Southern Africa with &Beyond
When people dream about the untamed wilderness and abundant biodiversity, the African continent is always one of the first places that comes to mind. I recently had the privilege to join &Beyond for a two-week trip in Southern Africa. I traveled throughout the reserves of South Africa and Botswana, stood in awe at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Zambia, spotted more exotic wildlife than many see in a lifetime, and all the while relaxed in luxurious and bespoke accommodations that have earned &Beyond world-renown acclaim.
I began my journey with Qatar Airways out of O’Hare. The total length of my journey to Johannesburg rounded out at just under 26 hours with time zone changes included. The economy seating with Qatar made the journey much easier. Attentive staff, better than expected food, and an expansive in-flight entertainment system helped ease the latent boredom we all face on long hauls. Additionally, the Q-Suite Business Class section featured several configurations including a single, couple, or four-seat conference set up.
Upon arrival into O.R. Tambo International at 4:30 AM, I was greeted at the gate by an &Beyond representative who whisked me through the airport, customs, and provided a short transfer to my first accommodation – The Fairlawns Johannesburg. Nestled away just outside the city, this boutique hotel has a distinctly residential feel. While I had expected to stay in a guest room, I was surprised (and excited) to find out I was staying in their signature Villa Moji. This two-bedroom villa came complete with a study, private pool, patio, and garden. That evening, over a fantastic dinner, I met my fellow advisors and our &Beyond host, Wendy Clayton.
The next day, we departed the Fairlawns and began our touring of Johannesburg. Our first stop took us to the &Beyond Africa headquarters. The scale of their organization and the dedication of their staff is everything that our clients are looking for. We then proceeded on a tour of the apartheid museum, followed by lunch at a local spot in downtown Johannesburg or “Joburg” as the locals call it. We were taken on a city tour. We visited the Constitutional Court, drove through the old financial district, and had our last stop take us to see the final home of Nelson Mandela.
As evening approached, we were taken to our next accommodation – the Saxon. This property is located on the hills near Sandton, Johannesburg’s neighboring city. The property was upscale, elegant, and featured a variety of room categories that included guest rooms, suites, and a separate building for their villa-style residences. One of the most notable features of the property is its Spa. In addition to featuring all the traditional services, it is also outfitted with a large hydrotherapy suite!
The next morning, we departed the Saxon and began our travel to Botswana. The flight to Maun, Botswana was short and after clearing customs, we departed on a hopper flight with Mack Air to the Nxabega reserve. Upon arrival at the camp, we were greeted by the lodge staff who were singing traditional Botswanan songs in Setswana – the national language. This lodge is set up with luxury tents overlooking a basin in the Okavango Delta. In the rainy season, it is full of water and aquatic life. During my stay, it was a grassy plane. We took our first game drive of the trip and right out of the gate, I saw innumerable impala, a lion pride, leopard cubs playing near their mother, and zebras. Before heading back for a delicious dinner, we took a moment to stargaze. As it was my first time in the Southern Hemisphere, seeing the stars exclusive to it like the Southern Cross was incredible. And the best part, no light pollution! For the second time in my life, I was able to see one of the cosmic arms of our galaxy. That evening, in true bush fashion, I could not quite fall asleep. This was not due to the bedding, but rather because a Rhino had made the area around my tent its own bed for the night. Rhinos are not quiet sleepers, to put it modestly.
The next morning, we departed for our next lodge – Xaranna Okavango Delta Camp. While very similar to Nxabega, these tents included a private plunge pool and an outdoor rainfall shower. Two more game drives were in store for us after a light lunch. Elephants, giraffe, lilac-breasted rollers, and a host of other game filled our day in wonder and curiosity.
We departed the next morning for Sandibe Safari Lodge. The accommodations had a villa feel to them and private plunge pools in each. We stayed at this lodge for two nights. A unique feature at this lodge is its unique culinary twist. While set menus are the norm, this lodge included a “build-it-yourself” lunch option. Familiar western finger foods like burgers, pizza, and nachos were among the dishes you could construct. While it is always worth exploring new food, enjoying a little reminder of home was still welcome! As an added treat, I also got to experience a helicopter ride over the reserve, and what an amazing perspective this adds!
After our relaxing stay at Sandibe, we set out for the Zimbabwean border. We flew into Kasane airport – a short 10-minute drive from the border. This airport is brand new and a breeze to get through. After clearing customs and paying for the two-in-one Zimbabwe/Zambia univisa, we proceeded to the Victoria Falls Island Lodge. This stunning six-room lodge features private one-bedroom villas overlooking the Zambezi River. This is the lodge for couples looking for an escape. If you find yourself bringing the whole family it also has a sister property, Victoria Falls River Lodge, which offers accommodations and activities kids will love. We finished the day with a sundowner on the Zambezi and at dinner, I took the plunge and tried Ostrich. I can say with certainty that it does not taste (or look) like chicken, crocodile does though.
Taking a break from the thrill of game drives, we ventured to Victoria Falls. This world wonder is so vast and so awe-inspiring, a photo could not do it justice. After lunch at the lookout cafe, we crossed into Zambia and stayed the night at Anantara. This property is a traditional hotel on the Zambian bank of the Zambezi. A unique perk to this property is that zebra, impala, and giraffe roam the grounds. They are much more conditioned to human presence, but you should not try petting them.
In the morning, we departed for the Livingstone airport for a flight to Nelspruit, South Africa. From there, we transferred to Ngala Safari Lodge. This transfer took us through beautiful hillsides and local villages. Ngala was one of the larger lodges we stayed at. These rooms vaguely reminded me of adobe-style architecture, with South African elements mixed in. The next morning, we combined our game drive with a visit to two other lodges that form the entirety of &Beyond’s Ngala product. One was a smaller, more intimate tented camp. Perhaps the most interesting though was the Ngala treehouse. This four-story structure only hosts two people, as well as staff during the daytime hours. While stunning, it is not for the faint of heart! If you opt to stay in this accommodation, you and your companion will be alone at night three stories up and behind an encircling fence that keeps the game out. Among the rarities of this reserve was the albino lion cub which I saw – only three are known today; as well as
Our next stop took us to &Beyond’s Phinda Forest & Mountain lodges. We spent one night at each. As the naming implies, these two lodges feature completely different settings within the same reserve. In between our customary game drives, we also toured Phinda Rock – a honeymooner’s delight, Phinda Homestead – a massive 5-bedroom home, and Phinda Zuka – a small lodge located near a popular watering hole. Interestingly, Phinda Forest lies within a sand forest biome. This biome only exists in this small stretch of South Africa and as such, has several species you will not find anywhere else in the world!
Our final lodge is the current “jewel in the crown” of &Beyond’s product – Tengile River Lodge. Situated in the Sabi Sand game reserve, this lodge overlooks the Tengile river. The rooms at this lodge are massive and feature plunge pools so large, there is hardly anything “plunge” about them. We enjoyed a few more game drives, sundowners, delicious dinners, a scrumptious breakfast in the bush, and great drinks from their mixologists. Any journey you take with &Beyond in Southern Africa should have this lodge as the last stop, you will not regret it.
The last day saw my journey come full circle. My group returned to O.R. Tambo where we said our goodbyes over lunch at the I.C. Intercontinental. Two days later, I returned to a chilly Chicago and a world that was closing all its borders. I was so grateful to have had the opportunity to experience so much in two weeks, even more so now that we are living in a world under lockdown. I know that when this crisis passes, and it will, everyone will be looking to travel again. Words alone cannot express how highly I recommend taking a trip to Southern Africa with &Beyond. The people and their culture, the land and scenery they wake up to every day, and the wildlife that they coexist with are such a contrast to that of North America. This will be a trip that sets a standard and high bar for my future travels and once you experience it, I guarantee you will say the same!