Elephants in Kruger and (inset) Alan Thomas
Elephants in Kruger and (inset) Alan Thomas (Photo from Alan & Jenny Thomas)

Traveler interview: Alan Thomas – Johannesburg to Cape Town tour in South Africa

Chatting with Responsible Travel writer, Catherine Mack.

What made you want to go to South Africa?
Quite a specific reason really. We had been to several countries where there are leopards, and never seen a leopard. One of the factors of this vacation was that we had a number of opportunities to see leopards. But also, we hadn't been to Africa for quite some time and thought it was time for us to go back. And the rest of the vacation ticked all the right buttons with a bit of walking too, which we like.

And did you get to see the leopards?
We did see leopards in the end, in Kruger National Park. And it was worth the wait. We saw two immediately after we had driven through the gate into the park. Then again later on a night drive with spotlights on the vehicle, and we were coming back to camp, and suddenly there, right on the side of the road, there was a leopard just walking. It proceeded to walk on behind us, and then sat down and a couple of hyenas came along. The guide said that the leopard would have to move because hyenas can be a threat. And indeed the leopard did go off and the hyenas followed. We were all a bit concerned, but then the hyenas appeared on the road again, so presumably the leopard had got clear of them. That was a very exciting time.

LEFT: Cheetah with kill (photo from Alan & Jenny Thomas). RIGHT: Leopard on night drive (photo by Roger Wheatcroft).
What is the atmosphere among the group when you have a wildlife experience like that?
The whole jeep goes quiet when something like that happens. You quickly learn on safari that it's about keeping quiet, and not making squeals of excitement and all that. But keeping your excitement under the lid until afterwards and then everybody's jabbering about the experience.

How was the camping part of the trip for you?
I believe the company is cutting out the camping aspect from next year, and I'm not sure if that is a good thing or not. Camping has not always been a great favourite of mine, but in fact, with the exception of the first and last night's camping, I actually really enjoyed it. The first night, when we were totally disorganised and didn't have torches and all of that handy, that was chaos. And on the last night, we had the most incredible storm. However, I think it is nice that when camping, you get a chance to get close to the rest of the group. And it was a very good group. And so it was nice to feel like you are in a close community once you come out of your tent. Whereas when you are in a hotel, or lodges or whatever, you are in your room, and then you come out and you may or may not see the rest of the group.

What is the most useful thing you packed? And what did you wish you had packed and didn't?
Probably, as a photographer, a bean bag is the best thing I packed as it gives you stability in a vehicle that might be still moving when you are trying to take a photo. Another useful thing, of course, is walking poles. Some of the walks were quite difficult, with lots of ups and downs, and so walking poles are excellent when you start to get dodgy knees. If there is any mention of a walk, we always pack our poles, as you never know what the conditions will be. Another thing that I wish I had packed, harping back to the first night of chaos in the tent, because it was dark when the tents were put up, was a hanging light so you can leave it on permanently. So I do wish I had packed that.

Were your preconceptions very different from reality?
The trip is well described. There were a couple of long drives, but they weren't too bad, and generally the roads were in pretty good condition. We didn't feel at any point 'Oh God, I never expected this', so the company prepares people very well for the trip in terms of what to expect.

Was there one local person that you met whom you will always remember?
The guides are on this trip were exceptionally good. They were Justin Barr, his partner Fiona Davis and they had an apprentice guide with them too, David Kandela. They really were excellent at preparing you the night before for exactly what the next day was going to bring, in terms of journeys, the conditions, what you needed to have with you. They didn't always get it right, mind you, like when he said, "oh it never rains on this side of the mountain" and there was absolutely a total thunder and lightning storm! But really, they were excellent.

Was there anywhere you visited that you thought was a bit overrated?
This is only a tiny thing, and hardly even worth mentioning, but when you visit 'God's Window', it has a wonderful view apparently, but we never saw it. It is in the 'mist belt' and in the mornings it rarely has any visibility at all. But unfortunately we visited it in the morning. So although the journey to it was perfectly clear, there always seems to be a layer of cloud when you get there. So, I just wonder if rescheduling it for later in the day might be better. But to be honest, this is a minor thing, and maybe it wouldn't be better in the afternoon anyway.

God's Window
God's Window (Photo by South African Tourism)
Where was your best sleep?
Actually it was right at the end in Cape Town. We were in a set of lodges, called 'Sweet Lodges', and they had a number of different units dotted around Cape Town's Sea Point area. The bed was absolutely exquisitely comfortable. I have never experienced a bed like it!

What did you think was going to be hard that turned about to be ok?
I was a bit worried that the big walk, in the Drakensberg Mountains, described as 14km, was going to be a bit arduous and difficult. But in fact even though the weather wasn't very clement, the walk was very enjoyable and very doable. I have asthma, controlled asthma, but I have to watch how much I do. But it was really fine, with clearly defined paths, and so no problems at all.

Walking in Drakensberg
Walking in Drakensberg (Photo by billandkent)
Did you have a scary moment?
Heart stopping rather than really scary. We were doing a safari on foot in Swaziland, and we had gone out into the bush with the guides. They warned us in advance that they didn't expect to see any really big game, just some deer, maybe a chance of giraffe. But as we were walking back, approaching the camp, the guide spotted a group of white rhinos, a couple of hundred yards away. He led us towards them a bit, and when we got within 20 metres of them he got us to crouch down, and one of the rhinos detached himself from the group and came towards us. Eventually he got within five metres and was peering at us. It didn't feel very scary though, just extremely exciting.

The guide was clearly quite happy with the situation and, as he explained afterwards, white rhino are pretty passive. He said, "You'll have noticed that when we were walking towards them, I didn't get you to be very quiet, or watch where you were putting your feet, because you need them to know that you are there. And then generally, as long as they haven't moved off, they are going to accept you." My wife, who was even closer than me, got a photograph with the shoulder of the guide in the corner of the picture just to prove there was no zooming in, and the rhino is there, just feet away.

Close up to the white rhino
Close up to the white rhino (Photos from Alan & Jenny Thomas)
Do you have any sense memories from your trip, other than 'sight' ones?
The sound of camping at Tsitsikamma on the coast. The campsite is wonderful, below a cliff, immediately adjacent to the rocks, with the sound of the Indian Ocean crashing onto the rocks. An idyllic setting on the first night anyway. The next night there was the most intense African storm, with crashing thunder and lightning, and heavy rain lashing against the tent, and the ocean crashing against the rock. And you're thinking 'My God, this is a sensory experience and a half!'

Did the trip meet your expectations?
I went with good expectations and they were all fulfilled. We enjoyed it from beginning to end really. It certainly produced all the animals we had hoped to see. One of the people on the trip, this was their first safari, and they must be the luckiest people in the world, as this trip just produced everything. Not just the so called Big Five, but so many other experiences too. It was really the ultimate safari experience. I said to them at the time "let us know where you go next on vacation, as I think we'll go with you, as you seem to get all the best things!"

Group with guide
Group in Lesotho with local guide 'Lucky' (Alan & Jenny 2nd & 3rd from left)
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Written by Catherine Mack
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