Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hitting the Shops

This week’s blog comes to you live from beautiful Johannesburg, or more accurately beautiful Sandton. Sandton is a wealthy northern suburb where a lot of multi national companies choose to base their South African operations. There are also many top class hotels here and it’s quite likely that your travel agent will recommend that you stay here if you are spending a couple of nights in Johannesburg.

I flew in last night on the direct Qantas flight from Sydney. It’s more than fourteen hours flying time and the flight seems endless. I often wonder whether it’s better to get the pain over with in one hit by flying direct or to break it up with a stopover in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. I’m still not sure.

Anyway yesterday evening Johannesburg put on one of her typical hazy golden sunsets. It’s like looking through a glass of Fanta. We drove from the airport past dusty townships crammed with cheek by jowl shanty huts, each with a collection of large rocks on their tin roofs, securing them against the wind. Nearby though were whole suburbs of project housing. These small, cheaply built homes are provided to the poor rent free and there is assistance with power and water. These are the homes that were promised by the ruling ANC years ago, shortly after they took power but are only now being delivered.

This morning broke cool, windy and overcast, so with nothing better to do I strolled a couple of blocks down to Sandton City Shopping Mall. This took courage because as readers of one of my previous blogs will know – I have a distinct aversion to shops. However, it was early and for the first half hour of my wanderings through this monumental temple of consumerism the shops were closed and it was almost pleasant.

What a contrast to the townships though. Instead of dusty markets decorated by wind-blown plastic bags there was every conceivable designer label store known to man. I saw an ostrich skin handbag with a price tag of six thousand dollars! What’s the point of buying a handbag that costs so much money that you’ve none left to put in it? There were shops stacked with watches too – great chunky Rolex and Breitling time-pieces. I tell you what, you wouldn’t want to fall in the river wearing one of those. It would drag you under in no time. Whatever happened to simple, slim-line elegance?

As time went by the mall filled with a throng of elegantly dressed shoppers – black and white, but mostly black. The shops opened their doors, putting me in danger of accidentally buying something. So I left and walked back to my hotel, leaving behind this symbol of South Africa’s restored confidence. Let’s hope this continues. Crime is decreasing, the middle class is growing and I detect a buzz of optimism about the place. Now if they can just produce a half decent soccer team in time for the next world cup…………

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pixels & Predators

There are three vital pieces of equipment that everyone should remember to take on their Africa safari. They are - a camera with at least a x12 zoom, a pair of binoculars and a bird book. All the better if your bird book contains African birds. I did meet one Australian lady in South Africa who was complaining bitterly that she couldn't find any of the birds she'd seen in her book. I took a look. "Birds of Australia" the title boldly proclaimed. She was sure she'd seen a kookaburra too.

The binoculars come in handy too, especially if you look down the correct end. Most game drive vehicles will carry a set to share but it's better to have your own so you don't have to wait for other people to finish with them.

A good camera is essential though. For rank amateurs like me it needs to be light, robust and easy to use. By the time you've finished fiddling with light meters and manual focus the animal or bird has long gone. The camera I use cost about $900 five years ago and has served me well, (annoyingly it's about $200 cheaper now) although it's looking a bit battered these days - rather like its owner in fact. It does take great pictures though. It is a Panasonic Lumix SLR thingy. Don't ask me the details. I used to think pixels were little fairy like things living in magic forests until a couple of years ago. As far as I'm concerned SLR stands for "Somewhat Ludicrous Reading" and refers to the camera instructions that all seem to be written by the same dyslexic Korean. For example the instruction manual for my camera has an index that lists everything under "How to....." Not helpful. When you need help to remove the lens cap in a hurry you'd expect to find the instructions under L for lens cap, but no. It's under H for How to remove the lens cap!

You will get far closer to the animals than you'd think possible. They are not frightened of the game vehicles as they see them every day and soon come to know that they are neither a threat nor food. It's always tempting on your first game drive to snap away with the gay abandon of first world war machine gunner at the first glimpse of a distant impala. The results of these early photos are usually somewhat disappointing. "Why did I take a photo of that clump of grass?" Thank the Lord for digital cameras. At least you can delete the failures.

Sometimes you get brilliant photos completely by accident. My Mother in Law's school friend who lives in Cape Town has an old sepia photograph of her mother's school class - a group of a dozen or so teenage girls on a picnic in the African bush. They are standing under a large marula tree dressed in their bulky Edwardian skirts and shady hats looking very serious and demur, while in front of them on a dazzling white table cloth laid out on the grass is their picnic. Flasks of tea, sandwiches and cakes etc. In itself the photo is an interesting historical record. However, the most interesting thing about the photograph is the silhouette of a leopard sprawled out comfortably on one of the marula tree's branches some ten feet above the girls' heads.

Leopard Hills:
With only eight beautifully appointed suites, Leopard Hills offers as much privacy as you could wish for. Each luxurious glass-fronted suite has superb views over the bushveld and beyond. The romantic bathrooms have double indoor and outdoor showers. Each room has its own private rock plunge pool, viewing deck and fully stocked minibar. Game drives in open vehicles by day and night. Maximum - 16 Guests.

For more information call Ucango Travel & Cruise Centre on 07 5451 8600 or email

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Endangered Species

One of the best things about my job is that I get to sit at home sipping red wine and thinking up exciting group tour itineraries. I have to be excited about the itineraries myself before I inflict them upon the general public because let's face it, if I don't find the tour interesting why should I expect my clients to.

I believe my latest offering really ticks all the boxes . It has just the right combination of adventure, luxury and educational value. May I present (Fanfare) The Ultimate African Endangered Species Tour. (Pause for gasps of delight and applause to die down.)

On March 27th I will be leading an exclusive group of twelve to South Africa, Rwanda and Kenya in search of some of Africa's most critically endangered mammals.

We will visit Madikwe Private Game Reserve in South Africa to see African wild dogs and black rhinos. Then we'll travel on to Rwanda for a trek to see the highland gorillas and then on to Kenya for cheetahs in the Maasai Mara, black rhinos again at Ol Pejeta and most endangered of all the highland bongo in the Aberdare Mountains.

We will also see lions, elephants, leopards (with luck), giraffe, white rhino, many other types of antelope and some absolutely stunning bird life.

We'll be staying in some very special accommodation too.
Tau Lodge at Madikwe.
Gorilla Mountain View Lodge.
The Ark.
Sweetwaters Tented Camp.
Flamingo Hill Camp.
Mara Serena Lodge.

We will be travelling in two comfortable 4x4 vehicles and will be in the hands of professional driver/guides at all times. Most meals are included as are all required flights from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. We will be flying with South African Airlines from Australia to Johannesburg and then on to Nairobi. The flight from Nairobi to Kigali in Rwanda for the gorillas is also included, as is the $US500 gorilla permit.

The cost of all this is $11,990 per person twin share.
It includes all flights, accommodation for 19 nights in luxury lodges and hotels, most meals all necessary transfers and professional guides.

For more informational call Ucango Travel & Cruise Centre on 1300 822 646 or 07 5451 8600. Alternatively call me - Peter Emery on 0449 689 447 or email me at

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Spiders & Snakes

Almost every time I'm due to go on an African safari someone asks "Gosh! Isn't that dangerous? All those snakes, scorpions and spiders!" And I think to myself You do know that you're living in Australia don't you? Home of eight out of the top ten deadliest snakes in the world. Lurking in your own back yard are taipans, brown snakes, death adders, tiger snakes and king browns for example, not to mention red backs and funnel web spiders, mouse spiders, white tailed spiders and other creepy crawlies that grow to the size of a small sheep and who's venom is potent enough to wipe out half the population of Sydney with in single bite.

What on earth makes people think that African bities are more dangerous than their Australian counterparts? It's true that our Aussie scorpions are wimps by comparison, but even the scorpions in Africa give you fair warning that they are dangerous. The really naughty ones have tiny pincers and thick tails whereas the less venomous variety have big pincers and thin tails. In any case in all my time on safari I've only ever seen two scorpions and there's no reason to worry about them provided you don't go shoving your fingers into holes in the ground or scrabbling about under rocks.

There are snakes that are best avoided throughout Africa. These include the black mamba (strangely never black)- a big, bad tempered so and so, but I've only ever seen three of them in 35 years of African travel. Also the boomslang is worth giving a wide berth. It is particularly venomous but is rear-fanged and so deadly bites are very unlikely. How many times have I seen one? Zero, not a single one. Puff adders are not very nice either. They're a bit like our death adders, slow to move out of the way but they strike like greased lightening. Again, I've never seen one. Well, a few specimens squashed on roads but never a live one. Mozambique spitting cobras are good fun too. They can spray venom with extraordinary accuracy up to eight feet. Never seen one.

The fact is that African snakes, like their Aussie cousins will, on the whole get out of your way long before you see them. They feel the vibrations of your footfalls and slither off to a safer spot long before they become a danger to you.

African spiders are not a serious threat either, though some can give you a painful bite none are likely to do any lasting damage and you are no more likely to encounter them in the African bush than you are here. Some are quite impressive though. The baboon spider is so called because it's as big and hairy as a baboon. Actually I made that up, I've no idea why they're called baboon spiders, but they are pretty big. However, despite their appearance they are about as deadly as a rabbit.

So if it's creepy crawlies that are putting you off going on safari, stop worrying. You're more likely to encounter something deadly the next time you venture into your own back garden.

Okavango Wildlife Safari, Botswana.

$2989 per person twin share. 11 days Livingstone to Livingstone land only. Departs 9 March 2011.

Witness the incredible bio-diversity of the Okavango and Chobe National Park. Spend two nights on a houseboat on the Okavango River in Namibia before moving on to Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana, followed by Savute and Chobe National Park. This is a bird watchers paradise. Get to within a trunks length of an old bull elephant and listen to the lions roaring at night. This tour is a must for lovers of wildlife and wide open spaces. There are two games drives per day while in the Game Reserves and National Parks and transport is in open 4x4 game viewing vehicles.

Accommodation is in en-suite boathouse cabins, private campsites with walk-in tents, camp beds with all linen provided, hotels and lodges. Most meals are also included.

For more information phone me - Peter Emery on 0449 689 447 or email me at