On Sunday August 14th Africa’s first and most technologically advanced aircraft, the Airbus A350 XWB, was launched on the London Heathrow – Addis Ababa route. To celebrate this momentous event a press trip of top trade and aviation journalists ventured on a 48-hour London-Addis non-stop press trip.
Excited at the prospect of a night flight at the front of the plane rather than the back our happy band of travelers gathered at London Heathrow Terminal 2 for our six-hour and 50 minute night flight to Addis. Unusually for mid-summer there was no queuing and we passed swiftly through the business class check-in and, as we had no check-in baggage, in no time receiving boarding passes and an invitation to the business class lounge. Here we downed welcome gin and tonics whilst being briefed on the upcoming hectic 48 hour press trip.
Boarding swiftly, the economy passengers already having taken their seats, all the journalists were given a super goodie bag including a very useful multi-purpose travel adapter kit – who ever has the right plug for the right international socket?
Now for the technical details – Ethiopian Airlines’ first A350 XWB (named “Simien Mountains”) has 313 seats in a 3-3-3 configuration in economy with a 32-inch seat pitch and an 18-inch width. In business class, ‘Cloud 9’, there are 30 business class seats (BCE diamond seats) which convert to a 78” fully lie-flat beds in a 2-2-2 configuration.
The whole flight was extremely comfortable giving everyone a really great first experience of the A350-XWB. Service was extremely friendly and can-do. Dinner was very tasty (there are Ethiopian culinary choices too on the return flight) and then the wonderful lie-flat beds with fluffy duvets made for a very comfortable sleep for all. Some game journalists even woke for the inaugural flight celebratory cake and champagne at 1am – others did not!
First stop was Ethiopian Airlines HQ where we were greeted by many of the Senior Management team led by MD Ethiopian International Services, Mr Esayas WoldeMariam, for a briefing on the current status of the passenger, cargo and ET Holidays services and expansion plans globally.
After the presentation was over we were led to the very impressive collection of high-tech space-age looking simulators for a simulated landing at LHR which everyone really enjoyed. Sadly there was not the time for us to attempt a landing ourselves or perhaps this was sensible with such highly tuned and sensitive machinery.
Following lunch came my personal highlight of the day in a tour of the ET aviation academy, an amazing light and spacious facility housing many buzzing cadets all busily training in tens of classrooms or on the many sections of aircraft used for teaching cabin service.
The journalists particularly enjoyed their own chance to try out the evacuation slide with even the very game 74-year-old Editor in Chief of Business Travel News eagerly taking the plunge. Sadly we were not permitted to try the same on the landing on water evacuation slide – we’d forgotten our costumes so saving that experience for next time!
On visiting the pilot training school we were all very impressed to learn that ET trains many hundreds of male and female pilots not only from Ethiopia but from all over Africa and even Europe who go on to fly on many different airlines beyond Ethiopian.
A visit to the maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) facility enabled several of the journalists to regale us with tales of their own early piloting experiences and to unleash boyhood tinkering impulses.
By this time, exhausted and seriously impressed we returned to the hotel for a rest before the evening’s festivities. We did manage to squeeze in an impromptu city sightseeing tour en-route enjoying views of Meskel Square, the National Museum and Palace as well as scenes of bustling Ethiopian daily life. It had been easy to forget in the high-tech academy that we were even in Africa.
An evening of cultural dinner and traditional dance at Yod Abyssinia cultural restaurant was a welcome conclusion to the day affording another glimpse into traditional Ethiopian life. Journalists happily dived into trays of the national dish –injera or Ethiopian flatbread surrounded by delicious spicy sauces, meats and vegetables – the mainstay of Ethiopian cuisine. A few were even persuaded to end the night with a little traditional shoulder dancing to shake it all down.
On Tuesday morning we rose early to get to the airport, check-in and experience the airport facility tour before departure for our day-time, equally comfortable, flight home – a happy, impressed and weary posse.
Meeting up with a fam trip group at the airport is a bit like a blind date…..you surreptitiously check out every passenger coming past hoping that the odd looking ones aren’t going to be part of the group.
Fortunately for this group, we had a lovely bunch of agents (phew!) from Aardvark Safaris, Black Tomato, The Explorations Company, Safari & Beach, Bespoke Voyagers & The Eden Collection. Nerves were calmed & initial introductions made over G & Ts in the Star Alliance business class lounge at Heathrow Terminal 2 before boarding our Ethiopian Airlines flight to Kenya.
For someone who sadly can count the number of business class experiences on one hand, flying business class was a bit like Christmas morning as a kid. The first 30 mins of the flight just playing around with the endless buttons….there is something about a seat with buttons that brings out the kid in you!
Ethiopian Airlines drinks
Dinner on board Ethiopian Airlines
We have been working with Ethiopian Airlines as their PR agency for just 8 months and in that short time have become very aware & impressed by the ambition of the airline. They are the fastest growing and most profitable airline in Africa (making more profit than all the African ailines combined) The average age of their aircraft is only 5 years old and they operate to 51 destinations in Africa via their hub in Addis Ababa.
The appropriately named ‘Cloud 9’ business class on Ethiopian Airlines was very impressive. We were flying on one of their daily non-stop flights from Heathrow on a Boeing 777 with fully-flat seats and plenty of leg room. I am 5ft 6 and my feet were well away from the end of the bed…even Greg at over 6 foot claimed he had room to spare. A couple of the agents who sell a large number of first class passengers commented that the Ethiopian Airlines business class was even more impressive than certain not-to-be-named British airline with far more personal space. For the first time in my life I found myself wishing the flight was longer.
We had a very smooth connection via Addis airport and within 1.5 hours had stepped off one plane and onto the next ready for the two hour flight to Nairobi.
Agent feedback: “Very generous flat bed, good entertainment system, very nice and friendly, well trained cabin crew wearing traditional Ethiopian dress. Nice thoughtful, in flight vanity pack with really useful items”
It was amazing to see how much better the traffic was since I was last in Nairobi since the new roads. The driving is still utterly chaotic but with less traffic it moves a lot quicker. We stopped at House of Waine for lunch before our Safarilink flight down to the Mara. House of Waine have a brilliant day offer which includes a 3 course lunch or dinner & use of all the facilities (garden, swimming pool, showers etc) for $50. The peaceful, huge gardens of the hotel is the perfect venue to spend an afternoon.
After a delicious lunch with unbelievable attentive waiters, we were off to a rainy Wilson Airport & onto Olkurruk airstrip and Angama Mara.
Agent feedback on House of Waine “Delicious food, fabulous service and incredibly helpful” “Lovely spacious rooms, very clean, airy, nice tea and coffee station, quiet and peaceful.” “I absolutely loved the gardens and pool area and the fact that you have can have lunch and use the pool facilities for only U$50”
I was especially excited about seeing Angama Mara as I used to spend quite a bit of time in the area when I worked out in Kenya in 1999. Then, it was a tiny, simple tented camp in the Olkurruk area…..vastly different from the impressively slick design of Angama Mara. The South African architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, the designers behind Ngorongoro Crater Lodge and North Island in the Seychelles have woven their magic again and the lodge is stunning. It sits on the site—three kopjes, or hills, on the Oloololo Escarpment overlooking the Mara Triangle—where some of the most memorable moments in ‘Out of Africa’ film were shot. There are subtle references to the film woven throughout the design of the lodge although I struggled to envisage Meryl Streep amongst the red-brick cones and towers, vaulted ceilings and the Victoriana walled pool.
Pillars break up the large open space; fold-back glass walls allow guests to take full advantage of the sweeping view of the Mara plains below. A huge wooden veranda wraps around the front of the building, with a sunken fire pit overlooking the Mara which stretches out as far as the eye can see.
Although 60 guests can be accommodated, because the property has been cleverly split into two 15-tent camps, it feels small and intimate. A pavilion shared by the camps has an infinity pool and a gym with a drop-dead view.
The Swahili word angama means “suspended in midair,” and the buildings do seem to float, perched on platforms that hang over the escarpment, with glass doors that fold open completely so that even when you’re inside, you still feel inside the view. The tented suites are enormous stretching over 100sqm. Built with a combination of brick, wood and glass with canvas inserts, each has its own roll top bath, brightly coloured woven screen (inspired by Maasai shields) and elegant seating area with gin and whisky-filled decanters.
Determined to make the most of our only night at Angama Mara, we all met for sunrise on the deck at 6.15. Sadly it was quite a hazy morning which meant it wasn’t so good for photos but still entertaining watching the hot air balloons drift by.
Angama Mara is a completely different concept for Kenya. A slick, contemporary design but with strong Kenyan influences running through the lodge. The views from the terrace are incredible that it must be hard to pull yourself away to go on a game drive. I can only imagine how mind-blowing it would be to be here enjoying front-row seats to one of the world’s most spectacular wildlife phenomena…..the migration.
Agent feedback “I really loved this property, but would probably combine it with another camp in the heart of the Mara” “Great place for the less abled as you can see a lot from the terrace, read books, watch films, beading etc.”
Our transfer to Naibor took us past some Masai villages where we were entertained by Greg from Black Tomato getting involved with the Masai dancing….a compulsory experience for first timers to Kenya!
Naibor is hidden in a grove of riverine woodland right on the Talek river. The camp is so well hidden that you don’t realize you are there until you drive into the main camp. We were greeted by new management couple Craig and India and one of the three owners of Naibor, Nigel Archer. Craig has been running camps in Kenya for 7 years and India, originally from NYC, has been working for an NGO in Nanyuki. Having 8 UK agents descend on them for their 2nd day at work was certainly a baptism of fire but they coped admirably!
A delicious lunch of salads, quiches and fresh home made breads greeted us under the trees which we enjoyed whilst watching the hippos wallow and snort in the Talek river beneath us. Once we had all indulged in home made ice cream and lemon meringue pie, we waddled to our rooms.
The design of the rooms in Naibor manage to have a contemporary feel about them but still retain the traditional tented safari experience. The tents are really spacious with king size beds made from lovely chunky fig wood which had been made and brought over from their big-sister property, Shompole (sadly now closed down). Each room is concealed under the trees so that there is real privacy between each tent.
There are three different elements to Naibor:
Naibor Wilderness which consists of 3 tents and a mess tent which can be book and used for a private group or for couples whose budget doesn’t stretch to main Naibor. The key different between ‘main Naibor’ and ‘Wilderness’ is the location (wilderness doesn’t have the river views) and style (Wilderness is slightly more simple in terms of interior design)
Main Naibor – 7 spacious en suite tents
Little Naibor – Little Naibor is made up of two spacious suites which are uniquely designed to blend in effortlessly with the surrounding riverine forest. Each tent contains 2 double or twin rooms both en-suite with their own spacious bathrooms, inter-joined by a communal lounge and dining area. Both of these stunning tents have their own private bar and fire places set up strategically along the Talek River with complete privacy and spectacular views.
Naibor has a great vibe to it and the location on the river is perfect….. the favourite spot for the agents quickly became the beanbags on the wooden decked area overlooking the river and the grassy plains on the other riverbank. With the nearest Wildebeest crossing only 10 minutes away, we all commented how incredible it must be to be completely surrounded by millions of animals in the height of the migration.
After a quick rest, the team were raring to get going on their first game drive. Out of the 7 agents on the trip, 3 had never been on safari before, one had only been to South Africa 5 years ago and the remaining 3 were quite experienced. For me the highlight of taking these kind of fam trips is not only the chance to stay in amazing hotels/lodges but also the opportunity to see Africa again through the eyes of someone seeing it for their first time. I have been lucky enough to go on many safaris but my favourite safari companions now are the ‘safari virgins’. Their wide-eyed wonderment helps me experience the safari through fresh eyes and reminds me to not get blase about what we are seeing. The game viewing at Naibor didn’t disappoint with lots of eles, a pride of 8 lions led by a magnificent black maned male.
Naibor is located in the much quieter southerly plains which are often too far for other camps to get to. It is in an area of black cotton soil which means that only 4 x 4s can drive in the ground…..and none of the minibuses for which the Mara is tarnished with are seen anywhere near the area for fear of getting stuck. The location is only 10 minutes drive from the nearest Wildebeest crossing which means that in the migration, you cannot get a better spot from which to experience it.
After an eventful game drive and sundowners, we all tucked into a yummy dinner butternut squash soup, of sizzling steak & chocolate mousse before settling down in front of the fire exchanging stories with other Naibor guests game sightings they had seen through the day.
I woke up in the middle of the night to loud snuffles and snorts. Completely disorientated in the pitch black, I thought that my husband had suddenly taken to snoring. Falling back fast asleep, I discovered in the morning that a hippo had fallen asleep against my tent….interesting to think that I had exchanged my husband for a slightly louder sleeping partner!
The mornings drive was a perfect wake up call….
…although some were still half asleep!
We enjoyed a stunning, if slightly fresh, morning and had an exclusive audience with a herd of eles and a pride of Lion. A cheetah was spotted sitting on an ant hill in the distance and in our excitement to get there, we ended up getting stuck in the mud. (much to Nigel’s embarrassment as he was driving!) Getting stuck in a vehicle provided much exhilaration & excitement ….& was one of the highlights of the safari trip!
After another delicious light lunch under the wooded trees, we ventured out at the slightly earlier time of 3pm as the guides wanted to take us further down to the Tanzanian border to see the start of the Wildebeest migration. We were pretty bowled over by seeing a few thousand wildebeest….it makes me think how incredible it must be to see the migration in its full flow.
Dinner that night was as delicious as the first with red snapper on the menu. A couple of the agents had come out to Kenya a week before the rest of the group and exclaimed that Naibor’s food was the best they had had. Winston the chef, who has been at the camp for 7 years was brought out of his tent to enjoy his well earned round of applause.
I always say to agents that Naibor is a ‘safe sell’ in the fact that it delivers on all levels….location, style, food, guiding & service. However I think I underestimate it by describing it in that way. Naibor has the ability to work magic as we saw before our own eyes. We saw someone who was nervous to go into her tent because there was a bug in there morph into someone who relished listening to the lions roaring outside her canvas in the thick of the night.
Agent feedback “Felt at home instantly. Lovely laid back atmosphere” “This camp runs like a finely tuned clipper ship – 45 staff everyone knows there job and can fill in for every one else, coordinating the drinks runs etc.”
ZANZIBAR WHITE SANDS LUXURY VILLAS & SPA
We left Mara on the 11.15 Safarilink flight and enjoyed another relaxing, delicious lunch at House of Waine. We dragged ourselves away from the swimming pool to head JKIA for our Precision Air flight to Zanzibar. Despite our delayed, very late arrival into Zanzibar, we soon all woke up when we were met by the beaming Xperience Tours team who were the perfect hosts making the hour transfer into a fascinating insight into Zanzibar.
Arriving at your destination in the dark is so disorientating but there is something quite lovely about waking up to a surprise view in the morning….especially when the view is of clear, turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean! I had only been at ZWS in January but even since then it had changed with the gardens looking even more lush and the flowers in full bloom. Their new French manageress Linda was the right mix of friendliness and efficiency whilst also being very organized behind the scenes.
A delicious, relaxing breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs and pancakes set the tone for the day and the rest of the morning was spent enjoying the sun by the main pool and taking it in turns to head off to the spa to enjoy our complementary massage…..sometimes this job is seriously hard work! My massage was incredible with the right mixture of strength and relaxation, soothing out my tired, knotted muscles from travelling.
Amazingly having done very little in the morning, we had built up an appetite and enjoyed a delicious sea food bbq on the beach. This was my favorite kind of Zanzibari food. Simply cooked, over a fire with a mix of delicious salads….& a chilled glass of rose.
Fabrice, the constantly cheerful French Marketing assistant took us on a site inspection of the property and a chance to burn off some of our lunch. The agents were really impressed at how spacious the villas were and how private they were. Included in the tour was a look around the carpentry workshop, the gardens as well as the kite surfing school.
We had a couple of precious hours of down time, before getting our glad rags on for a ‘full moon’ drinks party with the owner Andre Niznik, and his wife Katarzyna Kuzminska. Andre and Kata are very hands on and Kata did all of the interior design herself so it was fascinating for the agents to get a real insight into the background story of the property. The rooftop bar was the perfect spot to watch the sun go down and the moon to rise whilst appreciating the traditional music serenading us.
It seemed fitting that our last night in Africa was a traditional Swahili feast with delicious local seafood curry, chapatti and a melt-in-the-mouth desert.
Our last morning in Africa was spent either getting pummulled on the massage bed, absorbing the last rays of sunshine or venturing out on the hotel’s beach bikes. The bikes are especially designed to cycle on sand and are great fun….although its worth noting which way the wind is blowing as the return journey was rather more arduous when peddling hard against the wind!
We flew directly from Zanzibar with Ethiopian Airlines via Addis. Our 4 hour wait in Addis passed in a flash with many enjoying the business class lounge…..and others enjoying the footie on TV!
Prior to departing on this fam trip, some tour operator friends said that I was brave about twinning the new flash kid-on-the-block, Angama Mara with Naibor as they are catering to different markets. I was also told that they normally recommend Angama at the end of a safari. I think that the joy of Africa is that no matter where you stay, or how high the price tag, its all about the experience. That experience may be sitting in your bathtub overlooking the endless Mara plains with a whisky from your crystal decanter. Or it might be sitting in your tent in the dead of night hearing a Lion roar so loud that you feel it reverberating through your bones. Naibor may be 10 years old and Angama 12 months but for our group they offered such different, yet complementary experiences that they were in comparable & therefore worked brilliantly.
My son asked me today what do I think is the best job in the world. My answer was that if you do something you love, it will become the best job in the world for you. We are very lucky to work in an industry where you are paid to go on holiday (sorry…I mean a fam trip) with a bunch of agents that become your friends. If you can share exhilarating experiences which bond a group like no other. …that to me is the best job in the world.
As Small World Marketing hit its 10 year anniversary, it seemed only fitting that I should celebrate it by taking our family to Africa for the first time. There was much tutting & clucking from grandparents when I declared I was taking my kids on safari at aged 7,5 & just 3. ‘Is it safe?’ ‘What about malaria?’ “Can’t you go to Longleat which is down the road?’ I had been warned that my kids would be too young to appreciate the experience they were having……but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
As my husband and I have been lucky enough to visit ‘The Mother City’ numerous times before we decided to stay away from the main city centre & find somewhere where the pace was slightly slower and more ‘kiddie friendly’. De Noodhoek hotel in Farm Village was the perfect gentle introduction to Africa with its low key village feel but yet a stones throw from the stunning Noordhoek beach. We met up with an old friend Ingram Casey from Escape + Explore who had kindly volunteered to be our guide for the next couple of days.
Our Escape & Explore welcoming pack
I’m not sure of the model’s enthusiasm….
Brrrr that water is cold!
Escape + Explore was set up 3 years ago when Ingram saw a gap in the market to give active and adventurous visitors a chance to play like a local in Cape Town’s surrounding mountains, vineyards, and sea. Our timing was impeccable, as Ingram had planned a Valentines Escape + Explore treasure hunt for the Noordhoek community. Our kids thought they had landed in paradise with a real life Peter Pan! After adventuring through the Enchanted Forest, jousting in the Dragon’s Den and saving Rapunzel (aka their 3 year old sister, Ella) they still had enough energy for a full footie match with their gaggle of new South African friends.
“Mum, can I have a tuk tuk for my birthday?!”
The pirate & princess treasure hunt
Crossing the crocodile infested swamp
The following day we set out in an ‘Escape & Explore’ Adventure Utility Vehicle (aka the ‘fun bus’) for a day of fun & frolics with Ingram as our tour guide. First stop was a surf lesson on Muizenberg beach. Under the expert tuition & patience, my husband Matt, myself and Milo, our 7 year old son all mastered standing up within a few waves.
Learning the shark flag code (with dodgy sunglasses!)
Learning the basics
Catching a wave
Having built up an appetite we ventured into Tigers Milk in Muizenberg where within minutes our three kids were up to their armpits in pizza dough making their own lunch. Fuelled on pizza & chocolate milk shakes, our next stop was to come face to face (a bit too close for comfort for mum!) with the seals at Kalk Bay. I’m not sure who was more fascinated by whom!
Do you want to join our gang?!!
A well earned chocolate milkshake
Getting messy with dough
A visit to see the Penguins on Boulders beach is a compulsory stop when visiting the Cape. Yet again, Escape + Explore had a little twist on this experience taking us to a secret beach only accessible to the locals & a few adventurous tourists. The kids loved braving the icy cold swimming pool sized rock pools alongside their new black & white friends.
Making new friends
A resfreshing dip with their new Penguin friends
The jam packed day was great fun for us all. Ingram was every child’s dream companion, jokey and fun yet a great leader with the conversation peppered with interesting facts about Cape Town’s history, culture, and environment.
The following day we ventured into Cape Town itself although sadly the wind put a stop to our plans for going up Table Mountain. Instead we explored the Waterfront although it all felt very touristy after our previous two days of living like locals!
Franschhoek was our next stop and the newly opened La Cotte House. La Cotte Farm is an exciting new development just a stones throw from Franschhoek village with a 360 view of the vineyard studded valley and mountains. La Cotte House is the first phase to be opened and is an exclusive-use house which sleeps up to 12. The second phase, 8 x ‘Forest cottages’ are due to be opened in May 2016 and the piece de la resistance….the original Manor House dating from 1694 at the end of 2017.
La Cotte House is vast at 400m2 and its never ending ceilings, loft French doors and traditional sash windows ensure that Franschhoek’s panoramas pour in with the sun the moment you open the blinds.
The house is designed for entertaining with a vast open-plan living space, majestic fireplace and vine-dappled wrap-around terraces. The interiors are a perfect marriage of eclectic colonial and relaxed farmhouse-chic serving up a gorgeous laid-back home away from home.
The pool house
What a poolside view
Unfortunately having 3 young kids in tow hampered our ability to undertake the many wine tasting tours but we still managed to fill our 5 days in Franschhoek with sampling so many of the endless incredible eating establishments. Our kids were all too happy to run around and explore the huge, stunning gardens whilst we sat back & enjoyed the local wine. There are some great kiddie friendly experiences in Franschhoek but the highlight for us the Boschendal picnic. It was a very relaxed affair with big bean bags to lounge on whilst the kids romped around the acres of garden or swung on the hammock under the pine trees.
Playing hide and seek…not very effectively!
Swing envy at Maison
3 in a hammock
I was keen for our children to also experience the real side of Africa and we had brought a number of old toys, and rugby/footballs over with this in mind. At Franschhoek we met up with the energetic, lively Doug who has set up a charity called The Kusasa Project which now helps 1500 across 5 local schools. Doug started off playing football with the township kids every Sunday; when their team numbers regularly hit 50, he realized that more needed to be done than just kicking around one football. With boundless energy and focus, he has created an incredible charity and 18 months ago a UK charity called Hope through Action helped build an incredible sports centre that would be impressive in any UK town. The sport centre not only offers after school & holiday clubs but also has programmes offering leadership and life skills.
The highlight for me was being able to take our kids in to see one of their schools. I don’t know who was more fascinated by whom. The reaction of the African kids to our 3 blonde children was amazing. The girls were stroking Ella’s hair asking if she was a princess rather to her surprise. After our kids had overcome their initial shyness they soon settled down and loved playing with the school children. Its amazing how despite the vast disparity in their backgrounds, there is a universal language of playtime!
Hermanus was our next stop for a pre-safari flop. We stayed at La Gratitude, an 100 year old self catering holiday home on Grotto Beach with some of the most incredible panoramic views over Walker Bay. Unfortunately it wasn’t whale viewing season but we soon filled our days were spent playing on the seemingly unending beach and exploring the milkwood forests.
We culminated our holiday with our long anticipated safari. I had found it hard to find somewhere in SA which would accept children as young as ours as most lodges have policies of only accepting kids over 6. I discovered Hopewell Private Game Reserve after much research and liked the fact it was a small, exclusive-use lodge therefore had no stipulations on age restrictions. I couldn’t have chosen anywhere better. As we were the sole guests we had no concerns about upsetting any other guests or affecting their game experience.
Our guide Etienne was fantastic with the kids. He won our boys over within minutes by showing them how to identify an animal poo (apparently you stick your finger in and lick it…that one was new to me but the boys thought it was hilarious!) He knew every inch of the terrain around the 4000km reserve and held everyone’s attention with fascinating animal facts. The game was plentiful with lots of eles, giraffes, antelope, zebra and hippo. Sadly the rhino with her newborn proved elusive but that didn’t affect the excitement of trying to find them. Etienne made the boys day by allowing them to drive the safari vehicle and sit in the trackers seat. Through all the larking about, the kids subliminally learned why preserving the bush and all its inhabitants really matters and began to understand something of the sheer, heart-thumping joy the natural world has to offer.
Etienne bringing the bush alive for the boys
Embracing the sundowner traditional….complete with appropriate attire
Lunchtime at Hopewell
On our dawn safaris, our bleary-eyed children soon perked up at the sight of elephants drinking at a water hole. Two boisterous young males were nick named Milo & Oscar with the little baby being called Ella. The grumpy Matriach was called ‘Mummy’……hmmm!
Hopewell putting the new driver & tracker through their paces
Not sure the zebra camoflauge is that convincing
I have been fortunate to experience many safaris but seeing the bush come to life through the eyes of my own children added a completely new dimension. Safaris, it turns out, are a dream holiday with and for kids. There is nothing like the amazement on a child’s face when giraffes and zebras are so close that you can smell them. Teachable moments abound—about nature, evolution and poo identification. Our 5 year old was mesmerized absorbing all of the facts coming out of Etienne’s mouth and then regurgitating them over dinner. Our 3 year old didn’t want to move from watching the baby elephant and loved bouncing around in the back of the jeep on her daddy’s lap. Out of all of them our 7 year old was the most fidgety, proving that its not so much about the child’s age than their ability to sit still!
Cooling off in the Hopewell swimming pool
Appreciating the elephant view
If I’m honest this holiday was more for me than the kids. It was a celebration of 10 years of my company and the journey that its taken me on. It was the opportunity to exorcise the guilt-ridden burden I have carried at having to leave my kids whilst I work & to have the chance to show them the tangible results of why I do what I do. I thought that they would enjoy it but didn’t expect that our children would emerge as brave pioneers, trackers, safari jeep drivers, poo identifiers and conservationists. The sheer wide-open, big-sky, bush and animal infested brilliance of the Africa that I loved has got right under the skin of all of us and we are already planning our next trip.
My Wildfitness break could not have come at a better time. The indulgence of the holiday season combined with a big birthday milestone meant that I was ready to take action…..a new decade, a new me!!!
I first heard about Wildfitness 13 years ago when I met the founder, Tara Wood when I was UK Manager of the Kenya Tourism Board. I was struck by the simple but effective philosophy. These were not ‘detox’ or ‘boot camp’ holidays but ‘transformative fitness retreat’ designed to rebuild the body’s athleticism & strength using the natural environment, healthy food and plenty of rest.
Fast forward 10 years and Wildfitness become a PR client of Small World Marketing’s. There was so much interest from the media and trade that I decided I had to practice what I was preaching about so signed myself and a willing girlfriend up to do the course in Zanzibar.
At Heathrow Airport, Claire & I nervously tucked into our last carb-ladened, wine-fuelled meal and boarded our flight to Zanzibar.
Arriving into Zanzibar, we stumbled out into the bright, hot sunshine, bleary eyed and pasty white. Ivan the Location Manager was there to greet us, no doubt thinking that the WF team had a serious challenge on their hands!
This course was the inaugural one at one of our property clients – Zanzibar White Sands Luxury Villas & Spa which is located on the Eastern side of the island and one hours drive from the airport. Fittingly our arrival drink was “mother nature’s sports drink”….coconut water, freshly picked from the palm trees outside. There were 7 of us on the course ranging from 34 to 55 years old…6 ladies and one man (who did amazingly well at putting up with the ‘white noise’ of us ladies chatting constantly!). After initial introductions were out the way we were straight down to business and got changed ready for our first session.
The philosophy at Wildfitness is that nature knows best. Wildfitness believes that looking to nature and what we know of our evolutionary origins provides the most useful guide for how to be fit and healthy today. The idea is that we should eat what nature has given us (no processed foods), exercise in our natural environment (run & play outside…not in a sterile gym) and allow our body to rest and recuperate when it needs to. They believe that doing natural movements (often aka crab crawl, rabbit jump, crocodile crawl), helps you learn how to use rhythm, elasticity and your body weight to work with gravity to be graceful, functional and prevent injury. The idea is that you will use your body in the way it was designed and slowly fix bad posture and undo nasty habits.
Each course has a head coach and a second coach and then a locations manager. Our coach Anne Laure was an amazing ambassador for keeping healthy and for Wildfitness. Smiling, strong with endless energy bouncing from foot to foot, just looking at her made you want to start exercising!
A big part of this philosophy is the idea of ‘play’. After a warm up where they showed us how to stretch with a long wooden pole (or broom handle!) and use a tennis ball & golf ball as a highly effective massage tool, we were then taken down to the beach. On sand so soft, we all looked like we had been coated in flour, we were taught various ‘wild movement’ techniques including crawling like a crab. With very bemused looks from
other beach goers, we ended the session by crawling crab-like in-elegantly into the turquoise sea.
That evening we introduced ourselves properly, giving our reasons for attending the Wildfitness course. It immediately struck me how many people had booked it as a break from groundhog day. They were working hard living a fast-paced lifestyle and exercising and their health had taken a back seat. They felt that something needed to change & had turned to Wildfitness. My reason for going was no different. A busy mum of three trying to balance work and family, taking a week out felt incredibly indulgent….but also very necessary.
The following morning was our ‘functional movement screening’ (or MOT), postural tests and ‘before’ photos. Self conscious of my white….haven’t-seen-the-sun-in-ages…..body, I was photographed & filmed doing basic activities such as jumping, lifting, stretching and boxing. As part of the review you tell the coaches any problems/injuries you may have with your body, or areas you want to work on then pray that they can work their magic within a week!
As a group, we had taken over the 5 bedroom villa at ZWS with the extra couple of people staying in the neighbouring 2 bedroom villa. The villa worked brilliantly as it not only allowed had a large private outside area where we could exercise in but also the comfortable, airy sitting room became our communal hangout area.
The days at Wildfitness started early at 6.30 and consisted of 3 sessions and then a workshop in the evening. The morning session was normally a hard session such as boxing, climbing, running etc lasting 1.5 hours. Breakfast was at 8.30 then it was rest time until the second session at 10.30. The afternoon was normally quite quiet until the 3rd (often more energetic) session at 4pm. Sleep and rest is really encouraged and I was amazed how much I slept in the first two days. It was my body’s way of recovering from the heat and the sheer amount of exercise we were doing.
In the evenings workshops were held in the villa sitting room where we learned about the philosophy of wild movement, wild eating and how to incorporate them into our daily life.
The diet at Wildfitness is all about being ‘natural’. The meals are wholesome and based on seasonal, local products….perfect for Zanzibar! The breakfast table was always groaning with a platter of deliciously sweet mangoes, watermelon, pineapples, natural yoghurt, honey and eggs. Sometimes we were lucky enough to get a melt-in-the-mouth coconut
or banana pancake (with no flour) and these quickly became a source of obsession for us. We weren’t allowed any caffeine, alcohol, carbs or processed food. Its amazing how food becomes such a focus & obsession when you can’t have
certain things. Luckily the Wildfitness designed food didn’t disappoint and was delicious as well as very healthy.
On day 3 I had a dull headache all day from the lack of carbs but amazingly, once I had worked through it, I felt so much better on day 4/5. I was far more energetic, my skin had lost the pale, dull sheen and appeared far clearer. More excitingly, I could already see the difference that all my hard work was making.
Between wild running (barefoot) along white sandy beaches, lifting (logs, rocks & people!) and throwing (logs, rocks & people!) swimming 4 km in the sea, brachiation (swinging like a monkey from the various trees around the hotel) we all ached in places we never knew existed and were so stiff that moving around became an awkward comedy. Yet the sessions are timed perfectly and are so engaging that I found myself throwing myself into them and forgetting that earlier in the day I could have hardly even sat on the loo…..let along climbed a tree! The team hit the right balance between motivation and humour and the group bonded strongly over their aches, pains and desire for a chilled sauvignon blanc!
My monkey attempt
Mastering the slack line
Throwing is a key ‘wild’ movement
Thursday was our morning ‘off’….designed to give us time to rest and recuperate….or book in an extra, much needed spa session. However, determined to make the most of my time in Zanzibar, I encouraged a group of us to take the beach bikes and cycle up to ‘The Rock’ restaurant which I had heard so much about. The restaurant was 17km away. ‘Easy’ we thought, confident that our new super fit, lean bodies would easily be able to cope. However 17km cycling on a beach, against the wind is slightly harder than anticipated! We arrived bedgraggled but chuffed that we had managed to push ourselves yet again…without the encouragement of the ever energetic Anne-Laure encouraging us.
By the end of the week everyone was walking straighter, the exhausted high flyers began to relax, I began to lose my ‘knackered mum’ look and we started really feeling physically stronger and ready to face the sessions. The experience made me realize that your body can tolerate any amount of grueling exercise when pushed by the right trainer, eating the right food and getting the right amount of sleep. Wildfitness is a body as well as mind changing holiday…..it is worth every drop of sweat.
Following our last amazing Makanyi breakfast our final day’s game drive once again did not disappoint. Soon after leaving the lodge shrieking magpies alerted our sharp eyed guide to a genet in a nearby tree top waving a very long black and white stripy tail reminiscent of a lemur. A little further on a little dyka (more commonly known to this group of uninformed guests as a DLT – deer like thing) darted across out path giving Riaan cause to tell us how good they taste due to their predilection to the most tender shrubs thus self-spicing! I thought he looked cuter in the bush. We also learnt how the trickier to reach shrubs are the more delicious due to lower tannin levels and how bush shrubs can deliberately increase their tannin levels when being grazed to discourage the diners – why giraffes are always seen grazing from bush to bush.
Following a break for delicious hot chocolate generously laced with amurula and home-made biscotti the remainder of the morning disclosed a mother giraffe with her 2 week old baby, complete with still dangling umbilical cord, some gentrified old daga boys (elderly water buffalo) wallowing in a muddy waterhole and a selection of beautiful birdlife including a rare red billed hornbill, bee-eaters and a majestic fish eagle.
Back at the lodge it was time to pack for our onward flights to Hoedspruit and Cape Town. Makanyi really is the most welcoming home from home in the bush and I long to return. The whole magical experience was made all the more wonderful upon learning the totally unpublicised fact that the philanthropic owners are planning to plough a large portion of the profits straight back into the Timbavati conservation project thus enabling this perfect game experience to have a long and secure future.
It was surprisingly easy to spring out of bed at 5am knowing another exciting game drive was in store rather than the usual school run! We were further delighted when the call came over the radio 5 minutes into the drive that a pack of very rare wild dog had been spotted in the area. Our excitement escalated when Riaan explained that there are only 5000 wild dog left in Africa, 500 of which are in South Africa. This pack consisted of no less than 34 dogs including 17 pups who, like inquisitive domestic dogs, were keen to sniff the vehicles and even attempt a nibble of Solly’s dangling boot!
One of the big pluses of Makanyi is that being the only commercial lodge in the southern sector of the Timbavati you hardly ever see another vehicle and as a result the game experience is as nature intended plentiful and still skittish – much of the excitement is in the pursuit as well as the viewing.
Back at Makanyi I indulged in a very spoiling massage at the in-house spa with Catherine the therapist who skilfully pummelled my knotted shoulders into submission with deliciously scented muscle relaxing Africology oils after which I literally floated back to my suite for a very quick snooze.
The afternoon game drive proved to be no less exciting with my husband, much to his delight, spotting one of the 2 local leopard cubs who had been left in the thick vegetation of the riverine whilst there mother went out hunting. The gorgeous, if shy, female was well camouflaged but still proceeded to put on a wonderful show of snarling and hissing for the clicking cameras – the result of which was my most successful shot of the whole trip! I was only sad it wasn’t a few months later when Makanyi’s in-house photography developing suite would be ready to allow guests the added thrill of printing their own favourite shots ready to take home on a rolled canvas.
A strong evening breeze meant that dinner was served around a long table laid in the main lodge which to an arriving visitor would have resembled a rather splendid, if noisy, international family dinner party with guests from England, America, Finland, Holland and Switzerland all tucking into an amazing South African feast of carpaccio of ostrich followed by the most tender springbok and gooey chocolate pudding washed down with delicious South African Wine.
After a smooth journey from our Wiltshire home to South Africa’s Timbavati region, we were delighted to be greeted at Makanyi Lodge by effusive managers Rico and Carmen.
The camp itself was stunning; first impressions – tasteful understated luxury, subtly lit and with wafts of incredible scented candles dotted around the open plan rooms. The décor was outstanding throughout, with a beautiful mix of bush feel and contemporary design and comfort.
Externally the dry stone walls and thatch blended into the bush whilst the interior design of the main lodge showcased tasteful African colonialism at its best. Piles of leather bound suitcases, inviting leather sofas, walls of mix matched black and white wildlife stills and a heavenly scent of thatch mixed with Africology scented candles made us want to collapse with a good book. However this was not the order of the day with lunch awaiting us on the wide terrace shaded by Marula trees (Makanyi means place of Marula trees) overlooking a waterhole where already elephants were starting to wallow to escape the heat of the mid-day sun.
Following our delicious ‘Chinese buffet’ lunch we were shown to our suite (one of 7 detached suites – 2 honeymoon and 5 standard) and felt very honoured to be given honeymoon suite 8 at the far end of the camp where most marauding game (including a pride of 8 lions!) were apparently frequently seen from the large deck and plunge pool. What bliss – one of the biggest thatched suites in the bush (140m2 of relaxed understated elegance) a huge four poster bed swathed in white netting and freestanding roll-top bath all set off by storm lamps, hessian mats and tasteful local furnishings….it all seemed a million miles away from my Wiltshire village home! Large sliding doors completely opened the front of the suite to all the wonderful sounds and smells of the bush and provided the perfect spot to sit in an armchair (or cooling plunge pool) and game watch across a vast expanse of seemingly open bush (a 1 foot high invisible electric fence was reassuringly pointed out to keep most nocturnal visitors at bay).
Refreshed after a quick shower we were greeted by our friendly guide Riaan and spotter Soly who led us to a very impressive new Landover converted game vehicle – which gave my husband almost as much pleasure as the game we were to see from it! Minutes later we were off for a glorious afternoon exploring the Timbavati. Being open to the Kruger, the Timbavati is one of the top areas for game viewing as animals are free to roam within an open area of over 2.4 million hectares giving a genuine, fence free safari experience. The game was on best behaviour obliging us with views of Kudu, Giraffe, Steenbok, Zebra, Warthog, Impala and my personal highlight 3 hugely over surfeited male Lions sleeping soundly, fat bellies uppermost, snoring gently at the edge of a waterhole.
The day was finished off with a delicious barbeque of warthog, chicken and kudu and an array of appealing salads taken with our guide and fellow guests sat around the roaring boma under a beautiful star filled sky.