Monday, 29 May, 2011
Finally: Johannesburg (Kempton Park) to Malelane

"Beep, beep, beep..." What is that? Where am I? Why is it so cold in here? Oh, I remember. We arrived last night in South Africa, Tom and I (Jana) and Tom's mother, Linda, after a 15-hour nonstop flight from Atlanta. No wonder I've blocked it from my mind! Actually, we were due to arrive a day earlier, but our flight from Knoxville to Atlanta was canceled on Thursday due to thunderstorms, so the plane to Johannesburg left without us. We refused to risk the same thing happening on Friday, so we drove to Atlanta and left from there.

Our plane landed in Johannesburg at 5:18 p.m. Saturday, and with no checked luggage to wait on, by 7:15 we'd cleared immigration, customs, visited the ATM, picked up our rental car, and were checked in to our hotel, Emerald Guest House, very near the airport, where Tom and I had stayed at both ends of our Botswana trip in 2007. When our flight got canceled Thursday, we had to move back our prepaid room reservation by one night, but it was happily not a problem.

TRAVEL TIP - Johannesburg Airport ATMs: The easiest source of cash, with the best exchange rate, is through ATMs. There are no ATMs on the arrivals level of the O.R. Tambo International Airport. To get cash, once you've cleared customs and are about to exit the airport, go up the escalators one level and through a set of double doors to the departures level, where you'll find the ATMs.

After check-in at Emerald's, we had dinner (beef lasagna & veg, beef cottage pie & veg) and drank some Castles, a refreshing South African lager, in their dining room before turning in in our chilly rooms. It's late fall in South Africa, and the elevation in Johannesburg is 5,751 feet. With the help of a reluctant space heater, the room temperature rose to a non-balmy 61 degrees overnight.


Emerald Guest House gate

When we awoke, Emerald's served a plentiful breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, fruit, coffee, and juice. A nice start to the day. We walked the grounds before leaving and saw six bunnies. The wildlife has begun!



Our rental car from Thrifty is a silver 4-door Hyundai Sonata with an automatic transmission and the steering wheel on the right, since we'll be driving on the left. Some of the rental car companies indicated an International Driving Permit is required to rent, so I got once just in case, but since our licenses are in English and include photos, an IDP was not required.

It took just under four hours to drive from Emerald's, near the Johannesburg airport, to Rio Vista Lodge in Malelane, near one of the gates to Kruger National Park, via the R21 road, the N12, and the N4. We paid three tolls on the N4, at Middleburg (rand 40), Machada (R60), and Nkomazi (R45). The exchange rate being about 6.8 rand per dollar during our trip, that's about $21. Just 30 minutes outside the Johannesburg metro area, a stray piece of gravel flew up from the road, chipping a hole in our windscreen, a hazard explicitly excluded from our car rental insurance. I wonder how much that'll cost!


On the road to Kruger

The R and N roads in South Africa look just like interstates in the United States, only with tons of pedestrians alongside the road. The three of us thought it pretty unsafe how close to the driving lanes people were walking, and we were proved correct rather than paranoid in Matsulu, where a recently killed pedestrian was laying in the road, one leg sticking out from beneath a tarp.

Malelane is not a large town, and we had no trouble finding the entrance to the gated neighborhood where Rio Vista Lodge is located. The guard took my name and license tag number and we passed through the gate, only to arrive at another locked gate at the entrance to the lodge, where a sign instructed us not to "hoot" our horn, but to call a phone number, and they'd open the gate. Well, that's all well and good, except that for such a short trip, we hadn't purchased local SIM cards for our American phones and had no way of calling!

Back to the first gate we went, where the guard also had no phone. As we were pondering our quandary, other guests of the lodge arrived, with phone, and we managed to gain entry. We'd emailed a reservation change to this lodge also due to our flight cancellation, and again it was not a problem. We checked in at 2:00 p.m.

After unloading the car, we headed to the Super Spar grocery store, about a kilometer down the road. Our first four nights in Kruger will be at Talamati Bush Camp in a self-catering cottage, with no shop or restaurant. Then we'll have two nights at Letaba Rest Camp, with both store and restaurant, and then two more nights of self-catering, at Bateleur Rest Camp. So if we want to eat for the next four days, it's time to provision up!

Although the Super Spar was very similar to the supermarkets back home, grocery shopping with three people when you don't know where anything is located or even what items are available is chaotic, but we eventually made our way through the store. Then for some reason, when we went to pay, Linda's credit card was rejected, but I gave them mine and it worked, so no big deal. You've got to be flexible with a variety of payment options when traveling overseas.

The biggest purchasing challenge was a cooler. We had to have one, and the cheapest one at the Super Spar was R199 (30 bucks). Shopping around wasn't an option because it was Sunday, and most other stores were closed, so we bought the overpriced thing. Incidentally, you can't buy bottles of liquor in South Africa on a Sunday, at least in Malelane, just like at home. Luckily, anticipating this possibility, we had stocked up at the duty-free in Atlanta.

Grocery shopping accomplished, we went to the gas station for gas and ice. Why is ice a gas station thing? The gas (they say "petrol") stations in South Africa are all full service, and you must pay in cash, unless you are South African and hold a South African garage card. Consequently, we had to carry a lot of cash on our trip, especially since we were going into Kruger, which has very few, very unreliable ATMs. The petrol was R28.08 per liter, about $5.75 per gallon. Ouch.

Back at Rio Vista, we enjoyed sundownders (drinks at sundown, naturally) on the back deck: Windhoek, a Namibian beer, for Tom and me, and a gin and tonic, after much discussion and confusion by the staff, for Linda. Regarding the Windhoek, don't bother. The deck/bar/restaurant overlooks the Crocodile River, which borders Kruger National Park. Sometimes wildlife is seen drinking at the river, but not today.


Linda and Tom on the Rio Vista deck


Crocodile River

We had dinner at Rio Vista, T-bone steak, baked potatoes, and cauliflower with cheese for us all. Unfortunately, we had a language difficulty when it came to the doneness of the meat, and it was not nearly as cooked as we would have liked. It was still good, though a bit chewy on the less-done bits. Since we're leaving early in the morning, the lodge fixed us to-go breakfasts and brought them to our rooms after dinner.

About 8:30, Tom and I tried to leave the building to get a better view of the stars than from our fenced-in porch, but they'd already battened down the hatches for the night, and it wasn't worth causing a ruckus to get the attention of the night security guard. I'm not used to the strenuous security in South Africa. We were locked in a compound last night, we're locked in a compound tonight, and we'll be locked in compounds every night of our stay in Kruger!


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