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.)

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Intrepid Travel: Okavango Experience

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

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

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

Timing:

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

Transport

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

Tents

 

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

Campgrounds

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Food

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

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Washing up just after breakfast

Souvenirs

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

Wifi

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

 

 

 

Whale-watching in Iceland: A Day Tour of Husavik

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

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

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The back fin of a blue whale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museums in and Around: Reykjavik Redux

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

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

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

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

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

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Follow the red rocks to find the Red Rock Cinema

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

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

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

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

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Exhibits in the phallological museum

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

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

Southern Africa: A Traveller’s Guide

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

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

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

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This was supposed to be enough water for 11 people.

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

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

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Neutral clothing like this is ideal for safari walks

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

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

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

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

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

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I…..got a little sunburned.

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

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

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

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This solar panel ended up being less useful than expected

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

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