South Africa

Africa – The Numbers

Here are some interesting figures from our 2nd continent:

  • 3 – Months we spent in Africa
  • 46 – Number of beds we slept in
  • 8 – Countries Visited (South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Tanzania, Kenya)
  • 39 – Days we spent in South Africa
  • 3 – Hours we spent in Lesotho
  • 7 – Cars we rented in South Africa
  • 5900 – Kilometers we drove in South Africa (3600 miles)
  • 30 – Number of deeply discounted or comp’d hotel nights through Ted’s tourism connections
  • 26 – Days spent with family in Africa
  • 35 – Percentage of nights we paid for accommodation (thanks Moms and Dads, and tourism connections!)
  • 38 – Hours on a bus (nothing compared to the 182.5 in South America)
  • 14 – Beaches visited
  • 45 – Number of game drives
  • 50 – Number of lions seen on game drives
  • 2200 – Photos taken (and kept)
  • 12 – Number of guides and porters assigned only to us for our Kili hike
  • 13,393 – Vertical feet climbed on our summit hike of Kilimanjaro
  • 19,341 – Highest altitude in feet we’ve ever climbed to
  • 6 – Flights on big airplanes
  • 6 – Flights on small airplanes
  • 10 – Visits to the Johannesburg airport
  • 1 – Number of police reports filed

Check out our Best of pics from Southern Africa, East Africa, and African Mega-Fauna for some visual highlights.  Now, on to the Indian Subcontinent…

Safaris North and South

By the end of our time in Southern Africa, we thought we were safari gurus. I mean, what first-time Africa travelers go on over 40 game drives in one visit? From Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta, to Kruger Park proper and the surrounding game reserves, we thought we knew the drill. Then, we went to Tanzania, and our whole concept of how a safari works went straight out the window. There are some big differences, and advantages and disadvantages to both. Here is a little comparison:

  • Lodge-centered vs. Operator-centered – This is the biggest single difference. Down South, your entire safari experience is organized by, and executed through the lodge or camp where you are staying. Your game drives happen early in the morning and late in the afternoon, with the hot hours of mid-day spent lounging around the lodge. Most of the time, you do loops around the vicinity of the lodge, so location is paramount. Generally, it is the lodge’s vehicles that are used for the game drives, and the lodge employs the guides and trackers. Up North, however, you’re constantly on the move, and the lodges and camps are simply a place to spend a night or two. The safari experience is organized and executed through a tour operator, who arranges your guide and decides what camps and lodges to stay in. Game drives may last all day, with a significant commute between parks being your down time.
  • Vehicle Style – Down South, most game drives cruise loops within a 20 mile radius of the lodge. Because you’re always on roads within the reserve or park, and because you want to have the most intimate animal encounters possible, safaris here use open-sided Land Cruisers. The only thing between you and Simba is a few feet of open air. Up North, you spend a lot more time in your safari vehicle. To hit all the parks along the Northern Safari Circuit (Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara, Tarangire), you’ve got to be on the move every couple days, and travel between parks can take a number of hours through urban and rural environments. For this reason, you can’t cruise around in the open-sided jeeps of the South, you need a Land Cruiser that is fully enclosed. But to get good photos of the animals, you also need a window-less environment. The solution – pop-top Land Cruisers.

Pop-tops up north

Open sided down south

  • Fences – There is a lot of controversy about enclosing protected areas throughout Africa. Some argue it’s beneficial, and allows for better protection of the animals. Others think that animals should be free to roam as they always have, even if that means sometimes roaming into a village. Down South, just about ever protected area is fenced. Now, these fences might enclose parks the size of small US states, but if you walk far enough in any direction, you’ll hit an electrified fence. Up North, they don’t seem to believe in fences, and animals up there are constantly on the move. It’s actually the migratory patterns of the animals up North that prevent many lodge-centered operations from being sustainable – only certain times of year are animals abundant in their vicinity. To deal with this migratory challenge, they’ve developed my favorite safari accommodation – mobile camps: Temporary tented camps that pick up and move every couple months with the flow of the animals.

Mobile tented camps up north

  • Vehicle Concentration – Down South, all of the game reserves and parks have strict rules on the number of safari jeeps that can be viewing a particular animal or group of animals at once – generally no more than 3. This is easy to enforce, as all jeeps belong to lodges within the reserve, and all lodges must follow reserve rules (for their own benefit). Unfortunately, up North there is no limit to the number of jeeps at any particular sighting, so it’s not uncommon to see well over a dozen jeeps looking on a pride of lions.

Line of vehicles to see a leopard in Serengeti

  • Animals – Diversity and Quantity – How could I leave this for last? You can find the Big 5 both North and South, but each region also has its own set of unique fauna. The big difference, however, is that there seem to be a much higher density of animals up North. We went 10 days in Botswana before we saw a lion, and after 40 game drives down South, we were up to 12 or so. In Tanzania, we saw 44 lions over 5 days. Then there are the thousands upon thousands of wildebeest and zebras that make up the Great Migration. You can see all the cool animals in both places, you’ll just see more of them up North.

How many do you count in this photo?

So, after all that, which is better? Hard to say. The lodge-centered safaris, open vehicles, and low vehicle concentration all favor the South. But, the lack of fences and shear volume of animals make the North pretty special. Either way, you can’t go wrong.


There seems to be a rule in Africa that says, “If you go on safari, you must purchase and flaunt the largest camera and lens that you can possibly find.”  Apparently, we missed that memo.  Instead, we’re trying to rig our little point-and-shoot camera through a set of binoculars which, I’m happy to report, works quite well with a steady hand.  Amateurs…

Pros? I think not...

This guy needs a pillow to hold his up

Southern Africa Wrap-up

We visited a total of 6 countries in Southern Africa – Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mozambique – but some for only a matter of days, and some for only a matter of hours! That being said, we’ve decided to combine them all together for a regional wrap-up. Below, in no particular order, are our Top 10 Highlights, Bottom 5 Bummers, as well as Favorite Food/Drink and Animal Sightings (new category for Africa!) of our two months in Southern Africa. You can also check out our Best of Southern Africa photo album for some more visual highlights (and don’t forget the African Mega-Fauna album for our top animal sightings).

Top 10

  1. Mokoro Ride

    Victoria Falls – What can we say? They are one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World and they are some incredibly impressive falls.

  2. Remoteness of the Botswana bush – A safari in Botswana is a unique experience. You are hundreds of miles into the wilderness away from cities, towns, and other people. There are no power lines or fences or signs of civilization. The only way in and out is via bush plane. It’s just you and the animals in the bush.
  3. Small plane flights between safari lodges – Due to the remoteness of the safari camps in Botswana and seasonal weather conditions, several times our transport between camps was by small plane. One flight was a total of 8 minutes and Ted got to sit shotgun with the pilot.
  4. Mokoro ride – Our safari group in Botswana got treated to traditional Mokoro rides, which are similar to dug-out canoes. Powered only by a long pole, you are gliding just inches above the water and kinda feel like you’re flying.
  5. Family-filled January – How incredible is it that both sets of our parents came all the way across the ocean from the Northern United States to Southern Africa to visit us?!
  6. View from Table Mountain – Nothing quite like it and I think we appreciated it even more due to the energy we expended to get up there!
  7. Morning at Clifton Beaches – Just around the corner from Cape Town’s city center are the most beautiful, tucked-away beaches. We went with the Graces on a weekday and nearly had the place to ourselves.
  8. Cheetah!

    Animal Sighting Good Luck Charms – The Martens saw it all in the animal department – including the much talked about Big 5 (elephants, leopards, rhinos, buffalo and lions) plus cheetahs and lots of other good stuff in a matter of days. Ted and I had not seen a rhino or a cheetah before their visit and we’d been on nearly 30 game drives before they came.

  9. Bush to Beach to Bush – I wrote about this day in a previous post, and it was really quite awesome. Seeing big animals and swimming in the ocean makes for an incredible day.
  10. SCUBA Diving in Moz – We both love being underwater and I wish we got to do it more often. We were very impressed with the coral and the variety of fish in Mozambique.

Bottom 5

  1. Lame NYE – We’d love to have a memorable, exciting story to share about our New Year’s Eve on the trip, but low and behold, we were asleep before midnight.
  2. Theft – At the lodge we stayed at in Cape Town with my parents, we had an issue with some sticky-fingered housekeepers. Wily Ted was able to prove their misdeed. The manager was appalled and immediately and appropriately addressed the situation, including reimbursing us for the small amount taken.
  3. Bad Bus Ride

    Bus to Tofo BeachWe’re wimps. We didn’t take a whole lots of public transportation in Africa, and I’m using this fairly uncomfortable bus ride as justification of why we didn’t do so.

  4. Visa debaclesLet’s just say that in Johannesburg we went to the India Embassy three times (to get a visa), the Mozambique Embassy four times (to get a visa), and the U.S. Embassy once (to get more pages in my passport).
  5. Failing to visit NamibiaWhen we left the US for our trip, we were 100% positive we were going to Namibia. Ted has a travel industry friend and contact living there with his family and we were planning to pay them a visit. Sadly, it didn’t happen.

Favorite Meals and Treats

  1. Sundowners – The idea of having a cocktail while watching the sun go down is a good one. We enjoyed our sundowners on the Zambezi River in Zambia, in the Botswana bush, with city views in Cape Town, throughout the greater Kruger Park area, and the list goes on.
  2. Ostrich Fillet - Mmmmmmm

    Stuffed Crabs – Mmmm. We discovered these stuffed treats in Mozambique and ate them all week.

  3. Unique Game – Never before had we eaten ostrich or impala – and we quite liked it. Other game options included crocodile, kudu (a type of antelope), and warthog!
  4. Ocean Basket – OB is a South African chain restaurant that serves fresh seafood, fish and chips, and sushi. They are everywhere and we ate there many a time including with both sets of parents.
  5. NatHab Safari Meals – When we were on safari in Botswana, we ate entirely too much amazing food. How they got such fabulous fresh food out into the middle of the bush in order to feed us so well is beyond me.

Animal Sighting Highlights

  1. Wild Dog

    Wild Dog – Our one and only sighting of wild dogs was in Botswana. They are endangered and extremely rare to see. Even the guides were excited, that is how we knew we were lucky.

  2. Pursuit of first leopard – Francis, our guide in Botswana, is the man. With his animal tracking know-how, his persistence and determination, his off-road driving and a little bit of luck we spotted our first leopards – a momma and two older cubs. You wouldn’t believe the amount of vegetation we got to drive over just to find them.
  3. Baby animals – Due to the time of year we were visiting, we got the opportunity to see lots of mommas and their babies. There isn’t anything much cuter than baby lions, elephants, and impala.
  4. Elephants – Ted’s favorite animal to see. We saw lots.
  5. Giraffes – Sarah’s favorite. Oh, and to see a giraffe running is incredible – it appears to be happening in slow motion.
  6. Rhinos

    Game drive with Ocean – Ocean was one of our guides with Ted’s parents and he kept things interesting. Within a couple hours we saw 4 of the Big 5 (elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo and rhinos) and evaded an aggressively charging male elephant!

  7. First rhinoceros – Finally! After our Botswana safari and several days in the Kruger Park area we were beginning to think they didn’t exist. But they do!
  8. Cheetah with it’s kill – What an amazing site to come upon. We didn’t realize it had just hunted until the little impala almost got away and the cheetah had to finish it off.
  9. Surprise night-time leopard sighting – Last night in the Kruger Park area and our way back to the lodge we magically came upon a leopard.
  10. Lotsa fish – Between snorkeling with the Martens and SCUBA diving in Moz, we got to see some great underwater animals as well!

Don’t forget to check out the Best Of photo albums here and here.


Speaking of safety and security issues, this is a technology highly utilized in the South African market – wireless credit card machines.  Why?  Because you shouldn’t let your credit card out of your sight in this country – it’s a well-known scam to steal your info while the card is being processed.  Sucks to have to worry about issues like this…

Wireless Credit Card Machine

Living Behind Walls

South Africa is an amazingly beautiful country. The diversity of landscapes, cultures, animals, and cities is world-class, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time down there. Based purely on its tourist merits, South Africa might just be one of the world’s top destinations. But South Africa also has a very dark cloud over its head, one that is omnipresent, and one that will take many years to clear.

South Africa’s cloud is safety and security, rooted in their post-apartheid recovery. Bottom line – a lot of bad stuff happens there, and it happens all the time. Don’t get me wrong – one can travel safely and comfortably very easily (otherwise, I wouldn’t have invited our parents over to visit!). We made it all over the country, including a week stint in its most dangerous city, with no issues whatsoever. But, you gotta be smart about how you travel here, and you gotta be even smarter about how you live here.

South Africans live behind walls, security systems, electric fences, and razor wire. In the cities, nearly all middle class communities are gated and guarded, and almost everyone has been (or knows someone who has been) robbed, assaulted, or car-jacked – likely multiple times. At night, you don’t walk anywhere that isn’t within a guarded area. In some places, it’s totally acceptable to run red lights, if you feel your safety is in question. At first, I was appalled to hear that people live in such circumstances, but South Africans look at it as an everyday challenge that needs to be dealt with. And to their credit, they’ve created a very comfortable and modern lifestyle that avoids these threats. Thriving JoBurg suburbs like Sandton have beautiful malls with enclosed courtyards and parks that people flock to for social gatherings. Housing neighborhoods feel like ones at home, just with big walls surrounding them. A security industry that must lead the country’s economy ensures that your office, home, school, car, etc are looked after while you’re out. In short, South Africans have figured out how to live well in a dangerous place.

Police vehicle in downtown JoBurg - used for regular patrol

In reality, most of the country is not very dangerous at all – it’s mainly the big cities. Living and traveling safely here is simply a matter of being a bit more vigilant in your actions and precautions. We found ourselves being particularly conscious of leaving nothing visible in our cars, planning our routes around safe areas, avoiding walking at night (in most places), and minimizing the valuables we had on us at any point in time. The result – no problems, and a killer visit to this amazing country.

South Africa, despite its challenges, is an fabulous place that we highly recommend you check out. From the incredible game of Kruger National Park, to the flat-topped Drakensburg Mountains, to the wetlands of St. Lucia, to the beaches of the Wild and Garden Coasts, to the vibrancy of Cape Town, and more – this country has it all. It may be years before the dark cloud of Apartheid finally disappears, but in the meantime, do what the South Africans do: work around the security challenges – the rewards are well worth the effort.

Apartheid Was Yesterday

Ok, so apartheid didn’t end yesterday, but it ended in 1994, less than one generation ago, and that is damn recent. Without a doubt, the country has come a long way in those 17 years, thanks to the amazing work of leaders like Nelson Mandela, but the deep wounds created by those years of hate and segregation are far from healed. You can still feel the racial tension in the air – not everywhere, and not all the time, but there is an undertone of animosity.

To our surprise, the anger, mistrust, and hate is not just a black-white problem. Within the white population, people of British decent and the Afrikaners of Dutch decent are fond of jabbing at one another, sometimes playfully, and other times not. Within the black population, there is inter-tribe tension, as well as serious xenophobia against immigrants from other African nations. But certainly the biggest scar was cut by the black-white laws of apartheid.

Police riot vehicle from apartheid era - Apartheid Museum

A number of white South Africans I spoke with think their country is going downhill, fast. Some of the more racist whites flat out blame the black population, but the more educated ones just realize that it’s crime and government corruption fueling the problems they cite. Many whites are unsure of their future in their home country, and have back-up plans to move to Australia, the UK, or somewhere else.

From the perspective of a traveler, most of this tension is below the radar. Only after spending a month there and asking uncomfortable questions of locals was I able to draw out the picture I have laid out above. Having dug into this territory though, I found myself wanting to be recognized as an outsider – a rather ironic position to be in. See, for the first time since we left, I didn’t feel like a tourist that stuck out every where we went. While not always a bad thing to be the tourist that sticks out in Latin America, I generally do what I can to keep a low profile. But in South Africa, I looked just like every other white South African. At first, I thought it would be nice to blend in finally, but after a short while, I wished that I had a big sign on me that said “touro”. Not because I wanted to stick out as a good target for pick-pocketing, but because I wanted to separate myself from the group of people that most black South Africans still hold bitter feelings towards – the white population. I wanted to say, “Listen, I was not one of the people oppressing you during apartheid, I’m just a visitor that wants to see your beautiful country.”

Apartheid Museum - Johannesburg

Unfortunately, there are still many problems that are intertwined with the apartheid recovery process, namely crime and security (another post in itself). Fortunately, things are improving rather quickly, and a lot of progress has been made in a relatively short period of time. If we look in the mirror, we’re hardly ones to lecture – 50 years beyond the Civil Rights Movement in the US and nearly 150 years since slavery was abolished, and we’re still battling with race issues today.

All things considered, South Africa has made some impressive strides forward in an uphill battle, one that they are committed to overcoming. The good news is, as a tourist to the country, you are helping them to fight this battle (the tourism industry is crucial to their continued economic development), and you likely won’t feel more than hint of the underlying tensions.

Shout Out to JoBurg

Johannesburg, South Africa has the notorious reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in all of Africa (and all of the world). That is not something to be proud of and it was not a place we were looking forward to spending time. People warn you to drive around with your windows up and doors locked with nothing inviting visible in the car. Car-jackings are common and people wouldn’t hesitate to break a window and take your bag from the backseat if they so desired. Everyone lives behind a high wall with a security system and electric or barbed wire fence. Walking in some parts of the city, even during the daytime, is not advised. And the list goes on.

However, with our parents flights taking them in and out of the JoBurg airport (visits 8 and 9 out of 10 to JHB), and with the visa and passport stuff we had to take care of there (4 visits to the Indian Consulate, 3 to the Mozambique Consulate, 1 to the US Embassy), we ended up spending a total of 9 nights in this scary place. To its credit, we experienced absolutely no problems beyond our own paranoia. We came across some lovely neighborhoods, beautiful outdoor malls, safe and prosperous suburbs, a very interesting museum about Apartheid, and delicious restaurants. We saw how people can live comfortably here and why they might choose to do so!

Apartheid Museum

OB - Our favorite restaurant chain in SA

We have to give some special recognition to Patrick at Mbizi Backpackers, where we stayed 8 (non-consectutive) nights in JoBurg. He runs a great little spot in the house that he grew up in, and at this point we have spent more days at his place than in any other spot on our travels.

Our host Patrick

Patrick's hostel - Mbizi Backpackers

However to prove that JoBurg is kinda as scary as we were warned, between stays at Mbizi while we were in Mozambique, poor Patrick got robbed for over the 30th TIME in his life, and his neighbor’s girlfriend got car-jacked the same night. Yikes! I guess we should be thankful that we made it out safely after all…

Industry Bloggin’

Another African submission to World Nomads’ Responsible Travel Blog.  The topic this week surrounds eco-initiatives at safari bush camps.  If you’re interested, read on here, or below:

Eco-Successes in the African Bush

Running a safari camp can’t be easy.  In fact, it may be just about the most difficult hospitality gig on the planet.  In addition to all of the nuances of running any old high-quality hotel, you have to do it off-the-grid, in a very remote and hard-to-access location, within a wildlife reserve or park, with highly specialized on-site staff, while running a successful game-drive business that ensures guests see all of the Big 5 animals and more.

Big 5 sighting - Cape Buffalo

Balancing a sustainable tourism plan in this already difficult operating environment can be a tall order for any camp owner.  Some argue that there simply is not enough time (or money) to implement sustainability projects under such demanding circumstances.  Fortunately, many others have taken the opposite approach, believing that operating responsibly is a necessity for survival in the safari business.  After all, visits to the bush are all about viewing animals in their natural environment – shouldn’t a safari camp’s goal be to protect that very environment?

Thanks to the many challenges of running a safari operation, camp owners have been forced to develop some of the leading eco-innovation and efficiency techniques found in the tourism industry today.  Here are some projects that impressed me in the bush:

· Energy – Remote bush camps have two options when it comes to electricity – diesel generators or renewables.  Both systems are used to power battery units to provide power during off-peak times.  While most camps have historically used diesel fuel, those that have switched to renewables are reaping the benefits – reduced energy costs over time, no expensive diesel delivery costs, no noise pollution in the bush, no fuel-burning pollution in the bush, etc.  Solar is the new diesel, both through solar electricity and solar thermal devices.  Cutting edge camps have cut their operational diesel burn to nearly zero, using the old generators only for back-up during maintenance.

· Solid Waste – With no routine trash pick-up (some camps only have vehicle access for less than 3 months a year!), storing waste and recycling can prove to be a challenge.  Add to that the hungry and aggressive animals in these regions, and you have a waste management problem on your hands.  Composting has become a big trend, eliminating over 50% of solid waste volume. Compost pits, however, must be heavily secured and closely monitored – hyenas in particular love to dig their way in.  Recycling is separated at some of the more eco-focused camps, but most parts of Africa lack a location for processing these materials.  Material re-use is woven into every aspect of operations, from food-prep, to housekeeping, to camp decoration.  Leading camps have developed systems for eliminating packaging and excess materials prior to camp delivery, reducing the load on the back end.  Remaining waste is stored in secure cages until it can be transported back to town.

· Water Waste – Water is a precious commodity in the often arid desert environments. Watersheds are very susceptible to disease and pollution, so it is imperative that camp water is properly treated before being released back into the ground.  Old-school septic tanks are rapidly being replaced with cutting-edge bio-digester units that use natural bacteria instead of harsh chemicals to treat waste water.

Waste water treatment facility in the bush

Any single initiative listed here wouldn’t constitute a news-worthy sustainability effort.  However, when these projects are combined in a single property, and these properties are dotted across much of the African bush, we’ve got some pretty impressive and wide-spread eco-innovation.  To me, there’s something darn cool about a lodge that sources, uses, and disposes of all of its own energy, water, and most of its waste in a responsible manner.  Regardless of whether the motivation is out of operational necessity or environmental consciousness, I call these off-the-grid camps an eco-success.

Sani Pass to Lesotho

Upon leaving the beach, we headed inland to the Drakensburg Mountains. South Africa does not disappoint with the rich variety of scenery packed into a relatively small space. The Drakensburg Mountains aren’t jagged and pointy like the Rockys, but rather impressively green and endlessly rolling hills. The drive through the area is quite stunning and we were happy to be spending a few days in the region.

The Southern "Burg"

Drakensburg Mountains

The Drakensburg Mountains are also where South Africa and Lesotho (pronounced le-su-tu) share a border. Similarly to Swaziland, Lesotho is a teeny, tiny country that few have heard of that is surrounded by South Africa on all sides. The popular day trip in the southern “Burg” takes you by 4×4 Jeep up the wickedly steep, rocky and bumpy Sani Pass and into Lesotho. The road was more gnarly than we anticipated, but our experienced guide got us safely to the top and the views along the way up kept us quite entertained.

Sani Pass Border Control

Up the road to Lesotho

View to South Africa from Lesotho

After the hilariously brief ‘customs’ and ‘immigration’ procedures, we got the opportunity to visit a local village. Though just miles from the border of Africa’s most developed nation, Lesotho is a much poorer country and we felt it right away. In the village we visited, the men are traditionally shepherds that spend weeks and months at a time in the hills with their flocks. The women are busy at home carrying for the family and all of life’s other tasks. They did not have electricity or plumbing and have to rely on their blankets and indoor fires to keep them warm during the brutal winters at high altitude.

Lesotho Musicians

Traditional Lesotho Family Home

The tour finished up with a meal and a beer at “The Highest Pub in Africa” topping out at 2874m (9500 feet). We made it safely back down the mountain to our little B&B and our gracious host. We had one more delicious dinner at the only restaurant in town and the next morning we woke up and headed back to Johannesburg (visit #8 of 10 to the JoBurg airport). It was time for the Martens to go home and we couldn’t believe how fast the two weeks had gone by. We had an amazing visit and managed to pack in 3 different countries, hundreds of big animals, mountains and beach, and lots of kilometers on the rental car. We can’t thank them enough for their generosity and look forward to our next group road trip!

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