This year, VNg and I took a (somewhat) last minute trip to Ulusaba in South Africa. Safari has been number one on our list for a while. We decided to go for it.
Booking the Trip
Our friends highly recommended Safari365 and Ulusaba. I’ve always been reluctant using a travel agency. But, for such an unfamiliar destination, it made a huge difference. Other than a bit of touch and go communication due to a holiday, they provided exceptional service.
Ok. I’m not going to lie. The (astronomical) price and words “Sir Richard Branson’s private game reserve” gave cause for extreme hesitation. But, approaching it as a “once in a lifetime” trip and swayed by our friends’ incredibly high praise, we bit the bullet. (And, I took on a few more jobs.)
VNg coordinated with the agent, letting them know what we wanted to do (safari!), where we wanted to stay (Ulusaba!), our budget, and desired trip duration (about a week.) After a few emails, the rooms were reserved and the travel was arranged. (We booked the flight to/from South Africa, but the agents took care of light travel.)
Getting to Ulusaba
We flew into Johannesburg from JFK on South African Air. (I’m not sure if other airlines were available.) SAA was very nice. In coach, seats had in-flight entertainment, blankets, pillows, and a small pouch with socks, an eye mask, ear plugs, and a toothbrush. Once we landed, we had to go to the edge of the airport to a shuttle that took us to a nearby small private airport for Federal Airlines.
Federal was very cute. Their waiting room was stocked with tons of complimentary snacks and drinks. (From this point on, we were constantly stuffing our faces.)
The flight from Johannesburg to Ulusaba’s airstrip was very quick. As we deplaned, our guide, Calvin, and tracker, John greeted us.
The hospitality and warmth of the Ulusaba staff was outstanding. We were never left worrying if we were in the right place or on our schedule. The entire staff knew our names. (Although, not too difficult considering we were there with about twelve other guests total.)
Ulusaba has two lodges: Safari and Rock Lodge. Rock Lodge is sort of built into the side of a small mountain. Safari lodge, where we stayed, is nestled at the bottom. Of course, the benefit of Rock Lodge is the view. But, at Safari Lodge, we were constantly surrounded by animals. Elephants or rhinos walk past your room. You might encounter a baboon on your path at night. I thought this was very special and, in my opinion, what the whole trip was about.
Adventure is Out There
The schedule at Ulusaba is packed but perfect. Every morning before six o’clock, guests met in the dining area for a light breakfast, coffee, fruit, etc. Then, each group goes out for the morning drive. The Land Rovers accommodate up to twelve people, but the staff told us they limit it to six guests per car (for comfort and optimal viewing. How nice!) The truck is equipped with stadium-style seating. Even if you’re at the back, you have a (mostly) unobstructed view.
Toward the end of the drive, they pull over and serve coffee and tea with rusks, cookies, and shortbread. Then we head back to the lodge for (you guessed it) a full breakfast.
Between breakfast and four o’clock, you’re free to do whatever. The resort has a spa, shop, gym, and pool. There is also a lounge overlooking a watering hole.
Lunch is served between noon and four. But, at four thirty, guests gather for afternoon tea. (So British!) Then, you’re off for the second drive of the day.
Our guide and tracker were absolutely amazing, friendly, knowledgeable, and fun. Each day, we set out with a rough idea of what we wanted to see or where we wanted to go and believe it or not, we usually came upon it.
Also, I lucked out since our guide Calvin is a talented photographer! He made sure we had optimal lighting and angles. He even gave pointers for ISO or exposure settings.
Ultimately, I was impressed and fascinated by how well Calvin and John saw animals or read tracks from a distance or high speeds. No matter the time or the weather (there are fleece-lined parkas for the rain), we always saw a variety of animals.
Just like the morning drive, the excursion ends with a stop to stretch your legs, have a cold drink, and some snacks. Then, the day wraps up at the resort with a gourmet four-course meal under the stars.
Months later, I still can’t believe what an incredible experience it was. I’m so grateful and thankful to have been. I can’t recommend it strongly enough to anyone with even the slightest interest or curiosity.
I’ve never felt more relaxed or at peace on a vacation. Being so close to nature was unreal. And, sharing such a special experience with VNg was priceless.
It was truly a life changing trip.