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The Best of South Africa: An Insider's Guide Part 2

ZOOMER Magazine by: Vivian Vassos

July 19, 2016

South Africa is one of the best destinations to consider scratching off your Bucket List for less considering our, well, lesser loonie, right now. According to travel experts, you’ll get more for your Canadian buck.

But, before the safari, experience Cape Town and Johannesburg. Get to know the culture, the people and the food, through the eyes of locals. Everyone speaks English, but there is also Afrikaans, Zulu, Swazi and more of the 11 official languages spoken here. But Africa is still a wild and complex destination, and it makes sense to consult with an expert when planning this once-in-a-lifetime trip. Guides, tours, getting to and from the airport and more can – and should – be taken care of before you go. Remember, it’s a long flight, and you don’t want your thinking clouded by jetlag.

We asked Mary Jean Tully and Judi Cohen, the experts at the Canadian based Tully Luxury Travel and its African Dreams and Private Travel Design divisions to give us the insider’s guide to South Africa.

Fun fact: Johannesburg is surrounded in miles of man-made forest, making it one of the greenest cities on the continent.

Vivian Vassos: How do you inspire your clients to continue to travel in these times of safety concerns. And what is it that a travel advisor such as Tully do to help ensure the safety and well-being of its clients while travelling abroad?

Mary Jean Tully: With the quality of our partners in Africa, I feel totally safe and know that our clients will always be in good hands. We are able to communicate on a 24-hour basis with our partners, which is of comfort to our clients and our agents. Having just returned from Kenya and Tanzania, I did not feel unsafe or insecure about traveling and will be return to South Africa without concern.

[We] have trusted business partners in South Africa (and in all other countries in Africa) with whom we have formed strong relationships in planning the best trips and providing day to day services while clients are in Africa. We are in touch daily with them for updates on our client’s journeys. We also communicate directly with our clients throughout their trips to just check-in. We only deal with companies in Africa that we are aligned with on conservation and social responsibility.

VV: When and how far out is the best timing to book South Africa?

Cohen: Since most of the camps we work with are quite small, they fill up very quickly and are often booked up 12 months in advance. It’s never too early to start planning a trip! The best time to go on safari is during the dry season because water is scarce and you will see many animals around existing water holes. With the grass being lower you will also have better visibility. It is best to avoid the rainy season from October to April generally.

VV: Why do you think it’s worth the splurge on bespoke or individual tours? The Canadian Loonie is strong against the Rand making the destination an incredible value, and how this is a good incentive for that bucket list trip.

Tully: Luxury is different for each client, for some luxury might be the possibility of enjoying one of the best spas in Cape Town, for others luxury is to be able to visit a village in the Kruger Area to interact with the children and be able to collaborate with them, and at the same time enjoy a Safari at a beautiful lodge.

VV: I know that for me, what I loved most about my individual tour was the one-on-one opportunity to be guided by a local who is also professional and passionate about South Africa. It also gave me the opportunity to extend my time spent in some places, and cut short others, and rework the itinerary as the day went. In Johannesburg, en route to the graffiti/street-art tour downtown – well worth it! – we were suddenly hit by a downpour. We waited it out in a local coffee shop that served African roasted brew; it was wonderful to just hang out with people from the neighbourhood.

Tully: Discovering Africa fully is best achieved with customized safaris and tours. What we do at Tully Luxury Travel is to combine the best transportation available in each city, with the best local guides and, of course, we select distinctive properties according to the profile of each client.

VV: Without the flexibility of my guide, Sipho Lehutso – who was from a neighbouring village outside Johannesburg and spoke five languages, including perfect English! – and not being in a group on a tight schedule, that wouldn’t have happened. And, in Soweto, where I experienced many emotions, from sadness to horror to happiness, he gave me enough privacy but also enough information to allow me to have a deeper understanding of Mandela, Tutu and all the Apartheid history and key players.

Tully: Tailor-made safaris and tours allow a client to customize their experience. They have the option of staying longer (or even leaving earlier) from a specific camp and can often bypass crowds by not traveling in large groups. They enjoy the services of a guide to themselves and this allows for great interaction and learning not only about the sites, but also about the life experiences of their guides.

VV: What are your highlights and tips for a stay in Johannesburg?

Cohen: In Johannesburg, the Intercontinental is very convenient (for ease of a quick overnight stay at the airport), and the Saxon or Four Seasons Westcliff (above) are great choices for a city experience.

I’d start with a stay at the InterContinental airport hotel if flying in on an international flight with a one night layover before heading out on safari or to another city. So convenient, simply cross the street after you exit the baggage claim area.

If you want to take a drive into the City, have a car and driver pre-arranged, something we do for clients at Tully, or decide when you arrive depending on how you feel and go to the concierge at the hotel.

I’d dine at The Living Room and then check out the local artist scene at the Goodman Gallery. But my favourite thing in Johannesburg was visiting Maboneng. Depending on your dates, visiting the street market on the weekend is great. We got there in the evening when the bars, galleries, design centres and restaurants were lively and busy. Great bars like Lenin’s Vodka Bar! Outdoor restaurants with BBQd ribs, chicken and other meats….delicious! We asked our driver to recommend a good restaurant and he joined us for dinner before heading back to the airport hotel. Up the next morning early to catch our flight to Botswana…just crossed the street with our safari bags on a luggage cart!

VV: What I found, was that with a guide, you can be more adventurous, and return to the spots you liked most on your own, once you’ve got the lay of the land.

Cohen: Yes, like Maboneng, for example. Trendy and interesting area to visit: historical buildings, full height graffiti walls, great people watching, music scene, street performers and small street choirs….galleries with wire and bead art….so much more. It tickled all my senses!

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