There are places that you go that no matter how good a story teller you are, you can do no justice. The photos you come back with, the videos you have capturing snippets of your days, or a journal capturing many of the moments...they just can't fully compare to the feeling you get when you are in the moment and in a place that almost feels like you've come home. Africa has been that place for me from the first moment I stepped foot on her great earth. To have the opportunity to return, feels as though I have back the piece of me that I left behind here two years ago. It's a crazy, amazing feeling.
Here's some highlights from the 2015 trip - two amazing weeks with three girlfriends on safari in Botswana and roaming the coast and wine country of Cape Town...oh, and diving with Great White Sharks (cue JAWS music)! More pictures and videos in the album.
Different from my time in Africa in 2015, this trip consists of a "travel-squad" of 21. In addition to the size difference, we changed up the itinerary since the last visit. We returned to one of the safari camps (our favorite, due to our close ties to the camp and staff) - Machaba. Machaba is the Setswana name for the Sycamore Fig Tree, or the "tree of life". A new camp this year for us was Meno a Kwena, or teeth of the crocodile. The trip wrapped with Zimbabwe, the home of one of the natural wonders of the world - Victoria Falls.
I had always been a traveler that vowed to never return to the same places I've already been. I want to explore all that this great earth has to offer - between all four points, and using all five senses (hence, the blog name). However, I anticipate that I will return to Africa several more times in my lifetime, exploring more deeply with each visit (BIG thanks to Sherry Lowe for introducing me to Africa).
So, lets get started! I am going to break the blog entries up into trip segments.
Charlotte -> Johannesburg: Squad-up!
One of my favorite feelings is taking off from the jetway in a plane. It pushes you down in your seat as you rise above the ground. It also signifies the start of your trip and as you feel gravity taking over, and the heavy weight of life's stresses leaving...at least for now. It is time to look ahead to this journey - back to Africa!
Charlotte doesn't have a nonstop flight to Johannesburg so I had to pop down to Atlanta. My friend Mary K stayed at my house while I was gone to watch my six month old fluffy pup, Malbec (or Beck for short). She drove me to the airport and Malbec came along for the ride. It was not until I was walking into the airport and the sliding doors were closing that I heard Beck crying in the car. :( I knew he was in good hands, though.
Inside, I immediately ran into our fearless leader, coordinator of this trip, and herder of our travel-squad, Sherry. Sherry and I met through work and have traveled a lot together, including the Africa 2015 trip. Once through security we met up with Marta, another friend I met through work and avid traveler. The flight from Charlotte to Atlanta is super short. They don't even have time for beverage service. Once in Atlanta, we met up with two more - Channing and Kat. Channing, I met first through a sand volleyball league and then continued to know through work and friends. Kat is a new friend to me, but has known Sherry for many years from Sherry's time spent in Atlanta in her early 20s. The four girls sat at a cool restaurant and had sushi, champagne and wine during our layover. Channing was off somewhere trying to finish up some work so that he could completely disconnect. Heading on to the flight to Johannesburg, we're up to 5 squad members.
The flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg is a much different story than the short hop to Atlanta. 15 hours. We flew Delta, which is not typically my airline of choice (although, is leaps and bounds above United based on the multiple news headlines they're in lately), but it's what worked for our schedules. I had a hard time sleeping. I watched some not so great movies (I don't get the hype with LaLa Land...really, an Oscar? SMH), and my tailbone (which has been bruised since before the new year) was not loving those coach class seats. Sherry seemed to do better than I did. She was able to get comfortable laying across two seats and sleep some (I tried that for a while too, but had no luck).
We picked up one more of the squad on our flight over to Johannesburg, so we were a squad of 6 when we landed around 5:30 p.m. local time. After customs and waiting for those who checked their bags, I met up with my mom (who had already been in Africa for a week) at our hotel, Southern Sun O.R. Tambo. If you're ever in Johannesburg for an overnight, it's convenient, clean, comfortable, and the restaurant is amazing. Mom and I had the salad bar for dinner, which also included soup and some great grilled veggie and meat options. They also had a great assortment of local wines available. Breakfast in the morning was an unbelievable spread of breakfast breads, muffins, and a Belgian waffle and omelet station. We grabbed the shuttle over to the airport and and soon met up with the full travel-squad at our gate. Our group is now complete with 21 and includes: Me, Sherry (fearless leader), Marta, Channing, Kat, and my Mom - who I introduced already. We also have Kevin (who likes to be first): who I had only briefly met before this trip but brought so much positive and fun energy (and is Mensa! lol), there's Paula: who I know through work and travel, Paula's sister Theresa: who I met in person for the first time but have been Facebook friends with and felt like I already knew, the French family (4): a stellar family example, the Matheson family (3): who I just met but kept us all laughing (all 3 of the kids on the trip were amazing and so well behaved), Jenni from LA: who I went to college with in Florida brought her sister-in-law Katie, Emily from London: who is Kristin's (from Africa 2015) step daughter, Kathy: Sherry's neighbor who has known her for most of her life, and Kim: one of Sherry's best friends and avid traveler. That's everyone! Now you've met the Africa 2017 travel-squad.
Johannesburg -> Maun: We're going camping!
It's off to Maun, Botswana where we'll catch our first of three chartered bush flights and head to safari camp one, Machaba. Maun is the fifth largest town in Botswana - which is hard to believe having been there and seeing it's city center. It is also the "tourism capital" of Botswana and headquarters to several safari and air-charters that run trips into the Okavango Delta - one of the seven natural wonders of Africa (Feb. 11, 2013).
We didn't spend much time in Maun. It was basically a transfer from our Air Botswana flight to our chartered bush planes. We had two twin propeller planes due to the size of our group. The flight from Maun to the air strip (basically a dirt clearing) was 1.25 hours. Even before landing and marking the official start of our safari we began spotting animals. On approach to the airfield, once we got low enough to differentiate the animals from the bushes and trees, we saw Giraffe, Elephant, and Wildebeest! A good sign at the start of our adventure!
Machaba Tented Safaris: Machaba camp
Botswana was just out of the rainy season when we arrived. The landscape is thick and green this time of year. The rain had actually flooded the airstrip we would normally use for Machaba, so where we landed was two hours from camp. Our guides from Machaba were there to greet us with the open-air safari trucks, and coolers with cold water, soda and beer. They stopped at the "main terminal", which basically just looked like a carport, and allowed us to use the bathroom...and by bathroom, I mean go find a bush. Ladies to the left and men to the right!
We watched the bush planes take off back to Maun before heading out on our trek to camp, which basically turned in to a 2 hour safari drive where we saw Elephant and Giraffe practically right after pulling into the bush off the airstrip. We also had a very exciting run-in after our tea stop with a pack of wild (or painted) dogs, which are considered endangered and only estimated to have about 6,600 remaining in population; their decline is ongoing. When we were there in 2015, we only saw the dogs from afar and only one time. We were super lucky to see them at all. Not on this trip, though! The dogs were the star of the safari show and we encounter them several times throughout our adventure, that you'll hear about later.
I mentioned that we stopped for tea. Nothing done at Machaba is done without thoughtful planning, and that "wow factor". Our location during tea was a beautiful lush water view. Leopard (my rover's guide) and his crew set up tables with white linens and a spread of egg rolls, pineapple cake, fudge, cookies, jerky, and drinks. All of the food is home made from scratch right at Machaba, and was amazing!
Elcke and Shaun who manage Machaba camp (meet the Malan family), and Chris who runs operations for Machaba Safaris and is a friend through Sherry, met us as we pulled into camp. After many hugs and greetings from those of us who had met them before, as well as introductions of the newbies, they gave tent assignments. Mom and I were in tent three, which was the same tent that I was in back in 2015 (with Paula as my tent-mate, shout out!).
I'm not sure what comes to your mind when I say "tent", but I assure you these tents are not it. Our accommodations for the next several nights are more like the Ritz in the middle of the Okavango Delta (middle of nowhere). Tent three, where my mom and I stayed, had two double beds, a writing desk that had fresh cold bottles of water daily, a sitting chair, double sinks in the dressing area and full ensuite bathroom with two showers...because you may get tired of taking your shower inside and choose to take it outside under the tree canopy with the sun shining and listening to the sounds of the hippos grunt in the distance. Heaven.
The common area was of similar decor and it's hard to believe that with all of the furnishings of home, we're out in the bush. Machaba runs on a dual system of solar and generator power. We had electricity (enough to charge a phone, not enough to use a blow dryer) and running water. This camp is amazing and we are so fortunate to have their hospitality. If ever you have the opportunity to go to Botswana and stay at a safari camp, I cannot recommend Machaba Safaris enough. 5 stars, all the way!
The evening brought about a family style dinner under the stars. Each night, we sat around the camp fire until the Chef and Sommelier came to explain to us the menu for the evening and the wine pairings. Once the menu was announced, we were offered to find our seats at our dining table. Once we've sat down and the wine was poured, we were asked to take our napkins with us for the hot plates we'd be handed to start the service line. Always, it was children first, then ladies, followed by the men and any of our friendly staff that would be dining with us.
The food throughout the entire trip was amazing, but especially at Machaba. I told Elcke (manager) that they should have a cookbook with their recipes in it that they sell at the camp shop...or a booklet at the end of your stay with them that includes the bedtime stories (they leave at turn-down) and the recipes that you had during your stay. My mouth is watering just thinking about all the great dishes we had while we were there. MmmMmm.
After dinner, still on a first-night-in-camp high, much of the squad stayed up around the camp fire getting to know each other better, listening to the night frogs chime, and looking at stars that had blanketed the sky with an abundance that you just don't see at home. Additionally, since we were in another part of the hemisphere we were able to star gaze at different constellations than we see at home.
I'd say that already our trip is off to a great start! I look forward to telling you more about Machaba and our days there in my next entry. Please feel free to comment and share!
Southern Sun Hotel - Johannesburg airport, where Mom and I stayed
Mac Air - charter planes out of Maun, Botswana to the Okavango Delta
Machaba Safaris - best tented safari camps in the Okavango Delta! :)