South Africa & Namibia Trip Report June 2016
By Thierry Cellier ( June 2016)
As I have often said before, if you want to see and experience vast herds of animals roaming the great African plains, then East Africa is the place to go. If you want to see the famous ‘Big Five’ – elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, and leopard, then a private concession in the world-renowned Kruger National Park is your best bet. I was lucky enough to experience the latter on my last trip to Africa with a stay at two private camps in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, an immense private concession bordering the Kruger, and had the most incredible sightings of both the ‘Big Five’ and other wildlife.
The Sabi Sands Game Reserve is a vast 65,000-hectare fenceless reserve that shares a border with the world-renowned Kruger National Park and is home to the highest density of free-roaming big game in South Africa.
My trip began with a night’s stay at the Dulini River Lodge, followed by a night’s stay at the Savannah Lodge, both of which are exclusive five-star lodges that offer an unforgettable experience in the heart of the Africa wilderness. Aside from the fantastic accommodations, which included private plunge pools and viewing decks overlooking the bush, both lodges offered guided game drives, which was where I experienced Africa at her best.
While there were no huge herds of animals as found in East Africa, the Big Five were all around me and in the first two days of my trip I was lucky enough to spot no less than 20 lions, 25 rhinos, and five leopards. Sabi Sand is renowned for being one of the best places to spot these elusive cats. I also saw countless elephants, including mothers and their babies, and many buffalo, as well as other game such as cheetah, zebra, kudu, and nyala. There were plenty of hyena around, and I managed to catch a hunt and a kill in progress where a group of hungry hyenas took down big Buffalo – one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen! It cannot be argued that Sabi Sand is a magical place for safaris!
I then moved on to the Thornybush Game Reserve, which lies just north of Sabi Sands and is quite a different experience as it is a fenced game reserve, which doesn’t allow the animals to roam freely as Sabi Sands does. I stayed at the Waterside Lodge, a family-friendly lodge set on the set on the banks of a beautiful lake. While the Lodge offers comfortable rooms with private deck areas overlooking the river, I found the reserve to be too ‘bushy,’ which made it difficult to spot any wildlife and get good photographs.
The next leg of my African journey took me to one of my favourite places on Earth – Namibia. Just a short two-hour flight from Johannesburg into the capital of Windhoek, it is easily accessible from South Africa and presents an entirely different perspective on the continent. After a comfortable night at the Galton Guest House, a charming guest house in one of Windhoek’s quiet suburbs, I headed to the NamibRand Nature Reserve, one of Southern Africa’s largest private nature reserves. This unique and often missed nature reserve encompasses a vast wilderness on the edge of the Namib Desert which is home to epic landscapes of massive apricot dunes and grassy plains peppered with mysterious fairy circles. The NamibRand Nature Reserve is also famous for the many small herds of oryx that can be regularly seen here.
Next was a visit to the famous Sossusvlei Desert where towering red sand dunes, dry, cracked earth, and ghostly trunks of dead trees form an ethereal, and stark beauty found nowhere else in the world. At the center of this mysterious world is the Namib-Naukluft National Park, which is made up of a vast ephemeral pan whose stark white floors of salt and clay and contrasting majestic, star-shaped red dunes – some of the highest in the world .
I also had the chance to revisit Dead Vlei (meaning “dead marsh”), a place I had been longing to see again, which is a unique white clay pan near the more famous salt pan of Sossusvlei, which also gave me some fantastic photo opportunities.
Surrounded by the highest sand dunes in the world, the tallest of which reaches an incredible 400m, Dead Vlei’s clay pan was formed hundreds of years ago when the Tsauchab River flooded, creating temporary shallow pools which allowed camel thorn trees to grow. When the climate changed, and drought later hit the area, the trees died and left the remaining skeleton trunks that can be seen today. This 700-hundred-year-old trees are not petrified but do not decompose because the climate is so dry.
During my visit to the Sossusvlei, I stayed at the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, a contemporary lodge with comfortable accommodations located on the edge of the pan and surrounded the majestic mountains and towering sand dunes of the Namib Desert. The views from the lodge were nothing less than spectacular.
One of the best ways to experience the sheer expanse and beauty of the Sossusvlei is on a hot air balloon ride, and you should not leave this beautiful country without enjoying this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I didn’t miss my chance and took a flight over the towering red sand dunes and vast salt plains, a flight that was made even more special for me as I was flown by the very same pilot that took me on my first flight over Sossusvlei some 24 years ago!
The last leg of the trip was in Cape Town, like Vancouver the “mother city” is surrounded by ocean and mountains and there are many similarities between the 2 cities. The purpose of the visit was to see some friends and visit Wine Estates and Olive Farms, Morgenster Estate in Somerset West, Hamilton Russel Vineyards and Bouchard Finlayson Winery near Hermanus , these wineries produce excellent Bordeaux Style Red, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Renting a car and driving around the Cape Area is really easy and very affordable ( Keep in mind that they drive on the wrong side of the road). Stellenbosh and Franschhoek are good bases to explore the wine region.
All photos © Thierry Cellier