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January 16, 2008

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                 South Africa Safari

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Going on safari has always been a dream of mine and this week ... I got to experience it. From Johannesburg, I flew north into the bush near Kruger National Park. I was so excited but admittedly, a little nervous. What if I contracted malaria or worse, got attacked by one of The Big Five? As you will see, this trip was filled with surprises: an encounter with a cheetah, an elephant-back safari and a hot air balloon safari. If you are up (and I mean UP) for some adventure South African-style, then grab your passport, your bug repellant and your binoculars. We're going on safari! If you're pressed for time and can't stick with us through this week's entire story, then check out the four-minute Johnny Jet video of this week's travels. And if this has whetted your appetite and you're hungry for more, then read Carly Blatt's story about her South African safari, for a whole different perspective. OK, are you ready for the experience of a lifetime? Let's go!


  • South African Airways is offering a buy-one-get-one-free offer on its flights between New York (JFK) or Washington, D.C., (Dulles) and Cape Town, Durban, or Johannesburg. Fares for the first ticket start at $1,350, not including taxes and fees.

    Last week when we left off, I was contemplating my dilemma: whether or not to take malaria medication. Well, to pick up the story, when I got back to my room, I chose to pop the Malarone pill. I don't know if my reaction was merely psychosomatic but let me tell you, I was feeling queasy. And trust me that's not how you want to feel when you're in a foreign country, about to board a small plane and head out into the South African bush. So I took the advice of more than half of the locals I interviewed and stopped taking the medication. People I spoke to said that since I was traveling to a low-risk area and traveling during a low-risk time (i.e. before the rainy season), the pills were not worth the side effects. But they did stress that I visit a doctor immediately at the first sign of flu symptoms and request a test for malaria. Malaria is only dangerous if you wait even a few days. The good news is that if doctors catch it early, malaria can be treated with a single pill. The bad news? It can stay in your blood for up to one year so if you get sick a lot, you have to keep going for tests. One way around this is to go to a South African pharmacy and purchase malaria self-tests and the pills to cure it (it's pretty cheap). TIP: If you get sick in South Africa, go to a private hospital even though the cost is more. The better healthcare there is worth the extra money.

    One of the reasons I was convinced to stop taking the meds was this; I learned that even when you are taking malaria medication, you're still not 100% protected. And as the old saying goes: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So my goal was to focus on prevention. Malaria is transmitted through mosquito bites so you need to wear bug repellant, long pants, socks, long-sleeved shirts and a hat. Don't go out at dawn or dusk, when mosquitoes are at their biting peak, which, incidentally, is the same time for your best viewing of game life. One local told me that the particular mosquito that carries malaria is only out between midnight and 4am. I don't know if I believe that but you can bet your bottom dollar that I was locked in my room by the stroke of midnight each night. No matter what, the idea of contracting malaria is downright scary and I'm still not sure if I made the right decision.

    NOTE: According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention: "Higher concentrations of DEET may have a longer repellent effect; however, concentrations over 50% provide no added protection." I wish I had read this before I applied the 98% DEET all over my naked body.

    I arrived at the modern and bright OR Tambo Airport 90 minutes prior to my South African Express flight. Check-in was smooth. It took less than two minutes. I passed my time in the plush South African Airways (SAA) domestic lounge. It has an African motif, free food, drinks and newspapers. Wireless Internet is also available and I paid 30 Rand ($4.36USD) for 30 minutes. It's a good deal since you can log on and off for up to a month.

    The security line was short and moved quickly, mostly because passengers don't need to remove their shoes. We took a shuttle bus out to the 50-seater Dash 8-300 series plane. Since my stomach was a bit queasy, I couldn't have been happier when I discovered that the only empty seat on the tight turboprop was the one next to me. Score! The flight was bumpy at first and when the girl behind me screamed as the plane dropped a few feet ascending through the thunderhead clouds, I reached for the dreaded white bag ... just in case. But fortunately, the skies cleared and it was a smooth one-hour flight. FYI: The pilot later came on the PA and apologized for the bump. He told us that the best time to fly around South Africa is in the morning because afternoons are usually plagued with thunderstorms. When there weren't any more thunderheads for me to cast my evil stare upon, I re-read my safari book and flipped through the in-flight magazine. Wow! It must have been a slow month for advertisers because every other page was a house ad for SAA.

    Just as we touched down it began to pour. Just my luck! The rainy season was beginning ... the day I arrived. As I sat there, staring out the raindrop-dotted window, all I could imagine was how happy the mosquitoes must be. The sound of the rain and the smell of wet pavement probably woke them from their sweet spring slumber. After a few yawns and some high-fives, I could just see them as they warmed up their wings and stingers and flew the coop. With that image in my mind, I ran like hell to the terminal, a 100-yard dash, like Olympian Al Joyner, the whole time yelling, "Why did I wear shorts? Why did I wear shorts?"

    The open-air airport made me feel like I was in a remote part of the country. There were a slew of tour operators, all lined up with their safari vehicles outside, waiting to collect their guests. They and the airport folks were very nice as they handed out free ponchos and calmed my nerves about malaria. When my luggage arrived, I found myself wishing that they'd put a poncho around it because it was soaked. A smart packer would have packed their clothes in a plastic garbage bag first.

    Although it felt remote at first, Hoedspruit wasn't what I pictured. I imagined landing on a dirt road out in the bush, not a paved airport strip with a huge air force base attached. I also wasn't expecting a town with a strip mall. Hoedspruit is in the Limpopo province of South Africa at the foot of the Drakensberg (Dragon) Mountains. It's become quite popular with the influx of private game reserves that are all to the west of Kruger National Park. Part of me was relieved that I wasn't alone out in the wilderness, while a much smaller but bolder part of me was a bit disappointed.

    I grabbed my belongings and jumped in the van for the 30-minute drive to the lodge. I had no idea what the lodge was going to be like but secretly, I was hoping it would be one of those incredible safari lodges you read about and see pictures of in magazines. But when we pulled into the driveway, it was apparent I was stayin' at a motel. Don't get me wrong. The River Lodge is perfect for what it is ... a budget lodging for those doing self-drive safaris. Besides the price (325 Rand [$47 USD] per person or 700 Rand [$101USD] for couples), the best part about it is that it's a great representation of the new South Africa. Connie and her husband are black owners, which until a few years ago, would have been unheard of in this country. The young couple couldn't have been nicer and for the most part, the staff reflected their hospitality, too. They were eager to help, the rooms were a good size and the food was decent. One night, they even had a fire pit BBQ down by the river and served traditional food like freshly baked maize bread, kudu and wild spinach with crushed peanuts.

    A lot of French people stay at the River Lodge but the only person I met was a South African who now lives in San Diego. BTW: He thought I was crazy for not taking the malaria pills, which was not at all comforting. What I didn't like about the River Lodge was its location. To get to any of the game reserves was a good 30-minute drive. I also didn't like the fact that they had the windows wide open without screens so naturally, there were lots of dead bugs in my room. Why they didn't just put on the air conditioning, I don't know. The rooms have a TV with four channels; each night I turned it on, my options were soccer or Oprah. The tiled bathroom needed some help and the shower wasn't exactly up to par but then again -- I'm spoiled.

    During the day, I covered my body with OFF's Deep Woods Sportsmen Insect Repellent that contains 98% DEET. Before bed each night, I showered to wash it off so when I woke up, I would still have all my skin. Ninety-eight percent DEET is scary but then again, so is malaria. My fear of contracting the disease was so great that I would take a shower in the dark; I didn't want to attract the thirsty bloodsuckers. I would quickly dry myself off and run as fast as I could to my bedroom. FYI: Each night, before taking my shower and turning off the lights, I would get everything all set up: I'd turn the TV on, put my BlackBerry under my pillow (when I wasn't emailing, I used it as a flashlight), lay out my Chapstick, bottle of water and of course, fix the bed's mosquito netting, wrapping it tightly around the corners and leaving just a little opening for me to dive into. And I literally dove straight through that hole like Superman. Of course, the last night, I missed the opening in the netting entirely and the whole dang thing came crashing down, right on my head like a heavy chandelier. Ugh! Explaining that one to the staff was not easy, nor was sleeping with the net pressed up against my face. River Lodge.

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    Copyright 2007 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

    Pictures From

    The Trip


    Johannesburg Airport


    SAA's Domestic Lounge


    Lounge Receptionists


    Dash 8-300


    In-Flight Beef Jerky


    Oh No! It's Raining!


    Dash to Terminal


    Tour Operators


    Driveway to River Lodge


    River Lodge


    Friendly Staff


    Connie, The Owner


    Dining Room


    Breakfast is Served




    Local Food


    My Room




    How Could You?!


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