Overseas Dispatch: South Africa

 

Phinda Vlei Lodge
Phinda Vlei Lodge, with open-air bedrooms, is literally one with nature.

At the Luxury Travel Expo in Las Vegas in December, my husband Roy and I had dinner with Johann van Zyl, director of sales, U.S., for &Beyond, a luxury safari company, which owns over 50 lodges in Africa. Before the evening had ended, we decided we would be going on a safari, though we were not sure where. Johann helped change all that.

The destination he chose for us was South Africa—Dulini Lodge, in the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve, and Phinda Vlei Lodge, in Kwazulu-Natal, with a stop in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

I had read 11 books on Africa but was not prepared for the beautiful scenery, magnificent flora and the astounding variety of wildlife.

A safari is a tiring experience no matter your age, and Johann did an outstanding job of picking the best lodges and game reserves. There are 3,500 camps and lodges in Africa, but we decided to stay at a luxury lodge.

We stayed one night at Tintswalo at Waterfall, a lovely property 20 minutes from Johannesburg Airport. Next morning, we flew to Ulusaba airstrip. There, we were picked up by a Land Rover at the end of the runway, which was paved with a lovely wooden pavilion, complete with luxury couches and artwork. When I saw the Necker Island brochures on a table, I knew Sir Richard Branson was involved. He had built a house nearby and, of course, paved the strip and built the posh waiting lounge.

Sabi Sands adjoins Kruger National Park and since they have removed the fence around the park, the animals can roam about freely across the 65,000-acre reserve. This was undoubtedly the most prestigious game park in South Africa, offering the best “big five” sightings in the country. Dulini Lodge, just 30 minutes from Ulusaba, has six lovely stone cottages that can accommodate 12 guests. Each spacious cottage has a private pool and a deck overlooking the Mabrak River.

We departed on our first four-hour game drive immediately. We had a tracker and a guide with us. Sighting the big five—leopard, rhino, elephant, lion and buffalo—is everyone’s dream. We saw them on every drive, and witnessed two kills on our first foray, as well as every kind of animal you could name. We also spotted some 400 bird species.

The staff at the lodge belonged to the Shangaan tribe and on the last night they set up a wonderful barbecue dinner in the BOMA, an enclosed area, and then performed a concert. The hospitality and service were impeccable. I had a hot bath waiting for me when I returned from the evening game drive. Apart from Dulini, &Beyond has two other lodges in this reserve—River and Leadwood.

 

Dulini Lodge's spacious stone cottages
Dulini Lodge's spacious stone cottages overlook the Mabrak River.


Our next flight was to Zululand on the east coast. We stayed at Phinda Vlei Lodge, which can accommodate up to eight guests. Our bungalow had a pool and a four-poster bed. In fact, elephants, we were told, even like to drink out of the pool at No. 6. The staff at Phinda Vlei was all from the Zulu tribe.

At 50,000 acres, this was a huge reserve with seven different ecosystems. We saw everything we had seen at Dulini, and then some more, like cheetahs. We even saw a 20-foot python rolling and twisting its prey—a 100-pound impala—before swallowing it. Hundreds of animals wandered about unbothered by our presence.

We also checked out Forest Lodge, and the Homestead, a gorgeous home that can accommodate eight guests—a perfect location with a chef, driver and tracker. Paul Getty, the oil baron, also has a magnificent home on the property, which is available for rent. The food at both the lodges was outstanding and, overall, I would say this is an ideal trip for a honeymoon or for families.

April, it seems, is the perfect time to go on this trip, as we didn’t encounter a single mosquito. The temperature stood at about 80 degrees during the day. We had a private tracker and a guide, who drove us around for two hours in the thick bushes, when we suddenly spotted four lions sleeping next to a water hole.

Cape Grace, on the waterfront in Cape Town, brought our trip to a perfect end. The location was great and the property lovely:
I kept dashing in and out of the terrace to view the top of Table Mountain, which was hidden by the clouds. The property has a wonderful restaurant—a perfect choice for pre- and post-cruise passengers. The spa is also excellent and the staff helpful. We were told that Clint Eastwood and his crew had lived there for four months while making a film on Nelson Mandela. Everyone I spoke to was pleased with the progress being made in South Africa, though they all agreed that change would take time.

This was an ideal itinerary and I highly recommend it. &Beyond made our trip hassle-free by arranging for all the documents, and they do a wonderful job of putting money back into the African community by building schools and clinics.

To Johann, I say, “Yabonga.” It’s the only Zulu word I learned, and it means “Thank you.”                                  

For more of Maureen Jones’ travels, check out the blog section of our website, www.LuxuryTA.com.

 

Buffaloes
Buffaloes roam the wild.

 

 

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