Intrepid Travel: Okavango Experience

I’ve enjoyed travelling with Intrepid Travel, but trying to find reviews of their specific trips has been difficult.  They publish snippits on their page, but those, of course, are glowing reviews. So I’m left wondering – how’s the food? How’s the travel? What should I know? Where should I get souvenirs? How many early mornings?

So here you go. A review of Intrepid’s Okavango Experience. Read here for my trip report, this is just a review of the company, not the company. (If you see what I’m saying).

Intrepid’s Okavango Experience is listed as 10 days, but it’s closer to 9 in reality. The first day consists solely of a meeting around 6 at the hotel with the guide, driver and other travellers.  Bring a pen, your passport, and insurance information- you’ll have a few things to fill out.

Timing:

Most of the 9 mornings will involve an early wake-up – anywhere from 4:30 to 6 am.  You’ll usually be on the road by 6 to 7. The good news is that the roads are smooth enough that you’ll be able to sleep. The bad news – no a/c, so it’ll get HOT.  Lunch was generally around 1, and dinner around 7. We usually arrived at the campground/hotel around 4, with a few free hours before we ate – several times we arrived a bit earlier and had time to enjoy the hotel pool before dinner. In the Okavango Delta itself, game walks were at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., with the morning walks being longer.

Transport

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The truck (bus?) is fairly large – a metal ladder is used to access it. It’s tiny – you’ll find it awkward going down, but you’ll develop a rhythm a day or two in. The seats are set up in four rows, in a typical bus style – two seats, aisle, two seats – and are comfortable. There’s not much storage room (other than the seat in front if you’re in the middle two rows) so make sure you only have essentials in your bag with you. There is a seat pocket on the back of the seat in front of you for smaller items. As I mentioned, there’s no a/c, but the windows open.

Tents

 

The canvas-dome tents used are in extremely good condition – no rips, tears, holes or the like. The windows and doors are a green-mesh – and they allow you to look out, but not for someone else to look in (unless you have a light on.) We only had rain one evening (and we had up-graded) but from what we were told – they’re waterproof. They’re also easy to set up and take down, the hardest part being trying to get the hooks to unhook from the poles.

Campgrounds

Nearly all of the campgrounds are attached to hotels, with the exception of Khama Rhino Sanctuary, and the Okavango Delta (which are just campsites.)

Khama Rhino Sanctuary – very sandy campground, slightly wooded, quiet (the other campsites are situated far enough away that you rarely hear them.) Comfort stations are very clean, toilet paper provided, but no soap (bring your own.) Hot and cold showers!

Sedia Hotel – again, a very sandy campground, little shade, noisier. It’s a very open campground, so people camp very close to one another. It’s a very quick way (about 30 seconds) to the pool, restaurant and bar area, where the wifi works. Comfort stations are clean, toilet paper is provided, as are laundry facilities. Upgrades available – pester the staff, they’ll tell you it’s booked full.

 

Nata Lodge – another sandy campground. Very quiet – the campsites have a lot of separation. More tree coverage than Sedia Hotel, so your tent can be shaded. The comfort stations are clean, and again toilet paper was provided, but no soap. Slightly longer walk to the restaurant/bar and pool just over a minute, maybe. Excellent gift shop.

Thebes Lodge –  finally, a non-sandy campground! A mix of dirt and grass, lots of trees, and a concrete area to clean/cook/eat. The restaurant/bar and pool are a bit away – several minutes walk.  (I upgraded here, so I don’t know about the comfort stations). From what I saw, the campsites were very separated, so very quiet.

Victoria Falls Rest camp – a very nice, shady campground, located at the top of the camp, near the street (although, not near the entrance.) We upgraded at Vic Falls, first to a lodge (three bedrooms) and then to a private chalet.

The lodge wasn’t worth it. The windows had no screens, and you couldn’t open the windows because there was a family of monkeys right outside. The entrance opened into a dining area (complete with table and chairs) with the three bedrooms access of that. The third bedroom was at the back of the lodge (across from the door). Off the bedroom, to one side, was the bathroom, and to the other a small kitchen. The bathroom situation was a little awkward – we were sharing the chalet with other people from our tour, who would be sleeping in the third bedroom. (Additionally, this room did not have a fan; although the other two did.) The single chalet was great – a simple concrete room, with a fan and two single beds (that we shoved together under the fan) and three windows (with screens!). No bathroom, instead we were using the shared bathrooms/showers.

Food

We had Timon and Gibson as our driver and guide, and the food they made was fantastic. We didn’t repeat a single dinner the entire time. Everything from the standard spaghetti in meat sauce, to chicken and rice in a white sauce,  African curry and sadza in the Okavango Delta, and BBQ chicken….they even managed a shepard’s pie! We had two vegetarians on our trip, and they had vegetarian versions of the same meals, with the exception of the BBQ chicken, when they had stuffed squash (which was apparently excellent.) Timon made sure that all of their meals included protein – it wasn’t just ‘here’s a salad/pasta/carrots.’ Breakfast consisted of toast, musli/cereal and yogurt (plus tea and coffee), and lunches we got ourselves. We’d stop in a town, and hit the grocery store (or a ‘fast-food’ restaurant) for something. (Generally, sandwiches.) Get to know people early on, and you can share the first lunch – someone gets bread, someone else sliced deli-meat, a third person cheese or lettuce….

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Washing up just after breakfast

Souvenirs

It was….difficult…finding souvenirs. Wait until you get to Nata – Nata Lodge has a nicely stocked gift shop. (As opposed to Sedia Hotel in Maun, whose gift shop was just sad.) In Nata, we found everything – postcards, magnets, key chains, baseball caps (all branded with the hotel name, but they were baseball caps), books (animals of Botswana, birds of Botswana, etc.) and t-shirts, scarves and even bathing suits! Once in Victoria Falls, you’ll find plenty of options for souvenirs, but if you want something in Botswana, it’s a good place to stock up.

Wifi

So, yeah…..wifi. It’s going to be slow.  The more people on the network, the slower it is. Try to save uploading photos to off-peak times.  Generally – upon arriving at the campground/hotel, everyone wants to connect.  A few hours in, things start to quiet down, although it’s not going to be fast. It’s going to be….dial-up speed, for those of you old enough to remember dial-up.

 

 

 

Whale-watching in Iceland: A Day Tour of Husavik

I’ve gone whale-watching out of Reykjavik (August) and Husavik (early May). The first thing you need to know is it is highly unlikely that you’re actually going to see a whale – as in, a humpback whale breaching the water and the wonderful tail fin that you see in photos advertising whale-watching. That’s just probably not in the cards. What you are likely to see is the back fin of a whale as it slowly crests in the water. Very anti-climactic.

But anyway. I saw minke whales, and a tiger shark, while out from Reykjavik. In Husavik, we saw a blue whale (it breached several times over the course of about an hour.) So you’ll get to see something, just….not what you might be imagining you’ll see.

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The back fin of a blue whale

If you have time, and you’re going to be up north, and you still want to go whale-watching, I’d recommend Husavik over Reykjavik. (That’s not to say that whale-watching out of Reykjavik is bad, it’s just busier – more boats, freights, ferries, etc – so the chances of seeing something big are a bit lower.)

In Husavik, we were given enormously thick and warm winter suits – think an adult-sized onesie designed to keep you warm outdoors – because it is cold out on the Arctic Ocean in late April. The boat we were on was on the smaller side (although not small – I had no fear of waves sweeping me overboard) and had no ‘indoor’ portion – we were out in the elements for the entire two to three hour trip. We headed out over the open water, to an area where whales are known to feed, and luckily found a blue whale. (We were a little early in the season for whales) We watched the whale breach a few times, before heading back. On the return trip we were given hot chocolate, and a cinnamon bun type pastry.

For people who get motion-sick, I really really really suggest taking some kind of motion-sickness pill. Ross got a little sick on the trip back, and couldn’t enjoy the hot chocolate or pastry (I, however, got to enjoy twice as much!) The water can get choppy, so it’s a good idea to have something with you.

Before or after whale-watching, you can pop into the Whale Museum, located near the harbour. Inside you’ll find lots of information about the whales found around Iceland, the ocean, and even several whale skeletons displayed. The museum isn’t large, but it does have a second floor where most of the skeletons are located. Well worth a visit.

Another museum located just on the edge of town is the Husavik Museum, also known as the Culture House (or was when I was there in 2013.) Much like the Skogar Folk Museum, this museum gives the visitor an idea of how people lived in this whaling community. There are also stuffed examples of various mammals found in/around the area (including a stray polar bear).

If you’re staying in Akureyri and don’t have a car, you can easily take the Straeto bus to Husavik. Route 79 takes you straight there, in just over an hour. The bus stop in Husavik is near the harbour, making it very easy to find your way around. (Not that the town is so large that you could get lost). You’ll have time to go on a whale-watching tour, see both museums, tour the town, have something to eat, and catch the bus back. (I should note that there is apparently another museum in Husavik, the Exploration Museum, but I didn’t get there so I can’t speak to it’s worth as an attraction.)

And as a final note: Back in Reykjavik, the whale-watching was slightly warmer, which isn’t surprising because it was in August. The boat had an indoor, heated section, which was great because it started to rain on our way back to the harbour. If you’re only in Iceland for a short period of time, or you don’t have enough time to detour off the Ring Road to Husavik, and you still really really want to go whale-watching, you can still have an enjoyable trip out of Reykjavik. The harbour is close to the downtown core, and you can just pop by to go on a tour.

Museums in and Around: Reykjavik Redux

It turns out that just about everyone I know is going to Iceland. A coworker, Ross’s sister, my friend (and hiking compatriot) Stephanie….plus Ross and I are thinking of going back next year so I’ve been doing a little research into the places I want to go. I’ve been putting together a list of things that I enjoyed doing, and places that I enjoyed visiting, in a Google Doc but then thought….yeah I should just blog it.

For the record, I haven’t seen nearly half of Iceland. I’ve been to Reykjavik twice (in August 2008 and May 2013), up to Akureyri (late April 2013), and along the south shore (albeit with a tour group) in May 2013. I haven’t made it up to the Westfjords (but it’s on the slate for next year), to Snaefellsnes peninsula, or to the east coast. So I can’t cover those, but I can cover the areas I’ve been.

So let’s start with Reykjavik, because I’ve been there twice (in August 2008 and May 2013) and that’s where most of my info comes in handy.

Reykjavik has a City Card, which comes in as a 24-hour, 48-hour or 72-hour card. Ross and I got the 24-hour card, and thought we got a good deal out of it. It allowed us to take the bus, get entrance to city pools, as well as a bunch of museums, and it gives you a discount at some stores and restaurants. The only thing I would caution, if you’re getting the card on the weekend, make sure that a) buses are running, and b) museums are open, because the time starts as soon as you purchase it.

Located close to the downtown HI hostel, the Volcano House offers a glimpse into the volcanic history of Iceland. You can watch a documentary on famous eruptions in Iceland, and tour their geologic exhibit. There’s also a small cafe onsite. You can get a 20% discount with the city card.

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Follow the red rocks to find the Red Rock Cinema

For all the sparkling, new gleam of the Volcano House, my volcanic viewing pleasure will always be with Red Rock Cinema. Shown in a home theater (think small, dated, campy), the documentary was filmed by the owner and his father. His father starting chasing volcanic eruptions in the 1950s, and Villi Knudson (the owner) has kept it up since his father passed on. This is most definitely not a swanky professionally filmed documentary with a deep-voiced narrator, but it is informative, and it is the original. When I visited in 2008, the Volcano House didn’t exist, and this is where you went. Ultimately, both documentaries give you the same information, and either one is worth checking out.

I’m not one for art museums, but I love archaeology, so any museum that gives me a glimpse into the past, I’m up for. Reykjavik 871 +/-2 (also called the Settlement Museum) is right downtown, and is the site of an archaeological dig. They found a log house on the dig, and decided to turn it into a museum. There are computerized displays around the log house describing what each section was used for – very much worth a visit to see how the vikings lived a thousand years ago, specifically in the Reykjavik area.

Similarly themed, the Saga Museum offers a look at the history of Iceland. Located a little outside the downtown core, it’s still within easy walking distance near the harbour. (From what I remember, they used locals as models for the Viking figures.) Less archaeologically themed than the Settlement Museum, it’s still fun and interesting.

Along the Ring Road towards the south, on the way to Vik and 150km from Reykjavik, is the Skogar Folk Museum. We stopped in while on a tour with Reykjavik Excursions. This local museum details life along the south shore, with fishing and whaling artifacts, as well as instruments, and traditional turf-roofed houses. It gives an excellent glimpse into life in Iceland in the early 20th century. The museum is also very close to the Skogafoss waterfall, so you can cover two things at once.

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Exhibits in the phallological museum

Back in Reykjavik, there is a….distinctly unique…museum, located along Laugavegu…the Phallological Museum.  Yes, a museum dedicated to all things phallic. It’s about a 20-minute walk from downtown Reykjavik. When I was there in 2013, they only took cash for the entrance fee (there was a bank with an ATM about a block down the road) and it was 1,000kr (or roughly $10CDN). It may or may not be worth it, depending on how much you’re willing to pay to snicker at penises. They have penises belonging to nearly all sea and land mammals found in Iceland, as well as to land mammals found elsewhere (like an elephant.) There are also quite a few other, phallic themed, items on display. I enjoyed my visit (it was a little awkward, seeing as it was myself and a guy in his late 30s who kept cringing) but like I said – you may find the price a little steep for a good snicker or two.

If penile displays aren’t quite what you want to see, you can also do a tour of Harpa, the opera house in Reykjavik. We were lucky – we went for the Eve Fanfest in 2013, so we got to spend a lot of time in Harpa for free (or rather, for the price of Fanfest tickets.) This included a concert performed by the Icelandic Opera (of all music Eve-related) and a party at the end. You can tour the building (which is a work of art itself) or take in a show.

Southern Africa: A Traveller’s Guide

Maybe that title is a little misleading. I’m really going to focus on Botswana and Zimbabwe, but honestly – “Botswana/Zimbabwe: Some Things I Wish I Knew Before I Went” is a lousy title, so there you have it. Literary liberty, for all!

I had a blast in Botswana and Zimbabwe. Are there things that I wish I had done differently? Ok, no. But there are things that I wish I had brought, or hadn’t, or things I wish I had known before I went.

I was in Botswana in December/January, what should be the rainy season, aka – summer. So temperatures soared during the day, and would cool off only a little at night.  We did a camping tour with Intrepid Travel, and their (general) packing guide said to bring a 3-season sleeping bag. Obviously, that was crazy talk, but I had no idea of how cool it might get at night. A silk sleeping bag liner and a fleece liner are sufficient for summer nights in Southern Africa in Botswana. We found when it was too hot, the silk liner didn’t stick to us, and if it got cooler in the early-hours of the morning, a fleece was enough to keep us warm.  Anything more was too much. (And I get cold easily! If it’s under 20C, I sleep under a blanket or two.)

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This was supposed to be enough water for 11 people.

As part of our camping trip,we went up the Boro river, in the Okavango Delta, to bush camp for two nights/three days. We were told to bring 5L of water each, plus fill our water bottles – giving everyone around 6 – 7L of water. Our guide brought an addition 40L of water, which was to be an ’emergency supply’. Somehow, 20L went missing (used in cooking, really, instead of treated river water), and with the temperatures reaching close to 45C every day…..we went through a lot of water. Bring more water than you think necessary  if going bush camping. In retrospect, 15L for the two of us would have been ideal. (Side note: We didn’t ended up dehydrated – our guide went to another camp to ‘borrow’ 10L, and we paid a poler to go down to the town to bring back 20 500mL bottles…..and some beer)

Something else that would have been useful was a light-weight long sleeved shirt – something to throw on to protect shoulders in particular from the sun, but didn’t add any weight or heat. One would have been sufficient, maybe two if I hadn’t been able to do laundry.  (As it was, we had an opportunity every couple of days to do laundry. With the temperature so high, and the air so dry, clothes dried out in an hour – and this is for hand-washed, hand-wrung shirts and undergarments.)

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Neutral clothing like this is ideal for safari walks

Neutral-coloured clothing – anything non-garish, no neons, no jewel colours, no loud patterns – are ideal for safaris, especially walking safaris.  They say ‘no blues, no yellows, no reds, no whites’ but what they mean is no colour that will stand out from the environment.  Sky blue is ok, dun yellow is ok, and a dusty rose/red is ok. Greys, khaki, pale colours….these are all fine.

On the clothing theme, long light-weight pants will be your best friend on a walk safari.  At least where we were, we ended up pushing through reeds or long grasses that were a little scratchy. Having something covering our legs was very helpful. If you have them (or want to buy them) convertible ‘zip’ pants that convert into shorts are even better.  Once you’re out of the grasses, you can switch to something cooler, and you’ve got a two-in-one piece of clothing – pants for a cool/wet day, shorts for a warm day.

The Fiancé bought a Panama hat (when we were in Panama) and has used it for all over our sunny trips ever since. However (as you can see in the photo above) it doesn’t really shade the back of his neck. He wishes he had brought a wide-brim hat to protect his face/neck from the sun.

It was sunny nearly the whole time we were on vacation (with the exception of one morning of rain). When we went swimming (either in hotel pools, or in the Boro river) the Fiancé put on his rash guard, and I…..didn’t because I had left it at home, thinking I didn’t need one more t-shirt. If I could back – I would bring one less t-shirt, and the rash guard instead. It would have been great at keeping my shoulders and back out of the sun, but dries quickly, a must have when you’re on road to a new town nearly every day.

In Zimbabwe, (at the time we were there at least) they use the American dollar. Which is great for us because it’s easy to get in Canada.  We brought $500 each – a couple of $100 bills, $50 in $1 bills, and the rest in $20.  In hindsight, I wish we had brought $5 and $10 bills (in addition to the $1 bills) – very frequently we would pay a bill (in a restaurant, café, or shop) and they would have to go on a hunt for change. We burned through our $1 bills very quickly – if we had had $5, we could have kept the $1s in reserve for bottles of water, or tips.

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I…..got a little sunburned.

Given how little rain we had, more sunscreen and aloe vera lotion would really have hit the spot. We figured we would only need sunscreen for our arms, faces, and maybe feet, so how much could we possibly use? More than we brought, so we had to buy some in Nata. With the temperatures in the 40s (that’s Celsius) every day, we would often sweat off the sunscreen that we had just applied, so we would apply it again (and again, and again). And after our two-day bush camping experience in the Okavango Delta, I ended up with a sunburn on my shoulders, and upper arms. (Some of our tour mates ended up with massive burns on their legs from white-water rafting). Aloe vera lotion would have hit the spot on those burns.

While the roads in Botswana, and from Botswana to Vic Falls, are paved and fairly smooth, there are the occasional bumps or potholes. Or the driver needs to slow down because of cows (or elephants), or speed up to pass someone. A small-mouth water bottle is the best. We brought two wide-mouth bottles, and it took some concentration (or a break in driving) to adequately drink (and not get it down our fronts.)

IMG_0355One thing we brought that was incredibly useful was a small bottle opener. When we did our boat cruise on the Chobe (and when we had beers brought up the Boro in the Okavango Delta) it was the most sought after piece of equipment. (To be fair, one of the Swiss had a bottle opener on his Swiss Army Knife – but that was still only 2 bottle openers for 16 people). Not only does it come in handy – it’s a great way to get to meet your travelling companions! It adds no extra weight, and in my case it’s a key chain, so double useful. (As was the Swiss Army knife.)

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This solar panel ended up being less useful than expected

We brought a portable solar panel from Goal Zero. It turned out not to be as helpful as we thought it would be. In the Okavango Delta, it ended up being too hot – phones overheated while trying to charge, and that’s when they were in the shade. It ended up being dead weight. Every hotel lodge/campground we stayed at had electrical outlets for charging, and with the exception of the one night at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary, and the two nights in the  Okavango Delta, we were staying at hotel campgrounds. (The solar panel was far more helpful when I was in Mongolia.)

One piece of electronics that turned out to be worth it’s weight was a large battery with 3 USB ports (ours is a Uniden model). This was great when there was a line up for the electrical outlets – we could charge our phones up easily. When we upgraded to a hotel room, we could then charge the battery pack. It was by far more useful than the solar panel.

 

 

Somalisa Camp and Hwange Park

After our Intrepid tour, we had a few free days before we had to fly home. We decided that we wanted to do a safari (I’d done a 4-day safari in Tanzania, but the Fiancé had never experienced one). We debated between Kruger Park in South Africa, and Hwange Park in Zimbabwe. Friends and family advocated for Kruger, as Zimbabwe gets some bad press, and they felt it might be more dangerous.

But I won out, an20160105_054621d we ended up booking a 3-night 4-day stay at Somalisa Camp, with fly-in/out transfers.

We flew out of Vic Falls on a Wednesday, on a 6-seat Cessna 206. The Fiancé got to ride in the co-pilots seat for the 45-minute flight. We landed on the dirt strip, and were greeted by our guide, Albert (who it turns out, used to be a pilot.) We waited for the plane to take off, before heading towards Somalisa.

About 10 minutes into our drive, we came across a mud hole, where a herd of elephants were, for lack of a better word, frolicking. It’s a sight to see, these massive animals rolling in mud, spraying themselves, and each other. As far as introductions go, this was a great way to start our stay.

20160105_134240At the camp, we were met by Dophas and Johannes, who would be our hosts for the three days that we were there. Each time we came back from a game drive, they would meet us with cool, damp towels (lemon-scented!) so we could wash off the dust, and cool down. Dophas gave us a quick orientation of the camp, explaining where everything was, and what times we could expect our meals, and game drives, before we headed to our room to freshen up and relax.

Each day was similar in timings – Dophas would wake us up at 5, leaving coffee in our butler hatch, and breakfast was at 5:30. At 6, we would begin our game drive, and be back in camp by around 1 or 2, for lunch. At 4:30 we would meet for a snack, before heading out on an evening game drive at 5:00, ending with sundowners, before heading back to camp for around 7:30.  After that it was dinner, and drinks.

Somalisa had just finished renovations, and upgrading their camp. Their grand re-opening was set for the day that we were to leave, so the Fiancé and I joked that we were their soft opening. In fact, we were the only guests at the camp – making us feel more like royalty. In effect, we had a personal staff – personal hosts, personal guide, personal chef…not a bad way to end our tour!

20160108_091412Our game drives were well equipped. Our 4X4 carried two tents (just in case), a cooler of drinks (soft drinks, beer, wine, and water), and another case with snacks – we had everything from carrot and cucumber sticks, popcorn, cookies to grilled cheese, samosas, and pastry-wrapped sausages. We got a kick out of drinking a beer while driving through the park – it’s not often that one can do that!

20160106_100203Our first evening game drive was filled with animals.  Just as in Botswana, there were massive herds of impala and zebra, and elephants. At one point, the Fiancé counted over 100 elephants at the pans. We drove around the pan, watching baboons play, zebra mock-fight, and impala passively saunter. Albert informed us that if the impala are so relaxed, there are no cats in the vicinity. If there were, the impala would be standing at attention, all staring in the same direction. (We would get to test this theory on our third day.)

Hwange Park is a very dry, sandy place. To encourage the animals to stay, the water is pumped into the pans. There were the odd diesel pumps, but most had been upgraded to solar power. The drought is just as evident in Hwange as it was in the Okavango Delta – the grass had predominantly turned brown, and animal carcasses had basically mummified. (Not even the vultures would go near them.)

20160106_114955But the pans were, if not full, providing plenty of water to the animals. We drank our gin and tonics, and watched the animals drink, as the sun went down. Driving back to the camp, we were lucky enough to see an African Wild Cat make a kill. Our dinner was on the lower deck, just in front of the elephant drinking pool. The elephants were maybe 5 metres away – an incredible end to an incredible day.

On our second day, we drove out of camp and towards the pans where we had had our sundowners. This morning we saw jackals and bat-eared foxes, and Albert found lion tracks, which we followed. Unfortunately, the lions were hiding in the brush, so we headed back to camp, coming across some giraffe. 

20160106_132046That afternoon, we lounged by the pool (the camp provided sunscreen and towels), enjoying some downtime after the rush and bustle of our Intrepid tour. At 5, we headed back out for our evening game drive, this time finding monkeys and warthogs. (Each time we did a game drive, we saw new animals.) We ended with our sundowners again (Albert makes a mean G&T) before driving back to camp.

A few more staff had turned up in anticipation of the re-opening. Over drinks, I chatted with Denzel, while Ross taught Dophas how to play backgammon. Our chef, Sandy, came out and detailed the meal for the evening (steak!), before retiring back to the kitchen. The Fiancé and I got to eat on the lower deck again (I assume, if there had been more guests, it would have rotated)

IMG_0958After our unsuccessful search for lions the previous day, Albert asked us if we wanted to do a longer morning game drive, heading further afield, closer to Main Camp, where reports had come of lions in the previous days. We agreed, and we set off. We took a meandering route there, finding a Sable antelope, hippos, crocodiles, even a territory fight between some jackals and bat-eared foxes.  But no lions. We stopped for lunch overlooking a pan (watching the hippos wallow, and the birds flock) before we reluctantly decided to head back to camp.

And that’s when Albert yelled out “LIONS!” Sure enough – there was a male and two females walking through some bushes. Luckily, there was a road slightly closer, so we drove around and got a great view of the lions lounging under some bushes.   “Now that we’ve seen them, we’re going to see lots, just watch” Albert said as we drove away.

Our morning game drive ended up being close to 10 hours, so we opted out of an evening game drive. While lounged poolside, we had many visitors at the pan in front – zebras, kudus, impalas, a warthog, and of course the elephants. 

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Our last morning at the camp we slept in. Our flight time had changed several times the evening before, from 9:15 to 8:15, so we decided that we’d skip a long game drive. When we had breakfast, we were informed that our flight was finally settled at 9:50. So we did get a short game drive in. 

20160108_010134And of course, 5 minutes outside of camp….we saw a lioness and her cub. We followed them a little, but the cub was very skittish, so they quickly headed into the bush, so we started back. And of course….we saw another lioness and her cub. Albert took a look, and determined that the cub was actually one of Cecil’s sons. These lions were very relaxed, and flopped out in the shade right beside the track. We spent a few moments there, before driving a loop, and heading to the air strip to await our flight.

Lucky for us, a government official (The Minister of Tourism) was flying in for the re-opening. He was on a dual-engine King Air, with a pressurized cabin and comfortable, lounge-y seats. It was decided that rather than take the Cessna caravan back, we’d be taking the King Air. Our transfer back was half the time it took to get to Hwange – we were in the air for only 20 minutes before we landed at Vic Falls. From start to finish at Somalisa, we felt like we were getting a true luxury experience!

Beers up the Okavango

The fiancé and I decided a while back to go to Africa for our winter vacation.  We’re a little Central America’d out at the moment – after visiting Panama, Cuba and Guatemala within three years, we felt we needed a bit of change this year.

But we wanted something easy – something that was different, but that wouldn’t tax our abilities to travel around and see as much as we could.  We settled on doing a tour with Intrepid Travel, and after a bit of discussion (we knew we wanted to do Southern Africa, we just weren’t sure where exactly) we picked their Okavango Experience trip.  The dates were right, the price was right, and the length was right. 10 days, starting in Johannesburg, South Africa; through Botswana, and ending in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

Trip map

This tour is advertised as a ‘basix’ tour – essentially, it’s a camping tour where you are expected to pitch in by setting up/taking down your own tents, as well as helping with dishes after meals.  There was the option to upgrade to a room on occasion (when we were staying in towns, and if the hotels had rooms available) which I have to admit, we took advantage of.  Breakfasts and most dinners were included, lunches we were expected to self-cater for the most part – we would stop in a town, go to a grocery store, and stock up on lunch and snacks. Visa costs were not included, however our guide was there to help us navigate the land border crossings (which were surprisingly easy!)

We flew out of Ottawa on December 24, to Washington DC, and then on to Johannesburg, arriving early evening on December 25. Our starting point was the Sandton Holiday Inn – by far the fanciest Holiday Inn either of us had ever seen.  Chandeliers, a rooftop pool, swank chairs….I felt sure we were in the wrong spot (nope – it was right. We met our tour mates, guide and driver the next day in the hotel.)

The first day of an Intrepid Tour is always your own, with a group meeting in the evening. We spent the day on a city Hop-On Hop-Off tour – in addition to being tired and unfamiliar with the city, it was also Boxing Day and a lot of things (shops, museums and tourist site20151226_054018s) were closed, so it seemed like a good option. We got a great overview of the city, as well as a fantastic 2-hour tour of Soweto as an extension.

  We had a local tour guide of Soweto, which gave us a lot of insight into the township.  We started off driving by the stadium from the World Cup, then onto the cooling towers, that have been turning into a bungee jump (alas, we saw no jumpers).  Fans of ‘An Idiot Abroad’ will be familiar with the painted towers from season 2. After the cooling towers, we headed to the Hector Pieterson Memorial and museum. We were given a brief history of the Soweto Uprising, and what precipitated it. We continued on, visiting Nelson Mandela’s house, and Desmond Tutu’s house, before passing through Kliptown. Again, because it was Boxing Day, a lot of places were closed and we only got an outside look.  It was definitely a tour that I would recommend.

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Hector Pieterson Memorial

Back at the hotel, we met the rest of our tour mates – 2 couples from Switzerland, a couple from New Zealand, and a lot of Aussies (ok, so only 8, but it seemed like a lot). First meetings are always so awkward – not knowing anything about anyone, and everyone standing around uncomfortably….it would take a few days (as well as $120USD, a mokoro, 20 bottles of water and a lot of beer) for everyone to gel.

20151227_044455We set off bright and way too early the next day – we were on the road by 4:30 am, as we had an 11-ish hour drive to get to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Botswana. We stopped around 8:30 for breakfast at a truck stop, getting coffee at a Wimpy’s (think Burger King/McDonald’s/Harvey’s) before hitting the road again. Just before the South Africa/Botswana border, we stopped to stock up on lunch and snack foods for the next few days.

The border was quick and easy – we lined up all together, had our passports collected, stamped, and then passed back at the South African border, before we drove to the Botswana side to repeat the exercise. After that it was smooth driving to the Rhino Sanctuary.

 

We arrived around 4 pm, and immediately headed off on a game drive (well, drives, as we were split into two groups of 8), while our guide and driver went to the campsite to set up our tents. In the Sanctuary, we saw a lot of white rhinos, impala, springbok, zebras, wildebeest, a few giraffes, and even a waterbuck. The Sanctuary has mostly white rhino, but they also have a few black rhinos (although we were unfortunate and didn’t see any.)

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Suckling young rhino

Seeing as it was summer in Botswana, we got to see babies – everywhere the eye could see babies!  Baby impala, baby rhinos…those a some big babies.  Our driver was very knowledgeable about the animals, and every time we stopped, he would turn off the vehicle, turn around and tell us about their lifespans, their markings, and their habits. The one caution is that the game drive starts at reception, but ends at the campsite – so if you want anything from the small store (souvenirs, cold drinks) get it before you head off.

20151227_183346The campsite at the sanctuary was great – there was a tap with running water, a fire pit, and lots of shade. The comfort station was a short walk away, and soap and toilet paper were provided. (The toilets, and shower stalls, were very clean and well maintained.) We were given a warning to always check outside the tent before we left it – mostly for snakes, but also scorpions. We were also warned that the area we were camped in was the area that the black rhinos liked, so to be careful of any large and new “rocks” that may be in our path as we went to the comfort station at night.

The next day we were up early (but not as early) for the drive to Maun, and the Okavango delta. We spent one night in Maun, before heading, via mokoro (the traditional dugout canoe) into the delta. The two nights that we spent in the delta proved to be the bonding experience that we all needed.

The day before we left to go into the Delta, we were given some time to shop for snacks, and drinks, in Maun. We were told to buy 5L each of water, and any additional drinks (alcoholic, or non) that we might like for the trip.  Only…the bottle stores (or beer/liquor stores) were all closed. Not really a problem, just…it might have been nice to have a few beers around the fire at night. We all bought our water, filled our water bottles (The Fiancé/ and I had 12 litres total) and headed to the small village where we were starting our bush camp experience.

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Off we set, 2 people per mokoro, with a ‘poler’ at the back. We headed 2 hours into the delta, and set up camp on what is usually an island, but currently isn’t because of the drought affecting the area. The drought also meant that the polers had to manouver the mokoros around the sandbars that had cropped up in the river.  The water was incredibly shallow in places, and even though the mokoros don’t sit heavy in the water, they still got stuck upon occasion. Once at our campsite, we had lots of trees providing shade, and a small swimming area in the river just to the right of the campsite.  We got ourselves set up, had lunch, and then…..changed into swimsuits (well, I changed into a swimsuit top and yoga pants, because I couldn’t find my bikini bottoms the first day), and hit the water, because it was 43C and really, really, really hot.

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Alas, the water was no cooler than the air, so it felt like taking a very warm bath (a warm, silty, mud covered bottom bath) with several near strangers.  Occasionally we’d get a wave of cooler water around our feet, but it was overwhelming weirdly warm water. One of the Swiss guys had a small ball that he pulled out, so we played catch, drawing in a few of the polers, and helping to break the ice.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a cold beer right about now?” We started joking.  “The polers could make some serious cash if they just poled by all the campsites with a cooler of beer!” And we all laughed, and thought nothing else of it.  

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Several of us wanted to learn how to pole the mokoro, so one of the polers took us out, one-by-one, to teach us how.  The hardest part is the balance – unlike stand-up paddle boarding, you’re at the back of the mokoro. Your feet are in a T formation, with the back foot being the top of the T.  You slide the pole into the water nearly touching (or touching) the mokoro beside you, and push back. If you need to turn, you ‘sweep’ the mokoro in an arc in the water – a clockwise arc turns you right, and a counter clockwise arc turns you left.  It’s tricky maintaining your balance while you pole – you’re shifting your weight around to move the pole back to your side for another push.

20151230_002545That evening, around 5, we had a short game walk, seeing impala, elephants, zebras and a giraffe nearby. We were split into three groups, and our guides led us out and onto a large plain, telling us to walk single file (so as not to scare the animals). The three groups headed in different directions, although we all still ended up in the same spots, just not packed all together.  Close to sunset, we started back. We had gone a fair distance from camp, so as we walked it got a little darker, a little darker, a litttttle darker….and then we heard it.  A roar.  A roar that wasn’t that far away.  We all froze, mid-step, and stared.  At each other, at the dark trees around us, at the guide.  “An elephant” he said.  (And after hearing a lot of elephants, yes, yes it was.  Only at the time it did NOT sound like an elephant).  Finally, just as the sun was setting, we arrived back in camp for dinner. The next morning we had a longer game walk (about 6 hours, and thankfully with no terrifying animal noises), and saw (in addition to the previously listed animals) a warthog, many more giraffes, baboons, wildebeest and even hippos! As we headed back to camp, our guides (we had two for the second walk) stopped, spoke in the local language, and then led us back in the direction that we had come from. We pushed through reeds (it’s a very sad state of climate when you can visually tell that what you are walking should be water, but is instead not.) and came upon a largish pond.  Wallowing in the middle were three hippos. Well worth the u-turn to see!

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Elephants on our walking tour

Back in camp, it was announced that we were running out of water – somehow about 20L of water had gone missing. Our guide had brought an extra 40L as a back up, but somehow half of it had disappeared.  He announced that he was going to try another camp a little farther down the river, to see if they had any water they could give us.  (They had fewer tourists, but had brought the same amount of water.) He set off with one of the polers, and we changed into swimsuits to hit the river. And again the joking start – “Wouldn’t it be great to have a beer?” Only it didn’t stay a joke.  The Fiancé told one of the polers that they could make some serious money by bringing beer into the delta, and the polers went with it! One of the polers offered to go back to town (remember – we were 2 hours from the nearest town) for beer.  We just needed to give him a list.

So the Fiancé approached me to ask everyone what they wanted, make a list, and figure out the money. We decided we’d pay for everything up front, and have everyone else pay us back later. 4 hours later, the polers arrived back in camp with our beer (as well as 20 bottles of water, and some soft drinks that had been requested) and the ice was broken – everyone opened their beer, joked around, and the mood was set for the rest of the tour.  (I should note about this – we gave the polers a hefty tip for the time and effort, and bought them some soft drinks as well.  And not a single person argued about the cost of the drinks, or the tip that given)

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Red Lechwe that we saw while heading back to town

 

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Group photo from the co-pilot’s seat

Back in Maun on December 31, most of the tour group opted to do the scenic flight over the Okavango Delta. We were split into two groups of 7, and boarded our airplanes for a 45 minute tour. I can’t say I was impressed with our pilot – he had two stall warnings on takeoff, but I guess to be fair – it was obnoxiously hot that day. Flying over the Delta really brought home how bad the drought in Southern Africa is. Dried up river beds, sand bars in the rivers that hadn’t dried up, brown grasses…and we were there in the rainy season. I’m was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, and all I could see out the window was brown.  (The other side of the plane apparently got some greener views, but they were few and far between.)

IMG_0205We celebrated New Year’s Eve with a buffet dinner, music, and some dancing (or so I’m told – we ended up going to bed early, as we had to be up at 6 am the next day.) Then it was off to Nata, a short 4-hour drive away.

IMG_0248In Nata, we did a game drive through a bird sanctuary located on the salt pans.  Unfortunately, evidence of the drought was in full force and there was not a single flamingo or pelican to be seen (nor was there any water).  We did see a few birds (ostrich, a secretary bird and a few migratory birds) but it was mostly empty, brown, sandy savannah. We did see on lone wildebeest, and a scrub hare, but that was it for mammals. The tour ended with sundowners on Makgadikgadi salt pan – a vast, empty salt pan. Our group had by this time gotten into a groove, so there were some goofy photos, some artistic photos, laughs and groans as we posed with the sunset backdrop.

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From Nata we drove to Kasane, located at the junction of 4 countries – Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Kasane is a large tourist destination, as it’s close to Chobe Park, a good base for those who want to do a sunset river cruise or a game drive. Organized for us was a sunset cruise, but there was also an optional game drive of Chobe, which the Fiancé and I opted out – knowing that we were going to be doing a lot of drives in Hwange in a few days, we thought we’d use the time to relax by the pool at the hotel. At 3:30, those of us who opted out were driven down to the docks for our river cruise, where we promptly claimed the shaded side of theIMG_0336 boat for our tour mates, who joined us a few minutes later. We had our coolers of beer, and our cameras ready to go.  Almost immediately, we saw a hippo, and then young male elephants mock-fighting on the riverbank. The cruise lasted a couple of hours, and we ended up seeing lots of elephants, hippos (and tiny hippo babies!), buffalo, and the odd crocodile.  By sunset, our group had rearranged the chairs into a circle, and we were chatting away.

The next day we left before 6 to conquer the Zimbabwe border bright and early – before any of the other tour buses got there. The border is open 6 am to 6 pm, and we got there juuuuust as they were swinging open the gate. To our (sticker) shock, the KAZA visa – a multi-entry visa that (we thought) was good for Zambia and Zimbabwe, was no longer available.  So instead of spending $50 each, we had to pay $75 each, for a single-entry visa for Zimbabwe. (A double-entry visa is not possible for Canadians.)

(Side note:  This proved to be extra expensive for us: $75/each for the first Zimbabwe visa, $20/each for a day visa to Zambia to go to Devil’s Pool, $75/each for the second Zimbabwe visa.  A total of $170 EACH in visa fees.  Ouch.)

20160103_105718Our tour ended in Victoria Falls, with the last activity being a walk through the Victoria Falls National Park on the Zim side.  (Entrance is $30USD.) We were given the option of going whenever we wanted, our guide would either accompany us to the gate and pay, or we could submit a receipt to him for reimbursement. We choose to go the morning we arrived, and walked through the Park, stopping at all the viewpoints to see the falls.  It was so wet, that at times we couldn’t decide if it was spray from the falls, or if it was raining. But given the heat – and it was hot – we quickly dried off as we moved away from the main falls (aptly called ‘Main Falls’).  As we walked along, past Livingstone Island (and Devil’s Pool), the water started drying up – Horseshoe Falls and Rainbow Falls were both nearly dry, with only small trickles of water cascading over the edge.

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Eastern Cataract

Main Falls is still dramatic, with massive amounts of water falling the 108m to the river at the floor of the canyon.  We got a close up look the next day, when we walked over the border to Zambia, to visit Devil’s Pool.

IMG_0476We hurried back to the camp after we walk along the falls, to be picked up by Lion Encounter.  We drove about 20 minutes out of Vic Falls, and to their concession, where we got to walk with lions.  The lions are about 2 years old, and have been raised by volunteers, so they are accustomed to humans. There are a few rules to remember – don’t wear anything that dangles, don’t get down on the ground, and don’t touch their heads. The lions, while used to humans, are still wild, and are still cats. They will play with anything that dangles, lies on the ground, or will try to grab a hand that is close their head. We were given walking sticks – again, just the sheer size of the lions means that if they want to play, you don’t want to use your hand to admonish them. You use the stick, because if part of that goes missing, no one needs to be rushed to a hospital.

IMG_0435There were 6 of us on the tour (3 couples) and each person got a chance to walk with the lion. Typically, one person would go first, their partner would join, then the first person would drop back, and their partner would get a chance to walk alone with the lion. When the lions laid down, we were given the opportunity to rub their bellies (very coarse, rough fur! Not at all like a house cat or a dog) before they were up again and walking. During the walk, there are two guides, a videographer, and a guard (you are in the wild, and there are buffalo and elephants….) so safety is as assured as it can be.  After our walk, we visited some older lions (and had our hands licked!) before heading back, and watching our video.

20160104_060120The next day, we walked over the border to Zambia (paying $20USD for a day visa) to visit Devil’s Pool.  Devil’s Pool is a naturally formed pool in the basalt rock of Livingstone Island, on the edge of Main Falls. The rocks create an area with minimal current during the dry season, allowing brave souls (like yours truly) to splash around at death’s edge. (Please read that with dramatic overtones).  Usually, this is only feasible from September to December/early January. People are picked up at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, and taken by boat over to Livingstone Island, and are then given a brief tour of the Eastern Cataract.  Then, they slip into the water, swim diagonally against the current, and across to the rocks surrounding Devil’s Pool.  (The diagonal swim is so that as you swim across the current, and it pushes you down, you don’t go sweeping over the edge. You are delivered instead to Devil’s Pool.)20160104_061546

While the Fiancé and I wore water shoes we needn’t have worried, the rocks aren’t that sharp…..but they are that warm.  Because of the current, algae doesn’t have time to grow, so it’s not slippery either. We clambered across the rocks, and were instructed to slip into Devil’s Pool.  (When the water is running very low, you can jump in).  There is a “lifeguard” who is there as an added precaution – he sits closer to the edge, allaying your fears that you’re about to go over, and holds you when you lie on the rock ledge (the Armchair). There is another guide who takes pictures with your camera, and then leans over the waterfall to get a dramatic video of the water crashing over the edge.

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Each person gets a go and sitting on the armchair, and lying over the edge (or close to it, in my case) before the next person is ushered in, and you swim off to the side (not the rushing current side). After everyone’s photos are done, you rock scramble back to the river, swim back to the island, and sit down for food (while waiting for the adrenaline to wear off.) The morning tours include a snack, the lunch time tour has a three course meal, and the afternoon tour has tea. We were there for lunch, so we started with a gazpacho, followed by chicken and beer, roast veggies, steamed veggies, and couscous, before ending with a fruit cup for dessert. After our meal, we took the boat back to the hotel, and then walked back across the border (paying another $75 each in visa fees) before grabbing a cab to hotel.

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Group photo from Nata

Our group had slowly broken apart over the two days in Vic Falls. Some people left early on for other adventures, some had an extra day to play before heading home, and a few were even continuing on with Intrepid for the trip back to Johannesburg (through Zimbabwe this time). Those of us that were left got together for dinner that evening, pulling in a few of the new people who had joined up for the tour back to Jo’burg, at the hotel restaurant. We started off with two tables, added a few more chairs, realized we had too many people, added another table…until we had 5 tables, and nearly 20 people sitting around, eating, drinking and having a good time. We ordered our meals, and those of us with crocodile, impala and warthog meat, shared it as it came out, passing bits of meat down to those who wanted to try something different, laughing and talking. As it got later, and people started leaving for bed, hugs and promises of places to stay made the rounds, until only a few of us were left.

New York City Charm

Seeing as the BFs (ooooh, now fiancé! I should start using that) birthday, and mine, are five days apart, this year we decided to head to New York City for a weekend.

We’re lucky because the Fiancé can take time off whenever he would like (within reason – it can’t interfere with deadline work obviously), and I have a schedule where I’m off every Friday afternoon. So we booked a flight leaving around 2 pm and landing in NYC around 6 (after a layover in Toronto).

We flew into Newark, which we’ve done before. While a little out of the way, it’s extremely easy to take public transit into the city. There’s a rail link with NJ transit that costs $13USD, and takes about 25 minutes.  The train stops at Penn Station, and from there you can transfer to the subway.

This time we were staying in Long Island City, just across the East River from Manhattan. We had booked our hotel with hotwire.com, which we’ve used before. We ended up at the Boro Hotel, which was lovely. While the room was small, the floor-to-ceiling windows, along with bare wood floors and white linens, made it seem light and airy. The bed was comfortable, and the floor quiet – we never heard any of the other guests. We also had a small balcony off the room.

The hotel provided breakfast for the guests each morning.  It consisted of muffins, pastries, Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, granola and toast, as well as coffee and juice. While we enjoyed the breakfast, I was glad that we would only have two, as the choices seemed like they could get a little boring for much longer.

20151205_100656The hotel was one subway stop away from Manhattan, so Saturday morning after breakfast, we headed over to Central Park. We wandered through the park, stopping to watch the skaters on the ice rink (which was weird, as the temperatures that day hit about 10C) before making our way to the Museum of Natural History.

20151205_115054We’ve been to NYC four times, and this was our first visit to the museum. The entrance fee was $22, and can be bought from a kiosk just inside the doors. It was a madhouse in the entryway, and at no point did we have to show, scan, or otherwise validate our ticket. (Honestly, we probably missed a line somewhere for that). Our first stop was in the African Mammals exhibit. Seeing as we’re going to Africa in only a few weeks, you would think we wouldn’t have spent a lot of time there, but it was interesting to see the recreated dioramas of the wildlife and vistas.

After that, we headed into the African peoples exhibit, then to the top floor to see the dinosaur exhibit. We first wandered through the rooms with mammal skeletons, before heading into the dino rooms. From there we headed to the third floor, to see more of the African mammals. At that point, we were getting a little overloaded with information (and to be honest, people) so after a detour through the museum shop, it was back outside.

20151205_175121We headed down towards the East Village, popping into an Irish pub for some lunch and pints first. We went in and out of shops as we winded our way through the streets. We found a Christmas shop, selling old fashion ornaments from the 40s and 50s, so we popped in to pick up a few. We eventually made our way to Katz’s Delicatessen, where we joined the throngs of people buying smoke meat sandwiches. We were lucky enough to snag a table, so we sat down to enjoy our massive sandwiches. We could only finish half, so we packed up the rest to have for dinner later at the hotel.

20151206_095147The next day we tried to sleep in, knowing that it would be a late night, as our final flight home (from Toronto) was just after midnight. We took a walk around Long Island City and Astoria, eventually ending up in Socrates Sculpture Park, before heading to the subway, and getting off at Canal street. We meandered around, having lunch at the Lafayette Café, and then to the Brooklyn Bridge.

What an exercise in frustration this was! The bridge was packed with tourists, who would stop randomly in the middle of the path to text, Facebook, tweet, or just in general to get in the way. Pair this with a fear of heights, and I could not                                                                                       get off that bridge fast enough.  Once we were in Brooklyn, we sat in a park, before finding a pub for a pint.

We got to Penn Station around 4:30, and had to wait a few minutes for the train to arrive. They don’t announce what track until the train is actually there, and then it’s a stampede as everyone tries to get on. My advice is to aim for one of the cars further up – most people try to get on the first car or two, so you’re more likely to get a seat if you keep walking along the platform.

At Newark, we stopped in at Art and Lounge, the lounge available to Priority Pass members. We had some dinner, and sat in chairs far more comfortable than the ones at the gates. We also had better food, and unlimited drinks, as well as wifi. Well worth the $99 sign-up fee, and $54 to access the lounge ($27 each)

Our flight to Toronto was uneventful, but unfortunately we had more than enough adventure on our flight to Ottawa. The flight was delayed by a half hour because of a faulty starter (basically.) After being checked out by mechanics, the plane was manually started externally, and we were on our way. We arrived in Ottawa at 2 am, were home and in bed by 3, and alas – I was up at 6 am to go to work. The fiancé was lucky enough to sleep in until 8:30!

Santanoni for the Range!

Order in ranking: 14

 

Santanoni had been my nemesis for a year.  Last October, we had started out to climb the Santanoni Range, heading up the Panther Brook trail to climb first Panther, then Couchsachraga before going to Santanoni, and down the Express Trail.
Our thinking was that if, for some reason, we couldn’t get to Santanoni, we could always come back and do an up-and-back via the Express.  And it turns out that we couldn’t get to Santanoni- by the time we got back from Couch, it was getting late, and we didn’t particularly want to walk back out in the dark.
So fast forward to March.  Steph had decided to try and do a winter ascent of Santa – having had success with Cascade, Porter and Allen, she thought she’d give Santa a try.  Unfortunately, the Express trail wasn’t broken out, and she while she could find the start of it, she lost it shortly there after.
Fast forward again to August.  We climbed Cliff on the Saturday, and then attempted Santa on the Sunday.  We made good time to the junction with the Express, but then we started to lose steam – our aches and pains from the climb before were hitting us hard.  We arrived at the Hilary Step around 2:00, and decided to turn around.  At the pace we were going, it would be another hour and a half to the summit, and we’d have to get down, and we were driving home that night.
So that makes 3 (4 in the case of Steph) attempts at reaching Santanoni’s summit. We were really feeling discouraged, but also determined – that summit was going to be ours.
We headed down in September for a weekend, and bright and early on a Saturday we were at the trailhead.  We headed up the road to the trail, and hit the express is just under 2 hours.  We were already making better time than our last attempt.  After a brief stop to chat with other hikers, we cross the stream (the water was low enough to rock hop) and head up the trail.
In August, at the Hilary Step

The Express trail is a bit erratic.  It starts off fairly even and flat, then there’s a rocky section that’s flat, then it evens out again but climbs, then a rocky section…this goes on for a bit before the trail starts climbing in earnest.  It starts off as a moderate grade, but quickly becomes steep….steeper….steeper… until you come to the Hilary Step – a massive white section of rock, that you have to skirt around to get back onto the trail, a point that Steph and I call ‘The Awful Up.’

This section was muddy and slippery the two times we’ve gone up it (and the two times down.)  We had to stop talking so we could concentrate on our footing – start climbing here, cross there, monkey swing around this, don’t pull on that it’s loose, climb up over there, cross again.  It took us a half hour the first time around in August, but only 15 minutes this time.
From there you enter in an area of blowdown, and you get your first view of Santa – and it looks a loooooong way off.  But just like Nippletop, the view is deceiving.  The trail descended a bit into a col, then climbed steadily (and steeply) through grabby trees, until we started to see more open rocky patches, with amazing views of Wallface, Marshall, Iroquois and Algonquin.
Elation! We made it!

Eventually you come to a junction with another trail, running left and right.  Turning left takes you over the false summit to Santanoni, right takes you towards Time Square.  We turned left, and it was minutes later that we came out to the false summit, and from there it was less than 2 minutes to summit – we got there at 11:47, four and a half hours after starting.

We spent nearly an hour on the summit, chatting with other hikers, and just enjoying the views and the fact that we.finally.made.it.  We headed down, elated that the hike had gone so well.  Everything about the hike had been (and would continue to be) perfect – the day had warmed up to a nice temperature, not too hot or too cold, the summit wasn’t windy, the leaves had already started changing…our hike down went just as smoothly as the hike up, and we reached the register at 3:55.  Santanoni was our 42 – only 4 peaks left!

Total climbing time: 8 hours 40 minutes
Left parking lot at: 7:15, returned at 3:55
Summitted Santanoni at 11:47

The Azores: Sao Miguel

This was an exceptional year for us, travelwise.  We decided to do summer trips, each one a week long.  We thought it would be great!  And while the trips were, it was somewhat exhausting – packing, travelling, unpacking, washing, packing, travelling, unpacking, washing…it just ended up feeling like we didn’t spend much time at home.

So after our end of June trip to Hawaii, we spent the first week of September on the Azorean island São  Miguel.  (The Azores are a set of nine islands, belonging to Portugal, located in the Atlantic Ocean.  Far, far from anywhere.)

Lots of people say ‘where?’ when we said we were going to the Azores, and after explaining the above parentheses, they said, ‘How do you know about these places?’ because I always seem to end up going places that other people have never heard of, or rarely think about.  I have no idea how I knew about the Azores, it was just one of those places that I’ve always wanted to go to.

We bought our tickets via the Sata website. Sata is the airline for the Azores, flying between the islands, and to Europe and North America (Boston and Toronto). Fair warning though – the seat pitch on the planes that Sata uses, is horrible.  31 inches, so if the person in front of you reclines their seat, say good bye to your knees.  But otherwise, it’s a good airline – the flight attendants were friendly, the food on the way to Ponta Delgada was ok (on the way home it was awful) and the flights were on time.

Town square

We started our trip in Ponta Delgada, the capital of São Miguel. While they are part of Portugal, they are also autonomous and have their own government.  The airport is very close to town (but don’t worry – there are no night flights, so the sound of airplanes landing/taking off will not disrupt your night) We were staying at hotel, VIP Executive, on top of a small hill, just off the downtown area.  This gave us the opportunity to explore the city a bit more, walking to and from the hotel.  The town has a few rolling hills, but the closer to the harbour you get (where most of the tourist sites are located) the flatter the city becomes.  There are quite a few cafés restaurants – some are located around the main square, others to the west, and then a lot around the harbour.

The widest sidewalk in Ponta Delgada

Ponta Delgada is small and compact, and it’s very evident that it was built for horses and carts.  Streets are narrow and windy, with cobblestone – meaning that even little old ladies going 5 km an hour squeal their tires as they go around curves.  Sidewalks vary in size but are mostly non-existent, forget walking side by side with your travel buddy.  The architecture is brown and white, very colonial looking.  It’s a very pretty town to wander in – even the houses look quaint, and the sidewalks tend to have tiled designs of white and grey.  (Easy to use as a navigation aid, in fact.)  You most likely won’t need a taxi to get around the city, but if you do – there is a taxi stand at the town square, and your hotel will be able to arrange one (say, if you wish to travel to a different part of the island, or to a different town.)

We were there at the tail end of summer, so it was still quite warm during the day (anywhere from 25C to 30C), so most restaurants had patios set up, even if those patios were only two tables and 4 chairs.  Most of these patios would have umbrellas over the tables to keep the sun off the patrons, but around the harbour the patios had roofs.

We popped into the fort one day (entrance fee of 3€) to see the military paraphernalia.  It was really interesting – there are a number of rooms to visit, in three different locations in the fort. They provide instructions on how to structure your visit – which rooms to visit first, how to get to the others – they are all located near each other, and there are also signs to help you find your way.  For military buffs, it’s definitely a must-see.  We enjoyed ourselves, but I could see it not being as much of an attraction to some people.  Towards the end of the tour, you can actually climb up onto the fort walls (accessed via a staircase) and look out over the city and working harbour.

Street art in Ponta Delgada

One tour guide that we had (when we did a half-day tour to Siete Cidades) told us that Ponta Delgada has a street art festival every year.  There certainly was a lot of different artwork on display around the city – and all of it amazing. We used some of it as a navigation aid, helping us find where to turn to get back to the hotel.  You never knew where you would find a new painting, they seemed to pop up in unlikely spots around the city.

On our first day, we noticed that a lot of people were swimming in the harbour.  There’s a section that is blocked off from boats, and people can swim (either do laps, or just splash around) as they want.  We also noticed that there was a platform that the  kids were jumping off of, into the water.  So of course Ross and I decided that we’re kids (well, we’re somebodies kids, right?) so one day we bought towels (travelling tip #34:  always bring towels.

Jump jump!

Even if you’re staying in a hotel, bring a towel.  Douglas Adams had it right.) and headed down to the harbour, where we proceeded to fling ourselves off the platform.  (We were, by far, the oldest people to be doing so.  The other adults were sedately using the stairs.)  It was actually a lot of fun, if a little cool at first.  Getting out was a little harder – the concrete steps and ladder are slippery with algae, and you had to time the climbing with the waves – wait while the wave comes in, then haul yourself up when the water rushes back out again.

There really isn’t anywhere comfortable to sit and dry off, other than a concrete step, or bench, but there’s plenty of room, and lots of other people doing the same.  For those worried about safety, there were life guards on duty while we were there.

From Ponta Delgada you have a plethora of tours to choose from.  We opted to a half-day jeep tour to Siete Cidades with Futurismo (they also do whale-watching tours).  The benefit (for us) in doing a smaller tour was that we got to go to places that the large tour buses couldn’t – for example, we headed up into the mountains to see two lakes in a  park.  We also got to go at our own pace – either spending more time somewhere or less time, depending on how we felt. It started out as a grey day, but the sun came out as we headed to Ferraria – where a hot spring meets the Atlantic Ocean.  During low tide you can swim in the ‘pool’, but unfortunately when we went, it was not only high tide, but also very windy, making it dangerous to enter the pool (we would have been dashed on the rocks had we tried.) For days when you can enter the water, there are ropes and a ladder available to help you.

View from the lookout
Siete Cidades

The other tour that we did was a whale-watching tour with Moby Dick Tours.  The day we booked to go ended up being very windy, so they shuttled us to the north of the island, to do the tour out of Rabo de Peixe.  (It’s only about 8 km from one side of the island to the other, so this isn’t as big a deal as it sounds.) We’ve gone whale-watching before (in Iceland) and if there’s one piece of advice I can give you (well, two.  I’m going to give you two) – 1) bring motion-sickness tablets.  It can get choppy out on the water, and you’ll be thankful to have them.  2) You’re most likely not going to see a whale leaping out of water, or the tail of a humpback.  Most likely you’ll only see the back of the whale as it surfaces.  If you think that sounds anti-climatic, it might be best to save your money.

On this whale watching trip, we ended up seeing a mama fin whale with her baby (it was one big baby), as well as a dolphin as we were coming back to shore. We spent close to an hour and a half watching the fin whales, they would breach, then go under, breach again.  I didn’t try to take any photos – it’s next to impossible to get a good shot, and you never know where they are going to breach.  I’d rather enjoy just watching them than stress myself out trying to get a photo.

Coming back to shore, we saw a beautiful rainbow over the coast of the island, which was unfortunate, as half the people on the boat couldn’t enjoy it. They were suffering from sea sickness (again, bring those motion sickness tables!) and were either lying down, or had their heads between their knees.

Our last few days we spent in Furnas, a town about 45 minutes away from Ponta Delgada (when the traffic is light).  Our hotel ordered a cab for us, and we took the southern route to Furnas, which cost about 45€, We were staying at Furnas Boutique Hotel and Spa, which from the photos looked faaaancy.  (It turns out that the place is very laid-back and chill, so we were comfortable in our jeans, hiking shoes and tshirts.)  We loved this place – the room was incredible, and even though we overlooked the restaurant and patio, we couldn’t hear any noise.  The room came with enough lights, which adjustable light, to give yourself a little light show (in fact, we did, trying to figure out which switch controlled which light, and how to get everything to turn off).  The hotel has two pools – an indoor pool, which is heated, and an outdoor pool, which is fresh, cool water.

We decided to do the hike around Lago de Furnas, a roughly 10km walk, round trip, from the town.  The first part of the walk is on a road, a winding road with no path alongside.  It felt a little unsafe at times – not quite dangerous, but often we questioned whether a driver would see us as they rounded curves.  Eventually we turned off that somewhat busy road to a quieter one that went along the lake.  We were given free entrance (I assume hikers get in for free, cars need to pay), and we stopped to check out the hot springs, where locals (and local restaurants) make Cozido – a local dish, where different types of meat and root vegetables are put in a pot, then lowered into a hole dug in the ground.  They cook for about 7 hours before being ready to serve.

The walk around the lake itself was very relaxing – it was a smooth gravel path, very even and very flat.  While the walk is 10km, it is not strenuous.  It is also shaded for the first half, but then becomes more open. Hats, sunscreen and water are definite musts for the hike, as well as comfortable shoes.  (Hiking boots not needed)

Halfway around the lake, we came to a small hill just off the trail.  We climbed the steps up, and found a large swing hanging from a tree.  Across from the tree was a lovely view of the lake, so we decided to take a moment and enjoy the solitude.  (In fact, at this point we had only run into two other people)  It was very quiet and relaxing, and a great place to take a rest.  The tires on the tree are to protect it from being damaged if it is hit by the swing.

After that the trail became more open, and eventually turned into a road (although we didn’t see any vehicles).  We passed a old church that had fallen into ruin (although it was still beautiful and picturesque) and started to notice more people, as there is a parking lot not far from this end of the trail. In fact, it’s possible to get a taxi to take you here and to walk back in the opposite direction, if the idea of walking 10km seems daunting.

As we rounded the lake, a sign pointed us up a steep hill (along a road, again) to a lookout over Furnas.  This part of the hike was strenuous – it was a steep grade, although it was partially shaded so at least we weren’t out in the direct sunlight.  We paused several times, before making it to the turn off for the lookout, which was a short walk off the road. The view was incredible, so we paused to soak it all in (and catch our breath), before heading down.  The down was just as steep as the up, but with the added insult of having loose gravel and leaves strewn over the cobblestone.  We took it slow, not wanting a fall to ruin our trip.

View of Furnas from the lookout

Our last full day on the island, we took a taxi (10€, one direction) to Faial de Terra, to hike to Salto do Prego waterfall.  We arranged with the taxi driver (who thankfully spoke English), to pick us up in 3 hours.  If you choose to do this hike from Furnas (or Povoação) you can ask your hotel to make the arrangements with your taxi driver as well.

This hike, while a lot shorter at 4.5km, is a lot more strenuous. The hike follows a true hiking path, and is steep and, at the time anyway, muddy.  There are rocks and roots to be careful of, as the trail winds its way along the stream, and through groves of olive trees.  We climbed slowly, with periods of steep ascent, before hitting the junction with the trail to the waterfall.
We were the only people there when we arrived around 11 a.m. We tested the water and it was cooooold.  We decided to don our swimsuits anyway, to at least splash in the pool around the waterfall, and to explore the stream in the opposite direction.

We quickly became accustomed to the water, and spent nearly an hour wading around the rocks and exploring the area, before decided that we should get dressed and continue on – we wanted to have enough time to explore Sanguinho, an abandoned village along the trail.  After putting our clothes back on, we climbed up, and explored the area around the top of the water (there’s a small lookout up there, as well as a trail that continues on.)

Just as we had started back, we ran into a German couple who were heading to the waterfall.  In fact, on our way back, we started to run into more and more people.  We had had excellent timing, arriving early and having the place to ourselves.

Sanguinho, the abandoned town, had some houses in complete ruins while others were merely overgrown with vegetation.  The most astounding part was that it had been abandoned after it had been wired for electricity – there were numerous street lamps along the cobblestone road. Several of the houses had been repaired and renovated, and we saw many tents – some Googling after we got home, and I found out that there was an  ‘Ecovillage Design Education’ group based there.

Our final day (half-day really), we took a taxi back to Ponta Delgada, this time via the northern route, and only 35€.  We had lunch and got a few remaining souvenirs, before heading to the tourism office, were we had arranged for the Aerobus to pick us up – at 5€ each, roundtrip, it’s a great deal.  A big plus for people who end their trip elsewhere on the island, the Aerobus will pick you up at non-hotel locations in the city.  We chose the tourism office because it was easy to find.

Scaling up Cliff Mountain

Order in ranking:  44

Finally, after months and months, I was back in the Adirondacks with my climbing compatriot, for an attempt on Cliff mountain, and if we had time Redfield.

Now, we’re both currently a little out of shape.  There have been a few years where we’ve swiftly ascended mountains, like the year we did the Dix Range, but this is not one of those years.  This is one of those schlep yourself up the mountain years.

So we stayed at the Hoot Owl B&B in nearby Newcomb (our go-to accommodations for hikes at Upper Works) and headed out bright early for a 7:15 a.m. start.  The going towards Flowed Lands is very quick – the trail, while not ‘flat’ is even – i.e. there are a few rolling ups and downs, but the trail isn’t covered in rocks, boulders, logs, branches, etc.  (This is actually great on the way out when you’re tired – you can just put one foot in front of the other and not have to worry about tripping over a root that is hiding in plain sight.) We made fairly good time, hitting the monument at Calamity Pond around 9:41 a.m., where we took some photos and chatted with a couple who were hiking in for an overnight stay.  From the monument, it was a short walk, about 20 minutes, to Flowed Lands, where we stopped again to soak in the beauty, have a snack, and rest our feet.  We thought this would be a great destination for a hike in and of itself – it was very quiet and peaceful, and other than the couple that had met at the monument, we didn’t see anyone else until we were ready to leave.

Someone jumped on the bridge.

From there, the trail started to get a bit rougher, with rocks and branches waiting to trip us up.  We walked around the Flowed Lands, and towards Colden Dam, a first for us.  After 15 minutes, we came to the junction with the Uphill Trail.  The name is not misleading, the trail at this point was a bit steeper, and with a lot more rocks impeding a quick pace (for us.)  We stopped by the suspension bridge (closed due to a cable giving way, and hanging precariously over the river) before continuing on, coming to the trail junction between Cliff and Redfield about 4 and a half hours after starting.  At this point, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to do with peaks, so we decided to hike the harder one – Cliff.

Only a little mud on this hike

We started up the trail, immediately encountering mud.  But, having done the Couchie bog the year before, we just powered through – we knew our boots were water-proof.  We quickly hit the first of the cliffs for which Cliff gets its name.

The cliffs weren’t too difficult, providing easy foot holds and hand holds, and were easy to scramble up, at least in the beginning.  The higher we climbed, the harder the cliffs became.  Near the beginning our of 46er journey, Steph and I climbed the cliffs of Saddleback, and after that, these cliffs were easy-peasy.  A few spots where you had to hold on with your fingertips, monkey swing around trees, and boost yourself up over ledges, but nothing that I would classify as scary (and I’m terrified of heights.)  Of course, takes this with a grain of salt – YMMV (your mileage may vary).

We finally summited Cliff at 1:46, six and a half hours after starting our hike.  We had our traditional swing of whiskey (from a metal flask, no glass for us), some lunch, and took some photos, before heading back down.  The cliffs were just as hairy going down as they were up, although we both decided to butt slide where we could, lowering our centre of gravity and reducing falls.

We made good time out, taking some time to relax on Colden Dam and chat with other hikers, enjoying the late afternoon sun, and the view of the mountains. We finally got up and continued hiking, hitting the parking lot at 7:59. A long day, but a restful one.  We had decided to enjoy our hike, and enjoy the Adirondacks, rather than race to get to the summit and back.

Total climbing time: 12 hours 44 minutes
Left parking lot at: 7:15, returned at 7:59
Summitted Cliff at 1:46