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Recently (late January) I had an opportunity to fly with my wife in AA’s new Premium Economy cabin RDU to London Heathrow and return.  Here below are the notes I drafted in real time going over and returning.

I am a latecomer to appreciating real Premium Economy (PE) airline offerings.  I’ve been lucky to fly often in international First and Business Class for decades, and I certainly prefer Business Class over any kind of coach cabin.  However, I have discovered that PE can be very comfortable—not just more tolerable than regular economy—and the price difference between Premium Economy and Business is gigantic.  PE is usually about $500 more than coach, whereas Business is thousands more.

To date, I’ve sampled and blogged about my experiences on PE aboard Cathay Pacific (twice), Air New Zealand, Delta, and Singapore Airlines.  This post records my impressions of what American Airlines has put together for Premium Economy.

AA174 RDU/LHR

First impression: Quite roomy and comfortable. Light years better than coach.

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American Airlines’ very comfortable Premium Economy chair on AA174 RDUU/LHR.

American’s Premium Economy seats are, to me, way more comfortable than ones I’ve experienced on Cathay Pacific, Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, or Delta. Frankly, I am surprised to be saying that because the other four carriers have installed very comfortable PE seats. I didn’t expect AA to have a noticeably better chair.

Seats in PE on this 777 are 8-across (2-4-2), two fewer across the fuselage than the 10 stuffed into coach (3-4-3). 2-4-2 seems to be the standard Premium Economy 777 configuration for the airlines that offer it. Each seat is plenty wide, nearly comparable to 737 domestic first class seats.

By comparison, consider how narrow and cramped are the ten seats across in economy.

Seat pitch seems roomier than on the other four airline offerings I’ve flown, too. If the actual dimensions are the same, then American has somehow made it feel more distant from the row ahead than other airlines.

Well, the seat, at least, was superior to previous experiences. Boarding was not so hot.

PE was called as Group 4 (of 7 groups), though it was actually Group 5 because the super-duper-elite “Concierge” level people on AA are called ahead of everybody else (I was shocked that 15-20 Concierge folks pushed forward to clamber aboard—that’s a big number of tippy-top tier elitists even for this big plane).

Then Group 1 (Business Class), Group 2 (the next level down AA super-elite tier, but still above most people), Group 3 (AA Executive Platinum and Platinum: several tens of passengers; I thought they would never stop coming), and finally our Group 4, Premium Economy and AA Gold. I swear that a third of the plane had boarded ahead of us, and I was worried the overhead space would be gone by the time we found our seats (13A and 13C).

Sure enough, a lot of the luggage space was taken, but we still managed to get our bags and backpacks stowed overhead quickly. Just in time, for the hordes followed after us.

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Great legroom in 13AC on AA in PE!  My feet didn’t reach the bulkhead.

We are in the first row of PE on the port (left) side, 13AC. Lots of privacy and lots of space (my feet don’t reach the bulkhead, a lot more legroom than in the bulkhead row of domestic first class). We also have two windows, which feels like a real luxury and is better than most Business Class seats.

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Our seats, 13A (window) and 13C (aisle), were private and had 2 windows just for us.

Disappointingly, there was no boarding beverage of any kind in Premium Economy, let alone my hoped-for Champagne. Because we are cheek-by-jowl behind Business Class, I had a literal front row seat watching the puny boarding beverage service to the privileged flyers up front. It was a choice of coolish-but-not-chilled Champagne (so I overhead someone complain) served in flimsy plastic glasses or warmish orange juice, both distributed frenetically and impersonally by the cabin crew with frozen smiles (I observed): the very picture of perfunctory.

No hope of a refill, either, as the Business Class flight attendants never went back to their flock. Jeez, $6000 for Business Class, and the poor saps in sharp end couldn’t even get a second glass of lukewarm Champagne before takeoff.

So much for being at Concierge level, too. Board first, but then you are just a peon.

On my long-ago 1989 Concorde flight between JFK and London, British Airways poured unlimited quantities of properly chilled Dom Perignon and offered several first growth Bordeaux in superior vintages (at the time, the superlative 1982 and the softer, but delicious, 1983).

You know, I have a home video I transferred to DVD of that Concorde flight with me and a friend in seats 1A and 1B, and I should post it to YouTube for posterity, though it does show us in our cups by the time we hit the tarmac at Heathrow. It was a remarkable experience, both going over and returning.

Back to what you get these days in the supposed premium cabins of American Airlines, flight attendants did bring us bottles of water just before the door closed. Not Champagne, but at least we would be hydrated.

Once off the ground, a miracle: Beverage carts appeared in the PE cabin as soon as we leveled off.

Champagne, please, we pleaded!

Alas, AA doesn’t deem PE passengers worthy of even a cheap but satisfying Cava ($10 retail) or a modest but tasty Prosecco (a mere $6 at Costco). Bereft of bubbles, I ordered two Bombay Sapphire G&Ts to quench my thirst. The cabin crew obliged my request for lime to do it right, and I was, at last, on my way to properly celebrating our vacation.

The advanced-selected chicken, mushrooms and pasta dish arrived. I couldn’t honestly tell you whether it was better than just okay, because by then the gin had hit my system. I was hungry, and the stuff tasted pretty good.

After dinner was cleared, I discovered there is but a single mid-cabin lavatory on our portside aisle between Business Class and the tail. That’s stingy and not good on an International flight. PE customers must traipse back though the poor folks jammed into cattle class to reach a bathroom.

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The small and intimate Premium Economy cabin on AA174 777 RDU/LHR

It’s a short flight, just 6.5 hours, so I need to get some shut-eye, with just 4.5 hours to go (already passing Sydney, Nova Scotia headed for Newfoundland, and then Greenland, and later Ireland). This flight seems so tame compared to Singapore Airlines’ 19 hour flight Newark to Singapore nonstop (see last week’s post).

More later when they wake me for a breakfast tray of fruit and Greek yogurt. Maybe the gin taste will be out of my mouth by then.

American Airlines must have a lot of fluff built into the Raleigh/London schedules because we pushed back from RDU 7 minutes late and arrived Heathrow about an hour early. I am not complaining. I was worried about making our 90-minute connection to British Airways London/Vienna, and now we have ample time.

Leaving the aircraft, my fleeting last thought of the flight was efficient, painless, and comfortable (well, in the Premium Economy cabin, at least). Only complaint was the AA flight attendants. They did their jobs well, but coolly, just going through the paces. No sign of warmth, joy, or happiness in their profession like I see on Emirates, Singapore, and even on Delta.

AA173 LHR/RDU

Our Raleigh flight left from Gate 42 at Heathrow’s Terminal 3, as far as one can go to a gate.  Luckily, we were connecting from a British Airways flight from Vienna that arrived at Terminal 3 (about which more in a future post), but it was still a long walk. Once there, I was assured our flight (AA173), scheduled to depart at 1235pm, would begin boarding at 1145am. The crew didn’t arrive until about that time, though, spoiling our chance to settle in early.

When Gate 42 staff did finally call for boarding, we in Premium Economy were again merely Group 4. Concierge Key customers (the tippy-top tier AA elite category) boarded first–and with proper attitude–followed by groups 1, 2, and 3. So once again we were actually the fifth group to board. Due to the light load, that meant that almost all passengers boarded ahead of Premium Economy customers. My AAdvantage Lifetime Gold status, earned from being a Million Miler (not quite two million) on American, didn’t buy me any respect, either.

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AA Concierge Key flyers get to board ahead of eeeeeeverybody!

I felt slighted again, just as I did when we left RDU, given PE is touted as a product vastly superior to coach, and it costs more. However, the truth is that plenty of overhead luggage space was still available by the time we plopped down in our wonderful bulkhead seats, 13AC, the same ones we claimed on the eastbound leg.

Since PE gets no boarding drink service, what was I worried about, anyway? We didn’t miss a damn thing by boarding last. It’s just the principal to me, a Rodney Dangerfield can’t-get-no-respect kind of thing, plus my obsessive-compulsive nature acting up.

We left the gate early and were soon taking off,. Once more I reveled in having two windows adjacent to seats 13A and 13C, a luxury if you get a thrill looking out while flying, as I always have.

American Airlines provided perfunctory service again, just as going over, on the London-Raleigh leg, but efficient. The crew must have quaffed double espressos, so fast and fidgety were they to distribute drinks and meals and then to clean up as soon as we reached altitude. The flight attendants disappeared for 5 hours on an 8.5 hours flight right after the meal service except for once coming around with tiny little paper dishes of chocolate ice cream.

Very, very light load. Business Class was totally full of upgraded Concierge Key customers, Premium Economy a bit more than half full, with economy a barren wasteland of empty seats. This would have been the time (late January) to buy a cheap ticket and fly in coach.

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Very light load in Premium Economy coming home from LHR to RDU in late January.

Mid-flight, I went to the rear galley to get a Diet Coke since nobody came to me, and while there I asked about the empty coach cabin. The very senior flight attendants (they looked close to my age, and I’m ancient) said this flight is lightly booked from after New Year’s until Spring Break, and then fully booked all year until after Christmas.

I assume they know. The FAs are all Raleigh-based and hold enough seniority to consistently win the RDU/LHR flights in their monthly bids. Raleigh to London and back is a good run (called a “line of flying” in airline parlance). No going all over the place staying in a different city every night.

If I was looking for the least-worst seats in coach on this 777-200 configuration, they would be the two bulkheads seats on the left and the right immediately behind the three rows of Premium Economy. Most of coach is a miserable 3-4-3 setup of ten seats across. The bulkhead row right behind the PE cabin, however, has just two seats on the left and right sides. Still horribly narrow and uncomfortable, but the least worst, as I said, and with a bit of extra legroom.

American’s configuration of the 777-200 aircraft used on this route has a single lavatory on the port side in the coach mid-cabin and two on the starboard aisle, something I missed when we were flying over. Since our seats are on the port aisle, and since Premium Economy passengers are not allowed to go forward to the business class toilets, we must compete for the one on this side halfway back in economy or try to cross over to reach the other two.

On this flight, the portside mid-cabin lav had an overflowing trash container and was never serviced during the flight, another sign this crew is coasting. It also had a broken grab handle, which I didn’t report to the cabin crew for fear they would close the toilet as “out of order” due to the loose handle being a safety hazard.

Back in my nice big Premium Economy seat, I watched a movie and charged my phone, but had trouble finding and then using the plugs for the charger and the headset. It is a mystery why, in these brand new Premium Economy seats, AA put both outlets waaaay in the back of the inset book/phone holder. It is totally dark and impossible to see how to plug stuff in without using the flashlight on my phone.

Even a helpful flight attendant had trouble figuring it out and then reaching the outlets. Why would such a poor design be part of brand new chairs? It’s a typical airline mistake.

American provided an impressively large, over-the-ear headset for PE passengers, but it is not noise-canceling like the Bose sets provided to Business Class travelers, which makes it hard to listen to movies and music. I retrieved my own Bose noise-canceling headphones from my backpack and thereafter had a pleasant movie-watching experience. I advise anyone who books AA in PE to bring your own noise-canceling headset.

Thinking about the difference between Premium Economy on American and PE on Singapore, in my opinion AA has the superior seat with so-so service, while Singapore shines in top-flight service with a passable seat.

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Business Class on AA173 LHR/RDU: Yes, better than PE, but at great cost.

In sum, I would definitely book AA in PE again.  The seats alone are worth it despite the mundane service.  Business Class it ain’t, not by a long shot.  But neither is it Sardine Class.  It is a very comfortable in-between, and American Airlines’ Premium Economy is off to a good start.

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For a three-day trip to Singapore this past week (just arrived home yesterday, February 6), I booked the Singapore Airlines nonstop flight from Newark. It is, at the moment, the longest flight on earth at between 17 and 19 hours, depending. Singapore Airlines in Premium Econmy makes flying nonstop 10,288 miles better than merely bearable.

Although it saves substantial time over alternate ways to get to Singapore from the U.S. East Coast, and even with 30 years of experience flying ultra-long legs, I wondered if I could endure it, especially since I opted for Premium Economy, not Business Class. The A350-900ULR aircraft used on the nonstop is fitted out with only Business Class and Premium Economy seats—no economy class at all.  PE fares were far cheaper than Business, so…

Bottom line: No sweat.  I flew over, arriving Sunday night, and flew home late Tuesday night.  Kudos to Singapore Airlines for making Premium Economy service as painless as possible.  It was better than just okay; I would do it again.

NEWARK TO SINGAPORE

SQ21 was scheduled to depart Newark Sat, Feb 02 at 9:45 AM and to arrive Singapore Sun, Feb 03 at 5:15 PM. I checked in at the Terminal B Singapore counter, a 30-second process and headed through security.

There is no TSA Pre line at Terminal B reportedly because El Al flies out of there, too. I was given an “Expedited Passenger” card that allowed me to keep on my belt and shoes, but still had to empty all pockets and put liquids in a separate bin.

Entire TSA process took 16 minutes. On the face of it, not terrible. But for TSA Pre and Premium customers at 7:30 AM on a Saturday morning, I thought it was too long.  I wondered what Business Class flyers thought after spending all that money on their fare to get stuck in a slow-moving security queue.

But of course security sucks everywhere.

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Business Class on SQ21 EWR/SIN – I was NOT seated here!

We began boarding at 9:10 AM and completed quickly at 9:25 AM. Doors immediately closed, and the aircraft pushed back early at 9:30 AM. We were airborne by 9:45 AM. Extremely efficient boarding and takeoff process. Boarding was so quick that I could not get several text and email messages sent that I had planned to complete.

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Premium Economy on SQ 21 EWR/SIN showing the 2-4-2 seat configuration.

Both Business Class and Premium Economy were nearly full. I was in 33C, an aisle seat in the 3rd row of Premium Economy.

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My seat, 33C, on SQ21 to Singapore from Newark.

There are only 13 rows of PE, 31 to 43.  Business Class makes up the majority of the interior of the airplane.

Seat comfort was comparable, in my opinion, to Cathay Pacific PE, but inferior to the American Airlines PE chairs that I experienced RDU/LHR/RDU the previous week. The Singapore seats are comfortable, but feel narrower than those on the AA 777. This is especially telling at the arm rests where I was constantly competing with my seat mate for elbow room.

I was surprised to later learn that the seats are comparable in width dimension, so my impression was wrong.  Unfortunately, knowing the facts didn’t make it feel any roomier.  Sometimes perception trumps data.

This A350 PE cabin is set up 2-4-2, which seems a bit cramped for the airplane. The SQ cabin crew opined that the A350 PE seats are indeed narrower than on other types of aircraft, but I did not check that facts on that.

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SQ21 EWR/SIN on 02-Feb was nearly full in Premium Economy.

I am picking nits here.  The Singapore seats in Premium Economy are still far better than regular coach. FAR better!

Front to back (seat pitch) it is harder to tell. Distances are comfortable, but I am pretty short. If I was six feet or taller, I don’t know.

Near the back of the plane, the fuselage narrows, forcing Singapore to remove one seat on both sides of the last two rows. I sat in that last row on the port side, 42C, going home. Those seats have singular privacy (literally) and a good-sized table and storage bin between the seat and the window. More on that below.

There are three lavatories in the Premium Economy cabin, two on the starboard side, one of which is adjacent to the rear galley, and one on the port side also by the rear galley. I checked them all out. The two by the galley are the narrowest toilets I’ve ever seen on an airplane (excluding RJs). Hard even to turn around and feel more claustrophobic than usual on planes. The third lav is on the starboard side and has normal interior dimensions.

I enjoyed the pleasure of the friendly, well-trained Singapore flight crew, mostly young and every one cheerful. More male flight attendants than I remember from flying Singapore in the 80s and 90s; almost half are guys.

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Looking forward on SQ21 from near the rear galley – note 3 single seats in last 3 rows.

The usual tiny ditty bag of socks, tooth brush, and eyeshades, but no ear plugs. However, unlike American Airlines, the bag was noticeably cheap and made of an ugly plastic. If I wasn’t flying on super-proud Singapore Air, I would not make mention of it, but it is not what Singapore of the past would have provided based on past experience.

Every PE seat came with a big, real blanket and a very good pillow.

I was also provided with over-the-ear headphones labeled as noise-canceling, but in fact didn’t cancel out a single decibel. I returned my set to the crew and retrieved my Bose noise-canceling phones from my backpack. Soon I was enjoying a movie, the first of many on that long flight.

Well, not so long. It was a very fast flight at under 18 hours, scheduled to arrive Singapore an hour early at 4:15 PM Sunday afternoon, which was early Sunday morning back on the East Coast.

Kinda spoils the fun of bragging rights to having survived the world’s longest flight when it isn’t so long, I thought, fleetingly.  Then came to my senses and thanked the heavens that it was no longer.

Tattered and torn duty free catalogs and Singapore in-flight magazines in seat backs (I checked several) told me that the airline isn’t keeping up its past superior standards of perfection. In earlier years Singapore would have replaced all paper materials with the slightest signs of wear between flights.

Same with the menu for Premium Economy: Mine was dog-eared from reuse and contained menus for both Newark-Singapore and Singapore-Newark. That told me the menu selections never change in either direction. Again, I was surprised that Singapore’s standards have slipped a bit.

Drink carts came around at once after leveling off. Unlike American Airlines, Singapore served a tasty Blanc de Blanc Champagne from Reims, which is to say, real Champagne! I enjoyed two nicely chilled glasses.

Lunch was a choice of Asian fish and Asian veggies, BBQ chicken, or a lamb dish of some kind. All came with the identical stale bread and tiny slab of orange cheddar cheese and a couple of crackers. Also a wilted salad.

A mediocre coach meal I was once served in the early 2000s on a Northwest DC-10 from Minneapolis to Paris popped into my brain as the analog to what I was looking at.

I looked back at the menu description, which said it was a “Prawn Waldorf Salad.” Wow, sounds fancy! Someone must have switched out mine for the pale green stuff in the little plastic bowl on my tray.

I had the fish with rice and Asian vegetables. The entire complement of food was, to me, pathetic in flavor and quality.

Again, I am probably being too harsh on Singapore Airlines because I flew SQ in real First Class on magnificent 747s in the 80s and 90s. My memory of bottomless bottles of vintage Krug Champagne served in crystal flutes and numerous tins of Beluga caviar served on sterling silver is indelible, and I can’t help but compare to the fare before me in Premium Economy.

It was a cruel memory from a bygone era that kept me from giving the meal service higher marks. Truth is, PE is not Business Class, and certainly not International First Class.  With that reality in mind, the meal was on par with expectations for Premium Economy.

The cabin crew was outstanding.

Ah, youth! It’s always smart to hire young men and women to do a tough job like that because they are so persistently cheerful. The under-30 flight attendants on board that flight were funny, upbeat and happy, lightening the mood of every flyer. I kept going back to talk to them in the rear galley because they were so much fun to be around.

I checked out the menu for later meals, and I prayed for improvement. At least the people who brought it love their job.

Singapore Airlines charges $75 extra (each way) for a bulkhead seat in Premium Economy by an exit door with no windows. I guess if I was real tall that unlimited legroom would be worth paying for.

On American Airlines, I didn’t have to pay extra for the legroom on my Premium Economy bulkhead seats, and on AA, I had two windows rather than no window and no drafty exit door beside me.

I watched a movie, or maybe two. Time has a way of resisting normal rhythm on such long flights. Pretty soon we were over the Black Sea and headed for Iraq, Afghanistan and then India. We were nearing the halfway point of the flight. I could not believe we had already come so far.

I did a lot of stretching at frequent intervals (at least once an hour) in the rear galley area. There was no place to walk on that plane except to the back because the two aisles are isolated by the large Business Class cabin in the front.

Also drank plenty of water to stay hydrated. I started a third movie. I wasn’t yet sleepy.

Singapore has installed big seatback HD screens that make watching movies appealing. For reading, there is a light on a gooseneck with 3 brightness levels–very handy.

Not impressed with the fold-down foot rest. It’s useless if you are over about five feet.

Nor the recline. It is a cradle seat design, meaning the bottom and back rigidly tilt together rather than the bottom remaining stable when the seatback is reclined. I have never found cradle seats comfortable.

The leg rest is the third element of seat manipulation. It hardly came up at all and left my legs dangling oddly.

I eventually found, after trying all combinations of adjustment, that the seat was comfortable only when in the fully upright position with no leg rest or foot rest. I couldn’t sleep well in it, but I dozed a lot.

Maybe it was only my body’s idiosyncratic unfitness to the seat. Certainly many other passengers seemed to like the seats, as most appeared to be sleeping. I envied their slumbers.

Cabin crew remained bright and cheerful and came through every 30 minutes or so offering water, juice, and snacks. These and any desired beverage, including Champagne, were also available to grab and go from the rear galley.

Except for the poor seat design, the flight couldn’t have been much easier or pleasant to bear the long hours cooped up in a carbon fiber tube.

Lavs on the plane were kept spotless, clean, and neat. I wish the cabin crew on American Airlines from Heathrow to Raleigh two days prior had done as well.

After a third movie, more snacks, and a light meal, the flight was nearly over. Looking at the moving map, I saw that we were overhead George Town and Butterworth (Malaysia), my family’s jumping-off place to the Thai islands several years ago when we visited Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand over that year’s Christmas break.

We were, at that time, due to land at 4:30 PM, 45 minutes early. I had watched four movies, including Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman (recommended).

Recapping the outbound (EWR/SIN) flight:

The PE seats seemed narrow. This nagged at me near the end of the flight. If the actual dimensions are the same as other Premium Economy seats, then there is some quirk in design that makes the SQ Premium Economy seats feel cramped compared to the American Airline PE seats I just flew on two days previous.

I don’t like the cradle seat tilt-recline design.  Other customers seemed happy sleeping in them.

The Singapore Airlines cabin crew was spectacular start to finish, efficient and cheerful.

The airplane was clean and functional. That is, everything worked. On flights that long, every screen, light, and seat function must work to keep passengers pacified. SQ did a great job on that.

Ditto for the lavatories. All worked and were kept clean throughout 18 hours despite nonstop use.

Seat pocket materials needed to be refreshed.

The IFE (in-flight entertainment) system had lots of great movie selections and other content.

Singapore Air did an exemplary job planning and managing the flight. The airline staff’s ultra-long-haul expertise was on show on the flight.  Bravo!

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Singapore stern warning not to bring drugs into the country.

SINGAPORE TO NEWARK

Changi’s Terminal 3 is home to Singapore Airlines, and of course hometown pride requires that you keep up appearances. It’s been given an extensive updating, and it looks beautiful.

Truth be told, all of Changi gleams because, well, because that is the way Singapore does things:  Everything gleams in Singapore!

And that’s the truth.

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Singapore Changi Airport Terminal 3 on the late afternoon of Feb 5

Check-in to SQ22 at Singapore Air’s dedicated Premium Economy counters—a whole long line of counters, all staffed—took less than one minute. Again, that’s so Singapore.

A surprise at immigration: To leave Singapore, I had only to scan my passport and provide an electronic thumb print. No human interaction, no queue, no delay, took all of 30 seconds, and I was inside security. Of course there was a TSA-style security screen at the gate later.

I found one of four Priority Pass lounges at Terminal 3 and enjoyed the view from the lounge deck while sipping a Tiger beer, a tasty lager and Singapore’s staple brew. Later I found my way to the gate early to account for security screening.

The flight was due to leave at 12:40 AM, and boarding began just before midnight.  The flight back to Newark was very light. Maybe a quarter full in PE, and Business looked nearly empty.

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SQ22 SIN/EWR on Feb 6 was not full in Premium Economy.

The single Premium Economy seats at the back of the plane, including mine (42C), were wonderfully private and had a locker between my seat and the window. It was plenty big enough to hold my backpack, making it easily accessible.  I admit that I loved it. It felt like Business Class roominess and luxury—but for the reasonable fare of Premium Economy!

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My seat (42C) in the last portside row of SQ22 SIN/EWR was one of the single seats.

The lead flight attendant, Ken, introduced himself and gave me an early glass of Champagne even though it’s not policy to offer it in PE when boarding.

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Another view of my single seat, 42C – note roomy locker.

Ken later brought up from Business Class a bottle of vintage Charles Heidsieck Champagne. I realized at once that I must have been flagged in their system for special treatment on that flight.  Be that as it may, I didn’t complain and appreciated the little extras. The special Champagne and personal touches did not improve the meals, however.

The captain announced that it would be a short 17 hours and a few minutes to Newark.

The route of flight moved north and east after takeoff. Originally, we were routed over Mongolia, northern Russia, and far north Norway, approaching North America well north of Greenland from the east.

With 11 hours to go, however, we were flying just east of the Japanese archipelago with a 155 mph tailwind, which gave us an astonishing ground speed of 739 mph. We were due to arrive Newark early at 4:45 AM, 45 minutes early.

The route skirted the Aleutians, crossed central Alaska, and approached Newark from the west across Canada between Hudson Bay and the Great Lakes. The moving map said we would cover a total of 10,288 miles on the flight.

Recapping the return (SIN/EWR) flight:

Service was again spectacular on Singapore Airlines in Premium Economy, thanks to the cabin crew. They were killing me with kindness, regularly bringing food and drink (lots of orange juice and apple juice), as well as asking about my well-being and contentment. They were once again fun to be with. Just as on the outbound flight, I had interesting chats with several flight attendants in the rear galley during my routine stretching exercises.

I remained unimpressed with Singapore’s PE cradle seat design.

The meals were again mediocre, I thought, and the mid-flight “pizza box” was scarcely larger than two packs of cards and unappetizing. Good thing I wasn’t flying for the food.

Seat 42C was marvelously private and boasted the large cabinet between it and the two windows in which to stow my backpack.

One downside to sitting in the last row on this A350-900ULR aircraft is that the back of the plane was ice cold from beginning to end. To stay warm, I wrapped myself in 3 blankets and kept my shoes on over two pairs of socks.

On the whole, however, my complaints are few. Singapore Airlines is a great way to fly, and I would definitely book this nonstop again. The incurably cheerful attitude of the flight attendants makes the nearly long flight almost fun to endure.

 

This week brought an opportunity for a first-ever visit to Bratislava, Slovakia on a day trip from Vienna. The two cities are just an hour apart by train. I found Bratislava shockingly and thoroughly modern, mixed with traditional Eastern European character and Soviet-era brutalist concrete.

Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, the country that resulted from the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993. It is the only country capital that borders two sovereign nations, Austria to the west and Hungary to the south.

I’m sorry, but this isn’t a frothy report on cutsie, but weird and sometimes creepy Eastern European architecture. It’s my one-day impression of a totally-with-it vibrant young population of an old city, people who embrace the past as fully as they revel in all the present has to offer. Their parents may never forget having lived on the mind-numbing collectivist side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, but the Millennials of Slovakia have shaken off that past. Even the stultifying Soviet-style concrete apartment blocks are said to be gaining value, at least those close in to the central city.

The main part of town is where the energy is at the moment. Lots of private sector investments reflects confidence in the local economy. Great new restaurants and bars and gleaming craft beer halls contrast with traditional cafes and coffee houses. Modern Bratislava can be glimpsed in the new Slovak National Theater where our son, a pianist, performed this week with his college orchestra (and why we were there).

The nearby shiny shopping mall, literally crawling with customers, is built on the north bank of the broad Danube River that divides the old town to the north and the growing suburbs to the south.

Leaving the glitzy new offices, retail, and other developments near the river, my wife and I made our way into the meandering cobblestone streets of the old city. It’s nothing like the size, grandeur, history, and beauty of Vienna (about two million people, compared to 450,000 in Bratislava), but the streets feel comfortably old and somehow familiar in a way the big cities do not.

As we walked, I noticed busy traffic of new cars, many well-patronized trams and buses, lots of cyclists, and prosperous-looking pedestrians.

Deep inside the old part of town, mostly devoid of automobiles, felt like stepping back 200 years. Well, until I began looking into the bars, coffee houses, and restaurants. The young scene is palpable there having fun. We did our best to join in.

I couldn’t help thinking how the downtown-versus-outer-rings phenomenon reminded me of my home town of Raleigh. Life “inside the beltline” in Raleigh seems more interesting, energetic, and unique than in the ‘burbs outside the beltline ring.

Bratislava has an infamous “flying saucer” bridge over the Danube and a fairy tale castle on top of the hill overlooking it. The castle is a rebuilt tourist fantasy from 19th century ruins resulting from a fire, so we gave it a miss. I can get that in central Florida, thanks to Disney.

We walked partway up the hill to enjoy a midday feast at the famous Modra Hviezda Restaurant, famous for its local fare, such as rabbit and venison. I splurged on duck liver pate, which was as tasty as it appeared.

One sour note: The Modra Hviezda keeps a caged Brazilian Green Parrot by the bar. Brazilian Greens are among the world’s smartest birds They thrive in family flocks, soaring through rain forest canopies. I was saddened to see this parrot had plucked out all its breast feathers in lonely frustration. I stopped and whistled to it, prompting the bird to put its neck and throat up to the edge of the cage so I could scratch it. I stayed as long as I could using my fingers to massage its neck and head before my wife threatened to leave without me. If birds can look forlorn, this one did. I didn’t have the heart to take its photo.

Okay, Bratislava’s look is at first a discordant hash of pre-20th century charm, postwar Soviet Socialist Republic ugly, and 21st century sleek, but somehow it has a strange unity. The fun-loving, forward-thinking, fast-moving younger generation gives the place an electric energy that harmonizes the stylistic angles.

The sum of Bratislava’s parts surpasses individual appearances. I’m glad to have seen it, and I admire its vitality. That said, and no offense meant to the place or to its fine and friendly people, but I wouldn’t care to go back without a good reason. I’m sure many Raleigh visitors say much the same of my fair city.

We owe the fellows and ladies who keep us safe when flying every day a huge debt of gratitude. It is a credit to their professionalism that frequent flyers like us can and do take TSA agents at airport security screens for granted. So, during this painful shutdown period, why don’t we show them a little love?  They deserve it, and more than ever right now while they are not being paid, they need our thanks and appreciation.

Are they perfect?  Hell, no!  Complaints, aggravations, and screw-ups abound at airport security, and the screening measures are arguably less effective than we complacently assume.  But mistakes are going to happen when screening two million people every single day at 450 locations.  Neither should we blame the staff for administering an imperfect security process.  TSA agents didn’t invent it; they are just doing the best they can to keep us safe using the tools and techniques they’ve been given to work with.

To put it in perspective, TSA agents at our nation’s airports number over 50,000 of the 420,000 federal employees deemed “essential” during the government shutdown, meaning those employees are compelled to go to work without being paid until the federal government budget is passed.  No matter how long the political impasse, these guys and gals risk losing their jobs if they fail to show up for work.

Yes, they have been promised to be paid after the shutdown is resolved for the time they’ve toiled during it, but in the meantime, zilch, nada.  And Trump says it ”could be years” until it’s over.  Meantime, fifty thousand TSA agents, whose sole job is to keep us safe when flying every day, are working for free.

They don’t make much, either. TSA agents are among the lowest paid “essential” employees, with annual incomes of $25,000 to $45,000.  Most agents reportedly are at the lower end of that wage spectrum.

Such poor salaries makes it understandable that a lot of agents are living paycheck to paycheck.  Media are replete with stories about furloughed workers struggling with car payments, mortgages due, and cobbling together money for grocery shopping.

I admit that my first reaction to the extended shutdown was a selfish frustration that two near-term overseas trips (to Vienna, and then to Singapore) might be cancelled if too many TSA screeners failed to show up for work, causing a meltdown at the airports.  After all, every day there are reports of growing TSA agent absences due to sickouts.

It’s natural to think of my own plans first, but as I read news reports, it came home to me that these agents are not paid well and are under-appreciated.  Reflecting on my fleeting, but great many, instances at TSA screens, I realized that my face-to-face encounters with agents have come close to being universally good experiences.  TSA agents almost everywhere have been cheerful, helpful, and professional—sometimes even funny.

Thinking a bit more about it, I grasped that, yes, I have certainly come to take TSA agents for granted. Unconsciously, the TSA community has become part of my travel family.  I rely on them when on the road at airports to keep the rhythm of my trips in step. Instinctively, I calculate the consistency of their work product into my trip time management planning.  I depend upon their efficiency, which means I trust them.

“Trust” and “depend” are the key words. I have an unspoken bond with TSA agents at airports.  I can’t do my job unless they do theirs.  And they do, in good spirits!

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen who wear the TSA uniform and badge.  You are hard-working, well-meaning, and underpaid.  I appreciate what you do very, very much.

Flying 50 weeks a year for more than three decades for consulting clients in the US and overseas meant a lot of travel planning.  Great big consulting firms, of course, have their own in-house or external travel agencies that coordinate everything for their billing units (consultants) going hither and yon.  But not the little boutique consulting companies I worked for.  And I was often contracting with clients just for myself. Usually, therefore, I was making my own reservations for air, for rental cars, and for hotels.

Doing all that took a lot of time every week, especially with the volatile nature of flights being canceled, delayed, and subject to schedule changes. Hotel and car reservations were, as now, more stable than air schedules, but often a major flight time change impacted the pickup or return time of my rental car and the arrival time or check-out time at the hotel. I had to coordinate, then re-coordinate, all of it every time.

Back before computers (which in the 21st century begins to sound like “back before electricity”), I had only paper schedules to work from.  For decades I subscribed to either the OAG Pocket Flight Guide (Official Airline Guide) or to the American Express Skyguide.  Both were handy references, updated monthly, to every North American airline schedule and to a few select overseas destinations, like London.  One (OAG) listed flights based on destination cities; the other by city of origin.

Until late in the game, neither thick pocket flight guide showed connections, so those had to be planned manually by tediously looking up multiple flight segments. If I was traveling on Delta, for example, between L.A. and Raleigh, I would have to research the best flight times and connections through ATL, DFW, and CVG.  Doing that and then writing it all down on paper for reference took a lot of my evening hours in hotels, but it probably kept me out of trouble.

Then I would call the airline and ask for the connections I’d scribbled on paper. Sometimes my optimal flights were full or just too expensive, and the airline rez agent would have to book me on alternative planes, routes, and times. In some cites (e.g., New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston) I could not always fly into the airport I preferred and would have to take what was available.  So Newark instead of LaGuardia, or Houston Intercontinental rather than Hobby.

When flights were finally confirmed, only then could I deal with car rentals and hotels to coordinate with the final flight plan. Scores of toll-free numbers were listed in my address book.

None of it was as transparent as today, and Lord knows doing it through the web is not as easy as it sounds.  And, as I said, it was tedious and time-consuming.

Looking back now, I can’t believe how much trouble it was. Even after the long process of initial planning, unexpected flight changes going out or returning home drove everything else, and it happened often.  I spent a lot of time on airport and hotel pay phones to airlines, rental car companies, and hotel chains in those days.

Thinking back, I had trained well in my youth for the toil of such back office travel planning work. I’ve been doing this sort of thing since my first big trip: three weeks around the country by rail in 1964 when I was 16 years old. But I started planning for that trip when I was just 14.

That was pre-Amtrak, back when individual railroads still proudly operated their own crack streamliners.  My 1964 journey ran over 11 different railroads coast-to-coast on 15 different trains, all fares included in a single rail ticket for $167.  I planned the entire trip and then negotiated the unified rail fare. I was frugal because I paid for it with my own hard-earned money from years of delivering papers and mowing lawns.

I also planned all hotel/motel accommodation in New Orleans, Houston, Williams (AZ), L.A., San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Chicago. My careful planning paid off: The trip went perfectly and instilled in me the confidence that I could plan trips anywhere, any time. I’ve done exactly that for 55 years all over the globe.

These days I am not traveling nearly as much for business, and more for pleasure, and also planning travel for others.  Mostly I still do my own planning because I am good at it and like the work, though sometimes I give parts of trips to my most trusted travel planning partner, Discount Travel of Jacksonville, Florida. Owner Steve Crandell is the best there is and dead honest.

Trips I have planned recently for 2019 include:

  • Buying tickets for my son to fly home and back to college from MSP over spring break. Includes ground arrangements and seat assignments.
  • Making a one way reservation for him to come home from MSP at the end of his spring Semester.
  • RDU/VIE this month on AA/BA in Premium Economy for me and my wife to see our son perform with his college symphony orchestra in Vienna and Bratislava. This included having to access and pay for BA seat assignments (a huge PIA) between London and Vienna on the connecting flights.  Also arranging the hotel in Wien.  Now studying whether to buy 3-day or weekly Vienna transit passes, and figuring out trains to/from Bratislava. Contacted AT&T to have international plans on our mobile phones. Oh, yes, also bought Euros in advance to have a few in our pockets.
  • Booked a separate ticket RDU/EWR/RDU on AA to get to Singapore Airlines to ride their new nonstop to Singapore (longest flight on earth at the moment). Also made rez at the Marriott at EWR the night before the SQ flight departs (early Feb).
  • Made Singapore Air reservations and purchased tickets EWR/SIN/EWR in premium Economy on their nonstop (world’s current longest flight). Made hotel reservations in Singapore’s Little India, and then booked a day room at a nearby Hilton Garden Inn because the return flight SIN/EWR doesn’t depart until just past midnight (0040). Made sure to research Priority Pass clubs at Changi, too, and bought a few Singapore dollars in advance. Called AT&T again for another smartphone international plan for Singapore for the period I will be there.
  • Landed a great deal on Delta for award tickets RDU to Rome (FCO) to visit my aging relatives in Florence in late March and early April. Am now looking into train schedules Rome-FCO Airport to Florence, as well as a hotel in Florence, a rental car, and a hotel in Rome that last night before I fly home. Called AT&T to add another international plan to my cell phone, and I will have plenty of Euros to take, left over from my Vienna trip this month.
  • Worked with my travel agent to book AA and Latam Peru RDU/MIA and Miami to Lima over our daughter’s spring break in April to see Cuzco and Machu Picchu. My wife and I did that trip B.K. (before kids) and planned everything ourselves, but this time I took the easy route and found a package deal with a Peru travel expert that includes early entry into the Machu Picchu grounds to climb the peak before everybody else is let in.
  • Helped my wife and daughter plan RDU to New Orleans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of JazzFest. To get a bargain fare, booked one way on two different airlines (Frontier and Allegiant). Because my schedule that week is flexible, I will drive our family van Raleigh to NOLA to save $650 on rental car and $550 in airfares.
  • Managed to find three low-mileage award tickets using mileage from two different frequent flyer accounts RDU to Billings, Montana in June for my wife, daughter, and me on Delta, and then grabbed 3 seats together (hard to do!). Booked a rental car at BIL for the period we are there visiting with my wife’s parents at their rustic summer cabin 90 miles from Billings in the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness (no cell signal there).

I keep the many receipts, notes, and tickets for each trip in individual file folders and always print out air, hotel, car rental, and other pertinent details.

For complex trips (e.g., last spring’s trip to Yunnan and this past fall’s trip to South Africa’s Kruger National Park), I make up a 3-ring binder notebook to take which contains all receipts and notes placed in chronological order with tabs. Yunnan was extremely complicated (air for three × 2 different airline itineraries, individual local hotels everywhere, Chinese Railway train tickets, purchase of Yuan currency, etc.). Ditto for Kruger because I have to do air × 2 separate trips, a rental car, a hotel in JNB, and Kruger accommodation, not to mention South African National Parks’ Wild Card renewal and buying South African Rand (currency.

I’ve always thought that anticipation of a trip brought me as much satisfaction as the trip itself.  My lifelong enthusiasm for travel coupled with my ability to plan ratchets up the excitement and anticipation to a higher level.  Since I plot every detail, I can visualize what will happen before I go and enjoy the trip in real time even more.

Even when things don’t go as planned, my detailed trip plans usually help me find quick resolutions because I am familiar with the variables.

Truth is, good trip or not, I love the grunt work of advance trip planning.

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As airlines do away with seat-back entertainment, what’s a body to do?

I plan to do what I have always done:  Take my own entertainment.

That has always included good old low-tech books.  No battery or headphones required.

When I began flying routinely in the 1970s, the acronym “IFE” for in-flight entertainment systems like seat-back screens with infinitely deep content didn’t exist.  Nor did laptop computers or tablets.  No cell phones, either, much less smartphones.  Heck, Al Gore hadn’t yet invented the Internet in the 1970s.

Airlines then offered—on some big airplanes on overseas flights and long domestic legs—drop-down screens in each cabin on which were projected one movie per flight. Prior to the movie, passengers were handed (or sold) cheap rubbery air-tube earplugs that resembled the sort of child’s toy stethoscope that used to come with a kiddie doctor bag at Christmas.

Actually, the toy stethoscopes probably functioned better.  I remember straining to hear movie dialog through those crap tubes.  At best it sounded muddy and weak, like the signal when trying to tune in a distant AM station (if you remember AM radio).

When the on-board VHS projectors worked at all (malfunctions were common), the movies shown were often dim and washed out and therefore nearly impossible to see because of cabin lighting and open window shades. The endless distractions of cabin service and people going to the lavatories didn’t help, either.  I often thought that airlines loved marketing on-board movies to attract customers, but didn’t care enough to make the execution live up to the hype.

Even when everything mechanical worked, the picture was a take-it-or-leave-it selection made by the airline, usually a bland, third-rate family movie meant to be as inoffensive as possible to most people.  On one flight I recall seeing some inane flick about parent hi-jinks with perfectly-coiffed and always-pretty children and wondering who would pay to see such something so unfunny at a theater.  I don’t remember the name.

And God forbid the movie had a curse word or two.  Those were always bleeped, and critical scenes of even mild violence were deleted (often leaving viewers to wonder what was happening).

Point is, we were left to our own devices of entertainment and distraction in those decades, and it looks like we may be coming full circle now.

Back then I always carried books to read and business papers to work on.  If I was desperately bored, airlines routinely stocked both cabins with lots of magazines, usually up to date.  Printed timetables, at the time an on-board staple (and now collectibles), were interesting to study, too.

Through five decades of flying I never stopped carrying novels to read.  My personal preferences are crime and political thrillers.  Current favorite authors include:

  • Norwegian master crime writer Jo Nesbø (if you like crime fiction, but have never read a Nesbø book, buy one NOW)
  • The spectacular Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) series of London-based private detective Cormoran Strike, a complex, nuanced character every bit as good or better than Harry Potter, and in the gritty crime genre
  • The Michael Connelly series of his LAPD character Detective Bosch and Connelle’s newes character, a young female detective named Ballard
  • The many John Grisham novels, all superb

I have never read any work by any of those authors that disappointed.  And some, like Nesbø and Galbraith (Rowling), are dense, very long reads—perfect for Atlanta to Johannesburg (16 hours) or even Newark to Singapore (19 hours).

(I tried reading non-fiction on planes for years and finally gave up.)

Not that I look down my nose at technology.  I love jazz and often carry these greats to listen to on some device in my luggage:

  • Doc Cheatham’s “Swinging Down in New Orleans”
  • Anything by Don Vappie and the Creole Jazz Serenadors (Don lives in NOLA)
  • “Blowing Off Steam” by the New Orleans Classic Jazz Orchestra
  • ”The Busby Berkeley Album” by John McGlinn, a 1990s London recording on Angel
  • Anything by Germany’s Palast Orchester (with Max Raabe), all inter-war (1920s-30s) cabaret masterpieces lusciously recorded with astonishing clarity using German condenser microphones

And when technology hums the way we all want it to, of course I subscribe and binge on the latest from Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Among my current favorite series are “Ozark,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “The Man in the High Castle,” and the droll “Patriot.”  I also like the new “Get Shorty” series (I am a big fan of the movie), and I like several Norwegian and Finish crime and political thrillers available on those streaming services.  I download and carry series and films to watch on board.

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All that said, I hope the tendency to rip out IFEs will not apply to long-haul international flights quite yet. I like to drift off to sleep watching movies on extra-long flights (12-19 hours) using my Bose over-the-ear, noise-canceling headphones.  I rewind to watch what I missed when I awake.

If the airlines do remove every IFE, I just hope we don’t all look like this guy, who is seen using something called a “Laptop Compubody Sock”:

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However, no matter what options the airlines provide or don’t offer for entertainment on board, nothing quite satisfies me like reading good fiction in the form of an old-fashioned, hard-copy book.  So, when I board and settle into my seat, I am all set, just like I always was.

That is, unless they do away with overhead reading lights on planes as well.

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 fourth post documenting my experiences. See the firstsecondthird and fourth diary posts. 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.

After four previous relatively short diary posts, this wraps up my 2018 trip to Kruger in one 5900 word post.

Morning game drive – Day 6 (Satara, Orpen, Olifants, and Letaba Camps, 05-Oct)

 The day dawned cold again in the high 40s F. but with a crystal clear sky and bright sun. No doubt it’s going to warm up again. I was 2nd out of the Satara gate at 530am and headed west on the H7 road to Orpen before heading north to Letaba, where I’ll overnight.

I was loving the beautiful morning and the view to the west of the distant Drakensberg escarpment. Suddenly I was surrounded by a pack of 11 African wild dogs, as rare a sight in the Kruger as a cheetah.

The Kruger population of wild dogs stands between 300 and 400 according to the latest counts. I couldn’t believe my luck this morning seeing them.

Colorful and friendly-looking, the dogs would happily tear me apart and incorporate the bits into their bodies if I got out of the car. I declined to give them a go at me.

Wild dogs hunt like wolves as a cooperative pack and are relentless drivers of prey. The animals chase their target until their energy wanes. Once the prey is surrounded, the pack harasses the animal from all sides until enough nips and bites bring it down. Then the quarry is quickly devoured by the pack.

This was a remarkable sighting. The dogs stayed on the H7 for miles, running down the center and occasionally moving off a bit before returning to the road.  Watching the wild dogs was thrilling!

En route north from Satara to Letaba, I paused at Olifants Camp for breakfast and a break, passing over the big, wide Olifants River just south of the camp. The entire distance Satara to Olifants was teeming with wildlife, including nyala, impala, wildebeest, elephant, giraffe, and zebra (see photo 2 attached).

Stopped at one point to see why five cars had gathered and were pointing and looking at something just off the road. I didn’t see anything, so asked one fellow as I passed what it was.

“I have no idea!” He admitted, and grinned sheepishly.

The driver of the next car, however, knew what was what. He pointed to a nearby small tree, under which a honey badger was busy eating a leopard tortoise, one leg at a time. Three were already missing. The remaining leg flailed helplessly, then stopped moving abruptly as the honey badger chomped off the tortoise’s head. I could just make out the crunching sound. Blood spurted over the badger’s muzzle, which its tongue lapped up energetically.

My jaw dropped. Nature red in tooth and claw, in miniature. The perfect African demonstration of how things work.

Well, I thought, who doesn’t like terrapin? And drove on.

Only later did I realize that I should have taken a picture. That’s not a sight one sees every day, not even in the Kruger.

The beautiful Olifants River, the bridge, and rolling hills around Olifants camp never get old for me. Such a gorgeous setting and panorama with a grand vista of the river below. Lots of elephants loiter around the river; hence, its name.

After breakfast I took the back way on dirt roads to Letaba. I enjoyed the drive immensely despite it being an arid moonscape of barren Mopane trees waiting for spring rains to leaf.

I nourish the illusion that I’m all alone in the Kruger when driving wilderness gravel roads like that one between Olifants and Letaba along the Letaba River.  That is, until another car comes by, dashing my fantasy.

The landscape there by the Letaba River looks like the American West this time of year because it’s so dry. Montana in Africa.

It occurred to me that all the gravel roads north of Skukuza have been in great shape. Not sure why those down south that I complained about were so corrugated. Sure, there are some rough spots on these roads and the ones around Satara, but they’re excellent overall, unlikely to break a shock absorber.

Admired a stunningly gorgeous leafless Baobab tree I passed on the Letaba River road between Olifants and Letaba.

I saw only a few impala on the entire 21 miles between Olifants and Letaba and reached the camp at 1145am. I’m not expecting much of a report this afternoon because the wildlife seems to have fled until the rains return.

It was just 29 miles Satara to Olifants. At max speeds of 25-31 MPH (and usually less, plus lots of stops to look at things), distances in the Kruger seem greater than they are. It’s a delightfully relaxed feeling, actually, to drive so slowly.

I wonder why, then, I feel so stressed driving at the same 25-31 MPH in I-40 Research Triangle rush hour traffic at home in central North Carolina. Oh yeah, now I remember: I NEVER have the illusion that I’m the only car on I-40.

Afternoon game drive – Day 6 (Letaba Camp, Fri, 05-Oct)

Hippo! Ground squirrel! Bushbuck! Mammal species seen for the first   the day.

Finally enough water in the Olifants and Letaba Rivers to provide a home for hippos. They are grunting to each other as I write this late afternoon Friday at Letaba camp. I am sitting by the fence near my “perimeter bungalow” watching 30-odd elephants working their way up to me from the Letaba River as I relax with a ginger beer and vodka. The river tableau beyond the fence is delightful.

Driving the roads this afternoon I saw many animals, but only near the two rivers. It’s too dry to support life too far from water up here.

Also saw ground squirrels, bushbuck here in Letaba camp begging for food (in the wild, bushbuck are extremely shy), lots of kudu cows just outside the fence, zebra, wildebeest, the implacable impala herds, hippos in both rivers, waterbuck, and thieving demon vervet monkeys here in the camp.

The monkeys are so bold they will steal food from your table as you prepare it, having mastered the sneak attack. God help the fools who leave a car door or window open to go in to the camp store or restaurant. Vervets will enter a car en masse, defecate all over the interior, and take everything.

I witnessed such a concerted attack on a car once at Pretorioscop camp. A dozen or so dropped in through the open sun roof and grabbed groceries and miscellaneous loose items. One emerged with the owner’s remote control between its vicious little teeth.

I love being in Africa, but thank God we don’t have vervet monkeys running amok in Raleigh.

Baboons are even worse. They are big and strong enough to kill a man. When baboons invade camps with that considerable monkey brain intelligence and primate dexterity, the vervet monkeys scatter, knowing when they’re licked. That’s why camp fridges are secured behind heavy metal grating and why everything else, from bungalow doors to trash can lids, has been baboon-proofed.

Morning game drive – Day 7 (Letaba Camp, Sat, 06-Oct)

Another beautiful morning of cloudless sky and cool temperatures greeted me here at Letaba as I loaded my little Toyota Avanza to begin a game drive. It’s predicted to reach the mid-eighties today. Knowing the wildlife was not likely to stray far from the Letaba River, I chose a road paralleling the water.

Or what little there is of it. Not much water flowing in the Letaba at the moment owing to the long dry spell. With another two months or so before the rains begin, it will be an ongoing struggle for local animals.

An upstream dam holds water for such times, releasing a trickle so the river never dries up completely. Many bore holes (wells) supplement natural water courses, too.

Water supply management is critical to keeping Kruger eco-systems healthy. Though the park wilderness is 250 miles long and 50-90 miles, it was carved out of a much larger area in the early to mid-20th century (just like U.S. national parks were).

Before fences constrained the wildlife on all sides, animals migrated freely east-west to find food and water between Mozambique and the slopes of the Drakensberg escarpment west of the Kruger in South Africa. Fencing them into a 250 mile by 50-90 mile space meant year-round water had to be provided.

Hence the many bore holes that feed artificial, life-sustaining water holes and dams on major rivers like the Olifants and Letaba to create reservoirs for the dry seasons. That water management has been massively effective for a hundred years, with the result that this wilderness remains an African Eden, a living world heritage.

The gravel road by the river became so rutted and rockbound that I gave up after a few kilometers and turned back. I wasn’t seeing any wildlife anyway.

The Letaba River is showing a meager channel compared to the vast basin that fills up when the rains come.

The first leaves of spring are showing on a few mopane trees near the river. Mopanes there are quite gnarly–more like a shrub than a tree. Which is why it is often called “mopane scrub.” Mopane is technically a tree, but being the favorite food of elephants, the plants are constantly broken down and chewed up.

A resilient species, mopanes grow back quickly, but stunted and broken, soon looking more like big shrubs and less like trees. A full grown mopane is rare to see in elephant country.

Slim pickings this morning on game sighting: elephants (I never tire of watching elephants), hippos, baboons, giraffes, impala, and little ground squirrels. All close to the river.  Two of the giraffes were enjoying a breakfast of wicked-looking thorns.

Better luck with birds I had not seen before today: resident Egyptian geese, magpie shrike, hadedah ibis, black-headed heron, Guinea fowl, and a grey lourie. The lourie is South Africa’s only parrot and is also called the go-away bird because of its call, which seems to say that. Of course also saw the usual hornbills and glossy starlings that hang around Letaba.

All those birds and animals were seen near the water. Once I moved more than a few hundred yards from the river, not even an impala was evident. Just sun-scorched earth.

Letaba camp is gorgeous, with lots of big trees and spectacular river views from the restaurant and from many riverfront rondavels (like mine). I always love coming here, but I’ll be moving south after breakfast towards Olifants camp, my accommodation for tonight.

Just engaged a German fellow about my age, also traveling alone, who has been coming to the Kruger since 1987. That beats me by four years (my first visit here was 1991). He gave me tips on where to find a big pride of lions south of Olifants towards Satara, and I’ll make that gravel road my afternoon game drive target. Maybe I’ll get lucky.

Luck is a factor in finding game, along with intelligence like his about where animals have been recently seen. I find my luck is enhanced simply by covering a lot of territory. The more miles driven, the better chance of seeing wildlife.

Afternoon game drive – Day 7 (Olifants Camp, Sat, 06-Oct)

The view from my perimeter rondavel at Olifants gives an idea how high are the hills. Herds of elephants at the water’s edge look like ants.

I passed over 100 elephants this afternoon, spread out along a half mile of road on both sides. It was magic to see so many in one herd. The little tuskers in the herd were having a ball ripping off tree limbs, testing their strength.

Lots of baby and young elephants sure seemed to be enjoying the lovely afternoon, running to and fro, blasting passing cars with their juvenile trumpets while the adults stood watch. I stayed for a long time because elephant behavior fascinates me.

I had plenty of time for it. Despite my plan to follow the noted gravel road to the location of the lion pride–information from my German buddy–I had to turn back. After rattling along that corrugated monster for about 3 miles, I decided not to risk damage to the car. Or to me. I already had a headache from the bouncing.

In addition to the severe washboard effect, the road was strewn with softball-size jagged rocks ready to puncture a tire. No doubt any one of those bloody hard stones held geological secrets of earth’s distant past, but I was more interested in not testing the physics of rubber versus sharp rock.

Disappointed that I might miss the lions, even though I knew the pride had long ago moved on, I flagged down a car coming out and asked the driver if they’d seen the big cats feasting on a zebra and how far up the road were they.

“What lions?” He said.

That’s when I turned around. I was happy to leave that bumpy road.

As this trip begins to wind down and I total up what animals and birds I’ve seen, I reflect again on the part chance plays in sightings. Luck or chance, take your pick. I believe, as I said this morning, that driving more miles increases the chance of finding wildlife.

However, that doesn’t guarantee I’ll see what I want. On this trip I came across two cheetahs–two out of a park population of 180 (latest count). Wow!

And I saw and stayed with 11 wild dogs for a few miles. There are estimated to be only 300 wild dogs in the Kruger.

Yet I’ve so far seen just one warthog of an estimated population of 5,000. Most peculiar, how does my single sighting of a small herd of buffalo jive with the park’s count of 40,000? I should by now have seen more of both species.

Point is, you never know what you will see or won’t see.

Except impala. What’s hard is NOT seeing impala everywhere. I love the brown little boogers, so I smile every time impalas surround my car.

One mammal I’ve heard more than seen this trip is hyena. I’ve already noted the hyena propensity to eat people. I am wary of the creatures. I learned in the 90s when I often went camping in the Botswanan wilderness never to leave the tent at night when hyenas were about–and hyena are always around. Pee in a bottle if need be, but keep the tent zipped tightly.

So I was not pleased when in Skukuza the first night, then in Satara, and last night again in Letaba, I heard hyenas calling to each other right right outside my rondavel windows. Hyena have dug under the electrified high camp fences and now freely enter those camps at night to forage.

Camp staff maintain the hyenas mainly target garbage at the restaurant, much as raccoons and rats do at home.

Except that ‘coons and rats aren’t human size, nor do those little critters have jaw muscles and teeth that effortlessly crunch through bones. And last I checked, humans weren’t on the raccoon or rodent menu.

So if hyenas are just innocently looking for garbage, why were the beasts loitering around my rondavel last night? Are they lost? Maybe I should have thrown out a Letaba camp map so they could find the restaurant.

Or maybe they smelled me. I sure as hell didn’t go outside with my flashlight to find out.

A family of four occupied the next two rondavels in line by mine at Letaba last night. The two sons, one a lanky teen and other about nine or ten, had taken the bungalow immediately adjacent to mine. I heard the little kid shrieking in fear to his older brother because the hyenas were calling and cackling to each other in their eerie voices between our bungalows. I thought to myself that the boy had good instincts to be afraid. I slept fitfully after that myself.

When I arrived at Olifants today, I inquired whether I have to worry about hyenas calling at my door in the night. No, they said. Staff had found the hole the hyenas had dug under the fence here, just as at Letaba, Satara, and Skukuza, and had filled it in with concrete. I was told: “No more hyenas inside Olifants!”

I certainly hope not.

Morning game drive – Day 8 (Olifants-Satara-Tshokwane-Lower Sabie-Nkuhlu-Skuluza Camp, Sun, 07-Oct)

This is my last full day of game drives, then overnight at Skuluza camp, and a final morning game drive tomorrow before turning the Toyota Avanza in to Avis at Skukuza airport and winging back home.

The air started warm and muggy this Sunday morning, with mostly overcast skies. I was first at the Olifants gate at 506am and could hear hyenas calling to each other just beyond the fence.

But not inside the camp, I am glad to report. I slept well last night.

Just three cars, including mine, queued at the gate before 530am. I was a little surprised, but then thought about how Olifants is kind of a country-club camp because of its gorgeous location. Some South Africans come here just to enjoy the view and the pool in an exotic environment. They aren’t so keen to go on game drives, and when they do, are apt to say things like, “Oh, look, Hon! Is that a horse with stripes?

I didn’t see much before getting close to Satara, and then saw many species of animals everywhere. Next trip to the Kruger I’m inclined to stay south of Olifants. That’s been the richest game areas of this trip and of many previous trips.

And yielded the best game-viewing this morning as well. After a brief rest stop at Satara, I continued south towards the little open-air snack bar at Tshokwane. Within a couple of miles I came across a lion-jam. A pride of lions had been spotted 300′ off the road. I squinted hard to see the tan lumps in the distance, then moved on. The pride was napping after last night’s big feast of something, and I knew they wouldn’t move much all day.

To my amazement, 1.5 miles down the road beyond the sleeping lions I came across two cheetahs sitting very near the road. I couldn’t believe my luck. I’ve been years and years never seeing a cheetah in the Kruger, and now I’ve seen four on this trip.

Then some miles south I came across more buffalo. And also elephants, kudus zebras, wildebeests, and many giraffes.

Just before Tshokwane I passed hundreds of impala grazing on both sides of the road, an awesome sight.

At Tshokwane I enjoyed a delicious kudu pie and chips for breakfast while doves, glossy starlings, and satanic little vervet monkeys begged food while sitting on my table. I hated to leave, but I had to cover a lot of ground to get to Skukuza.

Shortly beyond Tshokwane heading south, two maIn roads diverge. One goes a bit east towards the Lebombo Mountains that sit on the border with Mozambique, and then turns south to Lower Sabie camp. The other road proceeds west and south to Skukuza. I wanted to check out the game viewing in and around Lower Sabie camp, and I calculated that I had plenty of time to do that and still get to Skuluza for check-in to my riverside bungalow.

I also knew the drive up and over the hills towards Lower Sabie would be beautiful and that I could stop at the Ngube lookout at the top.  I did stop, and once again the vista reminded me of parts of the American West.  Well, except for the African wildlife all around, such as the nearby elephants and buffalo.

Lower Sabie camp was a zoo of people, (not animals), and I didn’t enjoy my brief stop there (to check out the shop, out of curiosity). Okay, I understand that it’s Sunday, and the weekend warriors from Jo’burg have invaded for an early spirng day trip to Kruger. But I’d hate coming back here if it was always like that. I left quickly and headed to Skukuza.

All along the way (about 28 miles) the road hugs the Sabie River. Lots of animals work back and forth across the road going for water, vying with car traffic in the process. So I was not surprised to come across many “lion-jams,” except knots of stopped traffic for every species, not only lions. Lots of gawking at buffalo in the river, and elephants taking a bath, and often just for a herd of impala.

I understood, of course. Day-trippers are looking for every sighting possible in the few hours they are here today, while I have had the luxury of 8 nights and 9 days to soak it in.

Therefore, I took it in stride when I came upon a thick jam-up of maybe 15 cars, with many blocking traffic flow entirely. I asked the occupants of the first car I passed what it was.

“Leopard!” And they pointed to my left in some underbrush. Sure enough, I could make out the cat skulking low and slow through the shadows, too obscured for a photo.

I knew the onlookers would not move until the kitty was long gone, and thus began to navigate carefully through the congested traffic. I was almost clear when two big safari trucks full of tourists blocked the guy in front of me from moving out of the way. I was trapped, so shut off the engine to wait.

To my astonishment, the big leopard suddenly darted just in front of my hood, its spotted body a blur, and crossed the road right by my open window. I was near enough to touch it as it streaked past.

Again, I couldn’t believe my luck to be closest of all those people there to the object of their attention. Especially since I had given up on seeing the creature and was just trying to escape.

Unprepared, I grabbed my phone and took a quick picture, but by then the leopard was headed away down the shoulder of the road. Unless I stay at the ready, that’s a typical animal photo, by the way: “Goodbye. See you later.”

It was a great morning game drive! 125 miles covered in 6 hours on the road. I loved every minute of it.

Afternoon game drive – Day 8 (Skukuza Camp, Sun, 07-Oct)

Final PM game drive was short and sweet: just two hours. I wanted to get back to Skukuza before 500pm to have a bit of daylight to enjoy my riverside bungalow and the view from it, bungalow #86. The camp sits on the Sabie River, normally full of bird life and animals, and I paid extra to get a front row seat on the river.

I had a good view of the old Selati Railway bridge over the river. In the early 20th century, passenger trains on that railroad made this part of the Kruger accessible for the first time to denizens of Johannesburg. It was then quite a high adventure to come to the “lowveldt” and see the wild African animals that had already been long eradicated from the rand (the area around Jo’burg).

My bungalow is at the very end of the camp, so it is quite private and peaceful. I have poured myself a ginger beer and vodka as I write this just past five–if I had lime, I could call it a Moscow Mule. The shadows are long, and the scene where I sit, tranquil. A great way to end this trip.

I rarely drink vodka at home; in fact, I don’t much like it. I prefer Windhoeck beer here, a superb Munich-style lager made by the Germans in Namibia.

But vodka is part of my strategy when traveling alone in the Kruger. It is easier to transport and keep from camp to camp than beer, and I don’t have to re-chill it after a long drive. Just add ice and ginger beer. Vodka is practical in the Kruger.

After 27 years of coming here, I have some routines down. I always wear long-sleeved shirts, a hat, and white cotton gloves for driving, all to prevent sunburn. The sun here is merciless, summer and winter. Best to stay covered up. I use sunscreen on exposed places, like my nose and ears.

I take malaria pills religiously when I come. Met a young South African fellow and his wife who said they had a friend who just came down with malaria after visiting the park. I asked if they were taking pills, and they both answered at once, “Yes, absolutely!”

A car charger for my phone is a must, and my phone always has a woefully expensive international plan for data, email, voice, and texts.

First day here, I always buy a cooler, ice, water, soft drinks, and snacks. I take a roll of toilette paper from the first camp and throw it in the back seat, just in case, along with a trash bag. I borrow a towel from the first camp and return it the last night.

Kruger map books are essential to choose where to go each day, available at every camp store. I also bring a homemade animal matrix to keep track of what I see every day, along with pen and paper.

Kleenex and paper napkins are handy, as is a cheap plastic insulated cup.

Driving on the left is a snap. Been doing it in many countries since the 70s. It seems as natural to me as driving on the right.

But, God help me, I cannot get used to the turn signal stalk being on the right side of the steering column. I’m constantly turning on the windshield wipers (lever located on the left side of the steering column) when I mean to be signaling a turn.

The Afsaal rest area south of Skukuza towards Berg-en-Dal is home to lots of rhinos, and it’s about an hour away at 31 MPH. I drove there and back and struck out on rhinos, but I did see many elephants close to the road.  I took several photos.

Also saw more lilac-heated rollers, a leopard tortoise, zebra, giraffe, impala, and three male lions near the road, dozing. No good angle to take photos, though, so the elephant pictures are all I have for the afternoon drive.

Speaking of which, some have asked how to approach an elephant real close like I did today. It’s easy. I drive up cautiously and watch the elephant’s reaction. If it is bothered, the ellie will let me know by facing me and shaking its head vigorously.

That’s the initial warning. After that comes loud trumpeting and then a fast charge. Sometimes it’s a mock charge where the animal turns away at the last second, but I don’t wait to find out. I have reversed and moved away after the first head shake.

If the elephant ignores me coming that close, and most in the Kruger do because they’ve become inured to cars, then I shut off the engine and enjoy being in the animal’s company. I never tire of watching elephants, the true king of beasts.

The sun has gone down in the Kruger, and light is fast fading. It’s been a wonderful trip, and I still have one more morning game drive before I head home.

Morning game drive – Day 9 (Skukuza, Mon, 08-Oct)

Last game drive this trip was quiet and short, just 2 hours, because I had to get back to Skukuza Camp to leave. I must return the car to Avis at Skukuza Airport by 1100am and repack before that.

I am leaving more clothes behind and a pair of shoes for staff.

The day broke cool with a light rain shower, presaging much more precip to come over the next few months. Except for the one morning I overslept, I followed this routine every day, including last night and today: arose at 430am, was at the gate by 505, out when the gates opened at 530, to sleep by 830-900pm.

Species seen this morning: one kudu, hundreds of impala, 2 common duiker (a small, shy antelope), ground hornbills, ground squirrels, and elephants. Of course the usual bird life, including francolin, Guinea fowl, glossy starling, yellow-billed hornbill, and numerous varieties of doves.

Some impressions this trip (my opinions, of course):

The park is now allowing too many outside safari company trucks carrying tourists in. Seems to be mostly a problem down here in the southern part of Kruger than at Satara and north.

Surprised at some species of animals not much seen, including warthogs, rhino, and buffalo.

I was surprised to see 2 sets of hyena pups. I never knew until now that hyenas breed year round.

Very surprised to have seen nyala in such large numbers, cheetah at all, wild dogs at all, and several leopards.

Changes since 1991 are few, and that’s good. I’ve come to the Kruger countless times in 27 years, observing the differences each time. Most of the changes have been to restaurants and snack bars. Park management seems not to be able to settle in what they want.

Thank goodness, though, menu basics such as chicken mayonnaise sandwiches (chicken salad), toasted ham and cheese sandwiches, and good breakfasts choices are still available. I do miss game selections for dinner, like kudu steak, buffalo pie, and impala flank schnitzel. Once at Punda Maria they even offered warthog ribs. On this trip I was able to get kudu pie at Tshokwane, but that was it for game.

Rhino numbers in the Kruger have been healthy and growing. Last count was 5000+, but due to poaching, the population figure is no longer reported. All are white rhinoceros, also called square-lipped rhino, because they graze more than browse, using their square lips to grasp grass on the ground.

Black rhinoceros, sometimes call hook-lipped rhinos, browse low bushes and trees with their protruding lips. Black rhino range never extended into the Kruger, I don’t believe, but that species is native to Botswana and can also be seen at Etosha National Park in Namibia.

I did see rhinos here the first day, but not since. By contrast, when I was last in the Kruger in April, 2016, I saw rhinos so often that I lost count. They are here in great numbers; just a factor of chance that I saw so few this time.

I was reminded this morning what dramatic terrain there is going south. I’ve commented several times how much I enjoy the Kruger simply for its natural beauty. It has so many varied eco-systems for such a relatively compact area (250 miles top to bottom). All are interesting.

I know, I know: Wilderness parks like the Kruger and our gorgeous U.S. national parks in the west are no longer more than vestiges of the natural world, but thank God for the spiritual rejuvenation I get each time I come here.  Even though along the southern border sugar cane refiners mar the view, I love the Kruger, just as I love our great western parks in the United States.

I drove a total of 1090 miles in 9 days = 121 miles per day. That’s about right compared to previous trips.

When I come, I want to be on the road seeing the wilderness and its wildlife. Not everybody who has come with me in the past has shared that obsession, and that’s fine. If folks want to sleep in, they can. I go out alone, in that case, and circle back midway through a game drive to pick them up at their leisure. Then continue on.

I’m already planning my next Kruger trip.

Not-so-deep thoughts on Kruger National Park

In my morning report I mentioned “safari trucks” without an explanation. Safari trucks are rigged to carry folks on guided game drives.

That is, a guide–hopefully one who knows his or her salt–does the driving, navigating, reconnoitering for wildlife, and talking while you sit with 8-40 (some trucks are large) of your favorite friends and family. It’s a fine way to see animals in places like private game lodges outside the Kruger. But it’s not necessary in the Kruger or in similar do-it-yourself game parks like Zimbabwe’s Hwange and Namibia’s Etosha.

In the Kruger you have to pay for the guided rides, of course, on top of anything else already paid. And guided trips ain’t cheap. Driving yourself is already paid for in your fees when you arrive: no extra charges apply.

I like the innate privacy and ultimate flexibility of driving myself. As do the majority of Kruger visitors, whether South African, Chinese, European, Australian, or American.

But recently the park has licensed many more contractor safari firms to bring visitors in for game drives. Just saying a few is fine, but I think it’s time to put the brakes on the numbers now.

Noticed the trucks at Skukuza Airport from Mala Mala and Sabi Sabi luxury safari lodges. Those two, plus Londolozi (my favorite), define the pinnacle of luxury safari lodge experience outside the Kruger. All three, plus a few other lesser-known safari lodges, are situated in the entirely private Sabi Sands game reserve, which is adjacent to the Kruger near Skukuza. Those trucks are waiting to pick up guests arriving at tiny Skukuza airport where I await my flight to Johannesburg.

I merely used those trucks as examples of safari trucks. Actually, no safari truck from Mala Mala, Londolozi, or Sabi Sabi would ever tool around the Kruger except to come to the airport. That’s because those three lodges charge $1000 to $5000 per person per day, and they pretty much guarantee your guided game drives to be spectacular, all inside the private Sabi Sands reserve. They don’t need to drive in the Kruger, nor are permitted to.

I’ve been there myself. When I first worked in Johannesburg in 1991, South African friends arranged special prices for me at Idube Safari Lodge in the Sabi, another luxury place (well, ALL lodges in the Sabi Sands are luxurious). Idube hasn’t the panache of Londolozi; however, even a “friend” rate there was a heart attack.

But Idube came through. I took my parents there for a 3-day weekend (they had flown over to see the country), and the game drives were extraordinary. Especially the night drives to watch a lion pride stalk and kill.

One advantage that guides at those luxury lodges in the Sabi have over the Kruger is the ability to go off-road to get close–as in REAL close–to wildlife. Kruger rules prohibit off-roading; it’s an offense that will get the guilty party expelled forever.

So what’s the other differences between driving yourself around in the Kruger and being guided in a luxury lodge safari truck in the Sabi Sands? Money.

The animals you see are the same. But the comparable Kruger cost per day, including fees, accommodation, rental car, gas, food, tips, and beverages came to about $181 for me this trip. Obviously, a small fraction of what the luxury lodges charge.

That comparison doesn’t include airfare because airfare isn’t included in the luxury lodge rates, either.

It would have been even cheaper had I not been traveling alone, halving the rental car and gas costs, and possibly the accommodation rates if sharing.

And because it’s affordable, I’m able to return to the Kruger relatively often.  I plan to return as soon as possible.

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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 is the fourth post documenting my experiences. See the firstsecond, and third diary posts 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 5 (October 4, 2018) – SATARA & ORPEN – MORNING GAME DRIVE

When the sun sets, being in the Kruger brings home what real darkness means. Sure, the bungalows have one outside light, but illumination is weak and limited to the veranda area. There are no street lights. Walking a few feet away from the rondavel after nightfall plunges me into pitch dark and requires a flashlight. Then slow and careful treading to scan for trees and obstacles, not to mention snakes and scorpions, is wise. In cities we have forgotten what absolute, inky-black dark feels like. It’s a shock.

Once clear of the dim light sources, however, looking up in the sky of an African night at the bright stars is a stunning reminder of what we miss due to the light pollution at home. The pall of artificial lighting has dulled our wonder at the night, and more’s the pity. I forget how glorious the heavens can be seen here until I come back.

I was lucky to see the sky last night. The clouds slowly dissipated through evening yesterday, but this morning a new cloud cover is overhead, along with high winds and a morning low of 48° F. Quite a contrast to the 96° of Tuesday afternoon.

Not everything here is perfect. I am very unhappy with something new to Satara: anti-poaching dogs. The brutish mutts are housed in the staff/ranger areas of the camp, well away from visitors, but that distance isn’t enough to mute their loud, incessant barking. The dogs’ angry voices awakened me several times last night, the first time I can ever recall such a disturbance in the Kruger.

I’m going to ask the resident ranger later today whether this is a permanent condition of camp life now.

The morning game drive was at first mostly a bust. I drove 52 miles and saw only 3 giraffes, 3 wildebeest, and several hundred impala (considering there are about 200,000 impala in Kruger, I expect to see a lot of them everywhere, and I usually do).

Then, at mile 53, I saw a brown and black fluffy mane adorning a large tawny head right by the road and knew I’d hit the jackpot. It was a young male lion, yawning. I figured it was exhausted after a night of bloody butchering and devouring something slower.  I pulled off the road to watch.

Pretty soon the lion attracted what’s known as a “lion-jam” in the park. I noticed the guy was favoring its left rear leg, and when it arose to leave, there was no doubt of an injury. The lion limped badly across the road and disappeared into the brush. Could have been caused by a zebra kick, or just a bad fall.

Unless the leg heals completely and quickly, it was a dead lion walking. A lame lion catches no food. Pretty soon I fear the handsome beast will be hyena food.

The view from a promontory coming to Orpen Camp (which I had to drive to again to send and receive email) was of the undulating, forested terrain, quite a contrast from the flat, wide open plains around Satara, just 29 miles away. That’s part of what I love about the Kruger: so many and varied eco-systems in such close proximity. Makes every drive interesting, game or no game.

Stopped on the side of the road at the lookout, I noticed the vicious thorn bush not yet in leaf for the spring. An early lesson of the Kruger was to avoid contact with every bush and tree to keep from getting seriously stabbed.

DAY 5 (October 4, 2018) – SATARA – AFTERNOON GAME DRIVE

Yesterday I stated my goal to be first out this morning at 530am. Well, I was first in line, but it was due to the afore-mentioned anti-poaching dogs howling that I arose at 415am. I was at the gate reading in my car by 445am, which put me in the number one position by five minutes. Three more vehicles had stacked up behind me by 450am. When the gates swung wide at 530am, I led a veritable parade of cars out to greet the early morning wildlife.

As reported this morning, though, the wildlife didn’t turn up to greet me. I must have turned down the wrong roads, because I didn’t see much except the injured young lion with the bushy mane.

On my arrival back at Satara I contacted the resident ranger to complain about the barking dogs. The ranger was out, so I discussed the problem with the good folks at reception. They confirmed many guests had squawked about the hounds, and the staff admitted being kept awake in their quarters as well. I left a message for the ranger to contact me on his return.  He never did.

When I mentioned the yowling curs to my bungalow’s caretaker and cleaner, Lilly, she laughed and confirmed they kept everybody at Satara awake last night. But the ranger is God in the Kruger, so the staff don’t complain directly.

Lilly thanked me for the three shirts I left with her. When I come to the Kruger, I bring clothing to leave behind for families like hers, and I tip the housekeeping staff every day, too. Though I did not ask for favors in return, Lilly very kindly made sure I had everything I needed, including extra soap and towels.

This afternoon proved more rewarding than this morning. I came upon scores of giraffes and later hundreds of wildebeest, impala, and zebra in herds of 20-100. As one large family of giraffe moved across the road from left to right, I was reminded to always look in the direction the animals came from before proceeding, and even then to go slow.

That is, I never assume the last animal I saw cross the road was the last one. Stragglers have often surprised me, and I don’t fancy getting stepped on by a giraffe.

This rule applies to every mammal in Kruger, large and small. Impala are notorious for jumping out from behind bushes right in front of cars just after a big herd of their buddies have moved off. “Wait for me!” they seem to say, as they bound after the others, inches in front of my grill as I slam on the brakes.

It’s amazing that huge creatures like giraffes can suddenly appear out of nowhere in the same way to join their friends on the other side of the road. I am even more cautious when elephant herds cross in front of me. There is always one more pachyderm too busy destroying a tree to notice its family has left. Better to wait and be certain than get smacked by a big gray wall of flesh with two ivory spears up front.

At one point just north of Satara this afternoon I spotted 30-some familiar-looking animals moving in parallel to the road, out in the open. I’d seen kudu in herds like that. They are easy to spot because of their slight hump and odd, camel-like gait. Kudu heads move back and forth as they walk, and that’s what I thought I was seeing.

Then I realized the horns were wrong for kudu, not spiral, but a gentle curve near the tips: Nyala!

Nyala are kin to kudu, but a bit shaggy, like they need a haircut, and a little shorter in stature than kudu. Thing is, I’ve never heard or read of nyala moving in herds, and especially not away from the water courses and swampy areas the animals love. Another wildlife revelation for me, then.

The S100 is one of the most productive roads for seeing game near Satara because it parallels the N’wanetsi River. Herbivores thrive all along its 12 mile length, and so do a pride of lions that preys on the grass-eaters. As long as I’ve been coming here, the pride, in successive generations, has been a mainstay of the river road.

Sure enough, today I passed two lion-jams of cars on the S100 watching the current generation of big cats sleep off a feast of zebra. What was left of the carcass was visible not far away.

The male lions had moved ahead of the females and were 100 yards or so off the road. People used binoculars to watch their big heads raise up occasionally.

A quarter mile away the female lions were doing the same, but much closer to the road. I squinted in the distance and enjoyed catching glimpses of the dozing lions, then moved on.

A couple of miles down the road I came to a big group of impala, waterbuck, and zebra grazing close by. That was more interesting to me than the lions, so I cut the engine and waited. Pretty soon I was surrounded real close by the three species working their way through the stands of dead grass.

I wrote this description while the animals around me placidly grazed and kept moving very slowly across the plain. Before long, they were out of sight.

That one experience made the afternoon game worthwhile for me, much richer to me than watching lions lying on their backs, digesting, as lions do. Yet not another car stopped by mine to be in harmony with the impalas, waterbucks, and zebras.

DAY 5 (October 4, 2018) – FAREWELL TO SATARA CAMP

Tonight is my fourth and final night at Satara camp. I go on to Letaba camp for one night tomorrow way up north, then south a bit to lovely Olifants camp on a bluff overlooking the Olifants River (“olifants” is “elephant” in Africaans) for one night, and finally back to a riverside rondavel at Skukuza for my last night.

I wanted to see what four nights at Satara was like since game viewing here is usually so good. I’ve never stayed more than two nights in a row here before and always left thinking that wasn’t enough.

My takeaway after four nights: I like being settled in one camp for at least two nights, three at the most. In four days I’ve explored every game drive around Satara, some multiple times. I love it here, but I am ready to leave.

I found out why the Kruger is so crowded.  It’s Spring Break on the S.A. school calendar. I should have checked it when I booked 7 months ago.

That said, I was able to book the accommodation I wanted at every camp except Satara, and yet I was pleased with the bungalow they assigned me here (F138).

What I had hoped to snag was one of the Satara “perimeter” bungalows. Rondavel G167 is so close to the wire that an elephant could just about reach over and grab the hat off my head if I was sitting on the veranda. And the grill (braai) is nearly touching the fence. Wonder if the odor of searing brats on that fire calls out to hungry hyenas when the smoke wafts through the fence.

Lots of tanned animal hides on the racks of the Satara grocery store, called the “Park’s Shop” for as long anyone can remember. Prices vary, but a big zebra skin goes for about US$1,000 and comes with a veterinary certificate authenticating origin and tanning/sanitization method. It’s legal to bring tanned hides with such certificates into the USA, except from elephants and big cats.

Some years back I brought back an nyala hide labeled as kudu. It was not expensive because kudus are plentiful and die naturally all the time. Not so many nyalas out there as kudus, but the store staff wouldn’t believe me when I told them of the label error.

All tanned skins sold by the South African National Parks come from animals that died in the Kruger (no hunting is allowed in the park). SANP directly benefits from the sales. All profits contribute to ongoing conservation. “Custos Naturae” is the park motto, meaning custodians of nature.

Tomorrow I travel north to Letaba camp, perhaps my favorite in the Kruger, though game-viewing around Letaba is usually not as good as near Satara. No matter; the camp is situated directly on the river with gorgeous views and grounds. I wish I had time to spend more than one night there.

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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 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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