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Trip Report - 15 Nts in KZN - Leopard Mountain, Thonga Beach Lodge, Mkuze Falls & More


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(Please someone tell me how to insert my photos into this trip report and I'll do so promptly...they are all on my memory card right now but I'd like to add about a dozen photos here, thanks!).

After a 4 year absence, I made a return trip to South Africa, probably around my 7th visit, overall, and for the first time was visiting KwaZulu Natal (KZN) province. The sole reason for visiting this part of the country was to run the famed Comrades (90 kilometers/56 miles) Marathon, the biggest "ultra" marathon in the world with 15,000 runners all attempting the 90k point to point distance from Pietermaritzburg to Durban and finishing in the Kingsmead Cricket Stadium. An ultra marathon is defined as any race 50k (31 mikes) or longer while a standard marathon is 42k/26.2 miles.

Anyway, while, I was excited to see a new part of South Africa, I lowered my expectations because I am a veteran of many trips to the Sabi Sands to some of its finest lodges including Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge, Singita Boulders and Djuma Vuyatela, to name a few. Also, the most luxurious lodge I've visited in all of Africa, and my second favorite (after only Chiawa Camp in Lower Zambezi National Park), is in Madikwe Private Game Reserve where I've found game viewing on par with the Sabi Sand but with nicer landscapes and the opportunity for Wild Dogs and Cheetah (the Super Seven when added to the Big Five).

But, with my 14 month old daughter joining us for not only her first international trip, but also for her very first flights, our choices were limited as many luxury lodges will not take a child that young and even when choosing ones that did, I tried to opt for ones where I thought there'd be at least an activity or two for her to be able to join. It was decided before the trip that we would NOT leave her with the babysitters at the lodge but, instead, would alternate game drives so that either my wife or I was always with my daughter. While all the lodges offered babysitting, the babysitters were just the regular staff (women with children of their own) rather than an actual nanny with CPR training, for example.

Having been to Cape Town in June on a previous visit, I knew I had no interest in including a likely wet, windy and cold Cape Town on this particular visit, despite it being my favorite city in the world.  The majority of American Comrades runners would be staying at the Hilton but for less than half the price, I opted for a private beachfront apartment for 3 nights I found on AirBNB.  It was exactly one kilometer away from the Hilton where I'd find myself daily but just about a leisurely 12 minute walk.  Not only did I want the cost savings but I also wanted the extra space and the apartment was likely triple the size as a Hilton hotel room.It was okay for 3 nights but I would dig a little deeper in my pocket and opt for either the Hilton or the Southern Sun if I were to do it over again or do it again in the future.  The part that bugged me the most was that I literally had to lock my wife and daughter in the room whenever I went out for a short time, as there was only one set of keys and although it seemed safe enough, we were told to padlock the front door whenever stepping out.  I felt like some sort of deviant who was keeping his wife and daughter hostage for the half hour I would step out for and good luck to them if there was a fire! My race went okay and I finished in 9:46, long before the 12 hour cutoff and good enough for about top 25% of the field.  However, I'd be lying if I said the race also wasn't a bit anticlimactic for me.  While most runners hold Comrades in nearly mythological regard, I've finished two different 100 mile races this year and a pretty tough 50 mile race a month prior to Comrades.  It was this somewhat indifference to Comrades that led me to run a dumb race and by the halfway point, I was spent and just went into cruise control until the end, never daring myself to make it hurt.  Although I'd really like to be able to share the same undying enthusiasm for this race as seemingly all South Africans and many from Commonwealth countries (as well as a few Americans) hold for this race, I just cannot fake it or force it but my all time favorite race is a South African one, the Two Oceans (56k) Marathon in Cape Town, so that will have to suffice.   As far as Durban, itself, it was okay but, at the same time, there wasn't really much going on there.  It was nice to be in North Beach but other than the breakfasts at the Hilton, we didn't have luck with any really good meals.  We met one of my American runner friends for a pre race carbo loading dinner and ate at the highly regarded Spiga D'Oro (Italian Restaurant) but I was not impressed with either the quality or the quantity and ended up eating less than I'd usually eat and with 25 miles remaining in the race, I had already gone through all my own nutritional supplements and I was literally famished more and more as the race progressed. I did not find the course to be very scenic but I did appreciate the enthusiastic crowd support and I was honored to be a part of such a storied race that is a bucket list race for many runners. Anyhow, that was Durban...the day after the race, it was our third Hilton breakfast in as many days and at the Hilton there was a Hertz car rental where we rented a car for the self drive remainder of the trip.  We lost quite a bit of time as they did not have a baby car seat and had to have one delivered from the airport.  By the time we got the car, some joke of a little Toyota that we were just barely able to fit into with our luggage, and by the time we got on the road, it was already after 1pm.  What we'd quickly learn is that traveling with a baby adds about 30% more time.  To complicate matters even more, our GPS took us to the corporate offices of Isibindi in Eshowe rather than to our next destination, Isibindi Zulu Lodge in Rohrke's Drift, adding another hour to our drive and getting to the lodge well after dark.Despite our late arrival, we received a very warm welcome and after being given time to settle in, we were served a wonderful dinner and looked after very well.  It was nice to be the only guests and to receive plenty of personal attention.On the entire 15 day itinerary, my daughter only allowed us to pass her to two other people, the managing couple of IZL,further documenting the warmth we all felt while there. As was the case for the itinerary from start to finish, Isibindi Zulu Lodge was with my 14 month old daughter in mind and here at IZL, I wanted her to get to enjoy the Zulu dance performance put on by mostly high school aged teens, and I hoped she could get out for game drives since there were no dangerous predators or even elephants on the reserve. I was also planning my itinerary starting with places of my least expectations and finishing with places of my highest expectations.  That said, I had the lowest expectations out of IZL, so it was a great surprise when it turned out to be one of really only two highlights of the trip (which is not to say I did not still enjoy every second with my family no matter where).   In order to get a free night, I combined two nights at IZL with four nights at (Isibindi) Thonga Beach Lodge.  IZL was a fantastic experience and proof that the right managers can make or break a stay.  The managing couple, a very friendly and genuine 26 year old engaged couple with ample guiding and managing experience, really made us feel at home from the beginning and they were also both great with our daughter, not only making her appropriate special meals but also allowing her to be part of the game drives and bush walks.  My daughter went nuts when she was able to be carried closely to a family of giraffes and she also loved the game drives, as well as the two resident small dogs on the property. The Zulu dancing was a great experience and it was combined with a Boma dinner of traditional Zulu food and Zulu beer.  I don't usually care for the traditional African meals but this dinner, just like all the other meals at IZL, was fantastic.  We were lucky enough to be spoiled the entire time as we were the only guests during our stay and we got out of there just in time before a cold front arrived (a couple days later, we heard there was snowfall in Rohrke's Drift). From IZL, our next stop was Leopard Mountain Game Lodge in Zululand Rhino Reserve, about a 3 hour drive away.  I should have followed the directionsI had printed out from destination to destination but, instead, plugged each new destination into the GPS and ended up on lots of back country dirt roads.  With one accident already, I drove very cautiously.The drive to Leopard Mountain was crazy going through some of the dirt mountain roads and we would have been out of luck if we had any issues because there was not even any cell reception in many areas.  Unfortunately, just as I was pulling into the lodge at 3:30pm, the afternoon game drive was just leaving the lodge so I missed that first drive and was not too pleased about it (little did I know I'd voluntary give up the final game drive and be happy for an early departure). I was not especially impressed with Leopard Mountain and we went from feeling very warmly welcomed at IZL to just being a number at this lodge.  No doubt, it runs like a well oiled machine, but perhaps warmth and charm cannot be taught.  Also, I didn't care for the more colonial feel of this lodge and I didn't like the fact that we had to fill out a card daily for our lunch and dinner selections.  Moreover, while the room was very nice, the shower was poorly designed in such a way that our room flooded a couple times just from our showers.  Finally, we found it extremely unusual that the rooms did not have locks on the sliding glass doors and no room keys. My guide at LM was nice enough and, clearly, super intelligent, but this was also his first guiding gig and he had all of 6 weeks experience.  Coupled with the guide, instead of an experienced tracker, was someone I've nicknamed Safari Barbie, who I guess? was another guide?, and was a cute but nasally young blonde but who seemed to add nothing to the game drives and only took away from them by being a distraction for the guide. Game viewing left much to be desired at LM and I now feel a bit bamboozled as I've been following their Facebook page since returning home.  On their FaceBook page, they say things like "We now have 9 cheetah cubs and 8 lion cubs!"  Well, yeah, probably the Zululand Rhino Reserve does, all 23,000 hectares of it, but I'm betting that LM covers a small fraction of that amount on its game drives.I did not like how for the optional activities like the Elephant Interaction, guests had to self drive themselves to get there rather than LM taking guests.  It was during our self drive to the Elephant Interaction, I lost control of the vehicle and rolled over the vehicle.  Incredibly, the vehicle came back to rest on all four wheels, although the front driver side of the vehicle was smashed pretty good with one flat tire. Fortunately, there were no injuries and my unsuspecting daughter, snugly in her car seat, thought it was all part of the ride.  We flagged down a delivery truck that just happened to be going to Leopard Mountain and they said they'd let our lodge know so the lodge could come help us.  Half an hour passed but no sign of LM but a guide from Zebra Hills Game Lodge, the neighboring property to LM, came upon us and he and his tracker (an actual Black African rather than a Safari Barbie) were real lifesavers, changed our tire and tied our bumper back on with rope.  We never saw any sign of our own lodge and weren't really holding our breaths for them to ever show up, either, as we just never got that warm fuzzy feeling there. We proceeded to the Elephant Interaction, arriving at the tail end but in time for photo opps with the three elephants, including the huge bull, Rambo.  Only due to a wrong turn out of the Elephant Interaction, did we have our best sighting during our stay at Leopard Mountain, when we happened across three adult lionesses walking down the dirt road somewhere near 5 star Thanda Game Lodge, I suppose.  We spent a good 20 minutes with them and then drove further in the wrong direction before realizing our mistake and then saw the lionesses again for a while once headed back the right way. When we finally returned to our lodge, we didn't get a "We were so worried about you, we sent help but couldn't find you!"  Instead, all we got was, "Oh, we heard you got a flat tire."  Yes, we got a flat tire due to the road accident and rolling the car, thanks for your undying concern and thanks for sending immediate help! Leopard Mountain was pretty much booked to capacity during our stay, surely a result of great marketing and strong Trip Advisor reviews, yet after so much personal experience at 5 Star lodges, it was still lacking in the hospitality department.  Also, I think the staff to guest ration at LM was lacking unless it was unusual for them to be fully booked (which I doubt since it was the only lodge of all our lodges that was full and this in low season).  It was not until after there was a theft from our room (remember, no locks on the doors and our safe was out of order), that the manager introduced herself to us.  To their credit, the owner of LM personally investigated the theft, a police report was taken and we were promptly reimbursed personally by the owner who made an immediate appearance upon our report of the theft. LM did have a cot for our daughter (as did all lodges on this trip except for Mkuze Falls) but they didn't go out of their way to fix meals that would be more appropriate for a 14 month old as IZL and Thonga Beach Lodge did.   Our final night at LM was our 5th Anniversary but there were no grand gestures on the part of the lodge, only a nice bouquet of Roses, which was appreciated but would have been appreciated more as a centerpiece at our own private table for three in the wine cellar but, instead, we were seated in the main restaurant with 16 other guests (lodge booked to capacity). The thing that finally really turned me off about LM was that when we were checking out, the manager of the lodge couldn't even be bothered to look up from her phone call to even give a simple wave goodbye.  The guides and staff was friendly but there is a real problem when management treats guests with blatant disregard.  I don't suppose that taking guests with a 14 month old would be easy but if you are going to accept babies, well, then make those guests feel welcome and do the extra things (such as making baby friendly foods like Mac & Cheese or Pasta) that will make feeding a baby easier. The food was good but not great at Leopard Mountain and too much effort went into its presentation when I would've preferred a buffet style lunch and a dinner that wasn't such a four or five course production. The landscapes at LM were fantastic but you could tell that it wasn't really safari country but a newer reserve created when landowners a decade ago dropped their fences on their farms and stocked the 23,000 hectare reserve with wildlife.  Within all that land, as far as I know, was just a single lion pride, a needle in the haystack.  We did see a few white rhinos, plenty of different antelope, a couple elephants, a lioness, and a single hyena from a great distance at night, the first hyena that my guide had seen in his six week stint and the only hyena I'd see on this entire trip, although I did see hyena dung at Mkuze Falls so they are there although probably not very high in number. I was happy to get out of there and looked forward very much to my stay at Thonga Beach Lodge in Mabibi, about 30 miles south of the Mozambique border and I'm guessing within 10 miles of Rocktail Bay.  I looked at both properties but, ultimately, liked the looks of Thonga Beach Lodge better and really preferred not to give my business to Wilderness Safaris, the owner and operator of Rocktail Bay. In the past, I would have never considered a beach stay as part of a South African holiday but I also did not have a family to consider on past South African holidays and I was also obese and not just coming off running the Comrades Marathon. It was about a 2.5 hour drive from LM to TBL and that's because I took a wrong turn and added about 45 minutes by doing so.  Even so, it was the most forgiving drive of the entire trip and we arrived fresh to meet our 12pm transfer at the Coastal Cashew Factory where we parked our vehicle, since swapped out for a different vehicle, and we were transferred the final 20 miles or so by a Thonga Beach Lodge 4x4 Land Cruiser. We immediately fell in love with Thonga Beach Lodge and they were perfect in every respect.  The setting is just out of this world...after driving through farming areas and small communities, just over a tall hill the beautiful Indian Ocean and Thonga Beach Lodge emerges out of almost nowhere and what a majestic site it is.  Miles and miles of its own private coastline, soft sand, warm sea water, 5 star accommodations built right into the Coastal Forest hillside and staff and management that made us feel at home from moment of arrival to the time we checked out. I loved having four days on the beach with my wife and daughter and I also went snorkeling right in front of the lodge one day and went for two decent runs of 5 miles and 8 miles before breakfast on other days and I didn't encounter another soul on the beach during my sunrise runs. The food at Thonga Beach Lodge was possibly the best I've had anywhere and most days we were still full from lunch or from 4pm "Tea" (which really meant a new just baked cake each day) by the time dinner arrived yet dinner was always too good to turn away.  It was a different sort of crowd at Thonga Beach Lodge than the mostly old fuddy duddy's at Leopard Mountain.  The majority at Thonga Beach Lodge seemed to be honeymooning couples who were fairly well traveled.  And, because Leopard Mountain does a package with Thonga Beach Lodge, three different sets of guests during our four night stay at TBL had just come from LM, and there were also mixed reviews from them on LM. My daughter absolutely loved the staff at TBL and she loved going on the cultural tour to the clinic and the elementary school.  We also went on a sundowner cruise to Lake Siyabona, the largest natural lake in Southern Africa, and just a 20 minute drive from Thonga Beach Lodge, and were lucky enough to get close to a large flock of Flamingos.   Of all the places on this trip, Thonga was the true standout and the one place I will definitely return to in the future. After our experience at Leopard Mountain, I no longer had very high hopes for our final destination, Mkuze Falls Game Lodge, just about a half hour distance from LM.  I chose Mkuze Falls as it was a property that caught my eye long ago and I was able to buy a 3 night package on Luxury Link for a very good price of about $950. Mkuze Falls was like a ghost town and there wasn't even anybody waiting for us at reception when we drove up.  Finally, after a couple minutes, a young woman came out, apologized, and said their radios were temporarily down so the main gate had not been able to radio them to let them know of our arrival. The lodge itself, I thought, was beautiful and definite 5 Star, although my wife did not care for the Out Of Africa look.  But, it was undeniable that the lodge needed better maintenance, particularly simple housekeeping as there was dust here and there and books and magazines that were fairly dated. I did appreciate that each our guide and our tracker at Mkuze were Black and had been at the lodge for many years.  The only other Black guide we had on this trip was at Thonga for our cultural tour. Mkuze Falls Game Lodge is set on 6500 hectares and is the only lodge on the entire reserve.  Formerly, it was a 12500 hectare reserve but due to some dispute or other, the neighboring lodge Amakhosi decided to part ways and become its own private reserve.  Too bad because one morning I heard lions nearby but they were on the Amakhosi property. The game viewing at Mkuze Falls was slightly better than at Leopard Mountain yet it was frustrating because we were the only vehicle on the whole reserve, lessening our chances of sightings.  A honeymooning couple who had the whole lodge to themselves for three nights before we and one other set of guests arrived, were lucky enough to have great lion sightings during their stay, including two males. The game viewing highlight for me at Mkuze was a pair of Cheetah brothers who we saw daily and also on one occasion seeing a half dozen white rhinos together.  On that particular drive, with no other guests on the drive, the guide allowed my daughter to go on the drive which was really nice and she also saw the Cheetahs and countless Nyalas.   The food at Mkuze was very good, not as good as Thonga but better than Leopard Mountain and about the same as Isibindi Zulu Lodge.  But, we did have an issue at Mkuze of staff going through our things but this time they went away empty handed.  My wife is totally OCD and when she sees zippers left open and confirms that I was not the one who opened them, well, either there was a greedy ghost in our room going through our bags or a greedy or desperate housekeeper.  We didn't waste our time or effort with a complaint to the non-existent manager. Mkuze Falls likely had its heyday about a decade ago but I don't know what their deal is now.  The facilities and the wildlife is still in place for it to be a very good property but there seems to be little interest in making it so.  In our 3 days there, the manager could not be bothered to remove himself from his office or home to introduce himself, to come check on us, etc.  Never saw him and everything was left in the hands of the staff. Also, Mkuze Falls was the only lodge that did not provide us with a baby cot, meaning she slept between us each night and also that we were unable to have any adult dinners on our own after putting her to sleep for the night (for fear that she'd wake up and roll off the bed, as opposed to being in a baby cot where she'd be safe).  If a lodge is going to accept babies, the least they could do is invest in a baby cot. It got very cold during our stay at Mkuze Falls and by the end, we were ready for our vacation to come to an end and to get home.  I gladly skipped the final morning game drive so we could get on the road a little earlier as it was a long drive back to Johannesburg...what would have been 5 hours without a baby was nearly 7 hours with a baby. After a brief stop of an hour at Nelson Mandela Square for an early dinner and to stretch our legs, it was off to the airport and away home, about a 39 hour journey from the time we left Mkuze Falls.  Somehow, my daughter did amazingly well on the journey home and seems to be really cut out for this world travel thing.  Let's see if I can get her to her 7th continent by her 7th birthday which would also finally give me my 7th continent by my 50th birthday (we are two days apart).  I'd have visited Antarctica long ago but I keep going back to Africa!   

I was glad to see KwaZulu Natal but it's game reserves fell well well well short of each the Sabi Sands and Madikwe, although by its pricing, alone, I kind of figured it would. If I do return to KZN, I'll splurge and stay at Thanda (5 Star) or Phinda. There is a new lodge opening later this year, Rhino Post, operated by Isibindi that promises to be fabulous and will border Hluhluwe Game Reserve and may have direct access into the park. It will combine beautifully with Thonga Beach Lodge.

All in all, it was a blessing to even be able to return to South Africa and we loved Isibindi (IZL and TBL). Leopard Mountain was disappointing and Mkuze Falls was also disappointing especially since it really has the infrastructure and wildlife in place to be so much better than it is. Most likely, I will wait about three years before returning and then I will consider taking my family to Zambia for the first time. That, to me, is a real safari and I'll see more elephants in the blink of an eye than I saw in 8 nights of safari in KZN, along with plenty of other wildlife.
Report Card:
Isibindi Zulu Lodge - "A"
Leopard Mountain - "C+"
Thonga Beach Lodge - "A+"
Mkuze Falls - "C+"

With a cost of under $10k including air and two weeks car rental (even with fuel and accident deductible I paid), I cannot complain as my cost for 15 nights accomodations was roughly the same as it would have been for 3 nights at a 5 star Sabi Sands lodge and this trip was all about my daughter so I appreciated having 18 days together as a family rather than a shorter trip. Unlike true 5 star lodges, these lodges all charged extra for laundry and we were particularly taken advantage of by Mkuze Falls who charged double what Leopard Mountain and Thonga charged.

In the future, I'll make it a point to fly midweek as when we flew out to Africa (LAX-LHR-DUR), it was midweek and the flights were half empty allowing us plenty of room to spread out. For our return flights (JNB - LHR - LAX), we had weekend flights and the flights were overbooked and our daughter was on our laps). Also, we'll do our best to avoid LHR as the security there tends to treat us as if we are Al Qaeda operatives.

Although the entire itinerary was in KZN and self driving was the only feasible way to do it but was still very taxing and required an average of four hours between destinations. If not for the Comrades Marathon and Thonga Beach Lodge, I'd rather had self driven to the Sabi Sands and Madikwe and stay in more reasonable priced lodges like Elephant Plains in Sabi Sands and Jaci's in Madikwe which has a great children's program, with an overnight in Joburg or Sun City between Sabi Sands and Madikwe.

Once you've experienced the best wildlife of South Africa in the Sabi Sands and Madikwe, it's hard to embrace anything less.

Edited by Rocco626
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Hey there Rocco - awesome job at Comrades!!! Congrats .......... well done!


Now ......... BOSTON next!!!

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@@Rocco626...congrats on your very long run.... I could not imagine. Though in my past I ran..but alas it is walking now..


But mainly, I had a really difficult time reading your report the way it is formatted. Perhaps once you upload pics, you could add a bit of story, so it would come together.


There is a sticky I believe on how to upload your photos to ST, or others do it through Picasa, Flickr., attachments, whatever. I learned it, therefore I believe anyone can :blink: but it took me a while-- with loads of frustration!


I have friends who travelled with their 10month to S. Africa for a wedding (their sitter, "mother", fell ill - so they took her) Also went on a much shorter safari than yours.


They had a ball. Everyone loves a happy baby! (or toddler; I guess at 14mos a toddler?) not sure 'bout that.


SO get to work on the photos!

Edited by graceland
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Rocco someone else will explain it better than I but in the meantime you can try this. I export to my desktop then after writing the text you can click on More Reply Options in the lower righthand corner of your post. When you choose file you should be able to find your photos wherever you put them. Then Attach This File and Add To Post. See if this makes sense.

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Congratulations on your run! I can't imagine such an accomplishment. I usually jog a few miles every other day, but 56? Very impressed.


I believe this is the link you need for inserting photos (taken from GW's signature). Hope this helps!


It's good to hear that you were able to find things to enjoy even at the properties you didn't love. I'm looking forward to seeing your pictures.


I'm a little troubled by your "Safari Barbie" nickname, though maybe I am misunderstanding. We need more females in the guiding industry, and their attractiveness or voice should not be relevant. Though maybe there was more to it than that?

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Well done on the comrades marathon. I flew up to Durban with a number of runners, - all excited. I have done the run twice - one up and one down. I guess I couldn't miss it, as I grew up in Pietermaritzburg. I have also done the duzi canoe marathon - which was conceived by the Great conservationist Ian Player, who was the first to do it and he did it alone.


Northern KZN is one of my favourite places, and we were actually in Mkuze reserve while you were in the same area. I am now realising why Hluhluwe was fully booked.- possibly other comrades runners. The area must be one of the best birding areas in the country.


I am keen to see you add your pictures. If you didn't have your daughter with and I can see you are the adventurous type - I can highly recommend doing one of the trails. These trails were also conceived by Ian Player, and its the best way to explore the thorny bush and get close to nature. I would have also advised Tembe as a good option if you had a young child.


What we did this time - as self drivers, was to head through from Mkuze to Kruger via Swaziland. It is one route we didn't do before, but Hlane in Swaziland is a worthwhile stop over whether you are self catering or not. - sorry for hijacking - just making suggestion for someone else who may want to do something similar.


Also meeting Rambo is an experience that I wouldn't miss. It is the most humbling experience being that close to such a huge elephant bull.

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Sorry for the delay with my photos...will try to get to this week, for sure.

About my "Safari Barbie" comment, I am ALL for opportunities for women to guide and one of my guides at Isibindi Zulu Lodge (half of the managing couple) was a woman. Unfortunately, she said that one of the bigger companies that we all know (who has 5 star lodges in various countries in Southern and East Africa) told her that she'd never succeed as a guide so she left them for the opportunity to be a guide elsewhere. She was great but did not have that Safari Barbie look to her (not tall, not blonde, not white). Safari Barbie just seemed to bring nothing to the table other than her looks and, as I mentioned, was a distraction for our guide who took a greater interest in her than he did in the guests.

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Interesting report, thank you for sharing it. I also look forward to seeing your photos.

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About my "Safari Barbie" comment, I am ALL for opportunities for women to guide and one of my guides at Isibindi Zulu Lodge (half of the managing couple) was a woman.


Thanks for clarifying, I hope I didn't come across as rude in my earlier post.

Looking forward to your pictures!

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