Safari as a journey: Start @ JFK. Then Johannesburg and Harare

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On a recent visit to Africa, my journey started with a flight from New York to Johannesburg on South African Airways (SAA). For an additional fee, I scored a seat in Premium Economy. While the space was not much better than basic, the charge included the opportunity to reserve an aisle seat, and there was a difference – not the size of the space but the location.

A really delicious in-flight meal and a few respectable wines made me feel very lucky. I dined on grilled (?) salmon that was moist and actually tasted like salmon (I was not so fortunate on the return).

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Beverage options included:

1. Balance Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot 2015. Cabernet Sauvignon – 60 percent; Merlot – 40 percent. Wine of origin: Western Cape, SA. Winemakers: Willie Malan and Ben Synman

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To the eye, deep red luscious hue. The nose found ripe berries and nuts with a suggestion of oak. Velvety smooth on the palate, leaving a light mist of cherry on the tongue. Drinkable but not memorable.

Grapes are cold soaked for 2 days and followed with traditional skin fermentation. After completion of alcoholic fermentation, the wine experiences malolactic fermentation. Terroir: deep red soil ensures excellent water retention and adds structure to the wines.

The vintage of 2015 was harvested 2 weeks earlier than planned because of low rainfall and variations between day and night temperatures. Moderate climates during the harvest contributed to distinctive flavor and a good structure with a fresh crisp finish.

2. Deetlefs 2015 Pinotage

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Notes

To the eye, dark ruby leading to a scarlet rim. Perfume hits the nose, delivering notes of mulberries, raspberries, cherries, and prunes. Hints of vanilla, spice, and earth hover in the background – waiting to be noticed. Tannins offer structure and the oak adds interest to the palate.

Pinotage is South Africa’s unique grape variety. The grape is used in making budget-priced table wines as well as rich, concentrated wines that deliver leather and chocolate, black and red fruit, and hints of spiciness. Pinotage is a mix of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut and first bred by Abraham Perold (1925). The vines were grafted onto disease-resistant rootstocks in 1943.

Deetlefs dates back to the 18th century and is now the second oldest wine estate in South Africa that is owned by the same family. Since 1994, the wines have been available internationally. The vineyards are located in the Western Cape at the foot of the Du Toitskloof Mountains in the Breedekloof Valley. Currently, the Managing Director is Kobus Deetlefs, and the enterprise focuses on sustainable growth.

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Castel Lager

This is the pale lager for South Africa and received the “World’s Best Bottled Lager” award at the 2000 Brewing Industry International. Started by Charles and Lisa Glass, this beverage has been available since the Gold Rush in the late 19th century. The lager has 5% ABV with an interesting light hops taste and trends to bitter rather than a sweet palate experience.

Finally. Arrival in SA.

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My SAA 14-hour, 40-minute flight from New York finally landed at the Oliver Reginald Tambo (named for the former President of the African National Congress) International Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa. This is the major air transit point for domestic and international travel to/from South Africa. Considered to be the busiest airport in Africa, it has a capacity to welcome 28 million in-transit passengers.

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To call the busy Tambo Airport chaotic would be an understatement. Signage is limited, leaving passengers in transit looking everywhere for someone or someplace for information. While there are Information kiosks, they are staffed by people who are customer-friendly, but uninformed. They are as confused by the locations of people, departments, nearby hotels, and other services at the airport as are the weary and confused travelers.

Fortunately, some airport maintenance employees are willing to be of assistance, and for small gratuities, they cheerfully guide the lost and bewildered through the complexity of the airport. Without the assistance of these staffers, I would, in all likelihood, still be looking for airline offices, airport hotels, and departure gates.

Patience is an Asset

Entering South Africa is as challenging as the entry to all international destinations. Endless lines at multiple checkpoints requesting passports, photos, and other security measures that test the boundaries of passenger patience. If you are expecting to connect to another flight after a landing, allocate hours (not minutes), as there is absolutely no way to sail swiftly through the hordes of people waiting to get cleared for entry.

Finally, I am through immigration controls and in the airport. Fortunately, I had not checked a bag – so I could go in search of my connecting flight to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Although I asked directions from the staffers at the Information Desk, and other airport personnel, no one was knowledgeable.

Tourism Angel

Finally, I enlisted the guidance of a fellow with a broom and a basket- who was willing to pause his cleaning assignment to help me find the reservation desk for my connecting flight. My “tourism angel” even waited with me to make sure that I had the reservation confirmed. It is a good thing he did not leave my side – my connecting flight had been cancelled. Instead of going direct to Victoria Falls, I was reserved for a flight to Harare (last departure that night) and a connection, the following day, to Victoria Falls. I was not happy.

Airport Hotel Saves the Day

This is the moment when an airport hotel earns its stripes. I was able to get a daytime reservation at the City Lodge hotel. Unfortunately, reaching the property requires a long walk through the airport and adjacent buildings (estimated walk time – 15 minutes), through long and dimly lit, low trafficked hallways without signage. Once again, maintenance staffers offered information and were even willing to push/pull my suitcase through the seemingly endless corridors. When we reached a dead-end, one of my “tourism angels” pointed to the elevator to the hotel (no signage) and pushed the button for the hotel floor. After receiving a small tip, he wished me a pleasant trip and disappeared down the hallway.

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I was both surprised and delighted when I finally reached the hotel lobby. I was fearful that this was going to be awful! City Lodge turned out to be a very nice budget property. The General Manager and Front Desk staffers were incredibly pleasant and supportive – acknowledging how tired, frustrated, hot, and hungry guests are because of cancelled or delayed flights. They generously offer sympathy as well as directions to the nearby café where food and beverages are available from breakfast through dinner.

My guest room was basic but comfortable. I quickly took a shower, changed into clean clothes, and headed to the café. In addition to Wi-Fi connections, the hotel is close to retailing and dining options, banking facilities, and meeting space. There is also a fitness room and pool for guests. Location: Above multi-story Parkade 2, Level 5.

Connecting to Harare

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Finally, it is time to board my flight to Harare, scheduled for a late-night arrival. The Harare Airport has not been updated for decades, and landing at night can be challenging. Do not expect lots of lighting, directions, staff, signage, or working toilets. The good news is that flying time is under 2 hours, and FastJet provides new, modern aircraft at budget prices.

FastJet is considered one of the best African low-cost airlines and has received the Skytrax World Airline Awards. With headquarters in Johannesburg, it operates in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, and South Africa, and a very popular way to reach Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Although my flight from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls resulted in a huge demand on my limited patience and energy, the airline “usually” records a 94 percent on-time performance rating and is considered reliable and punctual, as well as affordable.

Passing through immigration and passport control at Harare can be puzzling. Although I was on a flight with very few tourists, it took a long time for the staff to break off their personal conversations and acknowledge the fact that I was waiting to be processed. The employees seemed to be confounded by my USA passport and how to process the visa fees. Because of the late arrival of the flight, the airport was closing for the day, and I was fearful of getting locked in – so – I did my best to encourage the staff to concentrate on my passport and related paperwork – not for my sake but their benefit! As soon as they cleared me through their checkpoints, they could go home.

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Fortunately for travelers, the Harare airport is scheduled to enjoy a $153 million upgrade thanks to a loan from the China EximBank. The upgrade falls under the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Soci-Economic Transformation’s infrastructure and utilities cluster and is expected to create increased employment and other benefits. The airport has a 2.5 million passenger capacity (per year).

I was delighted to be met at the airport by a FastJet executive who graciously took me to my accommodations for the evening. The property is a charming, unique “private home” that offers accommodations for travelers seeking more privacy and services than generally available at hotels.

Harare Accommodations

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I spent my one night in Harare at the Lelethu Lodge. This very secluded, upscale property (with an outdoor swimming pool, free Wi-Fi and complimentary breakfast) is located in an Alexandra Park suburb. It is close to the city center as well as the National Botanical Gardens and only 10 miles from the airport. This very comfortable property is located near art galleries, an amusement park, the aquarium, and night life.

Back to Harare for Victoria Falls

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Do not look for shopping or gourmet dining at the Harare Airport. A small waiting room bar offers drinks and coffee. Don’t see what you want? Too bad! There are no choices. Also missing from the scene is the opportunity to shop. I thought I would use the waiting time to buy clothes and jewelry made in Zimbabwe… Nothing! Not even a t-shirt. Back to waiting, rereading my itinerary, and looking forward to finally seeing Victoria Falls.

As I begin to contemplate a nap, I notice the people in the airport picking up their hand luggage and forming a line at the portal to the runway. Where were they going? I asked a nearby passenger if I had missed an announcement. No – people just “knew” when to get organized for boarding flights. I double checked with a gate agent and – sure enough, it was time to have tickets and passports checked for boarding. “No. There was no announcement.”

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Next Stop. Victoria Falls.

© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.

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