This year Wyatt and I celebrated five years of marriage– the perfect excuse to go all out for what has become our yearly “honeymoon.” Africa has been on our bucket list for several years and this year it moved to the top. It’s a long journey from San Francisco and required a ton of research and planning so we booked several months out–which is certainly not our usual MO. We tend to just book it and wing it, which generally serves us well. However, there really is so much to know before you go on safari, it’s actually pretty overwhelming and probably keeps some travelers from taking the leap, that and the annoying rumors that traveling to Africa is unsafe and will result in Malaria. News flash, Americans are afraid of everything! No other country stresses about shots and danger as much as we do and the jabs we got from Africans were definitely warranted IMO.
After talking to several travel companies, Wyatt and chose to work with Rothschild Safaris, a group based in our hometown of Denver, Colorado. We told Pam at Rothschild what we were looking for and hoping to do (active travel, off the beaten path, sustainable and eco-friendly, luxury and unique lodges) and she put created an itinerary– Johannesburg to Botswana to Kruger National Park and ending in Cape Town for a full 14-day adventure.
Having worked with a company I’d definitely recommend doing so for anyone looking to go on Safari, the details are very important and anything your trip planners can do to save you time is icing on the cake!
Brief Aside: Wyatt and I generally love taking “active” beach trips that involve hiking and snorkeling, etc (check out last years trip the Whitsunday Islands) and this was definitely not that kind of trip, although we did get some pool time in Johannesburg. Overall, however, we loved mixing it up and doing something different.
Below I’ve included a trip recap and A TON of photos that Wyatt took, (it was so hard to choose!) hope you enjoy:
Our first few days in Africa were spent recovering from the 24+ hour journey in an amazing hotel in Sandton, a luxurious suburb of Johannesburg. The Saxon was so extravagant (personal butlers 24 hrs a day??!!) and the grounds were some of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen. In the morning we woke up to the coolest bird species chirping and starting their day.
During our time in Johannesburg we visited the Apartheid museum and also Soweto, home of Nelson Mandela, all of which was at once inspiring, overwhelming and heartbreaking. How is it possible that I have almost no recollection of learning about this huge historical event in school? Seeing the townships and understanding the history of South Africa is really moving and a must-see if you visit Johannesburg.
Next stop, Botswana! It’s hard to describe what it was like to fly from the tiny Maun airport in Botswana to the Selinda Spillway, a 45-minute flight in a tiny prop plane. We repacked our bags in the airport into smaller duffel bags but it was super easy and the airline was great about storing our suitcases for us. I’d definitely recommend this option vs. trying to pack for two weeks of extremely varied weather in a duffel bag, but I’m admittedly terrible at packing light.
Flying over the cracked, dry earth I thought we’d never see any life and then suddenly there were green trees and water holes and elephants everywhere! Selinda Camp is part of Great Plains Conservation and they have a small landing strip and welcome tent to greet new guests. Our guide Foster was there to pick us up in the Land Rover and brought some beers along for the journey to camp (which he said could take 1.5 hours + depending on what we saw along the way).
Within moments of leaving the airstrip, we started to see life everywhere. Giraffes, Water Buffalo, Impala, Kudu, Warthogs, birds, Elephants, we were completely amazed! About thirty minutes into the drive we discovered a whole pride of female and young male lions plus their cubs enjoying a fresh water buffalo kill. The smell and sight were so intense and jaw-dropping that we stayed there to watch for over an hour. When we finally made it back to camp we had a very warm welcome from the wonderful staff, a tour of our room and the property, and then it was time for dinner and bed for any early game drive the next morning. One thing that we really loved about Selinda Camp was the family dinner setup. Since the camp only has several cabins there are always and small number of guests and we got to eat together and had some incredible conversations and learned a lot more about the camp.
The next three days were amazing, we went on game drives each morning between 5:00 and 6:00AM, returned for lunch and siesta during the hottest part of the day and then left again around 4:00PM after tea for another game drive. The game drives were long and full of new sights and sounds and we saw different animals each time we went out. Our guide Foster seemed to know everything about the bush and we learned so much from him, proof that your guide really does make or break your experience, as many of the safari addicts that we met mentioned to us as well. We also had some great sightings just laying around the pool and hotel property as the elephants came for a drink and hippos lounged around and made deep, moaning sounds all day.
If you go on safari be sure to do a bush walk! Wyatt and I are very active and the one downside of safari is that you’re pretty inactive for large parts of the day so we loved getting out of the car, stretching our legs and checking out flora and fauna (and sometimes animals) up close and personal. Learning about termite mounds, keystone species and the way that everything in the bush works together is so fascinating! It’s also really fun (and terrifying) to take on the prey mentality and really use all of your senses to become more aware of your surroundings. Our guide Foster was really careful not to get too close to animals and if we did we had to change our route immediately or get on top of a hill and wait it out. Be sure to wear long sleeves a hat and tons of sunscreen when you go out, the heat can really sneak up on you!
Our third stop was Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa, extending 220 miles from North to South with nine entrances and extreme government protection due to poaching. “Lion Sands Reserve was established in 1933 by Guy Aubrey Chalkley, and forms part of the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve” (Wikipedia). After several flights and car rides we made it to camp really late and had a very quick, delicious dinner and then were ready for bed. This may have been my favorite room of the trip, the view was spectacular and each room was very private with a plunge pool and gorgeous bathroom with indoor/outdoor showers, heated floors, and full windows. Let’s face it, I’m a total sucker for a nice bathroom!
Kruger is incredibly dry this time of year so all of the locals were thrilled when it rained on our first morning. The only downside was our car didn’t have a roof so it was a very wet game drive! The rainy day gave us a chance to enjoy a long breakfast and our amazing room and the weather cleared up just in time for our evening drive. Kruger is home to the big five but unlike Botswana, the animals seemed less plentiful and the rains made it hard for our guides to drive off road, never the less we saw some amazing animals, even a few that we hadn’t seen in Botswana, including scorpions, tortoises and a group of adorable baboons and their babies.
We were extremely lucky to see both a black and white rhino in Kruger as they are now on the endangered species list and populations are continuing to shrink due to illegal poaching for the rhino horn market taking place in Vietnam (which I didn’t find out until we returned home, everyone in South Africa cited the Chinese and traditional medicine as the culprit). According to this awesome article in The Atlantic, the Vietnamese believe that the Rhino horn can cure cancer, is an excellent party drug and the highest status symbol. Very sad all around but the protection by the government is very hopeful with drones, fences and all types of new technology being utilized to protect these gorgeous creatures.
We also took a quick trip to Henna Pre-school one afternoon, a school founded and funded in part by the Lion Sands lodge where we stayed. The trip was a great opportunity to see the amazing work going on in this local community.
If you plan to go to Kruger be sure to ask your tour company lots of questions around the best time of year to go. I’d guess after the rainy season would be best when water is high, animals are out to eat and jeeps can go off-road but also consult sites like SafariTart for advice. One huge highlight of Kruger was one of our best sundowner’s (aka: PM game drive with drinks and a perfect sunset) of the trip while in Kruger, with hippos and a huge family of elephants overlooking a beautiful ravine.
Our final stop of the trip took us to Cape Town where we stayed at the popular and touristy Victoria and Alfred waterfront. We arrived in Cape Town the day after the election so our spirits were low, but the sun was shining and the waterfront was beautiful which lifted our moods somewhat, but I’d be lying if I said the results didn’t take a toll on the vacay spirit. We managed to find some healthy food in the awesome shopping center nearby and ate everything green we could get our hands on! It was nice to be back in a city and we spent a few days seeing the sites with our awesome guide Lee Ann, a Cape Town native with a ton of knowledge about all the hotspots.
Our favorite part of Cape Town was hiking Table Mountain, which I highly recommend. It’s very challenging and the views at the top are amazing, don’t miss it, but start early and wear good shoes, it’s really technical and we saw several tourists stuck in flats and sandals. Ouch!
We also did a full coast tour, which was great and allowed us to see most of Cape Town. Unfortunately, I came down with a stomach bug so I wasn’t totally there. Fortunately, Wyatt took a ton of great photos.
Our last day in Cape Town we went to wine country and I was feeling better so we got to do a couple of tastings, including a wine tasting at Avontuur and a cheese tasting at Fairview. For lunch we went to an amazing hipster dive bar off the beaten path and ended at the Cheetah sanctuary, a center focused on educating South Africans around Cheetahs to keep them from being killed and intended to save them from extinction. Pretty cool to pet a cheetah and watch the amazing, caring staff handle and care for them! They purr just like house cats, so cool!
The thing that really stood out to Wyatt and I during this trip was the commitment to preserving and maintaining the land and the animals with integrity and respect. As World travelers, Wyatt and I have had many experiences with animals in different countries, including elephants in Thailand and monkeys in Indonesia, but this trip made us realize that the exploitation of animals really isn’t ok and reinforced our desire to use our tourist dollars to support the efforts that allow animals to live in their natural habitats, not doing tricks or being on display for our benefit. Through the immense knowledge and commitment of our guides our eyes were opened to completely untouched environments where humans don’t interfere unless they’ve caused damage, where animals are left to be animals, this was so much more enjoyable and impactful for us than petting, feeding, or riding an animal that has been domesticated and used to make money.
Be sure you know where your money is going and do your part to protect our fragile planet!
Check Out SafariTart for recommendations on all things safari! We were lucky to meet Carrie Hampton while in Botswana, along with a whole team of amazing media folks dedicated to spreading the importance of sustainable tourism in Africa.
This trip was certainly life-changing and I can’t recommend it enough if you’re looking for a once in a lifetime experience and want to learn more about one of the few un-touched places left on our planet. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below or contact me!
All photos by Wyatt Jenkins