Friday, December 31, 2010

Celebrating the New Year (and five months on the road) in Laos

2011 greetings from Vientiane!

First, a brief update on our RTW itinerary: We're here until 02JAN, then in central and southern Vietnam until 14JAN. We're going to spend a week in Cambodia focusing on the temples at Angkor Wat, then a month in Thailand. It's time to slow down and relax more and I think Thailand will be the perfect place. Afterward, we'll spend a few weeks minimum in India; longer if Greg doesn't hate it! :) Then on to Europe...

2010 represents the year I finally started living my dream. True, those of you who know me well also know that I’ve never been one to follow the mainstream. It has taken a lot of hard work and trial and error to get to where I am today. For me, happiness is never measured by financial or material wealth but by life experiences. Of course, I love my family and I’ve even had jobs that I loved for a time, but nothing compares to how alive I feel when I’m traveling in an unfamiliar place. In the past, many of my most memorable experiences are from times when I was alone. Sharing this trip around the world with Greg has been both challenging and rewarding. Thankfully, it’s mostly rewarding!

As I look forward into the new year and beyond, I hope for continued (reasonably) good health and for the courage to continue creating my own path in life. I have no idea what will happen when we eventually do return to the U.S., but I have to believe that everything will fall into place as it always has. I refuse to consider the alternative!

Here are a few photos of us from 2010:
loving the beer in our "new" hometown of Portland, OR
sharing good times with "old" friends in Nashville, TN
touring Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, Wyoming
feeding roos on Kangaroo Island, Australia

walking on the Great Wall in China
enjoying dinner in Istanbul, Turkey with my mom and stepdad

riding camels at the Giza Pyramids, Egypt
celebrating Greg's birthday in Wadi Rum, Jordan

on safari in Tanzania
riding an elephant in Luang Prabang, Laos

Thursday, December 30, 2010

I heart Hanoi!

We flew into Hanoi without a plan other than a 3-night hotel reservation and a prebooked airport transfer. After traveling over 24 hours (drive from Stellenbosch to Cape Town, wait 3 hours in the airport, fly over 10 hours from Cape Town to Kuala Lumpur, wait 4 hours in the airport, then fly another 3 hours to Hanoi), I was definitely glad to have someone picking us up to take us straight to our hotel, although we landed early and had to wait for the driver to get to the airport. Then, when we tried to check into the hotel, we were told that due to construction noise we were being transferred to their sister property about 2 km away. They called a taxi and soon enough we were settled in to our room.

Although we did venture out to eat lunch or dinner (breakfast was included at the hotel), we basically stayed in our room for the first two days to work on our Southeast Asia itinerary. Based on our research, we quickly decided that one month isn't nearly enough time for exploring the region. We only had to pay $200 total to push back our flights from Bangkok to Kochi, India until 20FEB (originally 12JAN). With that big step taken, we were able to make some plans and start sightseeing.
My first impression of Hanoi (on the one hour/35 km drive from the airport) was just like any other Asian city -- sprawling, hectic, crowded, crazy traffic, hazy from air pollution. But I started to fall in love with the city after my first $1 bowl of pho in a simple restaurant about a 10 minute walk from our hotel. It was already dark when we ventured out for dinner that first night and initially we couldn’t sort out where we were on the map so had to return to the hotel to get better directions. We found the restaurant easily enough on the second try, after navigating the moped-jammed streets and sidewalks, and stepping around the locals sitting on tiny stools enjoying a drink or a snack.
Even after eating pricier bowls of pho at a popular chain restaurant and variations on the dish elsewhere, the taste of that first serving haunts me, to the point that we tried to eat lunch at the same restaurant on another occasion but sadly discovered it was already closed for the day.
Of course, Hanoi isn’t all about food, although it certainly is a great place to sample the whole range of Vietnamese cuisine. What actually put the city on my all-time favorites list is the people. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered more truly friendly and gracious people anywhere in the world. From the street vendors to the shopkeepers to the hoteliers and all the locals going about their day-to-day lives, everyone always seems to be smiling, laughing, sharing and engaging. This is in spite of their basic living conditions and long working hours with minimal pay and little to no time off. Here, everyone is more or less equal and there is a communal sense of family along with a mutual caring and respect for your neighbors.
eating Christmas Eve lunch with the hotel staff
I could go on and on about what I love about Hanoi, but hopefully my pictures will convey some of that feeling:
Hanoi Photos
TripAdvisor review of our hotel

Here are my random notes on the city:
  • Many Hanoi restaurants have a few tables on the 2nd floor balcony so you can watch the action on the street below while you eat. Just watch your head - the ceilings are often less than 6 ft high!
  • If you sit in one spot long enough, you could buy everything you need from the various roving street vendors (clothing, groceries, meals, books, baskets, toys, etc.).
  • Street corner karaoke!
  • Women carrying heavy baskets laden with food would often try to put the baskets on Greg’s or my shoulder so we could pose for a photo but then would expect a tip.
  • Every time I order duck at an Asian restaurant I’m disappointed because it’s served on the bone and is often chewy or is just not enjoyable to eat.
  • Our favorite meals were at restaurants NOT listed in the guidebooks!
  • We encountered fewer smokers in Hanoi than in other big Asian cities like Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul although cigarettes were cheap at less than $2 per pack.
  • Most people wear what I call “moto masks” which look like medical masks but are meant to prevent dirt from getting in the nose and mouth when driving. They come in a wide variety of designs, colors, prints, etc. and are very stylish!
  • We were often approached by people selling illegal copies of guidebooks and novels. After awhile I noticed it was always the same 20 or so titles. Asking price was usually around $6-8 but could negotiate down to $4 depending on the title. Quality was generally good.
  • A popular way to take an Old City tour is by “cyclo” or bike taxi. We would see caravans of cyclos 20+ long peddling tour groups around town!
  • Most entrance fees were only around $0.50 per person. The best seats at the water puppet shows were $3 per person.
  • Large grocery stores are hard to find but there are mini-marts everywhere selling all the basic necessities.
  • Beer prices varied from 15000-30000 VND ($0.65-$1.50) for local brews.
  • Most places in the tourist areas were festively decorated for Christmas even though there are few Christians in Vietnam.
  • There are coins in the Vietnamese currency but we never received a single one.
  • There is free wifi everywhere!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Please help me win a trip to Cancun!

Hi everyone,
This isn't a typical blog post. I've entered a photo in a Facebook contest sponsored by LandLopers. The photo with the most "likes" wins a 5 day/4 night trip to Cancun. As the contest ends on 31DEC2010 at 11:59PM EDT, I need your help asap!
First, please "like" the LandLopers Facebook home page:
Link to LandLopers Facebook page
Then, please "like" the photo I entered in the contest:
Link to my contest entry
That's all you have to do! I'll need over 100 likes to have a chance of winning, so please forward this to as many people as possible. I'll know on 01JAN2011 if I'm the winner...
Thanks in advance for your help!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

10 days in South Africa

After a long 24 hours of traveling from Kilimanjaro to Cape Town on a total of three flights, I was relieved that we had pre-booked a transfer from the airport to our hostel and that we had already committed to spending five nights in Cape Town to have some downtime to rest after our East African safari.

I think that three days & nights would be sufficient to thoroughly explore the city, as you can easily visit multiple sights using the City Sightseeing hop-on hop-off bus. Plus many places are walking distance from Long Street, which is where you will find most of the backpacker-style accommodations. However, we opted to stay at The Backpack, a hostel located in the Tamboerskloof neighborhood below Table Mountain about a 10-minute walk above bustling Long Street. Tamboerskloof is a bit more quiet and residential but still centrally located with multiple groceries, laundromats, internet cafés and plenty of good restaurants. The day we walked down to the V&A Waterfront via the city center, it took us approximately one hour but we did stroll leisurely along pedestrian-only Government Road.
As you can intuit from my random notes listed below, I found Cape Town to be a thoroughly modern, cosmopolitan city. However it is very easy to see that a large percentage of the population lives below poverty level as evidenced by the townships just outside the city center. Also, the crime rate is quite high and break-ins are regular occurrences despite almost every business & residence having sophisticated alarm systems, high fences or walls with barbed wire or glass shards on top and security bars on the windows & doors. It is not advised for women to go into certain areas alone at any time of day and to never go out alone at night.

After our five relaxing days in Cape Town, we decided to venture east to explore more of the province known as Western Cape. Although there is a backpacker bus service (Baz Bus) as well as luxury intercity coach service (Intercape, Greyhound, Translux) and tourist trains that are quite expensive, we opted to rent a car in order to have the most flexibility. We booked the cheapest vehicle class through our hostel and got a 4-door Tata Invicta Vista with A/C, comprehensive insurance & unlimited km’s for only 251ZAR or about US$36 per day. The only catch is that it was manual transmission, so for anyone not able to drive a stick left-handed (as everything is opposite what you’re accustomed to in the U.S.), then you’d have to upgrade several classes to a more expensive automatic. One other thing to note regarding the car: it felt like I was driving a lawn mower, the engine was so weak! Accelerating to pass a slower vehicle, even on a flat stretch of road, was nearly impossible. We even turned off the A/C when going uphill as downshifting wasn’t sufficient to keep the car at a reasonable speed.

Over the course of five days & nights, we drove 1515 kilometers (as a point of reference, Cape Town to Knysna one way direct on the N2 is 517km) and an average of four hours per day. Obviously this is a lot of time on the road, which is not exactly relaxing, but it was the only way to see as much as possible in a relatively short amount of time. Luckily, the roads are excellent here, even the unpaved ones, and the majority of people are good drivers. Based on our experience, I highly recommend a more leisurely tour of this part of South Africa as the scenery was quite diverse and beautiful and there are plenty of activities, especially for outdoor enthusiasts.

The link to all of my South Africa photos is embedded in this title of this post. Just click on the title to view my Picasa Web Album.

Here is the circular route we traveled:

Day 1: From Cape Town, take the N2 towards Somerset West then take the R44 along the coast then northeast past Kleinmond where you can then connect to the R43. Continue south and east to Die Dam. There you turn off onto a well-signed but unpaved (dirt) road which eventually connects to the R319. Turn right and follow the 319 to Struisbaai.
*There are many scenic overlooks along the R44 past Gordon’s Bay. In season, it’s possible to spot Southern Right whales from shore. There were also many tempting, colorful little towns with art galleries, pottery shops, etc. but we continued on to Hermanus where we walked along part of the coastal trail then ate freshly harvested mussels for lunch. After checking into our hostel in Struisbaai, we drove another 10 minutes to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of the continent of Africa. There we enjoyed a beer while sitting on a bench facing the Indian & Atlantic oceans after having a look at the lighthouse and an old shipwreck.
Day 2: Take the R319 north to Swellendam where it essentially merges into the N2. Take the N2 to Mossel Bay, the unofficial start of the Garden Route. Continue east to Knysna.
*We stopped for gas in picturesque Swellendam where we encountered the first of several road construction delays. Sadly, we had to pass by scenic areas like Wilderness and skip activities like cruising on the Knysna estuary or touring the Judah Square Rastafarian Community due to our limited time in the area. We did find time for a beer tasting at Mitchells Brewery, drove up to the view point on Eastern Head then down to the beach, and ate fresh, local oysters and listened to live music at Quay Four on Thesen Island.
Day 3: Backtrack on the N2 west to George then take the N12 to Oudtshoorn.
*This was actually our shortest driving day, however we burned an extra hour driving east to Plettenberg Bay as we had hoped to ride elephants at Knysna Elephant Park but found the 750ZAR fee to be exorbitant. Then we thought it would be fun to watch the bungy jumpers at Bloukrans Bridge (the world’s highest at 216 meters) but we didn’t realize it was actually closer to Storms River and another 40km to the east. So we just decided to enjoy the drive over a mountain pass and through a hops-growing valley to Oudtshoorn. This part of the Klein Karoo is known for ostrich farms so we made sure to visit one after eating ostrich for lunch at a café in the city center. Unfortunately most attractions close by 4:30PM so we did not have time to visit the Cango Caves as well. Instead we drank beer in the hammocks at our hostel!
Day 4: Take the R62 (longest wine route in world) west towards Montagu and continue on the R60 in Ashton. When you reach Worcester, get on the N1 towards Cape Town, continue via Huguenot toll tunnel (25ZAR) past Paarl to the exit for R44/Stellenbosch. Drive approx 17km to the city center.
*We expected this drive to take us 4.5-5 hours, but pretty much had the road to ourselves until we got to Worcester, so we made good time. We stopped for a toilet break in Barrydale and did brief town drive-throughs of Montagu & Robertson, where we also stopped for a quick look around a small farmers market and bought some local goat cheese and snacked on a homemade samosa. We then ate lunch in Worcester before finishing the drive to Stellenbosch. We didn’t do too much for the remainder of the day other than picking up a few groceries, stopping by an internet café for a brief check of email and researching the wineries we want to visit tomorrow.
Day 5: Wine tasting! There are over 100 wineries open to the public in the Stellenbosch area, all within about 15 minutes drive from the city center, so it’s really up to you how many you want to visit in one day. As a general rule, most are open Mon-Sat 9AM-5PM but hours do vary and many wineries are closed on Sunday so it‘s best to get the free booklet “Stellenbosch and its Wine Routes“ for a handy map and hours of operation.
*We started just before 10AM at Lanzerac where you choose 3 wines for 20R. As we were the first tasters of the day and chatted it up with the congenial staff, we also got a taste of a rare & unique Lourensford honey liqueur as well as a private tour of the cellar and wine processing area. Next we drove to Hidden Valley, which actually has a beautiful view of the region. There we sat outside and tasted 7 wines for 30R per person. They also grow Calamata olives and make their own olive oil, so we sampled both for an additional 30R. By then we needed to eat some food to absorb some of the alcohol and our next stop was Tokara. Unfortunately we found their restaurant’s menu to be a bit above our budget (starters averaged 80R and mains 120+) but luckily they also operate a delicatessen just up the road that was offering a small buffet priced by weight (18R per 100g) so we both ate a nice meal of chicken, roast beef and a variety of vegetable salads for around 60R each. Even better, their wine tasting (of anything they make) was free! We did pay an extra 10R for a glass of their brandy. We had planned to stop at one or two more wineries but the main road to the ones we had chosen was blocked by a police officer so we ultimately decided to call it a day just a little early as it was already 3:30PM.
Random notes
Cape Town: beer & wine, slow & not free internet - hung out at Rick‘s American Café drinking beer b/c they had free wifi, walkable but many obstacles in sidewalk, Christmas music & decorations, security bars, potable water, outdoor cafes, OTC drugs, downtime after safari, planning, haircut by Carmine Mosca of Salon Capri 40 years on Long Street men’s or women’s (short) cut 65R, Rough Guide to SE Asia publish price $29.95 but 255R at bookstore
Braai (Afrikaans for grilling meat over charcoal) is a social event; most hostels have one at least one night per week; we were lucky to be invited to a friend of a friend’s house in Green Point for a more local experience - had beef sausage, lamb & salad plus wine & beer
Driving - good roads, everything opposite, slower vehicles drive on shoulder to let others pass, flash caution lights as thank you; construction on N2 resulting in lane closures that could mean up to 20min waits while traffic from opposite direction passes
A few ostriches, blue cranes
Agriculture - cattle, sheep, wheat
Beautiful drive along coast on 43, sadly whales are gone for season
Dirt road between 43 & 319
Cape Agulhas - based on what we were told by hostel in CT, expected nothing, but there are actually 2 towns with all the necessities; hostel was decent but definitely catered to a younger crowd, 2+ dogs, braai that we didn’t eat b/c they said it would be ready in 30min and over 1hr later they still hadn’t started cooking our meat
Beers: Mitchell’s (small brewery & tasting room in Knysna) 90 Shilling, Milk & Honey, Raven Stout, Forester's; Castle, Windhoek (Namibia), Hansa Pilsener, Carling Black Label; Savanna cider, Anker (Belgium), Augustijn (Belgium)
Condoms 10pk free in public restrooms
Mussels in Hermanus
Local oysters R65/dozen in Knysna Quay Four
Greg won a Collins Street band CD
The Heads (upper & lower/beach) are worth a stop but there are unofficial parking attendants everywhere and we were always weary of when to tip just to be sure the car doesn’t get broken into
Wanted to ride elephants at Knysna Elephant Park (which is actually closer to Plettenberg Bay than to Knysna) but prices were not listed on the brochure and when we got there it was 750ZAR! However you could just take the tour which does include interacting with some elephants for 175ZAR
“Ostrich extravaganza” (pasta with mushrooms, bacon, mussels, ostrich, sherry & cream - very rich!) at La Dolce Vita in Oudtshoorn
Safari Ostrich Farm - our hostel had 2-for-1 voucher that saved us R66; didn’t get to sit on or ride an ostrich because it had been too hot that day (over 30C which apparently makes the animals more aggressive) even though it was much cooler when we took our approx 1 hour tour at 3pm
Did not have time to visit both Cango Caves (famous for stalactite & stalagmite formations) and an ostrich farm as everything closes by 4:30pm
Bought groceries to cook dinner at the hostel
Have been eating pb&j again to save money although food at restaurants is much less expensive than you’d expect with the average entrée costing R55 at more budget (but not fast food) places and closer to R100 for fancier dishes like steak & seafood
Townships (ie, shanty towns) are primarily located on the outskirts of city centers but are found everywhere we traveled and are often quite large comprising thousands of residences; it appears these are “sanctioned” by the government as there are paved walkways along the main road near the townships and often signs indicating heavy pedestrian traffic; in fact, we did encounter tons of hitchhikers, often standing practically in the road (on an 80+kph highway!) and waving either 10 or 20 Rand bills to entice cars to stop which seemed to be a fairly common practice amongst the locals
Grocery stores sell zebra, ostrich, crocodile & springbok pate; you can also buy eland, kudu, springbok, ostrich biltong (jerky)
Extremely windy in Stellenbosch; brush fire near our lodging started while we were in grocery store and blew smoke & ash particles into our room; no store can sell any type of alcohol after 8pm on weekdays, 5pm on Saturdays, none on Sunday
Surprisingly, many wineries closed on Sundays (I would have thought they’d get more business on weekends so would be open)
Saw springboks in field; baboons outside of Huguenot tunnel
Lunch at Drog in Worchester - large, filled to rim glass of house wine was only 17ZAR

Monday, December 13, 2010

Marking 4 months on the road

This post was actually written over a week ago but we haven't had internet access so this is my first opportunity to post it...

As of 02DEC2010 we have officially been on the road for four months and are possibly at the halfway point of our round-the-world trip. I say possibly because we have not booked any flights beyond Kochi, India where we are due to arrive on 12JAN2011. I expect to stay in India at least one full month, maybe longer, and then we will fly standby (on Delta) to Amsterdam. From there we would both love to spend several months exploring Europe together but that will depend on our finances and overall wellbeing at that point. Ditto for another foray into Africa (Morocco) and any chance of going to South America before we return to the U.S.

While I’m on this topic, I’m already seriously considering extending our time in Southeast Asia. One month is not nearly enough to truly experience even a fraction of what Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand have to offer. Plus I expect these countries to be the least expensive places we’re visiting, so our dollars should stretch a lot longer. As soon as I’m online again I will email Airtreks, the company that booked most of our long-haul flights, to find out how much it would cost to push back our flights (unfortunately there are three) from Bangkok to Kochi by a good 4-6 weeks….
One of the first pictures Greg & I both took in Sydney, Australia was of a sign near our hostel indicating that it’s 11,017km from Sydney to Cape Town, which is where we are at now. But, in reality, we have already traveled at least triple that distance because of how we chose to route our trip. We have also visited 13 countries, bringing my total life list to 39. That’s a lot of mileage on this 36-year-old body!

Our East Africa safari is definitely the highlight of our trip so far. Of course, it was not cheap and was more like a vacation from our vacation so-to-speak. I will not delve into the details here as I have already covered them in my previous Kenya/Tanzania post. But suffice it to say that it was absolutely worth every penny and then some!
a lioness in the Serengeti
Here are the usual monthly updates:

Damaged goods: had to reinforce both Nokia backpack shoulder straps as they were pulling apart at the seam/attachment point to the bag; Greg’s spork broke in half; the digital thermometer on my multitool stopped working; my netbook’s mouse pad stopped working and multiple attempts to reinstall the driver software did not fix it so I had to buy an external/USB mouse; the screw stripped on one arm of Greg’s (my old) Maui Jim sunglasses so had to purchase a new, cheap pair; my many years old black ExOfficio t-shirt has shrunk a fair amount so I purchased a white printed Columbia Sportswear Kaveri Passage top to replace it

Useful items of late: U.S. cash for visas, tips, and to pay bills when credit cards were not accepted; my Nikon Trailblazer 10x25 binoculars were perfect for the safari - much more lightweight and just as good for identifying animals in the distance as our guides‘ heavier full size 10x50‘s; nylon cord to lash together broken part of van transferring us back to Arusha on our departure day; our convertible button-down shirts and lightweight long pants served us well on safari - good sun protection plus kept the mosquitoes & tsetse flies from biting
Greg sporting safari attire
Annoyances: all bottles of contact lens solution leak during flight whether snap or screw on lid

Business: I only have 7 blank pages remaining in my passport and Greg has 11 but we managed to get extra pages inserted (at a cost of $82 per person plus an extra day’s car rental) at the U.S. Consulate in Constantia. We also realized we did not have proper documentation to get a Vietnam visa on arrival (you either have to get the visa in advance from one of the very few Vietnamese consulates in the world or get a pre-approval letter from the Vietnamese government via a 3rd party for a small fee - around US$15), so we filled out the application online and requested the pre-approval letters be expedited and sent via email from a company Thankfully, they responded promptly and sent the letters to us within three days.

Health: Greg’s case of athletes foot persists; I’ve had more migraines or severe headaches in the past month than on our entire trip to date; we continue to take allergy medication (10mg loratadine daily) as needed and typically find that when one needs it the other does not (ie, we’re allergic to different things); I developed severe pain in my left shoulder shortly after our flight from Cairo to Nairobi - it’s constant but sometimes much worse (almost unbearable) than others and nothing helps for very long but I’m using Tiger Balm (like Icy Hot), naproxen sodium, and narcotic pain meds as needed

Monday, December 6, 2010

Safari in East Africa

I will start this post with the Swahili “tourist song” we heard almost every day during our travels in East Africa with Tanzania substituted for Kenya when appropriate:

Jambo, jambo bwana
Habari gani
Mzuri sana
Wagena, Wakaribishwa
Kenya yetu, Hakuna Matata

The translation is:
Hello Mr./Ms.
What's the news?
Very good!
Welcome guests!
In Kenya we have no problems/worries.

As indicated in this song, we found all East Africans to be very welcoming and they often were thrilled to hear we were from the U.S. (AMERICA!) and wanted to know what state we were from as many had learned some North American geography in school. One guy even knew about TVA for all you Tennesseans reading this!

One thing we quickly learned is that going on safari is hard on your body. You spend up to eight hours per day in a 4WD vehicle (either a minivan or Land Rover) traveling mostly on rough dirt tracks which means lots of bouncing & banging around and guaranteed bruises. The guides jokingly call this an African massage. However you’re advised not to wear a seatbelt during game drives so you are free to stand up and view the animals or scenery from the open roof. There is dust everywhere which is unavoidable and will find its way into every crack & crevice of your photographic equipment, binoculars, day bag & body. Also, toilet facilities are extremely limited and often it’s not safe to get out of the vehicle, so be prepared to “hold it” for long periods of time, to “check the tires” (ie, squat behind the vehicle) and otherwise to use pit or squat toilets with no toilet paper or running water.

We typically went on one or two game drives per day, each lasting about three hours, with one early in the morning just after sunrise and the other later in the afternoon just before sunset. This arrangement leaves plenty of time for eating, lounging by the pool, reading or napping during the day. Of course, I spent the majority of my spare time reviewing & editing all the photos I had taken the previous day(s)! Alternately, if the park is vast enough or the drive time to & from the lodge is significant, you can go out on an all day game drive lasting up to eight hours with a short break for a picnic lunch. We also spent a lot of time in transit between the parks which we selected in order to see the widest variety of landscapes & animals, so many days involved an average of four hours driving from one lodge to another.

Our Kenya safari was private, meaning we had a personal driver/guide and a minivan that could seat up to 9 passengers all to ourselves. In Tanzania we had a driver/guide and a Land Rover that could seat up to 8 passengers. Here we were part of a diverse group of travelers that included two women from London who had climbed Mt Kilimanjaro for a charity fundraiser the previous week, a Belgian couple on annual holiday sans kids, and an Italian woman vacationing solo. Of course there are pros & cons to both arrangements but we actually ended up enjoying both equally. The pros for our private safari were having more 1:1 interaction with our guide, more space in the safari vehicle to move around to take pictures or just to stretch out on long rides, and the flexibility to request slight changes to the itinerary as needed (ie, extra pit stops, modify game drive start or end times, etc.). The pros for our group safari were sharing the experience with others (we were lucky to have funny, smart, well-traveled & easygoing companions) and having more eyes looking for hard-to-spot animals.

As you’ll see in my park notes, we stayed in a variety of lodges in Kenya but only Serena properties in Tanzania with the exception of The Arusha Hotel. All of our accommodations were 4-5 star which I would equate to 3-4 star by U.S. standards. Considering the remote location of the lodges, the facilities and service were excellent overall. We always had ensuite bathrooms with shower & sit-down toilet, hot water, clean sheets & towels, a reasonably comfortable bed, a fantastic view and unique properties that blended well with the natural environment. At all the lodges we were given cold or hot washcloths and fresh juice, usually mango, upon arrival.

I personally thought the Serena properties were a step above the others we stayed in, particularly concerning the quality of the food. Meal times are standard at all the lodges: breakfast is from 6:30-9:30AM, lunch from 12:30-2:30PM and dinner from 7:30-9:30PM. I would have preferred to eat dinner earlier, especially on days when we had been up since 6AM. We never were hungry for very long as most meals were served buffet-style but sometimes with the soup, entrée & dessert a la carte, especially when there were few guests. I’m sure we both gained weight from eating three meals a day, not to mention enjoying treats like bacon, sausage, made-to-order omelets, desserts, etc. that we rarely eat on our RTW travel budget. A note to vegetarians: there are plenty of options to choose from and often the non-meat dishes were the highlight of a meal. I also particularly enjoyed the peanuts, cashews and cassava chips that were served with drinks at the bar before dinner!

Most lodges offer free evening entertainment like Masai dance, acrobatics, live music or naturalist-hosted slide shows. You can also take advantage of optional activities like massage or beauty treatments, nature hikes, hot air balloon rides or traditional village visits. Surprisingly, most of the lodges had swimming pools although we only swam once, at the Samburu Sopa, as it was quite hot during the middle of the day between our game drives.

What we didn’t like was that smoking was allowed in the lodges’ indoor areas (e.g. the bar and lobby) and on game drives (but not inside the vehicle). We also encountered a few families with very young children under the age of five whom we heard screaming/crying during mealtimes as well as during big game sightings on safari (the jeeps would pull so close together and the windows & roofs were open so you could clearly hear your neighbors). I think the minimum age at the safari lodges should be at least 12! Another minor gripe is that all the lodges offered a bad exchange rate for U.S. dollars although that was the preferred form of payment for extras like soft drinks & alcohol plus they wouldn‘t accept credit cards for bills under $20. For us that meant that a bottle of beer priced on the menu as the equivalent of $3.75 would cost us at least $4.50 and even if we paid with a credit card the mark up due to the lodge’s exchange rate (not the bank’s since transactions were recorded in dollars not shillings) was a minimum of 7% and as high as 30%!

Tipping at the lodges is not required but is suggested by tour operators. However we found tipping can be tricky because staff often share responsibilities. For example, during mealtimes, we would have a designated waiter who took our food or drink order but often other staff cleared our dishes and even delivered the food, thus doing the majority of the work. I never saw another guest leave money on the table and I only did it once in the very beginning but thereafter decided to hand it ($1 per meal) to the person we felt deserved it the most. Another example: about half the time two porters carried our bags (one bag each) versus one porter carrying both bags but since the suggested tip is $0.50 per bag we usually gave $1 to only one of the porters and hoped they would split it somehow.

Last but certainly not least, I want to mention my friend Tim Geiss who helped to plan then made the arrangements for our safari. His years of experience traveling (as a Delta flight attendant) and leading small group safaris to East Africa were invaluable. He customized our itinerary based on numerous emails & phone conversations we had in July. This safari was a dream come true for me and Tim played a critical role in making it all come together so smoothly.

As for the remainder of this blog post, I have first listed some general observations from our travels in each country followed by a few notes or highlights from each park. I have also tried to document the names of all of the animals we saw, but have only touched on the proper names of all of the birds & plants. We were so lucky to have some amazing animal experiences which I mention briefly for each park. However, this is where my photos & videos come in handy, as words cannot do justice to what we saw but images will give you some idea.

Kenya - misc.
Kenya - Lake Nakuru
Kenya - Samburu
Kenya - Mt Kenya
Tanzania - misc.
Tanzania - Lake Manyara
Tanzania - Serengeti (warning: there are graphic photos of recently killed animals in this album)
Tanzania - Ngorongoro
I haven't been able to upload my videos due to the slow internet connection speeds here in South Africa, but please keep an eye on my Facebook page for updates as they are well worth waiting for!

Kenya - Racing the sunset
us with our driver/guide Thomas
Our driver/guide of 14yrs Thomas Kinyanzui (Kamba tribe)
Fines for staying out in parks past 6:30PM due to risk from poachers; fines for driving off-track
Huge variety of birds - too many to identify & list
We’re lucky to have a private vehicle so we can spread out to take pictures and not bump each other when moving
Kenya main roads are pretty bad; some stretches are ok, recently paved and with lines; most have huge potholes, few markings, rough shoulders, must watch out for other vehicles driving erratically, people & animals (donkeys, cows, sheep, goats); many roads are unpaved/dirt
Most villages seem more like shanty-towns; nicest buildings are almost always churches and there are many; examples of names: Redeemed Gospel, Saint X, Y or Z, Spirit Ministry, 7th Day Adventist, Christian Rock Mission Center, Refuge of Hope, Highway of Holiness Center, God’s Endtime Rescue Mission, Wonders Tabernacle Church, Liberation Ministry; one building advertised a “Marriage Encounter” sponsored by the Catholic Archdiocese of Kenya
Tusker beer was referred to as “elephant piss”
Coffee & tea plantations in the Rift Valley
Del Monte pineapple plantation - biggest in Africa
Children walking to school in uniforms
Matatus - shared vans, new regulation is to only carry 14 people but we still saw some with more
Animals being transported by motorcycle or bike (live, squirming pig in sack; sheep in bike basket)
Crossed the equator multiple times but stopped once for the Coriolis effect demonstration
USAID signs in many locations
Drove past the privately-owned Lewa Wildlife Conservancy where Prince William visited in November around the time he proposed to Kate Middleton
Highlands wheat fields & greenhouses (flowers, vegetables) owned by companies like Tilaflor & Homegrown
Saw BATUK vehicles, soldiers, compound (British Army Training Unit Kenya)
Checkpoint at Isiolo where roads go to Somalia & Ethiopia
Local men & women come up to van any time we stop somewhere and try to sell us jewelry, fruit, art, etc.
Animal guidebook says hyrax & elephant are closest relatives; the hyrax is a small rodent-like creature, that’s why this seems impossible
Villagers carry machetes like we carry a purse or umbrella; babies are tied to mothers with a shawl or blanket
Due to seasonal nature of safari work, lodge employees/drivers/guides work almost nonstop during high season then take weeks off during low
Thika was referred to as “the Birmingham of Kenya” on a road sign
A Chinese company is building a highway to/from Nairobi; we questioned their motivation but believe it is to gain access to surrounding regions/countries that are mineral-rich
Had minor accident driving through heavy traffic & road construction just outside of Nairobi; luckily the other driver, a female, did not demand police intervention as it really was her fault
Masai village visit costs extra $30 per person

Lake Nakuru
Lake Nakuru Lodge sits on a hill overlooking the park & lake
Watched Cape buffalo & baboons at watering hole near the lodge’s outdoor dining area
Rhino standoff with our van
Must lock doors to keep out baboons
Slept under mosquito net

Drove by several Masai villages
Samburu Sopa Lodge blends in with surroundings; power is by generator so electricity only available a few hours in the morning & evening
Dik diks everywhere; tiny antelopes but remind me of dogs
Two lions with fresh warthog kill
At night, escorted by security guard with club to ward off animals (no fence around lodge)
Wart hogs, guinea fowl, oryx came to drink at small water hole by dining room
Elephant herd passed 6ft beside our safari van
2-month-old elephant playing with older sibling; plus saw 1.5-week-old baby elephant
Leopard lounging in tree
Ewaso Nyiro River, Ololokwe (table mountain)

Mt Kenya National Park
Serena Mountain Lodge built overlooking natural watering hole; has underground bunker plus multiple levels of open air viewing areas and all rooms have balconies
Lush, green, densely forested and much cooler at 7200ft
Squirrel in dining room; monkeys plus another unidentified animal (mongoose or genet or civet) walked across our balcony railing
Food quality was step above previous lodges; ate pecan pie on Thanksgiving day
Must lock doors to keep out Sykes monkeys; noticed that many are deformed (missing whole or part of arms, legs, tail, ears)
Animal order form: naturalist came to dinner table to take “order” for what animals we would want to be woken up for if they came to the watering hole during the night

Swahili words we learned & used:
Jambo = hello
Kwaheri = goodbye
Karibu = welcome
Hapana = no
Asante (sana) = thank you (very much)
Hakuna matata = no problem
Sowa sowa = okay
Duma = cheetah
Chui = leopard
Simba = lion

Animal checklist:
Common zebra
Olive baboon
Black-faced vervet monkey
Cape buffalo
Thompsons gazelle
White rhinoceros
Black & white colobus monkey
Rothschild’s giraffe
Rock hyrax
Common waterbuck
Kirk’s dik dik
Defassa waterbuck
Reticulated giraffe
Grants gazelle
Unstriped ground squirrel
Beisa oryx
African hare
Nile crocodile
African elephant
Savannah monitor lizard
Greater kudu
Grevy’s zebra
White-tailed mongoose
Spotted hyaena
Sykes monkey
Leopard tortoise
Large-spotted genet

Marabou stork
Cattle egret
Crowned plover
African fish eagle
Great white pelican
Greater flamingo
Lesser flamingo
African spoonbill
Tawny eagle
Lilac-breasted roller
Verreaux’s eagle owl
Coqui francolin
Vulturine guineafowl
Yellow-necked spurfowl
Grey-crowned crane
Whitehead buffalo weaver
Secretary bird
Helmeted guineafowl
Superb starling
Somali blue-necked ostrich
Glossy ibis
Fulvous whistling duck
Egyptian goose
Dark chanting goshawk
Kori bustard
Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse
Speckled pigeon
Ring-necked dove
Malachite kingfisher
Little bee-eater
Red & yellow barbet
Red-billed hornbill
Eastern yellow-billed hornbill
eastern violet-backed sunbird
Black-headed oriole

Yellow barked acacia
Flat topped acacia
Candelabra tree
Flame tree
Doum palm
Desert rose

Tanzania - Safari Njema
the Tanzania safari gang
Sumawe was our driver/guide with 14 years experience
Overall main roads were much better than Kenya’s; park roads (which are really just very rough dirt paths) are comparable
Safari vehicle was a 4WD Land Rover with 2 gas tanks and 8pax capacity; more suited to the rough terrain than the minivan we had in Kenya
Our traveling companions were Hayley & Mimi (London, England), Hans & Arianne (Bruges, Belgium) and Vicenza (Rome, Italy)
Tried Kilimanjaro, Serengeti & Safari beers
Flew in on 11-seat Air Kenya plane; 50min from Nairobi’s Wilson airport to Kilimanjaro airport; 10,000ft or lower for most of flight; some turbulence which was a bit scary in such a small (but very nice & modern) plane
Visa fee was US$100 per person cash
Lots of signs for orphanages
Saw Masai animal herders as young as 5-years-old alone
Alternating sweet & earthy smell
Sumawe calls old male Cape buffalo “retired generals”
Masai wear bright colors, particularly red, to scare away wild animals
Saw one Masai in traditional attire carrying a spear but wearing a white cowboy hat; saw another wearing a fancy watch
Children by the road waving but sometimes holding out hands for money or making hand to mouth gesture
Serena hotels were all very nice but king size beds were hard
Masai village visit costs extra $50 per group
Loved the strong coffee although one day it almost made me sick from too much caffeine because I drank three cups at breakfast

Lake Manyara
Lake Manyara Serena Lodge overlooking lake & valley; baboons near our room, squirrels & birds in dining room; checked on Tim’s tree
Turndown service includes mosquito net
Were supposed to have “bush dinner” (picnic) but it got rained out
I thought the nametag for a dessert called “malabia” said “malaria”
Hippo pool with all kinds of animals around
Baby monkeys playing; baboon grooming
Small car overloaded with bananas
Boys with chameleons on a stick

Scenery truly is “endless plain” but there are plenty of green, brushy areas (tsetse flies) & water
Serengeti Serena Lodge turndown service includes mosquito net; required to have security escort after dark (no fence around lodge) - saw elephant near our room, owl on nest, dik diks, guinea fowl; told that water buffalo drink from the pool every night; Vincenza saw lions outside her room
Male impalas fighting for domination
Saw two leopards in one day
Watched female lion (leader of pride) get up from resting spot under a tree to slowly hunt & kill zebra
Bat swooping in & out of lodge bar
Rained in the late afternoon or evening both days
Saw a cheetah

Oldupai Gorge is a bit anticlimactic; tiny museum has good info & displays but otherwise not much to see
Heavy rain on drive from Serengeti then again during lunch the following day and in the evening
Ngorongoro Serena Lodge sits on the crater rim; saw a bushbuck near our patio
Saw another cheetah
5-legged elephant
Black rhino
Two old male lions are called coalition brothers
Had to eat picnic lunch in jeep due to black kites

Animal/bird/plant list (only includes different species than we observed in Kenya):
Black rhinoceros
Silvery-cheeked hornbill
Masai giraffe
Masai ostrich
Coke’s hartebeest
White-bellied bustard
Black-bellied bustard
Bateleur eagle
Dwarf mongoose
Magpie shrike
Speckled weaver
Black-spotted hyena
Yellow-billed pelican
Blue monkey
Fireball lily
Golden jackal
Black backed jackal
Black cobra
Black kite
Grey-headed social weaver
Crinum lily
Sacred ibis