South africa self-drive, South Africa - Jul 15 - Aug 6, 2018

Traveler: AJ H. - Local specialist: Deborah Smook

This is an incredible service, and I can’t express how much I appreciate being able to visit a new place — new cultures, new languages, contested histories — and feel like I left it with something more than a superficial layer of tourist-appropriate experience.

Deborah (with help from Tara - of Elgin Africa) provided us with an incredibly thoughtful and perfectly paced itinerary for our 22-day holiday. Deborah’s understanding of us — she really listened to us — and of the options before us, given our interests and length of stay allowed her to guide us to choices we wouldn’t have considered or known about. The process of working with Deborah was easy — we emailed several times, and spoke on the phone once — and each ‘visit’ with her left us more and more excited about our trip.

Deborah has worked in tourism for many years, and not only knows places and people, but has an encyclopedic knowledge of how businesses are run, what their values are, and how accommodations, tours, and even key local people will suit her clients.

We loved (LOVED) this trip. We would trust KimKim with any future travel based on our experience with Deborah. She heard our desire to travel according to our values, even though it might mean risking new experiences with accommodation, local tour guides, or wildlife (!). We asked for a non-Disney version of South Africa, and that’s exactly what we got. We’ve been home for two weeks, and already we’re saving for our next holiday (with Deborah at the helm).

My husband’s primary interest was in tracing the lives and contributions of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Deborah ensured that we visited each significant location in that ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ — including the various branches of the Apartheid Museum. More than that, Deborah identified several contacts for us over the course of our holiday who we would meet and speak with to help us understand personal stories of activism during the struggle for a Democratic South Africa.

In Johannesburg, we stayed in the arts district Maboneng, and toured the city with “King,” a Soweto-born tour guide whose vibrancy and realistic portrait of the city challenged the ‘victory’ narrative. It was wonderful to have a more complex portrait of the country immediately — and with personal experiences and explanations to make that portrait more concerning.

In Qunu, the place of Mandela’s birth, Deborah paired us with an incredible local guide we’re still talking about. His activism during the struggle to end apartheid forced him out of university and into prison. Still an activist, and finished with his formal education, “Zim” allowed us to question him about his current work (defining and re-defining masculinity, and leading groups of people to experience their own power). Deborah had arranged for us to have lunch at his home, where we met his wife and ate a beautiful meal prepared with fresh vegetables grow in their garden. This sort of encounter is simply not possible without current connections and deep interest in one’s work. Wow, Deborah!

Deborah’s care throughout the trip created opportunities and connections like this for us. In Cape Town, for example, tickets to Robben Island were scarce because of ferry trouble and unforeseen closures of the museum. Deborah to the rescue. Robben Island may sound like a trip only for tourists, but I found it to be remarkably organized, insightful, and deeply moving. Need I mention that our tour of the prison/museum was led by a former political prisoner?

My primary interest in the trip was to see and experience the vast expanse of South Africa — its open skies, its languages, its people, and expressions of its cultures. Deborah consistently steered us toward places and encounters we wouldn’t have been able to have on our own. The range of people she put us in touch with ranged from shops selling the work of local people (sometimes co-owned and operated by those people), or informal locations where she was sure we would encounter local artisans selling their work. Our accommodations provided us with not just a white South African holiday. (On our flight home, we noticed that the cosmopolitan artsy 12 Decades Hotel in Johannesburg was written up as a ‘must-go’ location in the in-flight magazine!) Even before we left home, Deborah’s itinerary for us included descriptions of accommodations like this one, describing a beautifully designed backpacker lodge: “Hopefully you’ll meet one of the owners, Sal, who basically grew up at the lodge and is very knowledgeable about all the community projects in the area.” Intersperced with backpacker accommodations, Deborah planned luxurious nights for us. In another part of the itinerary she writes: “It’s 5-star accommodation at 4-star rates and includes breakfast.” She failed to mention that the staff at Falcon’s View Manor (“high above the town of Knysna”) would wash our car (!) while it was parked overnight in their covered carport. At this hotel, we got to our room and discovered that Deborah, who had passed through the area days before, left a beautiful bottle of wine for us. (Need I mention that the adjustment to routine life at home has been difficult!?)

Deborah arranged for several game drives during our holiday, including photographic safaris in Chobe National Park in Botswana. She had personally experienced these safaris, and although such an excursion wasn’t on our radar, our stay at Pangolin Lodge and experiences with drivers and our photography ‘teacher’ couldn’t have been better.

Our trip covered a true range of natural environments, cultural locations, and physical activities. Everywhere we were safe and cared for with attention to detail. Deborah put us in the path of people and encounters that moved us and enlarged our personal and political worldviews. This is the best of travel.

Deborah’s deep knowledge of her client’s desires (we wanted to support family-owned and community-supportive businesses), coupled with her vast knowledge of opportunities for tourism in South Africa, and even Zambia and Botswana, made this a trip our friends simply can’t believe we were able to take. Deborah’s itinerary for us included details about the businesses we patronized, what we should expect for food, even what to pack for day hikes in specific regions... I can’t tell you how grateful I am for her knowledge. Impressed, and grateful.

I can’t thank you enough for referring us to Deborah and to her collegue Tara at Elgin Africa. Although we’ll need to save for a bit before we travel again, I’d reach out to Deborah without hesitation. KimKim was a terrific way to get us started. I’m grateful for your expertise and for the thoughtfulness of your method in pairing travelers with local experts like Deborah.

Cheers!

Deborah Smook profile photo
Deborah Smook, local specialist, responded to this review:

Dear AJ & Shannon

I can not thank you enough for the beautiful review and the opportunity to plan this trip with you. Tara and I really enjoyed doing it and felt like we were traveling with you.

Thank you for sharing the photos and your experience with us. It was really great meeting you too and hearing all about the trip. We will plan a trip with you again any day!

And you are on my to-visit list in the US soon.

Love

Deb & Tara