Why South Africa/Kruger National Park?
- I wanted to go on a safari, to be in a vehicle and check out animals in their habitat.
- I wanted to visit Africa, partly to accomplish my goal of having been to six of the seven continents before I turn 30, and partly to get a glimpse of life there.
- I wanted to visit Johannesburg and South Africa because of the eventful recent history.
- Monday, 13 Oct: Arrived in Johannesburg
- Tuesday, 14 Oct: Ride from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park area. Mini-safari at Kapama Game Reserve
- Wednesday, 15 Oct: Safari in Kruger National Park
- Thursday, 16 Oct: Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre
- Friday, 17 Oct: Ride back to Johannesburg, Blyde River Canyon
- Saturday, 18 Oct: Leave Johannesburg and South Africa
The safari was nice. And the experience overall was pleasant. There was a lot of riding in vehicles, both during the safari and to and from places. I lacked the time to really check out and explore Johannesburg and the surrounding areas. I would consider returning and do a bigger tour of South Africa if the opportunity presents itself.
I flew to Johannesburg from Lima, Peru. As part of my Round-the-World itinerary, the route took 23 hours and three flights, from Lima to Panama City, to São Paulo, and to Johannesburg. Had I booked the trip a week earlier, I could have skipped Panama City and fly to São Paulo directly from Lima. The whole route still would’ve taken 23 hours, though.
When I got on the South African Airways flight to Johannesburg, there was a package of blanket, socks, sleeping mask, toothbrush and toothpaste for every passenger. That made the flight feel more luxurious than most airlines, sort of like when I used to fly EVA Air across the Pacific.
No need for transit visa in Brazil
One concern I had as a US Passport holder is the connection in São Paulo, Brazil. Americans planning to visit Brazil must apply for visas, which were hard and expensive to get. I researched the immigration and visa rules on government and airline websites, I emailed the airlines and airports, and I even printed out their responses as proof just in case. I was assured that if I had an international outbound ticket, I would not need a transit visa at São Paulo. I even checked and double-checked the airport terminals where my flights would arrive and depart to make sure I would stay airside, especially since the airport just added a terminal in time for the World Cup. At the Panama City airport, the staff made an announcement asking US Passport holders to check at the counter. They asked me about my visa to Brazil, but I showed them my ticket to Johannesburg, and they were okay with it.
When I debarked the plane in São Paulo, I followed the paths to the queues for immigration, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to go through it, so I looked for other paths to go. I was pretty sure I was in Terminal 2. I got to a security checkpoint and asked the staff in English where to go for my flight, showing them my ticket. The staff didn’t seem to understand or speak English well, nor were they certain where the terminals for South African Airways were, but they signaled me to go down the path after the security checkpoint, which would lead me to Terminal 3. I wasn’t too concerned about the security checkpoint; I was just worried that if they led me the wrong path, I may not be able to return.
It turns out my main problem at the security checkpoint was that I had a full bottle of water at the security checkpoint, and told me I couldn’t have it, so I went to use the restroom and chug as much water as I could and dumped the rest in the sink. I went through the security checkpoint fine, and I proceeded to make my way to Terminal 3 in the longest path I had ever traversed in an airport. There were long halls with moving sidewalks after moving sidewalks. Usually, I have patience with walking long distances, but this inter-terminal path was mind-numbingly long. I was fortunate that I still had hours until my flight and could take my time.
Once I got to the gate, my name was called to check my passport for some reason, and they reissued me a flimsy boarding pass. I waited in the terminal for hours where there were shops and restaurants that only accept Brazilian currency, so I toughed it out and waited until I got on the plane to eat.
South Africa Immigration Did Not Ask about Yellow Fever
Another concern for this leg was that coming from Peru, I was supposedly at risk for exposure to Yellow Fever, even though Lima, Cuzco and Machu Picchu were not listed as such. To be safe, I got for a contraindication from the travel clinic in San Francisco as a pass for not taking the Yellow Fever vaccine. South Africa and China were the two countries on my itinerary that required proof of that. So I made copies of the contraindication in case the officials wanted to keep a copy, and I also had a PDF of it on my phone and tablet. I was very prepared. When I got off the plane and was directed to the Immigration queues, people were unsure about needing to fill immigration forms because some of the staff continuously yelled out that we don’t need the forms under certain conditions. So I filled one out just in case they asked. While in line, I noticed what seemed to be thermal cameras and small signs about Ebola. When it was my turn, all the officer wanted to know was where my flight was from (Brazil) and that I had a US passport. Very quickly I was dismissed and I proceeded to the main airport lobby. It happened pretty quick and there was no time or opportunity to mention Peru or Yellow Fever. I think the people there were more concerned about Ebola than other diseases at that time.
Johannesburg: Brown Sugar Backpackers
The safari tour I booked recommended staying at a few select hostels as a pickup spot, one of which was Brown Sugar Backpackers. For convenience, I booked one night there before my tour started, and another night after the tour ended.
The hostel offered airport pickup service, but I had to call them when I arrived, and it took about 30 minutes. Without cell service, I resorted to use the airport Wifi to call the hostel with Skype credits that I bought before the trip.
The place was nice. It had a lived-in feel. There’s a main lounge with a TV playing American shows and movies all day (I think it was playing Spike at one point). It had a bar on the side but it wasn’t really open when I was there. From the lounge, you could get to the outdoor patio where there are a bunch of table benches and shade.
The other side of the lounge opened to the Internet room with two Windows laptop computers for guest use, an ATM (which was useful since that’s where I got my cash for Kruger), and it’s also where the Wifi worked best. There’s a table and a couple of chairs, but it got uncomfortable sitting there for too long using the Wifi, but stepping outside of the Internet room reduced the Wifi strength significantly. There’s a small balcony next to the Internet room that had a couch, and it had medium Wifi strength.
The dining room where breakfast is served is a narrow room of tables. But there’s a wall with awesome quotes painted in different styles. It was inspiring, memorable, and motivational for my trip.
Brown Sugar – Room
On the first night, I stayed upstairs in a 12-person room, but it was just me in the room so I could pick whichever bed I wanted. Like Pay Purix in Lima, I picked the bottom bunk. After returning from Kruger, I stayed downstairs in another 12-person room, and I also picked the bottom bunk. It was fortunate that there weren’t that many people staying at the hostel, or at all in the room, because the bunk beds were arranged kind of tight together where moving around would’ve been more troublesome if there were more people.
Brown Sugar – Beds
The bed and sheets were decent. They felt kind of homey. There were mini wooden storage cubes next to the beds, with a metal loop for mini locks. Above the cubes were outlet with a switch to turn it on. It’s always neat to have simple conveniences like this.
Brown Sugar – Lockers/Storage
There were larger metal storage locker along one wall of the room, but I didn’t use it because it didn’t fit my carry-on luggage. The hostel also allow luggage storage in the form of putting them in a nook on the main floor and closing access to it with a metal folding gate and a lock.
Brown Sugar – Bathrooms
It’s a dorm-style bathroom, with a few toilet stalls, a few shower stalls, and a few sinks. I don’t believe the hostel provided towels so I used my own.
I stayed at the downstairs dorm my second time at Brown Sugar, and that bathroom had three shower stalls. I chose the middle one and it had a thin almost-see-through curtains. I wasn’t concerned about privacy since I was the only one staying in that dorm that night. I thought the curtains would block the water but after my shower, I discovered the water had leaked to the bathroom floor and moving towards the bedroom! So I tried to stop the flow by throwing wads of toilet paper on the floor. It was still soaking by the time I went to bed, so I left it there overnight. Fortunately, by morning, it had dried up pretty well, and I cleaned up the toilet paper and no one knew.
Brown Sugar – Staff
The staff was nice. There was one lady who took care of the guests’ stays, and another lady who was the cook. She would make lunch and dinner, and after dinner, she tried to clean up after diners as quickly as possible so she could go home. During my second stay, as I was hanging around the hostel waiting until it’s time to head to the airport, I noticed a lunch menu I could order from. But I felt bad asking because I was the only one ordering lunch and the lady cook would have to open the kitchen to make one meal for me. So I asked to make whatever was the easiest, but the front desk lady insisted that I order what I wanted, so I did and they made me lunch. I was very thankful when they served it, but they didn’t really have a response to indicate whether it was an annoyance or totally fine. I was still trying to figure out the South African nonverbal culture.
Kruger: Thornhill Safari Lodge
Thornhill was a nice little camp of single-floor room-cabins that surround the outdoor dining area, the pool, and gazebo. The entire area was surrounded by natural land on the gated property, so it’s isolated from neighboring properties. Getting there required getting off a highway into a very bumpy, unpaved road for about ten minutes. There’s a main congregating area at the lodge that is covered but still exposed to outside, where there are a few couches as well as a dining area for guests to have breakfast, and also dinner if it’s raining.
Thornhill – Room
My room was large for one person. It had a king-size bed and two twin beds, with benches at the foot of each. Based on the tour I purchased from Intrepid Travel, I thought I would have to share, but the staff assured me it was all mine. Each bed has bed nets set up, though they weren’t completely seal-proof, but it was okay; I think mosquitos weren’t that smart in navigating around the bed nets. I still wore my bug-repellent long sleeve shirt to bed just in case. The entrance to my room was a glass door that opens out to a shared porch with chair outside, facing a field of trees, so it felt pretty private. The decor was very themed to have an “African” feel, with earth tones and rich-color tiles. The bathroom had a shower stall and a sink counter that seemed to have been created along with the wall because of the way they flow from one surface to another. Above the toilet was a fan that can be switched on to improve ventilation.
Thornhill – Food
The first night was kind of neat. We sat in the outdoor dining area around a fire bit. But it was really dark so I could barely see the food that I got. I thought the experience was mediocre, but someone from my tour group who was assigned to stay at another lodge was hoping to eat around the fire like I did. I would’ve given him my spot if I knew how. Every night, someone from the cooking staff would beat a large drum by the gazebo to announce that it’s dinner time. Then when everyone’s at their seats, someone from the cooking staff (could be the same person, I wasn’t sure) would recite the menu. But honestly, their accents were very thick and they spoke relatively quickly that I could not catch half of what was said. Then they would decide the order in which the guests would get their food, either by gender (ladies first), or by the table that the guests were sitting. It’s different every night. The meals were mostly a buffet, except for dessert, which was also different every night. One night it’s pudding of some sort, another it’s ice cream. For the main and side dishes, it’s a good range for everyone’s tastes, including vegetarian. The portions were just enough (probably small by American standard) without feeling super full, although I could eat more if I didn’t have to be polite and save any for others. There’s also a bar with beers, wines, and mixed drinks. They also served lunch supposedly, but I never got to have it since I was always out on an activity.
Thornhill – Staff
The staff are good folks. It’s hard to tell just by looking at them, but they worked hard to make sure the guests have a good stay. I also noticed (along with other South Africans) that they tend to have an honest attitude and rarely fake friendliness like Americans would. They’re professional, respectful, and direct. That said, it’s a bit hard for a shy American like me to open up and truly relax when there seems to be a awkwardness between the staff and me. I wonder if it’s a cultural thing that I just needed to get used to. Nonetheless, they are good people.
Thornhill – Wifi
Wifi costs 50 rand for the whole stay. Those who purchase it are given a code. It only worked in the main “indoor” area. It’s fast enough to check emails and browse sites, but it’s hard to do more than that.
In Johannesburg, I stayed at the hostel the whole time. I didn’t have much time to go outside, and I read that the streets could be dangerous, especially for travelers. In Kruger area, going to places is a scheduled event. I got to places via safari jeeps or vans from and to the lodge, since things are pretty far from one another.
- Time of year: Mid-October.
- My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.
Climate – Johannesburg
The city was nice at this time of year. Sunny but cool and breezy. T-shirt or one-layer long sleeve during the day should be fine.
Climate – Kruger Area
- The morning was surprisingly incredibly chilly, especially when riding in a open jeep. Long sleeves and jacket is recommended.
- It warmed up by mid-day and got warm and a bit humid in the afternoon. T-shirt is fine. The warm breeze in a moving jeep could get a bit uncomfortable.
- By nightfall, the temperatures dropped again and a light jacket is recommended.
- One night, there was a huge downpour that went on through the night. The next morning, it was sunny again.
The people are generally nice. It’s probably because I mainly interacted with people who interact with tourists everyday. However, they are different from American customer service in that Americans seemed to put more effort into appearing friendly and making the customers feel good, whereas the customer service in South Africa seemed to be more direct. If you ask a question or request something, they reply with a straight answer, and then they move on with no follow up.
Everyone spoke English. Most black South Africans have an African English accent, and most white South Africans have a mix of European and African English accents.
I purchased a safari tour from Intrepid Travel. It only occurred to me after the manager at Thornhill explained to another guest that companies like Intrepid Travel and G Adventures work with local tour companies around the world and book tours for travelers, and then mark up the price. If the travelers book the tour directly through the tour companies, it would be cheaper. How much cheaper and who the tour companies are, of course, aren’t always known to the customers. The safari group I was with came from the States, Europe and Australia, so I doubt they all booked the tour through Intrepid. My four-day tour package included a pickup from Johannesburg, a five-hour drive to Kruger area, a small safari at Kapama Game Reserve, three night stays at Thornhill, an all-day safari at Kruger National Park, a free day which I filled with a visit to the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre, and another five-hour drive back to Johannesburg with a stop at Blyde River Canyon.
The Pickup and Ride to Kruger
The first morning, at Brown Sugar I got up and ready, had a quick and light breakfast because I didn’t want to have to use the restroom on the ride to Kruger. The pickup was late however, and after a while, I was getting worried, especially after what happened that one time in Peru, so I used my Skype credits to call the contact number and asked about the status. They assured me the pickup is coming, so I had to take their word for it. Somehow I discovered that there were two other people at Brown Sugar also waiting for the pickup. They were two girls from Germany who were cousin and one knew more English than the other. That made me feel slightly better that I wasn’t alone and forgotten. After some time, they went back to their room to wait. After more time, the ride finally came. We gave our luggages to the driver, who put them in a small trailer behind the van. I felt a bit unease about being separate from my one luggage, but I didn’t really have a choice. There were already a Swedish couple and a English couple in the van, and with the German girls and me, we picked up more people in neighboring cities: an Australian couple and another American who happened to be from the Bay Area as well. The ride was long and there was small chats once in a while, since no one really knew one another. Parts of the road reminded me very much of highway 280 in San Mateo and Redwood City area back at home, where it’s just nothing but brown hill after brown hill.
We stopped a few times along the way for gas, lunch, and snacks. The driver told us there’s not that many places in Kruger area to buy snacks, so we needed to get them at the stop. So I got a bunch of biscuits and water, hoping it would be enough for the next four days or so.
Kapama Game Reserve
We arrived late at the hotel, and once we dropped off our luggage in the room, we hopped on the van again to head to our first mini-safari.
The Kapama Game Reserve was a small site, relatively speaking, It’s still a large area. We drove around, spotting giraffes and birds. I had trouble grasping the concept that these animals are living in a natural environment, as opposed to a zoo. So other than me being in a big 10-person jeep in Africa, it felt a bit underwhelming to me.
We then took a break in a designated area where we were allowed to get off the jeep. It still boggles my mind how the animals would know it’s a designated area since there were no fences at all; it’s just an unusually open are with no plants. Our guides set up a table and laid out snacks that included nuts and chips and different types of biltong, which is jerky. I was too afraid to try to biltong so I stayed with crackers and chips. I then took a sufficient amount of sunset photos and panoramas.
As the sun set near the end of the break, we heard the roar of a lion nearby, so we quickly packed up and continued the drive. Sure enough, we spotted a lion on the side of road. The guide explained that when the sun set, the lions make their calls to claim the territory for the night, warning other male lions to stay away. I couldn’t tell the difference, I was still frightened by the sound the lion kept making, even if it wasn’t directed at me.
After about twenty minutes with the lion, we moved on to try to spot other animals in the dark. We were surprisingly successful and spotted zebras, water buffalos, and a bunch of other animals whose names I forgot.
Kruger National Park
The next morning I got a knock on my hotel room door to wake me up. Without breakfast, my group got on a jeep and made our way to Kruger National Park. Riding fast down the highway early in the morning was incredibly chilly. We got to the entrance, took our restroom break, and started exploring. It was still chilly but since it was later in the morning and we were moving slower, it was less bad.
At one point that morning, we were riding down a road that looked out far in the horizon, and it felt very open and free. I thought how I was very much not in the office at that moment, how I felt a little sorry for my teammates back home, and how I was right when I was supposed to be.
After about an hour, we stopped for breakfast at a stop area. There were sandwiches, fruits, juice-boxes, and hard-boiled eggs! One of the German girls teased me because of how much I love eggs, since she noticed it when I had a second helping of eggs back at Brown Sugar.
A lot of the safari, I realized, was driving around trying to spot animals from fields of nothing. It helped to have the guide talk about the different animals and about African culture along the way, but there was still plenty of nothing. It may be a combination of nothing to see for most of the ride, the gentle vibration and white noise of the moving jeep, the waking up early in the morning, and the possible jet lag I was still experiencing, that I dozed off for most of the morning. My jeep-mates definitely noticed, since they giggled when I mentioned at lunch how sleepy I was.
For the safari, I chose to sit in the middle seat because everyone else had a fancy camera, and they were clearly prepared to take professional-looking photographs of these animals. And there I was, with my iPhone 5s. My goal of the trip was the experience of going on a safari and seeing things in person. I didn’t have a mission to spot particular animals or collect photographs of as many animals as I could find like the rest of my tour group did. So I let them sit on the sides and get clearer shots of what they wanted.
After lunch, it got a warmer and I was sort of afraid that would bring me back to sleep. But it was more exciting than the morning, since we heard someone spotted a cheetah. Surprisingly, to our guide’s quick response, we found the cheetah and followed it for a bit. Apparently it was chasing after its prey, but the prey either disappeared or climbed up a tree for refuge and the cheetah lost its lunch.
Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre
The day after the Kruger safari was a free day. Guests could either pick an activity from a list or hang out at the lodge. One was to go on more game drives, and I felt that I had handled as much day-long driving as I could this trip. Another was the Cheetah Project, which involved rehabilitating injured cheetahs. And the other is Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre which is more for all types of animal. I was undecided since none of the activities appealed to me. The thought of hanging out at the lodge and maybe by the pool felt much closer to what I really wanted to do, albeit slow and kind of boring. But when the manager walked around after dinner and asked what I was going to do, before I could really answer I wanted to stay at the lodge, she recommended me to go to the Moholoholo activity instead of doing nothing. With little motivation to decline, and trusting her advice, I agreed to it. Moholoholo was pretty much like a zoo of African wildlife. It’s a bit more exciting because we had guides leading us through the campus explaining things and feeding animals. So I went along with it and it was actually cool to see these animals up close. But they’re mostly in cages so it could only be exciting for so much. My highlights were being a fence and few feet away from a lion, and I got to pet a cheetah, although it felt just like petting a big dog or animal with coarse fur. The moment went by pretty quickly, and I would’ve forgotten it if there wasn’t a video.
A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts. Photo Slideshow:
South Africa was a good example of “eating what I can get.”
At Brown Sugar, one can buy a dinner meal, which comes in two options: meat or vegetarian. The first time, I had a burger and fries. The second time, it was spaghetti bolognese. Both were delicious. For lunch, I ordered from a menu, but it was just me in the hostel ordering a lunch that day, so I felt bad that they had to open the kitchen just for me. I forgot what I ordered, but it probably had chicken in it. And breakfast was pretty standard, so I choose anything with eggs and meat.
On the road to Kruger, I bought biscuits for the trip. I also got some sort of chicken dish from a fast food place at a rest stop. And on the road back to Johannesburg, I got a burger from a place called Spur, which had a Native American drawing on the branding, which made me feel more uneasy at the insensitivity the more I thought about it.
At Thornhill, dinner had a set menu. There was meat dish, a bunch of sides, and a dessert. Even though the setting was a bit casual, the food was served with a level of professionalism and procedure where guests were sort of made to feel more cared for. Breakfast was a level higher than standard, with a few cooked items, like potatoes, which I had, and french toast, which I didn’t have.
I got to be picky when there’s a selection to choose from, and when there wasn’t, I ate what I had.
After my safari tour, I was driven back to Brown Sugar Backpackers in Johannesburg. I arranged an airport ride for a fee and was taken to the airport at the time specified. It was quite easy.
From My Travel Log
14 October 2014, 8:48am, Joburg van to Kruger
- Places so far feel similar, particularly cars and roads. SA highway feels just like the 280 in Bay Area
- SA feels like “home”
- being greeted on boarding plane in English just feels welcoming
- radio talk pretty normal like in US
- hard to realize I’m in a diff country/continent, with so many things the same
- radio music very American Top 40
17 October 2014, 2:09pm, Brown Sugar
- There are so many commonalities I’ve experienced with things at home, including technology, media, languages, daily interactions. I think it’s all standardized/westernized so that the way things are carried out were very different if I had visited 100 years ago. The similarities, while seemingly good, like when I visited Hong Kong or Melbourne, make me more homesick. It’s usually more prominent in the last few days of my trips where I’m itching to go home. So hopefully, I still get to enjoy Hawaii.
- “Tuso” (Brown Sugar driver)
- Tina (Brown Sugar staff)
- Asaf and Shif (sp): travelers from Israel at Brown Sugar. Ate dinner with them
- “Dais”: traveler from Australia at Brown Sugar
- Inger and Geza: German travelers at Brown Sugar and Kruger
- Ollie and Dannee: English travelers at Kruger
- Miranda and Adam: Australian travelers at Kruger
- Chandra: Bay Area traveler at Kruger
- Anders and Cecilia: Swedish travelers at Kruger
- Jerry: J-Burg to Kruger driver
- Victor: Kapama driver
- Tim, Jaden, Charmaine (Thornhill staff)
- Patrick, Remco, Mariana (fellow Thornhill guests)
- Kent: Thornhill guest from LA and interested in traveling to Japan
- German couple, Jors, Ralph, Dutch people, German people
- Pechu (sp?): Thornhill driver
- Bring cash for tips for the many drivers throughout the trip
- Wear as many layers as possible for the morning drive to the safari. Even then, the face will still get numb from the wind.
- Thornhill has adapters to borrow during the stay.
- Thornhill: the toilets and sink next to the outdoor dining area are kind of shoddy. It’s best to use the bathroom in your bedroom.
- Thornhill: random creatures/insects will appear on sofas and chairs. There is no “indoors”, so just be aware if you’re squeamish like me.
- This is a heads up: the final road to get to the hotel is unpaved and very bumpy. I was very happy the last day when I rode that road for the last time and got on the smooth highway.
- Try to stay in Johannesburg for more than a day at a time so you can take advantage of day trips into the city that Brown Sugar offered.
- Full photo and video album (Flickr)
- Wikivoyage – Johannesburg
- Wikivoyage – Kruger National Park
- Average temperatures of Johannesburg (weatherbase.com)
- Average temperatures of Kruger National Park (weatherbase.com)
- TripAdvisor – Brown Sugar Backpackers
- TripAdvisor – Thornhill Safari Lodge
- Intrepid Travel – Kruger Experience – Lodge (4 days)
If you have questions about specific experiences of [location], feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.