We have received a number of questions about our experience in Africa, how we planned it and the companies we found. When Kirsten and Laura were planning the trip, they came to the compromise to combine an adventure tour at the outset to help ease into the travel (especially for Mom) and a self-guided portion for the second half of the trip. If you’re looking for a fantastic two or more weeks in Southern Africa full of animal sightings, this should help.
We booked directly through Air Canada. Air Canada relies on partner airlines for this region and depending on which partner you fly on, your experience will differ as will the points you collect. Our flight route was Toronto-London-Johannesburg-Victoria Falls on the way there and Windhoek-Johannesburg-London-Toronto on the way home. On the way there, London-Johannesburg-Victoria Falls was serviced by South Africa Airways. They are a wonderful national airline with exceptional service, good in-flight food and even in economy, you receive a package with a sleep mask, flight socks, earbuds, toothbrush and a warm blanket. The short-haul flight between Johannesburg and Victoria Falls offered a free lunch and beverage service. Coming back, the Windhoek-Johannesburg serviced by Air Namibia, another outstanding national airline with exceptional service plus the 1.5-hour flight came with a free hot dinner and two beverage services. The interior and exterior of the plane were immaculate. Johannesburg-London route serviced by British Airways – an experience that was a royal pain and we won’t go into. Surprisingly, even though we did book all our flights with Air Canada there will be no Aeroplan miles collected for our trouble as British Airways are not a part of Star Alliance.
Lesson Learned: Any future travel to this region will be planned with South African who flies directly to Johannesburg from New York City on a 14-hour flight. This seems more reasonable than the 7-hour flight to London followed by an 11-hour flight to Johannesburg.
Week 1: Overland Tour, Victoria Falls to Windhoek
This was our guided overland tour with Nomad Africa Adventure Tours. Booked through Detour Africa, a travel agency based out of South Africa. There are a number of different companies running similar tours and they have varying reputations. Nomad has one of the best reputations in the region – for hiring locals as guides and cooks; replacing their overland trucks every five years to ensure safety and reliability; ability to choose the camping or lodge option in the same tour plus activities based on individual budget. The importance of all of this didn’t become quite so obvious until the horror we witnessed at dinner in camp at Maun. We watched one of their adventure tour competitors drain the diesel in their truck to complete repairs in the campground. This was followed by syphoning the diesel back into the truck, lighting the spilt diesel to burn it off and then proceed to burn the plastic bags they used. This was all done with the assistance of guests on the tour who paid for the privilege of being on this affair. Our own guide sat with us and watched in disbelief at what was being undertaken.
Lodging from Victoria Falls – Windhoek
Rainbow Victoria Falls Hotel: A decent place to spend a couple of nights adjusting to the time zone and region. Nice enough rooms and a lovely pool area. Walking distance to “town” and restaurants. It’s recommended that you don’t walk at night. Not due to danger from locals but wild animals. Victoria Falls is part of a park. We lived on the wild side as a group of five and walked with our headlamps at night.
Thebe River Safaris: Kasane/Chobe National Park. A combination of lodge accommodation and campground. Nice rooms surrounding a garden courtyard. Appointed with a kettle and instant coffee and tea. The pool is not as depicted in the website photos. Filled with murky water and close to the river, we were not sure if a creepy crawly would find you in it. If you stay but not part of a tour, you can organize a game drive or river cruise into Chobe National Park for an additional fee.
Pelican Lodge: Nata/Makgadigadi Pan. Combination of lodge accommodation and campground. The rooms have high ceilings, a sitting area, fridge, kettle and coffee/tea. Our room had a soaker tub inside and an outdoor shower. There is also a decent pool close to the bar/restaurant if one has the time to go for a dip. Tony was thrilled to shower and look up at the moon. You can arrange a sunset drive in Nata Bird Sanctuary, home of hundreds of pelicans, flamingos, wildebeest and countless other birds.
Sedia Riverside Hotel: Maun/Okavango Delta. Combination of lodge accommodation and campground. It was definitely the nicest campground of this tour, offering shady trees for those camping. The lodge was also nice and rooms with balconies overlooking a shaded lawn to watch the birds. Well appointed rooms and the pool was the nicest pool we found in the entire two weeks of travel. The quality of swimming pools became more of an attraction as we spent more time on game drives. Nothing like an afternoon swim as the heat of the day peaks. The hotel can arrange excursions into, and flights over, the Okavango Delta.
Ghanzi Trail Blazers: Kalahari. Another combination of camp and lodge accommodation but truthfully, don’t know that the cottages are any better than camping. Laura’s least favourite location in the entire two weeks. Facilities are run on a generator that they turn off between 7 pm and 6 am. Rooms have private bathrooms that are outside without a roof. Tony found this more charming than Laura who refused to use the washroom in the dark. Water is heated through a “donkey” wood fire system. Mosquito nets are full of holes as are the screens to the windows which need to be open at night for air flow with no power or fan to circulate the hot air. Waking, packing and dressing in the dark for our early departure plus a cold shower also made for cranky Laura. The lodge does offer bush walks and a fire dance/storytelling with the San people which was very interesting and parallels can be drawn between what has happened to their culture with their being relocated to settlements in the 90s to what we have done with our own indigenous people but few opportunities to ask questions about the impact this is having on their society.
Heja Game Lodge: Windhoek. This is where the tour ended and where our four by four for the second leg was dropped off. No camping facilities and the upgraded luxury villas are beautiful. Spacious with a comfortable bed, no need for mosquito netting. A sitting area inside and on the patio with a large shower and plenty of hot water. Some are outfitted with kitchenettes. You can enjoy your morning coffee and watch the baby warthogs play on the lawn in front of you. Excellent restaurant and bar.
Lesson Learned: Using a travel agency was helpful for us with our many questions. Going forward, we would take out the middle person and book directly with Nomad. Actually, we would book everything ourselves and go self-guided. Because that is seriously FUN.
Week 2: Namibia Overland, Etosha National Park and Sesriem/Naukluft
This is where we got more adventurous! The morning after our Nomad Adventure ended, Bushlore dropped off our Toyota Land Cruiser 4×4, fully outfitted for camping and off-road. We registered Kirsten, Sietse, Tony and Laura as drivers with the intent to split up the driving. Most of Southern Africa drive on the left-hand side, so learning to drive on the opposite side of the vehicle was interesting. Left and right signal lights became a running joke as every one of us turned the windshield wipers on multiple times. Following the rules of the road is like playing opposites. We all know how to drive standard and have had experience driving on a dirt road in varying conditions (thanks Pop for teaching us to drive in a logging camp in old pick up trucks!).
Before leaving Windhoek, we stopped at the SuperSpar for food and supplies then headed north. We arrived in Etosha with an hour to spare until the gates closed. Namibia Wildlife Resorts operates camps with camping and lodge facilities in all the Namibia National parks. We stayed in various camps during the week. All camps had nice ablution blocks, pools, restaurants and tourist shops with basic grocery needs. Most had diesel fuel stations as well.
Etosha National Park: We stayed at three different camps in the park. We started east and headed west. Pack up in the morning and spend the day touring the roads of the park, animal spotting, arriving at the next camp to set up again for the night.
Night 1: Namutoni Resort. Nice campground with grass (the only place we stayed that wasn’t sand). Chose a site overlooking the park. This is the one night we heard wildlife in the night – lions calling to each other.
Night 2: Halali Resort. Very open campground with a number of vehicle alarms going off in the night. We were told this is the best place to go for a night game drive with the possibility to see rhino and the big cats. Great 25-metre pool, though few spaces to sit around and relax.
Night 3: Okaukuejo Resort. Another open campground in the sand that made for an interesting experience. We literally were “holding down the fort” when a storm came up and we had to sit in the ground tent to keep it from blowing away. The pool was under repairs but looked like it would be nice when it wasn’t a festering malaria pool. The wildlife watering hole gave us the best experience of the three camps – a rare black rhino sighting. The downside is that this camp has luxury cottages around the watering hole which means this one has more light and more noise than other camps.
Namib Desert National Park: We stayed in two different camps in this region. Two nights were spent in the Sesriem camp and one in the Naukluft camp. If you’re staying at the Sesriem campsite, you are allowed into the Sossusvlei Park at 5:30 am, giving you the opportunity to beat the crowds to the dunes for sunrise.
Sesriem Campsite. Endless super-fine red/orange sand. We arrived and as we set up camp, we were hit with a sudden rainstorm that soaked us through. Kirsten, mom and Laura decided to leave set up to the guys and went to the restaurant to have a drink and watch what would become a stunning sunset once the rains cleared. The sand is scalding hot during the day and cold at night. This is the camp one has to watch carefully for scorpions in the toilet stall and in the sand. The pool is surrounded by sand, has little seating and a little murky but was assessed by the group to be adequate to cool down in the desert afternoon.
Naukluft Camp. Situated up in the Naukluft mountains, the campground was the nicest of the entire group, with new ablution blocks, plenty of trees for shade and water taps at every site. The eco-cabins are beautifully decorated and solar powered. We decided to leave the camping to the rest of the family for our last night in Africa and we upgraded to a cabin. By this point, Laura was feeling under the weather and this allowed us to get a good night’s sleep as well as pack up properly before our 45-hour trek back to Toronto. Baboons are very plentiful and naughty in this region so windows and doors must be kept closed to keep them out of mischief.