Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Africa: The Adventure Begins

Visiting South Africa has been on my list of "things to do" for years. A number of things delayed it; the security situation, and the fact that it's a long, long way from my house would be high on the list. After we retired, we decided the time had come to go and do it. And I'm going to take you, my loyal blog readers, on the ride with us.

Problem number 1 was that neither Karen nor I know much about South Africa, so our first step -- over a year ago -- was to buy a guidebook. That we never managed to read. So much for that concept.

We knew planning this little junket would take a while, so in the fall of 2013, we committed to ourselves to go in May 2014. We were in the AMA office renewing car registrations in September, and picked up everything they had on African travel (which wasn't much). We went to Maui taking with us our unread guidebook and the AMA stuff with the intent to make headway on planning. Then my daughter announced plans to be in Australia for 3 months starting in May, and we dithered, considering joining her in Oz instead of Africa. No Africa planning.

Finally, in November, we started reading and researching. We lucked out that one of the AMA pamphlets we picked up was for G Adventures, and they had a safari tour idea I never thought of. A "road trip" in an African-equipped mini-bus, visiting a bunch of places I have heard about, read about, and been interested in: The Namib desert. The Etosha Pans. The Okavango Delta. Victoria Falls. I was intrigued. If they went there, maybe others did.

A bunch of internet searching showed that a number of safari tour operators did similar things on a similar route. Most were camping safaris, like G Adventures. Some, though, were "accommodated" or partially accommodated, staying at places that had campsites but also regular hotel rooms, so that safari participants had the choice of how they wanted to sleep. We thought long and hard about camping for 20+ straight days, and the need to lug a sleeping bag halfway around the world. We landed on accommodated.

So real Step #1 was to punch the details of a bunch of tour options into some spreadsheets. These sheets were loaded with our constraints -- leave no earlier than April 27, get home no later than June 2. One operator even listed off where they stay, including website addresses. I could actually trace the route. Most started from Cape Town and headed north, though a few started from Johannesburg. We liked the starts in Cape Town for a bunch of reasons.

We quickly learned that once you got to Victoria Falls on most of these trips, you had a problem. You could stop and fly somewhere. You could continue either north into Eastern Africa, which we didn't want to do. Or you could drive 3 days across Zimbabwe, 8 hrs a day, down towards Krueger National Park in South Africa to spend even more time wildlife watching. Zimbabwe was not a place most safari operators want to spend much time.

So we landed on a popular 21 day safari route that started in Cape Town and ended in Victoria Falls. Our pick of the several companies that ply that route (including Drifters, G Adventures, Sunway, African Budget, and others)  is an African tour operator called African Overland Safaris, on a tour run by Nomad Adventures. The safari dates of May 7 to 26 worked for us. We sent off a request for more info.

So then we started looking for flights, on points. I wrote a whole post about that just after Christmas, so I won't rehash. In the end, while we could have used every point we had (and then some) to fly on Delta via Atlanta in Business Class the whole way, we opted to go on Air Canada and its partners for 300,000 points; 75,000 pts per person each way. But this was hugely complicated.

I couldn't transfer my points into Aeroplan from American Express for 4 days because their systems were down. I couldn't convince Aeroplan's booking tool that I really could fly into Cape Town and out of Johannesburg; I had to book it as two one-ways. Aeroplans rules and fares changed on January 1, and I was trying to set flights up on December 31. I couldn't get one of the flights ticketed after I booked it because of a sched change that occurred basically the moment I booked it. Trying to fix that, the Aeroplan lady suggested flight schedules and connections I couldn't see. It was painful. But it got done. And my free tickets came with $2,000 in taxes and fees. Still, that was a saving of over $12,000 over buying those tickets, so I shouldn't complain.

With flights arranged, we started the process of booking the safari. Turns out you can't pay a company in South Africa (or Namibia, Botswana. Zambia or Zimbabwe) a single dime using a Visa or MasterCard without telling the credit card company first. That cleared up, even if you pay them, a booking isn't complete without you providing the tour operator with your medical insurance details that prove that you have extensive travel insurance. Run into trouble in the Namib desert and you need to be airlifted, and they won't even talk to you if you don't have that coverage.

And then there's passports. Your passport needs 2 blank opposing pages for every country you visit or they will just not let you in. In our case, we go in and out of South Africa twice, so we need 4 pages for them. And the passport can't expire for at least 6 months after the time you plan to exit. Karen needs a new passport, it seems.

So we have flights to get there, flights home, and a safari in the middle. Now all we need is the rest of the trip.

Stay tuned as we keep you updated. 

1 comment:

H-woman said...

I spent six weeks in Africa eight years ago--I'd go back in a heartbeat!! Cape Town is wonderful (I spent my South African time in Cape Town and the western cape). You're going to have fun!!