Sunday, May 30, 2010

Phinda Game Reserve - KwaZulu Natal, South Africa

This 56,800 acre private game reserve is managed by andBeyond, formerly known as CCAfrica. This company runs luxury safari camps and lodges all over East and Southern Africa. Phinda is an hour and 45 minute flight from Johannesburg. It can also be accessed by road from Durban, or the smaller Richard's Bay airport or seaport.

There are four lodges and two private use homes located on the Phinda reserve. Each has its own personality to appeal to different people and tastes. Vlei lodge is perfect for couples or honeymooners. Only six individual romantic suites comprise this property, each with its own private plunge pool and views of the open grasslands. You can watch the Nyala and Kudu grazing in the fields from the privacy and comfort of your own verandah.

I loved my chalet at the Forest lodge. At first glance, these rooms reminded me of the cabins I stay in at a family camp in Northern Michigan. All similarities stopped as soon as I climbed the steps to the porch, complete with lovely outdoor seating area. Sliding glass doors lead to a newly renovated suite, in calming colors of cream and beige. Comfy sofas, fluffy comforters, terracotta-colored tiled baths with free standing tub and separate shower all made for a wonderfully luxurious haven to retire to. The room was equipped with everything you could possibly need in, or out of, the bush: I-pod docking station, plugs to charge your batteries and cell phone (if you're so inclined), air conditioning, safe, fully-stocked minibar (included), robes and slippers.

The location of Forest lodge, in a tree-filled sand forest, was a very different environment than that of the Mountain lodge. The family-friendly Mountain lodge is perched high atop a hill with sweeping views of the entire reserve. The beautifully renovated rooms and suites are scattered throughout the property, connected by stone pathways that meander between waterfalls and lush vegetation. Each suite has a private plunge pool, outdoor shower, spacious living areas and ensuite baths. I was impressed by the included bath amenities: in addition to the usual soaps and shampoos, Phinda also provides a wonderful body scrub (perfect after a dusty game drive!) and citronella oil. Luckily, I didn't need the latter item because I never saw a mosquito! The main lodge is centered around a peaceful courtyard and houses the dining room, bar, gift shop and internet lounge.

My favorite choice for families or a group of friends traveling together would be to stay at the Homestead. This stylish, private safari villa has a dedicated team of staff, including a private ranger, tracker, butler and chef. All this to cater just to you and your guests! This is the perfect place for someone looking for very personal service in an intimate atmosphere.

To book your next adventure to Phinda Game Reserve, call the African Specialists at Bee Kalt Travel!
Phone 248-288-9600 or Toll-free 1-800-284-5258

Tip: During the South African Winter months of May - August, it can get very cold in the early morning and evening, especially when driving in an open-air vehicle. We recommend dressing in layers, and include a warm hat, scarf and gloves in your packing list! In the afternoon, when the sun is high in the sky, it's warm enough to swim, so toss in that bathing suit too!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Singita Sabi Sand

My African adventure continues! I left the eco-lodges behind to head for the bush in South Africa, specifically, to the ultimate in safari lodges, Singita. The Singita name is synonymous with unsurpassed luxury. Wine cellars, gourmet five-course tasting menus, fitness center and spa, expansive suites with private plunge pools. If you can tear yourself away from your suite, they offer fabulous game drives each day.

If you prefer a little pampering while on safari, Singita is the perfect choice. I flew to the Sabi Sand game reserve on a Federal Air charter direct to the Singita airstrip. I left Johannesburg, and in less than an hour, I was greeted by the charming Marc, my guide for the next two days. Upon arrival at Singita Ebony, I was welcomed with a cold towel and drink, and taken to my suite. The decor is Colonial in style with dark woods and rich-colored fabrics. I had a cozy sitting area with fireplace, gorgeous four poster bed, indoor/outdoor showers, deep-soaking tub, dressing area and a huge deck with my own private pool. The room had a wall of windows facing the grasslands, through which I could watch the passing wildlife.

No time to relax before the afternoon game drive! A lovely tea is set out prior to the drive, this one included mini hamburgers and bite-size stuffed potatoes. Off to the bush with Marc expertly driving, and Mishack, tracking from his perch on the front of the safari vehicle. I had a fantastic game-viewing experience while at Singita. I saw the Big 5: Leopard, Lion, Buffalo, Elephant and Rhino, in addition to giraffe, warthogs, zebra, impala and more. I learn something new every time. On this particular game drive, I learned that a group of rhino is called a "crash" of rhino. Do you know what a group of giraffe is called? (see answer below)

Sundowners are a tradition while on safari in Africa. You take a break from your drive, usually as the sun is going down, and enjoy a cool drink. Again, Singita proves to take these moments very seriously. No beer and pretzels here, I was served a selection of pates and dips to go along with my favorite safari drink, the classic Gin and Tonic.

More surprises awaited, as we drove up to a candlelit dinner set up under the stars for all of the guests at the lodge. A decadent five-course meal with wine pairings was the perfect finish to this perfect day!

Our clients receive VIP amenities of a Spa or Gift shop voucher and an exclusive gift only when booking with us. If you would like to know more about Singita or African Safaris, call me today!
Bee Kalt Travel 248-288-9600

(answer: a journey of giraffe!)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest - Uganda

Continuing the saga of our 8-night safari in Rwanda and Uganda, here is the last installment.
We had one more gorilla trek in Rwanda before heading across the border to Uganda. This final trek in Rwanda was to visit the 17 member Kwitando family. We departed in a downpour, but by the time we reached our family, the skies had cleared, giving us some good photo opportunities.

Here, we watched family groups playing together and grooming each other. It was so much fun watching a baby rolling around and doing somersaults!

Our last trek, in the Bwindi National Park in Uganda, was the one I had been most nervous about. This area has the reputation of being the most difficult trekking because of thick vegetation and steep terrain. After our first hike (see Day One gorilla-trekking), this was a piece of cake. We did travel uphill, at a steep incline, for about 40 minutes before reaching the Rushegura family. We followed their trail of banana peels to their resting spot. This one was our best viewing yet! We observed a huge Silverback, many mothers and several babies eating and playing. It is fascinating to be able to be so close and just watch them in their natural habitat. Our one hour allotted time flew by, and it was time to leave them.

We spent some time shopping in the small village next to the park. You can pick up local handicrafts, basketry, and T-shirts with the saying: Mzungus in the Mist. I found this one particularly funny, mzungu being the term for white person!

We drove to Bwindi, a six hour drive from Kigali. The border formalities did not take long. U.S. citizens must purchase a visa upon arrival in Uganda, current price is $50.00 per person. No visa is required for entry into Rwanda. Uganda offers spectacular scenery, hiking, treks to the endangered Golden Monkeys, big game safaris and more!

For more information about Rwanda, Uganda or adventure travel, call me at 248-288-9600

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Day 2 - Gorilla Trekking

We started out a little stiff from the activities of the day before, but excitement was building as we KNEW we would see the gorillas today! The Warden assured us we would have an easy group to reach.

We were assigned Group 13, so named for being the 13th habituated gorilla family in the park. Our driver dropped us at the starting point. We had to cross an extremely muddy and wet field. The kind of mud that threatens to pull your boot right off your foot when you sink into it! We scampered over the rock wall into the edge of the forest. We only walked about 15 minutes when, in the distance, I saw a large gorilla swinging from a vine - just like in the movie Tarzan!

Our guide gave us our instructions: leave your belongings with the porters, only carry your camera, no flash photography, talk softly, and do not point (which is really hard NOT to do!). He informed us that he would make sounds that basically told the animals "we come in peace".

We followed our guide, Olivier, who showed us the Silverback, the largest, oldest male leader of the family. We actually got to see two Silverbacks that day. The second one had come over to try and woo away a female and perhaps start his own family. There was a lot of chest-beating and grunting going on between the two. I actually got a fright when the biggest guy stood up and barreled right toward us. He ended up walking past without a second glance. I think my heart stopped beating for that split second. I quickly regained my composure to follow him to a clearing, where he easily pulled down small trees, stripped the branches of their leaves, and stuffed them into his mouth. We also got to observe mothers, babies and juveniles during our all too brief visit. The one hour allotted time went by very quickly.

It was a very special experience and one that will stay with us for a long time. Gorilla-trekking allows proximity to the animals that you don't normally get on a regular safari. Most people who are fit and able to walk over uneven surfaces can do it.

If you would like more information on gorillas or safaris, give me a call!

Bee Kalt Travel 248-288-9600

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Day One - Gorilla trekking

Did I say this was my dream trip? I was wondering "what could I have been thinking?", as our ranger machete'd his way through the thick forest, creating what was supposed to be a trail. We dutifully followed, stepping over logs, ducking under branches, and trying not to let our ankles get caught up in the twisted vines on the forest floor. It was the adventure of a lifetime!

Our group that day was composed of 7 people, ranging in age from 28 to 76. We were a tough bunch, determined to see our gorilla family, the Hirwa group. This gorilla family lives in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. The park is reached by a 2 1/2 to 3 hour drive from the capital city of Kigali. We traveled with the top-notch tour operator, Volcanoes Safaris. They will plan out your itinerary, lodging, and secure the gorilla permits for you. You must buy the permits ahead of time as they are very limited. Each day, you show up at the National Park office, you are divided into groups (maximum 8), and assigned a gorilla family for the day.

We had to drive about 15 minutes to get to our starting point. After a 30 minute walk through some farmland, we reached the edge of the forest. We had to scramble up a rock wall, cross a log bridge, and into the jungle we went! The scenery was incredible, as we climbed higher, reaching a bamboo forest. The trackers carefully follow the clues to find the gorillas, torn branches, scattered remains of the soft bamboo shoots that the gorillas love to eat.

Each of us had hired a porter, a necessity as far as I am concerned. They are local men who will carry your backpack, camera, and help you up the mountain if you need it. The current going rate for a porter is $10 for the day. My porter that day, Samway, was a life-saver. He held tight to my hand as I slipped in the mud, going uphill. He would position himself in front of me when going downhill to prevent me from sliding too far. Did I mention it was very muddy?

We hiked and we hiked. Uphill. Downhill. Across the face of a cliff, clinging to branches, and roots, and anything that would give us a handhold or foothold, silently praying that the rootball would not give way! Alas, our dreams were not to be realized that day. We were out for 10 hours, without ever catching up to our family. Disappointing? A little. Actually, I think most of us were just glad to have returned without serious injury. We were told by the Warden that this NEVER happens (not seeing the gorillas). We set a record! But, not to worry, there were more chances ahead.

We returned to the lovely Virunga Lodge that evening, wet, muddy, and very tired. The wonderful staff whisked our muddy boots away, to be returned to us the next day looking brand new again. I don't know how they clean them so well!
The lodge is set high on a mountain top, overlooking valleys, farms and two volcanic lakes. It is a spectacular setting. The eight rooms are very comfortable and rustic in decor. They have running water, flush toilets, and use solar power for energy (read: it's dark in the rooms, forget about makeup.)

The meals were always fresh and delicious. Meals, beverages, laundry and even massages are all included in the price of a stay.

Call me to ask more about gorilla-trekking, or to book your next trip to Africa today!
Bee Kalt Travel 248-288-9600

To be continued....