The last time I got on an aeroplane was in 2002. I didn’t like it back then and sadly I still don’t like it now. Flying is for birds and people with deep-seated paranoia about falling from great heights (like me) prefer to stay rooted to the earth, preferably in total control of whatever method of conveyance is forced upon us. But on the upside, the flight I took to Johannesburg in mid October of 2010 was for reasons that bring much joy to my life: safari time with some of the wonderful people I have come to know online through Nikongear.com.

Last year the original “Safarians” (as I like to call them) came down to me in Durban and from there we drove our butts off for 14 days, visiting several nature reserves and doing some serious sight-seeing. The lesson learned from that trip was simple enough: spend more quality time in one place and less time trying to cover as much ground as possible. So for 2010’s group safari we decided to do things differently and book out exclusive use of one of the famous Sabi Sabi Private Reserve’s 4 lodges, namely Little Bush Camp. For an entire week we would have complete run of the facilities, including two dedicated game viewing vehicles (equipped with arms and clamps to assist with support for the heavier lenses), two Shangaan trackers and two Game Rangers to drive us around.

When the big day finally arrived I found myself wandering nervously around Durban’s new King Shaka airport a good 2 hours before I was scheduled to fly up to Johannesburg. Nervous, not only about flying and possibly reaching the end of my life in a fireball plummeting to earth from outrageous heights, but also about trying to get the 16kgs of camera and computer equipment contained in my backpack onto the plane as carry-on luggage. The published limit for hand luggage on South African Airways domestic flights is only 8kgs, so the contingency plan I had came in the form of one of those photographers vests with enough concealed pockets to keep airport security busy for a very long time should they decide to interrogate me.

I don’t particularly like those vest things and have always found them to be a bit pretentious when used by photographers. However, I can see now how they might actually be useful. The one I bought can swallow up at least three medium size lenses (12-24mm, 24-60mm, 150mm macro), as well as two tele-converters and my small Sony camcorder, all my memory cards, iPhone and headphones, wallet and not to mention my air tickets and boarding pass. I could probably put more stuff in there, including copies of War & Peace and maybe even a change of clothing too. Of course you look suspicious as hell once you are wearing that much gear but at least I’d know my gear was safe. Incredibly I didn’t have to load any equipment into the vest and found myself on the other side of the security check in without even a question about the contents of my bag. Cool beans. One flight down, three to go.

Day One In Jo’burg

By midday I was in Johannesburg having lunch with Indiana Jones. I beg your pardon, Pepe Jones, who I am sure is related in some way to that most fearless of fictional adventurers. Pepe is the logistical brain behind how Nikongear.com group safaris actually get from being an idea in my head to being a reality on the ground (and of course in the air when needed). Without her things wouldn’t run as smoothly and it’s through her expert knowledge and organising skills that we at Nikongear.com get to enjoy the very best of what Southern Africa can offer.

After lunch we spent the afternoon strategising 2011’s safaris before we had to make the first of many trips to Johnnesburg airport to collect our 2010 Safarians, the first of whom were Jørn & Merete from Oslo, Norway. Pepe had organised for our guests to stay overnight at the wonderful Golfer’s Lodge, which is only about 10-15 minutes away from the airport. The following day the rest of the Safarians came in at various times, including Graham, Ann & Nicola from the United States, Anthony from the UK and then later on in the evening Golfer’s Lodge arranged transfers for Frederico and Filipa coming in from Angola, as well as Rebeca who was coming from Miami, via London, while the rest of us enjoyed the wonderful opening braai. Unfortunately Rebeca’s connecting flight from London was delayed by 5 hours, so we found ourselves waking up at 2.30am to go and collect her from the airport. Despite the delay she was in very good spirits and really eager to begin our safari. I can’t say I’d have been in the same good mood if I had been flying for that long and still had to suffer a 5 hour delay, but then as I have already pointed out, flying is for the birds, not for me. Just so happens that Rebeca is a very serious birder, so I guess she must like being in the air too.

October is mid-spring time in the Southern hemisphere and with spring come the first rains on the Highveld. Johannesburg is renown for its afternoon thunderstorms. Between the hours of 3pm and 6pm you’re almost always assured of there being a massive electrical storm up on the Highveld. The Sunday of our opening braai was a little different. Instead of just rain we had hail too. Not just regular old hail, but decent sized, smash-your-skylight-in type hail, mixed with a healthy dollop of sunshine at the same time. Check out my cellphone video below to see the reaction from our 2010 Safarians who were there to experience it, even if somewhat incredulously.

Some photos from Ann of the time spent at Golfer’s Lodge (click to enlarge):

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Day Two: Onward To Kruger Park Airport

The travel plan as organised by Pepe, was that on the Monday morning the Safarians and myself would be transferred from Golfer’s Lodge to JHB Airport, from where we would fly to Kruger National Park airport while she and an associate of hers would travel by road together with all our luggage and meet us there. This inventive piece of planning ensured that none of us would have to worry about the hand luggage limitation on the flight to KNP.

Back at the JHB airport our Safarians had some time after checking in to exchange currency and do some light shopping if they needed to get any last minute items. We agreed to meet back at the departure gate half an hour before our flight was scheduled to board. I had some serious stress when, with only about 20 minutes to go until boarding time, there was no sign of Graham anywhere. In a mild panic I had to go back out into the main terminal through the security checkpoint to see if I could find him, which proved fruitless. As the panic grew into the sheer certainty that Graham had somehow been beamed up into a fourth dimension by visiting space ships, I went back through the checkpoint and was hugely relieved to see him emerging nonchalantly from one of the business lounges in the departures area – a seasoned traveller! As they say in South Africa when things don’t go quite according to plan… “eish”.

I recall flying into Nelspruit once before, in what my former banking colleagues lovingly referred to as a “vomit comet” (12 seater plane with some obscure name relevant only to those who are obsessed with aviation). If memory serves correctly Nelspruit airport, which is now called Kruger Park International Airport, has the distinctive honour of having the shortest commercial airport runway in the country. It’s also quite high up, so your approach seems incredibly short. One minute you’re a couple of thousand feet in the air, the next you’re hitting the tarmac – not even enough time to say a short prayer or hope that those entrusted with landing you have both eyeballs in their relevant sockets.

Once the plane doors were opened we got out into what can at best be described as the same climate you’d expect to find inside a tumble drier. It was around 40°C (104°F), even though it was mostly overcast. I remember thinking to myself that if this was going to be our lot for the rest of the week I would surely have to be infused with a combination of Prozac, absinthe and whatever other marginally legal substances could be found to keep my brain from melting. In case you don’t already know, me and heat are not the best of pals. I kept a curious eye on our Norwegian guests, half expecting them to think they had somehow passed through the gates of Hades, but they were all smiles.

Two flights down, two to go (homeward leg, that is).

To Be Continued…