Angela and I recently finished a trip to Southern Africa that encompassed three countries, with a long layover in Qatar on the way home. This was our first journey to Sub-Saharan Africa, if you exclude Mauritius. We didn’t really know what to expect as, unlike most of our trips, our itinerary was all-inclusive for much of this one.
Booking our trip
As with all of our trips, there were three major parts to handle when booking this one. First, we needed to figure out how to get to where we were going and back home. Next, we needed to determine where we’d be staying during the time we were away from home. Finally, and most importantly for this trip, we needed to determine what we were going to be doing and the logistics of getting from place to place.
The easiest part of this was airfare for getting to and from South Africa. I knew that the United States to Africa is a sweet spot in the AA award chart and that it is possible to transit the Middle East on the way in order to give us the most possible flexibility and to fly the best products. In addition, I knew that South Africa to the United States via HKG on CX is a sweet spot in the AS award chart and that it was possible to stopover in Hong Kong for a few days if desired.
I booked our outbound flights first and then, once I knew when we would arrive in South Africa, worked to nail down our intra-Africa itinerary. I then booked our flights home.
Our initial booking was as follows:
- 75,000 AAdvantage Miles + $6.10 per person in taxes and fees.
- LAS–ORD on AA Y
- ORD-DOH on QR J
- DOH-JNB on QR J
- $293.16 per person booked via the Chase Ultimate Rewards at $0.0125 per point.
- JNB-CPT on SA J
- 70,000 Alaska MileagePlan Miles + $94.33 per person in taxes and fees.
- JNB-HKG on CC J
- Two night stopover
- HKG-LAX on CX F
- LAX-LAS on AS Y
I made a few changes along the way to our AA award booking (free changes are the best feature of AA award bookings) and then, a few months later, we decided we wanted to shorten the backend of the trip a little bit. Coincidentally, different availability had opened up that worked for us. As such, I paid the AA change fee for a destination change (offset by the refund from our cash booking), and canceled the AS booking for free because of my AS MVP Gold status. Our final airfare itinerary looked like this:
- 75,000 AAdvantage Miles + $6.10 per person in taxes and fees + $300.00 in change fees.
- LAS-LAX on AA J
- LAX-DOH on QR J
- DOH-CPT on QR J
- 75,000 AAdvantage Miles + $68.73 per person in taxes and fees.
- JNB-DOH on QR J
- One night layover
- DOH-PHL on QR J
- PHL-LAS on AA J
We shortened the end of our trip by three nights so we could get home sooner and save the AS miles for another trip. I knew there were a few things in Cape Town that we wanted to do and that it would be good to spend a few nights adjusting to the new time zone before setting out on our safari. As such, I scheduled three nights in the city at the beginning of our trip giving us two full days to adventure.
In terms of our intra-Africa experience, I felt completely overwhelmed by the plethora of options available to us after doing some basic research. Understanding my limitations and my desire to have a relatively stress free experience, I reached out to several South African travel agents for proposals. I did my best to express our preferences and available budget and asked the agents to provide us with some options.
After a few back and forths, we decided to proceed with an itinerary developed by Rhino Africa that we were happy with. We chose a luxurious journey that included lodging at all-inclusive properties, air transport, ground transport, and game drives. We’d be responsible for getting to the airport at the beginning of our itinerary and paying for things outside the scope of our package (like gratuities). Everything else along the way would be arranged for us.
After accepting the itinerary, we were sent a link to pay 40% of the cost of the package alongside 100% of the non-refundable airfare. We were informed the rest would be due 60 days out from our trip. Helen, our contact, was a joy to work with and always responded promptly to my questions. The documentation we were provided throughout the process was exceptional. I felt totally at ease even though I had almost no part in booking the individual parts of our trip. I’ll talk more about the lodges that we stayed at throughout this blog post.
I will say that we chose to pursue this route because we were relatively price-insensitive and we figured that, if we were going to fly around the world for a particular experience, it was worth it to pay what was necessary for that experience to be as smooth as possible. There are tons of other options that we didn’t pursue because they weren’t right for us, but it is likely they would be right for other individuals or couples.
I made a few mistakes during the booking of this trip that could have led to a lower overall out of pocket cost. First, I should have booked our AA award all the way through to CPT in the first place to avoid the destination change fee. I didn’t do so because the taxes and fees on the BA flights from JNB-CPT totaled as much as buying a separate ticket and I didn’t anticipate availability opening up on DOH-CPT. Second, I paid a change fee on the AS award before reaching MVP Gold status and then ended up canceling, forfeiting the change fee. I definitely left some money on the table, but I learned some things from it.
A long journey to Africa
Eleven months after our initial booking, it was finally time to start our trip. We dropped Fitz off at Camp Bow Wow and caught a car to the airport about two hours before our initial flight departed. After filling up in the American Express Centurion Lounge, we boarded the plane for our short trip to LAX. The forty minute flight was uneventful and comfortable, just the way you want a short flight to be.
With a three hour layover at LAX, we decided to spend some time at the American Airlines Flagship Lounge in Terminal 4 before heading to the Oneworld Business Lounge in Terminal 5. Both spaces were quite nice, with the food and decor at the Oneworld Business Lounge being slightly better, in my opinion. I got some work done before we headed to our departure gate and boarded the 777-300ER that’d be taking us to Doha, Qatar.
This flight was special as we were lucky enough to get on a Qsuites equipped plane. I selected the rearward facing pair of seats at the back of the business class cabin and this meant that there was almost no foot traffic around our seats throughout the entire flight. I was impressed by every part of our flight as the seat, service, food, and amenities were all excellent. Most importantly, both Angela and I were able to sleep a considerable amount, almost eight hours, during the flight. We arrived in Doha after fifteen hours feeling refreshed.
We had a lengthy layover in Doha which we spent in the Al Mourjan Business Lounge. I worked, Angela read, we both ate, and then we embarked upon the second half of our journey. This time, we were on an older A350-900 with QR’s reverse herringbone seats. The seats were quite comfortable, if not state-of-the-art, and the business class cabin was extremely spacious. The service during the flight was excellent and we were able to get a bit more sleep, although it was a little rougher given how hot the cabin was.
Ten hours later we arrived in Cape Town. We made our way through immigration without any issues and met our driver shortly after passing through customs. We were at our hotel, 15 on Orange, An Autograph Collection Hotel, about twenty minutes later, checked in shortly thereafter, and given some champagne (for Angela) and fancy grape juice (for me) while we waited for our room to be ready. We were escorted to our room about forty minutes later and surprised by a stunning view of Table Mountain from the huge window along one side of our room. We settled in and decided to call it a early night in preparation for our long day ahead.
15 on Orange is a very nice property. There are spacious common areas, a beautiful lounge, and an adequate gym. The rooms are clean and modern and can offer spectacular views of Table Mountain if you end up in the right one. I look forward to staying here again on our next trip to Cape Town.
An early morning shark diving adventure
We woke up very early the next morning due to jet lag, got a workout in, and then prepared for our trip to Gaansbai to go cage diving with sharks. Our pickup was scheduled for 4:55AM and the driver arrived exactly on time. We piled in with some other tourists and were on our way. The drive from Cape Town to Gaansbai took almost three hours. We passed the time by chatting with the other people in our group.
Upon arrival, we were ushered into The Great White House, Marine Dynamics’ base of operations. We checked in and were assigned wetsuit sizes after giving some information to our guide. We had a light breakfast, received a safety briefing, and were given some information about what to expect from the experience. After heading outside, we were fitted with lifevests and rain jackets and herded towards the boat, Slashfin. We boarded and immediately headed to the top deck for the best possible views.
The ride out to “the shallows” took about twenty minutes. Our ship’s crew started chumming the water and throwing bait out to attract some sea life. Before long, several copper sharks and a short-tailed ray showed up and started tracking the bait. It was thrilling to see the animals so close to the surface and feet from the boat. Before long, the first group was in the attached cage enjoying the frigid water. We watched for quite a while while the first, second, and third groups enjoyed their experience. Then, there was a sudden excitement and the crew got everyone out of the cage to move to where there had been a great white shark sighting.
Once we changed locations, Angela and I were put into the cage along with the group who had just been pulled out. We watched as the copper sharks swam around us and eagerly awaited the fabled great white to show itself. About ten minutes later, the group we were with got pulled out of the cage while we got to stay in and move to the corner. Five minutes after the cage was closed again, our dreams were fulfilled as a great white shark showed up about two feet from us. The glimpses were fleeting and the water was murky, but it was awesome to be so close to one of the greatest predators in the oceans.
We spent another fifteen minutes in the cage and were lucky enough to see the great white another few times. We were brought back on board, given some tea, and then prompted to change for our return to shore. Another twenty minute ride brought us back to The Great White House where we were treated to some vegetable soup and a video of our experience. After that, it was back to Cape Town via another three hour ride with a brief stop at a scenic overlook.
By the time we made it back to our hotel we were quite hungry. We decided to grab dinner at the V & A Waterfront, a tourist hot spot if there ever was one. After some tasty dishes at Firefish, we returned to our hotel and quickly fell asleep.
Our guided tour of the Cape Peninsula
We, thankfully, had a much more relaxed morning on our second day in Cape Town. After waking early we made use of the gym again before enjoying a fairly leisurely breakfast. It was delicious and varied and the service was excellent. After gathering our things, we headed downstairs to await our guide for a private tour of the Cape Peninsula. He arrived promptly at 8:30AM and we were on the road shortly thereafter.
Our guide for the day was Chris and he happily shared his knowledge of the area and South Africa in general with us. We were lucky to have him with us for the day. Our first stop was Hout Bay, a tourist trap with plenty of vendors hawking wares clearly targeted at a specific demographic. There was also a man who had somehow trained a seal to do tricks and take pictures. We weren’t very interested in hanging around so, after grabbing a few pictures of the harbor, we returned to the car to tell Chris we were ready to move on.
The next stop was much better as we visited an extremely scenic spot along Chapman’s Peak Drive. We were able to look out towards the ocean, along the coast, and back towards Hout Bay (which, incidentally, looks much more beautiful far away than up close). To say the views were breathtaking is an understatement. We were lucky to have amazing weather on this day with nary a cloud in the sky.
After that, we were driven through the countryside to the Cape of Good Hope in Table Mountain National Park. We stepped out to visit a wild ostrich and then took some pictures at the Cape of Good Hope, including a few super cheesy ones at the sign indicating the spot.
Afterwards, we drove around the peninsula a bit and were dropped off at a path that took us to the top of Cape Point. We saw a small baboon family on the way up to the lighthouse at the peak. Once at the top, we were treated to some absolutely stunning views of the Indian and Atlantic oceans. On the way down, Angela casually strolled alongside a baboon that we saw steal someone’s hand sanitizer.
From here, we drove through Simon’s Town, stopped for a brief look at the Simon’s Town harbor, and made our way to Boulders Beach to see some southern penguins. Our guide first brought us to the beach itself where we were able to get up close and personal with some of the local wildlife. We immediately saw a pair of penguins walking across the beach towards us and I was lucky enough to capture a quick selfie. After some brief rock scrambling, we were fortunate enough to see a large otter chilling on the beach calmly exfoliating himself. He wiggled back and forth while we watched before slowly slinking back into the crevice between a few boulders. Finally, we made it to the end of the beach and sat down to hang out with a small family of penguins.
We clambered back over the boulders, and made our way to the penguin sanctuary. We saw tons of penguins in various stages of life. It was so cool to see penguins again this year after seeing some on our previous trip to Australia in March. We have now seen the smallest (in Australia) and second smallest (in Africa) species of penguins.
Our final stop before the long drive back to our hotel was a scenic shot of Fish Hoek Beach. It was probably the largest single beach I’ve ever seen!
After grabbing a shot of the beach, we drove through the Constantia Wine Region and were told all about the amazing restaurants and wineries we were passing. We returned to our hotel, relaxed for a bit, and fell asleep anticipating what was to come next.
Off to our safari
The next morning, we ate breakfast, checked out, and waited for our ride to the airport. We procured our boarding passes, made our way through immigration and security, and headed to the lounge at CPT accessible via Priority Pass to relax for a few moments before our flight. We flew an SA Airlink E190 from CPT to MQP and were met by an airline representative who ushered us to a small waiting room and inquired about our bags so she could make sure they were moved to our next flight.
After a forty minute wait, we were collected and walked to the plane for our next leg, a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan Ex. Unlike the last time we rode in a propeller plane (many years ago on a flight between Costa Rica and Panama), I was totally comfortable on this particular aircraft.
When we landed, we were greeted by an open jeep with 10 passenger seats, our luggage was offloaded and placed on another jeep, and we were driven to our lodge for the next four nights, Chitwa Chitwa. Our experience with African wildlife started immediately as we saw zebra and elephants within ten minutes of arriving at the airstrip. We were checked in and asked what we’d like for lunch for the day.
At this point, I think it is worth explaining how things at Chitwa Chitwa worked in order to avoid repeating myself. There are two game drives a day and three planned meals. A wake up call is provided before the morning game drive and an escort is provided from your room to the meeting area in the morning and from dinner back to your room at night. In general, our wake up call was at 5:00AM, we were picked up at 5:30AM, and we were out on our game drive by 6:00AM. The drive would last until about 9:00AM and then we’d be returned to the lodge to eat breakfast a la carte. We would order our lunch while at breakfast, and it’d be delivered to our room at 1:30PM. We would meet at 3:30PM for tea in preparation for our evening game drive that would generally last from 4:00PM until 7:00PM. We would be returned to our room, unless there was a special group dinner, and then picked up around 8:00PM to eat. On each of the drives, we’d stop about thirty minutes before completion for drinks and snacks.
Every meal was uniformly delicious. The room we were provided with was spacious, with plenty of room for lounging, and the bed was quite comfortable. Every staff member we interacted with was attentive and friendly. We were immediately excited given how delicious our first dining experience was.
At 3:30PM we met our guide and tracker for the next few days, Stevan and Beth, respectively. For the first two game drives, we were lucky enough to be the only people in the jeep! From here on out, I’ll generally only talk about the things we saw on the drives or anything that was out of line with the above described general schedule.
Our first drive definitely set the tone for our experience at Chitwa Chitwa. Soon after leaving the lodge grounds, we stumbled upon a lone giraffe and stopped approximately 25 feet away. Stevan gave us some information about the giraffe and told us how to distinguish a male from a female. We talked about the general lifespan of the animal and snapped a bunch of photos.
Shortly after leaving the giraffe behind, our guide found a lone male white rhinoceros and this is where we were able to first observe what made staying in Sabi Sands so special. Our guide left the trail, something you can’t do in Kruger National Park, and drove off into the bush to get us close to the animal so we could see, quite clearly, the recent scarring that had developed as a result of fighting with another male over territory.
We tracked the rhino for quite some time before he started displaying signs that he’d like us to leave him alone. Later on in the game drive, we were treated to some exceptional views of four female lions resting. We stayed with the lions for quite some time hoping that they might set off on their hunt, but after they showed little ambition in that direction, we eventually headed off on the rest of the game drive where we observed an African fish eagle and some impala.
Shortly thereafter, we finished our first night out in the bush and headed back for dinner, a shower, and some sleep.
Our first full day in the bush
After an early morning wake up call and the best homemade granola bars ever, we were off into the bush for our first morning game drive. Unfortunately, this began a series of mornings where we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife. Our guide mentioned that it was likely because of the rains that had come through the area a couple of days prior to our arrival.
All that being said, we did see some wildlife. We saw gnu and kudu during this drive, along with a white-backed vulture and a lilac breasted roller. The lilac breasted roller is one of the most beautiful birds we’ve ever seen. This morning was our last private experience of the trip.
We returned after our initial game drive and enjoyed our first breakfast at Chitwa Chitwa. Angela ordered creamy scrambled eggs while I opted to have mine poached on toast with avocado and basil. There was a small buffet of additional items, including some delicious granola, natural yogurt, fruit compote, and charcuterie. Everything on offer was scrumptious and we’d stick with our initial orders throughout the rest of the trip. We relaxed for a few hours in our room before lunch was delivered, and then we enjoyed some time alone on our private patio as we awaited our afternoon game drive.
When afternoon tea time rolled around, we met the four people that would be joining us for the remainder of our time at the lodge; an older couple joined by their younger daughter and her husband. The younger couple were the only people close to our age that we met on our entire trip who weren’t on their honeymoon.
After tea, we set out on our game drive and it was much more exciting than the morning. We saw dwarf antelope, a herd of elephants, and some zebra.
We observed the zebra for a while, but our guide suddenly got an alert about a pair of leopards that had been sighted. We rushed to the sighting and were treated to a very interested female trying to seduce a very uninterested male. A hyena delicately approached to see what was going on, but quickly left after observing the leopard pair. Our group watched them lounge about for quite some time before eventually giving up and going off in search of another leopard that had been noted in the previous days.
Our guide and tracker found the leopard and we followed her through a stand of trees and around a dry stream bed as she lazily pursued a scrub hare. Eventually, the leopard laid down in the bush to relax while we admired her below the setting sun. After a short stop for drinks and snacks, we were back to the lodge area where we were brought together for dinner as a group.
The group dinner was delicious, with a soup course followed by a buffet of various meats, including steak and curried chicken. The night was filled with vivacious discussion on a variety of topics. A few hours later we were driven back to the lodge (with Angela riding in the tracker seat) for a shower and some sleep.
A day of good sightings
On our third day in the bush we’d fallen into a pretty awesome routine. Get up, grab a granola bar (or two), swig some coffee, and set out to see what we could see. Unfortunately, the morning was slow again, although not entirely devoid of wildlife. We saw two beautiful birds – a crowned lap wing and an African fish eagle (which happens to be the national bird of Zambia and Zimbabwe). We stopped in the middle of two separate herds of elephants and spotted a hyena when we stopped for our morning snacks.
The afternoon was a real treat, though, as we played witness to a healthy pride of three female lions lounging and a male rhinoceros attempting to mate with a female but being flummoxed by her child. We also got up close and personal with several giraffes.
Dinner was a la carte on this night and Angela and I enjoyed each other’s company before being escorted back to our room to rest for the following day.
One more day in paradise
Our last full day at Chitwa Chitwa was the reverse of the previous two, with a plethora of sightings in the morning and a dearth in the afternoon. In the morning, we were able to spot a lone male giraffe, enjoy the company of a herd of elephants, and rush to take a look at a pack of wild dogs. They were distant, but it was a real treat to see them playing with one another. Later, on our coffee break, a hyena approached and sniffed us out.
After breakfast, I accidentally brushed the electric fence while trying to take the following picture of what we thought was a male kudu (it wasn’t).
Luckily, a male kudu did show up for us on the lodge grounds right outside the breakfast tent on the way to the entrance. He patiently waited while we took some pictures of him.
In the afternoon, we were lucky to sit right in the middle of two different herds, elephant first and cape buffalo second, as they milled about. This afternoon was our first sighting of cape buffalo and there were hundreds of them that grazed around us as we watched.
After the evening game drive, we had another opportunity for a community dinner where I talked at length with some members of a different group who were with us while Angela flung herself into deep conversation with our guide. In all, it was a successful last day. After dinner, we packed our bags so they’d be ready the next day because we wanted to go out on the morning game drive.
Our final game drive and starting our time in Zambia
Setting out the next morning, we didn’t expect to see much based on the previous few days. We got lucky, though, and immediately saw a pair of juvenile hyenas. Later on, we saw a monkey, some zebras, and another herd of elephants.
After our final game drive, we ate breakfast at the lodge and were driven to the airstrip by our guide to await transport. Our plane was slightly delayed so we had about half an hour to talk to Stevan about his plans for the future and thanked him for showing us such a good time.
Our aircraft arrived, we boarded, and waved goodbye to Chitwa Chitwa. Before long we were at our connecting airport where we checked in for our trip to Livingstone, Zambia. The flight to Zambia was smooth and, after deplaning, we headed into an immigration line that took about an hour to clear. When we finally got to the front, we had to find $100 in pristine bills which, even though we performed a withdrawal immediately before leaving the United States, proved quite difficult. If you intend on paying cash for a KAZA UNIVISA, make absolutely sure that your bills are spotless in every way and guard them closely.
We exited immigration, stopped at an ATM to withdraw some Zambian kwacha, and met our transport outside. We were driven 20 minutes to The Royal Livingstone Hotel located inside the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park on the banks of the Zambezi River. The property is exquisite and the surroundings are wondrous. Our room was comfortable with a great view of the river and the sunset.
After freshening up, we made our way back to the lobby, hopped on a tour bus, and were driven to The Royal Livingstone Express, a dinner train experience that departs from Livingstone. It was included as part of our hotel stay and proved to be a bizarre outing. The dining cars were filled with mosquitoes to the point where we decided to spend the non-dining portion of the train ride outside where there were, somehow, less bugs.
Eventually, the train stopped to allow passengers to disembark and walk across the Victoria Falls Bridge on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, before you even step from the train you are accosted by a dozen people trying to get you to buy wooden bowls, copper bracelets, and counterfeit billion Zimbabwean dollar note. I don’t mind dealing with this, in general, because touts are present almost everywhere you go in tourism hot spots, but they were annoyingly persistent, even after rejection, and eventually stopped trying to sell you things and asked for money directly.
We got back on the train after taking some pictures and made our way to the dining car. Dinner was mediocre at best, but the wait staff were polite and attentive throughout the meal. Mosquitoes continued to plague us throughout dinner and on the ride back to our origin. We exited the train, were driven back to the hotel, and hit the hay in preparation for an exciting following day.
Hanging out on the edge of the falls
We woke up and enjoyed a delicious breakfast on the outdoor veranda, relaxed a bit, and then set off for the most adventurous part of our vacation. As soon as we started investigating things to do in Livingstone, we were immediately drawn to the Devil’s Pool, a chance to sit on the edge of Victoria Falls, 355 feet above the gorge into which water plummets. As such, that’s what was on the schedule for this day.
As with every other activity, we were picked up at reception and driven to the launch site. After signing some waivers with extremely scary language, we were huddled under a tent to wait for the four other people joining us. Eventually, we were led to a boat, driven across the Zambezi to Livingstone Island, and given a surprisingly delicious corn based drink.
Our guide showed us around the island before prompting us to grab a towel, ditch our outerwear, and join him in swimming across a calm part of the Zambezi. It only took about thirty seconds of a combination of swimming and walking to get to the rocky outcrop from which we’d enter the pool. To be quite honest, I was a bit nervous based on my perusal of images from the Devil’s Pool, but there was no reason to be. While the lip separating you from a great time and certain death seems small in some pictures, it is really about three feet wide. In addition, there is a staff member in the water with you to make sure you don’t go over the edge. In short, it seems extremely safe and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the experience to anyone.
Angela and I were the first couple in the water and it was exhilarating. While safe, you are allowed to hang over the edge if you’re willing to crawl a bit once you’re up on the rocky lip. It seemed that the staff member was much more insistent on keeping the women back from the edge than the men, but that is completely anecdotal from our observations. Once you swim out to the edge and are on top of it, you’re prompted to pose and take tons of pictures.
Angela and I discussed the experience afterwards and both agreed that it would have been nice to take less pictures and have a little bit more time to just enjoy the scene around you. There’s an opportunity to watch the water pouring over the falls to your right, wonder at the view of the rainbows from your unique position on the edge, and acknowledge the general sense of being in a place that few people will get to be. The ability to actually do those things is abbreviated by the guide’s insistence on taking, literally, 900 pictures of you. Our suspicion is that most tourists desire this because they’re looking for the perfect image but we wish we would have known in advance to advise the guide we wanted to take some of our time to just look around.
After everyone had their chance in the water, we swam back across the river, dried off, handled tips for our guide, and then were treated to a delicious plated lunch that exceeded our expectations. We enjoyed the company of our fellow tourists, a younger couple on their honeymoon and another that were celebrating the wife’s fiftieth birthday.
We were met and driven back to the hotel and walked across the property to The Royal Livingstone’s sister hotel Avani. During our walk we saw a variety of wildlife including some monkeys, mongooses, and zebras.
We chose to eat dinner at the hotel’s restaurant and would recommend other guests take the opportunity to do the same as the meal was delicious. We started with a trio of African dishes, including mopane worms. Angela ordered lamb curry for her main course while I opted for a steak on the recommendation of our waitress. Both dishes were fantastic tasting. The dining experience was extremely ordered and proper, although our waitress did audibly and visibly react when our worms came out and we let her know we were trying them for the first time. They were OK, but we would end up having a better preparation later in our trip. The only negative thing about the dinner was the sheer volume of bugs at and around our table, but I think that could have been remedied by choosing to eat inside rather than overlooking the Zambezi River.
Exploring the park and a delightful last evening on the Zambezi
After breakfast, we decided to take a stroll through the falls section of Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. We were allowed free entry to the park based on our stay at The Royal Livingstone, having to to present our key as proof. Once inside, we were greeted by a guide who gave us a rundown of the park and some suggestions on walking through it. The scenery was beautiful and the views of Victoria Falls were quite nice, even considering we were visiting during the dry season. We both agreed that we want to return during the wet season to see the water in full volume.
The only bad part about the park is the sheer number of people hassling you for cash. Angela used the restroom and someone tried to shake her down for a few kwacha. We were walking along the path and someone tried to lead us off it towards the edge to take pictures while asking for a tip. We spent about twenty minutes getting guilted by someone from Zimbabwe while explaining that we weren’t actively carrying any cash with us. It made an otherwise very enjoyable walk somewhat less so.
After our walk around the park, we decided to spend the afternoon by the pool. The chairs were comfortable and the provided towels were fluffy, but there was a distinct lack of service. I wanted to buy some water for Angela and walked up to the bar near the pool, but it remained unattended for the entire three hours we were there. Of course, that didn’t prevent me from relaxing and getting some sleep.
Later that evening, we enjoyed a sundowner cruise on the Zambezi. We were able to observe a variety of wildlife both in the river and on the riverbank. I consumed a few mocktails while Angela had a glass of rose sparkling wine. We had a few appetizers and watched the sun go down over the river before heading back to the hotel and getting some rest.
Off to Botswana
After a filling breakfast, we checked out and met our driver for transport to our next location, Botswana. Unlike our previous transfers, this one would be a land border crossing rather than one between international airports. We were driven to the Zambia-Botswana border, an area full of dirt roads and tractor-trailers awaiting customs clearance. Our driver took our passports and cleared us through Zambian immigration before navigating the rows of trucks and driving us to the riverbank. We waited there for about fifteen minutes until our boat arrived. Our bags were placed on the front seats, we sat down behind them, and we enjoyed a slow cruise to Botswana that took about six minutes. From the middle of the river we were able to see four different countries, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana.
We alighted from the boat, hopped into another truck, and were driven three minutes to Botswanan immigration where we waited in line for about twenty minutes before getting our passports stamped and continuing on our way. We rubbed our shoes on a disinfecting mat to protect wildlife against foot and mouth disease (or so we were told) and then hopped back in the jeep and were driven to Chobe Chilwero, our home for the next three nights.
To say the location was luxurious would be an understatement. While checking in we watched as a family of banded mongooses and baboons crossed the lawn in front of the dining area. We were given a tour of the property and invited to eat lunch while our room was prepared. Thus started our incredible dining experiences at the lodge as we were treated to a three course plated meal with a main course of impala loin cooked to perfection. After the delicious start to our time on property, we relaxed in our room before meeting our guide at the main lodge area prior to our evening game drive.
Our first drive in Botswana was nothing like any of our previous ones. We were driven to a boat launch with two other couples and hopped into a small eight seat motorboat. During our three hour adventure we were treated to a unique perspective on a variety of wildlife from the comforts of the Chobe River. We saw so many amazing animals in such a short time. Rather than list them, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
After our game drive, we had a delicious barbecue style dinner with a wide variety of dishes including eland (an incredible game meat) and mopane worms. The worms at the lodge were much better prepared than those at The Royal Livingstone, being sauteed in some type of delicious sauce rather than charred to a crisp. They were so good that both Angela and I went back for seconds! We were escorted to our room after dinner where we headed to bed in preparation for another exciting day.
A day in Chobe National Park
At this lodge, mornings were handled a little differently with an abbreviated breakfast at 6:30AM followed by a four hour morning game drive in Chobe National Park. After that, we were served a plated lunch. Breakfast was good with a selection of items on a buffet alongside eggs and coffee to order. Because we were doing our game drives in the national park, we were constrained to the existing trails and not allowed to go off-road like we did in Sabi Sands. Fortunately, this didn’t negatively affect our game viewing in any way.
On our first morning game drive we saw a wide variety of wildlife. The highlights included being in the middle of a breeding herd of elephants walking to the water to drink and witnessing some female lions guarding a cape buffalo carcass. In addition, Angela snapped an incredible shot of a lilac breasted roller.
Lunch was delicious and, after an afternoon of relaxation, we were out on the jeep again. I’ll let the pictures do the talking given the variety of wildlife that we saw.
Dinner was served a la carte and was absolutely delicious! Angela and I both opted for the kudu steak and it was one of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever eaten.
Our last full day on safari
We split our time on our last full day in Botswana between the national park and the river. While Angela and I had seen almost everything we wanted to, our last remaining wish was to view a male lion and, on the morning game drive, we were lucky enough to see two. While the lions were initially lounging, a pair of warthogs came trotting along without understanding that there were apex predators present. As soon as they turned the corner and sensed the lions, the warthogs turned and ran faster than I’ve ever seen an animal run. For us, it was excellent because the male lions perked up and we got to see them in their full majesty.
We saw other animals, obviously, but the male lions were definitely the highlight of this day.
On our second drive, we were out on the water again and got incredibly close to a huge crocodile and, later, stopped and observed a large elephant herd drinking.
Unfortunately, I felt very ill on our last night on safari so after our evening game drive I returned to the lodge and went to sleep early. Angela took advantage of the delicious cooking once again and was treated to, I was told, one of the best steaks of her life. In addition, she was asked by lodge staff if she would like any of the recipes from things that she had during her stay.
A final game drive and our departure from paradise
Luckily, my rest paid off and I felt better on our final morning in Botswana. I’m so glad that I did because we were treated to an incredible sighting of a male leopard walking on the road within five minutes of entering the park on our game drive. The leopard’s stroll was magnificent and it was a great way to start our last game drive.
After cruising through Chobe National Park for an abbreviated morning game drive, we stopped back at the lodge to grab our bags and, after checking out, were driven by our guide to the airport. We checked in, went through immigration and security formalities, and headed to a small, but well-stocked, lounge. We grabbed some water, reviewed our many pictures, and hopped on the short economy flight to Johannesberg. We took the free shuttle to the Protea Hotel O.R. Tambo Airport. The hotel was a great value as I booked using Marriott Bonvoy points. Everything in the rooms was aviation themed and I enjoyed plane spotting as we had a great view of the tarmac.
The long journey home
We woke up early, skipped breakfast, and hopped on the shuttle to JNB. After checking in, we passed through security and immigration and headed to the Aspire Lounge to have some breakfast and refreshments before boarding our flight to DOH. The ten hour flight was pleasant with QR’s service being exceptional on the old A350-900 product.
On arrival in Doha, we cleared immigration and took an Uber to The Westin Doha Hotel & Spa for an overnight. We arrived late enough and left early enough that we didn’t even have time to visit the lounge. That being said, the room was beautiful and the bed was extremely comfortable. A small plate of delicious treats was left in our room. We’ll likely return to this property the next time we have an overnight in Doha.
The next morning we reversed our steps from the night before, grabbed some breakfast in the Al Mourjan Business Lounge, and boarded our fourteen hour flight to PHL on another QR A350-900, this time with the Qsuites hard product. Upon arrival in PHL, we lounge hopped during our seven hour layover before boarding a late night flight to LAS, getting picked up by our driver, and finally arriving home.
Some final thoughts
This trip was absolutely incredible. It was so incredible, in fact, that we have already booked a Kenyan safari for next year. It was much less active than our usual vacation and was a step up in luxury from any other trip we’ve taken. While I had some reservations about the managed nature of the trip, I don’t think there’s anything I would change. The airlines we flew were great and the accommodations were exceptional, both at traditional hotels and out in the bush.