Monday, May 18, 2015

South Africa: We Go On Safari For Big Game And Big Wine

We’ve just returned – did you miss us? We’ve been in Africa for two weeks enjoying the wine, scenery, wildlife and people of South Africa.
During our trip we sampled the cuisine and scenery of Cape Town, visited more than a dozen wineries and went into the bush on safari at a tented camp. It was exciting, energizing and, at times, exhausting (but only due to the extraordinarily long travel times). We’ll share it all during a series of posts in the coming days and weeks.
Like many good things, the idea for this trip originated with my wife, the Green Dragon. We wanted a monumental way to celebrate our wedding anniversary (now measured in decades rather than mere years) and she wanted to go on safari in Africa. One does not merely board a plane and plop down on the African continent without proper planning, so that began a bout of research.
We are “do-it-yourselfers” for better or worse, and prefer to free-style on our trips rather than be part of an organized tour. We did enlist the help of Imagine Africa, a British travel agency, to make lodging reservations, book in-country flights, select the safari camp and reserve rental cars. We found them to be quite good and the only surprises were pleasant ones.
Our trip had three segments: a stay in Cape Town to enjoy that great city and explore the Southern Cape, visits to the Winelands of Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, and three days on safari at a private reserve near Kruger National Park. South Africa was appealing to us for several reasons:
  • South Africa is the most tourist friendly country in Africa (Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2015) and is in the top 50 nations worldwide.
  • We could take a direct flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg on Delta (of course is is incredibly long – 16 hours!).
  • No visas are required for US citizens.
  • No inoculations are required for those coming directly from the US. (We did get prescriptions for malaria pills and I also got shots for Hepatitis A and typhoid as this was recommended by the US Center for Disease Control.)
  • The exchange rate is extremely favorable to the US dollar. During our visit the the South African Rand was worth about eight and a half cents. In terms of dining, wine purchases and other spending, the value we received was amazing.
  • English is widely spoken.
From a wine perspective, South Africa is the eighth largest wine-producing country in the world. There are about 600 wineries in the country and premium wines that are rarely exported to the US. While researching South Africa for our trip, I zeroed in on Stellenbosch and Franschhoek as two superb wine areas for exploration.

Before leaving, we ordered 4000R (4,000 South African Rand) for spending cash. This is equal to about $330. We used our American Express card in most situations since it doesn’t charge a foreign currency transaction fee. Contrary to what I’d been told, it was accepted most everywhere. However, gas (or petrol as they say) is strictly a cash situation. It is also helpful to have rand available for tipping purposes. 20 rand is a good general purpose tip. A suggestion regarding cash: keep your stash in a safe place and only keep a small amount of bills in your wallet or purse. I also removed all unnecessary credit cards, insurance cards, etc. from my wallet and left them at home.
In general, the lighter you can keep your luggage, the better. Unless you can’t live without it, leave it at home. Green Dragon also came up with a very unusual travel tip that we used. Most of the clothes we took with us were items we planned to discard or donate to Goodwill. When we were through with them, we left them behind with a note saying we no longer wanted them and saying we hoped they would find a good home. As the clothes disappeared, they were replaced with bottles of wine in our suitcases. We had brought bubble wrap bags to store them for the flight home. We checked those two suitcases and were able to stay within the weight limit despite bringing back 11 bottles of vino.
I’ll wrap up with a couple of closing suggestions for wine travelers to South Africa. First, you should have a working cell phone for safety and convenience. I thought I would handle this by getting a SIM card for my Verizon Samsung Galaxy phone. However, it turns out that option is locked by Verizon. So instead I bought a cheap “dumb” phone with 100 minutes of airtime for about $40 US. This enabled us to call for taxis, call wineries for appointments and make dinner reservations.
For calls back to the US, I used Skype, purchasing Skype credit that enables you to make calls over the internet to cell phones or  land lines in the states for a really nominal charge. The sound clarity was fantastic. We had our smartphones for photos, web surfing, etc. But we kept them in “airplane” mode so we didn’t get hit with massive data charges. We were still able to use the internet via Wi-Fi.
Electricity in South Africa is wonky. First, you’ll need a power converter, because most outlets are an assortment of holes, slots and switches that are alien to anyone used to US outlets. We brought what we thought was a set of universal adaptors, but they didn’t work and I had to purchase one in Johannesburg for about $15 US. The national power company also has a policy of “load shedding” this means scheduled blackouts to ensure power demand doesn’t overwhelm the system.
So there you have some background on our adventure. In my next installment we’ll touchdown in South Africa and begin sampling their wines.
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