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  • Shelley Dark

1. Africa!

Image by Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons

'There is something about safari life that makes you ... feel as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne.' - Karen Blixen

Image Charles J Sharp via Wikimedia Commons

Doesn't that sound wonderful? We are going to Africa, you and I. And my mate Helen.

Have you been before? Or is your head, like mine, filled with images from books you've read and documentaries or movies you've seen? The scene: Helen and I looking totally film star gorgeous in khaki clothes with copious pockets and boots with leather leggings over cotton jodhpurs, wiping the sweat from our foreheads with an animal print neckerchiefs, on the trail of a man-killing lion lying under an acacia outlined against the veldt, trackers with rifle at the ready in case of attack. Leopards stretched along branches, legs hanging, dozing, staring lazily at us in our battered jeep. Vast herds of wildebeest ambling on an eternal migration in clouds of dust. Giraffe bending awkwardly to drink at waterholes while zebras jump skittishly sideways and elephants throw arcs of water from their trunks. Packs of hyenas circling the wounded. Gin and tonic in directors' chairs gazing out at the sunset at dusk, goosebumps on our arms as a leopard snarls a warning in a nearby thicket.

That's my imagined Africa. Now for the reality! Although I've done my usual amount of obsessional detailed planning to make sure you and I will have the best time, I feel this trip is different. For a start, I won't look like a gorgeous film star, although Helen will. But the outcome feels more unpredictable. More of an adventure. Don't you think?

These are the things I thought we wanted in a tour of Africa, and our itinerary has them all in spades:

  1. at least two game lodges, one with the big 5

  2. at least one lodge with an authentic Zulu or other African tribal experience

  3. art, design, history, architecture, music and fashion

  4. great hotels

  5. great food

  6. great wine

I started off with a couple of premises. Firstly my husband John said he'd prefer we didn't drive by ourselves because there have been such horror stories over the years, even though he understands it's different now. That wasn't much of a hardship! We were delighted to agree, so we're having cars with drivers. Secondly we wanted a good mix of wilderness (luxury) safari and city immersion. Lastly, I decided not to use a travel agent - it's much more work, but doing all the bookings myself gives me total control.

After I first googled must-see Africa, my initial itinerary had us flying into South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and a little of Zambia. I even thought about Kenya and Tanzania. The distances are huge. We were going to look (and feel) like bees in a bottle. I took stock. There was more flying than funning.

Itinerary Shelley Dark Travel Aug 2017

South Africa seems to have it all: the aerial hub is in Johannesburg, among the best game parks in Africa, Cape Town which seems to be on everyone's hit list lately, the wine lands, and much less transiting. If we added just a wee foray over the border into Botswana to a game park with a great photographic hide, it would be perfect. Let's leave the Okavenga Delta, Serengeti, Masai Mara and Namibia for next time.

South Africa and Botswana flags

Australians don't need a visa for South Africa. We do for Botswana but we can get that at the entry airport. (hmmmm. famous last words?) We'll need to take anti-malarial drugs even though it's the dry season - Mashatu game lodge had a case of malaria earlier this year. I've taken doxycycline before - you start two days before you leave and continue to take it for a month after you're at home again - it had no side effects for me, touch wood. But best you consult your own doctor.

We're flying Qantas direct from Brisbane to Johannesburg - in recent years more famous for its crime rate and traffic jams than points of interest, but they say real advances have been made.

I know that Jobburg traffic is very bad at peak hour. So would we stay at an airport hotel with easy flight connections, without actually venturing into Jo'burg? Or stay somewhere in the city? In the end, we opted for Athol Place Hotel, a boutique Relais & Châteaux hotel in the upmarket northern 'safe' suburb of Sandton. Since I've booked it, a friend has told me that not all that long ago she had her handbag snatched, passports, money and all, inside their upmarket hotel foyer in Sandton! Fingers crossed.

We'll stay there on three separate occasions. Each evening when we arrive, the hotel will have a car pick us up at the airport. Each time we leave, it will be peak hour with its traffic jams, so we're planning to go back to the airport by Gautrain. Locals do it all the time, but of course, they look and act like locals. I was hesitating to book because of this, until the hotel said it will ferry us to the train station, help us buy tickets, and escort us on to the train. There are guards at the station and on the trains.

There's a free day right at the beginning in Johannesburg. A darling Joburg resident I've met through the wonderful medium of Instagram recommended local guide Dorothy Higgins so we're doing a 4-5 hour orientation tour with her, which will include the made-over neighbourhood of Maboneng with its neighbourhood rejuvenation with arts and crafts shops, restaurants and studios, plus Constitution Hill and the new architecture of Sandton. That evening we are going to have dinner at the home of the same wonderfully generous Instagram-buddy. Aren't people just so kind? I know you'll be looking forward to that as much as we are!

Several people have said we need to be constantly vigilant in Africa. We've also been told to relax, it's fine. But we'll stay aware of our situation, take sensible precautions, use only ATM's in enclosed rooms, use only taxis summoned by the hotel or telephoned for, have luggage wrapped, and make sure we hang on to handbags. Roger. But don't be overly concerned. Roger.

photo courtesy Mashatu

After Johannesburg, the lure of an amazing photographic hide persuaded us to leave South Africa for the south-east corner of Botswana for a couple of days. A one-hour trip by light charter plane will take us to the Limpopo Valley Airfield and Mashatu Game Lodge. It's a 29,000 hectare privately-owned game park in the North Tuli Reserve tucked between the Limpopo and Shashi rivers, where the borders of Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana meet.

The Tuli reserve is amazingly diverse in land form, with river flats, plains, forests, rocky hills, swamps and sandstone ridges. It's home to the big 5: African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. Plus cheetah, giraffe, eland, ostrich, impala and wildebeest and more.

photo courtesy Mashatu

It has the biggest elephant population on any private reserve on the African continent and a sunken photographic hide at a watering hole. We'll be so close with our eyes at water level that we'll need to take wet wipes in case the elephants throw mud.

photo courtesy Isibindi Zulu Lodge

After a couple of days at Mashatu, we'll overnight in Johannesburg again before we fly to Durban on the east coast. A car will be waiting for us at the airport to ferry us on the four and a half hour trip to the six-room Isibindi Zulu Lodge, with its thatched rondavel accommodation.

photo courtesy Isibindi Zulu Lodge

I wonder what an authentic African dinner tastes like? Sitting inside a boma (those corrals made of sticks) under the stars? Can't wait for the Zulu singing and dancing. We'll also visit a local home and village.

photo courtesy Wikipedia creative commons

Our next stop is Cape Town, the mother city, the design capital where we'll spend four days. It hardly seems enough time to see everything! There's Table Mountain which seems to evoke an almost spiritual feeling in South Africans, a wonderful buzzing art and design scene, beautiful landscape, great shopping, gripping history. Museums, gardens, architectural highlights, art studios, boutiques - we'll hit them all for you.

Our hotel on the waterfront is the elegant Cape Grace Hotel, on its own quay facing the working harbour and the silo precinct. Originally we booked at the grand old dame Mount Nelson but it's away from the action and is also having construction works done while we're there.

photo courtesy Zeitz MOCAA and Thomas Heatherwick Architects

And the most exciting news! Although the world gala opening is not until 23rd September, we have an appointment for a behind-the-scenes tour with the press officer of the interior of the Zeitz MOCAA museum, with its amazing Thomas Heatherwick redesign of a bank of grain silos on the waterfront. I swung that with my 'press credentials', which I wrote myself - and I absolutely did NOT tell any fibs I swear! There are no photos allowed before the opening, but I'll be taking copious notes to tell you all about it.

photo courtesy Silo Hotel

The rooftop bar of the exciting Silo Hotel above the Zeitz MOCAA is another place we can't miss. It's the brainchild of the Biden family of Royal Portfolio fame, and Liz Biden is the interior designer. Thomas Heatherwick designed those amazing prismatic windows that bulge slightly outwards and turn the building at night into a sparkling lantern.

photo courtesy Coffee Beans Routes Tours

Plus a private visit with home-cooked dinner to what was a black township to hear a small a cappella choir with its deep rhythmic harmonies. And again we'll experience the amazing generosity of people we have never met: the friend of a friend lives in Cape Town and we'll visit her lovely home for coffee.

Photo by SkyPixels (own work) courtesy Wikipedia Creative Commons licence.

Another must-see is Bo-Kaap, the colourful suburb founded long ago for mainly Muslim slaves imported from Malaya, Madagascar and other Indian Ocean countries. It's valuable real estate now.

photo courtesy Better Tourism Africa

You'll wander with us in the famous Kirstenbosch gardens which have this raised boomslang bridge over the forest canopy (boomslang meaning curved like a green tree snake).

photo courtesy Harbour House Kalk Bay

We'll eat lunch or have a sunset drink at some wonderful restaurants and bars, including Harbour House at Kalk Bay, overlooking the Atlantic, the highly desirable Shortmarket Club, the Pot Luck Club, Twelve Apostles Hotel, Silo Hotel, Rust en Vrede, Delaire Graff, Leeu Estates, Babylonstoren.

photo courtesy Wikipedia creative commons

We travel slightly east of Capetown with a guide to spend a couple of days around Franschhoek and Stellenbosch in the wine lands, known for their picturesque scenery, Cape Dutch architecture, vineyards, and wonderful wines. Having a guide and car for each day means we can just relax and imbibe a little.

photo courtesy Leeu Estates

Leeu Estates is our choice for one night on the outskirts of Franschoek.

photo courtesy Delaire Graff

And another night at Delaire Graff Estate which is owned by Lawrence Graff, possibly the biggest diamond dealer in the world. This is a sculpture at the hotel by Dylan Lewis, whose garden and studio we will also visit.

Delaire Graff has an amazing jewellery boutique and a fabulous art collection, including the original Chinese Girl. Plus spa.

We'll visit one of the oldest gardens in the Cape, Babylonstoren. This is an aerial view from their website.

photo courtesy Athol Place Hotel, Sandton

Then back to Johannesburg to overnight for the third time in Sandton.

map courtesy Encyclopaedia Britannica

Next our final destination and maybe the highlight! A light plane to Sabi Sabi Sands to stay at Bush Lodge, in a private concession on the outskirts of Kruger National Park.

photo by Tambako the Jaguar courtesy Wikipedia Creative Commons

Different companies (Singita, Sabi Sabi, Londolozi, Malamala, Tintswalo, Royal Malewane, Lion Sands, Ulusaba, Ngala etc) have concessions within private reserves around Kruger. Here, rangers accompanied by trackers, may drive off-road if they wish, and are allowed to do night drives.

photo courtesy Sabi Sabi

There are any number of wonderful game lodges to choose from all over greater Kruger. Of the four Sabi Sabi Sands lodges we chose Bush Lodge because it's in the ultra-luxury range and the biggest with 25 suites - we'd prefer that to the exclusive privacy of the smaller lodges, some of them with only 4 suites.

The wifi on this trip will be erratic but I'll do the best I can.

South Africa's currency is the South African Rand (ZAR). It's roughly 10 to our dollar, so for any ZAR figure if you take off the last digit and add a little, it's a very rough conversion. So 100 ZAR is a little more than AU$10. US$ and South African Rands are readily acceptable throughout both countries.

As for elsewhere in the world, I won't let my credit card out of my sight when it's being charged, and I'll let my banks know that I'll be travelling. I'll make a copy and photo of my passport and credit cards, and both will be carried separately from the real things. And we won't forget that if we are taking unused goods out of South Africa, at the airport on departure we can reclaim the fourteen percent VAT.

I've been posting details about places we'll visit on Instagram as well, so I'd suggest you visit that too if you're interested.

CLICK HERE to see my Instagram account. If you click on a photo, it will bring the caption up. If you close that window you'll come back here.

CLICK HERE for a pdf copy of our actual itinerary - once it's open, if you right click on it you can save it to your computer.

I'll be posting about my (very light) packing list soon. I'm very grateful for all the helpful information I've been given by friends, Instagrammers, and you, my travellers. It's helped shape this quite marvellous trip.

photo of boma courtesy Isibindi Zulu Lodge

This is going to be truly extraordinary. I feel it in my bones! I'm so excited I think I'll have to go and lie down. I'm so glad you are coming with us!

Warmest regards,

shelley dark, writer 

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