Private Jet - Africa: Desert Kingdoms & Natural Splendors - 2/14/09
February 14, 2009
New York City – Madeira Island
Guests on Abercrombie & Kent's latest Private Jet journey, "Desert Kingdoms & Natural Splendors," a 23-day adventure around the African continent, gathered at the fabulous Four Seasons Hotel in midtown Manhattan for a send-off gala. They arrived in chauffeur-driven limousines from the area's airports and celebrated with a welcoming cocktail party and dinner. Linda Wischmeyer, A&K's Vice President of the Private Jet division, introduced Tour Director John Webley and his staff, who would escort the travellers on their explorations through Africa's most wonderful and exciting destinations.
After dinner, everyone departed for JFK Airport, where the private jet waited. The smiling Icelandair crew greeted guests and handed them a glass of the A&K signature Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle champagne. They quickly settled in to their comfortable seats, and without delay they were soon airborne, en route to Madeira.
In order to maximize the rest time on the aircraft, the crew quickly offered some canapés and then the lights were dimmed as the aircraft sped eastward. Dawn came early, and just before arrival in Madeira, a quick breakfast was served.
Arriving at midday, guests were whisked straight through the immigration and customs formalities to the celebrated Reid's Palace Hotel, long an icon of gracious hospitality on this unique island. They had the opportunity to make a sightseeing expedition around this beautiful island, which is rarely visited by travellers from North America.
Madeira Island – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
The private jet left Madeira in the morning, and during the flight to Addis Ababa, guests mingled on board and explored the aircraft. Sixteen guests had lunch in the unique A&K Dining in the Sky cabin at the rear of the aircraft, where tables are arranged Pullman-style. This enables diners to eat together, rather than just at their seats. Tour Manager Lynne Leakey, a member of the renowned family of archaeologists and paleontologists, was appointed maitre d' for this experience, and her reservations book quickly started to fill for upcoming flight sectors.
As A&K's Private Jet flew across North Africa and Egypt, the lights of Addis Ababa came into focus. Guests disembarked and felt the fresh evening air. Addis is a high altitude city and always cools down appreciably at night. Tim, the baggage manager, arrived a few hours before the jet in order to fine-tune the welcome arrangements at the private air terminal, and soon the guests were on their way to the luxurious Addis Sheraton Hotel for a two-night stay. Several travellers stayed up to celebrate the first stop on the African continent in this thrilling program, but eventually they retired to their rooms, knowing they would visit mysterious Lalibela early the next morning.
Addis Ababa – Lalibela
This morning, guests boarded a specially arranged aircraft from Ethiopian Airlines for the 60-minute flight to Lalibela. The ground below looked harsh and devoid of any greenery, and when they landed at Lalibela's small airport, the dry air was invigorating. Guides talked about the wonderful rock churches they would soon visit on the ride through the arid landscape. Cut vertically from the mountain rock, the Ethiopians believe the churches "were carved by the angels." Some climbing was required, and small boys were always on hand to assist travellers. Guests visited several churches, always remembering to remove their shoes before entering. One church had arranged a special ceremony, during which more than 40 religious leaders chanted and moved in unison before the delighted visitors. Ethiopia follows Coptic Christianity, and guests noticed some similarities to services in orthodox churches in Russia. It was a very special moment for several travellers who were visibly moved by the experience.
Guests stopped for lunch at a local hotel and had a first opportunity to sample Ethiopian delicacies. There was also time for "retail therapy," as shopping is known on private jet trips. Several travellers purchased traditional Ethiopian silver crosses that come in many designs and sizes.
The trip back to Addis seemed to come all too soon, but anticipation of the next visit made up for it. There was a lot of excitement when tour manager Lynne led the privileged travellers through the Natural History Museum and its special exhibits, some she had established over the past several decades. They were very pleased to see the replica of "Lucy," a fossilized skeleton that had been discovered not too far from Lalibela by American archaeologist Donald Johansson. "Lucy" is now recorded as being one of the oldest remainders of our earliest ancestors.
Later, back in the comfort of the Addis Sheraton, guests attended an outdoor cocktail party and African food experience. The Sheraton staff turned on the celebrated "Musical Fountains," which normally only perform on Sunday evenings. Cameras came flying out as the waters rose and fell to everything from Afropop to Mozart. Guests moved from station to station, sampling many different cuisines from the continent. They chatted with fellow travellers in the pleasant night air, reliving an extraordinary first day on the Dark Continent.
Addis Ababa – Arusha, Tanzania – Serengeti National Park
A&K's Private Jet set off for Arusha, Tanzania, and as the plane crossed into the Southern Hemisphere, travellers felt a little bump that came as no surprise. Once on the ground, guests waited just a few minutes to complete immigration formalities. They then boarded smaller aircraft to the Serengeti National Park and observed an A&K Philanthropy program in action. Their plane carried 125 pairs of crutches, 140 canes or walking sticks, 40 folding aluminum walking frames and four wheelchairs that baggage manager Tim Gibson collected in New York on behalf of the charity Crutches 4 Africa. These mobility devices were to be given to desperately poor and handicapped people in Tanzania.
Guests learned later that as the equipment was being driven from the airport toward Arusha, the driver spotted an old man dragging himself along the road on a homemade crutch. The vehicle stopped, and he was presented with a new pair of metal crutches.
From the small landing strip, guests began their first game drive on the way to the Sopa Lodge for a three-night stay.
February 19 – 20
Serengeti National Park
During two days of extensive game drives, guests were excited about their wildlife spottings and compared notes. One very clear winner was the group who saw a lioness return to the tree where she had hidden her three cubs and then watched in awe as she escorted them right past the vehicles en route to where there was a kill. The cubs were about two months old and played with each other all the way, with their mother occasionally giving them the look that any mother would when her children were misbehaving. Another highlight was a leopard high in a tree, where it had dragged its kill to prevent other animals from sharing its feast.
One day, guests headed out in search of the annual wildebeest and zebra migration. After a two-hour drive, they saw literally millions of animals, including newborn wildebeest, travelling side by side toward Kenya and a new source of food.
Guests had the opportunity to dine under the stars as a herd of elephant grazed a short distance away. Dr. Ruben from the Irekupussi Health Clinic joined guests and discussed another A&K Philanthropy project in Tanzania. The kind-hearted doctor treated many patients who previously had never had health care. His specialty is treating pre- and post-pregnancy care in an effort to reduce mother and infant mortality rates. His biggest problem was a lack of funding, so A&K Philanthropy had stepped in to support his clinic. Through the generosity of A&K's previous travellers, Dr. Ruben's practice has been upgraded to a six-room facility where he can continue his humanitarian work.
Serengeti National Park – Arusha – Mauritius
After the days in the bush, guests returned by private charter flights to Arusha where the Icelandair Boeing 757 was waiting. Now known as "Africa 1," the jet took off, heading southeastward toward the island of Mauritius. The crew, now sporting traditional Tanzanian outfits, served a delicious lunch featuring foie gras and lobster canapés, a choice of Nile perch or a perfectly seared steak, and followed by a rich tarte aux pommes, served with Calvados-infused whipped cream. As usual, the 16-seater lounge was fully booked for the meal service. Four hours later, a smooth landing was made in the balmy tropical evening air, so it was "Bienvenue a l'Ile Meurice."
After landing in the balmy evening air at the Mauritius Airport, guests were taken to a newly opened VIP lounge where flower garlands, exotic tropical drinks and some exquisite hors d'oeuvres awaited them. Once passports were processed, travellers boarded coaches for the drive to Hotel Le Touessrok.
Guests were delighted that all the rooms and suites faced the ocean. In the morning, the sunlight reflected off the shimmering sea and white sand beaches creating quite a wake-up call for the eyes. Breakfast was served in the open-sided restaurant and featured a fantastic variety of tempting items, from locally grown fresh passion fruit and pineapples to other international breakfast foods, including some wonderful cheese-filled sausages and an array of breads to shame any French boulangerie. Afterward, a few guests embarked on a catamaran cruise along the coastline, affording them an opportunity to snorkel among the coral and tropical fish. Others went deep-sea fishing and returned with two Dorado as proof of their fishing prowess. The rest very happily chose to do nothing but relax on the beach or by either of the two pools and just enjoy the atmosphere. In the languid tropical air scented by frangipani trees, "doing nothing" is very easy in Mauritius.
In the evening, travellers attended a cocktail party held in the gardens and mingled to the sounds of a three-piece musical ensemble. Everyone wore their newly provided garments — with wildly colored tropical shirts for the gentlemen and pashmina stoles for the ladies. They were joined by the Icelandair crew, who by now were very much part of the family. After the party, guests went to their choice of restaurants (the Indian restaurant was a particular favorite) for dinner. A very large Indian population was brought to Mauritius more than 100 years ago to help establish the production of sugarcane, and they are now the majority ethnicity. As such, the cuisine of their homeland has been adapted to local tastes, and the results were both interesting and delicious.
Guests explored the island and visited the celebrated Pamplemousse Botanic Gardens. Some of the most interesting plants on view are huge water lilies, with circular leaves measuring up to five feet across. Many huge tortoises, some more than 100-years-old, are home in the gardens. They were brought here from the Seychelles to prevent their species from becoming extinct. Some visitors actually witnessed some tortoise mating activity that proved to be exciting for more than the participants.
In the evening, guests dined once again in the hotel. All restaurants received rave reviews for their menus as well as for the hospitable staff, who were fluent in both French and English.
Mauritius – Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town beckoned, so once more guests boarded "Africa 1" for the five-and-a-half-hour flight to what was called by early navigator Sir Francis Drake "the Faireste Cape in all the Worlde."
The air traffic control authorities permitted 'Africa 1' to make a scenic over flight of the city — something that would never be allowed for a commercial jet — so guests were able to gaze down on Table Mountain from a unique airborne perspective. Once safely on the ground, they were whisked through immigration, while Tim assisted with the bags that had gone directly from the aircraft's hold to the hotel without customs involvement.
As the weather was good, guests boarded their reserved cable car for the ascent of Table Mountain.
Later, travellers checked in to the Cape Grace in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront area, a great favorite with A&K visitors to this beautiful city. In the evening, some guests took their places at the chef's table, where the hotel's very pleasant head chef hosted dinner. She prepared delicious dishes that were accompanied by different South African wines. Other guests went by private limousines to recommended restaurants in the city.
Cape Town – Cape Point – Cape Town
The plan for the morning was to fly to the Cape of Good Hope National Park in a fleet of small helicopters, but because of the fog travellers went by small coach instead. No one minded because it is such a beautiful drive and gave travellers the opportunity to stop at the protected colony of jackass penguin. Guests followed a wooden walkway to observe these intriguing flightless birds going about their daily business. They then paused for lunch at Buffels Bay, where a meal of freshly caught oysters and sea salmon was served under a Bedouin tent near the beach. Naturally, the meal was washed down with fine South African wines. Jim Hallinan, an American resident of South Africa who works with the National Parks Department, joined the guests for a talk about the history and natural environment of the Cape area. The weather had improved, so guests returned to Cape Town by helicopter.
The following day, guests chose from a selection of Design Your Day options. Some visited Robben Island and had a township-style lunch. Others opted for an in-depth visit to the celebrated Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, long a place of pilgrimage for gardeners from all over the world. The largest group departed for a visit to a Cheetah Outreach center. They learned how Turkish dogs are trained to protect herds of animals from cheetah attacks, thus reducing the numbers killed by man. Guests had an opportunity to pet two of the big cats that had been saved from the wild. One of them purred like a deep machine gun.
Then they embarked on a private wine tasting of the top five South African wines in the cellars of the Rust en Vrede winery. Under the guidance of two of South Africa's leading oenologists, guests sampled and discussed five wines (plus a delicious sweet dessert wine). Not surprisingly, the party became quite boisterous. They continued to the museum in Stellenbosch, the town at the heart of the wineries. From there they drove past the grape-laden vines to the Muratie Winery for a private lunch in their traditionally designed 17th-century Cape Dutch family home. Hosts Ryck and Kim Melk welcomed guests with more fresh oysters (which everyone agreed were even better than the ones the day before).
The grape harvest was underway, and guests "worked" off their lunch, taking turns emptying large containers of grapes into the de-stalking machine. The grapes were ready to be pressed that same day and matured in a large new cask that everyone signed. This wine would become the A&K wine for 2009.
When guests returned to the Cape Grace, there was just enough time to freshen up before departing in vintage cars for a dinner at the Castle of Good Hope. Cape Town's residents watched as the convoy of beautifully maintained vehicles drove in procession from the hotel. They arrived to a welcoming salute from smartly dressed guards and were serenaded by a military band playing marches and familiar tunes. Cannons and muskets fired from the battlements, signaling dinner. Pausing only for a group photograph on the steps of the building, guests then walked though the historic rooms to the second floor where an elegant long table was set with the finest crystal and china for a superb dinner. A jazz trio played in the background, and as an extra surprise, they were replaced on stage by a choir of 20 children from eight to 15-years-old, who sang with an infectious enthusiasm. This had the diners on their feet clapping along in time with the beat.
After the meal, guests returned to the courtyard for coffee and liqueurs where a young man and woman performed a thrilling fire dance performance, weaving exciting patterns with flaming torches in the balmy night. A traditional and very amusing "gumboot dance," performed by miners wearing their boots and bright yellow helmets, followed.
Cape Town – Kruger Mpumalanga – Mala Mala Game Reserve
Guests once again boarded the private jet for the trip to Kruger Mpumalanga. The A&K offices in South Africa had pulled on all the official strings and managed to not only have the bags transferred directly from the hotel to the aircraft, but the guests as well; they made no stops, and the coaches pulled up right next to the aircraft. The Icelandair crew welcomed them back on board as old friends for the next short flight.
Crossing from the southwest corner to the northeast corner of South Africa took two hours. In flight, the crew served a delicious lunch of rich Icelandic caviar presented in a lidded rectangular box with blinis and all the usual accompaniments. Tour Director John Webley prepared guests for the exciting time to come. They even had the opportunity to watch a video about the wildlife of this part of South Africa.
When the aircraft landed at Mpumalanga Airport, a fleet of three smaller planes was waiting for the 20-minute hop to the renowned camp at Mala Mala. Established 40 years ago, it has long been regarded as the benchmark against which other luxury accommodations in the bush are judged. Rangers were waiting to drive guests to the lodge, where they were welcomed with a proper British-style cup of tea and homemade cookies and cakes.
Once they checked in to their thatched roof rondavels (the Afrikaan name for a circular building), guests went out for their first late afternoon game drive. As with any game drive, you never know if your luck will be in, but today the gods were with them; guests saw lion, cheetah, leopard, elephant, giraffe and many other animals. One or two guests remained behind to relax at the lodge, but they had some excitement of their own; they watched a family of elephant wallowing in the river.
Later, guests enjoyed cocktails at the bar or outside in the warm night air, followed by a dinner in the traditional boma, a reed-enclosed open area with a wood fire in the center and a ring of tables around the edge. A guest who had travelled from Mexico to join the trip just could not believe how organized it all could be without them feeling as if they were being rushed around. A dedicated A&K traveller, he said he was just in awe of the staff, both in the office and also on the road. This was seconded by a lady traveller who organized her family's international jaunts. She remarked, "I don't know HOW you do it and keep on smiling. You guys are the tops".
Mala Mala Game Reserve
There were more game drives, beginning with one that began with the rise of the sun. This is a very good time for game viewing because the animals are out in search of food. When guests returned, they, too, were in search of food and sat down for a hearty breakfast. Relaxing during the hotter time of day was the suggested routine, so the hotel shop received a stream of visitors. Others opted to have a relaxing massage. Later in the afternoon, travellers embarked on another game run. This time they spotted a leopard eating her kill high in a tree. As it was getting dark, the rangers turned on their high-powered lights so that everyone could see this amazing sight of the circle of life. The animal herself remained unaffected by the light.
Mala Mala Game Reserve
A heavy deluge of rain put a damper on activities for the day, but most people enjoyed the time to relax and reflect on what has been an incredible journey so far.
Mala Mala Game Reserve – Mpumalanga International - Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
From the delights of Mala Mala to the imposing façade of the Victoria Falls Hotel, the flight was the shortest sector on the entire journey. Guests felt as if it took just minutes to travel from Mpumalanga to Victoria Fall airport. Travellers quickly passed through immigration and were en route to a true grande dame of Southern Africa, the Victoria Falls Hotel. Well known throughout the world as THE place stay, its gracious staff has been welcoming guests for more than 100 years.
After checking out their rooms or suites, guests reassembled on the terrace for British High Tea, complete with cucumber sandwiches, scones, cream and strawberry jam. One guest quipped, "Where is the Queen? She is the only person who is missing." After this ritual fortification, guests set out again, this time for a sundowner cruise aboard a boat reserved for the occasion. As the sun began to set, the smiling Zimbabwean crew welcomed them on board for this journey up the mighty Zambezi River. A Zimbabwean whose family had lived in the country for generations joined guests for a fascinating talk about his hero, David Livingstone. This 19th-century Scottish explorer's epic journeys into what was then terra incognita finally opened up eastern and central Africa to a fascinated world.
As guests chatted and enjoyed the scenery, a cry went up when both crocodile and hippo were spotted. The boat cut speed and silently edged closer to these might beasts. The crocs stayed on the riverbank, but the hippo took turns diving. Guests were ready to wager just where they would surface next.
As is customary on all A&K Private Jet programs, A&K representatives and many travellers provided charitable assistance to the local community. While in Cape Town, they had shopped for non-perishable food items that they brought to Victoria Falls. A&K's local office (one of 62 worldwide) gladly accepted the generous donation and immediately began distributing the items to needy families in the region.
The exhilarating Flight of the Angels, a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls, was on tap for this morning. Guests were organized into four- or six-seater groups and were shuttled to and from the helipad by the efficient local A&K staff. Everyone was thrilled to witness the crashing waters from above, and cameras were definitely working overtime. The excitement continued throughout the day; the next thrill was lunch with the elephants. Travellers sat under shady trees, enjoying lunch in the open air, when five magnificent elephant guests arrived. Private jet travellers were able to interact with the mighty mammals and their handlers, who were only too happy to impart much wisdom about their magnificent charges. Guests were thrilled to have the unique opportunity to gaze into the open mouth of an elephant and see rows of molars and a 12-pound tongue.
Later in this action-packed day, guests — suitably garbed in A&K ponchos — walked around the falls with experienced national park rangers who provided fascinating commentary on this natural phenomenon. Later, guests gathered near the statue of Dr. David Livingstone for a cocktail reception to celebrate their visit and to watch a performance by local dancers.
The evening concluded with a gala dinner in the hotel's celebrated Livingstone Room. Long recognized for its delightfully formal atmosphere, this dining room was reserved solely for A&K Private Jet guests, who were able to meet and eat in a period dining room — one in which Queen Victoria herself would have felt at home. A local choir performed, followed by a cappella singing by a male group. The hotel's own resident four-piece orchestra arrived, and guests immediately began dancing to the music.
Victoria Falls – Bamako, Mali
"Africa 1" was waiting as guests boarded for the next leg of their journey. The crew, dressed in local garments, welcomed guests on board for the nearly seven-hour flight to Bamako, Mali's capital. Chief flight attendant Bjorg and her crew then served cocktails (the day's special was a Kir Royale) followed by a delicious lunch. The two chefs explained their difficulty in gathering ingredients to put together a meal in such abeleaguered country. Even the flight attendants had been in the kitchen the previous evening, helping to set up the trays and equipment. It had really been a case of "all hands on deck," but they rose magnificently to the occasion.
After flying over several different countries, "Africa 1" touched down in the 97ºF bone-dry afternoon heat of Bamako, the capital of Mali. Guides escorted the group through the small terminal building and drove them to the Musée Nationale de Mali. Guests viewed displays of archaeological finds and dynamic fabrics from all regions of the country. Afterward, Dogon men, dressed in traditional masks and costumes, performed an amazing dance that included foot-stamping routines.
Later, a representative from the U.S. Embassy in Bamako joined guests for a cocktail party and dinner and a discussion about Mali and its relationship with its neighbors as well as the U.S.A.
Bamako – Timbuktu – Marrakech, Morocco
In the morning, guests departed for a visit of the fabled city of Timbuktu. After a one-hour flight across the desert, a fleet of 4x4 vehicles and guides waited to drive guests to a city that was once forbidden to non-Moslems. They wandered through the library, where local experts demonstrated the painstaking restoration work on handwritten manuscripts dating back to the 15th century. From the roof of the library they could see the city's large mud mosque. From the city, it was a very short drive to the Sahara where Tuareg tribesmen and women waited to dance and sing. Guests had the opportunity to join these "blue men of the desert" on a camel ride through the sand.
After a lunch break at a hotel, there was time for retail therapy. Guests bargained for souvenir t-shirts as well as beautiful Tuareg jewelry and clothing. Afterward, guests flew back to Bamako and quickly transferred to the private jet, parked just a few steps away. The always-smiling Icelandair crew welcomed them on board with cool towels and drinks.
Africa 1 soared across the sand dunes of Mauritania and over the snow-clad Atlas Mountains to Marrakech. Guests were quickly whisked through immigration, while Tim oversaw the transfer of bags to the luxurious Es Saadi Hotel and Casino. Guests appreciated the elegant Islamic décor of the lobby, but were thrilled by the size and appointments of their rooms and suites. After all the excitement of the day, guests quickly called it a night.
The day dawned warm and sunny — perfect weather for exploring Marrakech in the company of smartly dressed local guides. After lunch, guests headed to the celebrated Djemmâa el Fna, the main square, famous for its orange juice stalls and snake charmers. Guests wandered the many souks, purchasing a variety of goods, including carpets, jewelry and pots and pans. Tim provided the necessary A&K security tags, so that items could be stowed in the hold of the aircraft.
Guests had the opportunity to dine in their choice of recommended restaurants, and A&K provided door-to-door transfers. Many travellers opted for the international menu at the Restaurant Villa Rosa, but those who preferred to sample delicious local cuisine dined at Restaurant Dar Moha, where a feast of local delicacies awaited them, all accompanied by fine Moroccan wines.
After breakfast, clients embarked on various Design Your Day programs. Several guests elected to visit the Atlas Mountains and hike to local villages for a glimpse of the local everyday life. Some took the traditional horse drawn carriages, known as calèches, to visit Marrakech's exquisite Menara Gardens and the Yves St. Laurent Museum. Others had a hands-on experience at the Maison Arabe Cooking School, where under the expert eye of a sweet grandmotherly lady, they prepared a lunch of traditional Moroccan chicken tagine. They then enjoyed their meal while sitting under the shade of the palm trees.
That afternoon, guests found traditional Moroccan djellabas waiting in their rooms. This was the required attire for the final gala dinner, held in a palm date oasis just outside the city. Men on horseback and camelback and ululating traditionally dressed women welcomed guests who walked along a candle-lit red carpet for a cocktail and canapé reception. As they sat under the stars, Arab horsemen rushed up, rifles waving, which they then fired into the air, much to the surprise of several guests. This performance is called a Fantasia and is very much part of North African culture. A wonderful dinner followed. Afterward, some guests reclined on comfortable leather pouffes (cushions) and enjoyed the sweet pleasure of a hookah, or water pipe. Overhead, the stars twinkled and with the beautifully lit palm trees, it truly was a wonderful ending to a fantastic trip.
Marrakech – New York City
So for the last time it was "bags out" in the morning, and guests were on their way home. The winds were in their favor, so the flight home to JFK was made non-stop in just 8 hours and 10 minutes. In flight, they enjoyed two meals, including a captain's dinner attended by one of the captains on board. A hilarious in-flight surprise was an impromptu belly dance provided by the four female flight attendants and the lady first officer. Dressed in traditional belly dancing outfits, they danced from one end of the aircraft to the other, while the music of the latest Icelandic hits came through. It was a great farewell to the crew, who had looked after guests so well and there were a few tears in JFK when the moment for parting came. Some guests signed up during the flight for the 2010 Private Jet programs to South America and Nine World Wonders. For several, it was not "goodbye," but "see you next year."