American Airlines does a good Premium Economy

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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10,288 miles nonstop on Singapore Airlines in Premium Economy

FEBRUARY 7. 2019 — 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. Read my full report here.

Bratislava day trip

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.

Thank you, TSA agents

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.

My travel planning grunt work behind every trip

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.

Left to our own devices

Image result for watching laptop on airplane

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.

Image result for watching laptop on airplane

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”:

Image result for watching laptop on airplane

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.

Kruger diary: Letaba, Olifants, and return to Skukuza Camp, Days 6-9

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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