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General, preliminary info sought, please

Lewes, United...
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General, preliminary info sought, please

Hello everybody

We are in the very early stages of planning a first-time trip to South Africa.

At the moment, as we have yet to book flights, we have total flexibility - both in terms of when we visit and for how long.

Having been reading lots guide books, and on TA, lots of topics on this and various sub forums, we think we have an idea of the outline of our trip. We would visit in either October/November (2012) or February/March (3013) for about 4 weeks. As it would be our first trip, I guess our wishes aren't that exotic - rather a personalised rehashing of the many 'classic highlights' tours.

Basically, we would fly from the UK to Capetown, then take local flights (or train?)where necessary within the country to get to our chosen areas, but would mostly self drive otherwise. We have divided our trip up into 3 sections, geographically, but not yet necessarily in the order we'd do our tour:

A - Capetown area, to see the city and the wine areas just north of there

B - Garden route and on towards Durban area (have a friend there)

C - Visit a game park, probably in the Kruger - but would be very open to alternative suggestions here

Among the immediate questions where we seek help are:

1: We note lots of people start in Jo'burg and finish in Cape Town, or vice versa. Is that better than starting and finishing in Cape Town?

2: We are used to just renting cars wherever we visit and doing our own thing. Are there areas where you wouldn't recommend we do this either because of road conditions, rental car companies don't like you doing this or other reasons? I have researched this, and have got somewhat conflicting information. We have elected to hire a driver with a car or join a local tour for various local reasons on previous travels.

3: Weather-wise, is there a reason why we'd be better visiting in early 2013 rather than late 2012? And, also for weather reasons, is there a better order to do our trip?

4: We are well aware SA is a huge country, and understand our trip would be a cherry picking highlights tour. Nonetheless, is 4 weeks reasonable? Regarding our time in a game park. How long is enough to have a chance of enough drives to see a range of the 'usual' animals? (I know there are no guarantees!)

5: Is there anything unique to South Africa that we should be aware of to maximise the enjoyment of our trip

Once I have a better feel of what we want to do, and where to go, I shall post on the local forums for more detailed advice and tips.

Thanks for all contributions, suggestions, opinions.

Port Elizabeth
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1. Re: General, preliminary info sought, please

1: To do a complete circular route is the minimum of 4 weeks, preferably 6. Most people have 2 or 3.

2: National Roads are in excellent. My main beef with them is that they keep them in too good a condition i.e. too many roadworks all the time. Provincial or Regional tar roads depend on the province. Dirt roads vary from great to appalling, You are unlikely to encounter many, except maybe the Drakensberg and 1 or 2 more interesting mountain passes. A very few roads (e.g. Sani Pass) are 4x4 only.

3: Jan-Jun do Cape Town first, Jul-Dec do Cape Town last.

4: Are you plaaning to self-drive, take game drives or go to a private game reserve?

5: Visiting South Africa is about nature. Limit yur time in the cities.

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2. Re: General, preliminary info sought, please

Glad to see you are doing your research so far in advance... To answer some of your queries:

- Out of October/November or February/March I would definitely say the latter. Then you will get the best of Cape and Natal weather. Try and inch it towards March though as its my favourite month in both areas (I grew up in Durban and now live in Cape Town so know very well)

- If the Cape and Natal are the two areas that you want to focus on then I would do the following:

Fly from London direct to Cape Town

Rent a car and visit the 'classic highlights' as you mention, i.e. Cape Town, Winelands, Garden Route.

Then I personally would drop off your car in Port Elizabeth and catch a flight to Durban where you can pickup another one. The route from PE to Durban is fairly rustic with not the best roads and quite basic accommodation. But saying that it is some of the most beautiful coastline we have so if you have the time, and are prepared about the roads and accommodation, then by all means do it.

Once in Durban stay with your friends and then I would recommend doing your safari in Natal - there are some fantastic reserves catering for all budgets. Depending on where you choose to go on safari in the province, you would then either be close to the Drakensberg Mountains or otherwise the Maputaland coastline bordering Mozambique - both I can highly recommend and will really give you an opportunity to see some of the best South Africa has to offer. If you need to know which reserves are close to which of the above mentioned highlights let me know and I can point you in the right direction.

Then drop off your car in Durban and fly via Johannesburg back to London.

It would make a FANTASTIC trip and I would recommend three weeks if you leave out the old Transkei coast between PE and Durban and around four weeks if you decide to do it.

- In terms of Kruger vs Natal reserves, obviously the first choice would be Kruger but I have had great experiences in Natal as well. Just pick your reserve well is my advice... ideally I would say three nights is sufficient to see most or all of the Big Five, and of course much much more.

- The route that you are planning on is very safe with regards to roads, bar the Transkei coast which can get slightly hairy with cattle/people walking. South Africa is an ideal self drive country and I definitely wouldn't go the route of a driver/guide... its very expensive and to be honest really not necessary.

- Once you have a basic outline of your itinerary, then I am sure you will get plenty of advice on the specifics such as hotels, restaurants, activities etc.

All the best!

Lauren

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3. Re: General, preliminary info sought, please

Thank you very much, lamlee and Lauren, for your helpful responses to my various queries. Clearly, plenty of food for thought. I will take on board your responses to add to the impressions I already have from previously gleaned info.

Regarding the game park/safari element of our trip: We don't plan to do our own thing for that, but to book a 'local package' with an experienced organisation on a pretty much all inclusive basis. As we would not need a rental car for the duration of that activity, would we be better doing that first or last, and get that organiser to also arrange transport to wherever we the reserve we eventually decide upon is located, or would it be cheaper to hang on to the car, drive to the reserve and leave the car unused for the duration? (This assumes the roads to the reserves are OK and that there is somewhere secure to leave the car.) This also brings me onto a different logical issue that I have failed to find a satisfactory answer to in my research to date. Transport to some of the reserves (admittedly mostly at the pricey end of the market) is by light aircraft, and you are only allowed to bring enough clothes and personal items for the duration of the safari. Where are we likely to find a secure places to leave the rest of our belongings?

Lauren - If we do the Transkei drive from PE to Durban, are you suggesting we keep the one same rental car for pretty much the whole duration of our trip except when in the cities?

Where do you suggest I search for objective reviews of the different safari companies? While I haven't researched this particularly on the different TA SA forums, I've noticed that mostly you only see comments on the companies when people are posting negative comments.

Thanks again for your help, I'll ge researching some more!

SWT

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4. Re: General, preliminary info sought, please

Hi

If you are here for four weeks than I would definitely include Kruger (either the fantastic National Park or a more expensive Private Reserve). I like the KZN game areas but they do not compare to Kruger.

Then the weather in Kruger and the North is very different to Cape Town (and even KZN). If I had the choice I would definitely not visit in February probably the worst month of the year in Kruger. Hot, hot and humid with thunderstorms. The vegetation is at it's highest and there is lots of water so the animals are hard to find. It is also peak malaria season.

Early October however is one of the very best times for Kruger. The rains normally start mid October so late September/early October has a lot going for it. It can be quite hot but the humidity is still low so it is very comfortable. The days are getting longer and the malarial risk, before the rains start is minimal. The only issue is that the first week in October is school holidays which means that Kruger Camps will be busy. Even 10 moths ahead many camps will already be booked but there is no doubt you will be able to put together a good route.

Then I completely agree with lamlee. At this time of year you should look at the trip the other way round. The later you get to Cape Town the better that the weather will be on average. November is normally about my favourite month in Cape Town. This is a winter rain area so the rains are normally finished by October however everything is still lovely and green. The gardens are magnificent and all the vines are in leaf. Another big plus is that it is the height of the Whale Watching season and you can watch these magnificent animals just metres from the shore in quite a few areas. February can be very hot - although not as humid as Kruger or northern KZN.

So fly into Joburg. pick up a car and drive (around 5 hours) to Kruger. maybe a day first around the Blyde River Canyon area. Then around 5 days in Kruger staying in 3 different rest camps - or 3 days in a smaller private reserve. Now head south, spending one night in Swaziland and one or two nights in St Lucia on the northern Zululand Coast.

It is now a three hour drive to Durban to visit your friends for a few days.

From here you can either fly to Port Elizabeth, but I would strongly recommend the drive south along the KZN south coast and through the Transkei. Yes the roads are not as good as much of the rest of the country but I have driven this route often and never had a single problem. As Lauren says both the inland areas and the “Wild Coast” are very beautiful and it might well be the highlight of your trip. You can’t drive along the coast so you should drop down to the coast for one or two nights in one of the small coastal villages. The accommodation is not luxurious but there are some excellent camps and guesthouses and lovely friendly people. So two to three full days leisurely drive to PE.

Now, if you want more wildlife experience I would recommend two nights in Addo National Park. One of the best places in the world for Elephant watching and lots more as well.. Good SANParks accommodation in the park.

Now I would spend 3 or 4 days travelling the “Garden Route” to George and then head inland to Oudtshoorn – an incredible change from the green coast to virtual semi-desert in just an hour’s drive. Two nights here is well worthwhile lots of things to see from Ostrich Farms, the Cango Caves or the circular drive up and over the Swartburg and Meeringspoort Passes - one of the most spectacular four hour drives in the country.

Now head towards Cape Town inland along the to lovely R62 – extremely scenic. From Barrydale head over the Tradouws Pass down to Swellendam and Hermanus. Overnight in Hermanus or nearby De Kelders and the next morning wake up, hopefully to Whales with your breakfast.

If you want to double the marine wildlife experience you can add cage-diving with Great White Sharks from Gansbaai just next to De Kelders. Again this is the ideal season for this rather than in high summer.

Now head to Cape Town – two hours. You could fit in a night or two in the Winelands in between but my preference would be either Cape Town with a couple of day trips into the winelands (less than an hour away) or, if you want to overnight, make this the end of your trip. From Stellenbosch it is only half an hour to the airport where you drop your trusty car and head back to the cold UK!

In Cape Tiown/Winelands I would look at around six nights. I would personally stay in one place and make alternate days in and around the city and days out to Cape Point, two days in the Winelands and maybe a day up the West Coast. If you are staying this time I would look at a self catering apartment or cottage. Having the car you would have a lot of choice from the city centre areas such as De Waterkant, to the Atlantic Seaboard areas such as Camps Bay or more rural areas within 20 mins or so of the city such as Hout Bay. All these places have excellent accommodation. An apartment or cottage gives you the freedom to relax after your road trip and really get to know one of the most fabulous cities in the world – Trip Advisors current Number One Destination in the World. Loads to do depending on your interests. But be sure to cover Cape Town’s great restaurants. One of the best (and best value) food destinations in the world.

So a few ideas of possibly a better way to put together the trip. I think that that adds up to about 31 nights – putting in four nights with your friends in Durban but you can add or take away from this if you need to fit your final schedule into four weeks – but longer is better!

Otherwise agree with the others. Driving is easy here – especially coming from the UK. Roads are great in nearly the whole country and traffic is just so much lighter. One of the best self-drive destinations in the world. Look at a hire through a UK car hire broker such as www.carhir3000.com or www.arguscarhire.com - best value and you pay in sterling so no forex charges.

So keep asking questions. I am sure like many many on here you will end up with “the best holiday we ever had” and start planning immediately for your next trip. There is so much more to see in the incredibly diverse country. We have been here ten years and only feel we have just started!

Edited: 08 December 2011, 16:39
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5. Re: General, preliminary info sought, please

PS - Sorry, one typo www.carhire3000.com

6. Re: General, preliminary info sought, please

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7. Re: General, preliminary info sought, please

The problem is that, presumably SWT can't split the trip into two!

My personal opinion is that Kruger in February is definitely much worse than Cape Town in October. Also personally I don't like Durban in February. It's like walking around in a Sauna! But I know some born and bred Durbanites love it! But then, as someone who has lived in the Cape for the past ten years, coming from the UK, the wind has never bothered me. Late November, December and January are windier than October, early November. But I wouldn't base when to come on whether it's windy or not - unless you want to spend a lot of time lying on the beach doing nothing!

I personally think that overall October through to early November is the best compromise season for the whole year for a trip covering different regions of South Africa.

SWT – sorry, I missed your second post as it crossed exactly with mine!

A few answers to your further questions: As Lauren suggests you should definitely keep the one rental car for the whole trip. Even if you go to a Private Reserve, rather than to Kruger proper, using the hire car and parking it at the lodge will be much cheaper than booking even a road transfer with the lodge. You are charged through the nose for this. Even organising a transfer yourself will be a lot more expensive. The only additional cost will be a one-way drop-off charge for the hire car, picking up in Joburg and dropping in Cape Town. Some companies will charge this and some don't. It is usually around R600 for those who do. It will be sometimes be quoted additional to the hire to be paid at the desk so check with the broker as they work with a number of different companies - for example Hertz might include it while Europcar might not!

Of course if you use your car to get to the reserve then you don't need anywhere to store extra baggage! All the roads to the reserves are fine to drive - either tarred or graded gravel, like many secondary roads in South Africa. Perfectly OK in a normal saloon car – even the smallest. That's what we hire when we drive up and into the Parks in Kruger and KZN. As you have plenty of time for your vacation there is no need to think of charter fly-in air taxis. These are for people (particularly Americans, who have limited vacations) who want to fly into Joburg pay for an air taxi to a Private reserve and then fly out again - all in a few days. As part of a road trip there is no need to do this - and it is extremely expensive.

I know that you say that you prefer to go to a Private Reserve rather than Kruger for your "main" safari. But I would urge you to consider the self-drive route in Addo as a secondary safari trip. Fits well with the total road trip – and you surely can’t have enough great wildlife viewing! Nearly all South Africans do safaris self-drive in the National Parks, particularly Kruger, Addo or Hluhluwe/Imfolozi in KZN - there are many more. This is a different experience to a Private Reserve but also extremely rewarding. As you are free to go at your own pace - stop for an hour or more at a really interesting game sighting if you want to, without the others in your game vehicle getting restless. Most people end up finding that the satisfaction of searching and finding animals and bird sightings yourself is a highly rewarding part of the safari experience.

Then of course self-drive is hugely less expensive. A modern, air-conditioned private bungalow or cottage for two people with private bathroom, kitchen and a private terrace, often looking out over a waterhole or the park, where you can watch animals costs around R800 per night for two people - at current exchange rate this is £31 pppn. Add the park conservation fee of R150 per person for Addo, which covers access to the park for the whole day allowing you to drive over around 300km of roads and tracks and it is fantastic value. You can also add in a ranger conducted drive – especially in the evening after the park is closed to self-driving.

Different to a Private Reserve but every bit as memorable. More and more overseas tourists are finding out the great (and great value) experience of the South African National Parks.

Then you can use a Tour Operator if you prefer but the whole trip can be done yourself. Yes, a Private Reserve may be the same price . Although some operators do charge a premium – especially if the charge you in Pounds or Dollars. However all other aspects of your trip will be cheaper. National Park costs, great Guesthouses and B&Bs all over the country, Car Hire, Internal Flights (if needed) - particularly using the efficient local budget airlines - all will be cheaper. Booking it all yourself is so easy in South Africa and nearly always the best option. Most can be sorted out on the Internet. Then to finalise the details, everyone speaks English - we are on virtually the same time zone as Europe and phone calls are now very cheap.

But anyway that's your choice. So keep posting on here and you will get loads of help on where to go and how to do it - all for free!

Edited: 08 December 2011, 22:58
Lewes, United...
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8. Re: General, preliminary info sought, please

Thank you everybody for your further suggestions and opinions, and thank you VdC for taking the trouble to address some spefic concerns I raised and add in some costings. Disagreement is good in my view, it gives different perspectives - and, ultimately, it's up to me to decide which choices I make. As has been said, the ideal would be to split my trip or visit twice, not really an option - so you can see my dilemma, which is why I offered the two seasons in the first place, having done homework that your thinking confirms.

BTW, wind on beaches is of no major concern. We aren't beach worshippers and I never sunbathe. Our kind of beach is an isolated, rugged strand where a long stroll will fill the lungs with fresh, salty air, provide far horizons with attractive shorelines to gaze at and maybe pretty shells to admire and count. We only visit them if they're scenic or lead somewhere!

I have no concerns about how to rent a car. I've been doing this for years, in several different parts of the world. For example, CH3K is well known to me already and is a company I always include within recommended choices on 'my own' forum! What perhaps might be more useful to know, as these companies are only third party brokers and the actual business is placed with local rental companies, is whether there are local operators I should avoid or that I should seek out. I know you can speak to them and ask for a preferred supplier sometimes. Does one direction, because it's the way most people do their trip incur the one-way fee more often than the other? It does seem to happen in some places we've been to!

Now you've opened up a whole new topic for me to enquire about - the safaris/game drives. When you say 'private game reserve' do you mean what I referred to as an all inclusive - board, lodging, game drives, guides? Neither of us can barely tell the front from the back of many creatures. Further, we have zero useful knowledge on the habits and habitats of said wildlife, and no idea of the ins and out of etiquette, let alone skills in finding wildlife of any kind. So, we had expected/intended, even if we arranged all the rest of the trip ourselves, to join some sort of group and avail ourselves of the services of wildlife experts, rangers or whatever (and we'd assume they'd provide the necessary powerful binoculars - that we don't own and would need to allow for in our international flight weight limit - or will we be able to get sufficiently close and personal that binoculars are superfluous?). Now you're suggesting that even that element of this trip can be done DIY, by driving ourselves in even a small, basic rental car within the NPs to seek the wildlife. Would, if nothing else, we not risk failing to see anything at all? Clearly, we certainly don't want the other extreme of 18 tourist-laden range rovers or land cruisers circling one, solitary lioness! But, we were aiming perhaps for some mid point, if there is such a thing. Also, while the rest of the trip we can keep our costs down by seeking out simple lodging and picnicking on the way, we had thought we might splurge slightly somewhere and this area seemed the most obvious one. We have currently no fixed views whatsoever or where we go for the wildlife, whether Kruger, other NPs or just smaller reserves in more out of the way locations. However, from what has been said above, there is the possibility, which we we had not considered up to now, of viewing wildlife at more than one area, and perhaps in different ways. Perhaps we need to think further on this, but would welcome further comments on this aspect of our trip.

Things to see and do in the bigger cities, and on the garden route and wine areas, for example, we are less worried about. There's a lot of info available, both on the various SA forums and in guide books to steer us, and we can always ask more questions about those issues much nearer the trip itself. What we really need to get sorted at this stage, and where the information provided has been so useful, is to get a guage of what is achievable in our time frame, and in what order to do it and when to do it. Whether our initial thoughts were realistic - which indeed does seem the case, and whether there are other options perhaps that need exploring or considering, if we have spare time. So that's the next question: Any other thoughts? To quote lamlee: "Visiting South Africa is about nature. Limit yur time in the cities." So, why would we spend any time in Jo'burg? Ignoring the wildlife, is there anywhere we might wish to go where engaging the services of a guide would be useful, because the expert knowledge will add hugely to the appreciation and enjoyment of the experience? Again, we're used to doing our own thing, but didn't hesitate to get a local expert when visiting archaeological sights in Egypt, for example.

Another area yet to be mentioned is costs, but I'll leave those questions to another day. I'm still researching, googling and evaluating the above info.

Once again, thank you all for the useful insights.

SWT

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9. Re: General, preliminary info sought, please

It's me, again!

I just remembered an area I wished more info on. All guide books suggest you need loads of precautions, mostly anti-malarials, and especially for the Kruger and other wildlife areas and national parks. I have learnt to take some of that with a pinch of salt as these books, being very general, always err on the side of over-caution to avoid legal repercussions. What's the truth about what medication and jabs are really needed? Does it depend on where we travel and time of year?

I have no intention of ignoring this subject, but equally don't want to spend a fortune on over-priced anti-malarials which apparently don't often work, unnecessarily.

Thanks again,

SWT

Edited: 09 December 2011, 15:42
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10. Re: General, preliminary info sought, please

It's all gone quiet. I wonder if anybody else had any comments to add?

SWT