One Pretty Amazing Summer Vacation

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I’ve been on the road again, and this time, I decided to visit a very different part of the world.  I did a quick trip through southern Africa.  It was an amazing trip!  I’ve never been anywhere in Africa before, so a safari seemed like the perfect way to start.

Preparations for my trip actually began in the fall when my friend Keith, who was brave enough to venture to India with me last year, had dinner with me one night.  We started listing all the places in the world we felt a need to experience, and we both landed on the idea of an African safari.  Why not?  Deciding to do this was the easy part.  Putting it all together, was the hard part.  For the next month and a half we looked at all of the options, everything from camping and hiking, to luxurious safari tree house hotels.  After considerable research we decided that neither pooping in a bucket nor emptying out our bank accounts on one vacation was something either of us was willing to do.  In the end, we landed upon a company called “Go2Africa,” which had overwhelmingly positive feedback all over the internet.  After a few emails to test the waters, we were convinced that this was our way to get2Africa.

They offer a wide array of tours, but the beauty is that you are traveling on your own.  You aren’t pooled together with 30 strangers and forced onto a bus.  They take into account your goals for your trip.  We worked with Tracy, and she couldn’t have been more prompt and helpful.  We decided on a trip that would wind from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park and then into Zimbabwe.  We told Tracy we also wanted to go to Chobe National Park in Botswana, and she planned everything out for us.  It was such a relief.  Looking around on the internet at the options for traveling in that part of the world can be overwhelming, and much of the information is contradictory in nature.  The best thing about Go2Africa, though, is their prices.  For the services, and the quality of the hotels, you cannot do better.

At the end of May we left and flew Delta airlines from Atlanta to Johannesburg, and I was really surprised by the service, the staff, and the comfort of the flight.  After flying back and forth to Europe so often on Delta, I was a bit worried about what to expect.  However, I think Delta may have recently turned a corner and realized that without customers, they won’t be around long, and have started to make it enjoyable again.  This was obvious as soon as the safety instructional video began to play.  It’s new and pretty funny, and best of all they’ve kept the red-headed, long fingered “No” lady.  You can see the video below.  See how many jokes you can find.  It’s pretty good and worth your time to watch.

We landed in South Africa late and stayed at a hotel next door to the airport. Jet lag hit us both at 3:00 a.m. and we were wide-awake.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much on television at that hour in South Africa, and so we spent the hours watching rugby, CNNInternational, and the absolute worst, hilariously bad, commercials for phone sex – one of the women actually fell off of her sofa. Bad, bad, bad.  The sun came up and we were eager to get the day started, so after a proper English breakfast, complete with eggs, sausage, bacon, baked beans, toe-ma-toes, and tea we packed up and went back to the airport and took off for Kruger.

Our transfer met us at the airport and took us through Kruger to our lodge, Simbavati.  Along the way, I had my first realization that we were in a different world entirely.  Kruger is a wildlife park, much like Yellowstone National Park, and animals run freely.  As we drove, giraffes stuck their heads out from above the trees and watched us drive by and zebras darted out across the road.  We even had to pause, as an elephant grazed on trees on the side of the roughly hewn dirt road that lead us to our lodge.

We made it to Simbavati and there was a bit of drama as soon as we arrived.  Eveything in the lodge is outside, and a monkey used our arrival as his chance to be naughty.  Monkeys are not calm criminals.  Danny Ocean will not be recruiting any of the gang we came in contact with.  As lunch was being set up, a brave sole jumped down from a nearby tree, ran over to the buffet, picked up a banana, and then began shrieking wildly with excitement.  The staff immediately pulled out slingshots and began popping small stones at the monkey, and he dashed across the deck and into a tree.  I had been in the bush one hour and already experienced more authentic wildlife than a whole day at a zoo.

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After lunch our safari adventure began.  The area we traveled through is not actually in Kruger.  Instead, a group of farmers over the years have taken down the fences between their property and Kruger and allowed the animals to come and go freely.  We stayed on the collective area, which allowed us to travel off road.  In Kruger, vehicles may only travel on the roads.  Over the course of three days we came across giraffes, an elephant, leopards, sleeping lions, waterbucks, stalking lions, rhinos, hundreds of impalas, an impala being eaten by lions, hippos, and birds so plentiful and colorful they are difficult to describe.

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We trekked around northern South Africa for a three days, and then moved further north to Zimbabwe to see Victoria Falls after a quick trip down to Johannesburg, and witnessed its rapidly expanding middle class, and it’s still existent apartheid era slums.

When I was in school, I loved a series of books that our school library had that were made by National Geographic.  I’m not sure if it was their shinny, pristine covers, or the fact that Mrs. Montgomery, the librarian, didn’t want our grubby little hands to ever actually look through the books, but sneaking over to them and flipping through gave me such a thrill.  In one of them there were pictures of Vic Falls, and I vividly remember thinking that it was someplace that was just too crazy for me to ever think about going to.  Yet, twenty-five years later, I was standing on the edge, being downed in the rainy spray that blows up from the gorge.  The falls are breathtaking.  The gorge is an actual rainforest due to the mist, but yet the area around the falls is dry and aired.  To my left were trees and vines and on my right, a savannah.  It’s was a strange feeling, to say the least.

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Zimbabwe has had a rough go of things recently.   Once known as the “bread basket of Africa,” the economy of the country has collapsed over the last decade.  This is largely because of the leadership of the current president, Robert Mugabe.  A long opponent of the power of the white minority in the country, he promised land to his supporters, and gave it to them by dividing up the large white-owned farms, and redistributing the land to the poor who had no previous farming experience.  The episode has proven disastrous.  Little is actually exported today, and the currency of the country is virtually worthless.  I actually left with a one hundred million dollar bill in my wallet.  The entire state operates on U.S. dollars, and everyone seems to be hustling to get them.  This has caused considerable unrest throughout the country, but they have worked hard to keep things calm and very safe around the falls, holding on to the only real industry it has, tourism.  The poverty of the people was evident everywhere.  People on the streets were constantly trying to sell tourist nick-knacks, we were regularly asked to trade our shoes and clothes, and many storefronts seemed to be dilapidated or empty.  There were some business that were doing well, though.  Our hotel, The Ilala Lodge, was very nice, Mama Africa’s Eating House, had quite a business on Saturday night, and Vic Falls had a regular stream of people paying $20 a person to enter the park to see the falls.

We also decided to walk over through the strange no man’s land, and across the bridge that connects Zimbabwe to Zambia.  It’s a bizarre process to cross the boarder.  First you must get access to the bridge and to have your passport stamped that you are leaving Zimbabwe.  As you walk, the guys on the street are constantly calling out for your attention.  They want you to buy their carved trinkets, baskets, worthless currency, and even lukewarm Coke-a-Colas.  We moved closer to the boarder and another guy started barking at us, but we didn’t realize he actually worked at the boarder and was trying to tell us that we hadn’t had permission to leave the country, and after a little chat, directed us back to a small, run down building we had walked by.  Inside, our passports were stamped, and we were given a small scrap of white paper, that had the number “2” handwritten on it.  We left the building, and walked to a large gate that sat open and a man stood there collecting the scraps of paper as people walked by.  This was our permission to begin the trip to the bridge.  For roughly half a mile we walked along paved road with no homes or buildings of any sort, just a single file row of trucks parked to the side, facing in the direction of Zimbabwe.

The bridge itself is amazing.  It covers the gorge that Victoria Falls drops into and the views are nothing short of spectacular.  However, someone a few years ago thought it would be a great idea to allow bungee jumping off of the bridge and this brought with it more guys trying to hustle you.  As we stood and took pictures, guys constantly came up to us to tell us about their village, that they were an artist, how poor they were, and if we could just buy some of the artwork it would feed their family.  I found it interesting that the small carvings of animals, baskets, and the like were exactly the same that everyone else in town was selling.  When you told them “no,” they suddenly produced copper bracelets, and tried to sell those as a memento of the trip to Zambia, as copper is the country’s major export.  Sigh.  We walked on.

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Once we cleared customs in Zambia it was apparent that the economy there was in much better shape.  The buildings were nicer, the people were better dressed, and everything seemed to be better organized.  No on on the streets was trying to work you over.  At Vic Falls in Zambia, the ticket agent, was in an air conditioned office.  She wore a uniform.  When we paid, she printed tickets off with her computer, pulled out a map and highlighted the best route for us to take.  This was a sharp contrast to Zimbabwe, where a woman sat in a stone block building with bars over the window demanding $20 from everyone that passed by.  The views of the falls were equally amazing yet different because we were so much closer to them.  There was also more wildlife running around.  Baboons were everywhere, and my God, they are terrifying to walk by.  The older males are as large as a man, and they all seem to be giving me the “evil eye.”  We had lunch at a resort hotel in the area, and then headed back toward the bridge, to fight off the street salesmen.

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The next morning was an early one.  We headed towards Botswana for our safari in Chobe National Park.  We began with a cruise up a river and were able to get remarkably close to hippos and elephants.  After lunch we drove through the park, and although being up close and personal with dozens and dozens of elephants was pretty freakin’ cool, I thought it was a bit of let down because we couldn’t leave the roadways, and weren’t able to really explore the area as we had in South Africa.  Then it was back to reality, the next day, via a very long 16 hour flight.

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Overall it was an incredible trip.  The one thing that really struck me was the friendliness of the people.  Everyone we met wanted to talk to us.  They were quick to smile, and were always so helpful.  If you have any inclination to go to Africa – GO!

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Follow me on Twitter @tolandtravels

www.go2africa.com

www.delta.com

http://www.simbavati.com

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Categories: Advice, Africa, Stories

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2 Comments on “One Pretty Amazing Summer Vacation”

  1. Hayley
    June 13, 2013 at 6:39 pm #

    Hi Brad – Glad you enjoyed your stay at Simbavati! And that the monkeys made an impression on you! :-) – Hayley, Simbavati

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