about 6:30. Off to our rooms for some basic clean up. Note – because of malaria mosquitoes we were wearing full pants, long sleeved shirts and DEET. And it is HOT here, est. in excess of 30C in the late afternoon and humid. After returning we went to the on site a la carte restaurant. I had PUMBA (wart hog) fillet. We had dinner with Vern and Betty, Ed and Helen. Supper + dessert with tip was $65US for the 2 of us. Some problems getting the bill right. Then back to the room at 9:30, mosquito net is down around the bed. Debbie had a shower, I kicked back and off to bed at 10. Debbie was awake a while longer listening to the elephants trumpeting. Me, I just didn’t hear them…
Water hole at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge
Day 14, Mon. Nov. 5 SmarTours says, “Visit the craft village and observe the traditional way of life. Proceed to the Victoria Falls, often described as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. This afternoon you may return to the Falls on your own. (B)”
Up at 5:15 & down to the bar deck at 5:30 to watch the water hole. Slight overcast, sunny, warm. Birds, maybe 1 croc. African buffalo show up at 5:45 right after Debbie joins me. Back to room at 6 for shower and shave. Buffet breakfast at 7. Dpt for Victoria Falls at 8:15. Guided walk on the Zimbabwe side of the river. This is the lowest flow month of the year, so the eastern portion of the falls towards the international bridge (with Zambia) is almost entirely dry. But there is still a lot of flow at Devil’s Cataract and the main falls on the western portion. In the rainier seasons the mist from the falls can totally obscure the view of the falls. It was a 3.5 km walk through the park. At 11 we went to a little tourist souvenir market. The vendors were so pushy that Debbie gave up shopping! We ended up sitting on the bus and still the vendors would walk up to the bus windows trying to sell us souvenirs or Zimbabwe currency. It all made us very uncomfortable. These people are very impoverished and we have enough money in our wallets to be the equivalent of millionairs. Then back to the lodge for a Buffalo Bar burger (ground beef), fries, ginger ale for Debbie and I had a Zimbabwe beer. About 93F at noon. At 1 pm the hotel guide took us down some stairs and threw out last night’s restaurant leftover meats. Hundreds of vultures came down and as soon as the guide started running away from the discarded meat, the birds all attacked the food. See the video! Bathroom break then 1:30 gathered at the front waiting for our shuttle to Angel helicopter flight over Victoria Falls. 2 pm arrive at heli pad/office. They’re flying jet rangers. We had a terrific flight over the falls on both left and right sides. Beautiful flight! Back to hotel at 2:45. The company took video and still pics – $30 US for video and $15 for still pics. No one in our group bought any. Dpt. 3:15 for lion walk. First we walked with the 15 mo. old brother and sister – Simba. We got to touch them and walk alongside. There were at least 2 guys carrying rifles in the near distance protecting us from other animals like wildebeest, buffalo and elephants. Then we walked with 2 younger sisters, 8 mos. old. Not as docile – playful. Paul the guide said that the lions sleep about 20 hrs. a day. There were about 8 young people serving as pay their own way volulnteers including one young lady from the Ukraine who knew of Tlustenkie (where Mom was born). We bought our group’s video and returned to the Safari Lodge at 6:30. Debbie went to the room for shower – I went to bar to unsuccessfully try to log onto internet for mail for Shirley who was wondering if her children were safe after hurricane Sandy hit New York. Then I returned to the room. We looked over the room service menu and ordered. I went for my shower. While I was in the shower, the maid arrived to turn down the bed, drop the mosquito curtains around the bed and close the patio shutters. Her and Debbie spent some time catching large moths that had entered the room through the patio doors when they were opened to close the shutters. Then room service arrived. It turns out that 2 light sandwich meals and 2 bowls of soup became a large full size dinner! I am just about bushed by 9, falling asleep sitting on the Ottoman while Debbie is in the chair. Debbie cleaned up, undressed and crawled in before 9:15. I may go look at the stars before hitting the sack. Couldn’t see many stars from the bar veranda as there was a slight overcast. In bed and asleep by 10.
Water buck sunrise at VF Safari Lodge
Day 15, Tues. Nov. 6 SmarTours says, “A day at leisure. You may join a fascinating optional excursion across the border to Chobe National Park in Botswana. Chobe boasts one of the largest populations of elephants in the world along with lions, hippos and zebras. (B)”
I had set the phone for a wake up call at 5. That was a mistake, it was so dark I stubbed my toe on the Ottoman. Got up, left Deb in bed, went down to the water hole view by 5:15 to watch the sunrise with a cup of coffee. Saw those funny little birds again, then about 2 x 6 African buffalo. Walking downstairs in the dark I put my hand on top of a corner post – on top of a frog! Hope it’s not poisonous. The security guy took me out front and showed me a water buck lying in the trees and bush next to the hotel roundabout driveway. Back to the room at 6 to get cleaned up, then down to the restaurant for breakfast buffet. Pancakes and yogurt this am. There’s lots more available, I’m just getting buffet’d out. Back to the room, picked up gear and out front at 7:15 for trip to Chobe in Botswana. Over breakfast this morning we saw African buffalo, impala and wart hogs. 1 hr. drive to the border, saw a troop of baboons along the way. Checked out of Zimbabwe, walked through hoof and mouth disinfectant, then checked into Botswana with no problems. Back on the bus at 8:45. At Chobe Marina Lodge to sign waivers and board the boat for a 2.5 – 3 hr. cruise. We saw elephants, African buffalo, antelope, crocs, warthogs and many birds. Waterbucks. A herd of elephants swam across the channel in front of us – see the video. 11:40 we’re 100 m. offshore of Namibia. We never made it to the 4 corners, but close enough. Back to the Marina Lodge by 12:30 for buffet lunch – the final meal with all of the remaining group together. Hot hot today. But still we had soup, hot meal and extra dishes, a little salad and dessert. Out to the 3 trucks at 1:30. A bit of a shmozzle loading and then we were off. Little pavement then a lot of deep rutted soft sandy roads. We saw elephants, baboons, zebra, kudu, impala, 2 female lions, 7 or 8 giraffes and fisher eagles. Back to the border at 4. We two Canadians had to pay another $150 US cash to get back into Zimbabwe. But when we did, we were finished. Meanwhile, the 27 Americans who already had their dual entry visas were waiting in a second line up! So, we got preferred treatment and were first back through the border, back on the air conditioned bus and got what we called the $150 front row seats. About 10 minutes later the Americans started to show up. It took another 20 minutes to get them all on board. Today’s game drive in the afternoon, I was riding shotgun and with the front window down it was like a convection oven. I put my hat on the seat to sit on and my jacket over my knees to keep them from burning even though I had sun screen liberally applied. 6:30 returned to Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. At this point my journal says, “Drive as fast as you want, Leonardo” and I have no idea what that is about. Down to the bar, a lot of discussion with Bob about Smileboxes but I couldn’t get VI Cruises web site up on the web on the Ipod touch. No more mail updates for Shirley either – and can’t find the north east storm heading for the US that Ed is talking about. So, a bust. But a lovely night overlooking the water hole. Then back to the room, ordered room service, 2 soups + 1 sandwich, some red wine. Shower for Debbie and myself – room service comes and Debbie overtips but it’s all ok. Then I went to bar for tip money exchange but their computer is down. Then to front desk to close the account, but their computer is also not working. So, back to the room where Debbie grills me while I journal. Asleep at 10.
elephant ride was a highlight
Day 16, Wed. Nov. 7 SmarTours says, “Transfer to the airport for your return flight to Johannesburg connecting to your flight back to the USA. (B)”
Well that all sounds pretty straightforward as long as you don’t stuff a great optional elephant ride into the morning before your departure… Woke up before the alarm at 5, front desk wake up call at 5:15. I went to the front desk to close the account. It was R1980 and I had R2000 cash, refund was $2 US. Waiting at 6:15 for our shuttle, it didn’t show up until 6:30. About 30 min. drive to the elephant walk location. Warming up now, expected to go to 100 F today. Orientation and signing of waivers. 5 from our group and 2 newlyweds from S. Africa. Others were Holly, Frank & Karen. We boarded 4 elephants, driver in front then Debbie and then me on the rear. Blanket, stirrups, hold on strap. We walked for about an hour. After the walk, scrambled egg breakfast at the elephant camp. We bought the video but it has to be delivered to the hotel. Back to the hotel at 9:30 for quick showers and packing, bags out front and ready to go for 10:30. Video arrives just in time. 1/2 hr. ride to airport, goodbye to tour guide driver Ben. Then about 40 min. wait in very hot line up waiting for check in. Then another line up at passport control to get visas exit stamped, then another line up to go through security. At least the waiting lounge is air conditioned! Speaking to Joel in the lounge at 12:26 about how long before Debbie asks about where we’re going next and I wrote down the time in my journal. Boarding SA41 at 12:40. 1hr 45min flt to Johannesburg. Didn’t have to pick up our bags – they are checked through from Zimbabwe to JFK New York. Still had to go through customs and then security. Water confiscated again. Debbie stopped in at all of the jewelry shops in the airport on the way through the terminal. I stopped and picked up my VAT refund. The refund was R156 as some was disallowed with no reason provided, but when I cashed the cheque around the corner at the money exchange shop, they removed R40 for commission and charged a VAT tax! So, it all turned out to be about $11 US refund after all of that. Then more shopping and down to the food court where Shirley bought me a beer for passing along the e-mail update from her kids that all was well in New York. I let Joel know that Debbie had asked about the next trip at 3:12. That was quick! Down to the boarding area for 7:30 but guess what – a line up for men and a separate line up for women, for a TSA pat down, shoes off for inspection and another carry on baggage inspection where they confiscated my tube of toothpaste. Then onto the plan, Airbus 340-600 which was half full. 8:24 pm on board plane getting pushed out. Estimated flying time is 15 hrs 45 min. Settled in, had some wine then they served supper at about 10. First the steward missed offering us a meal. I got up and got his attention after he passed by. He brought back my beef meal then returned with a chicken meal for Debbie but in passing it over to her he dropped it on my lap. He took that away and brought another. When Debbie opened it up and began eating it she remarked that there was no chicken – it was just curried rice which she didn’t care for. So she rang for the steward and it appeared there had been a mix up in meals, giving Debbie a vegetarian plate so he took that away and replaced it with a real chicken dinner. After dinner was cleared away we started to watch a movie. I watched Rock of Ages. But I only got half way through when I started to nod off. So turned off the movie, settled in and went to sleep. Broken sleep but not too bad. Finally woke up at 6 am S. Africa time, used the washroom and caught up on my journal. Where are we? mid ocean west of Senegal, 4456 km to go to JFK, about 5 hrs. 45 min ETA, 3176 km travelled so far, 11365 m. up, 508 mph, ETA is 5:21 New York time.
our SAA plane on arrival at JFK
Day 17, Thurs. Nov. 8 SmarTours says, “Arrive New York this morning.”
Well, that’s an interesting short statement to describe a long day. We arrived at JFK airport at 5:30, having taken our last Malarone malaria pill this morning. There is snow on the ground! A long line up at immigration, 1/2 hr., then both immigration and customs were easy to get along with. By this time, all of our American friends had passed through and picked up their baggage and disappeared so we couldn’t say good bye, except with Joel and Shirley who were still looking for one piece. We saw Elliot and Gail off in the distance outside, and Dennis of Dennis & Holly was sitting inside waiting 1/2 hr. before calling his son for a ride – letting him sleep in a bit. Ipod weather update says 34 F outside warming to 43 later today. We went up to the Oasis passenger lounge which was fairly busy possibly due to the flight cancellations and hold overs/standby’s from the previous snowfall day. Ate some toast ~ coffee machine not working in the lounge. Found some comfy chairs, now checking out washrooms, toilets and showers. They’re not in very good shape – men’s washroom has litter all over it and I took one look and decided not to use the shower. Maybe this is also a result of the increased traffic from flight cancellations. However, good news, we checked with the front desk and although we paid for 5 hours ($45 ea), the receptionist permitted us to stay longer because we have such a long layover. Later, coffee machine was working, we had free snacks for lunch and also some free wine. Snoozed quite a bit in the comfy chairs. Well, we stayed in the Oasis Lounge until 6 pm. Then out looking around at the shops but really not much around here on this side of security. Over to the AirTrain and around to Terminal 7 by 6:20. Cathay Pacific is not checking in yet. Looked around the terminal, boring on this side of security and check in. Found some chairs to sit and wait until 7. Still 3 hr. wait and 5 hr. flight to go. Tired now, it’s 11:41 pm in S. Africa. Checked in with Cathay Pacific at 7. No problems with security. Glad we stayed in the lounge for most of today – the chairs in the boarding area were very uncomfortable. An Asian lady put her purse down with our packs on a chair. Debbie said, “that’s my chair” and I moved the purse to an empty chair beside us. The Asian lady walks off without her purse! She comes back later and thanks me for protecting it! News to me. 9:35 supposed to board the CP flight to Vancouver, plane half full. Plane didn’t leave on time – 40 min. late because of British Airways delayed plane(s) in front of us. On board we both had problems staying awake long enough to have our supper meals at 11:30 pm (NY time). After, turned on some movies and fell asleep, more like “zombied out”. Woke up about 2 hrs. out of Vancouver.
Fairmont Hotel, YVR Vancouver
Day 18+, Fri. Nov. 9 and beyond We arrived at YVR airport Vancouver at 1:17 am. So let’s talk about hours of travel. We got up on Wednesday at 5 for our 6:15 elephant walk. Officially we left the hotel in Zimbabwe at 10:30 am. The flight from Victoria Falls to Johannesburg S. Africa was at 1:30 pm. The flight from Jo-burg to JFK departed 8:30 Wednesday night. We arrived at JFK at 6 am New York time Thursday morning. The Oasis lounge started at 7 am. We left the lounge at 6 pm. Cathay Pacific boarding time was 9:35 but departure was delayed past 10 pm. We arrived in YVR at 1:17 am Friday morning, Vancouver time. 1:30 at Vancouver = 4:30 am at New York = 10:30 in Zimbabwe. So in all, 48 hrs of travel and we’re not home yet! Only a handful of people getting off the plane in Vancouver – most carrying on to Hong Kong. Shortest immigration line I’ve ever seen, walked up and there were 3 open booths. After a very quick, easy and welcome pass through immigration and customs. Vancouver airport sure looks good compared to all of the other airports we have seen on this trip. Classy and clean. We walked through the airport to the Fairmont Hotel which is within the international terminal. We checked in, went to our room and then stayed up for a while, talking and drinking Amarula. Let’s see, 2 in the morning our time is sometime about noon in South Africa, so we were wide awake. We got to sleep about 4 am. We woke up again at about 11 am and after cleaning up, headed out into the airport for a light lunch at Koho’s restaurant. Returning to the room a bit, we then headed out on the skytrain for downtown Vancouver. We helped a young lady from Baltimore find her way to the Delta hotel downtown, then caught the skytrain out to Burnaby to have an early supper with Mom. It’s cold out! Got to Mom’s place about 4, then out to White Spot for supper. Tea back at her place the left at about 7. Falling asleep on the Skytrain on the way back. We returned to the Fairmont at YVR by 9 pm. We had thought to stop and do some gambling at the River Rock Casino when we originally made our return trip plans, but we were so tired we just couldn’t do it – had to hit the hay early. Of course, that meant we were waking up at about 2:30 am, watched tv for a bit, I journalled and Debbie did Sudoku until we went back to sleep at about 4:30. Up at 8:15 for showers, then got our bags together, checked out and back to Koho’s for breakfast. The Fairmont gave us a free shuttle lift out to the SeaAir seaplane terminal where we caught the 1 pm flight back to Nanaimo. Chrystal came and picked us up, and shuttled us home. All is well.