Gorillas in the Mist:
On July 30, 2011 we flew from Nairobi to Kigali, Rwanda, where we were picked up by Vincent, our guide with Volcanoes Safaris. After quickly locating our bags, we were off for the 3 hour drive up through the mountains to the Virunga Volcanoes. After a couple of hours driving we stopped to stretch our legs and enjoy an amazing view. We were looking down over the most beautiful, lush carpet of green imaginable. We snapped a couple of pictures and continued on our journey.
We stayed at Virunga Lodge for 3 nights. The lodge is perched on the edge of a mountain overlooking lakes on both sides as well as the Virunga volcanoes. The setting is breathtaking. We were warmly welcomed by the staff and showed to our cottages. These are very cozy and comfy. The lodge is very eco friendly and runs on solar power, so the power is off for a few hours overnight. Each cottage has a solar powered lantern and flashlight, so you are never totally in the dark if you need to see.
There is also a really neat feature in the bathroom. The lights automatically come on when you walk in and turn off about two minutes after you walk out. I thought this was a very smart idea. Each room was equipped with bath amenities and robes and one could certainly relax the day away with the greatest of ease.
The main lodge area is up at the top of the cottages. We joked that it was a harder hike than up the mountain to see the gorillas. Especially for those of us that live at sea level, walking and hiking at 7000 plus feet takes a little getting used to! Our lungs are used to much more oxygen rich air!
We enjoyed drinks and dinner with our other lodge companions, and then off to bed early to be sure to get some sleep before the main event the next morning. Wake up knock was at 5:30am and breakfast at 6am.
We were off at 6:30am for Volcanoes National Park. Once there, we waited for awhile as Vincent worked his magic to get us assigned to just the perfect group. We requested a closer group in order to hopefully avoid the 6 hour possible hike up the mountain to see the gorillas! Soon enough we were assigned to Oliver who was to be our guide for trekking. He explained that we would be visiting the Kwitonda group, which consists of 21 gorillas. Three silver backs, several black backs, females and babies. He showed us a family tree so we understood the dynamics. He climbed in our vehicle and off we went. We drove for about 15-20 minutes to get to the base of the volcano, where the actual trek started.
First we had to get our porters. We had Simon, Oliver and JThom. They took our belongings and tossed them on their backs and off we went. I did notice we picked up a couple of hangers on that seemed to try to do something minor and my guess was, they had not been assigned a hiker for the day, so they were going to try to pick up a small tip from us. By the time all was said and done, all of these guys earned every penny we paid them and then some!
The initial hike started at about 7500 feet and in someone’s garden! As we were hiking up through the rows of vegetables, a woman was breastfeeding her baby while weeding the garden. No one seemed to mind that about twenty of us came traipsing through, I would guess it is part of their agreement with the park to be able to farm at the base. We picked our way through these plants and ended up at a rock wall. This is apparently the outer wall of the park. We climbed up and over the wall and started up. Mom was in front with me next, and Lee behind me and the rest of our group behind her. Our porters were fantastic! They would take our hand and lead us over the fallen branches and under the limbs and stop and help untangle our boots when we got stuck in vines. It was truly mind boggling to see the jungle we actually trekked through. Our guide, Oliver, was at the front hacking a path for us to follow with a machete. We were “bush whacking” in the truest sense of the word. This is the jungle that we read about in our books as children’s, before it became the less intimidating “rain forest.” We continued on at a steady pace for about 1 ½ hours. At this point we met up with the trackers. They had been out since sunrise finding the gorillas and staying with them. Once we got to the trackers at about 8000 feet, we left everything including the porters and carried on with only our guide Oliver and our cameras.
It was at this point you could start to hear the gorillas making noises and one chest pound. As we moved closer the anticipation built. Mom and I had been talking about doing this for four years and I couldn’t believe we were here!
Then, around the bush, appeared the first three gorillas. It was two females and a baby. This baby was very tiny and about two months old. He was the only one that really seemed to notice our appearance. The adults are used to the humans coming to visit each day, so they go on about their business and pretty much ignore that we are there. The baby, however, was watching us as much as we were watching him. Then we moved forward a few feet and came across a large female and a black back. We sat for a bit and watched them. Every now and then, they would look at us, but mostly they just carried on with their daily task of eating!! We also spent time with the dominant silver back. He actually got up and walked right past Mom, almost touching her. At these moments, you think about their strength, and what they could do if they wanted to, but they are such gentle creatures, and I never once felt any concern for my safety.
Lee’s favorite gorilla was reclining on the ground with a large belly full of food. He would eat the “celery” and then drop the trash and start eating another stalk. The outcome was a large pile of leftovers on his ample belly. It looked just like something a lazy teenager would do if possible!
After an hour with these amazing primates, we were told it was time to leave. We thanked and tipped the trackers, who then spend the rest of the day with the gorilla family, making sure they are safe from poachers and looking for snares or any other potentially harmful things. These are amazing people that dedicate themselves to the safety of the gorillas and it is a 24 hour, dangerous job! At this point, Simon, Mom’s porter, wrapped his arm around her waist and all but picked her up and moved quickly down the volcano. Mom’s feet could barely keep up with her body! It still took us almost as long to get out of the jungle as it did to get up there. Finally, at the bottom, we stopped to take pictures and thank and tip our porters and head back to the lodge after a fantastic day!
When we got back to the lodge, the staff took our boots and returned them several hours later, beautifully cleaned of all the mud and buffalo dung from the trek! What a nice surprise and added touch (and thank heaven for it as I wouldn’t have wanted to put those nasty boots in my suitcase). They also give you a half hour back massage as part of your package, so after the long day of trekking, you can relax and have someone work out your kinks!
That afternoon, the local children performed a traditional dance for us and we learned that two of the other people staying at our lodge had to be brought down the volcano on a stretcher after their hike. Quite frankly, I didn’t know this was even possible. I love that if you just can’t make it – you can be brought back down by four of the porters in a litter…… for a fee!! Quite entrepreneurial of them I thought!
That evening we enjoyed drinks and dinner and a small birthday celebration for me. What an amazing way to spend my birthday! The next day we relaxed and enjoyed somedown time around the lodge. We had planned on visiting a local school, as we had brought a suitcase full of school supplies, but school was out on holiday. We were able to leave the school supplies with the staff, to take later, and enjoyed having some quiet time before the start of our group safari in a couple of days!
The next day, we headed down to Kigali early. We went to the genocide museum and spent about anhour there going through and listening to the headsets about it. It is still so hard to comprehend how these things happen. How can anyone get to the point that murder seems ok or justified??? I guessit just advances so slowly that it is too late before everyone realizes what has happened. The stories were heartbreaking and it is really hard to take it all in. This is the most memorable event of this kind in my lifetime, and I am glad I had the chance to visit and see this place and how her people are moving forward. Ifelt that almost everyone we met had a personal story about this time in the spring of 1994.
After the museum, we visited the Volcanoes office and I got to meet Carol, who had been my main contact through the whole process. We then had lunch at Hotel des Mille Collines, better known as Hotel Rwanda! I don’t know if the movie was actually shot on location or on a set, but I really felt like I was transported in time due to that movie and my mental picture of Kigali. Sitting there, everything looked just like it did in the movie and I felt at any minute Don Cheadle was going to come talk to me about what was going on in the streets outside! It was quite a moment for me.
I was so impressed with this beautiful country and her amazing people. They have come a long way in a short time!
The next leg of our journey began after an overnight in Johannesburg at our home away from home the Southern Sun OR Tambo. I think they will soon know us by name there. I think I have now spent more time in that hotel than any other single hotel in my life.
The next morning we boarded our Air Botswana flight for Maun, for our connection to Kwara Camp in the Kwando Concession of the Okavango Delta. We ran into Sue Smart in the terminal on her way out for an air lift rescue in the Delta. How fantastic is that!! I met Sue at Indaba and am extremely impressed with her. She is a Brit that was in the states working during 9/11. She lost many friends in the twin towers and felt she just had to do something in her life that would make a difference. She moved to Botswana and starting volunteering for an AIDS charity. After awhile she decided she must get a job before running out of money. From there she has had many jobs and is now the CEO of Kwando Properties as well as Moremi Air. How great to run two such fantastic companies and have such a passion for both. Kwando owns several private concessions all over Botswana and Moremi Air is a small bush plane airline.
Maun is just a little spit of a town compared to what you would expect, since it is the base of most all Botswana safaris. It is full of strapping twenty-something year old young men all anxious to out do each other and impress, aka safari guides and bush pilots. If I had to do it over again I would move to Maun immediately after graduating college for about 10 years of a fantastic adventure and maybe if I was lucky, finding the love of my life and living it out in Africa!!!
We were quickly met and transferred to our four seater Moremi Air plane headed for the Delta. This is quite a flight. You fly low over the Delta and it is just amazing to see all that water. It is hard to imagine there actually being roads at all. You wonder how anyone gets around without a 4 wheel drive. Water is everywhere. We came down, and while I was sure we weren’t supposed to land in the water, and I somewhat trusted my twenty something scruffy pilot, I really was looking around hard for a landing strip in the middle of what appeared to be Lake Sinclair.
Low and behold he put us down very smoothly on the landing strip and we were met by Hobbs, who would be our ranger for the next two days. He took us to camp where we got our usual yummy fruit juice and genuine smile from the precious Janet. She had worked her way up from the bottom and was now the assistant manager of camp. She was delightful. She showed us around and then to the tent. We had a raised tent on a stilt platform with twin beds and nice linens. “Welcome to Kwara Camp” was spelled out on the bed with match sticks. It was very homey and comfortable. We had an outside shower, but as always, there was extreme privacy. You don’t have to worry about showing anyone your business while out there bathing. (except for maybe a warthog).
After freshening up we were off for our first game drive in the Delta. I feel like we fjorded rivers in our land cruiser, but I know there were just flooded out roads. They put stakes at the water level in front of camp and we were able to see how much it rose in the two days we were there. That was quite eye-opening considering there were still a couple of more months of rising water left. I felt like it would be in the dining area in one month!! I couldn’t imagine two. We saw lots of game including a Tsetsebee, which was new to me. This is an aquatic antelope only found in the delta as I recall, and looks a lot like a topi. It didn’t take long to find the coalition of seven male lions that is basically unstoppable. These boys have now reached their prime, and other males don’t stand a chance against these seven boys. They do as the want all over the delta. They were, as usual, sleeping. We took a few pictures and sat with them for awhile just enjoying their majesty. Hobbs felt like they would get active after the sun went down, so we went to have sundowners a short distance away. Just as we were packing up, the boys starting calling to each other in low roars. There is no sound in the world like a lion’s roar. I can’t in any way describe it and do it justice. Just know that the sound can carry three miles (think about that for a minute) and will actually vibrate the ground when you are near it. It will also send chills down your spine. There simply is nothing I have ever heard that compares. We jumped in our vehicle and off we went. We were hoping to see a hunt. We went with them for a long time after it got pitch black dark, as they walked single file grunting and roaring into the night. They came to a flooded out road and took a long time deciding what to do. Apparently they were apprehensive because of crocodiles. Finally, they all went in together and swam across. It was too deep for us to drive, so we left them to carry on alone.
We spent two nights and the food was good and the beds were very comfortable and we got to see these lions several times over the next couple of days. We tried to find a mother cheetah with five babies that I had read about, but she was hiding somewhere out there. I was also hoping to see wild dogs as there are quite a few in this area, but to no avail. We did however see lots of animals and really enjoyed it. We just didn’t get lucky with the dogs or baby cheetahs on this trip, which just gives me a reason to return.
We flew back to Maun where we changed planes to head out to the Kalahari Desert. We boarded our other small plane and off we went again. As we approached our dirt landing strip I noticed a man in camouflage with an AK47 running across the runway in front of us when we were about 200 feet from landing. I was thinking in my mind that I knew we were still in Botswana and it is a stable country, so what on earth was going on. I don’t think this would have surprised me in Zimbabwe, but I wasn’t expecting it in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. We taxied to the end of the runway where we saw two camouflage helicopters and many more men in camo with guns. I asked the pilot what on earth was going on and he said that the President or Vice President must be around. That was the only time he saw this kind of security detail. As we got into our land cruiser, our ranger confirmed that the President was to land in about 10 minutes. I took some pictures with his secret service and off we went to the lodge.
Tau Pan is the first and only lodge inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. It is completely solar and quite a feat of engineering. I was surprised that the rooms were cool even without air conditioning. They are adobe with what appeared to be grass cloth over the window openings. They captured a good breeze during the day and were never uncomfortable. At night the desert gets very cold, but the rooms stayed nice and cozy.
Carl and his wife were very gracious hosts, and we were the only guests in camp at the time, so we had run of the place. The next day we did an all-day game drive down to deception valley. We were very fortunate to run into the world famous Kalahari Lions on the way. We watched them for as long as we could. We also saw lots of Springbok and Oryx (gemsbok). The markings on both of these animals are some of my favorite of all of the antelope. They are just beautiful. We went to look for meerkats in their normal hangout – but they were off somewhere else that day. Deception Valley is amazing. It really is a large pan (empty open area) that is a mirage. It appeared to be a large lake instead of just dirt. Really messes with your brain a little bit. You know logically what it is, but it is still very confusing. Pictures really don’t do it justice.
We also saw the President and his entourage camping. The helicopter in the middle of the desert with a tent nearby was kind of a dead give away. What was interesting though was that we just drove right up to them and waved and said hey. The secret service just looked at us and no one seemed concerned or alarmed. We came back to the lodge for sundowners and just enjoyed the scenery as the sun set over the desert.
Our tracker was a San Bushman named KC. The San Bushmen are the ancient people of the Kalahari. They have the “clicking” language. We went out into the desert and KC showed us how his people made traps and snares to catch the animals for food. They are quite amazing and can make something fantastic from a piece of string and some twigs. My favorite story about them was told by Sue Smart. She flew into camp on our last morning because the President had asked to see it. The bushmen trackers at Tau Pan have the same vacation rules as everyone else. For their two week vacation they are flown by the company up to Maun (about and hour) and then put on a bus to their village (a few hours). The village is about 60 miles from camp. The bushmen asked if they could just be allowed to run home. Yes – RUN 60 miles through the middle of the Kalahari Desert in 100 plus degree heat to their village, instead of taking a plane. That is what I call “in shape.”
On the last day of our stay the President (Ian Khama) and his entourage came to see camp. Because we were guests and the only ones in camp, we had free access. We did actually shake his hand. He is extremely popular in Botswana and the son of the first President.
Too soon our time came to an end and we were flown out of the desert back to civilization. The next day it was back to the US for us…..but we will be back soon….. November 2009…..
Posted by aowens at 8/11/2009 5:38 PM Comments (0)
Singita - Ebony Lodge, Sabi Sands and Sweni Lodge, Kruger National Park Permanent linkAfter Indaba, I met my mom in Johannesburg and off we went on the next part of my adventure! Safari!! We flew federal air (small 20 passenger plane) from Johannesburg to the bush. First stop – Singita, Sabi Sands – Ebony Lodge (although we were actually the second stop on the flight) We stayed in two Singita properties and visited two more. Really – there is nothing to say but WOW! These properties absolutely deserve their number one hotel in the world rating by Travel and Leisure Magazine! (http://www.travelandleisure.com/slideshows/top-25-tl500-2009)
Let me start by saying how much I love the Sabi Sands. I think it could arguably have the best game viewing in the world – so I would pretty much stay anywhere to be there, but to add such a fantastic lodge was icing on the cake. We stayed at Ebony lodge, but visited Boulders lodge as well. We were met at the airstrip and taken to the lodge by Brett, who would be our ranger for the next few days. Check in was handled in the main lobby which is a lovely open air area with lots of big comfy furniture. The common areas are all extremely inviting and warm. We were welcomed and shown to our suite.
We stayed in the family suite. This is a two bedroom suite with another two bedroom suite next door. The two suites are connected by a dining room, but not just any dining room. This one has glass doors for walls that can be retracted for a completely open dining area. You can take these two suites together and have your own chef and ranger and tracker! It would be great for a family. These suites are amazing inside as well. Each one is two bedrooms with 2 ½ baths. The master is a large king size four post bed with a large dressing area and his and her closets. All of the linens are exceptional. The bathroom is all glass across the front overlooking the porch and private plunge pool as well as the wilderness. We had some baboons that truly enjoyed our deck as well as watching us shower!! The den was filled with comfortable chairs and sofas, with lots of books and journals around. There was also a large fireplace in the center of the room. It was extremely cozy and inviting! The decorations were very tasteful and fit in well with the surroundings. The en suite bar was kept stocked with drinks and snacks.
Breakfast and lunch are served open air on a patio overlooking the river. Dinner is served in a small cozy dining room. One night we went to Boulders lodge for a wine tasting. There are about a gazillion bottles of wine there and a very knowledgeable wine sommelier. We sipped and sipped (and swallowed our wine – no buckets needed) and afterwards went back for dinner and enjoyed more wine there!
Prior to arriving, I was a little bit concerned that game drives might take a back seat to other activities since they were so well known for their food, wine and over the top luxury! I will honestly say I worried for no reason. There is no shortage of “game enthusiasm” here. The game drives weren’t shortened because of wine tastings. It was all up to each individual vehicle as well as what was found while out on game drive as to what time we returned each evening. Our ranger Brett even gave us an astrology lesson, which was the best one I ever had. Truthfully, the sky is so black there, that it makes the constellations stand out more. It also helped that he had a laser pointer and could be very specific instead of a vague general pointing that you have to guess where things are!!
We spent quite a bit of time on a morning game drive with a mother leopard and her cub. She was teaching him to balance well on small branches. She would lead him up a tree to the lower smaller branches and then jump down to the ground. She then turned around and tried to knock him out of the tree while he tried to stay balanced on the limb. It wasa fantastic opportunity to see a mother teach her cub valuable lessons!! They did this over and over for quite awhile. We ran into our old friends the Eyrefield Pride of lions. This pride is about 14 strong plus the Rollercoaster Male. Here at Singita they are referred to as the Sparta pride, but it is the same pride of lions. They have a large territory that crosses several private concessions so they are known by different names in each. It was good to see the Rollercoaster Male doing well as we saw him in December not doing so well. There is a local coalition of 6 male lions called the Eyrefield Males that are intent on taking over this pride and we saw quite a fight between them all in December. We weren’t sure how much longer this male would last, but here he was looking quite well!!!
Later that evening, after sundowners, we stopped for a quick moment to look at something. With the motor turned off, we heard in the distance the barking of a zebra in distress. We took off in pursuit of the sound!! We quickly came upon the Eyrefield pride devouring what was one minute ago a living zebra. It does not take very long for a pride of about 15 lions to consume a zebra! We really enjoyed watching the action. The male always takes the biggest share, but the females don’t always give it up without a bit of a battle over the meat! It is impressive to watch.
We next flew from the Singita private airstrip to Kruger National Park. We were picked up and driven to Sweni Camp. This is the smaller of the two camps in the Singita Private Concession inside Kruger National Park. The advantage to the private concessions is off-roading. If you can’t drive off road, you miss an awful lot of the wildlife! The other camp is Lebombo. Sweni has 6 suites. Both Sweni and Lebombo Camps are truly amazing. Sweni has very modern architecture, but not in an intrusive way. I would never think that modern would mix in the bush as it is so rustic, but they have taken care to make sure it all blends in well with the surroundings. We had 2 ½ bathrooms in our room. Singita really believes in lots of bathrooms at all of their camps! In each suite there always seems to be at least a bathtub and a shower and an indoor/outdoor shower. It is quite spectacular. We had a huge bed with a very modern square mosquito net and to my complete surprise outside on the balcony was a double bed. I immediately gravitated to that. I found out they would be happy to make it up for me. This bed was on the open air balcony about 100 feet over the river with just a mosquito net! I was so excited, but also wasn’t sure I could make it through the night without getting scared or too cold and having to come inside. After dinner, I got back to see the bed had been made up for me and in the bed was a lantern, flashlight and cordless phone. (just in case) I actually fell asleep quickly and slept through the night only to be woken up by a very faint ring on my cordless phone for my wake up call. This was truly one of the neatest experiences I have ever had. I slept out there both nights and will never forget it. It was a little chilly, but my big down comforter was plenty warm. Mom slept inside and much to my surprise was not one bit jealous of my outdoor experience, as she was convinced a snake was going to fall out of a tree on top of me!
Our ranger was Marlon. He was cute as can be and one that could certainly inspire a little khaki fever!! After quickly settling in we were off on a game drive where we were hunting lions! The family sharing our vehicle had been with us in the Sabi Sands on safari and in Africa for about a week and hadn’t yet seen lions! This is unheard of! Of course they left Ebony lodge a few hours before we saw the Eyrefield pride with a kill. After much searching and tracking, we found lions! We found lots of lions and watched them for quite awhile that evening! I was glad our vehicle mates did not go home without seeing lions!
The next day we were by ourselves and Marlon took us to the most fantastic overlook on the Mozambique border. We had sundowners overlooking Kruger, with the border right at our backs! Of course we had to put our hands over just to say we had been there. But hopefully our full bodies will go there before too long as Mozambique is gaining ground as a safari destination.
The next day we flew back to Johannesburg and spent the night before our safari to Botswana!
In April I received an invitation from the South African Board of Tourism to attend Indaba in Durban, South Africa. This is the largest tourism tradeshow in Africa and the third largest in the world. They wanted me to be part of their hosted buyers program and would send me down and host me at the Hilton in Durban right next door to the convention center. Well – that was a total no-brainer. Who would turn this down? Especially someone like me that LOVES Africa so much and will pretty much do anything to get there as often as possible!!!
After reading the invitation a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t missing any fine print – I immediately hit reply with a quick “absolutely – I’d love to come!!!” They told me I could choose my dates for the flights so if I wanted to go early or stay after that was fine. There again – I answered very quickly that I absolutely would be staying after for safari!
I quickly arranged to visit one of my favorite places on earth – The Sabi Sands game reserve– as well as a visit to Kruger National Park. I then arranged to go to Botswana for a few nights, but I will post about the safaris in a different report.
My itinerary was emailed to me for my approval a few days later. I did not know what I would be flying and was excited to see my Virgin upper class schedule from New York to Johannesburg with a long layover in London. Once again – it didn’t take me long to reply “absolutely!” I was very excited about the flight as it would be my first time in upper class on Virgin. I was also excited about visiting the upper class lounge at Heathrow as I had read it was fantastic.
The upper class seats onboard were not quite as spectacular as I had anticipated. They are somewhat short when you lie down and there is a back at the end of the foot rest part, so you can't hang your feet over the end. I think Kenya Air business class seats are much better, but they are certainly better than any coach seats out there, which is my usual mode of transportation, so I was happy and content! The Virgin lounge at Heathrow on the other hand was MORE spectacular than I had anticipated. Inside the lounge are several restaurants with different types of food, as well as a bar and a full service spa including all of the usual amenities and services. You could have anything from a pedicure to a massage! There was an area with private showers and a hot tub, as well as a concierge service and a business center. And last but certainly not least was a Bumble and Bumble beauty salon! All services were complementary. I decided since I had so much time, to have breakfast, a nice long shower and then get my hair cut. Post shower and sporting my brand new sassy cut, I enjoyed updating facebook and emailing family and friends from the business center. I then relaxed and read my book and had a little nap. Then I had a glass of wine before boarding my flight to Johannesburg! I really enjoyed my day there, and sort of feel like this lounge could be a destination unto itself!
On to Africa!! I touched down in Johannesbug on schedule at 6:15am. First thing I noticed was the airport floor seemed different. It only took a few minutes to realize they had opened the new arrivals hall at JNB. They have been working on this for the last couple of years and the construction had just sort of become part of the backdrop. I guess I never really thought they would finish, but in anticipation of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, things are starting to happen! The new arrivals terminal is clean and colorful. It seemed very open and inviting. I really liked it and think it is a positive change. Customs was also very quick, a little more than normal, but I don’t know if that is due to the new arrivals hall and more officers or because I normally land in the late afternoon on Delta from Atlanta. It may be more crowded then. It didn’t take long to get my bearings and find my favorite cell phone shop to purchase my local SIM card, prior to boarding my short flight to Durban.
This was my first visit to Durban and I was very impressed! The airport was full of friendly people trying to help you get where you were supposed to be and helping with luggage. No one was asking for tips or pan handling, which was extremely impressive. There was also lots of evidence of the upcoming World Cup games next year. There was such hustle and bustle. I think the whole country is very excited to be part of it! I boarded the shuttle to the Hilton and after stopping at all of the other hotels, we ended up at the Hilton. I enjoyed seeing the other hotels and my minor city tour. I liked getting the lay of the land. En route, I was reminded of where I was, as I saw people bathing in the ditch beside the highway and homeless people asleep beside the road. I checked in and unpacked and had a shower. I had not slept much on the plane, so I ordered room service and a glass of wine and went to sleep!!
The next day I met my group and we were taken to see the new advertising campaign launched at Indaba for the World Cup 2010. I liked it and immediately wanted to learn to do the diski dance (and I am working on it now – hope to have it down before I go back next summer!) If you haven’t seen the commercial yet – have a look here. It’s quite catchy. 2010 TV commercial
I loved Indaba! It was held in the Durban Convention Center combined with the Durban Exhibition Center. These are very large, modern convention facilities and it was amazing. To be surrounded and immersed into 360 degrees of Africa!! Tourist boards from all countries, hotels, resorts, private game reserves, wineries, attractions, tour operators, transportation companies and more all here to promote tourism to Africa!!! I was drunk with excitement as I walked aisle by aisle through the maze of exhibitors meeting people. There were so many connections I wanted to make, to help me with future trip planning for clients to the area! I thoroughly enjoyed meeting people and learning more about the companies that I wasn’t familiar with. There were over 1700 exhibitors and I feel like I met every one of them! It was four days of non-stop meetings and events. It was also exciting to be in a place where everyone around me felt the same way I feel about Africa!
It is very rare that anyone can say they didn’t want a tradeshow to end, but that is exactly how I felt. I would love to attend again next year!
Next up Singita!
April 25 - May 3, 2009
Small ship cruising - It is not usually one’s first shipboard experience, as most of us have our first experience on one of the very large “it’s Tuesday, must be St Thomas” ships, but once you try it, you will certainly understand the appeal. I recently had the pleasure of cruising on the Seabourn, Legend. The itinerary is called the Yachtsman’s Riviera. She sailed from Barcelona to Monte Carlo. I thought that with the recession in full swing, the ship would probably not be full. Boy, was I wrong. I found out onboard that Seabourn had actually had to buy passengers off of the ship because it was oversold.
What a fantastic experience. From the moment we stepped onboard, the open bar was truly wide open. From the welcome glass of bubbly – to the bottle of champagne in the suite – to the well stocked complementary ensuite bar - the alcohol was flowing! It was comforting to know that because Seabourn is all-inclusive, my onboard tab would not exceed the price of the cruise this time!! I think many people eat enough caviar alone to more than pay for the trip!
Most of the ports were very small and not accessible by the larger cruise ships, so we had much more of an intimate feel to our journey, being early in the season, and seemingly, the only tourists in town.
The Legend holds 208 guests and has almost a one to one ratio of staff to guests. This helps to make her crew amazingly personable. Very quickly, you are known on a personal level by most of the crew, and your every wish is almost anticipated and certainly accommodated. I don’t think I have ever had a more attentive or amazing experience with staff.
Our cabin stewardess, Elsje, was absolutely lovely. She was always pleasant and attentive and a joy to talk to. She was interested in anything she could do to make our stay better. The dining room staff knew us by name after the first evening, which certainly helps contribute to the family feel of the ship.
I was also extremely impressed at how hard everyone works to make the guests stay as memorable as possible. Cruise staff members have very little time off as it is and work extremely long hours. The entertainment staff on the Legend spent several days working out new choreography and songs to accommodate a sick colleague. I was extremely impressed with their work ethic as well as talent.
I think the staff and small ship were fantastic, but I must say the best thing about Seabourn is probably the clientel. Many of these folks have cruised with Seabourn for hundreds of days total. I know there is even a woman that spends eight months out of the year onboard. The guests all seem to be very interesting and friendly people. They seem to make friends for life and continue to sail together.
We met an especially cute older gentleman from England that had an interesting idea of using copper to help animals in the same way it can help humans. While this theory may not be scientifically tested, after talking to him I was anxious to try it. His wife told me about their older dog that had hip problems and limped more and more as it aged. He put a small piece of copper in the dog’s collar and within a week, it stopped limping and never had problems with its hips again. Subsequently, he put copper into all of his dogs collars beginning when they were just puppies, and none of them ever had any joint problems. He was later on several TV shows in Britain presenting this theory and had his “fifteen minutes” of fame that he giggles about still. I, as the very proud mother of Molly, a small chihuahua with definite future knee dysplasia possibilities according to Dr Rossiter, was very interested. A couple of weeks later an envelope arrived from England with a small piece of thin copper enclosed and an explanation of how to insert and secure it. Molly, is now sporting copper in her collar, and let’s hope it keeps her knees nimble forever!!!
At Port Vendres we took a trip to Ceret to see the Modern Museum of Art. This town was home to many of the modern artists of the 20th century such as Picasso, Gris and Braque, and the museum is quickly rising as one of the best in the area. I will say I enjoyed much of the art, such as most of the impressionist works as well as some ceramics made by Picasso, but some of it was a bit “out there” for me. If this is your thing, fantastic, but I have a hard time seeing the “art” in shredded plywood painted black, or a net hanging from the ceiling. I also enjoyed meandering through this lovely little village.
The whole coastal area is so beautiful. They offered many shore excursions into wineries or little towns throughout Provence for the day. There is so much history and culture here, one could truly spend weeks just exploring with your senses as you travel slowly through the area. There is simply too much to see, smell, taste, hear and touch.
Marsailles was another fantastic place to simply get lost in the crowds. With Notre Dame standing guard at the top of the hill, this port city is rich in history, not to mention the fantastic people watching!
On the last evening we had a barbecue dinner on deck overlooking St. Tropez. I truly had to stop and just take it in. This was hands down one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed. This amazing port, full of all the spectacular yachts and beautiful people, was our backdrop for dinner as the sun set. It was truly magical.
With all of the travel bargains out there right now, this ultra luxury experience isn’t out of reach anymore for most people, but be warned, once you experience what Seabourn offers and the way you are pampered, it will be extremely hard if not impossible to go back to anything less!!!
Travel Service Group Trip
Kenya and Tanzania
In June, fourteen of us left Jacksonville for Nairobi, Kenya for a two-week safari. We had five veteran Africa travelers and nine newbies. As always we were so excited and it was even more special to be able to share a place I love so dearly with friends and family. As my first foray into taking groups on trips I had planned, I think I was most nervous about Star Wheeler. As anyone from the area knows, Star taught world history at Glynn Academy and has taken umpteen thousand kids to Europe over the years and has recently been taking adults too. She is a pro at this, and I wanted to make sure she was not disappointed! I wasn’t sure if the safari part of the trip would interest her as much as the historical part. I knew the Leakey family exhibit at the Nairobi Museum and Olduvai Gorge, where millions of years of evolution have been uncovered, Karen Blixen’s estate, and her orphaned elephant that I adopted for her would be fine, but I wasn’t sure she would love the “non-history” part! Prior to leaving Star had expressed to me that if she met one of the Leakey’s she might faint! I think this is why I worked so hard to get her safari hat signed by Dr. Richard Leakey, which she then refused to wear as it might get messed up. I am glad to report that she, as well as everyone else, did love everything and can’t wait to go back for more. Africa was best described, with group agreement, as “magical!”
Upon landing in Nairobi, we were met by Patrick Masila and Jefferson, our driver, both of African Spice Safaris. It was so nice to meet Patrick after a year of email and planning!
Later that evening most of the rest of our crew arrived with a couple of exceptions. Star, Rosemary and Grey had missed their connection in Amsterdam due to sitting on the runway in Atlanta for 2 hours. They had to fly to London from Amsterdam and came on the flight the next morning with Teddy.
Meanwhile, those of us in Africa had a glass of wine to toast to the trip! We were here at last!
We spent a couple days in Nairobi and had a great time. We had a private visit to meet our adopted elephants at the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, and got up close and personal with some giraffes at Giraffe Manor. We were able to have “cheetah hugs” at the Nairobi animal orphanage. It can be a little daunting to pet a fully-grown cheetah while it eats lunch. We went to the National Museum and Karen Blixen’s estate, made famous by both the book and the movie “Out of Africa.”
One of the most special moments was our visit to the Nyumbani Children’s Home. This is one of many AIDS orphanages in Kenya. We had collected donations from many very generous friends before we left and were able to take all the donations to the home. We were able to visit with the children that were too young to be in school after they welcomed us and gave a precious presentation. They seemed to be just like any other children, but these children know pain and hardship that very few of us will ever experience, and I think everyone was humbled by the work done here. The staff was so excited about a seven-month old baby girl named Eunice. She had come into the home at about one-month old when she was orphaned and at that time tested positive for HIV. After six months on the AIDS medication she was now negative. This was very exciting news. Now she could be adopted.
After a few days, we were off on our first small plane for Tanzania and the Ngorongoro Crater. This is one of my favorite moments for newcomers. They look at those small planes with pilots that look about 17 years old and realize we will be landing on dirt runways! This always takes a minute to register, but I love to watch everyone’s face as this reality sets in. Our drivers met us upon landing. Teddy very quickly named the group in her vehicle “The Golden Girls.” These ladies became fast friends with their driver and found out more than they wanted to about the Maasai culture. I think if they could have spoken privately to some Maasai women, there might have been a revolt in the village. The Maasai women do EVERYTHING in their village. They cook, clean, take care of the children, milk the cows and even build their own hut. Yes, build their own hut out of sticks and cow dung….yes, cow dung! Each wife must build her own and her husband roams between them, placing his spear out front to signify where he will be spending the night. When you ask anyone what the men do, the standard answer is “gather information.” I think this translates to get together with other men from nearby villages and chit-chat while the women are holding everything together!
After several days, Margie Finn commented that she had never been around so many southern women for such a length of time and how much we talk. She was enjoying listening to us solve the worlds problems!! I think we solved just about all of them too!
We were lucky enough to run into the wildebeest migration in Serengeti. I have heard of this event for many years, and felt privileged to be in the midst of it. We didn’t get to see a river crossing, but maybe next time. In the Serengeti we stayed at Kirawira Tented Camp. This is one of the top 100 small luxury hotels of the world. It is fantastic to sleep in a tent that is on stilts with a four- poster bed and mosquito netting! This is certainly my idea of “roughing it.”
For me, there is just something about Kichwa Tembo camp in the Maasai Mara. It is just about my favorite place on earth! The staff there is always so friendly and attentive and as usual did not disappoint. We were met at the airstrip by the camp staff with sundowners in hand! The next night we were treated to a fantastic bush dinner. An exquisitely set table with full silver service, crystal glasses and linen tablecloth, sprinkled with rose petals awaited us. We had a full staff there to handle on our every need. Tina Owens was the lucky recipient of the farewell and welcome back cake. This is a tradition that all who visit here, are destined to return. The chef chose Tina as he felt she was worth 30 cows! I was sure to let her husband, Pete, (who also happens to be my brother) know the dowry he owed her parents!! It was a night we will never forget!
Our last park was Samburu where Lee Malone, Susan, Joe and Sam Parker, and Tina, Josh and Will Owens went on a camel ride. I guess it isn’t everyday you have the opportunity to ride a camel, so when in Rome. Our last night in Samburu was Rosemary’s birthday. We, along with the staff, sang and danced and celebrated! We were all getting the words down to “Jambo Bwana” by this time. I swear I think this song is the national tourist song for east Africa. They sing it in every camp, and I still find I sing it to myself now and then. My impression is that it is sort of like our version of the “hokey-pokey” in that everyone knows it but no local would be caught dead singing it outside of tourist places. The translation of the title is “Hey Man.” Every now and then I text the first line to my nephews and it just makes us all laugh at the memories and good times from the trip. I think you could sing those two words to just about anyone that has ever been there and make them smile! Give it a try!
Africa never lets me down! I can always count on having an amazing, yet different experience each time I go. The animals are always the highlight for me, but I enjoy seeing it through others eyes, as they are awed by what this continent has to offer. It is hard to explain, but you really do feel that it is the origin of mankind, almost like coming home. I can’t wait to go again………..fortunately, I don’t have long to wait……..South Africa and Botswana this fall!!!!
Posted by aowens at 4/24/2009 1:33 PM Comments (0)
Kenya and Tanzania with Micato Safaris 2006 Permanent linkAFRICA – the word itself conjures up all sorts of feelings and images. As a child, there were two places in this world I wanted to go. One was Egypt, and I have not made it there yet (but hope to soon) and the other was Kenya for a safari. In June last year I was able to go on that safari, and I am now another one of those people that say, “You just have to go!” It is impossible to truly describe how incredible it is!!
My mother and I met my sister in Atlanta for our flight to Nairobi via Amsterdam. After an uneventful flight we landed in Nairobi late in the evening and were transferred to the Grand Regency Hotel. Imagine my surprise to see a giraffe on the side of the road leaving a bustling airport!! The excitement quickly takes over and I found it very difficult to sleep.
We rose the next morning to meet the rest of the group that we would be traveling with for the next two weeks. We did a whirlwind tour of Nairobi including Karen Blixen’s house (the author of Out of Africa), the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, Lingita Giraffe Center, and lunch at a tea plantation. The Sheldrick Orphanage takes in baby elephants that have been orphaned, and hand rears them until they can be reintroduced into the wild. It is an amazing project with a wonderful staff of totally dedicated volunteers. At Lingita Giraffe Center you can pet and “kiss” the giraffes, which consists of being licked on the cheek with a very long blue tongue. They are so friendly and fun to interact with. The tea plantation was lovely and we learned much about the area and the agricultural history.
Nairobi’s most amazing asset is its people. I was so impressed with the children. They go through quite an amazing daily routine just to go to school. Many rise around 4 in the morning and walk a very long way to catch the “city bus” (which is actually more like a minivan), as there is no school bus. They must struggle with grown men and others to get on the overcrowded bus, which takes all into town. After school is out they must turn around and repeat this process to get home. Many do not arrive home until after dark, then must do homework by candlelight, as there is no electricity, and go to bed to start the whole routine over aga
in. In the afternoon, we saw the little bitty children alone at the bus stops trying to get on the buses. Unfortunately, with the epidemic of AIDS, many children are orphaned. If there is no family to take them in, they eventually end up in the slums, which defy description, where continuing with their education is virtually impossible.
After a lovely dinner, it was off to bed for the real excitement to begin tomorrow! We would be off on safari at last!!! We flew from Wilson Airport to Kilimanjaro International Airport, and after passing through customs, flew to the airstrip at Tarangire. This was my first, but not last experience with commercial flights landing on dirt runways. It certainly takes getting used to. We sometimes had to buzz the runway in order to clear the animals before landing. Our 4x4 vehicles and drivers were waiting for us at touchdown with tops popped and we were off on our first game drive!
The sights, sounds, and smells assault your senses and it does not take long to feel a true sense of “mother earth” and our early roots. Everywhere you turn, you are surprised by the different kinds of amazing animals as well as all of the trees and plants that are totally foreign to you. I continuously had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
The next day we drove to the Ngorongoro Crater. We had a very nice new paved road built by the Japanese. This was quite a surprise as most of the roads throughout the region are dirt and full of potholes. It is definitely a workout for the back and rump!! This nice road only lasts part of the way and then it becomes an extremely bumpy, bouncy and slow ride (referred to as an African massage) up to the ridge of the Ngorongoro crater. Being up at almost 8000 feet, the view from the hotel was spectacular. We were escorted to our room from dinner, as there was a lone male cape buffalo on the walkway. Your senses stay on high alert, as you never know what animals might be around the next corner. The next day we packed box lunches and spent the whole day in the crater. As we entered we saw tree-climbing lions, which I was not aware existed in this area. Very shortly we came upon a pride of lions still working on their early morning kill. While it seems very graphic to discuss, it is part of the great circle of life and somehow just seems so natural when you are there. We were memorized and watched for quite a long time. This day we saw wildebeest, lion, zebra, ostrich, impala, cheetah, hippo, rhino, elephant, serval cat, jackal, and hyena, not to mention many bird species. We were all on a natural high as we continued to spot so many different things in each direction.
After a few days I felt like I was on sensory overload and we still had more to go. The next two parks were the Serengeti Plains and the Masaii Mara, both part of the same ecosystem, but the first in Tanzania and the second just over the border into Kenya. Here in Serengeti, we finally found the elusive leopard up in a tree with his kill. It was the only one of “big five” we had not seen to this point. They are such majestic and regal animals, and we could have watched all day.
In the Masaii Mara we followed a mother cheetah with her five cubs every day. The cubs were about one month old and precious. They would play and run around having a ball as mom kept a close eye out for danger and food! It was also here that I discovered the pleasures of tented camps. Up to this point we had stayed in lodges, which were great, but Kitchwa Tembo, where we slept in actual tents and heard the lions roaring and other animals calling at night, was just amazing. Let me also say these are not standard tents! They have full en-suite bathrooms with showers, hot water and electricity! We also had full size beds with really soft sheets and down comforters. This is my kind of “roughin it.”
All too soon we had to leave for our return flight from Nairobi to Jacksonville, but not before our last meal at Carnivore Restaurant. This is a world famous restaurant that serves meat, meat and more meat. They come around the table with skewers of different kinds of meat and start loading your plate. There are several kinds of dipping sauces for the meat, most were tasty, but a few were a little strange. They continue to come until you tell them to stop. It is a total exercise in overindulgence. On the menu was just about every kind of meat you have ever had plus camel, ostrich and crocodile! Mom, Susan and I all liked the ostrich and were pleasantly surprised by the camel. It was very tasty. None of us however cared for the crocodile. I remember requesting a wheelbarrow to roll me out of there, but had to make do with actually walking out of that restaurant and taking a van to the airport.
As soon as we were checked in for our flight home, the let down began. I know I shed a few tears before boarding the plane. Africa was everything I had imagined and then some. It was at about this time I started trying to figure out how soon I could return. Upon arriving home I could not believe the trip I had anticipated for so many years was over. It took me about one month to begin real plans for my return. I can’t even begin to tell you how much this trip changed me and my outlook on life. Don’t take my word for it – start making your plans to go, or better yet – come with us in June 2008!
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