Family Travels: South Africa and Zimbabwe

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Experiencing the Bushland

The Travelers: Zimbabweans Kevin and Sue Thom, and their children Ryan (13) and Kiana (11). The family also took Sue’s parents Derek and Carol Spencer, who live in Australia.

The Destination: South Africa and Zimbabwe

The Plan: The family had not been back home for three years and it was high time to return. Getting out of Beijing’s summer was also tempting. The family first flew to Johannesburg for three nights, then to Durban for five, and then spent four days in the Madikwe Game Reserve (a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Johannesburg). It was then on to Harare and a light aircraft trip to the Zambezi River.

How They Did It: They used BJS Travel in Pinnacle Plaza to book their flights to Johannesburg via Singapore ( Internal flights were booked through South African budget airlines Mango and Kulula, who also organized their car hire through a fly/drive package. Accommodation was booked direct via the web.

When to Go: The Thoms traveled in June – winter in the southern hemisphere – as it is the perfect time to view animals: The bush is sparse, water is scarce and animals tend to congregate at waterholes.

Where to Stay: Norscot Manor near Johannesburg is a lovely B&B that is very conveniently located and cheap (starting from RMB 850 for a double room). They even gave the family an extra room when they saw the height of their son.

Getting Around: Public transport in Johannesburg and Durban is not great. The Thoms recommend hiring a car. Take regular precautions, as you would anywhere in the world. Keep windows up and doors locked when driving, and drive in the day rather than night.
Most Worthwhile Indulgence: The stunning Tuningi Game Lodge in the Medikwe Game Reserve wasn’t cheap (starting from around RMB 3,300 for adults per night and RMB 1,700 for children ages 2 through 12), but the two-bedroom lodge with glass-fronted rooms looking out into the bushland, a novelty outdoor shower and roaring fireplace was “out of this world.” The lodge also has a children’s program – those under 5 were taken on special one-hour “bumbles” to view animals and hunt for bush treasure. In the evening, kids can also make their own boma (camp fire) dinner treats with the chef. The lodge is exposed to animals but has a low electric fence running along the perimeter to ensure safety.

Best Way to Tour: Experiencing the African wild is best done in an open jeep. Lions and their cubs, rhinos, elephants, zebras, giraffes and gazelles are all within a comfortable distance, and experienced guides with fascinating tales about the African bush made the Thoms feel completely safe. Although game viewing is enthralling for the entire family, remaining still and quiet is important in order to avoid scaring the animals. Children below 5, therefore, are probably best suited for going on a “bumble.”

What to Eat: The Thoms tried everything from ostrich steak in Johannesburg to tigerfish from the Zambezi River – puréed into a delicious paté. They also had plenty of biltong, a beef jerky-style dried meat particular to South Africa.

What to Consider: Although Yellow Fever is not a problem in South Africa, it is wise to discuss a vaccination with your doctor beforehand. Even though South Africa has a low risk of malaria and the Medikwe Game Reserve is malaria-free (due to its elevation), it is advisable to bring malaria medication, and be sure to take plenty of insect repellent. Wearing long sleeved tops, pants, socks and shoes that are not open-toed is also a good idea.
What to Buy: Johannesburg has fabulous markets stuffed with African artifacts – carvings, art, pots, linen and much more. Bargaining tactics parallel Beijing. Sue suggests shopping around before buying because of the enormous variety of beautiful items. In Durban, don’t miss the remarkable Gateway. This impressive complex has a science center, eight movie houses, an art gallery, the biggest skate park in South Africa, a climbing wall and a unique wave rider – a huge plastic curl that rises out of the water and gushes water so surfers can ride a permanent tube.

Where to Play: The Theme Park at Theme Park at Gold Reef City in Johannesburg is a real experience. It has everything for kids from toddlers to teens, and its rollercoaster even disappears into a mine shaft. The family also went to a Lion Park in case the Game Reserve proved disappointing (even though it didn’t); the drive-through park gives a real glimpse of wild Africa, and you can even cuddle baby lions.
Best Thrills in Durban: The uShaka Marine World included the best display of sea life the Thom family had ever seen, and the adjoining Wet ‘n’ Wild park featured heated water slides, wave pools, and a lazy river ride that winds through a glass-walled aquarium, complete with an awesome shipwreck right in the middle! (RMB 150 adults, RMB 100 children, for combined entry to Marine World and Wet ‘n’ Wild, 27 31 328 8000). Only a 30-minute drive from Durban, the Zulu Kingdom of KwaZulu-Natal (Valley of a Thousand Hills) is also well worth a visit. Zulu warriors dress in traditional costumes complete with leopard-skin shields and tell legendary stories through singing, dancing and stomping with their assegai spears. With the Thousand Hills as a backdrop, it is a site to behold.

First published in beijingkids magazine and on the beijingkids website.

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