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!

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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.

A Dream Come True: Off to Mongolia (Part 1)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to go to Mongolia.  I don’t know why – I don’t think I grew up knowing someone who went to Mongolia (this is why I fell in love with Russia – a friend of my parents went in the 70s.), and it’s not like Mongolia featured big in the movies in the 1980s.  Maybe it was the horseback riding, I don’t know.  But it’s been on my bucket list since having a bucket list was a thing to do (I started mine when I was 16.)

And we’re off!

So I decided to go, and I started my trip in Beijing, which I’ve blogged about previously, see here if you want a refresher on my first week in Asia.

Dawn over the steppes

Anyway – I arrived in UB on the Trans-Mongolia Train.  I’d spent 27 hours with my travelling companion, Jason, and two Dutch guys who were sharing our tiny couchette.  Thankfully, these guys were chill, and the trip passed quickly.  A few times we headed to the dining car, just to give ourselves a bit of a break, and frequently we zoned out to music and books in our bunks.  We watched the countryside slide by outside the windows – starting off as towering mountains near Beijing, and slowing giving way to rolling hills and farm land, to flat stretches with wind farms and not much else.  Dawn came in a soft purple, pick and yellow, illuminating the Gobi desert as we tracked closer to UB.  We saw the occasional Mongolia rider, and herds of camels (herds?  trains?  caravans?  flocks?  That makes them sound like birds.) but otherwise it was quiet.

We arrived at the train station in UB, and wonder of wonders – there is not only a place to change money (on the second floor of a building to your right as you walk away from the terminal), but on the first floor there is a booth where you can buy Movistar sim cards.  This was great for us, until I realized that it wouldn’t work in my phone.  I had gotten a sim in Beijing that worked (plus I’ve had sims from several other countries that have all worked) but for some reason I couldn’t get this sim to work.

Our taxi driver had trouble finding the hotel that the tour company we were using (Intrepid) had booked.  Very unhelpfully, the only address we had was written in the Latin alphabet, and Mongolian is written in Cyrillic.  It took several phone calls, both the driver and Jason, to get better directions to the hotel.

After we checked in and dumped our luggage in our room, we headed out to find me a working sim card and a place to eat.  UB is teeming with restaurants of all kinds – I saw at least two vegan restaurants, several Indian, Korean, and Japanese restaurants, as well as numerous British pubs and American steak houses.  The bellboy at the hotel had marked the location of a cellphone shop on our map, so we headed there first, and with the help of a Mongolian-speaking woman from Florida (it’s always Florida) I got a sim that worked with my phone!  Finally, after a week, I had access to Facebook and Gmail and could let the world know that I was ok!  (And fascinating in China.)

We headed to a Mongolian restaurant, Modern Nomads, that looked interesting.  The decor inside would fit in in any trendy, upscale neighbourhood in Ottawa (*cough*Westboro*cough*) and the food was good.  It was traditional Mongolian food, so we ordered a few plates to share.  It was a gentle introduction to our fare for the next two weeks on our tour.

 

At our first ger camp

Two mornings later we loaded up with the rest of the tour (whom we had met the night before, along with the guide) and headed out.  I chose to ride in the van with the leopard print seat covers (because leopard print, and I was missing my cats) and my first thought was “Dear gods, I’m going to die in Mongolia” as the driver barrelled around other cars, weaving in and out of traffic and scaring the crap out of the tourists in the back.  (It turns out that that’s just the way he drives all the time, and after a few hours you just get really into it and start to egg him on.
The tour would follow the same pattern for the next 2 weeks:  we would have breakfast at 7:15, if we were heading out that day, 8:00 if we were staying at that camp.  Dinner was always at 7.  When we were on the road, we would stop mid-morning for a pee break, as well as mid-afternoon.  We would stop in a town somewhere along the way (usually mid-morning, occasionally this was our pee break), and we could stock up on snacks for the rides, as well as water and/or alcohol.  We’d have lunch anywhere from 12:00 to 1:00, depending on if it was in a restaurant or if we were picnicking.  The food also followed a theme – mutton (sheep meat!), potatoes, rice, and carrots, in some kind of combination.  The food was good – it had flavour, it was filling, and it was tasty, but it got a little repetitive after a little while.  Each ger camp has flush toilets, and running water.  Most camps had hot water, although it did on occasion run out.

Amarbayasgalant Khiid

We headed up first towards Amarbayasgalant Khiid, one of the top three Buddhist temples in Mongolia.  We arrived at our ger camp to ominous skies.  After throwing our things in our gers (two people per ger) we headed to the monastery, and did a tour of the buildings and the grounds, before trekking up a set up stairs built into the hill behind the monastery, to turn the multiple prayer wheels.  From there, a small path lead over to another staircase, that rose to a giant, gold Buddha.  It was completely different, yet the same to, the Lama Temple in Beijing.  The elements were similar, but while the Lama Temple felt newer, more in use, this temple gave off a quieter vibe, as if it we had been transported back in time.  This temple appeared to be used less, but with just as devout worshippers.  We walked back to the vans, and drove back to the ger camp for dinner.  We were lucky and missed the rain this day.

Amarbayasgalant Khiid from the hill

The next day we were back on the road and drove north towards the Selenge River, with a stop off in Erdenet, for lunch and a quick visit to the carpet factory for some cashmere and, in my case, yarn.  We stopped off at another ger camp, and our luck ran out – the rain started as we headed towards Uran Uul, an extinct volcano that we were to climb.  The lot of us donned our rain gear, and set off up the slick path…that is, once the driver of the second van managed to get unstuck from the mud along the track road that led to the beginning of the trail.

storm off in the distance

I reached the ovoo at top, and began a clockwise walk along the crater, when I saw flashes of lightening off in the distance.  Used to the vistas at home (if you can see it, it can hit you) I sped up and jogged along the trail up top, hoping to reach the trail headed back down before the storm got any closer.  This was my first lesson about Mongolia – the sky is so wide, and so open, that often you can watch storms rolling across the sky that are nowhere near you.  This storm would hit us in earnest in about 3 hours, so I had lots of time.  Because I was so quick to head back down the trail, I missed the double rainbow that the others saw by the time they made it up.  Oh well, there’s always another rainbow.

During dinner that night, we watched the storm from the restaurant’s windows.  The lightening jagged through the sky, and lit it up.  The rain where we were had stopped at this point, so we thought the storm was moving off.  In fact, it rolled closer and closer, and finally broke around 10:30, right over our camp.  The thunder was so loud that it shook the ground, and rain pelted our gers.  Thankfully, the felted wool of the ger is incredibly tight and waterproof, not to mention warm, so I fell asleep to the sound of the rain on the roof, thinking “this isn’t anything like a tent.”

At our first homestay – families, drivers and tourists

The next day we went to visit a family, where we would stay for the night.  We actually stayed with two, related, families who had gers close together.  Half of us would sleep with one family, half with the other.  When we arrived, the woman at the main ger was making internal organ soup – which she offered to let us taste, if we wanted to.  Rather than bite into intestines or lungs, I decided to try to find the “toilet” – a ditch about a 10 minute walk from the ger.  Having grown up camping, peeing outside is never an issue for me.  Thankfully, the ditch added some privacy from the road; not that there was much traffic anyway.

Pointing at (beside) the peak we climbed

We had some time to kill before dinner, so I hiked up the hills behind the gers, with two others from the tour.  The grade was steep, and the ground was loose shale, with thin patches of grass in spots, so it was slow going.  Then it steepened even more, and the lady with us decided to call it quits there and just enjoy the view.  The guy and I pressed on, carefully as it would have been easy to lose our footing.  We finally hit a small crest, and walked along a short ridge line to the rocky summit.  The view was incredible – you could see gers dotting the landscape, sitting in valleys between the hills, and spread out in nearly every direction.  There was little sign of human habitation – other than the white dots of the gers, one paved road and several dirt tracks, there was nothing.  No cars hummed along the road, no motorbikes roared down the tracks, no hydro poles got in the way of a good photograph.  We spent a while just soaking it all in before making our way back down to the ger camp.

View from up top
My climbing partner while in Mongolia
Setting up “camp”

The other members of our group had spent the time reading, playing with the children, or visiting with the parents, with our tour guide as interpreter.  After dinner, cooked by the guides, and on the urging of one of the other girls on the tour, she and I set up our bed rolls and sleeping bags on the group just outside the gers.  The drivers helped us rig up mosquito netting, and we prepared to sleep outside under the stars.  Besides our sleeping bags, I had a fleece, hat, long pants, and a sweater on….just in case.  It was too bad the moon didn’t cooperate – it was near full, and dominated the sky.  No stars for us.  However, it was great sleeping outside, on the steppes.  We were both a little dew-soaked in the morning, so we hung our sleeping bags on the van doors to dry off while we had breakfast.

Lake Khovsgol

That day we drove over the Selenge River taking a break by the river to take photos of the landscape, and stopped off in Mörön to pick up a picnic lunch and mail off any postcards we wanted to send.  From there we headed north to Lake Khovsgol, stopping off at a small market set up by the reindeer herders, before heading down to the lake shore, and our ger camp.

We had two days to spend at Lake Khovsgol, and we planned to make the most of them.  The first thing I did upon arrival was pack up some dirty clothes to have the staff launder for me – between Beijing, the train ride and the few days on the tour, I needed most things washed, if I wanted anyone to sit next to me at dinner.  A few of us decided to walk along the shoreline, passing a few other ger camps, and families on the beach enjoying what we found out was an unseasonably warm day.  I have to admit – I had expected the Mongolian temperatures (especially this far north) to be cooler, but every day it was over 25C.

Even the yaks needed to cool off
Ovoo on the island

The second day at Lake Khovsgol, we all boarded a boat that took us to an island not far from shore.  Somewhat amusingly, no one (that I saw) wore a seat belt, but we all had to put on life jackets.  We sped across the water, somehow staying dry, to a small dock that I swear could not fit any more boats, but somehow we squeezed in.  A short but steep hike up the rock, down into a short flat col, and over to the spit at the end of the island brought us to an ovoo, where we could make an offering, walk around it clockwise, and make a wish.  The view was incredible from this vantage point, but unfortunately we were sharing the tiny piece of real estate with two other groups.  It made for some jostling around, as we all tried to manoeuvre and not fall.  Thankfully, the other two groups there left shortly after we arrived, so we had some time to pose for photos, and enjoy the views before heading back to the boat and back to camp.

Rocky ledges and endles vistas

That afternoon, five of us hiked up the three hills behind the ger camp – it was a short walk up to the first summit, where (another) ovoo awaited, this one with horse skulls clustered in between the ribbons and poles.  We did the obligatory clockwise walk around, and paused to enjoy the sun and warmth.  After a bit, we did the short hike along the ridge line to the second summit, this one with a couple of rocky ledges jutting out.  We took turns posing on the rocks, some of us more daring than others, and admired the views of the lake from our new vantage point.  We could see several ger camps spread out below us, but not many more signs of human habitation.  We quickly took off for the third, and final summit.  Then it was down the back of the hill, into the forest, and along a path until we came out in the field beside the camp, where we spent some time admiring a mare and her foal.  In all, we had spent nearly two hours hiking over the hills and through the woods.  Dinner couldn’t come soon enough!

Herding sheep along the road

We stopped over in Mörön again the next day, before heading to our second, and last, family stay, near Shine-Ider.  As we pulled up to the family ger, the driver motioned towards the stables, and asked if I wanted to sleep outside there, before breaking into laughter.  It was another moment to bring home how comfortable everyone was together – not just us, the tourists, but the guide and drivers as well.  We all meshed together as a group nicely.

Once at the family ger, and unpacked, We played a little with the kids, and again headed up the hill behind the family ger – this one was much larger than the others, and we made it to the first crest, about half way, before deciding to call it.  We sat and took in the view, before heading down for dinner.  If I had known that this would be one of my last “hiking” excursion, I may have decided to press on to the top.  Unfortunately, hindsight is 20/20.

Volcanic crater

The following day we arrived at White Lake (Khorgo Nuul), and Jason and I decided to jump into the lake.  Or rather, slowly ease ourselves into the lake – it wasn’t particularly warm at first.  But it was much like lakes at home – once you’re in, the water starts to feel a little warmer.  This was another two day stop, so our drivers and guide took us to another extinct volcano, which helpfully had a few concrete steps leading to the top!  We could again walk around the rim, so a group of us set off, joking around as we came to “cliffs”, taking turns having photos taken of our feet dangling over the edge.  At one point we lost the trail, and split up into different groups as we all tried to find the easiest (for us) way back.  We all made it back at roughly the same time, and hiked back down to the waiting drivers.

I spent a bit of time on rocky ledges this trip

On our way back to camp, we stopped off at a small shop for water, and a few of us got out of the vans and decided to walk.  Our guide told us to just follow the road and we’d arrive at the camp in about a half hour.  We slowly made our way back, stopping off to climb Turtle Rock.  It was a warm day, and clouds were building in the sky.  Dark, ominous clouds.  So we picked up our pace as we started back to camp, expecting rain to fall shortly.  Thankfully, the clouds moved off, and we got to watch the storm on the opposite shore while we sat out on the beach, enjoying the sun.

Storm on the opposite shore of White Lake
These are some bumpy roads

Back on the road, we had found our groove.  We shared snacks (deciding that the driver’s needed bowls so we could put our food offerings to them there, instead of on the console) and bounced around as drove down the dirt tracks.  If they were muddy, we could encourage the drivers to fishtail, resulting in more fun than I wish to admit.  When we were on paved roads, it was easy to fall asleep, but the bumpy dirt tracks can make it hard to do much of anything, other than chat with the others.  There was once when the roads were bumpy enough that one of the taller members knocked their head against the light on the roof.

 

Museum in Tsertserleg

On our way towards the Tsenher hot springs, which I think we were all looking forward to, we swung through Tsertserleg, for lunch, a stop at a museum, and some free time. The museum featured Mongolian history – a tradition ger, a stuffed horse (whose seams were coming apart), and various parts of daily life on the steppes – cooking pots, utensils, Buddhist shrines, and horse saddles.  Upstairs was a collection of musical instruments, clothing and hunting weapons.  Another building contained various games that children would have played, as well as history of the ruling parties of Mongolia, including the Communists under Soviet rule, and a brief history of the sole Mongolian astronaut.  There was also a section devoted to nadaam festivals. ,

After the museum, the tour guide took some people to the local market, while I headed to Fairfields for some coffee and baked goods.  Slowly everyone else dropped in after their visit to the market, and we all walked back to the meeting place for the journey to our ger camp for the next two nights, which was located near some hot springs.  The ger camps near the springs pump the water in their mini-pools – closer to a rather large hot tub than a pool.  Our ger camp had two side by side – one with warm-ish water and one with hot water.  A soak here was a wonderful way to end a bumpy day.

Our horses await!

Our second morning here saw our tour group split up as we all decided to do something different.  Some took a walk through the nearby forest towards the source of the hot springs, some signed up to get a massage at a nearby ger camp, and 4 of us got on horses. I took riding lessons as a kid in Canada, and I went horseback riding in Iceland, so I felt somewhat confident….until we had to sign a waver.

Sitting pretty during a break

Mongolian horses are semi-wild, but the ones we were on felt tame.  The guide picked up the leads of two of the horses, and myself and another guy were on our own.  We headed off at a sedate pace, past the ger camps and family gers, to an open meadow, where we picked up our pace to a trot.  (Unlike in Canada, to get a Mongolian horse to go, you say “chooo”.)  We eventually got to canter and gallop, as we went around and over a hill, and then back towards the camp.  We had all managed to stay on, and by half way through the four of us were all going solo.  My horse and I had one minor disagreement – it felt that it might just be more stubborn than me.  Alas, the horse had never been told “Don’t argue with a Barrett girl” and we quickly came to the agreement that when I said “turn around and go go go” we turn around and go go go.  A quick gallop back across the field, a turn that would make barrel-racers jealous and a race back to camp were definitely highlights of this ride.

Erdene Zuu Monastery
Erdene Zuu Monastery

By this point we were getting towards the end of the tour.  Things were still going well – everyone got along great, we were still having fun, but we were getting tired of being on the road.  So when we packed up and headed out, I think we were all glad that this would be the last stop before going back to UB.   On our way to the ger camp in Bayan Gobi, we first stopped by the Erdene Zuu Monastery, near the site of the ancient Mongolian capital Karakorm.  This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and seeing as I have a dream of visiting as many World Heritage Sites as my age….well, I was in heaven.  Plus – old stuff!  Fun!
We were given a tour of a few of the buildings, and then given time to walk around by ourselves.  Erdene Zuu Monastery was built in the late 1500s, and stones from the former capital were used in its construction.  We were taken into a long, low building, that had been seperated into small rooms – these are prayer rooms, where monks would sequester themselves to pray.  There’s also another building dedicated to the Dalai Lama, and several temples.  A ger is set up, where you can have a Buddhist monk pray for you; and near the enterance is a small gift shop, coffee shop and western toilets.

Prayer flags at the monastery
Stone turtle

I headed out to the gates to see the turtle, one of two that are the only remaining structures from the ancient capital.  It’s a short walk along a dusty road (follow the road and you can’t miss it) about 200 yards from the walls surrounding the monastery.  Set up near the turtle and several tables where people are selling various souviners, mostly Buddhism inspired, but also jewellery, statues and trickets that were Chinese in style.  The turtle itself is somewhat anti-climatic, but still worth the short walk.

This is one heavy bird

Walking back out to the van, I saw hunting birds, eagles and falcons that had been brought in by some eagle hunters, for tourists to pose with.  At only 3000MNT, or a little less than $2CDN, I decided to pose with an Golden Eagle, otherwise known as a Steppe Eagle.  They wanted to give me a little falcon, but I was having none of that.  I wanted to hold the bird that was bigger than me.  Weighed more than me, too, for that matter.  That was one heavy bird!

After our visit to the World Heritage Site, we stopped by a camel herder’s ger to take an hour long ride.  We were each helped onto our camels, and given the lead to another camel, forming a train that snaked over the land and towards a small sand dune not too distant.  Much laughter ensued as we adjusted to their unique gait. At the sand dunes we were lined up, and the camel guide gathered all of our cameras to take photos.  And wouldn’t you know it, during the photos with my camera, my camel decides it’s time to sit.   After posing for the photos, we were led back to our waiting vans, and then it was off to our ger camp.

Camel rides (and sits)

At camp later that evening, a few of us sat out enjoying the sunset.  Having heard the news about Robin Williams’ death just the day before, we stood, Dead Poet’s Society, on a picnic table.  The sky is absolutely amazing in Mongolia – it seems to go on forever, with nothing to block it’s view.

Monastery ruins

The next day Jason and I went horseback riding again, more confident this time than last.  It was just us, our guide and a horse guide, who spoke quite good English.  After a brief visit with the family, we hopped on the horses and were off, first at a walk, but quickly switching into a faster pace.  I should note that these horses were a bit more “wild” than our first set – most people choose to ride camels here, rather than horses. The time flew by, our hour was shortly up, and we walked back to the camp to join the others for a visit to another monastery, this one having been destroyed by the Soviets.  It has since been rebuilt, but the ruins remain.  The new monastery is building onto the cliff, so we gingerly walked up the steep, winding path, and then back down to the ruins.

New monastery on the cliff

The next day we woke up incredibly early to head back to UB.  Our drivers had told us we should leave at 6, but we (I) argued for 6:20.  My tip to you:  leave at 6.  We got stuck in traffic in UB, and since drivers in UB think that the lines on the road are suggestions, it makes for some interesting moments…and a nearly lost right arm, in my case.  That night we had our farewell dinner, treating our guide and drivers to dinner, and then drinks at the Blue Sky hotel, which has a lounge on the 23rd floor with amazing views of the city.

Last three standing!

TL:DR version
The Intrepid Wild Mongolia Tour includes
– hot water, flushing toilets, except for the 2 homestays
– the two homestays are close together, at the beginning of the tour
– gifts for homestay families that went over great were toys (balls), food (tea, onions, potatoes), toothbrushes/toothpaste, stickers, crayons, notepads
– waivers to sign if you want to ride horses
– lots of food.  Lots and lots of food.
– but it’s almost all mutton
– lots of monastery visits
– a guide who speaks excellent English and crazy drivers

Mongolia is good to visit because
– wide open vistas, with little to no signs of human habitation
– friendly, welcoming people
– things to climb
– horses and camels
– gers

Mongolia may not be good to visit if
– you are vegetarian.  UB has vegan/vegetarian options, outside the city even ‘Vegetable soup” includes meat.  Rice, potatoes, carrots, eggs, cucumbers, and bread were plentiful though.
– gluten-free?  Definitely bring rice cakes to supplement the meals.  While most things were GF (hard to go wrong when it’s all rice, carrots, potatoes and sheep) there were occasionally ‘thick’ sauces and wheat noodles
– you’re not so big on mutton
– you’re not too big on nature,
– you don’t like bumpy roads and long car rides

Summer Vacation Part 1: Beijing

Earlier this year I had decided that my trip this summer would be to Mongolia.  The majority of the flights (that is, the cheapest) had me connecting to a flight to Ulaan Baatar (UB) in Beijing; this of course led to one my famous “Let’s make this bigger!  Turn it up to 11!” moments.  I decided to do a multi-city flight – Ottawa to Beijing, and then UB to Ottawa for the return flight.  I would arrive in Beijing in the afternoon of July 31, and leave in the morning of August 5, taking the Trans-Mongolian Train to UB from Beijing.  This would give me a few days to take in the sites in and around Beijing, and give me time to get over any jet-lag I might have.  (For future reference:  So far, I have not experience jet lag.  Even with the 12-hour time difference between Ottawa and Beijing.)  This time, I was travelling with a friend from university.

Our flight to Beijing was uneventful.  We flew from Ottawa to Detroit, where we had a short layover, and then onto Beijing – a 13-hour flight that passed quickly.  Upon arrival in Beijing, we found a taxi (that we probably overpaid for.  So, note for next vacation:  contact hostel/hotel/B&B and ask how much a taxi from the airport to their front door should cost).

A hutong street scene
We were staying at a hostel located in the Dongcheng district, down a very narrow hutong street.  There were times where we thought the taxi would get stuck, but no – he made it all the way to the hostel.  (Our tour guide would have us meet him outside the hutong, as the roads are actually that narrow).  Our hostel was clean and comfortable, and the staff were friendly, but we were mislead on one feature – the reason that we booked the hostel we did, was because they advertised that breakfast was included in the price.  Upon arrival, we found out that breakfast was NOT included.  (We were not the only travellers who noticed this, so it wasn’t a problem of simply reading the advert wrong).  Breakfast wasn’t that much – 15 to 25 yuan, but I did end up wondering if there would be any more surprises in store.
My travelling companion had wanted to book a tour guide for two of the days we would be in Beijing, so upon recommendation from a coworker of his, we had booked the services of Beijing Mike – he would pick us up in the mornings, and drive us to various sites, as well as act as guide and interpreter.  After a few emails back and forth, we settled on
                Day 1 –  Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, tea house, rickshaw tour of hutong
                Day 2 – Great Wall (Mutianyu Section), and the  Summer Palace, driving by the Olympic buildings. 
Both days included lunch, and water, as well as all entry fees.

From Tiananmen Square looking towards Forbidden City
Our first full day, Mike met us at the front door of the hostel, and led us out of the hutong to his car.  (The next day we met him outside the hutong, in order to leave early for the Great Wall).  We headed the short distance to Tiananmen Square, where Mike walked us through and explained the buildings, and the architecture (there’s a lot of Feng Shui involved).  

For those planning to see Mao (having previously seen Lenin and Stalin in Moscow, I wasn’t too interested in seeing Mao), Mike advised us to arrive early.    Jason had planned on going one morning, but early is….well, early, and we were busy enough (and the one day we had nothing planned, it rained) that he ended up skipping the visit.

We walked through the Square, and were promptly pulled over for pictures with a few Chinese tourists.  This would be a feature of our stay in Beijing – children asking for our autographs, parents wanting pictures, teens wanting to practise their English. (And one time where a young boy screamed ‘HELLO’ in Mandarin in Jason’s face)


Statues in the Forbidden City
From there we walked into the Forbidden City.  It was interesting listening to the history that Mike was telling us, as he led us through the maze of buildings.  At first it’s really impressive, then it begins to lessen – all the buildings are the same style/colours/architecture….you become immune to the grandiosity of it.  Still, it was interesting seeing items that residents had used in times past.  Everything is well preserved and well presented, if a little crowded.  (To be fair, all of Beijing is crowded.)

Park surround the Temple of Heaven
We exited the Forbidden City and walked back to the car, and went to the Temple of Heaven.  If I have one piece of advice, it’s to break up the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City.  By the time we got to the Temple of Heaven I was in architecture overload.  The only way I can tell the pictures apart in my gallery is the colour of the roofs – the Forbidden City has yellow roofs, the Temple of Heaven blue. 

Still, it was nice at the Temple of Heaven – the park surrounding the buildings has far fewer people (it’s still noisy – the cicadas were near deafening) and it was cool in the shade.  The park portion is open (and free) to everyone – residents of the city gather here and visit, or exercise.  The portion with buildings is the tourist part, with an entry fee.  Every time tickets needed to be bought, Mike would point out an area where we were to meet him, and he would go and buy the tickets.  It was nice, especially on the first full day in Beijing, to not have to deal with language barriers, or trying to understand where to line up,  which wicket for was what, and if there was a tourist/national price difference.

Temple of Heaven
Mike lead us through the park to the gate, and took us through the different areas telling us about the ceremonies and rituals.  We wandered through various arches, along several buildings, and up a giant, circular dais that has nine levels of nine steps, and each dais has a multiple of nine tiles around.  When we came to the actual Temple of Heaven (which includes not a single metal nail) we even came across a bride having her photos taken.  The pace here felt less hectic than it had at the Forbidden City, but the smog and heat had gotten worse, so we didn’t last too long.

After the Temple of Heaven, we stopped by a tea house, where we were taught how to hold the cups, how to sip (no more or less than three sips to finish the cup) and which teas require which type of pot.  We got to taste five different teas, and most importantly – sit inside, where the a/c cooled us down considerably.

Rickshaw ride through a hutong
We quickly pressed on to the bicycle tour of the hutong.  This area wasn’t too far from where we were staying (we would walk back on one of our solo days in Beijing), but it was interesting to see how this hutong was different from the one we were staying in.  We had a guide (who disappeared more often than we saw him) and a “driver” – a man who did all the real work – pedalling us around the streets in the humid temperature.  I was impressed that he could manage to get us up some of the inclines – it was really hot, and I’m sure two adult passengers weigh enough to give anyone pause!

We visited one of the original homes in this particular hutong, getting a brief history lesson on who (grandparents, sons, daughters, etc.) lives in which building and why (hint: feng shui), and got to tour the family’s house – which are still in use.  We didn’t see their private homes, but rather open public areas – an artist’s studio, and a formal living room.  It was interesting to imagine how it would have been even a hundred years ago.  Members of the family were the ones to give us tours of their buildings, which gave us a greater appreciation of the history that we were walking through.

So smoggy!
But it sort of cleared
The next day we drove to the Great Wall.  There are several sections you can visit, the Badaling section is probably the most visited.  We went to the Mutianyu section, and we arrived early.  This is key – the earlier you arrive the quieter it is.  We were sharing this section with about 10 other people, for the first hour or so.  We took a chair lift up which was terrifying for me because I hate heights.  However, for those of you that aren’t – you get some great views of the mountains!  Even if you are, it’s a (relatively) quick way to get to the wall.  Mike came up with us, and explained a few historical points to us up at the top.  Then he left, back down to the parking lot, giving us a few hours to walk along the wall. 

 We wandered down to Watchtower 1, which is at the end of the tended (maintained) section of the wall.  From there, we sneaked out a window (no glass, so nothing to prevent you from doing this) to an “untended” section of the wall.  These sections are overgrown and the rocks are tumbling down.  It’s wonderful.  We walked along a path that had been worn into the dirt/stone, being careful – there are parts where the wall has eroded so much, you swing out over nothing to step on the next section of wall.    We had seen one other person sneak out ahead of us, but he was long gone by the time we came strolling through.

Untended section of the wall

Tended section of the wall
We saw  a lot of lizards, butterflies and (ugh) centipedes on this part of the wall, but didn’t manage to get many photos -they were quick to scamper/fly away….except for the centipedes but there was no way I was getting a picture of one of those.  We followed the path quite a way, wondering what else we might see, before deciding to head back to the tended section and exploring in the opposite direction.  We sneaked back through the window (which was harder, because more people had arrived by this point) and headed back down the steep stairs.  Definitely make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes – you don’t need hiking boots or trail shoes, but something with a good grip, and is comfortable is definitely key.  

We walked on, dodging the groups that had arrived while we were off exploring.  The heat was starting to get to us – we ended up stopping several times in the watchtowers to cool off in the shade.  We walked on, but decided to head back down to the parking lot (and Mike) after two and a half hours of exploring.  The crowds, the heat and the smog were really starting to annoy us.  So we headed to the “toboggan” ride.  It’s really a sled on wheels, with a break.  You slide down the mountain, a ride that lasts a few minutes.  It’s a lot of fun, and the brake allows you to slow your speed if you feel nervous.  (In fact, the brake is in a constant ‘on’ position, by pushing forward on it, you release the break.  Anytime you let go, the brake comes back on.)


Taking a break


Summer Palace
After lunch, we headed to the Summer Palace.  You should definitely arrive early in the day.  By the time we arrived, it was incredibly crowded.  We bought tickets for a boat ride across the water, and walked back to the beginning.  We walked through a covered walkway, that caught a nice breeze of the water, and watched a portion of a Chinese Opera.  Mike continued to explain the significance of various statues, trees and buildings.  But we were definitely running out of steam by this point.  In retrospect, we could have visited the Summer Palace on our own.  While it was nice to have a guide – we didn’t have to figure out where to buy tickets, where to line up, what were the most important parts to visit – it was also the kind of place perfect for wandering around and discovering.

Lama Temple
The next day we had to ourselves, so we walked the few blocks between our hostel and the Lama Temple after breakfast.  We got there early, and quickly got tickets and entered.  We were handled bundles of incense, for the smudging ceremony that was going on near the first temple.  We burned our incense and watched the people – it was clear that this was a mix between devout Buddhists, and tourists.  From there we walked through the different temples and courtyards, slowly as each building was packed with people.  If you plan to go to the Lama Temple go early, and don’t go on a weekend – not only will it be packed with tourists, but also with devout Buddhists.  I felt a little intrusive as I walked around, watching people trying to prey, having to push through throngs of tourists to do so.
Jason had rented an audio guide, which he found somewhat useful.  I preferred to just wander around on my own.  If you’re interested in the history of the Temple and in Buddhism, then the audio guide is a good investment.  If you’re like me, and just want to wander and soak it in, then it’s not as worthwhile.  He’s also much more interested in learning about the religion, and the history of the buildings, I just wanted to soak in the atmosphere!
Smudging Ceremony
 With a final visit of a museum inside one of the buildings, we headed back out to the street and started walking towards the hutong we had visited the day before.  To the north of the hutong is the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, to the south Beihai Park.  The hutong itself is situation around Shichahai Lake.  That area had plenty of restaurant and bars, many with roof top patios overlooking the Lake.  Along the way, we came across a small street market, so wandered down through there as well.   

People watching from a rooftop

We had no plan as to where to go (but we did have a map!) so we just wandered, turning right or left depending on what we saw.  We eventually ended up at a major road, and managed to find it on our map.  We were not to far from the hutong we wanted to visit – we walked one block south, cross the road (quickly!  The cars don’t stop) and walked along the water until we came to the area with shops, bars, and restaurants.

Most things seemed closed, so we continued to wander around, finally stopping off at one restaurant for lunch, before heading back towards the water.  By this time some of the bars and cafes had opened, so we sat on the roof top patio to people watch.  It was a crazy mix of people, cars, rickshaws, and bicycles.  But somehow they made it all work – it was incredibly impressive!

Confucian Temple


The next day was overcast and raining, so we started out late.  We went to the Confucian Temple, close to the Lama Temple that we had visited the day before.  Instead of being on the right of Dongsi Beidajie, you continue to head north until a small street called Guozijian Jie, and follow it for a few minutes.  The Temple is on your right.  As with the Lama Temple, we had no trouble buying tickets, and we filed in the gates in the walls.  You enter into a square, surrounded on all sides by long one-storey buildings, with a few taller, thinner buildings in the square, as well as a few trees.  We wandered around the square a bit, before the rain started again in earnest, so we headed into the buildings, which were museums, detailing the life of Confucius in one building, and the history of the religion in another.

The museums are interesting, if only for some of the comments about how popular Confucianism is in other parts of the world.  I personally found the history of Confucius himself to be the most interesting part of the Temple.

The next day we packed up our gear, checked out of the hostel, and walked to the road to catch a taxi.  Make sure you give yourself enough time!  It took a while before we managed to flag one down.  It was a quick ride to the train station, and then a bit of a hassle trying to figure out where to go – it’s the mass of people in the middle who are going through turnstiles.  You show your ticket, go through the turnstile, then through a metal detector (and send your bags through an xray machine) before going to a lobby to wait.  We were a bit “late” (we were told to be there an hour before our train left, we arrived 40 minutes before it left), so we hustled off to where the train was waiting.  It was a bit of a mad dash, but we finally got there, got on, and got ready to start the next part of our vacation – Mongolia!

TL;DR version:
– always ask your hotel/hostel how much a taxi should cost from the airport to the hotel/hostel
– don’t do Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven in one day
– The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is great, if you arrive early
– chair lifts are terrifying
– but toboggans are fun
– Lama Temple and Confucian Temple can be done in one day
– give yourself lots of time to flag down a taxi if heading to the train station
– the entrance to the train station is in the middle, where the crush of people is
– you’re told to be there an hour before, there is wiggle room with that.




The Most Epic of Plans to Ever Plan

Recently, I took a ride in a biplane from the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum.  I have this thing about aircraft – I’m kind of in love with flying over things in small aircraft.  I love the adventure of it, and I’d never been in a biplane before.  It wasn’t cheap – $85 for 15 minutes, I believe, but it was an incredibly experience. 

This renewed a thought my BF had had previously:  to get his pilot’s licence.  Nothing fancy, he has no designs on flying a 747, but a private pilots license (ppl) has been an idea of his for a while.

So the other night, he says to me…the Ottawa Flying Club does introductory flights for $150.  What do you think?  (He doesn’t say a lot, does my man.)  As I said, I like flying over things in small aircraft, so I was all for doing an introductory flight.  My BF explained that he’d like to get his private pilots license, and then maybe we could take some trips to places that it is extremely expensive to visit – like say the Canadian north. 

All of this sounded great to me (really, I didn’t need the explanation, I was all for flying) so we set up our intro flights for this weekend, and started to dream.

This is maybe where things went a little….far.

The other night, while enjoying a pint, the BF starts telling me about information he’s been reading, and blogs that he has found.  It turns out that a) you can fly from Ottawa to Iceland in a Cessna (obviously making stops along the way) and b) someone flew themselves to Africa from North America. 

Which pretty much settled it for me:  Why not do that ourselves?  (I have never done things halfway, and I have always run before I could walk – ask my mother.  I went from crawling to running; I skated backwards before I could skate forwards; I’m planning a trip around the world before I have a ppl).

So after much near-drunken exclamations about how cool it would be, we have decided:  Our ten year plan is to:

* learn to fly, and acquire, our private pilots licenses.
* save up and buy an airplane – 2-seater at minimum, 4-seater a possibility
* take a year off work, then fly ourselves around the world.

It’s a long range plan:  We need to first get our licenses (the license itself is free, however the cost of renting a plane means that the average person pays $10000-15000), and then save up to buy our own plane.  And considering what we wish to do, we’d rather get a newer plane.  Not even taking into consideration that learning how to maintain the plane would also be a beneficial course of action.

Now, thankfully a cousin of mine is an aircraft mechanic at a small airport, so we can pick his brain for an idea of what kind of maintaince an airplane of that size will need in a one year time frame (considering how much it will be flown).

This is my “OH MY GOD THIS WILL BE EPIC! face

Lions and Leopards and Elephants, Oh My!

I went on a five-day safari, through Tarangire National Park, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater immediately after I climbed Kili.  Overall, the safari was a wonderful experience.  The people I was with, on the other hand, were a different matter all together.

I left Moshi at 4:30 in the morning.  The safari had actually started the day before, but of course I was just coming down off the mountain.  Daniel, from Tro-Peaks (the company I did the Kili climb with) picked me up and drove me to the campsite, Zion Campsite, just outside Tarangire National Park.  We arrived just in time for breakfast, and I got to meet my travelling companions for the next five days.

I was with 5 Italians.  If they had been dwarves they would have been: Complainer, Princess, Clubber, Insufferable and Nice.  (Yes, one of them was actually a nice person, the others not so much.)  Of course, the first day I didn’t know this.  But over the next five days, their personalities became very clear.

We set off for Tarangire right after breakfast.  After registering at the gate, the top of land cruiser was popped open, and we began our game drive.  We saw hundreds of elephants within the first half hour.  (We were also charged by an angry elephant within the first half hour.)  Most of the day was filled with different animals sightings – giraffes, zebras, gazelles, impalas, elephants, baboons, even a lion.

Around 5 we headed back to the camp, and the complaining began.  About the food, about the driver, about the campsite, about the stretch of time in the afternoon that we didn’t see any animals.  (As if they can be ordered to appear on demand)

The next day it was off to the Serengeti – a long drive that took us through a few small towns (including a stop for groceries, and to get a fuse fixed so the Italians could charge their phones using a plug in the land cruiser.), and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. 

The Serengti was indescribable. I’ll still try, but it was….one of the spots that you could easily see yourself spending the rest of your life. The light in the morning, when the sun rose was an incredible rosy colour, and at dusk when it was setting, the light seemed to hang in the air. We saw evrything – leopards in trees, more elephants, more lions, cheetahs, zebras, antelopes, a hippo pool. At times the animals were close enough that we didn’t need a zoom – we saw a coalition of cheetahs lazing under a tree on the side of the road; at another time we saw a pride of lions (including an adorable baby) resting under a tree, you guessed, on the side of the road.
At night, you could hear the hyenas as they prowled near the kitchens. Thankfully, they were the only visitors (that I know of) to our camp.

Our final morning in Serengeti we woke early to take an early morning game drive through the park. Then it was back to pack up the landcruiser, and head to the Ngorongoro Crater, after a stop at a Maasai village straddling the Serengeti the Ngorongoro conservation area.

At the NCA, we set up camp at Simba camp, the most popular camp at the top of the crater. It wasn’t hard to see why – with an elephant grazing on trees and bushes behind the mess hall, and a herd of zebras chilling on the grassy plain of the camp site, we had our fair share of wild visitors.

As in our camp in the Serengeti, we had electrical outlets in the mess halls to charge any electronics – phones, camera batteries, or tablets. Very useful for those of us who had spent more time camping with no electricity than in hotels! If only I had brought my chargers with me…

Our final moring we started the drive into the crater. One word of warning to anyone hoping to do a game drive in the crater, it’s cold. Pack several layers of fleece because you will definitely need it. One of the Italians on my trip pulled out her sleeping bag – another solution, but one that leaves you with fewer photo taking options. The Ngorongoro crater was…flat. There were a few trees, but for the most part you could see it stretching out in all directions until it was lost in the early morning haze.

I have to admit that by this point I was a little safaried out. I had seen pretty much every animal there was to see, with two notable exceptions. Servals, a small(ish) wild African cat, and a rhino. There aren’t many rhinos in Ngorongoro – there were 18 in 2001 (statistic found here), and the crater itself is 260 km sq, or 100 sq mi. However, withing a very short time of arriving, our driver suddenly changed directions, and began driving off down the road into a great expanse of green. We all wondered what was going – we had just been watching a mating dance between ostriches, and couldn’t figure out why we had so suddenly taken off. Turns out our driver had either heard news of, or had seen himself, a rhino off in the distance. And there he (she?) was – lumbering away in the distance. The closest we got was maybe 100 metres (maybe 150 – it was hard to judge the distance) but it wasn’t particularly close. With my zoom lens (35x zoom) I got a fairly decent photo.

I never did get to see a serval.

Staggering up Kilimanjaro

I booked a 7 day Kilimanjaro climb back in April. 5 and a half days up, one and a half days down.  I figured I’d need the 5 days for acclimatization – Ottawa isn’t exactly at a staggering altitude, you know.  Turns out – I was wrong.

I started the climb back on August 7 from Machame Gate (I was taking the Machame route).  It turned out that I was the only trekker – so it was just me, and 6 support crew (1 guide, 1 chef, 4 porters.  That’s a lot of people for one person to summit a mountain!)

The first leg took me from Machame Gate to Machame Gate, and from there the next day to Shira Camp, where we get our first taste of “high” altitude (i.e. over 3000 metres).  I had just spent 4 days in Addis Ababa, which sits around 2500 metres, so the first two days were easy.  Which probably explains why I was the first tourist to arrive in Shira Camp.

The day after we hit Shira Camp, we hiked to Barranco, via Lava Tower.  The side trip to Lava Tower is important for acclimatization – you hit over 4600 metres, before descending back down to just under 4000 metres at Barranco.

The next day, our fourth, saw me tackle the Barranco wall (aka the Breakfast Wall, because you do it right after breakfast).  I have to say – I loved this part.  I loved scrambling over the rocks, hugging them as I swung a leg out to land on the next “step”.

From Barranco, our goal was Karanga Camp (which in my mind will always be Kangaroo Camp).  Being the speedy trekker than I am, my guide and crew decided that we should push on for Barafu camp – the camp before the summit.

Did I mention that my guide thought I could summit a day early?

So on day 5, at 5 am, I made the push for Uhuru Peak – the highest peak in Africa.  After what seemed an interminable age of zig-zags up the cliff face, we finally (and I mean finally – there were six or seven false summits!) came up to….Stella Point.  The second highest point in Africa.  Another hour of staggering found me at Uhuru Peak.  Where I promptly fell against the sign while my guide too my photo.  5895 metres is nothing to sneeze at.

We quickly descended, and I found a mild-to-moderate case of altitude sickness come on.  No headache, which is normal for me in high altitudes, but nausea.  And back at Barafu, where I gratefully fell upon my sleeping bag for a quick nap, I actually vomited upon waking.  Classy as always.

We pushed on from Barafu that day, to Millennium Camp – a new campsite that was installed in 2000 as a relief measure for all the people wanting to celebrate the New Years on Kilimanjaro, but who couldn’t take the altitude.  Needless to say, I was in my sleeping bag early, exhausting after the 7 hour hike to the summit, and 3 hours descent.

The next morning we pushed on down to Mweka Gate – a leisurely 4 and a half hour hike down slippery, rocky paths.  I seriously started to consider that they should award certificates for getting down the path safely, rather than for making the summit!

Oh, and the certificate for making the summit?  I have one of those!