Field notes: Turning #TravelGoals into the Trip of a Lifetime
South Africa had long been on my “someday” list. Getting up close and personal with the local wildlife, surveying the world from the summit of Table Mountain and delving into the culture and history of Cape Town—all major #travelgoals of mine—seemed a bit too far beyond my budget to check off anytime soon.
But when a Lion World Travel deal came across my desk (yes, daily travel temptation is an occupational hazard here), I found myself reassessing. I could travel with just a handful of others surprisingly affordably and luxuriously, have my pick of itineraries and strike a comfortable balance between guided and independent travel. Sold. And one of the best decisions I've ever made.
Read on to learn why, especially if a safari is something you’re looking to move from “someday” to “soon.”
The guides consider it almost a personal failing if your safari doesn't outdo your bucket list vision.
From our very first game drive near South Africa's Kruger National Park, we ticked headliner after headliner off our collective list. Whether elephants, lions or giraffes, the gang was indeed all there, to the clear satisfaction of our beloved and tireless guide, Betwall. Of course, this wasn't simply a matter of personal pride (though there was that, too): Lion World supports various conservation efforts—and is particularly well known for its endangered rhinoceros advocacy—so when a rhino duo turned out for one of our evening game drives, Betwall all but levitated out of the jeep.
As we neared the end of our trip, he could easily have rested on his laurels. He’d been working nonstop with his tracker—and radioing with fellow guides—to ensure we got a whole succession of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, from the rush of a lion kill to the sweetness of a mother elephant minding her calf.
But once we’d crossed everything off our list except the elusive leopard, Betwall became extra determined, delving into the latest sightings from across the park and hopping on and off the vehicle to investigate any possible revelation in the dirt. Then, as if on cue—with the sun setting on our last evening game drive—the leopard materialized around a corner in a patch of tall savannah grass. Cutting the vehicle’s engine, Betwall beamed with pride as the rest of us sat in awe, speechless and silent (well, except for the whir of camera shutters).
That night at dinner, our group ordered the lodge’s best bottle of champagne—and that's saying something, given how posh the places we stayed were—and toasted Betwall. But we were reveling in much more than the memory of the leopard sighting, or of any sighting, for that matter. We were celebrating our camaraderie, which leads me to reason number two:
Lion World’s groups have the perfect size and makeup.
A mix of solo travelers and couples, we were nine people (the max for a Lion World safari vehicle) of all different backgrounds who’d been brought together by a common thread: a serious curiosity about the world. Over a succession of mind-blowing game drives and luxurious meals, we got to know each other and forge real bonds—relationships I wound up appreciating as much as the safari itself.
One solo traveler in particular struck an emotional chord that I’ll always carry with me. Her adventurous and warm spirit drew me to her, and I found myself chatting with her often, whether over cocktails at the lodge’s bar or poolside at the spa (oh yes, there were spa treatments). But only on returning home—when I opened a group email she'd sent—did I learn the reason she’d been traveling alone. She’d been planning to go on safari with her lifelong travel partner: her husband, who died suddenly just a few months before the trip. Bereft, she'd been on the verge of canceling when her children persuaded not to. Sticking with this adventure—years in the making—would be a way to honor his memory.
In her letter to our group, she expressed that our time together had meant so much more to her than sharing animal sightings and gorgeous sunsets. We’d taught her that even on her own, she’d be alright. If she could bond with a group of strangers halfway across the world, she could see a way forward, even as she mourned. I was honored to have played a small part in her healing, and had never imagined that my own bucket list trip could be even more meaningful to someone else. Which is where my third point comes in...
The blend of independent and group travel is just right.
All that camaraderie was one of my biggest surprises because, well, I’m typically an independent traveler. In fact, Lion World was my first foray into group travel. I decided to go for it because of the savings I'd get by traveling with at least a few other people—and because of the company’s clear respect for downtime. Going into the trip, I knew I'd have ample opportunity to pursue my own interests, from the Winelands of Stellenbosch to the galleries of the District Six Museum (whatever your knowledge of the Apartheid era, this museum is a must). The ability to explore the local sights, sounds and culture on my own—with the knowledge that Lion World was there for any assistance I might need—totally changed my perspective on group travel in far-flung places.
Seriously, that safety net was priceless—and my new gold standard for customer service. From the moment I called to book, I was assigned a planner, though I considered him more of a lifeline. John and I probably spoke a dozen times pre-departure about everything from what to pack to which immunizations to get to where to eat in Cape Town.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised given that the founders are North America-based South Africans, but the company's ability to bridge worlds continually amazed me: Once you're on the ground, there's a Lion World staffer who’s responsible for getting you from A to B smoothly—no easy feat in light of my ten flights and countless transfers.
On the last of those flights, as I lamented the journey’s end, I did find one saving grace: the realization that I’d just scratched the surface of this immense and astonishing continent. And something else cushioned the blow once I sifted through the pile of mail that had accumulated in my absence: The "welcome home" note from John. The only challenge now? Deciding where to go next on the list of countries where Lion World operates.