A personal account from Suzy Kramer, a traveler on Ker & Downey's most recent small group tour to experience a South Africa and Zambia safari. The trip was hosted by the President of Ker & Downey, David Marek.
We finally did it! AFRICA!! After a yearlong COVID delay our trip finally happened!
We've spent the last 15 days traveling with a great group of friends on a South Africa and Zambia safari. Our adventure started in Zambia. There we experienced three unique and gorgeous bushcamps by The Bushcamp Company in the South Luangwa National Park. Next, we headed to Royal Chundu, an unbelievably luxurious river lodge on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River near Victoria Falls. And finally, we stayed at Grootbos Private Nature Preserve, an over-the-top coastal forest mountainside lodge in South Africa. It's located near the very tip of the southernmost point of the continent where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet.
South Africa and Zambia Safari: Wildlife
We saw up close animals that are synonymous with an African safari: lions, hippos, elephants, leopards, giraffes, zebras, Cape buffalo, crocodiles, and greater kudu. Additionally, we saw waterbuck, bushbuck, spotted hyenas, warthogs, baboons, monkeys, scrub hare, porcupine, impalas, and puku. And we saw some rarely seen and very hard to find animals. Among those included honey badgers, water monitor, white-tailed mongoose, banded mongoose, bushy-tailed mongoose, large-spotted genet, African civet, and a leopard tortoise.
We followed the tracks of the very rarely seen and critically endangered African wild dog hoping for a glimpse. However, we had to be content that at least we saw tracks and knew they were close by.
We also saw some animals you wouldn't expect when thinking about an African safari. These include South African penguins, Cape fur seals, great white sharks, humpback whales, and Bryde's whales. There were also so many beautiful birds of all kinds. Our guides knew them all whether by call, in flight, or sitting on a limb, they could name them. We saw plants and trees unique to the area.
Amazingly, we experienced the thrill of seeing a lion eating its kill right in front of our vehicle and lazing in the sun not 15 feet away. We also experienced the adrenaline rush of the charge of an angry bull elephant and the excitement of the hunt for the elusive leopard. And then awe when we spotted her kill hanging in a tree. Hyenas lurked beneath it waiting for a scrap to fall to the ground. We knew how special it was to see her with her cub. Due to the COVID lockdown, this cub had not seen vehicles and was wary and trying to stay hidden.
South Africa and Zambia Safari: Landscape
We hugged huge baobab trees trying to wrap our minds if not our arms around the fact that these trees are a thousand or more years old. Additionally, we learned of the threatened milkwood trees of coastal South Africa. Many of them are hundreds of years old and only grow at a rate of 2 cm a year.
We experienced skies so black at night you could hardly believe how many stars there were. We saw the Southern Cross, which points the way to the South Pole. It's not visible in the northern hemisphere. And the sundowners! The sunsets in Africa go on forever! We had gin and tonic, a tradition when watching the sunset while sitting in the cool waters of the shallow Kapamba River or on a bluff above the swift and dangerous Luangwa River teeming with hippos and crocodiles.
South Africa and Zambia Safari: Accommodations
The food and accommodations in each camp was 5 star. At each camp we stayed in, the bar was stepped up a bit higher than the last. We marveled at each exclaiming that it was our favorite until we reached the next and a new favorite was established. After six nights in the national park, we departed for Royal Chundu River Lodge on the banks of the Zambezi River. There we canoed the rapids in inflatable canoes—thrilling when you know there are crocs in the river. However, the water was swift.
Several in our group went early morning tiger fish fishing and had success in landing those fierce-looking fish. We visited the local village. Then we made our way by canoe to an island where we tasted traditional foods and watched how they prepare parrotfish and n'shima, a local staple similar to polenta. We flew in a helicopter above and around Victoria Falls and through the river gorge. A thrill of a lifetime!
Our next stop was to the tip of South Africa. We stayed at Grootbos Private Nature Preserve. There we went on a whale watching tour and saw tens of thousands of Cape fur seals, the endangered South African penguin, and a great white shark being lured to a shark cage full of divers in the water. We saw humpback and Bryde's whales. We walked through the coastal forest and learned of the flora of the area. Also, we saw plants and trees that grow nowhere else. We learned of the conservation efforts led by the lodge where we were staying to save them. We visited several wineries in the beautiful and renowned South African wine country and enjoyed wine tastings and food pairings at several vineyards.
Our last night was spent in Cape Town at the Radisson Blu over-looking Table Bay and Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years.
People and the Pandemic
But as thrilling and exciting as all of this was the over-riding theme throughout our adventure has to have been the people. Everywhere we traveled in South Africa and Zambia, we were greeted with sincere heartfelt appreciation that we came. We were told that the joy expressed by the staff of each camp when we drove up was magnified tenfold by those we didn't see; the families and people back in the villages. We meant hope to them. The hope that our arrival meant maybe more tourists would come and the suffering would begin to ease. The suffering that has happened and continues to happen in these remote villages due to the pandemic and the shutdown of travel and tourism has been staggering, simply horrendous as the owner of one camps told us.
We walked through major airports with a fraction of the travelers passing through. Many of the ticket counters, shops and restaurants remain closed. At one airport gift shop in South Africa the greeting and thanks expressed by the clerk who said she was so grateful to see us even if we didn't buy anything. The fact that we came was enough.
Throughout our South Africa and Zambia safari, we visited local villages and talked with the villagers about their daily lives. They showed us their children, their gardens, and their homes, which were mud huts with thatched roofs. They told us how far the women have to go to carry water back to their homes where no one has running water. Most also do not have electricity.
There, we learned of the charitable work that the owners of each of the camps and lodges we stayed, along with others, work to give back to the local village; the drilling of 145 water wells with hand pumps to provide clean water to the village without having to brave filling the eight five-gallon buckets needed each day per house from the dirty croc-infested river and then carry them back to their homes, to buying the locally grown vegetables used in our meals and craft goods used to decorate each lodge and chalet all which help to support the community.
We visited schools, also built and funded by the same companies, to educate the children. It costs $200 a year to educate a child, an impossible amount for the villagers. Part of the cost is paid for in part by the safari companies through the tourists that come. Then we learned of a traditional fishing community along the coast where the cost of education is so prohibitive that of the 6,000 children in the community only approximately 2,000 go to school past the age of 14. The owner of the lodge we stayed in has prioritized bridging the gap. They provide an opportunity and education for those children through their foundation, again funded in part by tourism.
Sadly, we also witnessed closed businesses and buildings for sale, shut down due to the pandemic. And yet again we saw smiles and hope in the faces that maybe our being there meant more were coming.
Traveling during a Pandemic
The reality though is that many of these communities still have strict curfews and mandatory mask and hand sanitizing regulations in an attempt to curb the pandemic. Unlike the US, vaccinations are not readily available and the logistics to vaccinate, if and when they could get it, seem insurmountable. We learned that in South Africa over 1 million people are vaccinated. That sounds like a lot until you hear that there are over 59 million people and that they are currently waiting on a shipment of a mere 3 million doses. And we thought we had to wait a long time to get on the list for a vaccine!
We took four separate COVID tests to travel to the areas we went to and to be able to return back home. It added another layer to international travel but one that is necessary to protect not only ourselves but those people who would take care of our needs while we were there. In turn, it also protects the villages and the very vulnerable people living there.
South Africa and Zambia Safari: The Bigger Picture
Everyone was doing their part; distancing, wearing masks; sanitizing hands everywhere. So do your part too. Travel. It's OK, you'll be fine. Get vaccinated and go. People everywhere are waiting. And hoping. Just go. The perk? There's not a lot of tourists out there right now. We had the national park in our area to ourselves rarely sighting a safari vehicle from another camp. It meant being able to see the animals without other vehicles jockeying for position. So go. Experience unique and beautiful locations around the world without the crowds.
Thank you to Ker & Downey, to David and Gana Marek, to Nicole Porto for your patient assistance, and to the entire team for what you do and for showing us South Africa and Zambia, the animals and her people. We will go back."
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