When planning our honeymoon, my husband and I wanted to go somewhere exotic and unlike places we’ve been before. Africa seemed like a wonderful fit and after hearing rave reviews we knew we had to go on a safari.
I’ve always wanted to go to Mauritius so we planned to end our two-week trip there to relax on the beach (more on that later). However, the logistics of getting from many mainland African countries to Mauritius was a bit of a nightmare. Our travel agent therefore recommended South Africa for the first leg of our trip and we are so glad she did. This is without a doubt one of the best trips of my lifetime … and it all started with an incredible safari that I still cannot stop talking about.
Our travel agent, Susie Freeman Travel, set us up with an amazing itinerary that started with a safari, then the winelands and Cape Town, and ended in Mauritius. (They warned us about how exhausting a safari can be coming straight from a busy wedding and then being jetlagged on the other side of the world, but we’re New Yorkers, so we managed!) I was happy to start with a bit of an adventure, and then our journey slowly took us into more relaxing parts of the trip.
There aren’t a lot of direct flights to South Africa from the U.S. We flew South African Airways from JFK to Johannesburg. (Yes, it was a 15 hour flight, and yes it was long…but worth it!) From there, there are a few ways to get to Kruger National Park and the safari destinations. We had a driver take us from the Johannesburg airport to the Federal Air terminal, which is not connected to the airport. FedAir flights are very small planes and have many luggage/weight limitations. We were restricted to a duffel bag with no wheels. This was particularly difficult for a two week trip but we managed to pack everything into our hiking backpacks. (Alternatively, you can take a small duffel and leave the luggage for the rest of your trip locked in the Johannesburg airport. This is what most people do and it’s perfectly safe, but we were not flying back through that airport so it was not an option for us.)
I had no expectations of the Federal Air Terminal where we had an hour layover. I was so pleasantly surprised. This was a luxury airport lounge if I ever saw one – cappuccino machines, fridges stocked with sparkling water, a buffet of gourmet small bites that were absolutely delicious – all included. There was an outdoor waiting area complete with a fountain that looked out on the planes landing and taking off. I didn’t mind hanging there for an hour!
Our plane was a little nine-seater that felt more like a mini van than a plane. It was only about an hour’s flight to the game reserve and we were the third stop. (Yes, the plane literally makes stops at each of the lodges, like a bus.) We landed on the runway which was just a little patch of pavement shared by three of the lodges in that area. It’s in the bush so animals often like to hang out on the airstrip so they can easily see predators coming. So when we landed, we had some nice warthogs to greet us right away!
Leaving the Lodge
We left a different way than we came, although depending on your itinerary the transportation could easily be reversed. We were headed to Cape Town. A van picked us up at the hotel (the first car with a roof we’d seen in days!) and drove us through the reserve and through Kruger. It took over an hour to pass through the park gates and onto a main, paved road. It was about another hour from there to get to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport.
Kruger airport was small and very easy to navigate. We took a short two and a half hour flight to Cape Town on South African Airways. (Despite the length of the flight they still gave us a full meal, which was surprisingly good.)
Other ways of getting around
Since it was our first safari we opted to let our travel agent arrange car services and flights for us. However, renting a car and doing a self-drive both to and from the lodge is a popular option for some tourists. (Yes, if you really want to you can drive through the park filled with lions and elephants.) If you choose this option and you’re not British, remember, South Africans drive on the left side of the road!
Also worth noting if you choose to drive is the idea of car guards throughout the country. More important in cities and outside of Kruger, you often pay an attendant a few rands to watch your car. It’s a pretty unofficial service but common practice in South Africa.
The easiest way of getting around, especially in cities, is Uber. It’s just as popular in South Africa as it is in America, and it’s by far the simplest way of traveling as long as you have cell service or can find some wifi to order a car.
It’s a good time to be a tourist in South Africa, as the exchange rate is in our favor. $1 USD gets you about 14 rand, and if you will find most things to be relatively cheap. Safari lodges are typically all-inclusive since you can’t leave the lodge for things like food, and if you’re in a luxury lodge the cost per night can be a bit pricey. We found that going through our travel agent got us an amazing deal on a five star lodge.
Conversion guide as of May 2017:
|1 Rand||.07 USD|
|13.78 Rand||1 USD|
|10 Rand||.73 USD|
You’ll often hear when traveling “gratuity is not expected, but appreciated for good service.” I find this to be a difficult measure of what to tip when abroad. South Africans in general are very kind and accommodating, so tipping was something we did very often.
Safaris are a difficult measure since it’s unlike any other hotel staff you’ll typically encounter. For safari rangers and trackers, we’ve heard everything from 10 rands per day to 200 – so it really is at your discretion. We were also at a very luxurious lodge where the staff was especially accommodating and went above and beyond.
|Bar||Round up (change)|
|Hotel Staff||R5 – R10|
|Taxi||Round up to nearest 10; up to R20 for out of city
(or negotiate ahead of time)
|Safari Drives – ranger/tracker||70 R per day per person (more for luxury safari)|
Read on to hear about the rest of our safari adventure!