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South African Safari with Kapama Private Game Reserve

Simon Thomas

A Safari, particularly one which offers an opportunity to spot the Big Five (African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros), is high on the bucket list for many people. There are, however, a few things to consider when planning a safari of your own. One of the main decisions you'll have to make is whether you want to go to a private reserve or an open park, like Kruger.

For a recent short safari we decided to go to a private reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park called Kapama. Kapama is literally across the road from Hoedspruit Eastgate airport. Kapama offers four different types of accommodation to suit your preference. There's hotel-like accommodation in the River Lodge, all suite accommodation in the Southern Camp, luxury tented accommodation in the Buffalo Camp and the ultra high end Karula Lodge. For our three days in Kapama, we stayed in the Buffalo Camp. Kapama is a very large reserve, measuring 13000 hectares (over 50 square miles) and contains all big five in its grounds in addition to 40 other species of mammal, 350 bird species, numerous lizards and snakes and a multitude of insects, fish and other things of interest.

Accommodation 

To call the rooms in the Buffalo Camp tents is a stretch. These are detached buildings elevated on stilts with solid walls. The space is the size of a good sized hotel room complete with air conditioning, two vanity stations, a shower, free standing bath and Nespresso Machine. Camping, this is not.

There's also a decent sized balcony offering a view of wildlife if you're lucky (we saw Giraffe and Impala during our time there). You are warned upon arrival to keep the doors to the balcony closed otherwise monkeys will get in to your room and will steal things (there are monkeys everywhere).

Version 2

The Buffalo Camp is all inclusive, so food and drink, including those found in the mini-bar in your room, are included in the price. Generally, I found the food to be of good quality. Typically, lunch offered an Entree choice (usually soup or something else), three choices of main and a choice of dessert. The quality was fairly consistent throughout although I think a bit more variety would have been good (sometimes the options were too similar). There were some standout meals, like the chicken in tomato herb sauce with mozzarella pictured here. Whilst lunch was served in the central building (there's also a bar) dinner might also be served in a communal eating area. We only experienced this once as the weather was too bad the other two nights. The communal dinner consisted of a BBQ with sides and gave us all the opportunity to try some zebra, something I wouldn't have ordered otherwise (although it was delicious).

The Schedule

One of the aspects of visiting a private reserve I was concerned about was how regimented it would feel. We are definitely the sort of people who like to do our own thing and go off the beaten track, and I feared we wouldn't be able to do that in a private reserve. Whilst this was true, it's also true of visiting the main Kruger park as access times are limited as are the areas you can visit. You're also constrained to your vehicle and have to content with lots of other tourists all trying to capture photos of the same animals.

The staff at Kapama give you a schedule which outlines what happens and when. Te scheduled whilst we were there was:

  • 05:00 - Wake Up Call
  • 05:30 - Coffee and Light Breakfast
  • 06:00 to 08:30 - Morning Game Drive
  • 09:00 - Breakfast
  • 13:00 - Lunch
  • 16:00 to 19:30 - Evening Game Drive
  • 20:00 - Dinner

Some of the timings, especially the end of the game drives, were fluid and dependant on whether you saw anything interesting and where in the park you were.

There were other activities available in addition to the standard itinerary. These included a visit to a rehabilitation/conservation centre, a sunrise hot air balloon ride, a walking safari and an elephant experience. As these would result in you missing a game drive, we decided to give them a miss (it was also highly unlikely the hot air balloon ride would match the one we experienced in Bagan last year).

The Game Drives

A typical Kapama vehicle

A typical Kapama vehicle

The main reason you go to a place like Kapama is to see the animals. To give you the best chance possible to see everything you want to there are two game drives a day with skilled, trained drivers and trackers. The drives themselves take place in modified Toyota Land Cruisers with nine seats for guests (although it's far more likely there'll be eight occupants) plus a driver and tracker. The tracker sits on a seat perched on the front of the vehicle, above the front wheel. Note that most of the vehicles aren't covered, so if it starts to rain (and we experienced incredibly heavy rain one evening whilst out on a drive) you're left to battle with a provided poncho.

If you're using a camera with a long lens (I used a Sony A7Rii with the 70-200mm lens), they have adjustable rests you can affix to the hand rail in front of you. These are extremely helpful when trying to get a sharp photo using a long lens.

Out on a game drive.

Despite Kapama being a closed reserve, with something like 40 vehicles roaming the area at any given time, they offer no guarantees regarding wildlife sightings. In fact our driver said it wasn't unusual to go weeks without seeing a leopard (leopards are especially difficult to spot). The reserve is enclosed in electrified fences but it's large enough, and the vegetation dense enough, that it feels like you're in the wilderness. They also have a rule of thumb that there should be no more than two vehicles at any one site at any given time. I found this to be generally true apart from one instance where there were three watching some male lions (contrast this to the potentially hundreds of vehicles you'll find driving around the busier parts of Kruger).

Leopard tracks.

Leopard tracks.

Our driver, Chris, and tracker, Ian, were in constant communication with each other and regular communication with other vehicles. The majority of their chatter was in Afrikaans which they do for a number of reasons. Seeing them work was actually quite a treat. At times they would stop the vehicle to examine tracks, determine what animal left them, how recently and in what direction it was travelling. A standout highlight was a leopard sighting. There had been reports of a leopard in an area of the park so we headed in the general direction. Ian, the tracker, spotted some tracks. Upon seeing these Ian left the vehicle and ventured in to the bush, unarmed and alone. We drove around some adjacent roads to see if there were corresponding tracks indicating the leopard had left the area. After about 20 minutes a call came from Ian over the radio saying he had a leopard in his sights. Ian was, by this point, deep in the bush. Typically, Kapama doesn't allow vehicles to deviate from the established tracks, the one exception is where there is a confirmed leopard sighting, so off roading we went. After about ten minutes of navigating some dense bush, including some incredibly thorny trees (one of the other guests was pinned, literally, to his seat by a thorn), we spotted this magnificent leopard, just as the sun had set,

A leopard shortly after a failed hunt

A leopard shortly after a failed hunt

As it happens, despite leopard sightings being relatively rare, we stumbled across another the next day in the middle of a hunt. This bit of luck was fairly typical of our game drives. In the first hour we saw four of the big five along with numerous other animals. One of the couples in the vehicle with us noted, repeatedly, how fortunate we were to be seeing the animals we were, so quickly. They did mention that they had been on drives that took 45 minutes to see anything. On one drive we came across two rhinos within 30 seconds of leaving the camp. On another, we saw a pride of lions hunting at night. We were also fortunate enough to see a large group of elephants drinking at a watering hole, including young calves.

In total we saw lots of animals on every drive. Some were more memorable than others, but none of them felt like a waste. I've included some photos from the drives below so you can get a feel for the experience, click on any image for a larger view.

One thing to note is that the evening drives mean you not only return in the dark, but also experience approximately 50% of the drive in the dark. This is a very different experience as it requires the tracker to be constantly sweeping the area with a spot light in search of things of interest. It is remarkable how many animals they spotted in the darkness including porcupines, lions, impala, owls, hyenas, jackals and a chameleon (yes, they spotted a chameleon in the dark whilst driving).

Photographing animals at night can be extremely challenging. Your tracker will normally shine a spot light on the animal which produces a very harsh light. It's better to slightly underexpose to make sure you retain detail. Underexposing should also give you a slightly shorter exposure time, helping to reduce camera shake. It's at night when the camera rests I mentioned earlier are absolutely necessary.

There is a break mid way through each game drive where drinks and snacks are served. This allows you to leave the vehicle to stretch your legs and relieve your bladder, providing you're comfortable using a bush toilet (i.e. a bush).

Weather

I mentioned, briefly, earlier that we got caught in some heavy rain whilst out on a game drive. We experienced roughly four storms in our three days at Kapama. Travelling during the shoulder season, we knew this was a risk. Fortunately, only one game drive was affected as the other storms hit either over night or in down time. When a storm hits, the rain is extremely heavy (50mm in a few hours) and is accompanied by high winds, thunder and lightening. I should point out that this didn't dampen our enthusiasm in the slightest.

Flying in a Hot Air Balloon Over Bagan, Myanmar

Tammy Brown

I had never been in a hot air balloon, but if was going to I figured why not do it somewhere spectacular, and I am so glad I chose to do it in Bagan, Myanmar. The spectacular scenery combined with an almost guaranteed to be stunning sunrise combine to make it a truly special experience.  

Booking

There are three air ballon companies that operate in Bagan with the government imposing a strict maximum number of 21 balloons that can fly each day. Having read numerous reviews I chose Oriental Ballooning. My main reason for this was that they offered smaller baskets -  the majority of companies offer flights in baskets which hold 16 passengers however Oriental Balloning have a mix of 8 and 16 person baskets.  Baskets with 16 passengers looked quite cramped and if you were in one of the middle sections, you only really had a view out of one side (as opposed to the eight person baskets where pairs of passengers are in corner sections with views in two directions).

I contacted them though their website to get a quote, which I duly received via email the next day.  As I was happy with all the details in the quote I emailed back to confirm that I would like to go ahead with the booking and also requested that we be allocated a smaller basket if possible - as I was doing this two months before the flight time they were happy to oblige.  The next day I received an email with a payment link (to KBZ bank) with instructions on how to complete the payment, this was simple and a couple of days later I received an email saying the booking was completed and asked for some information about when we were arriving in Bagan, what hotel we were staying in and once we had checked in, our room number.  I couldn't figure out why they need our room number but all became clear later. Oriental Balloning called the reception desk at our hotel the night before our flight to pass a message to our room (hence the request for a room number) to let us know the time we would be collected from reception.

If you are considering taking a similar flight it is essential you book in advance. There are only three companies (Golden Eagle, Balloons Over Bagan and Oriental Ballooning) allowed to operate in the area and they are limited in the number of balloons they can fly each day. On the day we flew, every single space in every single balloon was taken. I also overheard someone in our hotel trying to arrange a flight for their time in Bagan but they were unable to do so, despite having a few days of flexibility.

The Flight

At 5.30 in the morning we were collected from our hotel reception in a mini bus and driven to a field (after the driver got briefly lost by overshooting the unmarked entrance in the dark - understandable) where all the balloon companies appear to take of from.  When stepping out of the mini bus we were greeted by a very british voice welcoming us and asking us to take a seat at one of the empty picnic tables.  Once we were seated we were offered tea and coffee along with a selection of breakfast pastries. We sat here for about 20 minutes while the sun began to rise in the background. There is also a toilet available, although it's an old, local squat style, so I wouldn't recommend it unless you're desperate (bearing in mind you're going to be without one for the next 90 minutes or so).

After all the passengers had arrived, been checked off the register and had their refreshments the pilots stood in front of the group and welcomed us all with introductions. We were given some simple instructions to follow and listened out for our pilot to call our names.  It was clear that all the pilots loved their job and their enthusiasm really came though. 

Once all the passengers found their pilots we were taken over to the balloon we would be flying in that morning.  We were given a thorough safety brief and then invited to watch (from safe distance) as the balloon was filled with hot air.  This was a bizarre experience. A previously flat, empty series of fields suddenly started to feel like a city as the balloons from all three companies started to rise around us.

As we climbed in to the basket we were handed a complimentary baseball cap to keep some of the heat off our heads. As we had been allocated an 8 person basket - it was divided into 4 compartments plus an area in the middle for the pilot - myself and my partner had a corner all to ourselves. There's not a lot of room in the basket, but it was never uncomfortable. Having a corner helped to make sure no one in the basket missed out on a sight.

It was then time for take off, which is when the spectacular landscape came into view. I am not sure words can describe how amazing Bagan looks from the air especially in a slow moving air balloon at sunrise, so here are some pictures.

The pilot of our balloon was very infromative telling us all about our field of view. The mist that you can see in some photos is in fact smoke, the locals collect dried leaves every morning and evening and burn them. This elevates sunsets and sunrises in Bagan beyond anywhere else I've visited, the colours are unreal.

The precise path of your flight will vary depending on conditions on the day, your pilot, and the movements of other balloons. There are, though, some things you won't want to miss on your flight.

The first, and relatively close to the take off area, is the Aureum Palace Hotel and it's controversial viewing tower. The viewing tower is seen as an eye sore by many but does provide for some spectacular views, especially at sunrise and sunset. The hotel itself has been visited by a number of celebrities in recent years, including Beyonce and Jay-Z. We stayed in a villa at this hotel, and there's a review coming soon.

You should also be on the look out for Old Bagan town. The large white building in the image below is, I believe, the Archaeological Office of Bagan, should you ever doubt where your entrance fee is being spent. Old Bagan also has a concentration of temples and pagodas around it with them, generally, becoming more sparse the further from the town you travel. But as there are over 2200 of them, sparse is a relative term.

There are also thousands of temples and pagodas scattered throughout the Bagan area many of which look stunning from the air in the warm morning light, surrounded by smoke.

Towards the end of the flight we passed over a couple of small villages which afforded a unique view of some of Bagan's local residents, who seemed keen to wave and take pictures of the low flying balloons.

Coming from Bristol in the UK we were interested to see that the the balloon itself was made by the Cameron balloon factory in our home town.  After about an 1 hour in our hot air balloon we descended into a field where we were treated with a glass of champagne, some fresh fruit and a certificate.  The locals took this ad an opportunity to try to sell us some of their wears whilst we were a captive audience (we didn't know this would happen, so didn't bring any money as everything was pre-paid). Afterwards a mini van took us back to  our hotel where we had a spot of breakfast and rounded off the morning with a quick nap before heading out to explore the delights of Bagan once more.

The flight cost about £300 each, which seems expensive but is understandable given the location, maintenance costs of the balloons, licensing costs to the government and having to hire specialist pilots. There was also a small army of support staff following the balloons along their flight path to ensure everything goes smoothly. In doing my research I had read that you could occasionally get a better price by using a local travel agent to book your flight but deemed this a risk not worth taking.  As I said above we booked our flight a few months before we did see a couple arriving at the hotel hoping to book a flight to only be told that all the flights were fully booked for the duration of their stay so if this is something you are considering I would strongly recommend you book this in advance.  This was one of the highlights of our time in Myanmar and something I will never forget.  If you have the budget I highly recommend taking in this experience.

What to wear in Myanmar

Tammy Brown

The Longyi I bought

The Longyi I bought

If you intend to enter any temple, and let's face it, you're in Myanmar so of course your going to go into a temple or two, you need to think about what you are going to wear.  There are strict rules in place prohibiting footwear of any description when entering temples, including socks, so be prepared and wear footwear that you can walk around in for a long time but can also take off and put on easily. And don't think you can get away with it because a temple appears to be deserted. Many of them, especially in the Bagan area, have family guardians who will enforce the rules. If you're not used to this, it can be disconcerting walking around bare footed in an ancient temple that's completely open to the elements, but you do get used to it quickly.

I ended up wearing either flip flops (thongs, jandels whatever you want to call them) and my old faithful converse trainers which got so wrecked I ended up binning them on the way home. Don't even try to wear socks.  It's especially important to choose your footwear carefully in Bagan if you're planning on temple hopping. The two most popular forms of transport to move between the thousands of temples are bicycle and E-Bike (an electric scooter/moped). If you're not comfortable riding these, you're likely to put your feet down whilst travelling (and even if you are comfortable, the ground is extremely sandy and rough), and this can be dangerous if you're not wearing footwear that provides sufficient protection.

There are equally strict, although somewhat more vague, rules about what you wear above the feet. Most temples will require both men and women to cover their knees and wear tops which at least have a small sleeve (i.e. a t-shirt).  My other half found that his knee length shorts were fine, however my above the knee shorts were not. Wearing trousers is an option but heat becomes an issue as South East Asia is hot and sticky especially when you are travelling from the rainy UK and not used to it. My thin, cotton, haream pants became my saviour on this trip (they also kept the mosquitoes off my legs), although on the hottest days I ended up wearing shorts.  The best thing to do is either buy a Longyi or carry a wide scarf in your back pack so that you can wrap it round like a skirt when needed.

Speaking of back packs, having one is handy if you don't want to leave your shoes at the temple entrance (although bring a plastic bag in which to put your shoes so as not to get dirt in your back pack) and to carry water, which you'll need (there are small markets located near the largest and most popular temples where water and other drinks can be purchased).  Some temples do have clothes you can loan whilst walking round if needed, there are also loads of locals selling 'elephant pants' this seemed to be a must have for any backpacker in South East Asia, I ended up buying a pair (even though I was not backpacking), and they were great.

Before going to Myanmar I was also concerned about offending the locals with my western clothing, particularly as a women in a fairly conservative country. I need not have worried, there were loads of people wearing shorts above the knee but not too short and vest tops, just don't go too skimpy.