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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Lion Sands Private Game Reserve 9.6

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We woke up at 3:30 AM to catch our flight to Johannesburg at 5:45 AM.  The host of the hotel packed some simple breakfasts for us in two brown bags. How thoughtful.

It was pitch dark when we left.  The city took on a different vibe at that time of the day when there was no cars on the road.

When we drove to return the rental car, the staff at the gate asked us if we have anything to eat because he was hungry.  It was a bit odd. He obviously was not a homeless and we didn't know what to make of it.   Anyway, we gave him the brown bags of breakfast, and he thanked us.  As we drove away, in the rare mirror, we could see that he rushed to open the bag and started eating.  I felt bad. Was he hungry because he didn't have money to buy food or because he could not leave the gate?

Before driving into the car rental company's parking lot, another guy approached us and told us that we could return the car to him right there.  The guy did not wear the car rental company's uniform or badge.  I told H that I did not feel comfortable to just leave the car with this guy.  H politely explained to the guy, he did not seem to be offended and walked away.  After pulling into the parking lot and returned our car to the representative, we asked him if the other guy was legit.  The representative told us that the first guy worked for the car rental company and we could've indeed returned the car to the first guy we saw.  Oh well, maybe I've lived in New York for too long.

We booked the Safari portion of the trip through Africa Direct because the owner, Tanya Kotze, was highly recommended on the Trip Advisor.  However, I am not sure if it was necessary to go through a travel agent to arrange the Safari, especially if you have already decided which lodge you want to stay. Once you book the lodge, they can arrange the transportation for you.

The flight from Johannesburg to Sabi Sand was through a small charter flight operator, Federal airline. We had no clue how to get to the connection flight once we landed in Johannesburg at 7:35 AM.  Thank god that a driver was already waiting for us outside of the baggage claim.  He drove us to a small airport three minutes outside of the O R Tambo international airport to check in.  The airport had a nice departure lounge with WiFi and food.  However, we learned that our original flight time at 9:30 AM was changed since April and the new flight time was not until 10:35 AM.  We were quite annoyed that neither Tanya from Africa Direct nor  Lion Sands lodge informed us of this change.  We could've slept in and taken a later flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg if we knew that the earlier flight was cancelled.  Instead, we were stuck in this tiny airport lounge for 3 hours.

The airline company claimed that they sent out emails to inform the travel agents and lodges a long time ago but both Tanya and Lion Sands general manager told us that they did not receive any emails.  We did not know who dropped the ball and it was quite disappointing how this was handled.  Finally, we were sitting on the small plane by Noon.

After an hour of a bumpy ride (I really dislike small airplanes), we landed at the airport and were immediately taken by an open 4x4 to our game reserve.

The sun was strong, and we started peeling off layers of clothes.  We drove on a dirt road looking over shades of yellow and gray landscapes.  The ground was dry and covered in hays.  Most trees and bushes were bare.  The greenery was sparse.  We were keenly aware that although this was still part of South Africa, our journey would be completely different from Cape Town.

After 45 minutes,  we arrived at Lion Sands Game Reserve. It was a beautiful lodge.  Our hut was spacious and comfortable with a bushbuck chilling in front of the porch, and a bug greeting us on the nicely made bed.

For those who have never taken any safari vacations, let me break it down for you. After checking into the lodge, we were assigned three lodge staff during our entire stay.  A butler, who served us three meals a day; a ranger, who was the knowledgeable licensed guide for our game drives; and a tracker, usually someone experienced in the local wildlife who track down the animals when we went on game drives.

There is a strict schedule to follow for the safari vacations to maximize our opportunities for wildlife viewing. The morning game drive starts before sunrise at 6AM.  Breakfast begins at 9 AM.  Lunch is served at 1 PM.  The afternoon game drive starts at 3:30 PM.  Dinner is at 7:00 PM.  It almost feels like staying in a luxury summer camp for adults.

We covered our exposed skin with bug spray/lotion, and came out of our hut for lunch.  Our meals were usually served at the open deck overlooking the Sands River.  Our butler, Jeffery, was attentive, calm-natured, and always with a warm smile.  The lodge has really good chefs serving gourmet meals with local ingredients and wild game.  The menu changes daily and we rarely had disappointing dishes.

Perhaps most people already finished their lunch, there were only a few tables of guests.

After lunch, we went back to our hut for a quick nap.  At 3:30 PM, all the guests gathered around in one of the lounges, where snacks, cookies, and beverages were served while our rangers came to collect us. There were about 30 guests at the lodge, and I would guess the average age of the guests here were over 50.

Our ranger, Jonna, who is in his mid 20's came to collect us and two other couples, both Americans, also just arrived today to the vehicle.  Abraham, our tracker who grew up in the Kruger area, was already waiting by the 4x4. 

Although the temperature was still warm, the breeze while driving through the bush made it quite comfortable.  Jonna gave us some background information, pointed out trees, birds, and other animals while we drove through the bush. It was a quiet drive.  We spotted two  giraffes, hippos in the river, some bushbucks, and lions from far far away. But it was our first drive, so we were an easy crowd to please.  At 5 PM,  we stopped on a field for some drinks and snacks.  As we watched the sunset, the temperature dropped drastically.  We loaded up the winter gear and covered in blankets for another hour of night drive before heading back to the lodge around 6 PM.  When night falls,  all guests must be escorted by security when walking in the lodge property for safety reasons.  We visited the bar for some drinks, mingled with other rangers and guests before heading to the candle light lid patio for dinner. 

My head hit the pillow shortly after dinner. It was a long day, and tomorrow's morning call would wake us up at 5:30 AM.  The last thought before I fell asleep was, for the next four days, all we would be doing were animal viewings, eating & drinking, and sleeping. 


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