An exciting journey through Southern Africa

By Larry Kritcher
This article appears on page 48 of the December 2012 issue.
Larry Kritcher at Victoria Falls.

by Larry Kritcher; Coconut Grove, FL

I have never spent as much time preplanning a trip as I did for our February ’12 trip to Southern Africa. To begin with, it’s so difficult to get there.

My wife, Rita, and I wanted to fly into Johannesburg, but only two airlines service the route directly from the US: Delta from Atlanta and South African Airways from Washington Dulles or New York.

With these limited options, we headed for Frankfurt, Germany, reserving a hotel room from our 8 a.m. arrival until our 8 p.m. departure on South African Airways. This broke up the trip a bit and made the 12-hour airport wait more bearable.

Starting in South Africa

Some people might flinch when confronted with flying on an African airliner, but I can state unequivocally that this was one of the cleanest, most organized and efficient airlines I have flown with. We eventually would fly a total of six segments with SAA, and all were flawless.

The airport and ground facilities were equally top of the line. How many airports allow you to drive up to the check in curb and conduct your business without charging a nickel for the first 30 minutes?

Our guide told us this was the largest elephant he’d ever seen in Kruger.

The brand-new jetliner landed at about 8 a.m. in Johannesburg, where we stayed at the convenient but not-too-romantic Emperors Palace airport hotel (ZAR1,500, or $177) to ease into our trip to Victoria Falls the following morning.

That evening we went to Tribes (Shop 23, Emperors Palace), where we had delicious wine and our first taste of South African cuisine. Rita, being as adventurous as she dared, had a whopping salad. I went right for the jugular, ordering an appetizer of chicken liver (ZAR42, or $5) in a sauce made from piri piri, a local, screaming-hot pepper. It was tasty, as expected, and breathtaking in more ways than one!

Then I couldn’t resist the pièce de résistance, an all-game platter (ZAR168) with roasted ostrich loin, kudu and their famous, delightful boerewors sausage, accompanied by a corn mush, called pap. We also sampled their biltong, tasty, salt-cured slivers of meat.


In the morning we flew for an hour-plus to Zimbabwe to see Victoria Falls. Known as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it was superlative, indeed.

When we were in flight, about to land, the plume of its mist could be seen about 20 miles to the west. The sight of 300,000 gallons of water per second pouring into the Batoka Gorge below will make any human tingle with exhilaration. However, to see this, you must visit at the right time of year, when the rains in the Angolan highlands are pouring.

The Zambezi River, the fourth longest in Africa, flows through Angola before marking the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, making its way through the falls to central Mozambique and finally flowing into the Indian Ocean.

The Ilala Lodge in the center of town was our home for a magical two days. On our second evening there, we took a simple cruise on the upper Zambezi River on a small, comfortable pontoon boat built to accommodate just 12 people.

Some yawning hippos posed for us and life was good. Smaller vessels such as ours never get too close to these bad boys, since they can easily turn over a boat, and, yikes!, we were upstream of the falls right over there; we could easily be swept over them, crashing to a certain death on the rocks below. (Okay, maybe I have an overactive imagination, but the roar was deafening!)

A bump in the road

Zimbabwe was not free of some of the difficulties one might have traveling to any of the more distant regions on Earth. When we entered the country, the immigration officer gave Rita and me fits.

Upon departing Miami I had several blank pages in my passport, but immigration officials in other countries visited on this trip had stamped my pages willy-nilly, so I ended up with German and South African stamps on my formerly open pages.

The only page I had open by this time was marked “Endorsements,” and the Zimbabwean officer said he couldn’t use that page because it was illegal and “You don’t want me to lose my job by doing an illegal act, do you?” (I wondered if he might be hinting for a bribe.)

He ordered me to stand behind a yellow line and told Rita to collect our bags, continuing his harangue in front of the remaining passengers and eventually blaming Rita for not supervising me properly.

She replied, “I was unaware that this was my day to be in charge of him and his passport pages.”

A smile crept across his face and he placed his full-page visa on top of the German entry stamp. Away we went into the afternoon light, with no bribe paid.

As I write this, my passport is at the US Department of State getting additional pages fused into it. A lesson well learned!

Elephant encounter

After returning to Johannesburg and spending another overnight at the Emperors Palace, we flew 50 minutes to Nelspruit, in northeastern South Africa, one of the entrances to Kruger National Park.

We drove through the mountains up to Graskop, which looked like a rather unremarkable village, though it attracted tour buses due to its proximity to Kruger and the surrounding scenic mountains and waterfalls.

After a drive on a washboard dirt road through the town of Sabi, we were driven to an elephant farm and enjoyed a lecture by a very knowledgeable Zimbabwean professor at The Elephant Sanctuary, outside of Hazyview.

Two white rhinos.

The professor taught us about the physiology and psychology of these intelligent and friendly, but destructive, animals. Then we visited two of these grown beasts, touching their tusks, ears, knees, feet, tails, trunks and mouths. They were ever so gentle.

As a send-off, we received two great suction-like trunk kisses on our chins. But the icing on the cake, so to speak, was when the elephant, Casper, blew his nose all over Rita’s white jersey! (The moral of the story is to not wear white clothing to an elephant kissing.)

I was then faced with tipping not only the professor but four trainers for their hour of time. I asked the professor how much to tip the trainers and he said, “Whatever you wish.” Evidently, I did not show enough appreciation when I left the trainers four US dollars apiece and the professor ten.

The fissure in our relationship had started, and he refused to say good-bye, let alone look at us.

To add insult to injury, our driver from Eastgate Safaris, Muzi, stated in front of us and the professor that we must not have liked this encounter as much as others, only reinforcing the discontent.

Kruger Game Reserve

We overnighted in Hazyview at Perry’s Bridge Hollow, which had great ambiance and a giraffe that made sure we didn’t wander too far from our territory.

At 5:30 a.m. we were met by Andrew, our very knowledgeable guide with 23 years’ experience, and we motored to Kruger National Park, said by some to be the best game park in Africa.

It was great, though it did not compare with the Serengeti of Tanzania or the Masai Mara in Kenya, which we had experienced years before. In those areas, the valley floor was alive with thundering herds.

In Kruger we saw four of the Big Five (Cape buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhino), minus Mr. Lion. There also were numerous zebras and giraffes and a number of horned and hoofed animals such as gazelles, kudus and elands. We also came eye to eye with crocodiles, birds and monkeys.

The day was filled with endless miles of driving within an open but canopied safari-type all-terrain vehicle, but it was worth every bounce and sniff of dust!

Afterward we were delivered to Buhala Lodge, a wonderful Cape Dutch-style game lodge on the edge of the reserve, near Malelane.

The lodge was located on a river with numerous crocodiles that stealthily moved through the murky waters. A sign was posted below the waterfront deck warning visitors not to walk in the grassland below. It read, “Dangerous predators stalk these lands.”

We had wonderful food and wine while enjoying great conversation on the candlelit deck that evening, comparing notes with fellow travelers about the game, the country and the world.

Swaziland to Zululand

Leaving the Kruger area behind, we drove with our new and extremely informative driver, Marc of Ilios Travel, across the border of Swaziland toward the capital, Mbabane. Then it was on to the swanky Royal Swazi Spa Valley on the city’s outskirts, which, with its gates, fences, casino and manicured lawns, was too over the top for us to name as a favorite.

Accommodations in Hluhluwe, KwaZulu-Natal.

At dinner, a bolt of lightning plunged the dining area into total darkness. The candles helped, but the fans over the gas grilling pits were dead and we all were smoked out like termites in a tented house! Our minimal suffering turned into a good laugh.

The following day we drove toward Mozambique, continuing down around Big Bend and recrossing the border into South Africa. We were headed to the coast and the village of Hluhluwe (pronounced shlu-shlu-way), in the KwaZulu-Natal in the heart of Zululand, to the most inviting and remote lodge of our trip, Hluhluwe Lodge.

Gavin, the owner and an informed guide, was well atop his game plan. Situated in the environs of Lake St. Lucia, False Bay and Cape Vidal, the lodge offered a view of the lake and Hluhluwe wetlands from the deck of our chalet, which had mosquito-netted sleeping quarters.

It was a short walk to the main lodge and the adjacent covered al fresco dining area and bar run by the ubiquitous innkeeper named Tami, who seemingly ran the whole lodge. Congratulations, Tami, for making our stay so great!

Exploring Cape Town

After visiting Cape Vidal, we headed past Richards Bay and on to Durban International Airport for our nearly 2-hour flight to Cape Town, a city with an absolutely stunning waterfront and mountainous backdrop. We stayed two nights at the well-situated PortsWood Hotel (ZAR1,500, or $177, per night). We were now on our own, our guided tour having come to an end.

The hop-on/hop-off double-decker red bus was a fantastic way to see the city. One of the bus stops is at the funicular that takes visitors to the top of Table Mountain, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, the city and its harbor.

We then rented a car, and Rita drove us down along the fashionable Atlantic beaches under Table Mountain, past the Atlantic mountain range of the Twelve Apostles, along the stunning Chapman’s Peak Drive and on to the Cape of Good Hope. Mind you, driving is on the left side of the road.

We continued our drive along the southern Indian Ocean coastline, following the scenic Garden Route to Swellendam, where we stayed in a marvelous B&B, The Old Mill (ZAR900).

In the wonderful wine country of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, we treated ourselves to an equivalent of our Napa Valley, staying for a few days at La Provence Wine Estate (ZAR700 per night), a vineyard B&B on the main road.

In Franschhoek we indulged in some of the best wines of the trip as well as superb dining. Do not miss Reuben’s!

Leaving Franschhoek, we drove to the airport, less than an hour away. Departing Cape Town at 8 p.m., we flew all night to London (12 hours’ flight time), continuing after a 6-hour layover to Washington Dulles (8½ hours), then cleared Customs and four hours later flew on to Miami (2½ hours).

We were exhausted but very satisfied with the journey.

The details

Our 8-day journey was put together by Myriam Grest of Myanmar Travel, Ltd. (Yangon, Myanmar; phone/fax +951 801 0582). The trip was tailored to our needs and desires, never having more than the two of us plus guides and drivers, at a total cost of $7,200, including internal Southern African airfare.

We would be happy to answer any questions; contact Larry and Rita Kritcher (3866 Main Highway, Coconut Grove, FL 33133; 305/447-1029,