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. 

IMG_0996

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!

Advertisements

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.

20151226_130644

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.)

IMG_3080

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.

20151229_021437

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.

DSCN5002

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.  

DSCN5022

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!

IMG_0027

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)

IMG_0158

Red Lechwe that we saw while heading back to town

 

20151231_085537

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.

IMG_0269

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.

20160103_112749

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.

20160104_061807

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.

IMG_0276

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.

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!

Climbing Kilimanjaro (part 1)

I’m off in less than a hour to climb Kilimanjaro – the highest mountain in Africa.  Sitting at over 5800 metres (5895 metres to be exact), Kilimanjaro towers overs the plains below.

I’m sitting in a hotel in Moshi, a small town near the base of Kilimanjaro, waiting for my trek company, Tro-Peaks to pick me up.  I spent last night re-packing bags – putting everything I would need for Kili (fleece sweaters and pants, sneakers for the campsites, wool socks, mitts and a toque, base layers and gaiters) into a bag that porters will carry for me.  In another, smaller, day-pack, I’ve got my day-to-day items – camera, bandaids, binoculars and water that I’ll carry.  I think I’m ready.

I think I’m ready.

The company told me to take it one day at a time – don’t try to climb the peak before you get there.  Just look to what you’re doing now, go slowly, stay hydrated, rest and eat.  Those are the keys to reaching the summit. 

I’ve got four days of hiking upwards before I try to tackle the summit, leaving the last camp at midnight, to see the sunrise over the peak on the fifth day.  After that, it’s all downhill, as we push ourselves to be back in Moshi by the seventh day.  (But as they say, downhill is always so much easier.)

I’ve prepared by hiking in the Adirondacks with a friend, and by walking as much as possible.  Here’s hoping it’s been enough!

See you in a week, after I’ve conquered the snows of Kilimanjaro!

Adios Addis

Well, it’s been nearly a week since I left Canada.  It took what seemed forever to arrive in Africa – a two-hour delay for my flight to Washington, an overnight layover in Dulles airport (that makes 4 airports that I’ve slept in) and then a nearly 14 hour flight to Addis, getting in around 8 am on August 2.

Addis takes some adjustment.  It’s much like the wild west – loud, unruly, dirty and makeshift.  It seems that slums will pop up wherever there is room for a tin roof.  Exhaust fumes fill the air as cars zip in and out of intersections, following some logic and right-of-way that I’m not, nor do I think I ever will be, privy too.  Driving in Addis is not for the faint of heart.  (Add no seat belts, traffic lights or stop signs to this system, and it should be a recipe for disaster.)

I managed to have just about every experience of Addis that one can have – mobbed by children singing, mobbed by children begging, mobbed by children trying to touch a faranji (foreigner), sitting in a restaurant waiting for dinner when the lights go out, massive rain and hail storms, being driven at a hell-for-leather pace through the crowded streets….they only thing that didn’t happen was a mugging or pick-pocketing.  (Although a girl I met up with did have her necklace yanked off her neck.)

So here am I am now in Moshi, having a rest day in preparation of Kilimanjaro tomorrow.  I’ve met with the trek company, and I’ve packed my bags.  Here we go!

Cue the nerves in three…..two….one

That’s it – day of departure.  Time to blow this popsicle stand of a city, and catch a flight out.  I’ve got my bags pack and I’m ready to go (note to self: Play “Leaving On A Jet Plane”).

I’ve got two bags of checked luggage (Ethiopian Airlines is not on the one bag only rule, thank goodness) and I’m probably straining the credibility of carry-on (I’ve got one carry on bag.  I’ve also got a purse and a camera, which are supposed to be allowed on top of the carry-on bag.)

The current plan is to mail home the remnants of clothing from my Kili climb – the fleeces (minus one fleece top, which will be my sweater for the cooler days and nights on the rest of my trip), the gaiters, the heavier weight socks, and the wicking base-layers.  And since the Kili climb is at the beginning, all the energy bars and snacks (trail mix, energy chews, granola bars) will be mostly gone as well, freeing up even more space.  I’m hoping to be down to one bag by the time I fly to Rwanda.

I’ll update when I can.  I hear internet can be spotty at best in some of the places I’m hitting.

A.