South Africa/Zimbabwe

This holiday was something completely different to anything I’d ever done before and I feel so incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to go as I’m well aware that this is a trip that’s probably on many people’s bucket lists. I’ll admit that before leaving I knew virtually nothing about the tour – my parents had done all the research and I’d been so busy at work that I’d booked my flights, thrown some clothes in a bag and set off for the airport! I was lucky enough to spend my time at the airport stuffing my face in a lounge, as my Gold Amex card gives me membership to Lounge Club and complimentary lounge visits!

When we arrived we were picked up at the airport by a Safari Club SA shuttle – the hotel we were staying in the night before the tour started. We were stopped on the way out of the airport by police, who questioned the legitimacy of our driver’s license, until he gave them some money.. a classic example of how much I take our legal system for granted.

Since we had the first afternoon free, my parents wanted to go to the local mall to shop. I’m not interested in shopping unless it’s for food, but I was keen to go along and see how it was.. and check out the food court of course 😉 The dinner in the restaurant wasn’t included so we chose to eat at the mall. We spent the afternoon wandering round the shops – I went to the Nike store and picked up some random South African chocolates before having a burger and fries at a South African chain (Mugg & Bean). I had coffee and a frappe from there too and it was pretty good. That night I was thankful for the chocolate and biscuits I’d bought – my sweet tooth hit hard and I had serious cravings! I was so thankful for AC too though and after a sleepless night on the plane the night before I managed to get a decent rest in before an early start the next morning.

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Day 1Johannesburg to Hoedspruit

We left the lodge at 7 after a surprisingly good buffet breakfast including a full English breakfast cooked to order! There were only seven of us on the tour – four of whom were my family members – plus a lovely Australian couple, so it was a lovely group and we all grew very close over the week. The first of many long days on the bus began. We drove over 400km on our way to Kruger National Park, through lots of small South African towns including Dulstroom (its oldest town) before stopping for a lovely buffet lunch at Forever Resorts Blyde Canyon. We stopped at a service station on the way for coffee and snacks (where I added to my stash of foreign chocolate finds!) where you could actually see zebra, rhinos and antelopes!

After lunch we drove another 30 minutes to The Three Rondavels and then a final 120km to Nsele Safari lodge at the edge of the Park where we spent our first night of the tour. The landscape and the scenery was absolutely beautifiul. We drove along a panoramic route which was really mountainous so it took over two hours as the poor food blender of a bus struggled up the hills in third gear. It was a long journey but with breathtaking views like this it’s hard to complain.

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There were beautiful canyons, the Blyde river with mini waterfalls, lakes and incredible red sandstone mountains. They’re just so hard to capture in a picture. Considering so much of Africa is dessert I couldn’t believe how much greenery there was everywhere, and there’s a ridiculous amount of agriculture too – field after field of corn and citrus fruits, some covered in huge sheets of white netting to shield it from the sun (and frost).

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By the time we arrived at Nsele Lodge it was after 5.30 and it quickly started to go dark. We were greeted with fresh juice and wet towels and shown to our rooms before having a lovely barbecue dinner.

Day 2Kruger National Park

We had an early start to cover as much of the Park as possible but by 4.30am I couldn’t have been more relieved that it was time to get up! There was torrential rain and thunderstorms though which were insane – I got absolutely drenched walking about 10 steps from my hut to the breakfast area. We had to wait until it cleared slightly before leaving. Finally at 6am we set off – we were in a 4×4 game vehicle owned by Nsele Lodge rather than our rickety old bus! It was around a 1.5 hour drive from where we were staying and the first 12km were along painfully rural roads, full of pot holes and rough ground so it felt like forever. Luckily by the time we arrived at 7.30 it had cleared, so we paid our entrance fee and had breakfast (second breakfast for me!) while our guide gave us a few facts about this incredible place.

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He told us the whole Park currently covers 3 million hectares and is growing all the time. There’s about 3000km of road running through the park, yet only 1% of the land which the park covers is actually being used – the rest is wilderness! He said that over our day there, we’d probably cover 1% of the 1%, if that.

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We started the day with high hopes of spotting the Big Five after the rain cleared – we saw two huge elephants before even entering the park! Being able to see them at such a short distance in their natural environment was incredible. Watching them interact is amazing and it couldn’t be further away from any brief encounters I’d previously had with animals in a zoo. We all wanted to see leopards, lions and cheetahs. Of course we did. But in such a huge park, it felt a little like hunting for a needle in a haystack and as it felt like we were driving past mile after mile of empty grassland we became increasingly despondent. The whole place felt so incredibly vast. On some roads there were grassy plains as far as the eye could see; on others the vegetation was so dense you could barely see 50 metres from the road. There had apparently been some sightings, but expecting to see one of only 1600 lions and a mere 150 cheetahs when you’re covering less than 0.1% of the land is crazily optimistic. The guide mentioned that they were experiencing the most rainy wet season in over 20 years too, so there were far fewer sightings as food and water were so abundant. Nonetheless we were all a bit disappointed, but to have seen such a vast and beautiful landscape was an experience in itself, and with only one day to spend there I was so grateful the weather had cleared up so we could at least visit the Park.

It’s a shame because I feel like they’d come out in the evening when it’s cooler as they’d seek shelter in the shade during the middle of the day, but it was starting to go dark and we were heading back by then so we didn’t have any luck in Kruger itself.

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Just after we left and got back onto the main road though we saw a couple of lions way into the distance. With my mum’s binoculars and my uncle’s proper camera we could actually zoom in close enough to make out the detail on their faces but I had no hope of making out anything other than a vague brown blob on my phone!

By the end of another 12 hour day on the bus (albeit an open one at least) I was already feeling so restless though! Luckily it was cool at dinner and we were fed well again with homemade South African dishes before going back to our stuffy bug invested rooms where I spent an absolute age desperately trying to perfect my mosquito net!

Day 3 – Hoedspruit to Polokwane

A later start – 6am for a 7am breakfast before another epic day of driving – 550km in total on the painfully slow bus. We were served a lovely buffet breakfast again at the lodge – it was simple but everything I love – tea, coffee, juices, cereal, toast with spreads, yogurt with granola and boiled eggs 🙂 Soon after setting off we hit a dead end with a lorry stuck in the soft mud of a ditch at the side of the road. We spent a while painfully reversing whilst a car who impatiently tried to overtake us also got stuck in the ditch provided us with some amusement.  Believe it or not, a few kilometres down the road in the opposite direction we hit another roadblock as another truck was stuck again. It wasn’t even that muddy or wet so I dread to think what it’s like when it really rains, and it’s not exactly like these roads lend themselves to roadside assistance rushing to your rescue! Thankfully after much deliberation as to the best course of action we managed to make it round the second truck without getting stuck – we had enough ground to cover as it was 😦

After eventually getting on the road, our first stop was the in Phalawborwa, the home of Amarula, a liquor made from the local marula fruit which grows in abundance here – the fruit is so plentiful that there aren’t even any plantations. By the roadside you can even see locals collecting the little green fruit, (which turn yellow when they’re ripe) ready to sell in big baskets for sale to local refineries. We stopped off at the Amarula Lapa factory where we were given a tour, talk and plenty of tastings. It was so creamy – think Baileys but a million times creamier! We also got to try the Amarula gold which was the pure liquor version. It was similar to other liquors but it was on the sweeter side, a bit like Southern Comfort.

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They didn’t have any fruit at the factory for us to try as their production season was over, but we stopped by the roadside to collect some – there were hundreds beneath the trees. Apparently the marula fruit has 4x the Vitamin C of an orange. You’d have to eat about 500 of them to get half as much Vitamin C as an orange though – there’s virtually nothing to them! You can’t eat the skin so you peel them and then you’re supposed to eat the white flesh inside, but there’s a big stone inside each fruit that there’s little more than a slither of fruit!

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After driving a couple more hours we stopped for lunch at a cafe called The Wheelbarrow in the small town of Magoebaskloof. The menu was pretty limited – toasties, burgers and a few hot dishes but there was also small shop where we could get snacks for the afternoon’s long drive up the mountains on to Polokwane. We drove through a bigger town on the way (which had several places to eat) so I’m not sure why the tour planned for us to eat there. The hot options were limited – fried hake, steak and chips and the strange lamb and banana egg custard (yes you read that right!) bobotie we’d had the night before. Everyone went for steak, but I’m pretty fussy with steak and judging by the place we were at it wasn’t going to be a good one so I went for hake. It was a great decision – it was fried until it was crispy on the outside, served with creamy spinach, carrots and a huge salad (though it was covered in some bizarre thick, almost gelatinous sauce). I got a giant salad on the side and I was incredibly thankful for some veggies as I was already missing them.

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Much as people always love telling me me that they think I’m too unhealthy/eat too much sugar etc, etc. every day on this trip I realised just how much I’d changed – I used to live on frozen pizzas at University, I’d have fry ups every morning in halls and get takeaways 4-5 times per week. I can honestly say that during my entire time there I never bought a fruit or vegetable and I didn’t even buy meat or fish as it was too ‘expensive’ (yet buying greasy takeaways and shots apparently wasn’t..!). Nowadays despite having plenty of treats, I absolutely love fruit, veg and all the more nutritious options out there – I struggled massively having greasy meals and takeaways for breakfast, lunch and dinner here and we were only there for a week!! Anyway.. back to lunch, where unsurprisingly the steaks were so tough that no one could swallow any of the meat.. whilst most people probably have lower standards than me, why you’d order something like steak at a place like that is totally beyond me. After that it was only a 90km drive to our destination, but up the mountains in a painfully strained second gear it took a couple of hours, but finally we arrived and checked into our hotel – Boma in the Bush.

I wasn’t expecting much after the previous two nights (and its name!) but it was an improvement, even if I drew the short straw being landed with a little wooden hut crying out for a refurb. My parents were in a little house that had two bedrooms, a kitchen area and a pretty big bathroom! They asked if I wanted to stay in their room and tempted as I was (their place was substantially nicer) I’m definitely someone who likes my own space! Any improvement in the room was far outweighed by a terrible dinner though – we were presented with a dismally greasy meal and breakfast the next morning wasn’t much better. I did (as always) want dessert though.. but we weren’t given any 😦 Luckily for me I had half of South Africa’s chocolate supplies in my room but I think everyone else was a bit disappointed.

Between check in and dinner we drove 10 minutes to Polokwane nature reserve where we went for a brief nature walk. The path was short and after a few minutes we were all convinced we wouldn’t see anything as the paths were full of long grass and there appeared to be nothing but trees for miles around. After stopping to look at a few plants I was almost bored – the extent of our discussions had been the various species of the iconic Acacia tree – but then out of nowhere we saw three huge rhinos.

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None of us could quite believe how lucky we were and we admired them from a distance while they stood in a triangle, almost as if they were keeping watch. We crept closer when suddenly they turned directly towards us and our guide quickly ushered us to a big tree nearby where we crouched in the long grass. We’d been told they were on edge because there had been poachers around – we’d actually seen (and smelt!!) – a rotting rhino carcass earlier along the path so when they started to walk towards us we were all pretty scared. Most guides carry some sort of armed weapon, but our driver (lovely as he was!) was completely unarmed and so would’ve been less than useless had they decided to charge. Luckily some passing wildebeasts got their attention though, and despite their keen sense of smell, their poor eyesight meant that they left us unharmed.

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Day 4 – Polokwane to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

The dreaded day of the border crossing and what would be our longest and by far our most frustrating day on the bus.

The nutritious meals continued with a fry up for breakfast, after which we drove 200km to the first of our border stops where we were prepared to queue for hours. For some reason, this particular morning really dragged. We’d set off at 7.30am but by 9.30 it felt like we’d been on the road for forever, I’d eaten my way through a family size bar of chocolate and we were still no where near stopping. When we did eventually “stop”, it was a drive through takeaway to eat while we continued our bus journey. We really were in full fester mode as the bus even smelt of KFC for the next 7 hours!

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When we got to the Beitbridge border post, our guide warned us that the queues could be ridiculous and he’d often waited there for over two hours. I had visions of those never ending snaking queues like immigration queues we thankfully get to walk past at Heathrow airport. It seemed luck was on our side though, as we got our passports stamped to exit South Africa pretty quickly, and even the Zimbabwean border force issued our visas quickly and painlessly.

We were fairly lucky to escape more than a couple of police stops too. Apparently police officers in Zimbabwe have daily targets of up to $1500 to meet! Tour buses are a sure target for police stops as they know we’ll have cash and if they can even find the tiniest, most petty thing they’ll issue you with a fine in order to try and get you to hand over any amount of money. There was a noticeable change in he roads in Zimbabwe. In contrast to South Africa, where we saw service stations, small towns and villages and a ton of hitchhikers, here we drove for hours and hours without seeing a single thing. Other than cows and goats – there were hundreds of them in and around the road which slowed us down considerably – there was quite literally nothing but trees for miles. Even the fields were empty wasteland, in contrast to the South African fields which were overflowing with crops! 500km, a few queues and many snacks later, we arrived at Bulawayo, our home for the next couple of nights. Somehow the last 300km took us 6 hours and I couldn’t wait to check in and shower. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I knew from the rest of our nights that the quality of the hotel could vary wildly.

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It’s hard to believe that Zimbabwe was once known as one of the wealthiest nations in Southern Africa. It’s clear to see the toll that Mugabe’s rule has taken. Our guide even told us that he refuses to choose a successor and at 93 his wife says his name will be on the ballot paper even if he passes away. The unemployment rate is an incomprehensible 96% (the 4% must surely be police officers with the number we came across!) and in every village you can see the desperate poverty. People line up on the streets selling anything they can get their hands on and our guide told us the government rip off local farmers, giving them almost nothing for their crops, and paying them in local Zimbabwean “bond notes” rather than US dollars, printing them to such excess that they’re virtually worthless.

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The hotel was actually beautiful; my favourite of all the ones we stayed at. It was only a B&B though so we ate at the restaurant next door that evening. It was okay – an American diner style place so certainly nothing special (or any kind of local food) but it filled me up and they had decent desserts too 🙂

For the first time since the trip started the room was nice enough to relax before bed so I made a cup of tea to have some of my South African food finds which was such a welcome change to having to hide from the bugs feeling sticky from the bug repellent I’d plastered myself in!

Day 5 – Matobo National Park
(and coincidentally both my parents’ and my Auntie & Uncle’s anniversary! 🙂 )

A full day at the Matobo game reserve – this was probably one of my favourite days, as even though we were still travelling, it was on an open air 4×4 with plenty of stops. We had a different guide for the day – he’d been both a park ranger and a hunter and his knowledge was just insane. The guys running the tours are so incredibly passionate about what they do. The scent of an animal, the faintest sound, marks or tracks on the ground and they can reel off endless information. He was so at home in the bush that he knew it like the back of his hand, and he spent the entire day barefoot, which was incredible given that I had long trousers and trainers on and I still got my fair share of scratches and painful pricks from the various bushes and plants along the way. I even got some sharp spores stuck in my trousers so his feet must’ve been like leather! He also seemed perfectly happy to step right in a huge pile of rhino dung infested with dung beetles..

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The morning was spent searching for rhino and our guide spotted tracks just off the road leading into the bush so we left the bus by the briefly and just a few hundred yards into the bushes were 4 rhinos. They’re such amazing creatures and to get to be just metres away from them was incredible 🙂 Note that none of them have horns as the park rangers have started sedating the rhinos and cutting off their horns in an attempt to deter poachers but apparently poachers still kill the rhinos anyway to get the tiny stump that’s left. It’s so sad but as our guide reiterated, it really isn’t the poachers that are to blame – it’s the end user – 1 kilo of rhino horn is apparently worth $60-100,000, and I don’t think anyone can truly say that they would turn down a deal from a buyer if they were desperate and starving with a family to feed. I can’t believe that in this day and age there are still clowns who believe in all these mythical powers and medicines, and it’s so sad that any animal could be treated in such an inhumane way.

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Despite seeing rhinos the highlight of the day for me was finding the cutest little turtle as we were walking along. The guide said he couldn’t have been more than a year old, and he was absolutely adorable – I didn’t want to leave him!

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There was an option to extend the half day to a full day tour and we all chose to do it, so in the afternoon after a beautiful picnic lunch by a lake we went to see some cave paintings. Due to the excessive amount of rain we couldn’t get to any others but I imagine they’d all be pretty similar so I was more than happy just seeing one as it wasn’t the most interesting if I’m honest. After that we drove to Cecil Rhodes’ grave. The views from the top were incredible – no photo could ever do it justice.

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As the sun set, we had coffee and biscuits in the park before heading back to Bulawayo. Again, our guide mentioned that there’d been far less game around than he was used to because of the weather – with food and water so abundant the animals didn’t need to gather round watering holes like you see in so many documentaries.

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Despite having eaten all my snacks and rather a few biscuits I was starving for dinner that evening. We went to a local American diner where I got calamari, surf and turf and a chocolate fondant pudding before going to the Food Lovers market next door to pick up a few extra treats – look at the size of those Viennese whirls and that chocolate flapjack!!

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Generally I was really shocked by the prices of everything in Zimbabwe considering the level of poverty – we were staying in Bulawayo which I understand is one of the more wealthy areas but even so in the supermarket it was $1-2 for a baked item, there were jars of nut butter (chocolate almond and macadamia!) which I was so tempted by but they were $11 each!! Other items were similarly expensive which makes me wonder who on earth buys them!

Day 6 – Bulawayo to Victoria Falls

Our last full day and we had another lovely breakfast (though the guy did ask me if my order of 5 eggs was for 5 people!!) before another frustratingly long day of driving. Not only did we have 500km to cover, there are literally police stops every few kilometres which became increasingly ridiculous. In a desperate attempt to get any money they can, they’ll check everything from the obvious documents to how many fire extinguishers are on the bus! Obviously being on an organised tour which runs so regularly the drivers used to this so everything was in order but it was so irritating having to constantly stop while they try to find the tiniest thing wrong. The crazy thing is the stops are every few kilometres, yet at each stop depending how desperate they are you’ll get stopped for different lengths of time. Our worst stop was 30 minutes long where we could tell immediately one guy was going to a nightmare – he looked us up and down in disgust before we’d even stopped the bus. He tried everything even saying the date on official documents wasn’t written properly – ironic given that the license was issued by the government – not to mention the license had obviously been checked without problems at least ten times prior to that. I imagine lots of tourists pay purely to avoid the delays – imagine having to stop for 30 minutes every few kilometres – you’d never get anywhere! But our driver remained stubborn – and rightly so – why the hell should you have to pay a penny when every single one of your documents is totally in order. The poor guy got so flustered at some of the longer stops though and I felt so sorry for him – he hadn’t done anything wrong.

400km and 18 police stops later (seriously – we counted), we finally arrived at the Adventure Park, where we booked our activities for the next day. It had taken us over 8 hours, due to a combination of the ridiculous speed limit and number of interruptions – averaging 50km on wide open country roads is terrible by any standards, and I also had to pee in a bush which was delightful. Unbelievably in 8 hours we didn’t pass a single town or village – no shops or any sign of civilization – it was just mile after mile of open road with nothing but wilderness either side.

We’d stopped at a local cafe to pick up lunch (and one of our only non takeaway lunches – yay!) but were charged $8 for a “panini” (tiny soggy sandwich), a muffin and an apple – even by British standards that’s expensive, the bread was stale and again, I’m curious as to who on earth can afford to pay that around here. I think it’s also the only place where people have tried to sell me money before! Since Mugabe has flooded the market with his bank notes, there are people everywhere trying to sell notes with “50 billion dollars” written on them! Unfortunately due to our multiple delays, by the time we checked into the hotel we had just 15 minutes before we had to leave for dinner.

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We were picked up early and had a beautiful 4 course sunset dinner on the Zambezi river, with an open bar! Disappointingly we weren’t served African food but the food was good (we had a mezze board, soup with warm bread, catch of the day/prime fillet steak with Dauphinoise potatoes and veg and a dessert platter including cookies, mini cheesecakes and a white chocolate liquor shot), the staff were lovely and there was plenty of Amarula around – I absolutely love it in coffee! Unfortunately for us it absolutely poured with rain – so heavily that we had to shout to hear each other, but I still had a lovely night and it was a lovely way to finish a great tour (albeit with far too much time spent on the bus).

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After getting back to the hotel we said our goodbyes to the Australian couple, as we were up at 5am to visit Victoria Falls before our flight back to Johannesburg the next morning. Over the week we’d become really close, and it was sad to leave them, though they’d already arranged to meet my Auntie and Uncle when they went to Mauritius – this tour was just one week of what I think they said was an eight week tour around Africa!

Day 7 – Victoria Falls

Despite having to leave for the airport before 11.30am, we managed to cram a surprising amount into our last morning. We woke up at 5am to get to the entrance of Victoria Falls for when it opened at 6, where we wandered round the 16 view points for about an hour and a half. One of the seven natural wonders of the world and a breathtaking 1700m wide, it’s the biggest curtain of falling water in the world. I’d seen pictures of it in all its beauty but sadly the weather definitely put a damper on the morning – unfortunately a recurring theme of the tour, as it was so misty and cloudy that the visibility was appalling.

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My mum loves a good moan but I was fully with her on this one – with the cloud we could barely see for more than a few metres, and at best we could see a small section of the falls directly in front of us, but I can only imagine how beautiful it is when the sky is clear. We’d been warned about getting soaked, so we were a little smug after remaining bone dry for the first 10 view points, but there was one section where we got absolutely soaked through! Don’t ignore the advice to bring an umbrella/poncho – you will need it! Despite being soaked, we weren’t rewarded with any beautiful views as the thick fog only worsened. After a frustrating morning, we returned to the hotel for breakfast (second breakfast for my uncle and I!) which was most definitely the highlight – the spread of cakes/pastries and muffins would rival any European hotel!

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After breakfast we did our final activity which was an optional extra – a 15 minute helicopter ride above the falls. It was my first ever helicopter ride, and I’ll admit that I was a little apprehensive but I knew I’d regret it massively if I decided not to go. As it turns out I had nothing whatsoever to worry about and thankfully this gave us a far better view than our morning walk had, and despite the weather we could really appreciate the true beauty and size of the waterfall.

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The operating company, Bonisair Helicopters, made a cute video of our trip – obviously the footage of the falls was generic but there were some clips of us having our safety briefing, boarding and landing which was a nice touch.

After landing, we rushed back to the hotel to gather our things ready to head to the airport and start the long journey home. Again (another recurring theme of my time in Zimbabwe!) I was horrified at the airport prices – I know that airports are generally expensive but Victoria Falls airport is next level; $12 for a keyring, $18 for a mug and if you don’t have food with you then be prepared to fork out $18 for a small pizza! There’s a smaller café next to the main restaurant which serves meals starting at $12, but judging by the quality of my coffee (quite literally the worst cup I have ever had!) I wouldn’t advise going there!

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Overall it was an absolutely incredible experience but I’m not sure if I  would recommend this particular tour to people. There are a lot of long days of driving and for someone who really values what little holiday I have, spending the majority of it on a bus wasn’t really ideal. You know that bloated, lethargic feeling you get after a long flight; not moving for hours, eating rubbish food and snacking to relieve the boredom? It’s like that.. for 7 continuous days. It’s not that I wouldn’t recommend touring South Africa and visiting Victoria Falls – it was an absolutely incredible experience and it was amazing to see so many beautiful animals in the wild (plus some breathtaking views) but there are many more efficient ways to do it – you can get internal flights from Johannesburg to Kruger park for example, and you can also fly to Victoria Falls. I don’t think one day is enough for Kruger Park either – there are so many animals and the area that the roads cover is immense. You could never hope to cover it all on a holiday, but since the animals seen varies so wildly day to day I think a couple of days there would’ve been nice. Plus the weather can be temperamental – our day at Kruger Park began with the worst thunderstorms I’d ever seen.. if it hadn’t cleared up we’d have got to see nothing but would still have had to move on the next day. Doing it yourself would take some serious planning though – in less developed countries I think it’s always useful to have a local guide who can speak the language, give advice and sort out paperwork, plus there are a lot of police out there to make anything they can from you – tourists are clear targets so if there’s anything even slightly amiss they’ll capitalise on it.

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I’d definitely say consider the timing too – obviously I didn’t have any flexibility when I went and I actually didn’t bother to check the weather, stupidly assuming that all African countries were hot all year round but I was surprised by 1) how much it rained and 2) how cold it got. Temperatures went as low as ten degrees in the evenings and it rained pretty heavily almost every day. Thankfully generally the rain didn’t last long, but as with all tropical areas, when it rains it seriously rains, so you pretty much can’t do anything but wait for it to pass when it does. Apparently August – November are the best months to go on safari, as they’re the driest months so there are so many more animals around as they search for food and water.  That said, if you don’t mind the driving (there’s plenty of time to relax and sleep on the bus!) then there are a lot of stops along the way at smaller game reserves which you’d probably miss out on if you chose to fly 🙂

Link to the tour operator: https://acacia-africa.com

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