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Trip report--Botswana and South Africa May/June 2015, Part 1


mtanenbaum

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mtanenbaum

I wanted to post a trip report on my recent trip to Botswana and South Africa with my 19-year old son (my second trip to Africa, his first). I want to thank those of you on this site who offered advice while I was thinking through our various options; originally I had hoped to go to Zimbabwe but it proved to not be an affordable option for us so that will have to wait for another trip (still on my list to go to Hwange and Mana Pools, but perhaps when I am not paying for two people!) I wanted to report back on some of our adventures. I will post additional entries on the safari camps we visited in South Africa.

 

After the incredibly long plane trip (Los Angeles-Dubai, Dubai-Joberg) we checked in at the City Lodge at O.R. Tambo and had a rest for a couple hours before being picked up for an excellent afternoon tour of Soweto with photographer tour-guide Ilan Ossendryver. We came from the US with a large suitcase full of new children’s books and Ilan kindly arranged for us to visit a primary school in Soweto, where we donated the books and had a chance to meet the principal. I am a children’s librarian and was able to enjoy reading a story to a group of very enthusiastic 5-year old students. We were returned to our airport hotel and then took the Gautrain to Sandton for dinner and some walking around Nelson Mandela Square, to try to stay up and get on South African time. On our first day we saw quite the cross-section of South African urban life, from the very rich in Sandton to the economically disadvantaged residents of Kliptown in Soweto.

 

The next morning we caught a flight to Polokwane, where we were picked up by a friendly driver who delivered us safely to the Botswana border. We were met there by a guide from Mashatu, where we spent the next four nights. I was immediately struck by our guide, who launched into a heartfelt speech about how much Botswana appreciated our tourism business, which not only helped protect their animals but also provided jobs for local people. I feel strongly that spending my hard-earned dollars on safari in Africa does more for the environment and to protect animals than making a similar-sized donation to World Wildlife Fund or another environmental group, but it made me feel very good to hear this sentiment from someone on the inside of the tourism industry.

 

I had visited the Okavango Delta area of Botswana on a previous trip, and I must say that I found the Tuli Preserve where Mashatu is located to be just as beautiful, with a great variety of scenery, although of course less water. There had been some late rains so there was still a great deal of green in mid-May. Our first game drive started out with a blast when we encountered a troupe of baboons who were fighting under a large tree, with several males chasing each other through the branches. Other sightings that afternoon included two young male lions lounging in the dry river bed. I especially liked the photo hides at Mashatu. This was a new experience for me and I thought it was amazing! Having a private photography tutor for 3+hours each time I went to the hide was also very valuable. I visited 2 of their 3 hides; one is on a water hole and there we saw birds, a large elephant, hyena, and impala, and the other hide is just for bee-eaters. I understand later in the summer we would have seen lots of elephants at the water-hole hide, but I felt lucky to see one. We were so close to the elephant that when he drank we were hit with some of the spray. This was a thrilling experience for me to be so close to this magnificent creature. We also had fabulous sightings of a large family of cheetahs (mom and 4 almost grown cubs), leopard, hyena at their den at day break with very young cubs, giraffe with a young baby, and large groups of elephants, as well as smaller animals like rock dassie and steenbok.

 

The accommodations at Mashatu were quite nice; we were at the lodge. I would have preferred the tented camp for a little more "wild" experience but we could not get 4 nights there despite booking well in advance. Guiding was excellent, as one would expect in Botswana.

 

I found out about Mashatu from a travel agent who I didn't wind up using to book the trip, but I really liked what I read about it and had it included in our final itinerary. I'm glad I went to Mashatu and would love to visit there again some time. I also know now that hides are definitely something I want to be able to experience for future trips to Africa! Interestingly enough, the Tuli area is not even listed in some guidebooks to Botswana; I understand from a travel agent I met there that is because of transportation difficulties if you are doing a circuit in Botswana (i.e. the Delta, Chobe). However, I found it was very easy to get there from Joberg, either by flying to Polokwane and then doing the ground transfer as we did or for the more adventurous just driving directly from Joberg, which is around 5 hours. I was afraid to drive on the opposite side of the road myself so we relied on drivers engaged through our travel agent, Rhino Africa, which did an excellent job coordinating our trip.

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Game Warden

@@mtanenbaum Some nice sightings and captures to get the ball rolling :)

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Mashatu was my first experience in Africa and will always have a place in my heart........

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Atravelynn

Excellent start. The hide proved highly productive.

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michael-ibk

Very good start, you really saw a lot. Beautiful Pictures at the waterhole especially.

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mtanenbaum

Trip Report Part 2

 

Nottens Lodge – Sabi Sands

 

After our 4 nights at Mashatu, we went back to Joberg and the next morning we caught to a flight to Sabi Sands, where we spent 4 nights at Nottens Bush Camp. This was my first experience on safari in South Africa, since my prior trip to Africa all the safari camps we visited had been in Botswana. I was curious to see the difference, since Nottens is quite a bit less expensive (although still not cheap by any means!) than the Botswana safari camps. I was not thrilled with the guide we had at first at Nottens—he was one of their most experienced guides, having been there for many years, but he just didn’t seem that excited about what he was seeing or that communicative with the guests. I felt very awkward but after 2 days I asked if we could switch guides and we were switched to a younger guide who I liked much better. In fact, at one point with the second guide, we had a very good elephant sighting—we were literally surrounded by about 40 or 50 elephants, which apparently is quite unusual in Sabi Sands. Our guide himself was wide-eyed and kept saying, “Wow!” It was great to see that he was as excited as the visitors by the sighting!

 

We had been told by a private South African guide that we met at Mashatu that he NEVER sends his clients on safari in South Africa. When I asked why, he said that it was more of a “zoo experience.” If that’s so, it was a zoo where a lot of the animals seemed to have gone on vacation, since we had large stretches where we didn’t see any animals at all, even very early in the morning when I would have expected to see more around. That said, I felt there was more of an emphasis at Nottens and at Phinda (our next camp) on “Big 5” sightings rather than just the experience of being in the bush. This was somewhat disappointing to me, especially when I heard another guest say that they had seen “everything” within the first game drive! We did have some excellent sightings at Nottens, including the famed Sabi Sands leopards, water buffalo, cheetahs (which were actually spotted by a guest, not the guide or tracker!), lots of lion, including a pride of females that I had hoped were going to hunt but no such luck, however, they did wander through the bush for quite a while, before finally settling down for a long nap, a very brief sighting of wild dogs, and plenty of white rhino. We had beautiful sightings of both leopard and cheetah at sunset, with great lighting. We also had some really fun sightings of colonies of dwarf mongoose, which I had never seen before in Botswana, and which were very active in their little colony.

 

As a camp, Nottens is very “old-school” Africa in ambience, with no electric lights (although there is a charging station in each room). We had a beautiful suite, with a separate small room for my son, outdoor shower, and private patio overlooking their property. The main lounge area overlooks a water hole, where if you’re lucky you might see warthogs, impala, and even elephant come for a drink. The food was very good, but a bit monotonous at lunch; the same assortment of salads was served every day.

 

We did several excursions at Nottens in between game drives; one took us to a local village, where we visited a primary school, saw a group of teens doing traditional dancing, and visited a traditional healer. My son is a professional magician, so in order to avoid the strange feeling of “poverty tourism” I asked if he could do some magic tricks for the teen dancers and also at the school, where the audiences were suitably amazed! I also had the chance to sing “The Wheels on the Bus” with a group of school children; they had a book with the words and pictures but didn’t realize that it was also a song! We also did an excursion into Kruger National Park with one of their staff; we especially enjoyed this trip because the guide, who was white, was very willing to discuss the ins and outs of South African politics with us , as a member of the “Born Free” generation. The black South Africans we met, probably because they were all working in the tourist industry, seemed less willing to talk frankly about politics (perhaps they are even told NOT to talk about politics with visitors). We drove around Kruger in a closed vehicle, definitely not as fun for photography as the open safari vehicles, but we had some nice sightings of crocodile and hippo, who are not present in the Sabi Sands area. We did not take advantage of any of the guided walks which are available at Nottens, since they are offered after breakfast, by which time I already felt it was too warm (at least for me) for walking.

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Geoff

Interesting. That's the 2nd less than stellar review of a Sabi Sands lodge in less than a week.

 

I haven't been to the Sabi Sands since 1995 (Londolozi) and whilst even back then there was an emphasis on the Big 5 we did stop for sightings of other creatures.

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michael-ibk

Sorry to hear that you weren´t entirely happy with your Sabi Sands experience, but ... Cheetah! Leopard! Wild Dogs! That´s really not bad at all, is it? :)

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Alexander33

Thanks for posting this report. I keep hearing good things about Mashatu. It certainly looks like things worked out for you well. You had some memorable sightings and great photos.

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Alexander33

I think part of the problem is that Sabi Sands gets put on the tourist circuit, so, for some visitors, it's just a stop after seeing Cape Town and the winelands because, well, one can't go to Africa and not see lions. If you get too many of these types in one vehicle, a guide can just shut down. We saw that firsthand for a day and a half until the slack-jawed troglodytes we were with moved on to the Gold Reef Casino and were replaced by souls more like-minded to us. Then things picked up.

 

That said, I still maintain that South Africa is a great destination. The combination of infrastructure, accessibility to wildlife and prices in SA rand offers, to my mind, an unbeatable value in many cases. And if you do end up seeing the Big 5 and a pack of wild dogs all on the same day (as we did and as happens not incredibly infrequently in Sabi Sands), well, there are worse things in life!

 

Good for you for having the wherewithal to request a different guide. And I'm looking forward to your report on Phinda, as we will be going there next month. Yikes!

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