29 June 2019, my husband Karl, youngest son Sam and I set off on our wildest adventure yet – a month travelling around Africa, Egypt, Athens, Santorini and Venice.

We had planned to stay in 17 hotels, lodges and camps, travel on 18 planes and, by my estimation, experience 8 or more languages. With cultures so different from our own, we didn’t know what to expect and had no confidence that this trip would go to plan. I was fully prepared to miss planes, be scammed, lose our luggage and more, but amazingly almost nothing went wrong! It was an incredible experience with every single day full of thrills and adventures that we will never forget.

choosing the right flight

Our trip started with a very early morning limo drive to the airport to catch a Qantas flight to Johannesburg. From my extensive research, it was the only direct flight to Johannesburg I could see, taking just 14 hours compared to 26 hours travelling via Dubai on Emirates.

I had chosen the flight I wanted quite early on but didn’t buy our tickets straight away. Instead, I logged on to Skyscanner every night when I got home from work and checked out the latest prices as they can fluctuate quite significantly from one day to the next. One Friday night, I hit the jackpot – instead of over  $3000 per ticket, it was only $2180! There and then I booked our seats as this was a massive a saving and I wasn’t confident it would get any better. It is a bit like the playing the lottery waiting for a better rate on ticket prices because they can end up going up rather than down but if you check regularly, it is possible to get a great deal.

A word of warning though – if you are planning to use frequent flyer points of any kind to upgrade your seats, you do need to know what type of ticket you are buying on a site such as Skyscanner. We made that mistake with our tickets on Singapore Airlines on another trip, buying Lite tickets that were excluded from the Kris points upgrade scheme. Beware also that some tickets don’t allow you to choose your seats so if you are a family wanting to sit together, the cheapest tickets might not be the best ones for you.

It can be difficult to work out what you are getting sometimes so if you are looking on a website like Skyscanner, I would suggest you go through the buying process for all the deals online and leave the purchase just before committing to buy so that you can compare all of the offers. Baggage and credit card fees also differ between providers so check everything out before you commit. It took me a full day of online research to purchase all our tickets for Africa which was tiresome and frustrating but ultimately saved us a lot of money.

After viewing all offers, I ultimately chose to fly to Johannesburg and home from Venice with Qantas (although Emirates operated the Qantas flight home). I have to say I generally prefer Emirates to Qantas as their seating, facilities and entertainment are generally better in my view. Sometimes it’s just the little things like real metal cutlery instead of the plastic cutlery you get on Qantas (remembering of course we were travelling in Economy – I can’t comment on Business Class or First Class!). I also love the fact that there are so many countries represented in the crew on Emirates – 11 different nationalities on one of our flights!

In Qantas’ favour however, I always find the Australian crew on Qantas to be super-friendly and proactive in making sure everyone puts their seats up during meal times. They also have much better wine than on Emirates – although maybe that is to be expected when comparing an airline from a non-drinking country like UAE to a country like Australia that has an international reputation for wine excellence!

getting through customs

Either way, the flight from Sydney to Johannesburg went very well and soon we were landing in Africa! At that point, the fact that we were actually IN AFRICA was seriously difficult to get our heads around as it still seemed like a dream.

However, we definitely were not caught sleeping when we landed as we were aware that there was so much that could go wrong. As Australians, we didn’t need visas to enter South Africa but getting through customs took forever! The queue was very long but initially there was only one person checking passports and each traveller seemed to spend an eternity at his desk. Soon another person opened a desk but for a long time, that was it – two people to deal with hundreds of travellers!

We moved so slowly up the queue that everyone was complaining. Lots of airport staff were milling around, joking and having fun with each other but no-one was on coming on board to help at customs! Finally another person opened a desk and the whole queue literally cheered! It was well after  6pm by then and our guess was that no-one was working because everyone was eating their evening meal! It certainly wasn’t the most efficient or friendly airport customs we went through on our journey.

Once we got through customs however, it was a different story. As Johannesburg’s OR Tambo Airport is the busiest in South Africa with around 21 million people going through it each year, we thought making our way to our hotel’s free shuttle stop might prove to be a challenge. However as soon as we were through customs, we were asked by a man where we wanted to go and he directed us to follow a long stream of people through to an area where lots of people were waiting for quite a number of different hotel shuttles. At first, Karl  thought he was a scammer trying to get us into his taxi or after a tip (which did happen in many other airports in Africa!) so brushed him off but it seems he was just an airport staff member providing a much needed service!

tipping in south africa

It was all pretty efficient from there. When we reached the shuttle area, another man was asking everyone which hotel they were going to and sending us to different areas to wait while each shuttle bus was loaded up. While we were waiting, Karl and I discussed how much we should tip this guy who was loudly and enthusiastically doing a great job. My research had suggested US $5 would be appropriate but the lady next to us overheard and said we were way too generous. She said she was only going to give him the equivalent of US $1 and that he would be happy to receive it – after all, she said, he wasn’t doing much! She was from Swaziland and a regular visitor to Johannesburg so we accepted the fact that she was way more experienced in the local customs than we were.

We ultimately decided that US $5 would be fine especially as we only had notes.  And, as the lady had suggested, the man was very, very grateful and immediately treated us with priority. We were amongst the first to get into the shuttle and so had the comfort of proper seats whereas some people were left to sit on suitcases – in fact, MY suitcase which concerned me a little but fortunately nothing broke…

a pleasant hotel

Our hotel, Premier OR Tembo was in Kempton Park, not much more than 1km away from the airport. We wanted to be close to the airport as we had a flight out to Victoria Falls the next morning and this hotel seemed like the best option for a 4 star hotel. Splashing out on a 5 star hotel for one evening didn’t seem worthwhile and we were very pleased with our choice. The room was 28m2 which was a decent size and whilst it was typical of a major hotel chain, it was nicely styled and comfortable with a great shower – a definite plus!

What made the hotel memorable however, were the people. They were very respectful and quite reserved, politely and quietly serving us at dinner. Our meal was delicious and the South African Shiraz they served was full and peppery – and only $18 AUD a bottle! Not bad for a bottle of red in a hotel restaurant…

When Karl accompanied Sam to his room given he was falling asleep at the table, I had a chat with the waiter and found him to be very interested in Australia which he said was a dream destination for him. Given the chance to chat, he was very warm and engaging and willing to talk about life in South Africa. Throughout our trips, we always try to speak with the locals to learn about the area, the culture and its people and it was really evident from my chat with this young waiter that life wasn’t easy. He yearned to escape to a country like Australia, despite having what was regarded as a very good job.

When Karl returned, we each ordered a drambuie to end our first meal in Africa and the bar staff must have turned the bar upside down looking for a bottle. We weren’t really convinced they knew what drambuie was so ultimately we chose to have a brandy instead. It arrived beautifully presented and with many, many apologies. We certainly could not fault the genuineness or attentiveness of the service we received in this hotel.

around the area

When we made our way back to the airport the next morning, we became aware of the area in which we had spent the night. The houses around the hotel were all surrounded with barbed wire, hinting of the crime prevalent in the area. The scene from the air as we flew out to Victoria Falls showed the disparity in wealth amongst the people and the social issues of the nation. Next to what looked like compounds were areas that looked like ghettos, right across the road from huge blocks of land with massive houses.

Despite the area surrounding Johannesburg airport not being the prettiest place we’ve been, there was something distinctly different about the colours of this country. With the redness of the soil, I immediately felt like I was in a special place. It set the mood for an incredible gateway into the more stunning parts of Africa as we headed for Zimbabwe!

where we went

  • South Africa – Johannesburg
  • Zimbabwe – Victoria Falls
  • Botswana – Chobe National Park
  • Rwanda – Kigali
  • Uganda – Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest
  • Rwanda – Volcanoes National Park
  • Tanzania – Arusha
  • Tanzania – Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro, Serengeti
  • Tanzania – Zanzibar
  • Kenya – Nairobi (transit)
  • Egypt – Giza
  • Egypt – Luxor
  • Egypt – Cairo
  • Greece – Athens
  • Greece – Santorini
  • Italy – Venice.

17 hotels, camps and lodges, 10 countries, too many attractions to count and an endless number of beautiful restaurants and cafes. I want to share all I learnt along the way – good and bad – to help make your holiday the experience of a lifetime.