This post was written by my mom, Janice, about her month in Africa with Pete and me.
The past month has been exhilarating and enlightening! Add enchanting, engaging, exceptional, entertaining – for which we are extremely grateful :). Just before the TravelBeet.com site was up and running and Brittany and Peter set off for the RTWA (‘Round The World Adventure’), my husband Craig and I received a very generous Christmas gift of a “Golden Ticket” from Brittany. This ticket was good for 7 days accommodations and airfare – based on points she had accumulated during her own travels – and carried the requirement of redemption outside North America and Europe. Brittany especially wanted her father to expand his travel experiences in hopes he would become hooked! It worked! A bit on our adventure follows:
Thanks to the generosity of my manager, I was able to take a month off and expand the experience to a full month. I began with my business class travel on Qatar airline to Doha, Qatar. What a LOVELY experience. Pajamas/slippers, movies, drinks, food and sheets made the voyage VERY enjoyable.
A thank-you to Peter and his expertise in booking travel awards for our flights and accommodations. He is CRAZY good at putting the best deals together and constantly surprised us with wonderful surroundings. I believe he is available to assist with getting started with putting your Credit Card/airline points to good use – making sure you are making the most of the options available in earning points (in addition to all the great articles available on this topic on this site) if you inquire…
(okay, not Africa yet, but it is a connecting city that merits mention)
I was surprised/excited that Peter had been able to book their flight to Cape town from Cairo on the same flight I was connecting to from Chicago!! We all took advantage of the FREE Doha city tour during our long layover and experienced much of this lovely city. Our guide was great at providing many details about the locale and the people, and we were able to enjoy several local markets and special sights. Also, it turns out there are MANY lovely destinations on the Persian Gulf for vacation destinations.
Cape Town & Stellenbosch, South Africa
We stayed in AirBnBs both near Kloof Street in the city, and in Stellenbosch, the wine region. Wonderful sights, fantastic food. Table Mountain via cable car offered lovely views of the area. The Twelve Apostles and Camps Bay beach was awe-inspiring and swimming with Penguins on Boulders Beach was surreal. The little guys loved to swim circles around us and sun themselves just out of our reach.
In Stellenbosch, we checked out three vineyards (Tokara, Spier and Guardian Peak winery), all very special in landscape, architecture and wines offered. I especially loved the Guardian Peak vineyard for the breathtaking view of the valley. We sampled the South African nation’s most famous grape, Pinotage, (a unique cross of Burgundy’s pinot noir with Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s cinsault, or hermitage, created in 1925), but especially loved the Syrah.
1632 kilometres driving, circling the bottom half of this country
We were met by our driver, Ronnie, at the Entebbe Airport (twice on the same day as Craig’s flight got in considerably after ours). This incredibly cheery man, donning a beautiful toothy smile EVERY day, warned us early on that we would be experiencing many different changes in surroundings as we traveled. Near the conclusion of our trip, he asked us what three words described his homeland. Mine were:
(Ronnie also wanted to know, both before and after, what our thoughts were on chimpanzees vs Mountain gorillas (Adult males aka Silverbacks). While before our experiences our responses were unsure, we all voted for the gorillas after our trek.
Breathtaking refers to a plethora of experiences…the MANY speed bumps along the Ugandan roads – some marked, many not, careening around 270 degree turns on one-lane (two-way) roads with unguarded drop-offs in the mountains, Community Children offering song and dance to our evenings, and constant encounters with nature all around us – and of course trekking thru quite dense foliage and steep trails to locate the Chimpanzees and Gorillas.
The express purpose for our road trip was to see, up-close and personal, the Mountain Gorilla. There are just over 700 of these Gorillas left in the wild and the $600/person permit to have the opportunity to trek them assists to keep their habitat intact. This was an ABSOLUTELY fantastic experience. Generally people are grouped into 7-8 individuals, and are sent off to track down a particular gorilla family.
Each group is led first by trackers, then a guide, a guard (with rifle to scare off the mountain elephants – we didn’t actually need this, but did see foot prints and fresh droppings) and porters ($15 plus tip) if you hired them. (I didn’t even have to think twice about getting a porter. I enjoyed knowing I was providing an employment opportunity and being free of my pack all morning. I even had help with stream crossings). Thing is, you never can be sure how long it will take to find the gorilla community you are tracking. The average time is 4 hours total, but there have been cases of 10 hours, so everyone takes off with plenty of water and a packed lunch.
Once our trackers located our gorilla family, the Mishaya, they used their machetes to cut a trail for us once the arterial trails got us as close as possible, which was just a touch closer than the largest male’s comfort level allowed. The silverback jumped up, towering over the top of the freshly cut brush, immediately communicating that he was in charge by barring his teeth and vocalizing with a rather loud roar. Adrenaline rush – very breathtaking!
After that, we stepped back, followed the expert guidance of our trackers and enjoyed more than an hour of fantastic viewing of gorilla life, including an 18-month-old playing with and protecting his 8-month-old brother as well as an onset of a food-induced nap coma and the longest effective “wind relieving posture” I have ever witnessed:
I WOULD RECOMMEND THIS TREK! Even if you can’t physically trek, they will carry you to the gorilla family for $300!!
We also trekked chimpanzees – twice – and had the wonderful opportunity of trekking with Africano, our guide in the Kampala Forest.
We spent well over an hour watching chimps play, groom, wander, and climb. The rangers/guides wait 13 years before naming the animals, and thoughtfully collaborate before doing so. One of our favorite chimps was Tabu – he had lost most of his right hand in a poachers trap, but was assisted by the rangers and local vets to heal. Ugandans are doing a wonderful job of preserving their natural wonders and have multiple initiatives to protect and encourage their precious animals. The animal viewings were nothing short of phenomenal.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at four different locations during our “drive about” Uganda, each very unique. The huts near the airport offered a great glimpse of local life. The additional nights we spent “glamping” in tents allowed us to appreciate the animal life both by day and by night.
- Kampala Forrest Camp offered multiple monkey families in the trees above our tent – Black Colobus, Red tailed and Vervet); the first tried to wake the campers with his 5am low growl (quite effective).
- Queen Elizabeth Bush Camp offered a night-time serenade of hippos and the day offered a SPECTACULAR view of a large watering “hole” (bay) where we were enthralled to watch the daily drinking/playing/bathing of no less than 70 elephants – several families vying for the space, whilst the largest female kept the hippos away with her loud warnings (using the local British lingo …).
- Rushanga Gorilla Camp offered the most glamorous abode, suspended above the mountain side with spectacular views of the valley, the hills, and gorgeous different varieties of birds and their songs.
Untapped Uganda resources, especially the human resource, was perhaps the most ubiquitous during our drive about. Uganda is definitely a country currently in development with the added difficulty of developing at a time when cell phones and digital communications portray the rest of the world’s “riches”. This is certainly a troublesome dichotomy for me.
Most villagers have to walk considerable distances for water as well as food. Bananas and pineapples, as well as “Irish” potatoes were plentiful in most regions, but were harvested and taken to market via bikes or on the heads of local women. Locals who were going to and from markets do so mainly in bare feet at the side of roads that are being reconstructed. Along the road in some places, sewerage lines were being added – still the footpaths and the people who used them persisted alongside, ever present, but not accounted for in the reconstruction efforts. Fields of tea plants in parts of Uganda are seemingly endless, providing a mainstay of employment for many that toil in the field year-long.
Vacation opportunities are also untapped, with MANY wonders to behold both in the savannas and the mountains. The Rift Valley is gorgeous and vast; many times we saw elephants in the morning mist, with monkeys and baboons crossing the roadways. We almost had a baboon join us in the car when we stopped to offer him a banana – I hadn’t thought about his recognition of the yellow fruit prior to my offer and the open window was almost too good to be true for our new friend.
Varied were the regions and climates, birds and monkeys, communities we passed and roads we traveled, but the commitment to the education of the youth was constant. We were amazed by the amount of children on the road in uniforms, always happy and waving to us. Ronnie reported the success rate to HS graduation at 70%; however, most return to the fields as their family cannot afford the cost of college education.
Ronnie left us, after our last bumpy and dusty red road to the Protea Entebbe airport hotel, after a last photo and a welcome to join him again.
A powerful storm left us powerless early in the am, but our 4am flight to Johannesburg still departed on time. All the airlines we traveled in Africa were consistently dependable.
Awesome from both Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Thanks again to Peter’s scheduling and Brittany’s points, Craig returned to USA in style on Cathay, flying with a stop in Hong Kong – literally circling the globe. (I am scheduled to follow the same route, with an added day and evening in Hong Kong). Business class was the warm up to Hong Kong and the First class cabin to O’Hare was only shared by one other traveler.
Kruger National Park
Brittany, Peter and I rented a car and drove to Protea Kruger Gate Hotel. We stopped for a night at Protea Hotel Waterval Boven Malaga – a cute retreat escape near a waterfall. We enjoyed the collection of birds, whether in cages, pens or flying free.
Another two hours on the road, stopping for treats at the surprisingly upscale Woolworth grocery store in Nelspruit, found us at the Marriott Protea Kruger Gate Hotel. It is just a few steps from the south gate entrance to the Kruger National Park. While the first day was quite rainy, it provided a bit of much-needed downtime and wifi – for blog updating.
Brittany and I managed to take advantage of the pedicure and massage option in the open aired hut overlooking the Sabie river. We listened to the plentiful bird songs and hippo communications while we enjoyed the gorgeous surroundings and wonderfully relaxing services.
Next day, we were up bright and early and left by 6 am for our day of self-led safari. I am pleased to report that we had much success! Animals sighted include: giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, warthogs, kudu, impala, bushbuck antelopes, many varieties of birds and species of monkeys, baboons, wild dogs, a pregnant hyena, lots of elephants (including a standoff with the car, which I conceded just in time with a quick reverse) a female lion and mate reclining in the tall grass, and a LEOPARD in a tree!!
We ended our time in Kruger with a white water rafting trip down the Sabie River, an exhilarating experience indeed. I will be back to Africa ☺