I was in South Africa’s Kruger National Park on a self-drive safari in early October, 2018 and kept a real-time diary, of which this is the third post documenting my experiences.  See the first and second posts here. Previous posts have detailed how I flew to Johannesburg from Raleigh, and then from Jo’burg to Skukuza Airport.

DAY 4 (October 3, 2018) – SATARA & ORPEN CAMPS – MORNING GAME DRIVE

Cell service at Satara failed, halting email. On my drive this morning, I came to Orpen Camp, which has cell service in order to receive and send email.

Big change in the weather this morning.  Temperature plunged 30 degrees to 66° F. with a stiff wind. I’m the only one not wearing a jacket.

Cooler, yes, but dry as a bone. A park ranger told me yesterday this dry season has been the longest and driest in many years. Most of the rivers are without water, just hot sand. Thus no hippos or crocs to be seen yet.

I was at the gate by 505am today but still 5th in line. Gates opened promptly at 530, and I wheeled around the first four vehicles because they chose to poke along at 30 KPH. I maintained 50 KPH, the max speed, and soon came across the best sighting yet: two cheetahs, probably siblings, crossing the road.

Cheetahs are few in the Kruger, a few hundred at most, and I’ve rarely seen them in the past. This was an exciting moment. I shut off the engine and watched the animals lope off slowly to the east. They appeared healthy and well-fed.

Just a kilometer away I caught a momma and juvenile Ground Hornbill pecking at something dead, smushed in the middle of the road

Heading into the gravel road that leads to the Timbavati reservoir and beyond to Orpen Camp, I saw perhaps 60-70 giraffes scattered throughout, no more than 5 together at any one place. Many were in the road, causing me to brake several times to avoid them as I came around a curve (even though I was moving at less than 20 MPH).

Altogether I covered 21 miles on dirt/gravel roads this morning (not counting distances traveled on the main paved roads). With multiple stops to enjoy watching the wildlife, that took just under two hours.

Stopped briefly to photograph a dead tree full of vultures having a rest. I love scenes like that one. It is so “Africa”!

Just before reaching the main road to Orpen, I saw Cape Buffalo for the first time this trip, about 30 milling around.

Sadly, now on day 4, I still haven’t seen a warthog.  I usually see many every day. Perhaps the pigs are vacationing in Mozambique.

DAY 4 (October 3, 2018) – SATARA – AFTERNOON GAME DRIVE

The Toyota Avanza (rented from Avis at Skukuza) looks tiny and hideous from the outside, but it is fun to drive and doesn’t feel small on the inside, not even sitting in the back seat. Even better, it offers great visibility all round, essential for game drives.

I love a stick shoft anyway, and this little SUV is impressively tight and nimble. Also has phenomenal turning radius, which is a big help on narrow dirt roads with thorn bushes protruding both sides. Sometimes the best way ahead is to turn around and go around thorns that can rake the paint off.

A young boy elephant charged the car as I passed. Young ellie bulls do that when male hormones kick in. This one gave out a wicked trumpet blast, shook its head furiously, and launched a bold mock charge as I approached.

Not wanting to offend the creature’s sensibilities, I stopped and reversed. Then waited. After all, respect must be given when owed, and this is elephant country. And even a young elephant is a big beast capable of inflicting serious damage upon my Avanza.

Satisfied that I’d been properly driven off, the little guy turned its back to the car and went back to foraging. I engaged first gear and inched forward. Just when I thought I was in the clear, the elephant charged after the car a second time.

A little later, a zebra came very close to the car. That’s unusual behavior. The normal zebra response to a vehicle is to move away quickly. That’s why most zebra photos are of the animal’s ass-end as it gallops off.

Zebras have massive hip muscles, and the species is easily capable of breaking a lion’s jaw or leg with a fierce defensive kick.

Impalas were loitering in the background. Zebra, impala, kudu, wildebeest, warthog, and waterbuck often hang around together, the better to watch out for each other. Lots of eyes ready to sound the alarm for approaching lions, cheetah, hyena, or leopards.

Finally I saw a warthog, but the sneaky rascal bolted before I could get close. I caught its image through the windshield as the pig followed standard warthog protocol when fleeing: Run like hell for a good bit, then stop abruptly, turn quickly and reconnoiter before running like hell again.

It was another great day of game viewing. The cooler temps persisted throughout the day, helped along by steady winds and a mostly cloudy sky. Knowing the animals would be active earlier when overcast, I set out this afternoon at 200p for a four hour drive that covered 70 miles. Here’s a list of species seen, most in large aggregate numbers:

Elephants, kudu, impala, waterbuck, warthog, cheetah, wildebeest, zebra, baboon, vervet monkey (1st sighting this trip of the little demons), steenbok, and giraffe. Plus something low and dark in color of medium size that shot across the road too far away to identify and disappeared into the tall grass.

And of course the usual variety of resident birds, including several species of francolin, several species of vulture, several species of doves, lots of hornbills, many glossy starlings, another kori bustard, a black-bellied bustard, and a red-crested korhaan.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to try to get to the gate early enough to be first in line.

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I was in South Africa’s Kruger National Park on a self-drive safari in early October, 2018 and kept a real-time diary, of which this post documents my experiences at the second camp, Satara, where I stayed for four nights. See the first diary post here. Previous posts have detailed how I flew to Johannesburg from Raleigh, and then from Jo’burg to Skukuza Airport.

DAY 3 (October 2, 2018) – SATARA CAMP

An old friend emailed overnight to ask if I was kind of a Kruger guide. For 20 years I have often brought friends and family, and I certainly know Kruger better than most visitors.  But that doesn’t qualify me as a guide.

My friend also asked whether Kruger is on the Equator.  The Kruger National Park is not that close to the Equator. The northern one-third of the park straddles the Tropic of Capricorn, so its temperate, like North Carolina. It was 53° F. this morning and 85° F. this afternoon. This is early Spring in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Park is hotter than Johannesburg because Jo’burg sits at 5000′ like Denver, and the Kruger is near sea level. The Indian Ocean is not far to the east across the narrow strip of Mozambique. The Kruger borders Mozambique on the east. The border is not far from where I am now, maybe 25 miles east. So the Indian Ocean weather patterns and warmth impact this area. Think: Florida weather. That’s pretty close. They grow all manner of tropical fruit around here and bananas and lots of sugar cane. But it’s not Equatorial hot. That’s way far north. The Equator runs across Kenya.

DAY 3 (October 2, 2018) – SATARA CAMP – MORNING GAME DRIVE

Overslept this morning! In October Kruger gates open at 0530, and I had intended to be one of the first cars out. Early mornings are glorious in Africa, and the best game viewing is then.

I was soon out the door, however, with the small cooler I bought at the Skukuza shop two days ago packed with ice, Coke Zero, and a bottle of water. Should I have a flat or breakdown on a back road in the Kruger, someone is likely to come along in no time. It’s still a good idea to keep plenty of water in the car, and I do. There’s another big bottle of water in the back seat for just such contingencies.

Conventional game drive wisdom holds that both early morning and late afternoon are optimal rather than the middle of the day when it gets hot, driving animals to find shade and rest. My experience is that very early morning drives are best for catching the end of the predator night shift. I’m more likely to come across lions on a fresh kill as the morning dawns. Too, the herbivores are friskier before the African sun gets down to business.

Truth be told, the middle of the day can also be good for game drives when it’s raining or overcast. A vacant landscape suddenly comes alive with animals during and right after a cooling midday rain shower.

One of my closest leopard encounters happened on the main road north of Satara some years back at about 200pm following a quick rain. I remember watching the leopard splash through the shallow puddles of water as it sauntered down the road right next to the car, ignoring me, yet so close I could have reached out and touched it.

Thinking about that rainy afternoon made me remember a day when wet roads in the Kruger attracted Leopard Tortoises in vast numbers. They lumbered out onto the asphalt in order to sip from the pools of rain water before the sun returned to burn it off. Before the shower I hadn’t seen a tortoise in days.

That’s the way game drives go. I can drive for miles and see nothing and then suddenly witness a plethora of African wildlife.

It pays to stop and savor the experience when that happens. This morning, for instance, I pulled off a dirt road and killed the engine to gawk for a while at a mixed herd of zebras, wildebeests, and kudu all moving together. Must have been several hundred. Though tiny by comparison to the million-strong annual wildebeest and zebra migration in the Serengeti, which I’ve seen in Tanzania, it was impressive to see all those animals together. Yet all right here in the Kruger at one-fifth to one-tenth the cost (Kenya, Tanzania, and Botswana safaris are now $500-1000 per person per day–yes, PER PERSON per day).

A bit farther on I stopped again to watch a family herd of elephants working through the tall dead grass, chewing placidly as they yanked it up. I was closest to two teenage siblings, so concentrated my attention on them.

I was fascinated to see that both elephants had already learned the pachyderm trick of holding a bunch of tough grass taut with their trunks while swinging one front leg across to cut the grass with their toenails at ground level like a scythe. I’ve seen elephants employ the same behavior on the side of the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania to cut and eat tall grass growing there.

A bit later I stopped to enjoy several hundred more zebras and wildebeests, joined by lots of impalas, moving slowly across the road. I let myself be surrounded by them, a marvelous feeling. Ten minutes later the area was empty, with not an animal in sight.

Another car came by just then as I was taking notes and slowed down to see why I was stopped. Having missed the sea of African animals that had only a few minutes before been everywhere around me, they looked at me curiously and drove on.

That’s typical of a game drive. There is no guarantee of seeing wildlife. But it sure is exciting fun to be there when it happens.

Just north of the Satara gate I watched a momma Black-Backed Jackal guarding her den where 8-10 little pups scampered around. I watched the little furrballs playing in the dirt with each other for about five minutes before it dawned on me to take a picture. Too late! Mama barked at them, and they scurried into the den before I could point and shoot.

Jackals are roughly the size of our foxes and occupy the same eco-niche. They’re famously fast at stealing bits off a lion kill without getting caught.

Just a bit farther on I came across a hyena traipsing down the road after a hard night gnawing the bones and drinking the blood of something dead. Or its meal might have been alive; hyenas aren’t discriminate about their food being fresh or rotten; any protein will do.

I’ve camped in Botswana in the open with hyenas all around the tents. It is not conducive to a good night’s sleep to have them testing for ways to get in. Being the ultimate opportunists, they would be happy to eat me if they could.

Trees and bushes are still bare from winter, revealing many weaverbird nests (empty this time of year). Some nests are more like single family homes compared to the big multifamily nests which seem to be more common.

Elephants knock down trees to eat and tend to drag limbs and tree trunks all over the place. Messy eaters, elephants frequently leave mangled parts of thorn trees in the roads, like ones I encountered this morning. It’s a hazard to driving, requiring alertness to avoid. Elephants also leave massive dung piles on the road which drivers naturally swerve around carefully.

DAY 3 (October 2, 2018) –  SATARA – AFTERNOON GAME DRIVE

It was “stinking hot!” today, a South African woman of about my vintage exclaimed to me late this afternoon as we compared notes on our respective game drives. Like me, she’s doing it alone this time.

She’s dead right about the heat. It was, as already reported, a chilly 53° F. at Skukuza yesterday morning. 24 hours later, a comfortable 61° at 545am to start the day here at Satara. By 300pm, however, it was 96°. Seems the Kruger spring is turning quickly into summer, just like it often does in Raleigh.

The heat stifled much game movement this afternoon. The mom and dad of a young South African family told me that they chose to tent-camp at Satara this week with their two small kids because the Kruger is normally cool in October. But the scorching heat drove them from their tent, and they spent the entire day in their Toyota hilux truck with the A/C blasting.

Elephants, zebras, and wildebeests were lethargic but active near water holes. I spotted a single banded mongoose scurrying across the road. The high temp seemed to keep a lot of species in the shade waiting for dusk.

It didn’t seem to bother the birds, though. I was startled to see a Kori Bustard right by the car–surprised because it’s a huge species, the heaviest flying bird in Africa, I believe (though the Secretary Bird is nearly as large). The head was as high as the car window.

Later I saw another Kori Bustard, then another, and another. Altogether I counted 7 of the impressive birds this afternoon. That’s a one-day record for me in the Kruger.

Plenty of hornbills were flitting about hawking insects and lizards crossing the dirt roads. I noticed, too, a few Lilac-breasted Rollers–my favorite Kruger bird–also hawking insects by the road, a reminder that some LBRs have chosen year-round residence in the Kruger. During the late spring and summer, Kruger skies are alive with Lilac-breasted Rollers.

Camps are permanent home to families of Glossy Starlings, and I’ve seen more than I can count or estimate. A Glossy Starling help itself to bacon from my breakfast plate this morning after the morning game drive. This was at the Satara restaurant.

Starlings and hornbills have become so bold at Satara and other camps that leaving unattended food for even an instant risks losing everything on the plate. I used my cap to wave off several graceful, dive-bombing hornbills before this starling snuck in and robbed my pork.

The bird later perched on the chair opposite mine and proceeded to sing a long song. Whether to thank me for the bacon or to beg for more, I don’t know, but I enjoyed it immensely.

Camp gates are closed at 600pm and reopened at 530am in October. Opening and closing times vary with the seasons.

A wildebeest walked by my car this afternoon, turned to get a good look at me, shook its head in what I took to be disgust, and continued on. I couldn’t get my phone camera up quick enough to capture its look of revulsion.

Back at camp just before the gates closed, I enjoyed a light meal at the Satara restaurant and went to bed early so I could arise at 430AM for my fourth day in the park.

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I was in South Africa’s Kruger National Park on a self-drive safari in early October, 2018 and kept a real-time diary, of which this post documents getting to the first camp, Skukuza, for one night and then driving to the second camp, Satara, where I stayed for four nights. Previous posts have detailed how I flew to Johannesburg from Raleigh, and then from Jo’burg to Skukuza Airport.


The final leg: Johannesburg to Skukuza

This morning went well, and as planned. Walked from the City Lodge Hotel after checking out back to the airport and headed for Domestic Terminal B. Checked into my South African Airways Airlink flight after being careful to find the specific Airlink counter (B79), as opposed to the main South African Airways counters.

That’s not as straightforward as it should be. In the USA all major airlines contract with small carriers to operate under the big airline’s livery and booking code. Contract carriers flights use the same counters and gates as their employer.

South African Airways also contracts with little guys like Airlink, and those flights are marketed and sold online indistinguishable from mainline SAA flights. That’s where the transparency ends, however.

Passengers must find the specific airline’s counter to check-in, which why I had to locate Airlink’s counter and not South African Airways’ counters. At Johannesburg airport lots of knowledgeable men approved to work for the airport are always on hand to offer such direction and take you there. I usually tip 10 Rand for their help (which is only 72 cents).

Actual check-in only took a moment after a six minute wait in the Airlink queue. Soon after I was past security for the E gates and enjoying a complimentary hot breakfast in the Bidvest Premier Lounge, which accepts Priority Pass (part of American Express Platinum Card privileges) for entry.

The ERJ 135 boarded quickly and on time, and we arrived Skukuza Airport on time after a 50-minute flight. En route the single flight attendant easily managed to serve muffins and sandwiches and beverages to all 46 passengers. And she cleaned everything up, too. All done cheerfully.

Avis had my little Toyota Avanza ready to go (small SUV model not available in the USA). The Avanza has great visibility all round for wildlife viewing, and the 5-speed manual transmission is fun to drive. I zoomed out of the airport for my first game drive.

Well, the “zoom” was in my mind. Speed limits in the Kruger are 50 KPH (31 MPH) on paved roads and 40 KPH (25 MPH) on gravel roads.

DAY 1 – First game drive from the Skukuza Airport to Skukuza Camp

It is maybe 5 miles from the airport to the camp, but I wandered around and took my time getting there. On a one hour drive I saw two family herds of elephants, lots of impala, two leopards (too far off the road for a good picture), three rhinos, and two families of kudu. The trick to getting close to animals in the Kruger is to shut off the motor and coast up quietly. With no engine noise most wildlife keep doing what they were doing.

Big daddy kudu with wicked spiral horns was not far away, watching his harem. The male was obscured partly in the brush and never gave me the shot I was after. Didn’t matter. I have so many fine photos of African animals that I now only shoot if I see an exceptionally good picture.

I am settled into my bungalow #37 in Skukuza rest camp and am about to take off for my afternoon game drive.

DAY 1 – Pretty good afternoon sightings for a short 90 minutes

Lots of elephants, a well-fed hyena with sagging belly, a sleeping leopard in a tree, 3 giraffes, bunch of baboons (possibly escapees from the American Congress), lots of impala, 3 kudu, a massive pile of fresh buffalo scat but no buffalo, lots of bird species (including a long-tailed something or other—couldn’t tell in the blinding sun, but could have been a variety of shrike, widowbird, flycatcher, or whydah, though definitely not a Paradise Whydah. Sadly, no warthogs, always a favorite sighting.

Coming through the Skukuza Camp gate, I noticed again that signs warn residents to steer clear of baboons and vervet monkeys which run amok through Skukuza, and to keep food secure and doors and windows closed.

Tomorrow I move on to Satara Camp, which I booked for 4 nights because the game viewing in the vicinity is usually outstanding.

All accommodation in the Kruger National Park, like the bungalow I’m in at Skukuza, has electricity, fridge (my refrigerator is nearly standard size and has a separate freezer), heat (almost never needed) and A/C (almost always needed), overhead fans, toilet, showers with hot/cold water, and are supplied with bed linens, soap, and towels. Just like a hotel, except better, since each cabin (which they call a rondavel) is private.

Many rondavels, including mine, also have flatware, kitchen utensils, pots and pans, sink for wash-ups, and electric stove tops for cooking. Every rondavel has a “braai” (South African word for a charcoal or wood grill) for, well, grilling. Having a braai is a national pastime in South Africa, like grilling steaks and hamburgers in America (see here). All bungalows have an outdoor porch, too, with tables and chairs for dining.

DAY 2 – Second morning: Skukuza to Satara

Finally realigned my body clock to local time last night (6 hours later than Raleigh) and slept well. Arose at 530am, showered, repacked my bags, organized my groceries and cooler, loaded the car, and was away by 600am on both a game drive and to cover the distance between Skukuza Camp and Satara Camp.

It’s only 57 miles between the two camps, but at a max of 25-31 MPH, pausing for breakfast at Tshokwane, a park rest stop and cafe on the way, and, constantly stopping to watch animals (which is, after all, why I came), I arrived Satara at 1030am, four and a half hours after leaving Skukuza. I will be at Satara for 4 nights.

On the way this morning I saw elephants, a sleeping lion pride, kudu, a leopard guarding its kill in a tree, many more impala, giraffes, wildebeest, waterbuck, 2 steenbok, and 4 nyala. Also, in the large bird category, I came very close to a pair of beautiful saddle-billed cranes, even closer to a pair of magnificent secretary birds, and finally a family of 5 ground hornbills (each the size of an American turkey) crossed the road around my car.

The landscape around Satara is much more savanna-like than around Skukuza, with lots of open space. Thus easier to spot animals, which is why I like to spend time in this area.

Saw a barren tree by the road with weaver bird nests hanging dramatically from its branches. The tree looked dead, but it’s fine. This is the end of winter (early spring in the southern hemisphere) and also the dry season. So all the flora looks dead. It’ll come green when the rains return around Christmas.

The omnipresent impala are doing their thing, which is munching grass like lawnmowers across the landscape.  One minute they surround the car on both sides the road; the next they have slowly moved off as they moving and mowing.

Was delighted to see an nyala (In South Africa, whenever an “N” is the first letter of a word, it is pronounced as its own syllable, thus nyala is pronounced “IN YA’ LA”). First cousin to kudu, but smaller, shaggier, and with curved rather than spiral horns, nyala prefer riverine environments even in the dry season. I was lucky to get close; nyala are shy and typically move away when approached.

Also sighted a female steenbok eating by the road. No antlers. Males have short spiked horns. Steenboks are quite small antelope: super alert, shy, and lightning fast.

Then came across two waterbuck bucks, probably brothers, practicing for a future duel. A white circle around the rump is characteristic of waterbucks. Scientists believe it helps the species follow one another visually when chased through thick brush. The only thing wrong with that theory is that lions are not fond of waterbuck because of the antelope’s foul musk gland. The animal is too large for leopards to take down. Thus waterbuck are rarely prey and rarely chased. Like nyala, waterbuck prefer places with water.

DAY 2 – First afternoon game drive at Satara

After unpacking for my four-night stay, I loaded up my little cooler with water, ice, and Stoney Ginger Beer. Put that and my Kruger mapbook in the car and rolled away at 325p. Camp gates close in October at 600p, so I worked against that deadline to go north and then northeast from Satara towards the Mozambique border [see Kruger map below]. That way I could turn back south when the sun began to sink, putting it behind me for dramatic photo setups. Didn’t happen, but it was a sound plan.

Two hours, 30 minutes is not long for a game drive. However, I made good time even off the paved road. And eventually made a 50 mile circuit to the far east side of the park and back to Satara. That was possible because the gravel roads were in excellent shape there (unfortunately, not true everywhere).

Along the way I finally saw zebras, hundreds of them, and hundreds more wildebeest, too. Caught several giraffes off guard reaching for the tops of acacia trees on the road shoulder. Followed a family of 5 ground hornbills. Saw elephants and impala, and a duiker (another small antelope–this one lopes like a kangaroo). But no predators and no warthogs.

It was a beautiful late afternoon, and it was exhilarating to be driving through the African wilderness. Not every game drive racks up lots of sightings.

Too, it’s a challenge to be alone on a game drive. The driver has to focus on the road, obviously, and can’t let his eyes wander back and forth too much looking for animals. So I could easily have missed lots of animals.

DAY 2 – Washing clothes in the Kruger

I hand-washed some of my clothes in my rondavel’s sink tonight.  Although the infrastructure is excellent, the Kruger National Park is in the African wilderness. There are no dry cleaners here.  To avoid bringing a set of clean clothes for each day I’m in the Kruger—which would mean a LOT of luggage—I take a minimum of clothes and wash as needed.

To wash my clothes, I buy Omo, the local detergent, because it’s made for hand-washing clothes in bowls. The Omo powder dissolves instantly in cold water. And it’s less than a dollar for way more than I ever use. I give whatever is left to the locals when I depart. I also pick up some clothespins (locally called “pegs”) and clothesline when I arrive. That costs another $2.

So, yes, I primitively hand wash and rinse and dry my own clothes along the way in the Kruger. I imbibe a Moscow Mule or two made with vodka and the tasty local Stoney Ginger Beer while washing to keep my spirits high.

It would be a lot easier to use a washing machine, ad some of the camps have them. However, camp washing machines are often broken or malfunctioning, and, if operating, are in use, often with a queue of other laundry ahead of mine.

More maddening to me is the fact that the ancient washers require exact change in old 5 Rand coins, which are increasingly scarce because they were superseded years ago by a new 5 Rand coin. Which means I have to hoard the old coins if I can find them at all.

Even if I do accumulate enough old 5 Rand coins, sometimes a washing machine will swallow a bunch of them without activating when I push in the slide. And there’s no refund. When that happens, I have pay again, which means I have to collect TWICE the old 5 Rand pieces than I actually need just in case.

After years of putzing around with those damn washers and the damn hard-to-find coins, I finally gave up. Now I simply wash my clothes by hand in the sink and shower. Doesn’t take long, and I only have to do it once or twice each trip, not every night.

On the plus side, humidity here is low this time of year and clothes dry real quick.

Some context for the Kruger

The park straddles the Tropic of Capricorn, with about a third north and two-thirds south. The weather is temperate, tending to hot, like Florida. It was 53° F. this morning and 85° this afternoon.

This is early Spring in the Southern Hemisphere. The Park is hotter than Johannesburg because Jo’burg sits at 5000′ (like Denver), and the Kruger is near sea level.

The Indian Ocean is not far to the east across the narrow strip of Mozambique. The Kruger borders Mozambique on the east. It’s not far from where I am now, maybe 25 miles to the border. So the Indian Ocean weather patterns and warmth impact this area. Outside the Park, bananas and lots of sugar cane thrive in the heat.

Wildlife conservation versus visitor infrastructure

Kruger has always had a bias towards protecting wildlife over visitors. That’s as it should be. The paved roads are in excellent shape, but some of the gravel roads are not so great partly because Park management has always been sensitive about disturbing the native wildlife.

Minimizing use of heavy road equipment needed to smooth out corrugated sections of gravel roads, for instance, maintains wildlife tranquility in the Park. The downside is that I tried several gravel roads yesterday and today that were so badly rutted (like a washboard) that I had to turn back.

Lack of sufficient Park budget for road maintenance also keeps the worst dirt roads from being improved very often.

Kruger accommodation was always been called a “restcamp.” It’s an antiquated term. Over the years it was shortened to just “camp,” as in Skukuza Camp, Satara Camp, etc.

Each “camp” is a village surrounded by electrified razor wire to keep out dangerous wildlife so that visitors are not eaten or trampled by the very wildlife they have come to see.

Inside the wire each camp has a gas station, restaurant and snack bar, grocery/knicknack store, camp office, and lots of bungalows (locally called rondavels, as I have mentioned before). The thatched roof bungalows come in a variety of sizes to accommodate individuals through large families. Many camps also boast swimming pools and car washes (dust soon covers vehicles on safari game drives). All camps still have camping areas for visitors who prefer to bring their own camping gear and rough it.

That said, camps are focused primarily on overnight visitors who want every modern convenience. All bungalows have electricity, hot and cold water, showers, wash-up sinks, overhead fans, refrigerators, a veranda with table and chairs, and a braai (grill). Many have full kitchens.

That massive infrastructure was always limited to the 12 camps in the Kruger, but pressure to utilize more of the wilderness areas has led to private resort concessions being developed in some parts of the Kruger.

The new resorts are much more expensive than the comfortable, modest original camps. Aside from the new luxury, wildlife sightings are identical, so what are visitors at the resorts getting for the gobs of money they’re paying? Nothing, except a veneer of luxe.

But the regular camps where I am staying are under $100 per night. Who needs more luxury than that?

[Kruger map below for context]

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I delight in going to the Kruger National Park in South Africa for a relaxing vacation of game viewing as much as I enjoy similar wilderness experiences at the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone.  Africa or America, it’s the great outdoors!  Elk and bison and grizzlies or elephants and rhinos and lions, I never tire of admiring the wildlife.

In my last post I compared times to reach the Kruger from Raleigh, but I didn’t detail exactly how that works. Friends often ask: How do you get to the Kruger from Johannesburg? After all, it’s easy to book a flight to Johannesburg.  At last count, 37 international air carriers served O.R. Tambo Airport at Jo’burg.  In other words, once on the ground, what next?

The answer depends upon what time my flight lands from abroad.  If it’s by noon local time, then I will have separately booked an early- to mid-afternoon flight on South African Airways to beautiful little Skukuza Airport, the gateway to the Kruger.  It’s only a 50 minute hop on an RJ to Skukuza (airport code SZK).

If my plane from overseas lands at Johannesburg after noon, however, it is usually impossible to get a flight to Skukuza before the Kruger gates close (5:30, 6:00, or 6:30 PM, depending upon time of year). The gate closing times are inviolable except for emergencies, so if I can’t make it in time, then I spend a night in Johannesburg and take the first flight to Skukuza the following morning.

When that happens, I usually book a room at the City Lodge Hotel at the airport.  It’s an easy walk across the huge indoor airport parking structure to reach the hotel, and it is cheap at about $110 or less compared to the InterContinental, the other walkable airport hotel property.

Walking directions to the City Lodge Hotel at O.R. Tambo airport:

  • Go up to Level 2 after arrival
  • Walk to center oval between Domestic Terminal B and International Terminal A
  • Directly behind the viewing area on the circle, walk away from the circle, following signs to InterContinental Hotel and City Lodge.
  • Continue to end and look for elevator up to City Lodge, push “H” to go up to reception.

City Lodge has modern and comfortable rooms and amenities, wonderful staff, and a good restaurant, but its convenience and reasonable rates are the most important elements to me. I can walk over in about 5 minutes from the airport using the completely protected connection and walk back to the domestic terminal the next morning.

Booking JNB/SZK on South African Airways is easy; I do it online or use my regular business travel agent.  Depending upon how far in advance I buy the ticket, it can be $200-280 round trip.  That’s not cheap for a short flight, but convenience makes it worth the few extra bucks to go directly to the brilliant jewel of an airport at Skukuza.  That’s because Skukuza Airport is inside the Kruger Park, unlike the larger Mpumalanga Kruger International Airport (airport code MQP) which, though it carries the Kruger name, is well outside the park, a good 45-60 minute drive to the nearest Park gates.

At either airport, the next step is to pick up a rental car.  At Skukuza, Avis/Budget is the sole choice, but my experience reserving a car well before I leave on the avis.com website is that prices are very reasonable and just as cheap as the more numerous number of rental car companies at Mpumalanga. For a recent trip I booked a great little Toyota Avanza SUV with a five-speed manual transmission.  It was a joy to drive, plenty big and comfortable, offered grand visibility all around to watch the animals and scenery, delivered over 50 MPG, and was just $38/day all-in.

The Avanza was very plain and simple, with manual heat and A/C controls, but it had electric windows and door locks.  I fell in love with its simplicity despite its downright ugly design and wish the model was available to buy in the U.S.

After nine days in the Kruger I returned the car to Avis and boarded another South African Airways RJ back to Johannesburg to connect to my international flights home.  Skukuza is a tiny airport with a relatively short runway, so SAA uses single-class Embraer 50-seaters (ERJs) on most flights.  I was able to reserve seat 1A both ways, so could observe the one flight attendant do her work on both flights.

Frankly, I was amazed at the superb service. The takeoff to touchdown time is 50-51 minutes, and both flight were packed, all fifty seats occupied.  Yet the cheerful—even effervescent—FAs on both flights managed a full beverage and snack service to every passenger, even including complimentary beer and wine.  All this on an all-coach ERJ in just 45 minutes, net of safety announcements and cleanup/cart stowage.

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En route back to Jo’burg the flight attendant noticed that I had finished one Windhoek Lager (made in Namibia in the classic Bavarian lager style) and forced another one on me.  She did the same for several others.  I felt it would be rude to decline her kindness and gulped it down with enthusiasm.

That level of efficient and thorough service occurred in both directions.  When was the last time such happened on a 50-minute flight in the USA?  It used to be the norm in my memory of flying in the 70s and 80s, and even into the 90s, but went the way of the dodo as airlines focused on charging a la carte for previously bundled services.  So, too, went the cabin staff’s good cheer on many airlines.

But I digress.  That’s how I get to the Kruger once landed at Johannesburg, and back again.  My returning (outbound) international flights leaving Johannesburg have always been in the afternoon or evening, which makes the SZK/JNB connection an easy one.  Once I pick up my bag from the Skukuza-Jo’burg flight, I hoof it over (inside the connected terminals) from domestic to international and check in to my overseas flight.  No overnight hotel stay required returning.

After surviving the security/passport/immigration screen, I go to a JNB lounge to await boarding time.  If I am flying in economy, then I use my Priority Pass card.  Waiting for my departure from Johannesburg is hard because I by then already miss the Kruger. Usually I spend part of my wait time in the lounge scheming with my calendar for the next trip back.

 

Well, actually, you can get there, but not real fast.  It is 8.292 miles from Raleigh to the compact and beautiful Skukuza Airport in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, a trip I have made regularly for 27 years.  If an RDU/SZK nonstop flight existed, I could theoretically be there in 16 hours or so.

The reality is that connecting flights—my only choice—take at least 25-26 hours on a serendipitous schedule, and on my most recent trip a month ago, I was 67.5 hours en route. That’s nearly three days from the time I left Raleigh until arriving Skukuza Airport.

Returning home Skukuza to Raleigh last month took a mere 32 hours by comparison.  Still long, but less than half the time.

Why did it take so much time?  After all, Singapore Air operates the world’s (current) longest nonstop over the 9,700 miles EWR/SIN in 19 hours, and Delta’s Atlanta to Johannesburg nonstop flight is just 16 hours long, covering 8.425 miles.

The answer is that on this trip I used 180,000 AAdvantage frequent flyer miles to travel in business class on Qatar Airways to get to Johannesburg, connecting to Qatar’s gateway cities in the US via American Airlines. My outbound route was Raleigh-Philadelphia (AA), Philly-Doha-Johannesburg (Qatar), returning Jo’burg-Doha-JFK (Qatar), then JFK-RDU (AA).

The only award travel schedule available included almost 16 hours of layover in Doha going over. That was the best I could do after working through AA rez agents over several weeks eight months in advance of travel. So I took it because Qatar business class is a great way to fly.  Doing so, I chose to sacrifice time for comfort.

How did I endure a 16-hour layover?  I arrived Doha Friday on time at 400pm local (900am Raleigh time). After a shower and change of clothes in the huge Qatar Airways Business Class Lounge, I snagged a hard-to-get “quiet room” (like a small hotel room) in the lounge to take a nap. That took the sting out of the long layover.

Later I traipsed all over the enormous lounge—as big as many regional U.S. airports—and did a lot of reading and dozing. I also left the lounge early to explore the fascinating, gleaming Doha airport, slowly working my way to my connecting flight’s departure gate.

After a nine hour flight from Doha, I arrived Johannesburg late afternoon, too late to fly to the Kruger National Park, so had to overnight at an airport hotel and then fly Johannesburg to lovely little Skukuza Airport (SZK, a 50 minute flight covering about 284 miles) on South African Airways the following morning.

Skukuza Airport is actually in the Kruger National Park, and nearby Skukuza Camp is the park headquarters. Once on the ground I picked up an Avis rental car which I used for the nine days and eight nights I spent in the Kruger.

Returning to Raleigh, connections were short, and the total time fast. Traveling on any airline’s frequent flyer awards means taking what I can get, and thank God going home was quick. I left Skukuza at 330pm on South African Airways, then a 3.5 hour layover in Johannesburg waiting for my Qatar Airways flight to Doha, then a reasonable 2 hour layover in Doha, and finally a 2 hour layover in JFK, arriving Raleigh at 530pm (+ 1 day), which was 1130pm (+ 1 day) in South Africa. Thus, only 32 hours total Skukuza to Raleigh. That’s less than half the time it took me to get there and about as good a schedule as possible.

Measuring going home to RDU just from Johannesburg, that was a blazing 27.5 hours.

Raleigh to Johannesburg could be cut to a short 19.5 hours if I had flown Delta to Atlanta, then the Delta nonstop (16 hours) to Johannesburg.  I’ve done that a number of times. However, that flight gets in to JNB at 500pm local, too late in the day to fly to Skukuza, so I’d still have to overnight in Jo’burg. That would add another 18 hours to get to Skukuza, making it a total of 37.5 hours since leaving Raleigh.

Using the Delta nonstop going home would be comparable: 19.5 hours from Jo’burg, or a total of 25.5 hours from Skukuza to Raleigh.

Point is, the Kruger National Park is tough to get to from Raleigh because, despite being just six time zones later than the US east coast, it’s in the Southern Hemisphere and more than eight thousand miles away.  Add to that the fact that neither Raleigh nor Skukuza are US-South Africa gateway cities, therefore requiring connections, plus the challenge of connection frequencies at convenient times, and my theoretical 16 hours of RDU/SZK travel time becomes—best case—26-38 hours.

One more contrasting travel time example: Over our daughter’s Spring Break this year (2018), we flew Raleigh to Kunming, Yunnan (China), which is 12 time zones away from Raleigh. But because Kunming is in the Northern Hemisphere, we flew from RDU to Detroit, then a short layover, Detroit nonstop to Beijing, then another short layover, and finally Beijing to Kunming, all in just 27.5 hrs. Point being, you can do 12 time zones pretty fast if you don’t have to also move from the northern part of the world to the southern part and when good flight schedules permit.

Long travel time challenges between Raleigh and Skukuza notwithstanding , I will return to the Kruger National Park for as long as my health and pocketbook allow.

I recently spent four nights in Pittsburgh for the annual Rail-Volution transit and land use conference (the best transit get-together of the year).  It gave me a glimpse as to how the post-industrial city is faring, and provided insights regarding Delta’s domestic operation.

My first flight was on one of the new Delta A321 planes RDU to ATL. Just as mentioned in the recent DL quarterly call report, the aircraft had five rather than four rows of First Class seats, meaning 20 to sell rather then the MD80’s 16.

Of course with 25% more seats up front it’s a challenge for the one FA staffed in First Class to serve everyone with the same care and attention as before on short flights like the 54 minutes Raleigh to ATL. Those four extra passengers mean a lot of hustle for the lone flight attendant.

Mid-flight she got some temporary but timely help from the FAs in the back, just enough to goose premium cabin service up to my perception of an ordinary level of care and feeding. It struck me that Delta anticipated the issue and developed a standard rhythm to front and rear cabin in-flight staffing to accommodate the four extra seats.

I was upgraded at the gate for the flight, which gave me a perfect four out of four comp (Platinum) upgrades on that itinerary to PIT and back. I’d already been upgraded to First on the other three segments several days in advance.

Frankly, that is why I chose Delta over AA or others. I certainly don’t always get upgraded on Delta, but I can’t snag an upgrade on AA despite having nearly 40 (and growing) 500-mile upgrades banked in my AAdvantage account. That’s been true for four years on AA: zero upgrades.

As a Lifetime Platinum on Delta I get Comfort+ seats complimentary as soon as I buy. So even if no upgrade to First, then at least I am more comfortable in coach than on American, since AA will not upgrade me without paying as a Lifetime Gold to Main Cabin Extra, dooming me to one of their wickedly uncomfortable slimline seats on the 737-800 fleet. Sorry, no go.

I checked AA. DL, and other airline fares RDU/PIT for the itinerary. The main cabin fares (never basic economy) were within a $20 range, so it was easy to choose Delta. There was also no appreciable difference in times among carriers serving the route that might have otherwise persuaded me not to use DL.

Boarding the Delta flight, I was reminded again that every window shade is closed as a matter of policy, and many people don’t open them at all. Continues to be a concern to me, as it makes for such a depressing and claustrophobic cabin.

Both flights went well, and I arrived PIT airport early.  Attending a transit conference, I was given a transit pass for the duration, so chose to take the 28X Airport Flyer public transit bus into the city.  Took about 50 minutes during the early afternoon period, but it was comfortable and dropped me within two blocks of the Wyndham Grand Hotel being used for the Rail-Volution conference.

The hotel has THE view of the city, located as it is at the point where the the Allegheny River and Monongahela River unite to form the Ohio River.  You never know what room will be assigned at a conference, but I lucked out with room 1914, which had a spectacular view of the three rivers, the point, and the steep bluff on the far side.

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A walk around downtown confirmed that Pittsburgh certainly has changed for the better. I consulted there often in the 1980s for several divisions of Westinghouse (including Transportation Division that made the automated Atlanta Airport “people mover” train) and for other industrial and mining companies. I vividly recall the bleak winters of black snow from all the soot in the air then and the grim, Dickensian look and feel of the city. The best part of my weeks at the time was heading to the airport on Fridays to escape Pittsburgh.

It doesn’t feel that way now. It feels 21st century modern, cool, hip, and full of energy.

A footnote to those 1980s trips in and out of Pittsburgh airport: Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Airways, nicknamed Agony Airlines, had just recently changed its name to USAir to escape its bad rep. It couldn’t, though, and soon was called Useless Air by those of us forced to fly it. In snowy, frigid mid-winter weather USAir would often land at PIT and park way out in the tarmac because all its gates were full and its operations snarled up. The pilots were ordered to shut down the engines, including the APU, so that the planes were dark and without heat. Soon the interior would be an icebox. There we would sit without light in the freezing cold for as long as 2 hours waiting for a gate. No amount of complaining–and there was plenty of yowling–would cause the pilots to risk losing their jobs.

Of course this would occur for me late on a Sunday night as I was flying into the city to consult for the week.

In addition to the pain and suffering, I would still have to rent a car once in the airport and drive the 23 miles in snow and wind into the city. Thanks to USAir, I often didn’t get to my hotel until one or two in the morning. But I still had to present myself at breakfast to the consulting team at 6:00 AM Monday morning on three hours sleep and then work until 10:00 PM Monday.

There were few other direct flight options then, but I switched to TWA even though I had to leave earlier Sunday to connect using two flights. It cut my weekends at home to about 35-40 hours.

Leaving to return home four days later, I woke up spontaneously at 2:50 AM before my 3:00 AM alarm went off and checked out of the Wyndham Grand at 3:12 AM.

No trouble getting a Lyft car for $29.35 within three minutes of request and arrived airport at 3:40 AM (no traffic).  To my surprise, TSA was open, so I went immediately through security using my Delta app boarding pass.  It said “Pre” but the Pre line wasn’t open.  Nonetheless, the TSA staff gave me a special plastic card so I didn’t have to remove my shoes and belt, a relief.

Then, of course, I had to take the train to the remote concourse and gates at PIT (an “X” pattern with arms A, B, C, D).  McDonald’s opened at 4:05 AM, allowing me to get an unhealthy but delicious biscuit. More eateries were also open, unlike early mornings at other airports.

I had time to roam the concourses a bit. It was looking just a bit threadbare, but not too bad. Lavs were very clean and well-kept. Joe Brancatelli reminded me that once 600 USAir flights a day landed and took off at PIT, and they’ve had to close one or two of the terminals.

The airport and retail personnel were uniformly very friendly and cheerful, darned impressive at 4:00 AM. The facility also boasted quite an array of retail and food shops around the central core of the “X”.

Saw an Admirals Club (makes sense since this was the USAirways hub), but no Delta SkyClub or other airline club.

Happy observation: Every escalator (of many) and every moving walkway was working, unlike JFK terminals.  My overall impression: Pittsburgh Airport is now underutilized, but well-staffed to maintain respectable American standards of functionality, appearance, and cleanliness.  Bravo, PIT!

The two Delta flights back to Raleigh were exemplars of operational excellence.  Both boarded 35-40 minutes before flight time and pushed back on time or early.  Both arrived early to their respective destinations (ATL, then RDU).  Flight attendants were universally cheerful and efficient.

I tend to gripe and complain about Delta management’s indifference to their customers, but what can I say when I get upgraded on all four flight segments, and every one operates on time or early?  It made my life a lot easier on this nonstop business trip, as I had board and committee meetings all day after getting home following four full days of conference workshops and meetings.  I’ll try to conjure up a strong image of this overall experience next time everything goes wrong on a trip.

 

Doha’s Hamad International Airport is ground zero for Qatar Airways, and it is impressively sprawling and modern and huge. But with Qatar now flying to over 150 cities (like, who knew Qatar serves Cardiff, Wales?), HIA just doesn’t have a enough gates. Consequently, even long haul flights like our A350 Philly-Doha often get parked on a tarmac stand. This is my fifth time connecting through Hamad, and my ninth Qatar flight, and I think only twice did the inbound flight pull up to a gate.

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The iconic giant teddy bear at Hamad International Airport, Doha, Qatar

Parking on a stand wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for Qatar daytime temps often exceeding 100° F. The desert heat whacked us hard as we struggled down the antiquated airstairs with our carry-on luggage.

The buses waiting on the ramp to take us to the terminal were greenhouses on wheels, as hot or even hotter inside than on the tarmac. No amount of A/C can tame the ferocious Middle Eastern sun burning through all that window glass. I was lucky to be one of the last to board our special “Business Class passengers only” bus, and thus minimized being cooked as the bus waited to fill.

Apart from the heat and the bother, there is the intrinsic delay caused by using stands rather than gates.  Qatar Airways’ customer base counts on being able to reliably connect to and from all those 150 places.  Parking on the ramp always means a long time to deplane and enplane, and thus threatens connection integrity if the inbound flight isn’t on time.

Once inside the HIA terminal, all transfer passengers were required to go through a TSA-style screening before being allowed to find their connecting gates–or, in my case, the respite of the Qatar Airways Business Class Lounge. Recalling from past trips that all pockets must be emptied, I put everything in a carry-on bag before we landed. Off come belts, watches, and shoes, too, at the security screen.

On previous trips, the premium cabin crowd (Business and First Class) joined any line to endure the security gauntlet, a leveling glitch in the “I’m elite, and you’re not” parsing of airline customers.  But no more. I was directed to an area catering only to Business and First Class passengers. Those lines were far less crowded, and therefore faster and less stressful, though unlike TSA PRE-check, we still had to remove belts, shoes, and watches.

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Entrance to the two-story escalator to Qatar Business Class Lounge at HIA is guarded by a hall monitor who diligently scans boarding passes to keep out the riffraff.

Finally I walked past Hamad Airport’s iconic giant teddy bear and took the airport’s two-story escalator to the Qatar Airways Business Class Lounge. Boarding passes were officiously scanned at the bottom. Keeping out the hoi polloi, I thought, until I heard a uniformed Qatari scolding a gentleman about my age that oneworld Business Class flyers who are on carriers other than Qatar Airways are NOT allowed in the lounge, regardless of top elite level. This fellow showed his Executive Platinum AAdvantage card in addition to a Business Class boarding pass on another oneworld partner, but he got nowhere. I smiled to myself.

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One view of the massive Qatar Airways Business Class Lounge at HIA.

Of course if that fellow was an American Express Platinum Card holder, then he was also in possession of the indispensable Priority Pass card, which gets passengers into hundreds of airport clubs worldwide (though sadly not at RDU).  Priority Pass works at the Al Maha Transit Lounge at Hamad International near what the airport calls the Teddy Bear Area. And with the Priority Pass, it doesn’t matter if you flew in Coach or Business: You are still welcome.

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Another view of the massive Qatar Airways Business Class Lounge at HIA

Speaking of coach, I walked back into the Economy Class cabin on the Qatar A350 en route into Doha and tried out several empty seats. It’s sure not Business Class, but those Qatar coach seats were discernibly more comfortable and spacious front-to-back than on U.S. carriers, and they reclined more, too. That said, they are no wider than any other airline’s coach seats.

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Part of the suite of “quiet rooms” in the Qatar Airways Business Class Lounge at HIA

I wolfed down a tasty Norwegian smoked salmon sandwich in one of the Business Class Lounge dining areas before retiring to the quiet rooms to wait out my connection. The lounge is phenomenal in its many amenities (e.g., two large areas for showers) and offerings of food (at least two large dining areas, and I think I missed a third one on the upper level) as well as being larger than many U.S. regional airports.  Except for Emirates in Dubai, I’ve never seen its equal.

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Every gate area is jam=packed with passengers, as is the terminal areas between gates. The teeming multitudes reminded me of the ATL hordes and that’s not a compliment.

Given how crowded the Hamad airport terminal is with all the places Qatar now serves around the globe, I was glad to have the lounge to hide out in for a few hours.

Not enough gates; not enough room even in a humongous terminal; and still adding to its worldwide network: How, I wonder, is Qatar Airways planning for Hamad International to cope with its organic growth?  It’s already bursting at the seams.

My American Airlines RJ190 from RDU was chock-a-block full, and the upgrade list was 32 names long for 3 available seats. Though I am traveling on an AAdvantage frequent flyer Business Class award Raleigh-Johannesburg that cost me 180,000 miles, AA stiffed me on flying up front on their milk run RDU/PHL, but I did get a comfortable Main Cabin Extra bulkhead seat (5D).

Being a Lifetime Gold meant I got to board in the Priority lane, but at the lowest Priority level–Group 4–so that by the time I reached my seat, all the overhead space was gone. So much for “priority” and too bad for all the peons allowed on board AFTER me.

On arrival to the claustrophobic, ancient B concourse at Philadelphia (see photo), I couldn’t move in the congested hallway. Then my Qatar flight wasn’t even listed on the departure board. I stopped an electric cart driver to ask where to find my gate. Maybe it’s missing from the display because Philly doesn’t know where Doha is, I thought.

Business Class passengers flying Qatar Aireays are allowed use of the British Airways premium lounge at Philadelphia. But so are Aer Lingus, Iceland Air, and of course BA passengers. Thus the lounge is SRO (see photo).

Discouraged at the throngs, I walked to the adjacent American Express Centurion Lounge where my Platinum Card privileges extend to entry.

But not today. I was met by a brutish, well-dessed bouncer who extended his arm out to stop me, demanding to know if I was 3 hours or less from my departure time. I admitted that I have a 3 hour, 20 minute layover. Too bad, he smiled toothily, as he forbade entry. So much for my Amex Platinum Card privileges.

I returned to the BA lounge and eventually found a place to sit in the back by the toilets in an area adapted for laptop users. My spirits improved considerably when two very kind and enthusiastic young ladies, one a Filipina and the other from Africa, who work in the club insisted I try the well-chilled Piper Heidseick Champagne, along with a bowl of cashews and a smoked salmon sandwich (I tipped them $5 each; they were shocked, as apparently gratuities are rare). I’m on my 2nd glass as I write this, and hope I don’t fall asleep before my plane boards.

Then a 12.5 hour flight aboard a Qatar Airways A350 to Doha, where I’ll connect to Johannesburg. But in seat 2A in Business Class, I’ll be treated like an emir!

My American Airlines RJ190 from RDU was chock-a-block full, and the upgrade list was 32 names long for 3 available seats. Though I am traveling on an AAdvantage frequent flyer Business Class award Raleigh-Johannesburg that cost me 180,000 miles, AA stiffed me on flying up front on their milk run RDU/PHL, but I did get a comfortable Main Cabin Extra bulkhead seat (5D).

Being a Lifetime Gold meant I got to board in the Priority lane, but at the lowest Priority level–Group 4–so that by the time I reached my seat, all the overhead space was gone. So much for “priority” and too bad for all the peons allowed on board AFTER me.

On arrival to the claustrophobic, ancient B concourse at Philadelphia (see photo), I couldn’t move in the congested hallway. Then my Qatar flight wasn’t even listed on the departure board. I stopped an electric cart driver to ask where to find my gate. Maybe it’s missing from the display because Philly doesn’t know where Doha is, I thought.

Business Class passengers flying Qatar Aireays are allowed use of the British Airways premium lounge at Philadelphia. But so are Aer Lingus, Iceland Air, and of course BA passengers. Thus the lounge is SRO.

Discouraged at the throngs, I walked to the adjacent American Express Centurion Lounge where my Platinum Card privileges extend to entry.

But not today. I was met by a brutish, well-dessed bouncer who extended his arm out to stop me, demanding to know if I was 3 hours or less from my departure time. I admitted that I have a 3 hour, 20 minute layover. Too bad, he smiled toothily, as he forbade entry. So much for my Amex Platinum Card privileges.

I returned to the BA lounge and eventually found a place to sit in the back by the toilets in an area adapted for laptop users. My spirits improved considerably when two very kind and enthusiastic young ladies, one a Filipina and the other from Africa, who work in the club insisted I try the well-chilled Piper Heidseick Champagne, along with a bowl of cashews and a smoked salmon sandwich (I tipped them $5 each; they were shocked, as apparently gratuities are rare). I’m on my 2nd glass as I write this, and hope I don’t fall asleep before my plane boards.

Then a 12.5 hour flight aboard a Qatar Airways A350 to Doha, where I’ll connect to Johannesburg. But in seat 2A in Business Class, I’ll be treated like an emir!

I’m off to South Africa to visit the Kruger National Park again. Last there about two and half years ago, so am overdue for a visit. I try to get back to the Kruger every two years. I never tire of being in the park with the African wildlife, and I like to keep updated on incremental changes to infrastructure, rules, conservation practices, and procedures that come with time.  Readying for the trip, I got a jolt of ugly reality this morning when I phoned American Airlines to inquire about a long-withheld upgrade.

As I explained in early February, I burned 180,000 AAdvantage frequent flyer miles this trip to travel in Business class on oneworld partner Qatar Airways to get to Johannesburg, connecting to Qatar’s gateway cities in the US, of course, via American Airlines. What I didn’t know then was just how mean American Airlines was in dispensing the AAdvantage award travel.

AA agents have advised me for seven months to keep calling to see if an award seat opened on my initial leg from RDU to PHL, which is on a 2-class RJ.  I dutifully phoned again and again, perhaps 20 times altogether, but no dice.

But then today a candid and well-informed American Airlines agent told me why the RDU/PHL leg never opened in First class for me.  It is because the original agent back in February “charged” me 30,000 miles for one way Raleigh-Philly in coach using AnyTime pricing, and then charged another 150,000 miles for the Business class award on Qatar and AA for PHL/DOH/JNB/DOH/JFK/RDU. The agent today finally explained clearly that I can never get upgraded on the RDU/PHL award because it is strictly in Coach, even though charged at the highest possible AnyTime (30,000 miles) award level in that market.

(Of course my 36 banked 500-mile upgrades are worthless to help as well (I asked), as they are always worthless on AA, a classic Catch-22.)

Turns out that AAdvantage partner award travel to South Africa on Qatar in their world-class Business cabin was priced at a reasonable 150,000 miles all-in from Raleigh (RDU) to Johannesburg round trip when I sought to book the trip seven months in advance.  But my outbound route will be Raleigh-Philadelphia using AA on a separate AnyTime award for 30,000 miles, then Philly-Doha-Johannesburg (Qatar), returning Jo’burg-Doha-JFK (Qatar), then JFK-RDU (AA), all allowed in Business class for 150,000 miles.

The agent who originally booked me never explained the 180,000 miles was 150 + 30.

New York (JFK) was not my first choice of connections coming home. Qatar did their part by ensuring award seats in business were available from Philadelphia to Doha going, then Doha-Jo’burg-Doha, and finally Doha to Philadelphia returning.  But American Airlines said back in February that they could not clear me for award travel on the short domestic leg from Philadelphia to RDU returning, not even in coach.  That’s why I ended up traveling Doha-JFK and JFK to Raleigh.  American said award coach seats were available JFK/RDU, but not PHL/RDU.  (Note: the itinerary originally had me returning through Boston, but AA moved me to JFK some months ago on account of reshuffling their BOS/RDU connections.)

No award seats at any level seven months in advance in the Philadelphia to Raleigh market?  Yet Qatar is honoring their partnership agreement for award travel. Knowing how stingy American Airlines has become with award seats, it sure makes it hard for me to book AA when I have a choice.

It is easy to forget how low British Airways has fallen in the airline pantheon after having studiously avoided the carrier for nearly two decades. I have only memories of fine flights on British in better years.  Last week, however, I was jolted back to the harsh reality of today’s despicable BA when I was charged for advance seat assignments even though I’m traveling on a hefty Premium Economy fare.

Time was, I loved to fly up front on British Airways. BA conjured superb service in the sharp end of the carrier’s many 747s, and the airline could rightfully crow about the virtues of one of the best premium cabins in the sky.

Not any longer.  First went the incomparable Concorde. (I have a long video I made of a BA Concorde JFK/LHR flight that I need to upload to YouTube; it depicts service that seems like a dream now). Then first class was diminished or replaced on many flights in favor of BA’s cramped, outdated business class seating, and the airline has been in a race for the bottom ever since.

BA’s avarice came back to me as I planned a trip in late January from Raleigh/Durham to Vienna for my wife and me to attend an orchestra concert in which our son, a college sophomore and gifted pianist, will be performing. I opted for the American Airlines nonstop—finally again up-gauged to a 777—to London Heathrow, and then connecting to oneworld partner British Airways LHR/VIE and back.   The AA cabin on that RDU/LHR aircraft will be configured with the airline’s new Premium Economy seats, and I decided to spend extra in order to try it.

Booking the flights almost five months early meant I had my pick of the best PE seats on the American Airlines segments, RDU/LHR and LHR/RDU.  Being an AAdvantage Million Miler Lifetime Gold didn’t hurt, either.

But when I attempted to grab seats on the British Airways codeshare flights (LHR/VIE and VIE/LHR), I was directed by AA.com to the BA website, and there got a shock.  British Airways didn’t give a whit about how much money I paid for the Premium Economy fare or how many loyalty miles I had accumulated.  Turns out that BA doesn’t allow anyone access to an advance seat assignment without paying, not even Premium Economy and Business Class customers unless traveling on a full fare (which no one ever pays, of course),.

That prompted me to look deeper into how BA gets away with it.  I found that once-great British Airway is the only carrier on earth to charge premium class customer for advance seats. And BA has been doing this for 9 years.

The British Airways online seating chart indicated a range of prices for advance seats from a low of $18 (back of the bus) to $27 (most other economy seats) to a high of $39 per seat (exit row with extra legroom). And that’s for only the 2.5 hour flight between LHR and Vienna.

Grudgingly, I blew $108 for 4 seat assignments (4 X $27) after paying the fat Premium Economy fare on AA/BA.  Seemed like a lot for a married couple who want only to guarantee sitting together and sometimes holding hands.

Further research yielded more bad press for British Airways.  Their intra-Euro flights operated on A320 aircraft like London-Vienna reportedly have no legroom and abysmal service.

This new information in hand, I decided we need a modicum of comfort. I returned to the BA website and paid another $12 per seat, per flight to move my wife and me to the exit row on both flights which have extra legroom. Ka-ching, another $48 for British Airways.

Altogether, then, the advance seats alone added $156 to my already-stiff Premium Economy fare, and the BA seats certainly won’t be anything like PE-comfortable.  For $156, hopefully tolerable, but nothing more.

With a moldy, antiquated business class product (“Club World”) only slightly better than Ukrainian Air and woefully behind almost every other carrier, including Aeroflot, British Airways shamelessly piles on more misery by making Business Class and Premium Economy passengers pay for advance seat assignments. BA’s contemptible attitude to customer service makes them a lousy and unequal oneworld partner to American Airlines. My decades-long boycott of the carrier is back in place.