by Patrick Butler, and some photos by Karen White
We had fully booked the same trip we just completed back in 2020, but COVID put an end to that adventure. This trip turned out very well and the game viewing was spectacular, as you will see from our photos. I brought a compact camera with a telephoto, but our iPhones took the best pictures as we were very close to the wildlife.
The trip to Cape Town took 25 hours in the air as that beautiful city is very close to the exact opposite of Palo Alto on a globe. OK, we flew business class on Qatar, which is one of the highest rated airlines and offers private compartments with a door to the aisle. Whatever you want to eat or drink anytime. I took full advantage of some great French champaign and assorted wines, while Karen was more restrained. Add a two-hour layover in Doha and eight hours in Johannesburg, and we were putting one foot in front of the other when we were picked up at the airport at 8:00 AM by a driver from our boutique hotel, the Derwent House, in the Garden Area of Cape Town, one of the safest neighborhoods in a city plagued by crime. My first impression was that most all of the homes and hotels were surrounded by high voltage electric fences on high walls. Our hotel had a guard who sat all night in front of the double electric locked gates.
We hired a local guide for a half-day trip that afternoon to keep from falling asleep and help adjust to the 12-hour time zone change. Our guide Craig took us up Table Mountain. The skies were clear, so the views were spectacular. After a tour of the city by car, we came back to the hotel for a snack and a great meal at a restaurant about a block down the hill. Our room was a suite, with decks on both sides with views of the ocean on one side and Table Mountain on the other. We were amazed by the low price of some great meals, about $26 for the two of us with drinks and a glass of wine. We highly recommend the Derwent Hotel. The staff was great and the clients were an interesting lot, many of whom had stayed there several times. We stayed there five nights, using that same guide on the third day to drive us to most of the usual tourist spots, the penguins, the Cape of Good Hope (very rough seas) for lunch and a long loop along the beautiful coast.
On our last day we took an Uber (which we used to avoid the Cape Town traffic and taxis) to pick up a rental car, and brought it back to our hotel so we could get an early start the next morning. Driving on the left is always an adventure, especially with the roundabouts. Karen gave me, as usual, the honor of driving. The six-hour drive along the south coast of Africa from Cape Town was interesting and my only error was pulling out of a gas station (full service at $6 a gallon) onto the right side of the road in the path of a large truck. Oops!
Using our iPhones, we found our way to our first hotel in the area, a secluded five star (they all were) called the Hunter Lodge, a farm turned into a hotel many years back. Our large suite had a fireplace that we used most of the three nights we were there. The weather was unusually cold for September in the cape area. We were surrounded by beautiful grounds and you could hear a lot of animals during the night. At our first breakfast a large male monkey ran in and quickly snatched a croissant from the buffet!
After three nights there (and Karen downing a few Cipro for her stomach, due to some undercooked chicken), we checked into a nice hotel right on Plettenberg Bay. They had a gym that we put to use, and we took a walking tour of the small town. Mercifully, most of the shops were closed, ;^).
On the third day we drove to the Port Elizabeth Airport and dropped off our rental, which I am glad was unscratched as I had to put a $4,000 deposit down against theft and damage. Here is a Cape Town parking tip -leave absolutely nothing in your car and the glove box empty and open. Come to think of it, that is probably a good idea in San Francisco…
After a layover of several hours at the Johannesburg Airport, with which we were becoming very familiar, we took a 5-hour flight on Kenya Air, “The Pride of Africa,” to Nairobi, Kenya, then a short flight to the Mt. Kilimanjaro Airport where we were picked up by our guide from Gosheni Safaris to check into the Arusha Coffee Lodge and start our ten-day private tour of northern Tanzania. The next day we drove the first of seemingly endless bumpy dirt roads to Ashura Park, viewing a lot of sleeping cats, a leopard up a tree, two cheetahs right by the road and a small lion pride that were watching one of the countless impalas. After a huge hot lunch, soup, chicken, beef, veggies, breads, wine, beer, etc., we returned to the lodge to have dinner with a large group of noisy Americans in the next room.
We next drove to Tarangire National Park. Afterwards we drove through thousands of acres of khat, a mild narcotic leaf that is chewed over much of N. Africa and the Gulf area. The homes on these properties were quite nice, so I presume the export business was good. Our guide pretended not to know what it was. We checked into the Gibbs Farm for a full board experience and a room that featured a fireplace in the bedroom and bath. We used the fireplace, as the elevation made for chilly nights. We took a walking safari to see a large group of Cape Buffalo (noted for their bad disposition) and giraffes, who are quite the opposite, as they eat the leaves from between two-inch thorns on the acacia trees. Our guide was a park ranger who carried a high-powered rifle.
After a night of glamping and some excellent food, we drove our Toyota imitation of a Range Rover to the south rim of the huge Ngorongoro Crater. The road down had a 14% grade which would put most hills in San Francisco to shame. We spent eight hours in the crater and saw, albeit far away, two of the last twenty black rhinos in existence there. I had brought a pair of Leica field glasses on the trip that really paid off in the crater because you could not leave the dirt roads to view the game. That night we stayed at the Ngorongoro Rim hotel on the north side, which featured a spectacular view from our room. Too bad we put off taking a picture until the next day when the clouds rolled in.
Next we drove into the Serengeti National Park, which was absolutely packed with wild game. Lions everywhere, cheetahs and leopards, literally millions of gazelles, and wildebeest. We checked into the Four Seasons, with a room with a huge deck and a big sky view of the seemingly endless park. After two nights we drove to the west and our last hotel, at a four-star camp in the wilderness. That day we drove to the Maru River, which flows into Lake Victoria from Kenya, and were lucky to catch the iconic crossing of the river by a great herd of wildebeest. Most made the crossing as the migration had started early and the huge crocodiles were stuffed and sunning on the river banks. The wildebeest are estimated to be 2 to 3 million in this area. They follow the older leaders who emit pheromones but often become disoriented and lost to the delight of the many predators in the park. I coined the name “bewilderdbeest” for some we would see wandering alone, far from the others.
The last day in the park we returned to wait for another crossing. It had rained hard the night before, so the river was deep brown, fast, and to the top of its bank. Finally, about ten males started to cross and made it almost to the opposite bank, but then all but one turned back. At that point an older male led the thousand animals away, which might have been an astute move to rid himself of an obviously capable challenger. The one lone beast’s family remained for an hour as the herd left and he called out every few seconds. Finally, his family left and the lone beast, too exhausted to swim back to safety, kept crying out. As the sun neared the horizon, we drove off as the lone animal was left to the watchful eyes of the many predators who were gathered close to the bank.
The next day we started the 48-hour trip back saying goodbye to our guide George and taking two small bush plane rides to the Kilimanjaro Airport, then back to Nairobi and on to Johannesburg Airport, for yet another wait (at least we had a decent lounge) for the flights to Doha and on to San Francisco. I did note that the flight from Doha was truly a polar route. We flew right over Russia and close to, if not right over, the North Pole to SFO.
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