The travel philosophy of Colorado couple Gayle and Randy Ellis is simple: “GO NOW!” Recently, a 40th wedding anniversary trip brought the Ellises on a return visit to Southern Africa. Gayle and Randy ventured into parts unknown, undertaking a memorable, animal-filled safari trip to Mateya Safari Lodge, Tswalu Kalahari, Azura Benguerra Island, Khwai River Lodge and Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero. Their itinerary also included brief, restful stops in Johannesburg at the Saxon Boutique Hotel and the InterContinental O.R. Tambo Airport Hotel.
Gayle recently shared with an Andrew Harper staff member the following memories and advice from her moving journey through Southern Africa. In her interview, Gayle added, “We love it any time someone shows real interest because it helps us to keep the memories and the spirit of Africa alive. Randy and I have made it a habit to talk about some little piece of our trip frequently — nightly for about the first two months! — rather than letting the wonders of the trip get buried in everyday life.”
Why did you choose to visit Southern Africa?
We knew we wanted to go back to South Africa, and the country is so vast that we decided to make our trip all about safari, rather than trying to fit in Cape Town and the wine country. That decided, I wanted to choose lodges with very different terrains, climates and animal-viewing. We had stayed at Londolozi several years ago, so decided not to repeat Kruger.
Then I saw write-ups about Azura in the Harper newsletter. It was billed as a marine safari, which sounded intriguing and, as we live in Colorado, ending our trip with a beach vacation in Mozambique in December sounded quite exotic. It was! Azura is so unspoiled, and the people were wonderful and knowledgeable. Several of our guides were born on this little island of 2,000 residents.
Why Andrew Harper? What led you to use the Travel Office in planning your trip?
I've subscribed to the Harper newsletter since Town & Country magazine did a little article about The Hideaway Report probably 25-30 years ago. (Call me a bad housekeeper, but I still have the article!)
Also, travel within northern South Africa is all done by small planes, and you just about have to have the assistance of an experienced travel agent to put it together.
How did you balance adventure and travel?
The Andrew Harper Travel Office provided the balance. We weren't thrilled with the prospect of an overnight at the Johannesburg airport between two of our safari camps, but the InterContinental Hotel turned out to be very nice, convenient and restful. Having cocktails in the bar was very chic, and dinner in the restaurant was wonderful. I had one of the best pieces of fish ever — kingklip, I think. We also got a day room at the InterContinental to sleep several hours before flying home, and that was a good start to a long journey.
Regarding the question of balance, we could have flown from Mateya Lodge to Johannesburg for our flight to Tswalu, but we chose a four-hour drive so that we could see some of the countryside. The AH Travel Office arranged a car and driver for us. It was a relaxing drive.
Can you share a trip highlight?
Staying in such high-end camps, I feared we'd only meet other Americans. When we travel out of the States, I want to meet the indigenous people and learn about their culture. On Azura, a wonderful guide, Paolo, took us to his church on Sunday morning and introduced us to the congregation.
What was something that you learned about Mozambique’s culture from Paolo and your experience at his church?
The natives of Azura Island are content with so little. It's a wonderfully comfortable place for Americans to travel because the people like us and want very much for us to like them and their country. The Sunday morning we visited Paolo's church, I happened to have about $45 in rand which I gave for the offering box, and you'd have thought I gave them $2,000. Paolo made a point of coming to see us the next day to tell us how overwhelmed his pastor was with our generosity and how thrilled his friends were with the photos I gave them.
The extra excursions offered at Azura. The island-hopping took us to Pansy Island, oddly covered with sand dollars, which we saw nowhere else, an island that is one giant sand dune where, at the top, you can see mainland Mozambique in one direction and the Indian Ocean beyond Azura in the other direction, snorkeling in a gorgeous reef that made me feel like I was swimming in an exotic aquarium, and then a picnic lunch on a secluded beach. Deep-sea fishing is another extra offered at Azura.
What animals did you see while on safari?
We saw everything! Lions, elephants, leopards, hippos, rhinos, meerkats, beautiful birds, sable, zebra, giraffe, kudu, buffalo, warthogs, wildebeest, jackal, mongoose ... many, many more.
What was a great meal?
I don't remember a specific meal, but I am a foodie and would highly recommend that other foodies make their way to Tswalu Kalahari before someone else snaps up chef Justin Pillay. Every meal at Tswalu was exquisite, inventive and prepared with the freshest of ingredients. It was like dining at the best restaurant in Chicago or San Francisco.
What do you wish you had packed?
With a little guidance from the staff in the Andrew Harper Travel Office, I managed to pack perfectly! I think taking layering pieces is the key because it's cool when you go on the early-morning game drives, and then often very hot during the days.
What souvenir did you bring back?
What is something that you would advise another Andrew Harper member to do?
Take an instant camera. The African people have their photos taken by tourists constantly, but most of them don't own a picture of themselves. They were thrilled when my magic camera printed a picture of them instantly and they got to keep the picture!
What would you advise someone to skip?
Every single day of our three-week trip was amazing, and I can't think of one thing I would have skipped or done differently. I would recommend our exact itinerary.
Anything else you would like to add?
A fun bonus to the Africa trip is that, for three solid weeks, the only indoor showers I took were in the Johannesburg hotels. All the other five lodges we stayed in had outdoor showers!