Monthly Archives: January 2015

Trip Report & Photography by Bert Duplessis

High resolution photos available on Flickr!

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South Africa – Nov 2014

My Nov-Dec 2014 marathon Southern Africa inspection trip ended on 24 Dec 2014 when my Delta flight from ATL to IAH touched down right on schedule.  Kathy had to return to the USA about 10 days earlier.  Between us we stayed at and inspected different safari lodges, camps and hotels in 3 countries: South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Bert at Abu

Fish Eagle Safaris’ owner Bert Duplessis on an elephant at Abu Camp

There were many highlights which I will touch upon in more detail in the area trip reports to follow.  If I were given the opportunity to go back tomorrow and pick out just two or three places, it would have to be Seba & Abu in the Okavango Delta for a once-in-a-lifetime elephant experience and the most drop-dead gorgeous natural environment and the Savute Marsh right now for astonishingly good game-viewing.   I’d love to be able to go back and spend several days with guide ‘Magic Mike’ at Somalisa, stalking the perfect afternoon light and whatever it may shine upon.  Cheetahs would be nice, elephant would be great too and I’d even settle for a steenbok, just to find myself back in that time and place.   And yes I might want to add a few days at La Residence in Franschoek for the most blissful of sybaritic delights.  Fabulous food, some of the best wines you may ever enjoy, looking out over vineyards & mountains, being pampered every step of the way, pinching yourself every time you re-enter your room.  It doesn’t get old quickly at all.  In fact, La Residence has joined my very short list of ‘Groundhog Day’ places.  You know.  Those very special places you’d like to wake up in again and again and again…

Franschoek View

View from La Residence in Franschoek South Africa

Predictably this trip once again illustrated our long-held belief that Southern Africa is very worthwhile visiting in the ‘Green Season’ – roughly from December through the end of March, the height of summer.  This co-incides with the rainy season in the interior.  Cape Town of course has a Mediterranean climate with the three rainiest months being the winter months of June, July and August.  Weather was not an issue except that it was cooler than we had anticipated.  So be sure totake a fleece on every outing.  Our activities were not hampered by weather or rain, with the exception of one boat trip on the Chobe River which had to be abandoned due to lighting.  Not a good idea to be in an open aluminum ‘box’ on an stretch of open water…

Elephants at Somalisa

Herd of elephants at Somalisa Camp

Here and there I was hoping for better light for photography but cloudy weather does have its advantages too, extending the number of hours of photography, particularly in the early morning.  Under optimum full sunlight conditions, you’d have perhaps 2 hours of very good ‘golden’ light, but it is all over by 8:30A or so by which time it gets awfully bright with harsh shadows making photography all but impossible.  Not so when it is overcast, with the soft, even light enabling decent shots pretty much any time of the day.  Plus the fact that clouds always add atmosphere to sunset and sunrise shots, and those big, billowing white cumulus clouds can look pretty impressive as a backdrop to a landscape pic.

Sunset

Green season sunsets are quite amazing. Somalisa Camp Hwange National Park Zimbabwe

A few practical things:

We flew from Houston to Johannesburg via Atlanta, on Delta.  As we’ve done the last few times, it was ‘economy comfort’ all the way.  The four extra inches of legroom – compared with regular coach – is a lifesaver as is the early boarding privileges.  No worries about finding overhead storage space for your carry-on luggage and being closer to the exit you can beat the crowd to the immigration desk.

Hyenas at Seba

Hyena family playing at Seba Camp Okavango Delta Botswana

Delta’s on-board service and amenities can best be described as mediocre to acceptable.  The food was edible but not much more than that and I thought the movie selection was particularly bad.  I had to resort to re-watching Australia (would have been nice to sing myself to Jo’burg…) and The Big Lebowski.  Plus one or two other movies which I won’t even mention by name for fear of inspiring someone else to try them.  I somehow found a few episodes of Game of Thrones and House of Cards which helped to while away the long, long hours.  As always, it was essential to have and use a good pair of noise-canceling headphones.

Cheetah Somalisa

Cheetah sighted on final game drive at Somalisa

At Johannesburg’s Oliver Tambo Airport the immigration and customs formalities were handled promptly (although I have stood in a 20-minute+ line there before) and it was just a short walk to the Budget counter where we collected a Toyota Camry for the 40-minute drive to Pretoria.  Over the next few days we enjoyed a family reunion while we struggled to adjust to having abruptly skipped seven time zones.  It was not as warm as we had anticipated in Pretoria which translated into nice running weather.  We made full use of every opportunity to get a few miles under our belts, realizing that our exercise opportunities would be severely curtailed once on safari.

Next stop – Cape Town.

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Sweets in Franschoek

Dessert buffet at La Residence in Franschoek South Africa Safari


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High resolution photos available on Flickr!

South Africa trip report: Part 2 – Cape Town

We started our educational trip in Cape Town and Franschoek, spending some time at a couple of our favorite properties and having a look at several new ones.

In Cape Town itself we divided our time amongst Four Rosmead, The Twelve Apostles and the Belmond Mt. Nelson Hotel.  Four Rosmead – which we use for many of our clients – was near perfect in terms of location, rooms and hospitality.  The managers and staff could not have been friendlier or more helpful, right down to setting an outdoor table for a ‘call-out’ lunch one day.

The view at Mt Nelson before high tea

The view at Mt Nelson before high tea

The Mount Nelson is as solid as Table Mountain itself – always dependable and with a great location, just a short walk away from Parliament, the Company Gardens and several museums.  We had dinner with old friends in Claremont, so had to settle for high tea at the Mt. Nelson.  It was the best ever!  Even if you don’t plan on spending a night there, by all means book their high tea.

High tea at Mt. Nelson

Sweets during high tea at Mt. Nelson. The best!

We have mixed feelings about the 12 Apostles or 12A.  It is a perfectly fine property but it felt a bit claustrophobic, with very narrow hallways and somewhat cramped common areas.  The food and service were excellent and the rooms on the ocean side have beautiful views.

The highlight of our Cape Town stay was a half day visit to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens.  We went specifically to see and experience the new ‘Boomslang’ forest canopy walkway but predictably fell in love with Kirstenbosch all over again. Is there a more worthwhile place to spend half a day in Cape Town?  I don’t think so – it should be on everyone’s ‘must do’ list for even the shortest of Cape Town trips.

Lots of photographic opportunities at Kirstenbosch

Lots of photographic opportunities at Kirstenbosch

Friday 21 November 2014:  Four Rosmead Boutique Hotel, Gardens, Cape Town

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens 2

We have been sending many of our clients to Four Rosmead over the last few years to rave reviews.  Somehow or other – mostly because they were full – we were not able to spend time there on our last two trips to Cape.  This time we did and now we know why it is so popular.

It starts and ends with a high level of personal attention.  In our case from duty manager Nadine who is a star.  Nothing was too much trouble and even when we managed to break a (gift) bottle of sparkling wine the property handled our mishap smoothly and without a fuss.

First impressions count and Nadine’s arrival briefing was complete and informative without being tedious.  Without any prompting, she offered to make dinner reservations for us, which turned out to be a good move as Cape Town was already hopping, early in the summer season.

Dinner was at Baia, a popular seafood restaurant at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.  The food was delicious and the service impeccable.  It was a bit of a struggle with taxis going to the restaurant and getting back to the hotel but we had such a good time it did not really matter.

View of Table Mountain from the waterfront in Cape Town.

View of Table Mountain from the waterfront in Cape Town.

Saturday 22 November – Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens

When we woke up this morning at 8:15A instead of at 4:15A, we both knew that the dreaded jetlag was behind us.  The plan was to spend some time at Kirstenbosch on this day, so soon after breakfast (corn fritters, eggs to order and toast), we headed out along De Waal Drive to this jewel of a place.  Kirstenbosch is certainly one Cape Town attraction which you shouldn’t miss when spending a few days in the Mother City.

Some of the many beautiful flowers at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Some of the many beautiful flowers at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

At any time of the year there is something – usually many things – flowering and the views are always stupendous.  Kirstenbosch is a national treasure.  There are very few signs – in fact almost none – telling you not to do this or the other, because Capetonians and out of town visitors treat it with respect and care.  There is practically no littering & even though it was quite crowded, we did not see any boorish behavior.  Which makes Kirstenbosch pretty much the perfect place for family and friends to enjoy the great outdoors.

Botanical Gardens 2

It practically goes without saying that Kirstenbosch is a photographer’s delight and so it was on this day.  I took a bunch of photographs of kids going to a Mad Hatter’s party, beautiful vistas with the mountains in the background and of course flowers of all shapes and sizes.  Kirstenbosch has some 350 tree species and countless types of shrubs, flowering plants, sedges, aloes and other succulents.

Some kids heading to a Mad Hatters party

Some kids heading to a Mad Hatters party

The main purpose of our visit was to see and experience Kirstenbosch’s latest addition, the ‘Boomslang’ Tree Canopy Walkway.  Clearly, we were not the only visitors who wanted to see the new walkway – there were lots of other people heading in the same direction.  Once we were standing on one of its high points, we realized why:  it was a novel and thrilling experience to look out over the gardens from about 10 meters (30 feet) or so up from the forest floor – and the structure blends into the environment fairly well.  So it offers a new and unique perspective without totally sacrificing Kirstenbosch’s ‘natural’ ambience.

Boomslang Tree Canopy Walkway

Boomslang Tree Canopy Walkthrough in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.

After searching for an finding the last few blooming King Proteas (Protea Cynaroides), we enjoyed a not-so-light lunch at Moyo’s which offers traditional South African menu items such as boerewors rolls and fish & chips.  And Malva Pudding.

Sunday 25 November –  Jogging along the  Mouille Point Promenade

This morning we had a fairly early start, driving up and across Kloof Nek via Clifton (almost no parking there by 0900A) and Bantry Bay to the Mouille Point Promendade. This is the place to enjoy a run along flat terrain, not always easy to find elsewhere in Cape Town.  We jogged about 4 miles out and  back, enjoy the ‘rave run’ setting, kids, bikes, dogs, paragliders above and ships offshore.  We even did a little bird-watching, spotting some uncommon African Oystercatchers, amongst others.

Next:  Franschoek & the Cape winelands.

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And they are a waste of time.

As long-time observers of and participants in the African travel trade, we have seen dozens of travel warnings issued for various African countries at one time or another over the last 25 years, ranging from Kenya (a ‘repeat offender’) to Tanzania, Uganda, Somalia (no surprise), Egypt, South Africa (there was a time when it was not the flavor of the day), Zimbabwe (can you spell Mugabe) and several others.

We don’t know of anyone who has escaped disaster by changing his or her plans because of a travel advisory, but of course you can’t prove a negative.  What I can say is that the dire warnings rarely if ever come to pass.  People travel to Africa all the time and effectively none of them become the victim of anything they might read on a travel advisory, except in the ‘small print’ towards the end, dealing with petty crime and car accidents.

When people do become the victims of gun-toting jihadis as was the case in the Eastgate attack in Nairobi in 2013, it is just bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like being under the falling branch of a tree while out jogging, or in a car skidding on a patch of black ice on a highway in Minnesota.   There’s preciously little you can do about it, least of all plan to avoid it.  Accidents and bad luck can ‘get you’ anywhere in the world, and a travel advisory is not going to make one whit of a difference.

Fortunately, most of our clients are savvy travelers who know that the world is not a perfect place and that none of us live in little cocoons of safety, no matter where we reside.  So by and large, they have followed our advice, ignored the travel warnings and happily traveled to places like Zimbabwe, Kenya and Uganda, with nothing befalling them except good times and great memories.

Kenya is a good case study in the futility of travel advisories. Having recently returned from a trip there, it is alarming to realize the wide discrepancy between outsiders’ perception of the situation in the country, and the reality of it. There may be issues in a few isolated areas but everywhere on safari (Rift Valley, Laikipia & Samburu) I felt and appeared to be totally safe.

Bert about to ride a camel at Sabuk

Bert about to ride a camel at Sabuk June 2014

In fact, there are few if any safer travel experiences than being on safari in Kenya or anywhere else in Africa, due to the almost complete absence of other people, speeding vehicles, and the usual trappings of civilization.  Almost no crime, no tension, just a peaceful and relaxed environment with friendly people totally intent on helping you make the experience the best one of your life.

Travel warnings are a well-intentioned attempt by civic-minded governments to protect their citizens traveling abroad, but they are a particularly blunt tool.  Isolated incidents of violence and intimidation – regrettable and tragic as the consequences may be to those involved – rarely make an entire country unsafe to visit.  This is exactly the case in Kenya.  Probably 95%-plus of the country – including the safari circuit – is perfectly safe, but this gets lost in the  publicity surrounding attacks and in ‘travel advisories’ which discourage all but essential travel to the country.

Travel advisories play right into the hands of the perpetrators of violence and indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians.  How so?  By discouraging travel to a specific area or country, they cause sometimes irreparable and long-term harm to the tourism sector and hence the economic well-being of mostly emerging economies.  They result in thousands of tourism jobs being lost with a ripple effect into many other areas of the economy such as transportation, food & agriculture and the retail trade.  Stretch this over a number of years and you have entrenched and worsening unemployment, unrest, perhaps even political instability – all of which can be ameliorated with a vibrant tourism sector and strong and growing economy.  And all of which can be exploited by persons or entities wishing to harm a country or its people.

Wildlife conservation is yet another unintended ‘victim’ of travel advisories.  It is self-evident that the presence of visitors in wildlife-rich areas acts as a deterrent to poachers.  Poachers operate much more effectively and devastatingly so when there is nobody around such as when camps are closed for the rainy season or when the number of visitors dwindles for whatever reason.  Such as being discouraged by inane travel advisories.

Discouraging all but essential travel to an area or country is out of proportion with the intended outcome which is to protect a country’s citizens from harm or injury as a result of a terrorist event.  The specter of terrorism anywhere in the world pushes emotional buttons and the mass media exaggerate its risk and prevalence.  Deaths caused by terrorist events are tragic and shocking but they are a miniscule number compared with almost any other cause of death and bodily harm.

If you travel to Kenya is it likely that you will become a victim of terrorism?  No.  You are about 1,900 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack and more than a 100 times more likely to succumb to the effects of contaminated food.  Worried about being crushed to death by your television or furniture or being hit by an asteroid?  Of course not – and those two events are about as likely to cause you harm as you are to fall victim to a terrorist.

So do we stop driving because driving results in accidents and death?  No we don’t.  And we don’t stop flying because aircraft occasionally (but very seldom) crash.   By the same token it would be daft to stop eating because of the potential risk of dying from contaminated food.  Avoiding all risk is not possible except perhaps by seeking refuge in a remote cave somewhere.  Which is not how we as free people choose to live.

Which makes travel warnings all the more pernicious.  They purport to tell you how to live your life and what to do or not to do.  Are people not capable of making their own value judgment about the safety of an area?  Of course they are but ‘official’ statements made by high-profile government agencies carry a lot of weight.  Which is unfortunate because discouraging travel to disadvantaged areas of the world – which are often the areas hit by travel advisories – is a sure-fire way to stymie development and progress.

As it is, many US states and cities are prone to chronic gun violence which results in the death of thousands of people every year, a lot of it gang-related. That, together with sporadic yet all too common and totally unpredictable mass shootings likely make large parts of the USA a far more risky proposition than the distant plains of the Masai Mara or the swamps of Amboseli.  Where are the travel advisories when you really need them?

 


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