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Rhinos at the aha Makalali Game Reserve

Last January, I heard a podcast on Amateur Traveler about a Botswana safari and knew that we had to make that the theme for our next vacation. While I was trying to arrange that trip, it became clear that we did not have the budget to go proceed with that safari. Besides the safari provider wanted us to visit in March when the weather would be much better. I was hesitant as we would hardly have ten days during spring break to make the trip versus two weeks in December. In the meantime, I had already booked one-way flights for us to Johannesburg. Things were at an impasse and so for the longest time, I just let the matter sit.

Then, in July, I decided to look for flights back from South Africa. Of course, the only ones I could find that late in the miles game were for January 1st and that too with a stopover in Europe. But, find them we did and so I booked them from Capetown to New York.

So we were flying New York to Cairo (stopover) and onto Johannesburg on the way out. And Capetown to Geneva (stopover) to Newark on the way in. I then booked on Southwest using cash for the outbound flights to New York and using points for the inbound flights home from New York.

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EgyptAir safety instruction video

Now that the flights were booked, I turned to work on an itinerary. Mr. JJ sought input from some friends who were ex-pats. And after discussing with the children, we decided to spend the first third of our trip in the Kruger area for the safari experience. Sonny JJ, who is an animal lover, was thrilled with this choice. Instead of flying to Zimbabwe, we opted to try the Garden Route which would be perfect for Missy JJ, who loves beaches and the water. And the last third would be spent in Capetown. We hoped we had something for everyone on this trip.

My initial research on game reserves left me amazed at the number of choices. And a little confused about what to choose. The ones I liked had no availability. The ones available were outside our budget range. Time was running out. So this time, I decided to do what I had never done before on our trips – sought an agent to help navigate the bookings.

I reached out to Botswana Trek and Safari365. I had heard of Bill Burns from the Botswana safari episode. Safari365, I came across on another travel podcast. They spent time getting our input on the trip and tried to outline a customized safari experience. In the end, we decided to go with Safari365 as our provider. They are based out of South Africa and Amie Larsen, our liaison, put together a trip that included all the places we wished to visit and within a budget that we could manage.

Once we had reviewed and finalized our itinerary in mid-September, we had to pay just over half of the payment as an initial deposit. The remainder of the payment was due at the end of October. The payment was inclusive of flights from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit and back, transfers from the airport to the game reserve and back, 3 full days at the reserve with all meals and six game drives included. It also included our flight from Johannesburg to the garden route area airport, car rental for the next four days with GPS, our stays at the various accommodations there, as well as at Capetown and transfer back to the airport on our way home.

I realized that we had a long stopover in Cairo on our way into South Africa. Eleven hours to kill at an airport are way too long. So we decided to do a stopover tour of Cairo. I came to find out that the Giza pyramids are located about an hour’s drive from the Cairo airport. I remembered reading about Rick Steves’s trip to Cairo many years ago and looked up the travel agent who helped him then. I emailed Tarek Mousa of Egypt and Beyond Travel first. He, of course, agreed to arrange the tour but initially charged me USD 175 pp which seemed a lot to me. This did not include any visa processing fees. Eventually, he agreed to lower his price down to USD 150 pp.

Unhappy with this quote, I continued to research further and found Memphis Tours, an older and well-established travel company. They offered a similar itinerary but for USD 100 pp. So I agreed to their pricing. EgyptAir (whom we were flying from New York to Johannesburg) does offer stopover tours but we have to go through a third-party provider. Besides, I wasn’t sure if they would allow us the tour since we were booked on miles and not cash.

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Cairo Tower

A few days later, I came across a blog post from a family that had done a similar tour through Egypt Tailor Made Tours that was way cheaper. I reached out to them and they offered to do a similar tour for USD 170. Although I have never done this before, I went back to Memphis tours and asked them to match this price. Of course, they balked at this. Eventually, they agreed to reduce the price by USD 10 pp to a total of USD 360. I could either take the deal or leave. The problem was, I had already made the 25% initial deposit on the tour and if I canceled at that point, I stood to lose another USD 100 since those were the terms of the cancellation policy. And so it was that we agreed to proceed with Memphis Tours and hoped they did a good job.

Although visa on arrival is available for US visitors to Egypt, we decided to procure the visa ahead of time. Our flight was to reach Cairo at noon and the Pyramids close at 4 pm. From past experiences, we have been delayed by flights and we didn’t wish to take a chance of missing the Pyramids if that were the case. More on that on the Cairo post to follow.

I have already posted on the vaccination piece of this trip. To reiterate, we did not need the Yellow fever vaccine but we went ahead with it anyway.

Our final itinerary looked like this:

Day 1: Dallas Love Field to La Guardia, taxi to JFK, flight to Cairo

Day 2: Cairo stopover, a tour of Cairo, leave Cairo at 11 pm local time

Day 3: Reach Johannesburg, finish customs and immigration and recheck-in for a local flight to Hoedspruit/ Eastgate airport, pick up at Eastgate airport for 1.5 hr drive to aha Makalali Game reserve, first game drive

Day 4 and 5: at aha Makalali game reserve

Day 6: finish the game drive, transfer back to Eastgate Airport for flight to Johannesburg, then onwards to George airport along the Western cape/ garden route, pick up the rental car and drive to Brenton Haven resort, explore Brenton-on-sea and beach

Day 7: explore Knysna area, chill out

Day 8: Drive to Franschhoek area, winery tour, stay at Le Franschhoek Hotel and spa

Day 9: Drive to Cape of Good Hope, then to Boulder beach to see the penguins, Chapman Peak drive, drop off the rental car at a location near our Radisson Ble le Vendome area

Day 10: Capetown activities

Day 11: Capetown activities, leave for the airport at 8 pm

Day 12: Capetown to Geneva via Austria flight, stopover at Geneva, tour area if not too cold and if anything was open on New Year’s day

Day 13: Geneva to Newark, transfer to LGA and flight back to DAL on Southwest

As is self-evident, this was a very dynamic itinerary with many moving parts. We were understandably nervous but also excited about the trip, our first time in Africa. So how did it all go down? Was South Africa all that it was touted to be?

Join us over the next few days as we relive our experiences in South Africa.

2 thoughts on “Journey to South Africa: Trip Planning and Itinerary

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