Roadtripping Iceland

A few years ago, Husband and I went to Iceland for the Eve FanFest. We spent a few days in Akureyri, before going back to Reykjavik for the Fest itself.

And of course, we had a blast because Iceland is that amazing. We also decided that we wanted to go back and see a different part of Iceland – so this summer, we headed back to Iceland, to do a road trip of the Westfjords.

We had a total of 10 days to spend in Iceland, so the plan was to spend 2 nights in Borgarnes (exploring the Snæfellsness peninsula), then to Laugabol Horsefarm by Arnarfjorður for 2 nights, then up to Flateyri for 3, then to Djupavik for a night, before heading into North Iceland and staying near Borðeyri (actually, across the fjord, at the HI Sæberg hostel). Our actually plan only deviated a little bit – we cut our time in Flateyri to 2 nights, and added a night at the Sæberg hostel.

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We had rented a car with Budget (through I Heart Reykjavik) –  we picked the car up at the airport and returned it in Reykjavik. We took photos of any damage already done to the car, and went over it with a rep to confirm the scratches, dings and dents. We did get a hard sell on ‘sand and ash’ insurance (which the agents at Budget assured us was nearly required if we were going along the south shore) but ultimately the numbers for the liability didn’t make sense (nearly quadruple the cost of the car) ….and we weren’t going anywhere near the south shore, so we opted out of it.

We stayed predominately at Air BnBs in the Westfjords, which meant that for several nights we’d be a considerable drive away from the nearest town…and thus the nearest restaurant, or grocery store. Our host was amazing, and included this information in our email exchange, so we were well prepared. It’s definitely a good idea to either ask your host, or take a look at a map to see how much planning you’ll need to do for food and/or drinks.

There’s no rush to get groceries in Keflavik (or in Reykjavik) if you’re going to pass through/stay in Borgarnes, as there are several grocery stores available there as well. In fact, there are smaller grocery stores located around the Westfjords, but it’s by far cheaper to buy groceries at the Bonus in Borgarnes or Isafjorður, depending on which way you’re going.

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A nice taco meal with an Einstock beer to wash it down

For alcoholic drinks – well, stock up at the airport. If you don’t (for whatever reason), you’ll need to hit a vinbuðin – their version of the LCBO + Beer Store. Each vinbuðin has differing hours of operation – generally, the smaller the town, the shorter the hours, and every one is closed on Sundays. Be sure to do some research before heading into the Westfjords.

Driving in Iceland is fairly easy – or at least we found it so. Driving in the Westfjords is easy….but terrifying. Paved roads give way to gravel through parts of the southern end, as well as through the summer roads that cut through the West. There’s a tourist map available (for free in various places, and available online) that shows which roads are paved, which are gravel, main vs secondary. Most of the gravel roads are bordered by mountain on one side and cliff face on the other, and can be slick in wet weather. While locals will drive with (reckless, some would say) abandon, we found ourselves slowing down…sometimes because our little car couldn’t make it that fast up the grade, and others because the descent seemed a bit perilous. At the beginning of our trip we worried about every ding we heard as rocks bounced off the car, but eventually became more relaxed. (And didn’t add any damage to the car!)

As you can see from the photos, we didn’t rent a very large car, and it did well enough on the roads of the Westfjords. Husband wasn’t overly fond of driving Carlita (I can’t drive standard, and the windy, one lane, mountainous roads of the Westfjords didn’t seem like the place to learn) simply because he was unfamiliar it – how it would handle on the slick dirt roads after the rain, but otherwise our little Hyundai i10 handled the roads extremely well. If in doubt, ask!

One website that proved incredibly useful was Hotpot Iceland. Not only did it indicate locations of hot pots, it also showed gas stations. It wasn’t 100% accurate, as at least one gas station that we used wasn’t given on the app (the gas station in Norðurfjorður) but used in conjunction with the map I linked to above, and by asking locals you shouldn’t have a problem. (That being said, do keep an eye on your gas tank).

We bought a sim card in the airport – we ended up getting a NOVA card, with 10 GB of data (way more than we needed). We ended up with not so good reception in the Westfjords, with the exception of areas around towns.

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s in Your Phone: Travel Apps

The advent of smartphones has made my travelling so much easier. And I don’t just mean being able to Skype people at home, or ask Trip Advisor for a restaurant recommendation while on the road, I also mean the issue of what in the world do I pack in my carry on to keep me occupied on a flight? Now I don’t have to pack one thousand and one things in my pack, I just have to download them to my phone. (I have a Samsung, so I generally save apps to my memory card, rather than to the internal memory.)

I live in Ottawa, so FlyCanada (an app from the Ottawa airport) really helps out, in that gives you the status of flights, both arrivals and departures. It’s really convenient – I can check my flight status to help me plan when to arrive (i.e. if the flight is delayed, I won’t be sitting around the airport for several hours.) Other airports may have their own app.

In the same vein, I download (and then delete to save space) airline apps when I’m flying them. WestJet and United are two airlines that I fly with often enough to keep their apps on my phone. (WestJet because it’s an economical way to fly west, and United because most of my flights south and to Africa go through Dulles airport in Washington.)

Because The Fiance and I have membership with Priority Pass (which isn’t for priority boarding, rather it gets you into airport lounges) we have their app, to help us figure out a) if an airport has a lounge, and b) where exactly that lounge is. Best thing is, you don’t have to be connected to the internet to use it – you can look up where a lounge is in a airport offline.

Another app that smooths your travels is Seat Guru (also a website, if you don’t feel like adding another app.) This one lets you figure out the good, and the bad, seats on a flight. Fill in the departure and arrival airports, flight number, and voila – it determines what airplane the airline is using for that flight, and which seats are good, so-so, and to-be-avoided-at-all-costs.

While traveling, I sometimes have a hard time converting currency. It’s easy enough if it’s a simple 10 to 1, but if it’s a weird amount (130X to $1, for example) then I pull out XE currency. Rates are up-to-date, and take the guess work out of prices.

I spend a lot of time in countries where I speak very little, to none, of the local language. So if I need something other than a beer, or the bathroom, I whip out my Google Translate app. Not only can I type something in in English and get the translation, you can now open the app, hold it up to something printed in the local language and it will translate it for you. There is a caveat – it has to be a major language – French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, although sadly Arabic doesn’t seem to be in the list.

Talking about Google, we also use the Google Drive app. We have our travel documents scanned in and saved in case of emergency, as well as copies of pre-booked hotels/activities, and frequent flier numbers.

And since I always end up somewhere that I didn’t think I’d end up (I’m big on talking with people when I travel, who then suggest a place I hadn’t known about) I also have the Trip Advisor app on my phone. Great for suggestions on restaurants, pubs, hotels, activities…

In the same vein, I have a few hotel/hostel booking apps on my phone – Hotwire.com, Hotels.com, Hostelbookers, Hostelworld. We occasionally leave a night or two unbooked for unexpected side trips. Or we book in somewhere that we don’t like….and sometimes we get a special discount if we book through the app.

I spend (probably) far too much of my travel time in NYC. So I have an NYC subway app on my phone. SO much easier to figure out the closest subway (we spend a lot of time just wandering around NYC), or what route to take to get where. A lot better than unraveling (and trying to re-ravel) a paper map.

And finally on the planning side is the Time Out app. Letting you see a list of things to do , nearby bars, and make a reservation at a restaurant, among other things, this app covers (select) cities in Europe, Africa, the US, Asia, Australia….pretty much everywhere except Canada. (Boor-urns to that!)

On the fun side, I have a few other apps to help pass the time while waiting….anywhere. At the airport, on the plane, on a train, at a restaurant….

My ereader is a Kobo, so I also downloaded their app. I sometimes find it easier to navigate buying a book on my phone – say if I’m using a wifi that’s password protected, it’s a lot easier to navigate that issue with my phone than with the ereader.

Shortyz. I love crosswords, and pre-smartphone era (which for me, was up to a few years ago) I would pack a crossword book in my carry-on. That alone doesn’t take up a lot of space, but add to it a couple of books (I got a tablet in 2010, but didn’t get an ereader until just a few years ago.), a journal, a deck of cards….and bags start bulking up. So if you’re a crossword fan, Shortyz is a great app. Download a few days worth of puzzles, this app pulls in crosswords from multiple sources, from pop culture (People Magazine) to easy-to-hard (LA Times, depending on the day of the week). Along the same vein, I also have Sudoku and Solitaire downloaded.

Buttons and Scissors is a game that involves buttons of different colours that you ‘cut’ in a straight line off the board. You can’t cut past a different coloured button, and you have to cut at least 2 buttons at a time. A bit of mindless fun, it occasionally requires a bit of strategy as you try to figure out what order to cut in to clear the board. (I also have Candy Crush, but the 5 lives go by so quickly.)

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Kit Up Kili – What to Pack

One of my major problems when I was planning my trek up Kilimanjaro was what to take.  I’d search website after website after website, but it all gave specifics and no generals, and I headed into it feeling incredibly unprepared, equipment-wise.

Which leads me to this post.  What should you take up Kili?  What did I need, what didn’t I need, what should the company offer me, etc. etc. etc.  Feel free to ask questions – I’ll answer to the best of my abilities.

Under-wear
Not just underwear, but the clothes that will be the base layer for your trek.

– long johns, long sleeve shirt, preferably wicking material – a must.  One set will probably be enough
– several pairs of liner socks (3 or 4) – recommended, but not a necessity.
– underwear – I went with four pairs for 7 days.  (For women – I brought two sports bras)

I had a pair of Helly Hanson base layer pants, as well as a long sleeve top.  A base layer of something is going to be beneficial.  You want to layer to create pockets for air to become trapped, and help keep you warm.  Additionally, you’re going to get hot as you walk, and you’re going to want to take layers off.  And one last thing (because this happened to me) – if it rains, and you’re not wearing your rain gear (and it can whip up in a hot second), if you’re wearing a base layer you can at least take off your wet gear, and pull on the rain gear, and you’ll be warm again in no time.

Cold, wet, weather from Karanga to Barafu

The other thing is that the first few days you’re in lower altitudes, and you won’t be wearing your base layers.  Well, maybe at night, but you won’t need it during the day.  You’ll be wearing these the closer you get to summit – I was on the Machame Route, and I think I started wearing them leaving Barranco camp.

I loved my liner socks.  I wear them whenever I climb anything – i.e. the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks – and they help prevent blisters, keep my feet warm in cold temperatures, and keep my warm, thick socks fresh for a) sleeping in and b) climbing in the next day.  (Plus, they dry quicker)  Any wicking material, or cotton, sock should do fine.  Your rule of thumb should be:  do they hurt my feet when I walk for 12 hours in them?  If no – good to go.

Over The Under-Wear

Lower altitudes:
– zipper pants (unzip for shorts)
-yoga pants
– t-shirts
– light-weight fleece sweater
– long sleeved shirt (zip up)
– running shoes (didn’t need in the end)

Upper altitudes:
– Fleece pants
-heavy fleece sweater (of some kind)
– wool hiking socks
– stretchy gloves

So I brought a pair of fleece pants that I bought at MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) on sale.  I think they were the MEC brand – so nothing fancy.  But my, were they great the higher we got.  I slept in them, half the time.  They were warm, fuzzy, and kept my legs toasty.  I can’t remember what sweater I brought with me (I have a ton – I’m Canadian.  Sweaters are a dime a dozen) but it was warm, it was fleece, and most of the time it was my pillow.

For the lower altitudes, honestly – I bought two pairs of zipper pants from Walmart.  I have no idea what they’re really called, but they have a zipper half-way up so if it’s cold, you attach the lower legs and you have pants, and when it’s warm you unzip them.   That’s what I brought for Kili and for my safari.  I wore them for at least 4 days out of the 7. My yoga pants are from Joe Fresh (the Loblaws brand of clothing – nothing fancy, and about $20 a pair, very cheap) but they’re long (full pants, not capris), and they were great to sleep in, and climb in after we left the rainforst, and started in on the heather and moorlands.

Starting out in shorts and a tshirt

I also got three wicking t-shirts, from Walmart.  Don’t spend a bazillion dollars on wicking tshirts.  I got mine at Walmart for about $12 and they worked fantastically.  I think I took three up Kili – maybe only 2.  (Remember, everyone smells, no one has showered, no one can tell).  I also brought a light-weight fleece top – I got it on sale from Sports Experts, again nothing fancy, no brand name.  I wore the light weight one a lot at lower altitudes – at night, and in the morning.  During the day, I would tie it to my daypack to air it out/dry it.

For the socks – I bought wool hiking socks, but I think you could use any heavy duty sock, especially if you have liners to protect your feet. I brought a pair of running shoes, (just a pair of cheap Payless sneakers, really), to wear in camp at night, to give my feet a rest from the hiking boots.  I didn’t really wear them – I think I put them on once, and that was it.  I was fine in the hiking boots. 

I bought a pair of $3 stretchy “magic” gloves – you know the ones that look so small that they couldn’t possibly fit on your hands, but they do?  They were great for the mornings (and nights) were it was a little brisk, and you wanted something on your hands.

High Altitude Outer Gear
– I rented a down jacket from my trekking company (Tro-Peaks – excellent company.  I recommend them)
– Heavy-duty corduroy hiking pants from MEC.  (didn’t need in the end)
– Toque (wool cap that you wear in winter, over your ears, to keep your head warm)
– waterproof mitts

I probably didn’t need the jacket, and definitely didn’t need the pants, but the toque was welcome most days, especially when the wind got blowing.  I also wore it at night to keep my head warm!

I usually feel the cold (that should be:  I always feel the cold) but even then – I only wore the down jacket for about a half hour, as I started towards the summit.  Granted, I started later than most climbers.  Most people start at midnight and make a push to the summit.  I started at 5 a.m., which could be why I didn’t need the jacket.  I would say, be safe rather than sorry – rent the jacket, for the few dollars it will set you back.

Chilly lunch at Lava Tower

Something I really wish I had had was waterproof mitts.  Or at least water repellent.  Mine just soaked up the moisture, and was I ever grumpy, wet, cold and unhappy when I got to camp.  Get something that will not only keep your hands warm, but also somewhat dry.

Low Altitude Outer Gear
– waterproof jacket
– waterproof pants
– lightweight fleece
– brimmed hat

Besides the fleece clothing that I brought, I also brought waterproof pants and jacket.  Again, I went with the standard MEC brand, however the key things you want are breathability (jacket), and waterproof.  You could be wearing the jacket for several hours, and it gets warm as you hike up the mountain (body temperature-wise)  make sure you go for a jacket that has vents, or some other feature for breathability.  Don’t go for a standard rain jacket – you’ll be uncomfortable and unhappy.  We hit rain/sleet/snow between Karanga camp and Barafu camp, and I definitely needed the waterproof jacket and pants, I was really glad to have them.  We had some rain getting to Machame camp (about 20 minutes worth) and, once we were at Shira camp it started to rain (after the tents had been set up).  This was in early August of 2012, so plan to have a little rain.

A hat with a brim (I brought one with a brim all the way around – I used it on my safari as well) is good for the lower altitudes, when you’re still in with the trees.  It shades your eyes, but still allows you to see in the sahde, unlike sunglasses.

Relaxing on som rocks, close to Machame camp

Miscellaneous

– face cloth
– camelbak
– large-ish backpack
– sleeping bag (rated 0C at least)
– fleece lining for sleeping bag
– headlamp
– waterpurification tablets (I brought Aquatabs)
– first aid kit
– headbands (to keep the hair out of my eyes)

The face cloth is more to use as a towel.  For that matter, you could even bring a towel, I’m just thinking weight.  I didn’t, and I regretted it.  You’ll be given a bowl of water to wash your hands in, and you’re going to want to dry your hands.  Or, your camelbak could spill in your tent, and you’ll want to mop it up.  This won’t be a bad choice, trust me.

Camelbak – you can certainly go for bottles, but the recommended amount of water to carry is 3L per day.  I had a 2L camelbak plus a 1L bottle (ordinary water bottle that I picked up once in Moshi).  When my camelbak was empty, I’d open up the pocket containing it and fill it with the bottle. (My backpack had a separate compartment for the camelbak, which made refilling it easy.)

Here’s the thing for the backpack:  It should be a pretty good size.  Mine, a daypack, was slightly too small.  You should be able to fit:  waterproof pants and jacket, lunchbox (cardboard), brimmed hat, camera, sunglasses, mitts + toque – basically, anything you’re going to need during the day.

The headlamp – if you need to go to the bathroom during the night (pray you don’t – they’re nasty beyond nasty), you’re going to want the headlamp to find your way around the tents pitched willy-nilly.

Liners for the sleeping bag:  I packed a silk liner, on the premise it would keep me warm.  I don’t think it did a whole lot.  The fleece liner I brought was much better.  I’d recommend a fleece liner if your sleeping bag is like mine, and not made for cold weather.  If yours is, and is rated to -15C, you could probably skip the liner.

Headbands – I have ones that are actually a long-ish tube – you can use them as a scarf (which I did at higher altitudes), as a hat (which I did, under my toque, at higher altitudes), as a headband, over your nose and mouth to protect against dust.  I mostly used them to keep my hair out of my eyes.  Definitely a good thing if you have long bangs/fringe.

three days with no shower, and wearing a headband.

The water purification tablets are a good bet.  The chef/porters boil the water, and the water on Kilimanjaro is said to be quite pure, however….better safe than sorry.  Up a mountain is not where you want to get sick, over something you could have prevented with a few small tablets.

My first aid kit contained:  allergy pills (I tend to get stuffy at the oddest times, so it’s easier to just pack them), Advil (good for helping prevent altitude sickness, and also headaches), bandaids (varying sizes), second skin (moist pads to put over blisters), diamox (I didn’t need it, but it’s better to have it and not need it, than not have it and need it!), spare laces for my boots, chap stick.

Sunhat vs sunglasses:  I found it easier to see with my sunhat on, over the sunglasses, especially at the lower altitudes.  Sometimes, it was in and out shady, and I found it took too long for my eyes to adjust.  Sunglasses are good at higher altitudes, definitely – especially as the vegetation thins out.  On that subject:  bring something to fix your sunglasses if they break – medical tape, masking tape, something.  Mine did, and thankfully my guide had medical tape that he used to tape them back up!

a little tape, and good as new!

Packing

Here’s what I brought, what I wouldn’t take again I’ll strike through, things that I wish I had I’ll highlight

– 1 pair of base layer pants
– 1 pair zipper pants/shorts
– 1 pair thick fleece pants
– I pair of yoga pants
1 pair “hiking” pants (heavy fabric, corduroy – didn’t need)
– 1 pair waterproof pants
gaiters (didn’t wear them in the end)

– 1 base layer long sleeved shirt
– 2 wicking tops, short sleeve (maybe 3)
– 1 heavy-fleece sweater
– 1 light-fleece sweater
1 light-weight long sleeved shirt
– 1 water proof jacket
1 down jacket (rented)

-3 pairs liner socks
– 2 pairs wool hiking socks
1 pair of running shoes (not needed)
– 2 pair of mitts – 1 stretchy pair, 1 heaver pair (Thinsulate brand) – waterproof receommended
– two headbands 
– 1 toque
– 1 sunhat
– 1 pair of sunglasses

– 1 fleece lining
1 silk lining
– 1 sleeping bag

– 1 pair of hiking poles (rented)
– 1 sleeping mat (rented, I think)

– water purification tablets
– small first aid kit
gatorade powder (in case you get tired of drinking water all the time.  I drink a lot of water anyway, so I was ok with just that, but some people like to mix it up)
– energy chews (I brought Honey Stingers)
– energy bars (I brought Clif bars)
trail mix (ok, I brought too much food and didn’t eat half of it)
facecloth/towel

Company Should Provide

The company should provide your tent, a tent for the porters, guide, and chef, all cooking and eating utensils, the food, water (after the first day, when you should have a full 3L on starting out), and a larger first aid kit.  I think most companies give the choice of renting sleeping bags, down jackets, sleeping mats, and hiking poles.

How to Plan Your Trip

I went to a talk today that was supposed to be on backpacking, and travelling without breaking the bank.

It was horrible.

The lecturer talked of hitchhiking, sleeping out in the open, carrying thousands of dollars on you so you don’t waste money using a bank machine in another country, and buying separate plane tickets to get the best deals. He spoke of getting accosted on public transport, and how he carries peppery spray as a deterrent while travelling. He told us not to get caught in tourist traps (good advice, yes) but lectured us that it was never, ever, ever to be done. He gave an example of a couple who paid to go up in a hot-air balloon in Turkey, while he got up early while they were being filled and took photographs, for free.

Never mind that sometimes a person wants to do, or see, a tourist trap – the Eiffel Tower is a tourist trap, but will you not visit it while in Paris? My safari was a tourist trap, but I am forever grateful that I spent that $900.

Never mind that it should be up to traveller to decide – if you are aware that it is a tourist trap, but are willing to pay the money to experience it, if it is on your bucket list, by all means pay the money and go! Do! See!

One thing this man missed in Turkey was the experience of floating, in an open air basket, in the quiet, still morning air as it floated over a foreign country. Taking pictures of the hot-air balloons on the ground is fine, but that I can do at home. Flying over Turkey in a hot-air balloon will look nothing like flying over Ottawa in a hot-air balloon.

Suffice to say, I was not pleased with the lecture. Besides being encouraged to participate in some rather risky behaviour – hitchhiking? Really? – he gave us no information. He talked of his trips, of planning where he was going next, but gave no information on what websites were helpful, what resources he uses to research his trips, how to apply for visas, or anything. It was, in a word, useless. (Also, scary.)

So here’s my list. Here’s what resources I use, what websites I visit, and how to find out if you need a visa.

PLANNING

Once you know you want to go somewhere, you have to decide where. I usually end up walking by travel agencies, to see what places are advertised that week, or by hitting the Air Canada website to look up various destinations.

Travel Cuts
You’ve got your location, now you need a ticket. Travel Cuts has, by far, the best deals I’ve found. I haven’t found them cheaper anywhere else – not Expedia, not Kayak, not Travelocity. That isn’t to say that you can’t find cheap flights on these webistes, and I still recommend you do some price checking, but Travel Cuts is where I always end up buying my ticket. Sometimes the routing leaves a little to be desired – when I went to Costa Rica my itinerary was Ottawa – Newark – Houston – Liberia, Costa Rica, and on the way home it was Liberia –Houston – Chicago – Ottawa, but it was all on one ticket (if I had missed a flight, the carrier was responsible for getting me on another one, rather than me having to pay for a new ticket), and I had enough time between flights that I wasn’t rushed to get on the next one.

Lonely Planet
They don’t always have the best guide books (I’ve been told that Bradt travel guides are the best for Africa, Moon travel guides are the best for Central America) but their traveller forum, The Thorn Tree, is a wonderful resource for planning. Used by other travellers and locals, you can search previous posts matching your inquiry, or post a new one, to find current information, recommendations, and advisors.

Hostels.com, Hostel World, Hotels.com
So you’ve bought the ticket, you’re researching what to do, now you need a place to stay. All these sites provide an easy, hassle-free way to book rooms. The first two are, of course, cheaper than the third. However, cheaper does not necessarily mean cockroach filled! It also does not automatically mean you will be sharing a dorm room with 15 other people. It is possible to book private (some with an ensuite, some with shared bath), double, or triple rooms, at a hostel, at a fraction of the cost of a hotel. Check it out, look at the pictures, and read the reviews.

Trip Advisor
This site is a great resource for double checking the reviews from the links above. Just type in the name of the hotel (or company) and you can read other reviews – you can see how many excellent, good, average, poor or terrible reviews a place has, to help you decide where to stay in an unfamiliar city.

Google Maps and Google Images
You can check out how far (or how close!) to an attraction hotels are by using Google Maps. It also allows you to check out the neighbourhood of the hotel. Google Images allows you to see photos of not only different hotels (just type in the name and off you go) but also of sites – how easy is it to get around? Is there anything there actually worth seeing?

Hotwire
If it doesn’t matter where, exactly, you end up staying, this site is great at offering great deals on hotels. The only catch is, you don’t know where your staying until you book. The site will give you a general location (say….within 2 or 3 miles of the location you picked), the number of stars the hotel has, and what big-name chains fall in that category, but it won’t tell you the address or name of the hotel until after you’ve booked. If your location is very important (i.e. you’re attending a conference, and need to be close to the conference centre) this might not be the best site.

Currency Exhange
Once you’ve started looking at what to do at your destination, you may find prices quoted in the local price. This is a fantastic currency converting website, and really easy to use.

I usually bring enough money to get me through the first few days. I put all my hotels/hostels on my visa, and use atms to withdraw more money in the local currency. The exception to this is when I went to East Africa. Occasionally, I was in places where there were no atms, and so I had to carry more currency with me than normal. But for most destinations, I carry about $500 with me. (This number could go up if you’re travelling as a family.)

TRAVEL DOCUMENTS

Passports
If you’re Canadian, and need a passport, Passport Canada is where you need to go. Their website covers everything from how to renew a passport, how to apply, what to do it your passport is lost or stolen.

One thing to keep in mind, is that some countries require that your passport be valid 3 to 6 months after your departure. The link for travel advisories below also includes that information.

Visas
How do you know if you need a visa? If you’re Canadian, I can help you with that. Or rather, the government can.
Travel.gc.ca is a government website full of information, on which countries require a visa, what travel advisors are in place (both topics available here http://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories) to health precautions in different areas. I (personally) take the warnings with a grain of salt – I take note of where, exactly, the warning is for, and how close it is to my chosen destination, and decide how comfortable I feel.

Google
By now we all probably know that google is the go-to when you need information. Sometimes you need to apply for a visa in person, sometimes you can apply online. Type in “Canadian Visa application for ….” with your destination, and you’ll find lots of info on what to do next.

HEALTH

For information on what vaccines you may need before you leave, check out the Public Health Agency They’ll tell you what you definitely need, and what is only recommended. Occasionally, if you are only going to built-up urban centres, you don’t need a lot of vaccines beyond a regular booster. However, if you intend to travel outside these areas (into jungles, deserts, forests, etc.) you may need a vaccine. For some, such as yellow fever, some countries require proof that you’ve been vaccinated, a small yellow certificate.

Ultimately, you definitely want to talk with a doctor to find out what vaccines are the best for you. These websites are merely guides and should not replace a doctor’s supervision.

Tips on Travel:

1. You should get your vaccines early – 6 weeks prior to your trip is the typical timeframe for vaccination, at a minimum.

2. Know yourself. If you like to be prepared, book things before you leave. If you like to wing it, leave it open. No one way is best. I like to have at least the first night booked when I’m going to a foreign country. It gives me time to get my legs under me (to borrow some hockey lingo) and allows me time to adapt and find my way around.

3. Take all reviews with a grain of salt. Do some other research – did this person book into a hostel, expecting a five-star resort? Read some of their other reviews to get an idea of who they are, and how they travel. And again, something that bothers them may not bother you.

4. Don’t pack your money in your checked luggage. Keep it with you at all times, but not all in the same place. I usually put my passport and a large portion of my money in a money belt, and put enough money for that day in my wallet. That way, if I get pickpocketed, they only get what I would have spent that day, not everything.

I hope this helps you plan your trips, and makes for some smooth(er) travelling.

Budgeting Your Trip

I thought I would detail out what everything is costing me for my trip to Tanzania/Rwanda, for those of you interested in how I did it (because, no, I’m not rich.)

Here’s the breakdown for my trip (all prices in Canadian dollars, unless otherwise noted):

Flight – $1780
Kilimanjaro climb (7 days) – $1400 USD (includes food, lodging)
Safari (5 days, camping) – $900 USD (includes food, lodging)
Flight from Kilimanjaro airport to Kigali, Rwanda – $282
Gorilla trek in Rwanda – $500 USD
Golden moneky trek in Rwanda – $100USD
Flight from Kigali to Dar Es Salaam – $332
Flight from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar – $80

1.  Search for flights
I searched and searched and searched (and then continued searching) for a cheap(er) flight to either Dar Es Salaam, Nairobi, or Kilimanjaro airport.  That’s the first thing to keeping your budget low – if you can, try a variety of options for the airport you’re flying into.  I’m lucky (cursed?) in that I can also search two different airports to leave from – Ottawa (my home city) or Montreal (two hours away, and with a bus that goes from Ottawa to the airport.)

And don’t just try different airports – try different dates.  I plugged in various dates (both for the start of my trip, and the end) to see what price came up.  I found that if I left on July 30, I would pay close to $2500 (which is fairly standard for flying to East Africa in the high season).  However, if I left on July 31…..the price was closer to $1700.

The other thing here is to use different websites.  Try airline websites, Travel Cuts, Expedia, Kayak…try them all.  You never know who will have what price.  (Although, I find that Travel Cuts has the best deals.)

2. Watch out for hidden prices
I once booked a really cheap flight from Burssels to Barcelona.  The catch?  I couldn’t check any baggage.  That was frine for me – I was only going for a weekend, so I didn’t have any baggage to check. 

The point, though, remains.  If it looks like an unbelieveable deal – read the fine print.  It might not be, it might be a really really good deal and you should go for it, but make sure you know what you’re getting.  If it’s a flight – is there a meal?  An overnight layover?  How many bags can you check? If it’s a hotel – are you getting a room in the back with no view?  Shared bathroom?  Is it the price of a triple room, so a third of what you will pay if you’re all alone? 

3. Some things are worth the cost
The Gorilla Trek in Rwanda is expensive.  $500 for the permit, a guide, and an armed guard (just in case.)  And you only get about an hour to watch the gorillas, before you have to trek back out.  If you’re trying do a budget trip, you may be tempted to skip the experience.  But somethings are worth the cost, if it’s a once in a lifetime experience, and you think you may kick yourself for not doing it – then pay the cost and enjoy.

The same thing goes for Kilimanjaro.  I didn’t get the “best” price, but I did get one that I could live with.  The company that I chose costs more, but they pay their staff (the porters, the guides, the chefs) a decent wage.  This is something I feel very strongly about – I make a decent wage, why shouldn’t others?  I’m willing to pay more to ensure that the people who will be in charge of my safety (and life!) are paid a decent amount to do so.

4.  You won’t save everywhere
My flights are expensive, but flying is expensive.  My time is more valuable during this trip, so I chose to fly instead of spend a day or two on buses.  Recognizing that not everything is going to be cheap helps you pay for those expensive things.  I know that my accomodations are budget, so it balances things out for me.

5.  Hostels aren’t slums.
Seriously.  And not only that, you don’t necessarily have to stay in a dorm room.  Most hostels have private rooms (with or without ensuit bathrooms, so you don’t necessarily have to share that either!).  What’s the difference if you have a private room with an ensuit between a hotel and a hostel?  Not a lot, really.  It’s easier to meet people, and there’s a kitchen.  Which, by the way, is also a great way to save – making your own meals is cheaper than eating out.  You can book and review hostels are several sites – I use Hostel World and Hostels.com.  You can also see reviews of sites on Trip Advisor.  Being able to vet the hostel first is a great way to ensure that you’re staying in a reputable establishment.