A Family South African Safari
1 – Introduction
2 – A Pit Stop in Paris
3 – Tanda Tula
4 – Londolozi Founder’s Camp
5 – Safari Photos
6 – Cape Grace Hotel
7 – Cape Town Activities
8 – Emirates First Class – Thoughts and Observations
9 – Conclusion, A Few Safari Tips and Future Plans
A safari is something our family has talked about on and off over the years. Both of our children have a very strong interest in animals. As we debated a few options for our Christmas 2015 trip, with our kids now 12 and 9, a safari quickly moved to the top of our list.
Though I’ve not gotten around to writing reviews of our Christmas trips since our visit to the Four Seasons Hualalai in 2011, our other recent Christmas trips include the Persian Gulf (2012), Australia (2013) and Costa Rica (2014). Business is generally quiet for me at year end and the kids both have time off from school, making Christmas typically the best time for us to take a big trip each year.
As we planned this trip, as this was our first safari and even first trip to Africa (the kids have now been to five continents), we decided we wanted to keep it more on the comfortable side and not push too far into the frontier. This pointed us to South Africa.
For our long-haul flights, going there, we flew on Air France from JFK to Paris and onward to Johannesburg We were able to secure four low miles business class award tickets on the same flights using Delta miles. While many lament Delta SkyMiles, for our prior Christmas trips to Australia and the Perisan Gulf, Delta points have consistently been a key part of our “four business class seats on miles” strategy.
Our flight from New York to Paris was on a 777 which featured Air France’s new reverse herringbone J.
Due to the double red-eyes, we had a half day in Paris. I hired a driver and a van to take us around during the day in Paris. This proved to be a good decision and allowed us to visit a number of sites with relative ease.
Our onward flight to Johannesburg, however, was on an A380 with the old angled J seats. By the time we boarded this flight, we were so tired that angled versus true flat didn’t make a bit of difference. Being taller, I requested seats in the first row. On these old angled seats, you end up having to put your feet in a hole under the seat in front of you – except in the first row. The first row provides a fair bit more leg room.
Travel within the bush was by private charter planes, and a semi-private flight up from Jo’berg. Several carriers seemed to have a fleet of small propeller planes to shuttle safari-goers around. Most of our flights were on Federal Air, though one was operated by a different carrier. Our local host agency looked after all of these details. Miraculously, every intra-Africa flight we few was on time (except when they held a shared plane for us after our Air France delay).
On our way home, we took advantage of the very low priced premium cabin flights for departures from South Africa. I was able to secure one-way first class tickets on Emirates for a little over USD2,000 per seat. Considering round trip (originating from NYC) in Emirates first class would have been roughly USD40,000 per seat, this was definitely a steal. Etihad offered similar pricing, but the routing would have included the inferior Jet Airways metal. Other options such as Lufthansa, Air France and British first class were each in the USD4,000 range at the time, though in hindsight would have shaved a number of hours off the travel time.
Despite roughly 24 hours in the air and a connection in Dubai, the kids had a blast on Emirates – so I’m glad we took the long way home.
We spent about a week in the bush, split across two different camps. Both camps offered a high degree of service, but the flavors of each varied widely. Our first stop was Tanda Tula, which was by far the more rustic of the two. Here, we slept in un-air conditioned permanent tents. Talking with some other guests, not everyone’s stay was flawless, though ours was more than fine.
This contrasted with our second camp, Londolozi, where anyone I spoke with raved of the property and service. Londolozi’s accommodations offered individual stone buildings (no tents) with air conditioning and even a private plunge pool!
Across our many game drives, we saw a wide and diverse set of animals. In addition to the typical major animals (elephants, giraffes, rhinos, lions, cheetahs, etc.), at Tanda Tula, we saw a large pack of African Wild Dogs. While not the animal that typically makes it onto postcards sent home, there are only a few thousand of these left in the world. It was fascinating to watch them both play and fight. We also came across a group of elephants playing and cooling off in a mud hole.
At Londolozi, we were very fortunate to come across several territorial battles between packs of lions. These were truly incredible. Even the ranger and spotter had “kids in the candy store” smiles on them, sharing high-fives afterwards!
The food at both camps was very good. Frankly, in both cases, far better than we anticipated.
For New Years, we spent several days in Cape Town. This was also an enjoyable part of our trip, and were able to see a number of historic sites, visit a shanty town, visit the penguins, spend some time wine tasting and enjoy some remarkable meals.
We stayed at the Cape Grace Hotel. This hotel was a solid four-star property. Other than the dreaded Virtuoso check-out time negotiation and poor service by the pool, our stay here was very nice.
I was amazed at just how reasonable things were in South Africa. In US Dollar terms, anything produced locally was an absolute bargain. For a number of transactions, I found myself checking the currency translation multiple times. (The transactions popping up in Apple Pay – with the low amounts – helped ease my concerns.)
We booked our activities within South Africa through an agent in the US. In hindsight, however, that was just an added layer of cost. All the agent does is intermediate with a South African-based travel agent and “host.” The local host books your stays with the camps, coordinates your domestic flights, including private air travel, and looked after us with a private guide the entire time while in Cape Town. Our local host service in South Africa was Africa Inscribed Travel.
In our case, the local host did a yeoman’s job upon arrival in Jo’berg due to a late arrival of our Air France flight. They did however let us down coordinating our car return to the airport in Cape Town.
While the US agent has in this case done diligence on the local host (and in our case had visited with them personally), there is no commission sharing so you end up having to pay a second commission to the US agent. I could have easily done a bit of research on the hosts and come up with the top several hosts myself. This would have saved a few thousand dollars extra fees. Were I to do this again, I would go direct to a local host agent and not involve a US travel agent.
Looking back, this trip was truly memorable for both the adults and kids. Had we done it any sooner, our kids may have been too young. Though my wife is still recoiling from the duration of the flights home (all Emirates first class – but still 24 hours of flying), I’ll shortly begin formulating a future trip back to Africa for a few years hence.