South African Airways introduces virtual itineraries

South African Airways Vacations has introduced a new feature on its website that gives visitors the ability to explore options for travel in Africa like never before. The company has launched a series of “virtual itineraries” that use a combination of maps, photos and points of interest data to help travelers choose the right trip for themselves and to prepare them for their experience when they reach their destinations.

The site offers tours to a variety of locations including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and more. To explore those options simply visit the SAAV website and search for itineraries based on the location you would most like to visit or the type of travel experience that you’re looking for. The search results will provide the name of the available tours, a brief description and the price. There will be a button that will allow you to view the virtual itinerary for any given tour as well.

Opening one of those virtual itineraries presents you with an overview of the tour that includes each of the destinations that you’ll be visiting, the number of nights you’ll be staying there and the type of accommodations you can expect. Selecting the “day-by-day” view zooms the map in close to show more details about the area you’ll be visiting on any given day and offers some suggestions of things to see and do in the region. It will also show you where your hotel for that night is located and even offers images and detailed information about those accommodations. The virtual itineraries also provide notes about the daily activities, giving travelers plenty of information about what’s on the agenda for that day of the tour.

All of these tools help to take the guesswork out of a visit to southern or eastern Africa. Those two regions are popular dream destinations for may travelers, but planning and preparing for such a trip can be an intimidating experience for many. With the SAAV virtual itineraries you’ll know exactly what you’ll be getting when spending your hard-earned dollars, which can be very reassuring for travelers who aren’t particularly fond of surprises.

Build your own adventure with the Africa Safari Planner

The Africa Safari Planner, a newly launched website from adventure travel company Natural Habit Adventures, gives travelers the ability to create their own custom trips to the African bush. The site, which launched earlier this week, provides options to visit nine different countries, and stay in over 300 unique camps, while encountering some of the most spectacular wildlife on the planet.

The process begins by selecting which months you would prefer to travel in, and indicating the number of people in your group. From there, you’ll be presented with options for travel in both Eastern and Southern Africa, in such countries as Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, and Namibia. After selecting a starting destination, travelers are then given the choice of several single and multi-country routes for their African adventure, which then prompts the site to suggest possible camps to stay in for each day of the journey. Those camps are broken down into categories based on price, giving the customer the ability to budget accordingly.

That said, there isn’t much that is “budget” about these tours. They definitely fall into the upscale category, and travelers on these custom safaris aren’t exactly roughing it. No matter which camps they choose to visit, they’ll have their own comfortable rooms, complete with large beds and private showers. They’ll also enjoy gourmet meals in spacious dining rooms and access to a host of other amenities while at the lodge. Of course, you don’t go to Africa to hang out at the lodge, and each of the camps offers unique options for viewing the wildlife as well.

If you’re looking for a truly once-in-a-lifetime journey, and don’t mind paying for it, then this is an excellent tool for creating your own custom safari itinerary. There are less expensive alternatives for booking a trip to Africa, but few offer this kind of flexibility and options for travelers.

New luxury safari camp opens on the Serengeti

African travel company Nomad Tanzania opened a new safari camp earlier this week, offering travelers a unique experience in a small group, luxury setting. The camp, which is located in a remote region of the northern Serengeti, sits not far from the border between Kenya and Tanzania, offering visitors spectacular views of the Mara River and the wildlife that inhabits the endless African plains.

The accommodations at the new site features just 12 tents divided between two camps. Eight of the tents are in the main camp, while four others occupy a smaller, private camp, nearby. Each of the camps has its own private bar, dining hall, library with adjoining map room, and natural rock swimming area. The tents feature spacious, private verandas, 24 hour power, hot and cold running water, flush toilets, and indoor baths, along with outdoor showers. In short, this journey into the bush isn’t exactly roughing it.

When visitors venture away from camp, they’ll find plenty to enjoy as well. Daily game drives will give them the opportunity to witness the beauty and wonder of the Serengeti, which includes the annual Great Migration of animals across the countryside. Guided walks allow travelers to explore the region on foot and bush picnics make for a sublime way to spend an afternoon.

Prices begin at $4200 per person per week (Remember, I did say luxury!) which includes accommodations in a private tent, all food and drink, plus game drives and other activities.

This looks like a completely different Serengeti experience from the one I had a few years back. I camped in a two-person dome tent that was anything but “luxury.” Despite that however, the African plains remain one of my favorite destinations ever, with amazing wildlife, breathtaking scenery, and a true sense of adventure. A stay at this new camp looks like it would be a perfect (and romantic!) way to visit Tanzania.

Electric Land Rover makes your safari experience even greener

For decades the Land Rover has been an iconic part of the classic African safari. The four-wheel drive vehicles were once the only way to travel through the rugged countryside while following the massive herds of wild animals that inhabit that continent. Soon, an electric version of the Land Rover Defender may be available, allowing for an even more eco-friendly approach to spotting animals.

At the 2011 INDABA Travel and Tourism show, which ended yesterday in South Africa, Axeon, a company that specializes in lithium-ion batteries, unveiled a concept vehicle which was co-developed with Jaguar Land Rover South Africa. That vehicle had its usual 2.4 liter diesel engine replaced with a drive system powered by an Axeon’s high-capacity battery that is designed to perform in extreme conditions and in rugged environments. Axeon says that its testing shows that the electric Land Rover does very well in those conditions, while still having three times the range of a typical game drive.

Of course, the most exciting thing about this prototype is that it has zero emissions. The standard LR Defender spews out 295 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer driven, which makes it a less than stellar performer in terms of being ecologically friendly. Considering that it is often used in some of the more spectacular, yet fragile, environments on the planet, only adds to the concern. Axeon’s model is completely carbon neutral however, which heightens its appeal amongst tour operators across Africa, many of which specialize in the ecotourism trade.

The electric Defender has an additional side benefit for travelers as well. It is completely silent, which means that it doesn’t disturb the animals on safari either. While going through a series of rigorous tests at the Land Rover Gerotek proving grounds, the battery powered version was able to consistently get closer to the wildlife than the traditional model powered by a combustion engine, something that will probably be highlighted in the travel brochures of early adopters.

While the electric land rover has been well received by tour operators, it may yet be some time before we see them in the field. Still, it is nice to envision a day in the not too distant future when travelers can take a safari that has no impact on the environments they are visiting, protecting the natural resources there for future generations to enjoy as well.

On safari in Kruger National Park

The African safari remains one of the most amazing experiences that any traveler could hope to enjoy. The boundless wildlife that is on display there is one of the greatest natural wonders in the world, and watching those hundreds of different species in their natural habitats is a source of never ending wonder.

There are two classic destinations to experience the African safari, the Serengeti, which spreads across Kenya and Tanzania, and Kruger National Park in South Africa. A few years back I had the opportunity to visit the Serengeti, and it remains one of my favorite destinations of all time. Recently I made the journey to Kruger as well, and while I found both places had wildlife in abundance, the safari experience was quite different between the two as well.

The first thing I noticed that was different, was the landscape. In Swahili, Serengeti means “the endless plain,” which is a fitting name indeed. It is a vast expanse of open grasslands, broken only by rolling hills and the occasional rock outcropping. Kruger, on the other hand, is marked by thick forests and lush green fields. While I was there in early February, summer rains had fueled the growth of the underbrush and caused the rivers to swell, which made for a warm, humid environment. A stark contrast to the more arid Serengeti.

That lush green growth made it a challenge to spot wildlife while on daily game drives. The thick brush gave the animals plenty of places to hide and concealed their movements. On the Serengeti, the wide open spaces always made it easy to spot game, sometimes from miles away.

Fortunately, I had some of the best guides on the continent showing me around, and we had no problems discovering where the wildlife hid. While traveling through Kruger, we came across hippos, buffalo, wildebeests, and zebras aplenty. There were monkeys and baboons, and antelope too numerous to count. There were also large herds of elephants, massive in size and more aggressive than their Serengeti counterparts. In short, Kruger didn’t disappoint in terms of spotting animals, you just had to look a bit more closely to find them.Perhaps the best of those wildlife encounters was with the smallest of creatures. In the early evening hours of my second day in the park we were traveling by safari vehicle down a deserted dirt road. It had rained that afternoon, but the sun broke through the clouds as it sunk in the west, providing some warmth as the day waned. Suddenly, our vehicle stopped short as we spotted a small, golden figure sitting in the road. It was a tiny lion cub, no more than two weeks old, and while its mother was away on the hunt, it had crawled out of its wet hiding spot seeking warmth in the sun. We watched the cub for nearly an hour as it stumbled about, occasionally calling out for mom. It was an amazing experience, made all the more special when our lead guide, an 18 year veteran of the profession, told us that he had never seen a lion so young.

Our chance discovery of the young cub wouldn’t be our only close encounter with the wildlife of Kruger. One afternoon, while driving back from a local village, we came across a very large bull elephant wandering the road. He was enormous, even by the standards of the species, and he was in a surly mood that day. For more than 20 minutes we played cat and mouse with the beast, looking for a way to get around him. More than once we put the van in reverse and backed off, as the bull strayed too close. Finally we made our escape when the creature momentarily wandered behind a tree, giving us just the opening we needed to speed past. It was a narrow escape however, and as we sped away, the elephant charged from around the tree, nearly clipping our vehicle as we roared down the road.

In all, I spent six days in Kruger, and was given the chance to explore it both on foot and by vehicle. In those days, I found that it lived up to its billing as one of the top safari destinations in all of Africa. Not only is the wildlife all that you would expect, and more, but the landscapes are breathtaking as well. In my travels within the park boundaries, I saw beautiful rivers, emerald forests, and stunning canyons. The gorgeous scenery was an element I wasn’t expecting, and it helped to further separate Kruger from the Serengeti.

Since my return, I’ve already been asked by friends which destination I’d recommend for someone heading to Africa on safari. That isn’t an easy question to answer, as both places will offer you a memorable travel experience that you will never forget. By response is that it is impossible to choose, and that it is best to see them both for yourself.

This trip was sponsored by South African Tourism and South African Airways, but the ideas and opinions expressed here are my own.