Adventure travelers and nature lovers are flocking to South Africa and Zambia's Victoria Falls to satisfy their thirst for outdoor thrills. Just back from her own trip, Frommer's editor Christine Ryan speaks with hosts Kelly Regan about game drives, elephant-back safaris, Victoria Falls, and the incredible variety of adventure options South Africa offers.
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- Places to Go: Cape Town, Johannesburg, Sun City, Victoria Falls (Zambia side), Livingstone.
- Things to Do (Adventure Sports): Quad biking, ziplining, bungee jumping, jet-skiing, parasailing, white-water rafting, microgliding, rapelling, jet boating, horseback riding.
- Things to Do (Wildlife Interaction): Pilanesberg National Park: Safari game drives, Elephant Interaction Safari.
- Helicopter Flip: Not what it sounds like, just a quick, fifteen minute trip around the falls.
- Be Prepared for the Flight: It is a 17 hour trip so plan accordingly. Bring books and music. Ask your doctor about sleeping pills.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the Frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit us at www.frommers.com.
Kelly Regan: Hi, and welcome to another conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's travel guides. I'll be your host.
My guest today is Christine Ryan, a senior editor here at Frommer's. Christine recently returned from a whirlwind trip to South Africa and Victoria Falls. So she's here to give us the lowdown on elephants, adventure sports, and how not to lose your mind on the 17-hour flight.
Kelly: Christine, welcome. Thanks for being here today.
Christine Ryan: Thanks for having me.
Kelly: So to start out, just tell us where you went on the trip.
Christine: Well, we started out in Cape Town and spent a couple of days there. And then we went to Sun City, which is a huge resort area a couple of hours from Johannesburg.
Christine: We spent a couple of days there. And we ended up in Livingstone in Zambia, on the Zambia side of Victoria Falls.
Kelly: Oh, OK. Victoria Falls borders several countries, so....
Christine: Yes, the main tourist areas are Zambia and Zimbabwe, but with the current political situation in Zimbabwe, most people are going to Zambia.
Kelly: To Zambia now, OK. And that seems to be safe and stable?
Christine: Definitely. Yes, I felt very safe.
Kelly: OK. That sounds like a pretty ambitious itinerary. I think you were gone for a week, eight days?
Christine: Yes. It was a little under a week, actually, in Africa. And it was crazy. I would not do it this way.
Kelly: Right, right. If you had to do it again, how would you change the itinerary, do you think?
Christine: I enjoyed all three of the destinations we saw, but I think I would pick one of them, and use one of those as a wrap-up to a safari trip. I would probably spend several days in one of the national parks or in a game reserve. And spend more time on game drives.
Christine: And then pick one of these three places to relax and unwind after a trip.
Kelly: Yeah, and especially after such long flights -- which we'll talk about in a little while.
Kelly: Yeah, and one thing to say to people who are thinking of going to South Africa is that our Frommer's South Africa guide has a "suggested itineraries" chapter in the book. And there are definitely different ideas that our authors have provided to people for how to structure a trip so that it doesn't end up being quite so crazy.
You mentioned before you left that you had been wanting to go to South Africa for a really long time, so what surprised you the most about what you saw or experienced? I mean, was there anything that you didn't expect?
Christine: Well, I didn't have a really clear picture in my mind of what Cape Town would be like, but even so, it was surprising to me how large and cosmopolitan it was. It's really a thriving, very energetic city, with lots of nightlife and shopping and dining.
Christine: And in general, the tourists... and the airports at both Cape Town and Johannesburg are bustling international airports, like any you would find in North America or Europe. Johannesburg also was a lot bigger. We didn't really spend time in Johannesburg, but I drove from Johannesburg to Sun City, and it was much bigger, and much more sprawling, than I imagined it to be.
Christine: There are suburbs, and it looked... I don't know, I think it looked a little bit more like home than I thought it would, overall.
Kelly: [laughs] Yeah.
Christine: I was also kind of amazed at Sun City. It's a really enormous, lavish resort, like something you'd expect in maybe Las Vegas.
Christine: Especially the Palace of the Lost City Hotel. It was really just this fantastic kind of ornate fantasy world, just plopped in the middle of nowhere.
Kelly: [laughs] Yeah.
Christine: And I just really didn't expect it to be. It's very lavish. They have elaborate mosaic floors, and painted ceilings, and I just didn't expect to find something like that in the middle of nowhere.
Kelly: Yeah, it does sound very Vegas-like. I mean, sort of a created resort area in the middle of nowhere.
Christine: Right, exactly. Exactly. And there is definitely that whole idea of fantasy, and losing yourself. The theme behind the resort is that it was inspired by legends of a lost empire in Africa. They just have all kinds of interesting details -- they even have a messenger owl that you can hire.
Christine: For example, if you want to propose to someone on your trip, you can have an owl fly in with the ring. [laughs]
Kelly: That sounds more like Harry Potter. [laughs]
Christine: Might be a little scary, but, you know, whatever floats your boat.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah. Sounds like something out of Harry Potter. So, that's funny. That's funny.
A lot of people will go to South Africa and want to spend time on safari. You did a little bit of that -- not as much as you had wanted. But most people going to South Africa will have some encounters with wildlife, even if that's just communing with the penguins that hang out in Cape Town. But tell us a bit about the kind of wildlife that you encountered, because I think you had a couple of fun experiences.
Christine: We did, it was -- we didn't get to see the penguins, unfortunately. But when we got to Sun City, my first real, "we're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy" moment was when I saw the warning on my patio doors saying, "Be sure these are locked at night so that the monkeys and baboons can't get in."
Kelly: [laughs] Oh, wow.
Christine: And they are everywhere! I mean, we didn't see them quite as much in Sun City, but in Livingstone, the monkeys and baboons were just absolutely everywhere. And at the Royal Livingstone they have guards whose main job is to keep the monkeys away from the guests. [laughs]
Kelly: [laughs] Wow.
Christine: They will come right up to you if you're sitting outside and eating.
Kelly: Wow. So theoretically, they could come in the sliding glass door? They would just open the sliding glass door and come in?
Christine: Well, yeah; if you leave it ajar, I guess they can get through.
Christine: They have grown to depend on the food from the resort, so they can get a little bit... They're around people all the time, so -- they're certainly not tamed, but they aren't afraid of you.
Christine: And if they see food they will try to get it.
Christine: And apparently they even know where -- in the room, there's a little tin of biscotti; they know where that is.
Christine: They'll go straight to it. And they'll just trash the rooms.
Kelly: They'll go straight to the tin of biscotti. They have champagne tastes.
Christine: We did go on a game drive in Pilanesberg National Park, which is adjacent to Sun City.
Christine: We saw some giraffe, and some rhinos, and hippos, impala, which are sort of like antelope...
Christine: Baboons, monkeys. And we saw some elephants; one sort of chased us down the road for a little while. [laughs]
Kelly: [laughs] Oh...
Christine: It was a little bit scary. I was glad that I was not driving the car; it was an experienced driver.
Kelly: Right, right.
Christine: But he was just fooling around, according to the driver. He wasn't really mad.
Kelly: [laughs] Right. But when they're that big --
Christine: They're really big!
Kelly: You can't really tell the difference between fooling around and actively angry, I guess.
Christine: Right, yeah. I also got to do what they call an "elephant interaction safari," which is, they have elephants that are more tame, that they use for elephant-back safaris, where you can actually ride on them.
Christine: You can also, rather than ride on them, just go and spend some time with them. And you can get right up to them, and touch them, and feed them some little elephant snacks.
Christine: And just really, really get an up-close look at them. And it was really...
Kelly: And how was that?
Christine: It was fun. It was a little intimidating at first, especially when putting your hand inside the elephant's mouth to feed it.
Kelly: Right. Like, under the trunk, into the mouth?
Kelly: Oh, wow.
Christine: But it seemed like they were really well taken care of. I was a little afraid it was going to be a little cheesy or exploitative, and it didn't feel that way at all. They seemed to be very well taken care of.
Kelly: Oh, that's good.
Christine: It was a beautiful setting, and there was a place, too, where you could get a lunch along with it. So it was a fun experience.
Kelly: Oh, that's nice. Does the skin feel as leathery as it looks?
Christine: It's very rough, and they have really long bristly hairs.
Kelly: Oh, yeah.
Christine: That you wouldn't see in a photograph or anything.
Kelly: Right, right. Huh.
Kelly: Well, that's interesting. So, in addition to the kind of monkey/elephant interactions that you had, you also did a number of adventure-y activities as well.
I think that people might not necessarily think of South Africa as a place to go for adventure travel, but it's actually quite popular for things like surfing on the coast and, obviously, hiking, and stuff like that. So talk a little bit about what you did, and see if it gives people some ideas.
Christine: Sure. There were lots of different things to choose from, even in just the few places we went. Sun City had quad biking, which I did, which was a lot of fun. Quad biking, it's a four wheel, ATV type vehicle.
Kelly: Right, right.
Christine: And that was just sort of on a track, basically. That was a lot of fun. They have archery, they have ziplining, they have a huge...
Kelly: And ziplining is kind of hanging from, like a canopy. Like you're kind of going across...
Christine: Like a cable, yeah.
Christine: There's a wire, and you're in a harness.
Kelly: A harness, yeah. And you kind of zoom along the top of the trees and stuff.
Kelly: It often happens in the rain forest.
Christine: Yes. They also have a huge lake there, so there are water sports, like jet-skiing and parasailing, that you can do. And Victoria Falls is, apparently, really growing very popular for adventure sports, and they also have quad biking, it's one of the best places in the world for white water rafting...
Kelly: Oh, well, I can imagine.
Christine: Sure. On the Zambezi. They have microgliding, which I had never heard of before, and it looks -- from the ground, anyway -- like a go-cart attached to a hang glider.
Christine: Powered by a lawn mower engine.
Kelly: [laughs] Powered by a lawn mower engine?
Christine: I don't know, some kind of small engine that -- you know, you fly through the air on this thing.
Kelly: That's kind of a glider...
Christine: Glider wings, yeah. So you can do that over the falls.
Kelly: So you would kind of just, go off the cliff and glide around and --
Christine: Right, and see the sights. It was a little bit scary for me, but...It's popular. We saw a lot of them going by overhead and falling out of the sky!
Kelly: OK. That's a bonus.
Christine: They have bungee-jumping. It's off the bridge that connects -- it's over the Zambezi, it's the bridge that connects Zambia and Zimbabwe. That's very popular. It's a 111 meter drop, which is 364 feet. [laughing] I did not do it. One of the people that I was traveling with did it, and he had a blast. It was exciting enough for me to watch him jump.
Kelly: Right! You enjoyed that vicariously.
Christine: Exactly! You can also go jet boating on the river. There's a place that will let you do rappelling down the cliffs. They also have ziplines there, and some slightly milder things like horseback riding. You can do an elephant back safari at Victoria Falls, too.
Kelly: Oh, wow! That sounds incredible. So, while we're talking about this, let's get into Victoria Falls. How easy was it to get there as an excursion, from where you were in South Africa?
Christine: It was just a couple of hour flights from Johannesburg, so it was very easy.
Kelly: So it's a very easy thing to combine with South Africa.
Christine: Yes. Especially if you're in the Northern part of the country. But even from Cape Town, it's a couple of hours to Johannesburg and then a couple of hours to Victoria Falls.
Kelly: That's a very doable thing. What were the different ways there were to see the Falls? I know you had done a couple of different things. Do you really get a sense of the immensity of it? Is it hard to wrap your brain around?
Christine: We saw them up close and from the air, and I think that's great. Because up close, you get drenched by the mist and you're right there, and the noise is deafening. It's really amazing, and magnificent, and beautiful. But you don't really get a sense of the entire scope; you can't ever see it all at once.
We were staying at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, and if you stay there, or at the Zambezi Sun, which is their sister property, you can just walk straight to one of the park entrances to the Falls. There's a path the whole way, and we actually saw some zebras along the way.
Kelly: Wow! Just hanging out.
Christine: Just hanging out! There's a path that takes you down and around through the Falls. You can rent a raincoat on the way in, which I highly recommend, because you will get soaked. It's beautiful. It's a beautiful walk and it's not too strenuous.
Kelly: At that point, you're across from the Falls?
Kelly: So you're able to look out and see it.
Christine: Yes. The mist is just pouring up from the Falls and just covers you, so you're really just right there. The path takes you around so you sort of get a view of the river, and there's a great view of the bungee-jumping bridge I was talking about earlier. It's a beautiful walk.
Kelly: You also saw it by helicopter?
Christine: Yes. We took what they call a "helicopter flip," which I found a little bit alarming, but it does not actually turn over or anything. It's just a quick, fifteen minute trip, and it circles around the Falls a couple of times so you can see how vast they are. And you can see where they used to be, too. They've been moving upriver over time, and they seem that they will again.
Kelly: Creating more falls?
Christine: Well, as different faults in the earth weaken, they sort of move upriver. It's really interesting to see the topography from the air.
Kelly: Right, and that's where you get the larger scope.
Kelly: How close are you getting when you're flying? Do you really fly right up close to where the Falls are?
Christine: You're directly over the Falls, but you're not close to the ground. It's more of a big-picture view.
On the way back to the helicopter pad, one of the people in the helicopter with us pointed out some elephants on the ground. So the pilot took us down -- not very close; he didn't want to scare them -- but took us down and circled around the elephants so that we could get a better view, and then back to the helicopter pad.
Kelly: Wow! In terms of the overall thing, it sounds like you did some really great stuff. I'm just curious what your favorite thing was that you did?
Christine: My favorite part of the trip was the Falls, definitely. We stayed at the Royal Livingstone Hotel and the location is just amazing. They have a deck that juts out over the Zambezi river, and you can sit on the deck and have a cocktail and see the mist rising from the falls down the river. It's really incredible. And the Falls, themselves, were just awe-inspiring.
One of my favorite moments from the trip was walking back to my room, after dinner one night. The whole resort is in a protected area, so as I mentioned, there are monkeys and baboons. There is herd of zebra that roams the property, and they just crossed the path about 10 feet in front of me. It was just a really stunning moment.
Christine: Just beautiful.
Kelly: Yeah, so you're not only seeing this natural beauty, but also, you're amid all of these creatures that you're never going to see in your regular life outside of a zoo.
Kelly: Well that's great. We're about out of time, but I wanted to touch really quickly on the trip to South Africa from the US. This is an incredibly long ass flight. South Africa Airways flies nonstop from the US, I'm pretty sure from Dulles, but also from JFK.
Christine: Also from JFK. And currently, they do stop for an hour in Dakar to refuel. But my understanding is that they are hoping to get new aircraft soon that will not require them to stop.
Kelly: Right. But this is really one of the longest nonstop flights in the world.
Christine: 17 hours from JFK.
Kelly: I think probably Newark to Singapore or New York to Bangkok is probably the only longer flight that you can take. Do you have any tips on how to deal with such a long flight? Because that can really wear you down.
Christine: Well my first recommendation is perhaps not realistic for a lot of people, but if there's any way you can, swing a business class seat. They have the completely flat seats and that just makes a huge difference. They're very comfortable. It's very possible to sleep on them. And there's a privacy screen you can put up between you and the person next to you. It's extremely expensive. You can upgrade with South Africa Airways frequent flier miles, but only South Africa Airways.
Kelly: Only South Africa Airways. Yeah, even though South Africa Airways is a member of the Star Alliance, you can't use United or other Star Alliance points to upgrade, which is quite unfortunate.
Christine: If that weren't possible, which I realize for most people that it wouldn't be, I would recommend getting a sleeping pill from your doctor. I don't usually take any kind of prescription sleeping pills, but I got a couple of Ambien samples from my doctor, and that helped immensely.
I spent about four hours or so reading, watching a movie, and then had dinner. And then I got myself ready for bed, just like I do at home; I brushed my teeth. Then I slept for probably about eight or ten hours with the help of Ambien.
Christine: Unfortunately, you do have to sit up to land in Dakar, but I just put my seat back down while they were refueling. And then I got up for the day, about three or four hours before the flight was about to land.
Christine: I had lunch and that worked out really well.
Kelly: I think that's just a general tip that we can give people in terms of avoiding jet-lag. Any time you fly east-west or west-east, that's when jet-lag really comes into play. I think the best thing that people can do for that is to get on local time as quickly as possible. So the more you can expose your body to light and force your circadian rhythms to change, the easier it's going to be.
If you're flying to Europe, for example, you're usually landing, for what would be for you, in the middle of the night, coming from the US. So you just need to push through that first day or two of sleep deprivation, and I think it makes things a lot easier.
Christine: Exactly. It does help that you will get there in the middle of the day, so you won't have an entire day ahead of you to get through. You usually just have an afternoon.
Kelly: Yeah, so that's good. All right, well I think that's all the time we have for today. I've been talking with Christine Ryan who's a senior editor here at Frommer's, and she just returned from a trip to South Africa, with a brief foray to Victoria Falls. You can find more coverage of both South Africa and Victoria Falls on our website at Frommers.com, and also at our Frommer's South Africa Guide, which is on sale now.
So Christine, thank you very much for being here. It was really fun to hear about your trip.
Christine: Thanks. It was fun for me too.
Kelly: So join us next week for another episode of "All Things Travel." I'm Kelly Regan, and we will talk again soon.
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