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Charlie & Lottie in Southern Africa

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written by
Sue van Winsen
Sue van Winsen

Whales, Wildlife and Waterfalls

Niarra Travel Researchers, Charlie Darlington and Lottie Cameron, visited South Africa and the Victoria Falls in November 2023. Sue van Winsen spoke to them about some of the highlights from their big adventure filled with diverse landscapes and abundant wildlife.

The Southern African countries of South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe easily combine into a trip of a lifetime, with simple logistics making travel seamless between the three countries. Each destination offers a completely unique experience, from the buzzing cosmopolitan streets of Cape Town to the seaside bliss of Hermanus and the bucolic countryside in the Winelands. Next, they travelled to the wildlife-rich Sabi Sands and Kruger National Park, before hopping on a flight to the beautiful Victoria Falls to visit properties in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Charlie amp Lottie Ellerman House

Lottie, had you travelled to Africa before this?

Lottie: My first trip to Africa was at the age of 15 when I went to Kenya with my family for three-and-a-half weeks on a trip that combined bush and beach. And then I was very lucky a few years later to go with my school to South Africa on a hockey tour, visiting Cape Town and Johannesburg.

And how about you, Charlie?

I also went to Africa for the first time as a teenager, on a family trip to South Africa as my mum had been working at a remote bush camp in KwaZulu Natal. We went for three weeks to Richards Bay, then onto Hluhluwe-Imfolozi before driving back to Johannesburg via the Drakensberg Mountains. I later lived in Tanzania for six months working on a volunteer project and lived in Botswana for much of 2022. So, this trip was the first time Lottie and I had been to Kruger and the Victoria Falls region.

Charlie, can you share your rough itinerary?

Our trip began in South Africa and we spent the first 10 days in Cape Town, which is filled to the brim with excellent hotels, vibrant restaurants and exciting activities to keep us very busy, from seeing penguins at Boulders Beach to a street food tour, sundowners with a gorgeous view at the Silo Hotel and a very fancy High Tea at the Mount Nelson Hotel. From there, we took a scenic drive to the best place for whale-watching in South Africa, the little coastal town of Hermanus, staying at the beautiful Birkenhead House overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Next, an even more scenic drive to the Cape Winelands to stay at La Cotte and Le Quartier Francais in the stunning Franschhoek valley where we were able to enjoy wine tasting, try out a few restaurants and hit the hiking trails.

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Next, we drove back to Cape Town airport and flew to Kruger for the start of our safari experience. We had three nights in the Greater Kruger Park staying at Ngala, Simbavati Camp George and Thornybush Game Lodge, then three nights in the Sabi Sands at Chitwa Chitwa, Ulusaba Safari Lodge and Dulini Moya and two nights in Western Kruger at Singita Lebombo. We were looking forward to discovering the unique safari offering in each of these areas – and they really were strikingly different in terms of landscape and wildlife... but more about that later.

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Finally, we flew to Zambia to the world-famous Victoria Falls staying at two lodges along the mighty Zambezi River: Tongabezi and Chundukwa River Lodge, before ending the trip at Victoria Falls River Lodge and Matetsi in Zimbabwe.

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Charlie, what were your first impressions of the Western Cape?

I was surprised by how varied Cape Town is – each of the neighbourhoods has its own personality and there is truly a place for everyone whether you want to be by the sea, visit art galleries, experience nightlife or dine out. I started in Kalk Bay where I worked remotely for a month which was really arty with a creative, bohemian feel before moving into Green Point when Lottie joined me, which had much more of a buzzy, urban atmosphere.

And how about the Kruger – what stood out to you most, Lottie?

Having experienced only a Kenyan safari before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was surprised by the beauty of the area. We were there just at the start of summer and the greenery was beginning to come through – the setting was just beautiful. The variety of wildlife was also really impressive. The guides said we would see the Big Five, and we ended up seeing all within a single day.

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Since you were able to visit various locations throughout the Greater Kruger, did you feel there was a noticeable variation in terms of the safari experience at each, Charlie?

The variation of landscapes between the different camps and concessions was incredible – everything from thick bush to riverine forests and rolling hills. Before this trip, I had heard about the leopards in the Sabi Sands being well habituated and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. I’d even say I was sceptical at the start – but after experiencing the incredible leopard encounters first-hand, I was amazed at how relaxed they were around the vehicles. We could watch them without feeling like we were causing them any stress which made it a very peaceful experience.

Truly, the landscape, wildlife, people you’re with and animal behaviour is different on every single drive. Even if you don’t see anything for a while, it’s so much fun to just sit back and enjoy the scenery and home in on the little things. For the first couple of days, you probably want to focus on ticking off the bucket-list animals, but by the time you’ve been there for a while, you just want to learn more about the ecosystem – the butterflies, birds and trees. For example, we sat by a waterhole watching weaver birds making their nests – we must’ve watched them craft these incredible little homes for about 25 minutes.

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Charlie, was there anything that surprised you about the Victoria Falls?

I couldn’t believe that despite Victoria Falls not being that far away from Kruger, it was a completely different world. It was a much drier landscape – and far warmer – but what struck me most was how much wildlife you get to see on a sunset cruise along the Zambezi. We saw giraffe, baboons and elephants with animals on both sides of the river. The setting is just spectacular.

Lottie, what were some of your stand-out moments from the trip?

The beauty of the Winelands was completely beyond my expectations – the hills, vineyards and orchards. You can run along trails that go on for miles, and all this amazing countryside is just an hour away from the hustle and bustle of Cape Town. Another of my favourite moments from the trips was waking up at 04h30 for a drive and enjoying a cup of coffee beforehand alone on my deck at Singita Lebombo, watching the sunrise.

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And Charlie, how about you – was there a moment that stood out most?

My stand-out moments were also at Singita Lebombo. The landscape there is just incredible – it looks just like Jurassic Park, and having the opportunity to do a guided walk in that environment was a real pinch-me moment. On our last evening there, we drove back through a riverbed that was filled with a million fireflies. It is truly a magical place.

Lottie, do you have any top tips to share?

  1. Pack for all four seasons in one day. Even if you’re going in summer, it can be cold in the mornings so be prepared for anything.
  2. It’s worth bringing along a journal to write down what you saw and experienced each day as each day varies so much with the amazing sightings.
  3. You really don’t ever have to worry about going hungry on safari! Make sure to just relax and enjoy every moment!

And Charlie – what would your top suggestions be?

  1. Bring loads of memory cards for your camera. Towards the end of my trip I was starting to run out of space and had to start deleting images on the go.
  2. Befriend your guide and don’t hold back on asking questions – the more you ask, the easier it is for them to do their job well. Have a good chat with your guide about what you’re interested in because they are really great at tailoring your safari.
  3. It is always worth getting up for the early morning drives. Even if 04h30 sounds horrific at the time, by the time you’re out it’s worth pushing through the slight discomfort to start with and you can always relax at the camp later in the day. And always say ‘yes’ if you have a chance to go for a safari walk.
  4. Hermanus is a hidden gem. It’s so worth adding a couple of days there. We were there at the tail-end of the whale-watching season and did a boat trip where we saw a phenomenal number of whales. Even just being at a beachfront property, we were able to sit on the terrace or at the pool and watch them breach right in front of us.
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Lottie, who do you think this itinerary would best suit?

It would work for anyone looking for a diverse experience. It’s perfect for a first-time safari to Africa and for adventure seekers who also enjoy comfort.

Charlie, anything you’d like to add?

It’s a great trip for children and multi-generational family groups. Lottie and I both travelled to Africa at the age of 15 and it made such an impression on us that we’ve ended up working in travel with a passion for Africa. Families with teenagers and slightly older children are some of my favourite trips to put together because it’s lifechanging for them to experience diversity and a contrast to their everyday life.

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