“Everyone has their horror travel story and now you have yours,” said the pilot over the plane’s loudspeaker.
(written by Jen; approved by Ian) We were dirty, hungry, and tired, and I had vowed never to travel again. It should take about 18 hours to fly from Washington, DC to Johannesburg. But this time it took 3 nights--over 50 hours. The reasons for this delay seemed endless. One reason would go away and another one would pop up in its place--sandstorm in the Sahara Desert, flight time restrictions on the crew, mechanical issue, some kind of security issue on the plane, back to sandstorm in the Sahara Desert, and then, lastly, no food or water left on the plane. We spent countless hours in the airport in Abidjan Cote d'Ivoire ("Ivory Coast"); we stayed a night in Abidjan in a not so grand hotel after a somewhat harrowing drive in a packed van across the city; and, we were forced to surrender our passports to airport officials to ensure our return to the airport the next morning. Getting back our passports involved a mob of over 250 people looking for their passports and one mild-mannered and soft spoken airport official with a thick French accent holding those passports hostage.*
Now this may not have been so bad if we had been in a nice hotel and/or a safe, touristy city. But this was not the case. The Ivory Coast is a French speaking coastal West African country. Its recent history boasts such events as a coup and an attempted coup, fighting between Christian and Muslim factions, allegations of child slavery in its cocoa plantations, a civil war, dealings in blood diamonds, and most recently Islamist militant attacks.** In our drives to and from the hotel, the pressing troubles of the city were obvious--poverty and pollution. The air was thick and the visibility minimal. We saw trash floating down the river, multiple men urinating, and cattle defecating on the streets. And, next to the poverty were gorgeous wine and fish shops.
We left Washington, D.C. at 6pm on Tuesday and arrived in Johannesburg at 3am on Friday. We had lost two nights of our vacation which were to be spent getting some R&R before heading to the bush (an advertisement for why trip insurance is worth it). Instead, we arrived in Johannesburg with 6 hours to sleep and to clean up before getting into a car for the 4 hour drive to Mateya Safari Lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve. We were stressed, disappointed, sore and tired. And, there was a part of us that wanted to go home.
We drove to Mateya instead of flying because we had booked the trip last minute during the busy holiday season and were unable to get seats on the hop flight from Johannesburg to Madikwe. A blessing in disguise. We had never been so happy to go for a car ride.
There was comfort in having recently been to Mateya. We knew we could count on a few things we were in desperate need of--a full night's sleep on a comfortable bed, a long, hot shower under two rain showerheads, a glass of wine (or seven), a five-course dinner, a massage (or two), and some elephants.
Once we arrived at Mateya, the stress of the last couple of days melted away almost instantaneously. We were welcomed by the friendly smiles of our ranger, Werner, and tracker, Paul; we were in the company of friends. And as we rounded the corner to the front of the lodge, there were the elephants, and the wine was not far away. I found myself thinking, why were the last couple of days so stressful? And, there it was; the reason we all need to take vacations. To wash off the stress of our lives, to make new friends, to change our point of view, to re-set, and, of course, to drink more wine. Well, if I had any doubts about the importance of taking vacations and the impact it can have on our lives, they were squashed. Alternatively, some of the reasons we travel and write this blog were affirmed.
We've praised the many attributes of Mateya before, and we can't say enough about this lodge and game reserve. I have no doubt that we will visit again soon for a number of reasons, but here is a lawyer-like bullet list (yup, I'm still a lawyer most of the time) of some of the reasons to stay at this lodge and to visit Madikwe.
-- The proximity to Johannesburg. It's only a short drive from Johannesburg. So, if you are iffy about getting into a small bush plane, you can easily forgo the whole experience and still get to the bush rather quickly.
--The rooms are comfort epitomized. You can see elephants from your bed in your air conditioned or heated (depending on the season) room. Now, that's happiness. You can always open the big screen doors, go for a swim in your plunge pool, or take a nap on your private verandah if you need to be closer to nature.
-- Your massive bathroom. Ian captured these photos with his iPhone.
-- The red soil. The red soil of Madikwe provides a beautiful contrast to the green foliage, and the animals take on a red glow from the soil.
--The wildlife, of course. Madikwe has the big five, cheetah, and wild dogs. And, all of that is awesome. But, we have also had wonderful sightings of breeding herds of elephants, hyena pups, and large groups of giraffes, and zebras.
--The sunsets and sundowners. Who doesn't love a drink and a good sunset.
-- The guiding and tracking. If the guiding and tracking at a lodge are subpar, it doesn't matter how amazing the lodge is, your overall experience will be marred. Ultimately, all that matters is how good the guiding and tracking is. On safari, you spend 6 to 9 hours, sometimes more, on the vehicle with your guide and tracker. If that is a bad time, most likely, no matter how much you enjoyed the lodge, you will not recommend it to your friends and family. So, for us, in choosing where to stay, guiding reputation is by far the most important thing. And, Werner and Paul at Mateya are some of the best.
-- The massages. So good that I had two. Decided that you probably didn't need to see photos of them.
-- The food, particularly the breakfast.
--The resident dogs. If you love dogs as we do, it's always a joy to see one, even on safari. And, Mateya has a couple to help fill the void if you miss the one you left at home. Rest assured, if you can't stand dogs, the managers at Mateya will make sure that you don't encounter them.
--And, most importantly, the stories--the ones you create, the ones you witness, and the ones you hear. Traveling is creating your own story (and sometimes, those stories are more like a horror story). Often, the animals are showing you a story of sorts--lions mating, zebras wrestling, springboks sparring, wild dogs hunting. And, Mateya has never failed to provide us with amazing wildlife stories (and Werner has some pretty good stories of his own). Here are two of ours from this last trip to Mateya.
1. Jackal Tricks Lionesses
2. Wild Dogs on the Hunt
*We want to emphasize that in all of our travels to Africa, we have never before had an issue like this. This was a unique experience caused in large part by a sandstorm in the Sahara Desert that decreased visibility for planes to land in some airports in West Africa. Little did we know, Sahara Desert sandstorms can have a large and a wide-ranging impact, reaching parts of Europe and even Texas.
**For a more complete history of the Ivory Coast, see, for example, BBC's short history of Ivory Coast.
P.S. The trip to Mateya was planned by our wonderful travel agent, Jeanie Fundora at Travel Beyond. Jeanie has been planning trips to Africa for 17 years and has been named by Travel + Leisure magazine to its prestigious A-List for her expert knowledge in Africa, having traveled to Africa 22 times. Jeanie is as a fierce advocate for her clients, making sure every need is accommodated on diverse trips from honeymoon safaris to multi-generational family safaris in both East and Southern Africa as well as India. If there’s a way to make out-of-the-ordinary details work, Jeanie will find it.
P.S.S. My brother, Steve (who should join us on a safari with his awesome wife Ashleigh), provided editorial support, i.e., finding my numerous typos. And, of course, Ian provided invaluable content for this blog and is my favorite travel companion in life!