Planning the Trip
One of the questions that people have asked us is how did we decide where to go on our first African "safari." The Kruger trip was one of a series of surprise trips that I periodically arrange for my wife. There have been some other good ones in the series - Inca ruins in Peru, Mardi Gras in Rio, a horse packing trip into the High Sierras, Mayan ruins in Guatemala (she thought that she was going to Napa), etc. I tell her what to pack and the dates of the trip, but nothing more. She then starts guessing. It used to be kind of fun (and instructive) to see where she thought we might be going, but now she won't tell me and I have to guess about what she is guessing. It all makes for some fun conversations leading up to the first or second plane ride.
This time around, I ran into a planning problem at the get go. I knew that we both wanted to see African wildlife and I had heard smatterings of stories about the wonders of "East Africa." Back in the day, I had visited several of the cities in Africa and had even driven around a wildlife reserve in Kenya, but I was very conscious of the fact that I knew nothing about where the best place would be for our trip. Not to worry. The internet should make the decision easy. Right? Wrong!
There is plenty of information on the internet. A Google search for "travel Africa" brings up a list of 685 million hits in 0.19 seconds. (If you don't believe me try it.) The other obvious search criteria generate similar lists in similar amounts of time. It takes relatively little time for your mind to go on boggle. So maybe one should talk to a travel agent. I tried that with several and quickly learned that travel in Africa is pretty well controlled by the travel agencies. It appears to me that each of these agencies have a particular set of lodges, and tours, and products that they particularly want to sell. The people that I talked to did not operate as travel consultants. They were compensated by the companies and individuals whose services and products they sold. I have no problem in compensating my travel advisor, but I couldn't be sure that they were actually giving me what I wanted. From afar at least, it looked like I was talking to booking agents rather than a travel consultant that I could trust to understand my needs and provide a trip that would meet those needs.
So I went back to the internet, drank endless cups of coffee, and waded through the marketing hype as best I could. Lots of beautiful pictures, some magnificent prose, but no certainty. Eventually I concluded that I was going about it the wrong way (Duh!). I was spending too much time on the lodges and the tour companies and not enough time trying to figure out where the animals were. Once I had that thought in mind, things eventually got somewhat easier. My research eventually led me to conclude that I should start our African explorations in two national parks - Serengeti and Kruger. I did not have enough time nor money to include both in one trip so which one? There is some political unrest in East Africa at the present time. Not much, but a little bit. Because it was a toss up, I decided that our first "safari" should be to Kruger.
Now, I started concentrating on learning a bit more about Kruger. I think that I have looked at every lodging site in and around the park and I have read and reread the various "informative articles" put out by the government at least a thousand times. Once again, "my little grey cells" (Poirot) went on boggle and I am still not certain that I understand the general situation adequately to advise anyone on their travel options. Eventually, I decided not to stay inside the park itself, but rather to stay in three of the private wildlife reserves that are connected to the national park. As I understand it, you are largely on your own inside the national park, lodging and dining options are more limited, and there are more restrictions on your travel. I can tell the difference between an elephant and a zebra, but I need help with some of the other wildlife so I decided that on our first trip we would go first class and stay in the best lodges that we could find. My assumption was that they would also have the best vehicles and the best people - particularly the rangers and trackers.
Don't get me wrong, money is an important factor in my decision-making process. We are not well off and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to make our pennies go as far as possible. No matter how you plan it, a trip to Africa is going to be expensive, particular if you have limited time. With my non-existent expertise, I decided that it would be a false economy to cut too many corners. We flew economy (UGH!), but I decided to do everything else first class. At this point in time I needed a contact that could help me with travel arrangements. I wanted to visit several different places to maximize my chances to see the animals. If I was to maximize my time with the animals, I needed to minimize my time in the air and on the road. At this point, I consulted Travel & Leisure's list of recommended top travel agents and found Bob Berghaier (1-800-545-1910).
I have nothing but great things to say about Bob's assistance. Once I convinced him that I did not want to visit Cape Town and did want to visit the third game reserve, everything worked out superbly. During our nine days in Africa, absolutely everything happened the way it was supposed to happen. The one very small hiccup was a wrong telephone number associated with one of our land movements and even then a quick check in the paperwork that he provided found the solution. I am sufficiently satisfied with his services that we are already discussing our next African trip.
P.S. If we had unlimited time, I would have gone about all of this differently. We would just fly to one of the big cities in South Africa and find a small hotel and a good restaurant. From there, we would wing it. My impression is that the people of South Africa are wonderful and their country is endlessly interesting. I am convinced that it would make for a fabulous trip and that we would eventually find all of the animals. The odds are very high that we might even save money doing it this way. (We used to travel that way, but alas, those days are now behind us.)