Welcome to Travel Fridays! With Friday being my favorite day of the week and travel being one of my biggest passions, I’ll be featuring a new destination every Friday with reviews and tips. Of course, these are based on my experiences with specific hotels, attractions, museums, and the like. To kick off, it’s none other than the first part of the most epic trip of my life: South Africa.
While I would typically start small and work my way up, I can’t stop myself from writing about this trip. While not exactly “frugal,” South Africa had been on my bucket list for quite a while. My wife and I decided that we should go big for our honeymoon. I wanted adventure; she preferred a beach with a cocktail. South Africa + Mauritius? A win-win for both.
Now for the details: South Africa…
As we had never been to Africa before, we decided the best route would be to use a travel agent. After hours upon hours of researching, we found Go2Africa. I told our assigned agent exactly what we wanted and right from the start she devised a trip based on our preferences and budget. After numerous iterations and revisions, we had our honeymoon booked. I cannot say enough good things about Go2Africa. They arranged everything except transportation from our apartment to JFK airport and back. All flights (transatlantic and domestic), in-country transportation, and lodging were arranged by our agent.
We flew South African Airways from JFK direct to Johannesburg. A 14-hour plane ride is not something to take lightly. The flight crew did a fantastic job making sure our needs were met including offering plenty of water (which I cannot say is the norm for all airlines). After following my rules of long-haul flights (more details on that in a later post), we landed in Jo’burg somewhat jet lagged but anxious to get to the safari lodge. A quick aside: while this restaurant chain doesn’t get much love on Trip Advisor, Wimpy was something my wife and I stumbled upon at OR Tambo airport. It seemed like the best food on the planet at the time and we still joke about it to this day.
A quick hour-long connecting flight on South African Airways to Hoedspruit airport followed by an hour-long drive and we finally arrived at Simbambili Game Lodge.
It’s nearly impossible to describe the warm and friendly nature of the people we came across as soon as we arrived in Africa. Any description of it wouldn’t do it justice. It really is something to experience for yourself. Simbambili Game Lodge is an intimate lodge in Sabi Sand Game Reserve with world-class service. The maximum number of guests (when we went) was 16, so the attentiveness of the staff is second to none. We arrived somewhat later than expected and our first game drive was set to launch at 3pm. A quick change of clothes and lunch and by the time we were done it was nearing 3:30pm. Our guide, Pierre, was kind enough to wait for us seeing as we were the only ones going on the game drive with him that afternoon (yes, it’s intimate). Off we went into the bush in search of some game.
We chose Simbambili because we had heard there was a chance you could spot all of Africa’s big 5 (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, leopard) here. Lo and behold, we had spotted all 5 within the first 48 hours. First up: the leopard. Before this trip, I envisioned the land rover following the intended paths in search of game and if we spotted something in the distance, we would get as close as possible without veering from the path. That illusion was immediately dispelled when our tracker spotted a leopard and we took off after her deep into the bush. Pierre was anything but shy about the land rover. As he headed straight for what seemed like an immovable tree, he assured us that we could run it over and it would pop right back up. And that’s exactly what happened. We followed that leopard through the bush for what seemed like hours. After coming within 5 feet a leopard within the first 3 hours of arriving, we knew we were in for an eye-opening trip.
Across the next several days we came across a pack of lions (with an older female lion dubbed “granny lion”), a pack of wild dogs, hippos, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, rhinos, and elephants, among many others. I had purchased a new Canon DSLR camera before our trip to maximize the photo opportunities. It just so happens that our guide, Pierre, was an amateur photographer and was kind enough to teach me how to operate the camera in manual mode.
A few tips to help you plan your safari in South Africa:
- Let an expert help! The agents at Go2Africa have all been to the places they are recommending. Let someone who has gone help you. It’s worth it.
- Pick a small lodge if you like that intimate feeling.
- Drink plenty of water on the long-haul flight if you’re traveling from the States. And lay off the alcohol!
- Pack lightly and smartly. Only pack clothes that are neutral in color. Bright colors attract (scare?) the animals. I recommend you dress in layers. We went in June and it was quite cold in the mornings and warmed up after lunch. Remember to pack a hat!
- Have a sense of adventure and trust! After dinner, a guide was required to walk us back to our hut. Yes, he was armed and looking out for dangerous game. Trust the experts who have been trained to keep you safe!
- Buy a nice camera. While your smart phone probably has a nice camera, a good DSLR is the way to go. My recommendation is the Canon Rebel T6.
- If a trip has been on your bucket list, don’t hesitate. Just go, regardless of the cost. Yes, technically this is a finance blog to help you keep your money from getting burned. But if you have a serious travel bug like me, spending money on travel is well worth it. Experiences trump material possessions every single time. Just go! Get out there and explore!
This was a truly mind-opening experience, resulting in a renewed appreciation for nature, travel, and the connections between it all. Africa, we will be back.