The last minute trip to Africa…
In July, I found myself with a few extra weeks of leave, and with a few hundred thousand frequent flyer miles about to expire, we decided to visit one of our favourite places on the planet – Southern Africa. With the move to Australia, and our newfound obsession with underwater photography, we had not been to Africa since 2011.
Our golden rules (or “non negotiables”) for safaris are:
- Enough buffer time to accommodate delays (less stress),
- Destinations that offer different things (e.g., don’t visit two camps in the Sabi Sands),
- A minimum of three nights per camp (anything less and you’ll miss what you came for),
- And, always, always, hire a private vehicle at camps (we realise we’re a pain in the ass, and this is how we deal with it)
Given we literally planned this 10 days ahead of time, we decided on three nights at Camp Kalahari, known for the habituated meerkats and amazing night sky, followed by three nights at Mala Mala (our “sure thing” from previous safaris).
Getting from Australia to Africa is easier than expected. From Melbourne we flew to Perth, and then on to Johannesburg. The only wrinkle was that we took an early flight to Perth to allow time to connect (the airport is HUGE and requires a bus transfer that only runs every 20 minutes). The South African Airways counter (which is actually run by Qantas) doesn’t open for checkin until three hours before the flight, so we had to loiter around a bit before being let through to the lounge. In retrospect, we weren’t missing much – the domestic lounge was heaps nicer. Our flight to Johannesburg took off as scheduled at 11:40pm.
Due to headwinds, the eleven hour flight took closer to thirteen, but we had plenty of time before our connection. Our bags were checked through to Maun, so we just had to clear the transfer immigration counter and head straight to the Shongololo lounge for showers and brekkie. The South African Air flight departed close to the scheduled time of 10:25am and we landed in Maun close to noon. The planes were definitely getting smaller !
The Maun airport is a sea of luxury lodge handlers, all holding signs to greet arriving passengers. The one we saw labeled “Martin party of 2” was actually for someone else, but we found our guy from “Major Blue Air” a few minutes later.
The charter flights in this area operate as kind of a shuttle service. Depending on who wants to go where, you may have the whole plane to yourself, or you may make a stop or two along the way to pick up or drop off guests at other camps. We had the plane to ourselves for the first 30-minute leg, so I hopped into the co-pilot seat for a better view. Bad move – it turned out to be VERY turbulent. When we picked up two guests at Leroo La Tau, I moved a row back and hunkered down for the final 20-minute leg. I was fine as soon as the door opened and the fresh air flooded the cabin.
Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana
We were greeted by Jacosta, who would be our host at Camp Kalahari for the duration of our stay. The camp consists of a common area and ten Meru style tents. The commmon area includes a family style dining area (one long table), and a lounge area with a library, games, and a very busy charging station. The tents have a light, however there are no outlets to charge anything. There’s also no wi-fi or phone signal. Neither of these things were an issue. The food, and the pinotage, was also fantastic.
The tents are actually two giant tents with a zippered divider between the bed area and bath area. The bed was a quite comfy king, and the water bottles inserted into the covers at night were quite welcome given it was winter. The bath area had a giant wardrobe, as well as plenty of hot water. We weren’t roughing it.
We were there for the meerkats, so we arranged to visit them at dawn as well as dusk. If you’ve seen Meerkat Manor, that is actually in South Africa. Camp Kalahari is located on a private concession, and the area has four groups of semi-habituated meerkats. Each night, they retreat to their burrows until the sun rises in the morning. So as an observer, you bundle up, find a hole, and wait for the sun to rise. This is made easier by “meerkat men” who know where they were yesterday, and go out before sunrise to stake out the burrow. The best part is at the beginning when the sentinel is surveying the area looking for predators or other danger. Once he gives the all clear, the rest of the clan emerges and heads out in search of insects and other food. At that point it is pretty much a free for all because they go in 12 different directions and move fast.
And yes, if you sit still they will climb on you.
We also begrudgingly went on the “quad bike tour”. We are not fans of group tours, and quad biking seemed a little meh. We were totally wrong and this turned out to be a highlight of the trip !
We headed over to Jack’s Camp in the late afternoon to pick up the quad bikes. Jacosta took us to two bikes in the front of the caravan, which was an expert maneuver given the amount of dust in this area. Riding the quad bikes on the paths adjacent to the endless salt pans was a lot more fun than we imagined. We stopped to take some photos and enjoy the sunset in complete silence.
From there we drove a short distance to another area for sundowners, followed by dinner under the stars. With zero light pollution, the view was like nothing we’ve ever seen.
After three nights at Camp Kalahari, we returned to the airstrip for the hour-long flight back to Maun (no stops this time). In Maun, we connected to our flight to Johannesburg for one night at the airport Intercontinental. For a short stopover like this, you really can’t beat the location (it’s overpriced but we used points).
Mala Mala, South Africa
The next morning, we walked back over to the airport and checked in for the one-hour flight to Skukuza. The airport is new since the last time we were here, and is quite possibly the cutest airport that we’ve ever seen. The charter flights are more expensive, but land AT the Mala Mala airstrip. Skukuza is about an hour drive from Mala Mala, but it was like a mini-game drive (including an elephant jam).
We spent three nights at Mala Mala, and it never disappoints. One new addition since our last visit is the photographic vehicle, which has sliding camera mounts, bean bags, and storage compartments. Our ranger arranged to bring breakfast in the morning so we could leave early and stay out as long as we wanted. We were in heaven.
We had room #12, which had a stellar view of the Sand River which was overflowing with elephants and a variety of different types of antelope.
We went on six game drives, each with its own memorable moments. Highlights included:
- Four different leopards, seventeen different lions, and a pack of NINE wild dogs
- Pulling over to look at an impala lily during a slow morning, only to have Andy spot a leopard lounging on a rock above the flower
- Watching a clan of hyena, including several cubs, at their den
- Spending a few hours unsuccessfully tracking a leopard, only to spot her sitting in the road once we’d given up and were heading back to camp
And yes, we’ll be back.