Tuesday 27 May 2014

Francois Ghanem - Chobe Experience

Finally settled into a routine at Chobe.  Game drives were nice.  We did not see all the Big 5 here.  "Just" ellies and buffalos.  We saw the most adorable baby ellie nursing.  We saw many giraffes along the way and at one point a "journey" of 8 giraffes together - so graceful to watch.  We saw dung beetles industriously doing what they do best along the way too.
Most magnificent, however,  was the time we spent on the Chobe river.  The river plain was still "flooded". So we got to see many birds and beautiful water lilies.  We saw crocs and ellies in the water eating and bathing.  We observed a lot of ellies at the shoreline drinking and hanging out on shore and water's edge.
And how about the hippos we wanted to see "smiling" or " yawning"?  We saw plenty of hippos mostly in water in various depths - and a few smiled at us and we have the quintesential photos of hippos smilling with mouths wide agape! 
We saw a sad sight of a scratched up hippo on shore tending to its wounds - which resulted from a fight with another male.  We also came across a hippo "couple". Well we only saw the male - as the female was submerged in the water as the couple was " busy".
That's it for the animals.  To end our Chobe river experience was a spectacular sunset with the requisite river, a tree and a setting flaming orange sun!  Simply magnificient!!!

How about some personal thoughts on our experience?  Here we go....
Our game drives were small in size - on one we had just three of us.  The river cruises we took were on smaller boats 10 passengers on one and just us two on another.  The smaller boats allow for closer access to spots which is really great.  However, after a few hours they are not the most comfortable.  Myself - I'd choose closer access to the animals others may opt for a bigger boat where one can walk around and may be more conducive to enjoying a sundowner or two.

About the morning drives - when we stopped for coffee, tea and rusks we did so in a spot with 8  or 9 game drive vehicles and 50 or 60 people milling around.  We admit that we were spoiled by the more personal experience we enjoyed at the Sabie Sands area game drives.
We ventured into Kasane for a short while and found it safe and hassle free without any one trying to sell us anything.

Chobe was a very nice place to experience and we really enjoyed it.  
On to Namibia.
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Francois Ghanem: Chobe we've got a problem!

So we arrived at our lodge in the Kasane area on a Sunday shortly before noon.  The front desk staff quizzically looked at us and told us we do not have a reservation.  When we produce a reservation number the story changes to this: the lodge is fully booked and the river view accommodations reserved for us are occupied by a sick guest who extended their stay.  So the solution is to move us to a comparable lodge a few minutes down the road.
At this point I called an emergency number that Elizabeth has provided.  On a Sunday getting an answering machine would not be surprising.  To my delight I spoke with one of Elizabeth's colleagues and explained the situation.  He followed up with the hotel reservations staff.
As for us - we waited in the front desk area with a lodge employee that seemed to be taking the lead in dealing with us.  Several hours of frustration ensued - the details of our arrangements were debated and discussed and ultimately, we were shifted to a nearby lodge with our activities to be done by the one that "walked" us.

On Monday Elizabeth and I exchanged several emails in which she kept me appraised of what was happening and her investigation.

During conversations with the lodge's deputy general manager, she acknowledged that the lodge mishandled our reservation and the situation.  She offered us a formal opology and a bottle of wine as a gesture of good will.

Anyhow the accommodations  in the other lodge we ended up with were very nice.  Only a little knock on their food.  A la carte lunches were very good.  Buffet dinners - not so hot literally and otherwise.
Enough already about this travel mishap.  As independent travellers we should expect something to go wrong. (When was a tour group bumped due to an overbooking or some other problem in error?) (Actually  Francois, it does happen too! EE)
Bottom line is the situation was resolved and we got to see Chobe National Park.  That was our objective- right?

More on our park experience in the next blog post.
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Monday 26 May 2014

Francois Ghanem: Vic Falls - "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times..." (And is a baboon smarter than I am?)

Let me start by saying the Falls are spectacular!!!  As for the baboon question I am afraid you'll have to read on....

We had decided to see the Falls from the Zimbabwe side to avoid yellow fever vaccination issues and the walking proximity of our accommodations to the Falls.
Upon arrival at the tiny airport - the situation for the 150 or so passengers waiting for passport formalities (including visa aquisition for some nationalities) and baggage collection ranged from  mad mayhem to absolute chaos.  But we made it through unscathed!
Our objective was to see the Falls and the Zambezi animal and bird life.   What success we had!!!
On a sunset river cruise we saw crocs and hippos;  birds and a magnificent sunset.  I was hoping to see a hippo on shore and a yawning (aka smiling) hippo - alas the hippos we saw were all in the water.  But it was great to see and experience the Mighty Zambezi with all its life.

We also enjoyed a walking tour of the Falls.  In preparation for the tour we were advised that we wd oulget soaking wet.  We expected that since the Falls are at peak flow this time of year.
We did get wet.  Some portions of the falls were obscured by the mist.  Conditions were  variable - in some spots the mist would dissipate and give us a chance for a great look.  At a few spots the mist was like "rain falling upward."  When we encountered this "rain"  - it ranged from a light showery mist to a thunderstorm-like downpour that required umbrellas.  Managed to keep camera dry for many falls photos. 
Peak flow at the Falls also means rainbows and double rainbows.  We enjoyed seeing some!  (Not to mention some birds and interesting fauna along our path.)
So that was the best of times.  Read on for the worst of times and the answer to the baboon story....

Worst of times: Touts and street vendors.  We ventured away from the hotel and walked around town to a supermarket, restaurants, the Elephant Walk "Mall" and the curio shops around it.
WARNING: if you do not like to bargain, do not like your personal space invaded, and do not like persistent sales pitches that involve vendors following you - then you should stick to hotel areas and areas where the tourist police are found.
I did not find the vendors threatening or menacing - but way way way beyond pushy. (A few would even ask for a handout if you don't want to buy their wares). We put up with the vendors and touts because we wanted to check things out on my own.  To most others we chatted with at our hotel - not something they wanted to  deal with.
In conversations with locals, the authorities are aware of the severity of the situation and are working on it.
Another thing is prices.  Essentially Vic Falls is an "island" (so to speak) in Zimbabwe.  It is a tourist town that prices things at what the western world market can bear.

A side note: I opted for a "last minute "  ( 2 hours before flight time) arrangement for a  helicopter flight over the falls.  The 12 minute flight has the potential to be spectacular.  I say " potential" because you are not guaranteed a window seat.  In my case I ended up in a middle seat contending with a passenger who insisted on using an IPAD for a camera.  You must be kidding me!    Also, the whole process from pick up to return to hotel took almost 2 hours (including an obligatory viewing of the flight video for purchase and waiting for others to finish whatever they were doing to get a ride back to hotel.)
Was it worth it?  I have a once in a life time experience and a few spectacular aerial photos!!!  So in retrospect - absolutely!!  At the time when every thing was  happening - not so much!

Oh yeah the baboon story....
At breakfast one morning I saw a troop of baboons  around the hotel grounds.  (later in the day saw a bunch of warthogs).  One of the baboons with an adorable baby approached our table and stopped for a few moments as if to show us her baby.  In the split second I reached for my camera the baboon dumped the baby and swooped in on a pastry I had on my plate and moved on to the next table before it was chased away.  So there you have it....
In summary,  we enjoyed our visit to the Falls and found the people to be very welcoming.  The vendor problem was not an issue for us and we felt safe walking around.  We'd recommend a visit to see the Falls.  (Whether or not you are seeing the "real" Zimbabwe is an open question I 'll leave for others in other forums to discuss.)

On to Chobe next...
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Wednesday 21 May 2014

Francois Ghanem: Jo'burg - The Tale of Two Cities

Our hotel was located in Sandton - in the vicinity of Nelson Mandela Square.  Within easy reach were up-scale restaurants and shopping such as a Gucci store in a big shopping arcade.
The area also had professional buildings, international banking offices and the South African stock exchange.  A highly polished area that offers a glimpse into potential!  From conversations I had - Sandton is a well to do and a highly desirable area that many aspire to work and live in.

We spent a day visiting Soweto and the Apartheid museum.  So much history and to peek at that history is so fascinating and highly disturbing at the same time.  Seeing uniformed and smiling school children at the Pieterson museum learning about and absorbing a critical period in South African history was touching and filled with emotion.

As we visited different parts of Soweto we began to get a basic understanding of the history and the toll it took (and arguably continues to) on so many.  We gained an appreciation that Soweto in more than a neighbourhood.  It was and continues to be a crucible of history in the making and contains a strata of people from Winnie Mandela to recently migrated people from other parts of Africa.  Neighbourhood areas ranged from the "Beverly Hills of Soweto" to flood prone metal shacks without water and electricity.
What is striking are conversations with"Born Frees" and older ones of many backgrounds and races.  The common theme: a better future in peace and security.  Indeed is that not what all of humanity is seeking?

Speaking of humanity - we visited the UNESCO World Heritage site - the cradle of humanity.  We only visited the visitor's centre (not the caves).  Admittedly, I have some fundamental questions about the timelines and theories presented.  However,  as an attraction - the site was mediocre, at best (as compared to other world heritage sites we visited).  At times, in my view, the site ventured into the cheesy realm.  Case in point: a boat ride reminiscent of Disney's "Its a small world" boat ride. 

We also visited the Lesedi Cultural Centre. The centre is intended to provide an introduction to the various peoples of South Africa.  Some may argue that the whole experience is touristy and staged.  I would not dispute that.  However, the experience was informative and entertaining.  The dance demonstrations were great!  Lunch at Lesedi consisted of a buffet of African dishes.  An ample selection was available, but the quality was adequate.

Earlier in the trip I tried a Kudu steak.  At Lesedi at one of the tour stops they offered cooked mopani worms in sauce.  Much to our host's surprise (and subsequent delight) I tried the worms.  I would eat them again.  And - no - they don't taste like chicken.

There you have it - a brief look at our very limited experience in Jo'burg.  It is a big city but one we found fascinating, friendly and filled with hope and potential.  A city that tells many tales with a common thread.
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Monday 19 May 2014

Guest Blogger: Francois Ghanem - Panorama Route

When I was planning this trip most resources and guide books barely (if at all) mentioned the "Panorama Route."
The "Pano Route" (as I heard it referred to several times during our day discovering it) is a wonderful day trip.  The problem was itinerary planning.  I was a day short elsewhere on the trip and told Elizabeth to cut out the Pano Route.
Elizabeth persuaded me not to.  We were glad we had the opportunity to take a day trip  to explore the Pano Route.  The route is a great way to appreciate the Blyde River canyon - one of the biggest in the world and 2nd biggest in Africa. 
Along the way we saw lush forests, great waterfalls, interesting rock formations and mountain peaks up to 1900+ meters.
We ended our day with a bit of shopping in Graskop.

All in all a great day and a different one than the bush. Glad we did not skip it.
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Saturday 17 May 2014

Instalment 2: Guest Blogger - Francois Ghanem

So we've finally arrived in South Africa.
I've been thinking about what to write and what my guest blog focus will be.  I will be giving an overview of our experiences and not obsessing about details of accomodations and hotels.

Our first stop was a Sabi Sands private reserve.  We stayed at a lodge recommended by Elizabeth.  The accommodations were perfect.  The food was very good and abundant.  The staff was hyper-attentive to our comfort and were excellent host.  Suffice it to say that when we checked in to the lodge my wife declared Elizabeth a travel advice goddess.
(The lodge routine was fairly typical of all lodges: early morning and late afternoon drives, bush walks, meals etc... a busy schedule indeed that started at 5:30 am and ended at 9:30 pm.)
But I digress....  The reason we are here is to see the bush creatures  - not to talk about the generous creature comforts we enjoyed.   The big 5 parade started on the drive to the lodge when we saw two lions.  It gets better.  Over the next 6 game drives we saw the big five multiple times.  We saw babies, adults and ageing animals.  We saw some of the "little 5" and some of the "shy 5".  We saw a nursing baby rhino and two lions " in flagante delicto."  We even saw an elusive cheetah - we were told the first sighting in the area in 4 months.
Really memorable!  Yet just as thrilling were the bush walks where we got an overview of the flora and fauna and lessons in tracking animals by tracks and dung.  The best part was one walk with just me and the ranger.  We enjoyed conversations along the way but we also stopped to enjoy the bush silence punctuated by the sounds of animals doing what they do and at times you could actually hear the bigger birds flapping their wings as I stood there in silent awe.
The guests were an international bunch with an American majority.  A few south Africans visiting the bush with us certainly provided an interesting perspective on bush tourism as well as past and current events in the country. Also of interest was a conversation with the lodge proprietor about rhino poaching and eco-tourism.   Thought provoking!

That's it for now.  Till the next update.....
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Saturday 10 May 2014

On route to Africa - Guest Blogger - Francois Ghanem

So my wife and I are on a plane 5 hours away from Jo'burg and an incredible journey of 4 weeks that Elizabeth helped make a reality.
Some history first...  We started planning for our Africa trip 14 months ago.  It all began with an email describing who we are as travellers, what we enjoy doing when we travel and what we want and what we dont - and possible dates for trip.  We did not want a mass marketed tour, a camping trip,  or an ultra expensive "spafari".  We were looking for good value which I know is not necessarilly inexpensive.
Out of the dozen or so companies (in USA, UK and South Africa) we contacted we selected Elizabeth. Why?
Because,  some responded that they do not cater to customers with our specific requirements (read not interested in value minded travellers).  Some ignored our email and told us what they wanted to sell us and why it fits our travel requirements.  Some even would not even talk unless we established a budget (I do not like to start the process with this important aspect of travel for reasons beyond this post).  And some said the trip is 14 months in the future come back in 8 months when pricing is available.
Elizabeth, on the other hand - responded with a thourogh email that gave specific feedback and suggestions for every aspect of our inquiry.  We fine tuned the trip with Elizabeth providing guidance along each step of the way. 
In a nut shell, Elizabeth understood us and our requirements.  Her emails clearly reflected this along with a sense of humor and a keen understanding of the Southern Africa travel scene.
Most important in our dealings with Elizabeth was the transparancy in pricing and her openness in sharing pricing of alternatives.  Remarkable, also, is the fact when she found a pricing error (in my favor) she let me know and credited me the amount!
One last thing - I research quite a bit and ask a million questions.  Elizabeth handled everything so well for 14 months and addressed all my inquires with efficient professionalizm along  with responsiveness and humor.
Enough about how we came to this point.  On to the trip.... Over the next four weeks we will visit South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.  Will be on safari,  some city stays, and self drive in Namibia.
We are thrilled as we embark on this trip and look forward to all the experiences and food (yes including smiley, mopani worms and monkey gland sauce - it is not what you think !)

Till the next installment with some travel observations and recap of what we're doing....
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Guest Blogger

For some time I have been working on the travel arrangements for a client, Francois Ghanem.  He is just about due to arrive into South Africa, and, during one of many conversations, the idea of a guest blog was proposed.

I thought it would be ever so interesting to hear from a client, during his travels, about how he finds the whole experience - the good, the bad and the ugly!  So, look out for our first ever guest blog - to follow

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