We had always talked about going to Africa one day, but we decided after much discussion that it was too expensive so we took it off our bucket list. Then Covid happened. It taught us the lesson that there is no time like the present, so Africa returned to our list of things we must do before…well…before.
I started planning the trip in June of 2021 after selecting the travel agent I felt was best for our needs. I interviewed a few people and I picked Kirsty Perring of Traversing Africa. Up until the last minute, we didn’t know if we would really be able to make the trip. Between Covid, war and economic woes, we didn’t know if it would ever happen. However, we did make the trip and here are my stories.
Day 1: We left LAX about 4 PM. I almost didn’t make it through security for a reason even I can’t mention for fear of lifelong embarrassment. There was a hold up of about 20 minutes as I got a good check over in the security room. I ended up chatting with the young woman who was – well – giving me a good look-over and I sold her on Pilates as she was doing so. I was okay and I wasn’t carrying any explosives so she let me go.
We then got on the plane – business class on Emirates and the seats were very comfortable which they need to be for a 14-hour flight. It was uneventful which are the way flights should be. I think I saw 3 movies and an entire season of a show.
Day 2: Around 7 pm or so local time, we arrived in Dubai where we had decided to break up the trip. We felt a bit whacky after the 14-hour flight, but we were also excited to see a new place. It took a while to find our driver to the hotel as the airport was a bit confusing. We found him and since it was 8 or so by this time and dark and we got to see the beautiful lights of the city. The Taj hotel was beautiful and the rooms were large and comfy. We had a late dinner in the hotel and although very pricey, the food was good. There were three men who looked to be Korean who were dancing and they walked around the tables to get the women to dance too. I got up and danced with them. It was fun. Then we walked a bit as it wasn’t quite as hot (Dubai is very hot and the air is stifling so nighttime is really the only good time to be outside and it’s still well over 90 degrees). We got to bed around midnight maybe later but our body clocks had no idea what time it was.
Day 3: After a really good breakfast we took a short walk but decided it was getting too hot even as early as 9am. The shuttle took us to the Dubai mall where we walked around for over 2 hours. We didn’t buy anything nor could I see how the prices were since I didn’t know the exchange rate and they didn’t seem to believe in price tags. They had several stores that just sold burkas which was unusual, but the rest of the mall looked a lot like South Coast Plaza here in Costa Mesa. After walking around the air-conditioned mall, we came back to the hotel and went for a swim. It felt good to be in the water with the stifling heat.
That was pretty much all we saw of Dubai as the heat was making us feel ill and we had a very early morning flight (4am) to Cape Town so we didn’t want to overdo it. I must say that Dubai is interesting and has some amazing architecture, but the weather is not for me.
Day 4: We left Dubai at around 4am for Cape Town – a 10-hour flight. We arrived late morning as there is a two-hour time difference so we gained two hours. Immigration was easy and our driver was there waiting for us. The hotel was stunning and located right at the Harbor. We decided to just shower, clean-up and walk around the harbor. It was beautiful and reminded us a bit of Southern California. There were street musicians, artists, and lots of food vendors. We heard a lot of Afrikaans spoken which to me sounds a lot like Dutch. We stopped for coffee and just enjoyed people watching. Later on we had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant near the hotel. The food was amazing and the wine easily as good or better than California wines.
Day 5: We got up and took an Uber to Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden. It was a lovely day – about 70 degrees F or 21 C. It felt good to walk after being on planes for 24 hours and we loved the gardens and open-air spaces. Even the birds sounded different than American birds. One bird was whistling at us singing a song I had never heard before from an American bird.
I have a good friend in Cape Town who I have known since the early 90s. We met while we both lived in Taiwan and have stayed in touch all these years. We met for lunch right inside the gardens and it was as if we had just seen each other. She hadn’t changed at all other than her once short hair was now long and wavy. We spent hours talking about Taiwan and how our lives have changed. It was hard saying good-bye but I suspect we will see each other again.
That evening Phil and I wondered around the waterfront and had a delightful dinner of sushi and good South African wine. We got to bed on decent time hoping that the rain that was forecasted was a mistake and we would be able to do something the following morning.
Day 6 – 8: Monday in Cape Town. Well, we weren’t so lucky with the weather. The weather forecast predicted cold rain and boy were they right. It was not only pouring out but it was also very cold. We had a 1pm pick up to take us to the Rovos train station (more on that later), but given the rain there wasn’t much we could do. I was disappointed as we would have had time to do a morning adventure prior to our pick-up, but instead we just hung out before heading to the train station to wait for our 4:00pm departure. Pictures below.
The Rovos train was an idea our travel agent had. It’s an old-fashioned luxury train that takes you from Cape Town to a variety of cities. Our voyage was to be three nights starting on that Monday and finishing early Thursday a few hours outside Johannesburg. Well that night after an amazing dinner of great food and even better wine, we were getting ready for bed right around 10pm. All of a sudden we heard this thud and the room shook. It sounded like a piece of large furniture had tumbled over. At that point, the train stopped moving. We figured that something must have happened and we would resume travel in a while. We went to bed and I realized a few hours later we were still not moving.
The next morning at breakfast I asked one of the wait staff if he knew what had happened. He nodded and said we would find out soon. It turns out that there was cable theft on the tracks and because the remaining cables were hanging it was dangerous to continue. They couldn’t fix anything until the rain stopped. So there we waited for over 30 hours. The staff was amazing and they kept us fed with great food and we got a chance to get to know the other passengers. They also told us that they would pay for us to get to our destinations so we could continue our various journeys. They also had a bus brought to the tracks to offer a trip to a small village about 90 minutes away. Phil and I went along with about 15 other people.
Well this village reminded me of something out of a 1980s slasher movie. It was a really odd place. We were greeted at this old hotel by a jovial man playing a trumpet. He took us on a tour of an old hotel (slasher movie right?) and then directed us either to the old pub next door or to one of the two museums. Well, the first museum looked like a disorganized antique store with everything from creepy dolls to a machine that apparently stimulated muscles (a bit of Joe Pilates here me thinks). Phil decided that the founders of the town – two white fellows – probably had great visions for this place, but somehow it didn’t quite work out. The second museum had about 30 old cars from various decades. No one was there and we just walked through. By this time, it was pouring outside and freezing cold so we all ended up at the pub. The drive to the town from the train took about 90 minutes each way so it was late when we got back just in time for dinner.
Finally that night, we started to move again and the plan was to pick us and a few other couples up at 8 am in the morning to take us to a small airport that would fly us to Johannesburg.
Day 9: We had a short flight to Johannesburg where we picked up another short flight to Kruger National Park. We were picked up at the airport and taken to our lodge which was another non-moving train only this train was never meant to move. It was a lovely place with beautiful furniture and a large bathtub looking over the river. We had time to unpack and clean up before getting ready for our first game drive. The game drives tend to be very early in the mornings and then again around 4:30 in the late afternoon.
It was so amazing to see elephants and giraffes just strutting their stuff as if this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. That first safari despite the bitter cold (we were underdressed for sure) we saw 10 lions lying on the road blocking our path which was okay because how often do you see 10 lions lying on the road. They were beautiful and completely and absolutely disinterested in us.
After two hours of freezing to death in an open jeep, we returned for dinner at the lodge. The South African family sitting next to us warned us that it was unusually cold for South Africa and that for the morning game drive we should wear everything we owned. The mom of the group even offered me her son’s extra scarf for the morning.
Day 10: We had to get up around 4:30 for the 5:30am game drive. It was cold but we just threw on pretty much all our clothes over our pajamas. We wanted to be able to enjoy the ride and not be so cold. The nice thing was they had hot water bottles and blankets for us to keep us warm. We saw pretty much the usual suspects during this ride: Giraffes, elephants, a few lions etc. We didn’t see any leopards or rhinos but we saw everything else.
We returned for breakfast, took a nice nap, and then had massages in the early afternoon. It was delightful. I walked a bit around the grounds, but you are not free to leave the area as it can be dangerous. I missed my long walks, but I wasn’t ready to be eaten by a lion or trampled by an elephant. I just walked around for about 30 minutes before our night ride at 4pm. It wasn’t quite as cold or maybe it was because we had finally learned to dress.
There was a crocodile sunning itself under our lodge window.
Day 11: Our last day in Kruger. Since we had a ride at 9:30am we decided not to go on the morning game drive. We slept in a bit, had a nice breakfast, and then finished packing. Our driver came early to take us to an airport that was further away than the one we arrived in. It was a good 2-hour drive and it gave us a chance to see a lot of the northeastern part of South Africa. We went through a number of villages where we saw how people really live. Some of the villages could easily pass for an American suburb with strip malls and housing developments, but others seemed much poorer. Many people live in shacks. We saw colorfully dressed women walking on the road carrying heavy baskets on their heads. There weren’t many cars and most of the villagers were on bicycles.
We got to the airport in plenty of time and our next flight was to Livingstone, Zambia. We were planning two days there to so we could see Victoria Falls. The flight left on time and it was close to a two-hour flight. When we arrived there was a very long line to go through customs. One thing I failed to mention was that each time we arrived in a country we had to show our vaccination records along with a health card. Every single immigration required this. There were a lot of people at the airport as Victoria Falls is one of the 8 Natural Wonders of the World so there are tourists from just about everywhere.
It took a while, but we did get through and our driver was waiting outside. His name was Lawrence and he was going to take us to the lodge. Of all the lodges this was the one that had piqued my curiosity. The Tongabezi Lodge in Livingstone looked like the most interesting place we would visit. Each and every lodge was different and based on a theme. Well when we arrived I discovered that it was even more beautiful than I had imagined. There were tall, lush trees draping over the landscape and a river ran right next to the cottages. Jaycee, a lovely South African woman, came to greet us and she gave us a brief tour. At this point, all Phil and I wanted to do was to go to our cabin – aptly named the Birdhouse – and shower and wash up. She told us that we would be assigned a personal valet who would take care of everything. The room was spectacular. I don’t think I’ve ever seen lodging so uniquely gorgeous. We had our own pool on the patio, an old-fashioned bathtub outside and a complete view of the river. We had lovely birds singing to us from the trees and we could hear the hippos grunting by the riverside. It was perfection
We took a nap and then had a late lunch. We then walked around a bit before stopping by the community area for a glass of wine. We met a Dutchman there who was there on business helping them refurbish an old wooden boat. We drank some really good South African wine and talked for hours about the state of the world. The manager, Jaycee,, came by and joined in. She was very interested in my return there as a Pilates instructor for the guests. It sounded delightful at the time, but it’s not something I could manage at this stage. It was nice of her to think of me. Maybe one day….
Day 12: The next day we got up, walked a bit around the beautiful grounds and then headed off to Victoria Falls with Lawrence, our guide. It was interesting because when we had visited the Grand Canyon a few years ago, it was packed with tourists. However, Victoria Falls was not crowded at all. There were a few vans and buses there but not many at all. Outside the grounds there were a few stalls selling African trinkets and a long line of Croc shoes (not the lizard kind) for rent to get through the wet areas of the falls. We got some colorful crocs and raincoats and off we went. It was truly amazing. I wasn’t thrilled about getting wet because I had a cough that was lingering since the flight, but I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to do it again. Our guide took some beautiful photos of us and in once, there was a double rainbow.
We bought a few things at the market just because they let us have the crocs at no charge. We probably paid too much, but it was okay because merchants were so nice and they could use the extra cash. We had a lot of gifts to bring back and hand-painted cloth that we now have in our guest room.
We went back, showered, and had lunch. Later in the day we went for a boat safari where we saw some hippos bathing and a lot of crocodiles and birds. We then stopped at a strip of land where we had cocktails and snacks while we watched the sunset. There was another American couple on the ride from New England and we had a good time talking to them. Usually the people you meet on this trip tend to be in the upper crust of society and they take a lot of trips over the course of a year. You often wonder what they do for a living, but sometimes it’s just that they hadn’t traveled much when they were younger and now want to make up for lost time.
Day 13: The next morning we got up a bit later than usual and got ready to leave. Our next trip was to Botswana and the Chobe Game Lodge. It wasn’t far from Livingstone so we had a driver take us to the border of Zambia and Botswana. It was about a 40-minute drive if I remember correctly. At the border, we had to go through a few hoops to get in and once we did, the driver from the game lodge was there. He informed us that the lodge only has women drivers for the safaris a fact he didn’t seem all that pleased with. On the way to the lodge we went through the reserve and saw many elephants – including one who came a bit too close to our jeep.
We arrived at the lodge and this one seemed a bit more commercial and busier than the others. Apparently, Botswana is a popular site for tourists and this particular lodge is one of the trendier ones. It was very pretty and more like a hotel than a lodge. It was well laid out and the rooms were beautiful. We had lunch, took a short nap, and then went out for boat safari. We saw (or at least everyone but me saw) a lion eating its kill up on land. I finally got a peak at the hungry lion, but I had to really focus my binoculars. We also saw several crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks of the river and one of them was being teased by a white bird. The bird kept creeping closer and closer to the crocodile and then would hope away as soon as the reptile noticed him.
That night they served a buffet dinner outside and the food was more traditional African. It was good and they had other things for the less adventurous. There was a local band playing and the weather was perfect. It would have been nice if they had seated people together as a way to get to know other travelers but this lodge kept each family separate.
Day 14: Early the next morning we went on our game run and saw lots of elephants, hippos, buffalo, giraffes, and a few zebras. We returned for lunch and then had a second game drive that afternoon. The afternoon one turned out to be interesting. As we were wrapping things up and heading back to the lodge, we saw an elephant innocently eating branches off a tree. As we watched the big fellow snack away, another jeep came by and passed us. I guess the noise of the second jeep startled the elephant and he started to come at us. My husband was on the same side as the elephant so he was terrified. We yelled to the driver to get going which she did. She later said that the elephant probably wouldn’t have done much, but I didn’t want to wait to find out. We also got very close to a few lions strutting about. Below is my favorite picture.
That evening we went up to one of the bars that were designed very much like the places we used to see in Malaysia. The style was north African with a strong Middle Eastern flair. We ordered a drink at the bar and the next thing we knew our waitress was there setting up a romantic table for two for us. We never asked for it, but somewhere along the line they decided to do this.
While wrapping things up she told us she wanted to come home with us. We suspect she may have been somewhat serious.
Day 15: We skipped the morning game drive knowing we would be rushed to pack and check out for our next trip which required a short flight to the Okavango Delta. There was a short trip to the airport where we boarded a smaller plane. There were about 10 of us all crammed into this very small plane. We shared looks when the plane took off. It turned out to be a lot of fun, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous.
We arrived safe and sound to what was supposed to be an airport but it was more like a runway in the middle of the African bush. We were let off and I was led to a porta-potty when asked where the bathroom was. The safari jeep was waiting for us to take us to our final lodge Moremi deep in the heart of the bush. There was a young couple with us also from Southern California and were on their honeymoon. It took about 20 minutes to get to the lodge and we were immediately greeted by several people who seemed genuinely glad to see us. We were served lunch and then given a tour of the facility. This was our first real tent or as they called it ‘Glamping’. The other places were more like hotels in the jungle, but this was a tent. Granted, it was luxurious tent, but it was still a tent.
Our first safari was late in the afternoon around 3:30 but before we left, they had tea or what we Americans call an afternoon snack. It was good. I wouldn’t mind If Americans got in the habit of afternoon tea.
We were divided up into groups and there was a mother and daughter team from Pennsylvania and another young couple from Seattle also on their honeymoon. We saw all the usual suspects: Giraffes, zebras, moneys, elephants, lions, hyenas etc., but this time we also saw what we hadn’t yet seen, leopards. We saw a mama and baby leopard eating their prey. The baby was waiting her turn while the mama chowed down. We stayed a long time watching and they were oblivious to the rest of us
I was so happy to finally see a leopard as that was the one animal I had yet to see. I had yet to see a rhino and as it turned out, there weren’t any there as they were in a protected area.
We went back for a lovely dinner where our group ate together. We also had one of the guides and the manager sit at our table and answer our questions. It was really very different from the other places in that we got to share a meal with the people we spent the day with. In the other places, it was just Phil and me at the table, which was nice, but it was also nice to meet the others. Something about drinking wine with others makes for fun conversation.
Day 16: We were told that in the morning we had to be escorted to breakfast as it was too dangerous to walk alone along the pathway due to wildlife. So around 5:am they came by and tapped at our door to wake us up. We had set an alarm anyway so we were already awake. Breakfast was light – coffee, porridge, and toast but enough to get us going. I had two cups of coffee which I would later learn was a big mistake.
It was the same group as the day before although now everyone was half asleep. It was cold but not nearly as cold as it had been in Kruger. We were heading back to revisit the lions we had seen the day before. I think they were still there, although I am a little fuzzy on this one. There were four sleeping lions all cuddled together but I am not sure if it was on this trip or the one the day before. In any event, they would occasionally open their eyes and check us out.
A bit later in the morning that coffee came back to visit me and needless to say there are no porta-potties in the bush. I finally had to ask the guide to stop somewhere as the bumpy roads were making it worse. Anyway, he had to scope out a place which was safe and private. Turned out I wasn’t the only one who had too much coffee. We then saw a group of lions who were quite close to us. Below is my favorite picture of all.
We then went to see leopards. There were two of them in a tree. It was mama leopard and baby and the guide was adamant that it wasn’t the same two we saw the day before. This one was a baby male while the one before was female. We stayed there a long time and saw baby leopard descent from the tree and head over to the kill that had been left hiding behind some tall bushes. We couldn’t see much but with binoculars you could see baby leopard chomping away. Finally mama came down to join him.
We returned in time for lunch and then everyone went back to their tents for naps. Siestas are common on safari days. Around 3:30 we had our tea and cake and then headed out for another ride.
By this time we had seen just about everything we wanted to see. I was sorry I had missed out on seeing rhinos, but I saw so much more I didn’t care that much.
That night was our last dinner. The couple from San Diego had been taken from our table to have a private anniversary dinner alone. We were there with the others from our safari and a few guides to share the experience. It was a lovely night. I felt sad about leaving knowing that this was my last night in Africa.
Day 17: The next morning we had the option to get up at the crack of dawn and go for our very last game drive. We decided it would be too rushed and we had a long day ahead of us so we decided to sleep in (until 7), have a leisurely breakfast and then pack. Neither Phil nor I like to feel rushed when packing for a trip. We walked around and I actually visited the Loo with a View. In case you have no idea what I’m talking about it’s a very nicely appointed bathroom looking over the bush. I had time to ‘sit’ and ‘look’.
We left the facility at around 9:30 and I have to say I had real mixed feelings. I was on the one hand glad to be going home to my home and routine, but I knew deep in my heart I would miss Africa and this experience. They took us to the very same air strip where we had landed a few days earlier and since there was no where to show your passports or tickets for that matter we just climbed aboard a 4-seater with the couple we met from San Diego and if we were nervous on the flight we had taken a few days ago, we were really nervous on this one. I asked the sole pilot if he did this flight regularly (in other words, do you have experience?) and he said 6 days a week. We all let out a sigh of relief.
We arrived at Maun where we were greeted by a very nice woman who helped us check our bags for the Johannesburg flight and then we walked the four of us to a lovely café down the street so we could have lunch. There were no places to eat at this airport. We had a great lunch and it was nice chatting with this couple for probably the very last time. We walked back and got onto the plane (which was more like a jet than a 4-seater) and flew to Johannesburg.
Well, we were two flights in with another two to go. We had enough of a delay in Johannesburg to be able to get through one of the longest security lines I have ever seen. Then, after waiting in line for a very long time, we had to wait in line again to go through immigration as we were leaving South Africa a situation I still don’t understand. After the immigration hold up we had to walk to our gate which seemed to be about 3 miles from the security gate. We got there about 30 minutes before boarding only because we had such a long delay between flights.
Then we boarded the plane around 7 pm and were on our way to Dubai. We slept a good portion of the flight and when we weren’t sleeping, we were eating or watching movies.
At Dubai we splurged and paid the $240 for two lounge tickets. It still makes me angry that we were not given these passes after having paid for Business Class, but apparently, we did not pay full fare. At this point, we needed a nice place to wait, a good hot breakfast and a place to clean up. It was worth the money.
The last leg was Dubai to LA which was the longest leg of all. 16 hours in total. At least we had very comfortable seats and we spent most of the time sleeping and watching movies. Oh. And did I mention eating? The food was really good. Of course I made a point of getting up many times to walk around and stretch my legs. There was a bar area where people were milling about, drinking coffee or tea, and just trying to keep moving. I would walk back, chat with the flight attendants and then go back to my seat/bed. Given that this was the longest flight of my life, it didn’t seem all that bad.
We got home the day after we left and all in all it was a 34-hour flight from the time we left the Moremi lodge in Botswana. Needless to say, we were pretty tired when we got back, but also glad to be home.
I still think of this trip every single day. I loved pretty much every minute I was there and I keep looking at my photos trying to remember just how I felt when that picture had been taken. When people ask me about my trip to Africa I now have a little story that I tell. I let them know just how beautiful the sunrises and sunsets are, and how the people seem genuinely pleased to see you or that the animals taught me so many things about life and movement. I tell them that when you venture away from home, you learn so much about yourself both good and bad. I tell them about the amazing wine in Cape Town and the delicious meals we had on the Rovos Train. I mention the people we met along the way and how interesting it was to share experiences. Most importantly of all, I let them know that I can’t wait to go back.