Southern Africa Part 2
Southern Africa, Part II, August-September, 2017
(Vicki and Mark mostly travel independently in the US and Europe in their own Rvs. However, for 5 weeks they joined an RV tour in Southern Africa. Their website is www.theroadgoeseveron.com and blog for the last nine years of travel is www.roadeveron.blogspot.com)
Note: Everything in these write ups are our personal opinion. Your experiences may be different!!!!!!!!
I left off in Swakopmund, Namibia on September 19. But before I continue with our last two weeks, I want to summarize some of the practical points for folks who might be considering travel to Southern Africa.
Before Mark and I decided on this British-escorted motorhome tour, we briefly investigated other means of southern African travel. Obviously, if money is no issue there are lots of wonderful possibilities. One of the more budget friendly options we found was touring by safari bus. In reading the descriptions, it sounded like that option was for 20 somethings and fairly rough and uncomfortable. In reality, we have seen dozens of these tours in the last three weeks and on nearly all of them gray heads have appeared along with plenty of middle aged folks. Every size vehicle has been in use from 12 passenger vans to giant touring coaches. Last night we watched three fellows set up over 20 tents in the Namib Naukluft National Park campground at Sesriem. None of the tourists were with them overnight so I assume they were in a lodge the night before. Other groups we have passed were obviously only staying in lodges and never camping, and others always setting up their tents themselves without the “help” to do the set up and cook the meals. We have seen a few other groups with motorhomes like ours, but also groups with 4x4 pickups with unfolding tents on top. Overall, this budget touring didn't look too bad—only check on whether the vehicles are air conditioned. We passed many with their windows down in upper 90 degree heat with the wind driven sand blasting away.
Having done most of the tour, knowing what we know now, Mark and I feel like we could do it again independently. We would rent a 4x4 camper even if it didn't have the luxury of a shower. Not that we would be attempting 4x4 roads, but to be sure we didn't get stuck in Namibia in one of the sandier patches. We would also just consider renting a 4x4 car or pickup and staying in lodges with perhaps our own tent for backup. Obviously, a camper is better, but the downside is that on the washboarded roads of Namibia you can only travel at about 20mph, while the pickups and cars can go about twice as fast. In a camper do not even think about wildcamping—NOT SAFE at all in our opinion and not practical—very few spots available unless you would ask a restaurant or something similar—and most of them have campgrounds outside of South Africa. Traveling with another camper might also bring added security or at least invest in an InReach system so you could contact someone if broken down. We have had cell phone service in most areas but certainly not everywhere. I will outline what our costs have been when we finish.
September was a good time to take the tour since it can still be chilly in South Africa on the dawn and dusk game spotting treks, but it isn't yet too outrageously hot in Namibia. We thought 104 was plenty hot enough even if it was dry! Other random thoughts—if you go out on safari drives try to sit close to driver so you can hear, and take warm hat, gloves and scarf. Buy a map of roads and waterholes in Kruger along with basic animal identification pictures. Speed limits are enforced everywhere and try not to pay any tickets to the officers. Tips are expected for watching car when parked, filling gas tank, washing car windows—3-4 rand. Credit cards were good in 90% of spots and don't need chip and pin. You will have to buy, boil or use a Steripen for water outside of South Africa. If you rent, take a tire gauge, basic tools, flyswatter, netting for the door, duct tape, old towel or bathmat, rags, and something to protect your eyes from blowing sand. Also take a 12 volt inverter to charge phones and laptops. Also a South African electric adapter (but only will work if 220 appliance or if you have converter also.) Ice is available everywhere if you are going with ice chest instead of refrigerator. Most lodging and safari cabins expect you to cook outside on a bar b que and wood and charcoal are widely available as is frozen meat.
Back to our journey. We left Swakopmond at 7 am as the sun was rising and had a long 10 hour horrible drive to Sesriem Camping in the Namib Naukluft National Park. Only 25 of the 325k was paved and the rest a horrible washboard—and you are hearing this from folks who lived in Montana and drove dirt roads on a regular basis for 13 years. The camper has been holding up fairly well except that we have lost all the drawer latches twice now and the mechanic is out of spares so we had to rig our clothesline to keep them shut. Others have lost closet door hinges, and one camper the screws that tie down the microwave. So far no flat tires in the group as we all have fairly new campers with new tires. Usually, the group experiences lots of flats. The only break in the day was at Solitaire—not a town but gas station, lodge, cafe and store. They do have a campground. If traveling on your own, I would stop there for the night as you can't enter the Sesriem Camp after sundown. One flat tire and you probably wouldn't make it.
You definitely want to stay at Sesriem either in the campground or in the lodge just inside the gate. Much like DisneyWorld, this gives you an hour early and late access to the road to the dunes, which is the whole point of coming here. The Sossusvlei is a depression lined by some of the highest dunes in the world. There is a 60k PAVED road back to the best dunes so you need that extra hour to get back to them to be there when the sun rises. Best pictures, best views and best time to hike a dune in the desert. It was 65 degrees high in Swakopmund and 100 here. Some in our party climbed Big Daddy dune at almost 1000ft. We actually hate walking in sand so only hiked back to the Dead Vlei—a shallow lake bed that fills with water only on rare occasions. There are 4x4 shuttles that take you the last 4k on incredibly deep sandy paths for $12 round trip. On the way back at 9:30am we passed 4 different 4x4 cars and trucks that were stuck. Pay the $12. We learned later that best views were to continue on in the shuttle to the Sossusvlei area on the right side and climb one of those dunes for a fuller view. Another reason to go early is there were long lines for the shuttle after about 8:30am when those staying outside the park finally make it to this point.
Unfortunately, the electricity here can't really handle the load of many air conditioners so be sure to try to park under one of the shade trees or hit the pool. The campsite shop was super sparse but better groceries could be found at the Engen gas station right outside the gates. Entrance to the park was $14 pp but I don't know if it was per day or what.
Our next stop was Betta Camp about 150k south on C27. No pool, not enough electricity for air con, incredibly sandy and dusty and another 4 hours of washboard. We were really out there. The electricity is powered by a windmill and solar panels and stored in a huge battery bank. Frankly I wished we had stayed at Sesriem until noon and then driven down. But a group braai in the evening and a few glasses of wine made everyone feel better, even when faced with 220k of gravel road the next day. Note—bring lots of body lotion for dry skin and eye drops for dry eyes. This desert, the Namib, is the oldest in the world. Some of the group drove to nearby Duwisib Castle, built in 1909 by a German for his American wife. It was basically abandoned after he was killed during World War I.
Heading south again we had a long drive of 213k on rough gravel roads to Klein Aus Vista Campground and Lodge just west of Aus. Again no settlements or even houses along the way except for Helmeringhausen general store and hotel. Mark and I had left Betta before 7 since we wanted to go beyond Aus to the German colonial town of Luderitz on the coast. It was just over 200k extra round trip through the off limits area of the Namibian/DeBeers diamond mining lands—absolutely no trespassing in this area. Lunderitz according to Lonely Planet was supposed to have some German art nouveau buildings. Though we drove every street in this small town—we didn't discover any. Of course, all the shops were closed as it was Saturday afternoon. However, at least we were able to ride out the afternoon high temperatures of 105 or so in air conditioned comfort. Our campsite had no electricity. Just writing about this area makes me feel guilty. The citizens of Aus are limited to 5 liters of water per person per day and live on $40 a week.
Back on the road we had a little pavement (tarmac road in Africa) and then turned south at Seeheim on the C12. Seeheim was not a town but a small hotel with sort of a gas station. C12 turned out to be the worst road of the entire trip for the first 50k. Whether you drove fast at 30 mph or 12 mph, it was continuous bone jarring washboard. I don't like to even think about it. Most of us did stop for a fairly decent lunch at the Canon Roadhouse—which is also sort of a museum for old cars. Then on to Fish River Canyon Viewpoint in the National Park. ($14 day visit). The canyon is much like the Grand Canyon and the world's second or third largest, though dwarfed by our Grand Canyon and not as colorful or deep. On the other hand, we were at the viewpoint basically alone before the rest of our group arrived. Don't think that would ever be possible at the Grand Canyon. Another 100k of gravel road brought us to Ai-Ais Lodge and Camping at the very end of the canyon at a natural hot springs. The hot springs feed the outdoor pool which is 82 degrees and the large indoor double pool and hot tubs kept at 99. Campers pay a modest $2 to use the indoor pools, while the rooms in the lodge open directly to the pool area. We opted for the indoor option as suddenly as we drove south of the canyon viewpoint the sky clouded up and temperatures dropped from the high 90s to the mid 60s. Crazy. Ai Ais is also the terminus of a 5 day hike from the viewpoint which requires a permit and can only be done during a limited season.
We were now ready for our last gravel road, the C10, not bad at all, and then the lovely, wonderful joy of steady pavement on the B1 south to the border crossing at Noordoewer. The usual lines, paperwork, but no unusual hassles leaving Namibia and crossing into South Africa. Still we were in the desert and no real towns for another 110k till Springbok with its terrific Super Spar market. We stayed just outside of town at the Springbok Caravan Park. Here most folks proceeded to wash their campers inside and out although rain was looming and it was windy and cold. Mark and I, not the super tidy British types didn't, and even opted for the washing machine, having tired of doing laundry by hand. Cost of the washing machine was less than $2.
Though Springbok to Citrusdal was 387k we got there in the early afternoon. You can drive so fast on tarmac roads! The Citrus Creek Camping Resort did have a pool and clean bathrooms but wifi enough only for email and not very resort like. As we were only two hours from our campground near Capetown, we think the tour should just skip this penultimate stop.
I don't know how prevalent campgrounds are in the Capetown area. We stayed at Ou Sip Caravan Park in Melkbosstrand which is on the coast north of Cape Town. S 33 42' 43.78 and E 18 26' 46.33. At least I hope those are the coordinates—they were programmed wrong into our sat nav, so we followed the signs. This GPS is from our tour book. Weather was cool and foggy in Cape Town with highs in the low 70s and very windy. Some folks caught a local bus outside the campground and with one change made it into the city. We waited until the next day when we had a local tour guide and a bus tour with our group. He was pretty good and answered a lot of our questions. The tour included the Castle of Good Hope, whose museum, etc. was only so-so and a walking tour of the Company Gardens. We liked best the walk to the Green Market which had the best selection and reasonable prices for native souvenirs that we had seen. The weather gods smiled and we then had a lovely cable car ride to the top of Table Mountain. Since it was a perfect day we had to wait in line about 45 minutes for the ride up and 25 minutes for the ride down. There is a nice cafe at the top and you can see all the main areas in about 45 minutes. Our guide said that to avoid lines it is best to get there at 8am if the fog has lifted or after 4pm. Our next stop was the marina area which has been totally redone with lovely shops and restaurants. All the tickets for the boat trips to Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned had been sold out days in advance, so if you want to do that plan well ahead. We hoped at least to tour the Mandela exhibition area but it was closed for renovation. In our estimation two to three full days in Cape Town would be great. We would have liked more time and information about all the cool Art Deco buildings that we glimpsed on our walk. In hindsight, roaming the streets would have been more interesting than the Company Gardens, also Mark would have liked to see the Botanical Gardens.
We only had one free day in Cape Town on the tour and choose to leave camp at 7 for the drive to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. Traffic was unbelievable getting around the city to get to the Cape. The tour guide had said to leave by 6am. The Cape is quite built up with lots of older beach houses until you get to the Cape Point Park at the end which is all natural landscape. If you have more time Simon's Town looked interesting as it has been the site of naval bases since 1743. We only drove the eastern side of the peninsula. Admission to the park area was $11pp. We visited the lighthouse area first and rode the funicular up—luckily just beating out the tour bus crowds by arriving by 11am. Then on to the actual Cape of Good Hope for the obligatory picture. This Cape is not the southern most point of Africa but its fame stems from being the point where the navigators felt they had turned the corner of the continent on their quest for the far east. We got back to the campground about 4—thank heavens--beating the afternoon traffic. Our farewell dinner was at Blue Peter near Melkbosstrand and was quite good.
Our last day of the tour we had the camper washed at the campground for $10, gave away our extra food to the mechanic who traveled with us on the trip, and headed to Bobo camper rentals about 20 minutes away. Check-in went easily and quickly and we didn't have to pay for the one glass we broke. They were most concerned that everything went well and our ideas on what might be improved. Great experience. Bobo then had their shuttle driver take the Australian couple to the marina hotel (they were staying an extra day) and then drop us at the airport to get our rental car at no cost even though this was a 2 hour trip. The main group wasn't going to the airport until early afternoon.
We planned an extra two nights so that we could explore more of the southern cape. We drove the coastal road to Betty's Bay and on to Hermanus. This stretch from outside of Capetown to Hermanus is drop dead gorgeous and as beautiful as any coastal drive in the world—and we have done a lot of them. We were especially interested in Hermanus which in September and October offers one of the world's best on-shore views for whale watching. Unfortunately, this weekend was the Hermanus Whale Festival. It would have been great had we make hotel reservations months in advance. As it was there was no place to even park. We drove on in quest of the southern most point of Africa at Cape L' Agulhas. Double check your map and GPS getting there or you will spend some time on dirt roads—they were good dirt roads, but if it had rained lately the story would have been different. Better to go the longer, paved way. We arrived about an hour before sunset and were surprised that the town of Cape Agulhas was fairly large. We stopped in front of a waterfront B and B, called the number and spent the night for $55. Our older but spotless room had a lovely sea front view and the owners remarked that the house had been in her family for 60 years—they were in their 80s. Breakfast wasn't until 8 so we skipped it to get on the road, since we had a long day planned.
Our goal was to do as much of the famed Garden Route as we could. It extends from Wilderness in the Mossel Bay area to the end of Tsitsikamma National Park and Port Elizabeth. This is a long way. although the roads are good. We ended up getting as far as the start of the Park. The scenery was mostly coastal and rural with resort towns thrown in. Frankly, in our opinion not worth the long day. We backtracked on the N2 to Swellendam staying in a very nice Marula guesthouse we found on hotels.com. This is one of the oldest towns in South Africa and has some very nice colonial buildings. Our dinner out was so so, but breakfast at the guesthouse the next morning was outstanding. To be fair to the Garden Route there is one magnificent view at Dolphin's Point of the long rolling breakers hitting the coast.
We decided to eat lunch on the run in order to have time to stop in Hermanus. The festival was over and at 10am it was possible to find parking just west of the center so we could walk a kilometer or so on the famed 10k whale watch cliff path. We saw only a couple spouts far off, but the cliff path was wonderful. Yes, Hermanus is a tourist town but we still felt it would be a great place to spend a week relaxing and walking by the sea. Next time.
We needed to be back at the airport by 5 for our 8 o'clock flight to Dubai, so by not exploring all the little shops in Hermanus we made time to drive the beach route again. This time we stopped at Betty's Bay at the Stoney Point Penguin reserve and were rewarded with a close up view of dozens of African jackass penguins. By the way between Betty's Bay and Cape Town on that gorgeous drive, there is an actual public campground right on the beach. We stopped just to take a look—don't have the name, but it would be a beautiful place to camp—maybe not swim, since there were shark warning signs!
So our Africa trip ended. I will tag on here our quick stop in Dubai. When we made our reservations on Emirates Air to fly to Barcelona from Cape Town, I opted for a 7 hour layover so we could get out to see the famed architecture. And so we we did, buying an all day transportation ticket for $11pp. At the airport. We had been able to check our carry-ons as Emirates allows 2 checked bags flying from Africa. Getting through passport control was quick and we were on our way. We got off the metro to rubberneck at Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, then back on to connect with the tram. A brisk walk through the parking garage (it was now about 100 degrees) got us to the monorail ($15pp) for the ride through the man made palm-shaped beaches to Atlantis. There was no time to fight the Japanese tour bus crowd into the hotel, but we were satisfied with just looking. Then an hour ride back on the elevated metro to the airport. Whirlwind, but terrific. There must be at least a hundred skyscrapers all less than 20 years old, all trying to outdo each other, and more building cranes everywhere. It puts even Shanghai to shame. We both wished we had allowed for a day or two to gawk at the architecture. Of course, everything always seems to have a down side. Everywhere we went the men outnumbered the women 10 to 1. Keep them barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.
Emirates then carried us on to Barcelona to pick up our camper in Figueres for six weeks in Europe. The airfare from Cape Town to Barcelona was just under $400 pp and though I watched for months it never changed. I don't think Emirates has sales. We actually didn't pay for it but used points from our Chase Sapphire Reserve card. I don't usually pitch products but I do want to talk about 3 things we found exceedingly great. The Chase card is a terrific credit card if you travel a lot and we especially enjoyed the free Priority Pass lounge membership that comes with it. Free drinks, food and wifi and a nice place to sit (and even shower in some) in airports all over the world. They also pay for you to get TSA precheck and the trusted traveler program and lots more including excellent free travel insurance. I would be happy to explain more of its value (and I will get a referral if you sign up through me.)
Second, we have loved having a Schwab debit card. Schwab gives you $100 to sign up (no referral needed), you first put money in the brokerage account and then transfer to their no fee checking account. This gets you a debit card with a chip and pin!!!!!!!!!!!! Now you can use the automatic ticket machines at metro stations, get out of parking lots in Europe, etc. etc. Plus they refund any ATM fees worldwide. Saved us about $40 in fees in South Africa. They also don't charge for electronic transfers from other bank accounts you may have.
Finally, I want to plug Worldwide Motorhome Holidays that arranged our southern Africa trip. I could nitpick a few items, but overall it was top notch. They do trips around the world with rental RVs including Japan, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, etc. They also do trips in Europe. So if you've enjoyed reading about our RVing in Europe but have been leery of trying it yourself, taking one of their trips would be an easy introduction. Of course the British who are on the European trips will be driving their own motorhomes but Worldwide can arrange for a rental for any trip. They can also arrange for rental RVs in places like southern Africa at competitive rates plus the fact that those rental companies want to stay on their good side to keep their lucrative business. Our contact at Worldwide is firstname.lastname@example.org She would be happy to send you their world or European brochures.
So finally what did our trip cost? The pound sterling was at $1.25 when we paid for the trip so our cost was $11,137. They had already subtracted 790 pounds from the normal fee since we didn't fly with them. For the 35 night trip we drove just over 4000 miles, spent $788 on diesel and tolls, $155 for visas and country entrance fees, $313 for park entry fees, $50 on cell phone cards, $407 for groceries, $30 on laundry and $260 eating out. This is pretty much the most expensive trip they have due to its length and high rental cost of camper. But it is a great trip. Happy to answer any questions. Happy travels. Vicki and Mark