A Travellerspoint blog

July 2018

A Few Hours in Monaco

Day trip while leading students on an EF Tours to France

sunny 83 °F

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Monaco's Old Harbor

So, I hit country #89 ever-so-briefly during a student tour to France that I was leading. We wrapped up our week abroad in France with a day trip to Monaco. Much as I wanted to play James Bond and indulge myself in the famous Casino, alas, when leading a group of middle and high schoolers, you make sacrifices. Of course, seeing how every cruise ship with a 100-square mile radius must have been in port that afternoon, too, maybe it is a good thing I didn't try! I'll have to save that experience for another visit.

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Tucked along the French Riviera, the inhabitants of Monaco look out on stunning scenery every day

I did get to see Monaco's breath-taking scenery, though. So, this blog entry is mainly photos. We did a short walking tour, and then we were given an hour and a half to wander and eat lunch. The funny thing about that is it always seems you lose at least an hour of that sightseeing time on lunch! Oh well. Enjoy the pictures!

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The palace for Monaco's prince - somebody important came out as we were walking by, as the police stopped us to let them pass

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Not sure if this is a business or a home, but it certainly is beautiful

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The tiny kingdom is running out of land, so is constructing new space for buildings out over the water, like these high rises

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Like elsewhere in the Mediterranean, the historic sits side by side with the modern

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Here I am at right with my tour group - it was a good group of kids and adults!

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:17 Archived in Monaco Comments (0)

Egypt - Ancient Wonders

Cairo, Giza, and a Nile Cruise

sunny 85 °F

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Detail of the Hellenistic Egyptian ruins at Philae - an island near Aswan, Egypt

The pyramids...Ramses II's colossal temple Abu Simbel...the sprawling temple city of Karnak -- I'd wondered beforehand what would be the highlight of Egypt for me?  I'd never guessed it would be the island temple complex of Philae, a tiny speck of land in the Nile at Aswan.  As we leapt onto the dock from our tiny boat, though, the afternoon sunlight was striking an inviting peach glow from Philae's walls and columns.  The temple was not overrun with large groups of tourists, like the pyramids had been, a day earlier.  Our guide did not rush us through our visit, either, for a change.  We lingered, marveling over the thousand year old carvings on the walls: The pharaoh smiting his enemies, the gods conferring their favor on him, and hieroglyphs and images on every surface.  After finishing our tour of the complex, our guide waited in the cafe, while Jenny and I wandered the island, exploring semi-ruined temples, tumbled city gates, and taking photos at our leisure.  This was the tonic we'd needed, after our jumbled arrival in Egypt two days before.

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The last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World - the pyramids at Giza

The best part about our arrival in Egypt was the jet's approach to Cairo airport. I was in a window seat watching as we followed the Nile south, seeing the cultivation and slowly increasing signs of urbanization. As we turned to line up for landing, the ground below abruptly turned brown. And there, spread out beneath me, like an architect's drawing, were the pyramids of Giza. What a sight! Unfortunately, this auspicious arrival was short lived. We soon discovered that our luggage had not made it on the plane. Since we had four hours of connection time in JFK, the obvious culprit was Delta -- who probably did not bother to connect our bags to EgyptAir. Our local Egyptian tour company, ironically named Delta Tours Egypt, helped us file our claim, then drove us to the Hotel Zoser in Giza. After more than 24 hours of travel, this 4-star hotel was an air conditioned oasis of comfort. We'd both been expecting something a little less deluxe, considering how inexpensive our package was. We relaxed a bit, then went out to explore our surroundings, including finding a shopping mall for clothes in case our bags didn't show up the next morning.

I am not a fan of guided tours.  We'd booked this one because I'd read that certain sights in Egypt permit only a limited numbers of visitors per day.  We didn't want to get "closed out" of seeing a highlight, so thought a tour a necessary evil.  Plus, we figured transportation could prove difficult to arrange on our own.  And finally, the price was simply too good to pass up: $595 for 10 days, including all our hotels, transportation, three night Nile cruise, many meals, and our own private guide.  Our sightseeing program began the next morning with our visit to the pyramids of Giza (plus a number of other sights).  We had our first miscommunication with Delta Tours almost immediately, though.  When our guide and driver showed up, they insisted we were supposed to check out of the hotel.  The itinerary they'd given to us the day before stated we didn't check out till that evening.  They shooed us back inside, anyway, to hurriedly pack our few belongings.

So, what to say of the pyramids that visitors haven't been saying for more than 4,000 years?  The thing that struck me first was how big they are when viewed from afar.  They are a man made mountain on Cairo's skyline, thickly massive and towering much higher than any building.  Seeing them while driving down the street is akin to looking up in Seattle and catching a glimpse of Mt. Rainier.  As we drove slowly up the plateau, there was a great view of them, gleaming brightly in the morning sun.  We'd expected them to be blanketed in tourists. The mob scene that awaited us did not disappoint.  Our guide gave us a quick briefing/explanation in the air conditioned comfort of the van, then turned us loose to explore Cheops, the first and largest pyramid...for 30 minutes.  The deadline irked me, but we knew we had a lot to see that day, so didn't protest (we were a defiant 15 minutes tardy).  All we had time to do was circle the base of the pyramid, fighting off all the hawkers selling various souvenirs, or the tourist police trying to scam bribes by pointing out good spots to take photos.

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The Sphinx

From Cheops, we drove to a vantage point where all three pyramids were lined up photogenically.  Hundreds milled around the same place, though, edging in front of each other for that "me standing in front of the pyramids" shot.  It's interesting to note the photographic tendencies of various nationalities.  Japanese and Chinese stand at rigid attention in front of the sight, while Italians and Spanish play cutesy games like holding out their palm, so the photographer can frame the shot so they appear to be holding aloft the pyramid...or kissing the sphinx, or whatever.  Me, I like to take a shot of the sight with as few people in the frame as possible (unless I want someone in there for scale).  But yeah...good luck with that at the pyramids!
From the scenic overlook, we drove to the pyramid of Chephren.  The guide once again gave us her air conditioned briefing, then cut us loose.  The attractions of Chephren are that it still has some of its original limestone facing at the top and bottom, and that you can actually go inside it.  No cameras are allowed, and the ascent/descent is not for the feeble...or claustrophobic.  You immediately plunge down a shaft set at about a 30 degree angle.  the passage is so low that you must go bent over double, and it is barely wide enough for two people to pass.  With no ventilation, the heat and humidity were thick as a sauna.  The panicked looks on some of the faces going the other way told me that perhaps this experience was not everyone.  When Jenny and I finally entered the burial chamber, there really was nothing to see: Bare walls and an empty granite box where the sarcophagus had lain.  Any paintings had long ago worn away.  It was fascinating to be inside a pyramid, though. Plus, being in reasonably good shape, it wasn't the traumatic experience that others were having.  It WAS nice getting back outside in the fresh air, though!

From Chephren, we drove to the Sphinx for the day's biggest tourist mob.  Honestly, I never expected to have Egypt to myself, but the short amount of time at each sight that our guide parceled out meant we had to hurry in, wrestle the crowd to snap a few pictures, linger tardily for a few moments, and scramble back to the van.  I wasn't particularly enjoying Day One of package tour travel, but it was about to get worse.  First our guide suggested a switch in itinerary, replacing the stepped pyramid of Saqqara (one of the oldest, a kind of proto-pyramid) with the Egyptian Museum -- which was scheduled for when we returned to Cairo, towards the end of our 10 days.  I said No. I wanted to study up before our museum visit, but was secretly afraid that somehow we'd end up not getting back to Saqqara if we lopped it from today's itinerary.  She then took us to the "Perfume Museum" -- a visit that was not on our itinerary, and nothing more than a hustle to try to get us to pay $240 for four bottles of perfume...er, excuse me, "essences."  We bought nothing, but I was seething that our guide had skimped time on world class sights like the pyramids and the sphinx in an attempt to snag a commission on what we might purchase.  We made it clear that we wanted no more unscheduled stops at papyrus factories, carpet museums or anything else of the kind.

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Saqqara - not a true pyramid, but a six-layered Mastaba, a forerunner of the pyramids

Saqqara was dry and dusty, but an interesting sight, nonetheless.  Technically, it is not a true pyramid -- it is a six layered, pyramid shaped mastaba.  Contrasting its crude stepped sides to the perfectly formed, sharp angled masterpieces at Giza was interesting.  Plus, there were way fewer tourists there, and we were allowed to roam free and explore the site.  Upon returning to the van, we were told the bad news that our bags had not showed up on today's EgyptAir flight, either. 

We went downtown and met with Delta Tours' president (to pay for our tour). He promised they'd do their best to get the bags sent to Aswan (our next stop) when they arrived.  In the meantime, he agreed to postpone our Nile felucca boat ride and substitute a visit to the shopping mall to buy more clothes.  Afterwards, our driver took us to the Khan il-Kalil market to browse its tangled alleyways for souvenirs, for an hour or so. Jenny and I were worried that we'd never get our bags, at this point, and were fairly unenthusiastic shoppers at the bazaar. It was interesting to watch the behavior of the Egyptians during Ramadan, though.  Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink during daylight hours. So, at sundown, things got quite festive in the bazaar.  Wealthy merchants set up tables in the street, gaining Allah's blessings by feeding folks for free.  Men and women would stake out their spots at the tables, patiently waiting as the merchant and his family set out bread, juice and then a foiled-wrapped dish of cooked chicken or fish.  When the sundown prayers commenced, the scarfing began. As we walked by, folks eagerly motioned us to join in on the feast. Jenny and I demurred, but did eat a quick dinner of kebab in a cafe on the square.

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The island temple of Philae - much of it from the Hellenistic era, when Egypt was actually ruled by Alexander the Great's successsors

Finally, we were taken to the train station. Through my travels, I've always enjoyed trains.  In my opinion, it is the most comfortable form of travel.  You can get up and walk around, unlike in a bus or car.  You can see the countryside go by, unlike in an airplane.  They are usually faster than buses or cars, but slower than airplanes.  They're a great compromise...except for overnight trains to Aswan!  Our train was the noisiest, jerkiest rattle-trap I'd ever ridden on.  Sleeping in our sleeper cabins wasn't easy even with earplugs. Nevertheless, it got us to Aswan, where our tour company picked us up and whisked us to our hotel.  Along the way, we were given the best news we'd heard since arrival in Egypt: Our bags were waiting for us at the Aswan airport!  After claiming them and snatching a quick shower at the hotel, we were off for another day's sightseeing. 

Here, we met Mohammed, our guide for the next four days.  First, he took us to the "Unfinished Obelisk." It would have been Egypt's largest, but work on it was abandoned when it developed a large crack.  Then, we were off to the Aswan High Dam, which actually wasn't that spectacular, as dams go.  Back in town, on the Nile's banks, Mohammed hired a small boat to take us out to Philae island, which is the site of a temple complex with buildings dating from several eras of Egyptian history.  The main temple is dedicated to Isis and is constructed in the ancient Pharaonic style, with twin triangular "pylons" flanking the entrance. It was built during the period of Macedonian Greek rule, or the Ptolemiac period.  These descendants of Ptolemy, Alexander the Great's general, embraced Egyptian culture -- to the extent of some even marrying their own sisters, daughters or mothers to legitimize their line.  They depicted themselves as reigning pharaohs on the temple walls and in statuary, in full regalia, wearing the double crown of upper and lower Egypt.  Philae's walls and columns, carved with intricate depictions of gods and pharaohs, glowed golden in the late afternoon sunlight, complimented by a gorgeous blue sky. One monumental building from the mid-Roman era caught my eye. It was constructed by the emperor Trajan, who styled himself as a Roman Alexander the Great.  It soaring columns and symmetry reminded me of the Tetrapylon in the Roman ruins of Palmyra, Syria. 

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Majestic Abu Simbel - the reconstructed temple to Ramses II is truly a highlight of Eygpt

The next morning was our earliest of the trip: Mohammed and our driver picked us up at 3:15 am for our trip to Abu Simbel, near the Egyptian-Sudanese border.  He explained that we had to join a convoy for the three hour drive, I assumed for security reasons.  So, we stopped at a police checkpoint, which checked out our vehicle from the outside, and then were motioned down the street to the assembly point.  At first, we hoped it would be a small convoy, as there were only two other vehicles present.  Then the first tour bus showed up.  And another.  We sat and waited --reminding me of my "hurry up and wait" Army days.  Eventually, more than 60 vehicles, from cars to vans to tour buses, were lined up when the convoy was finally motioned forward.  What followed was laughable.  If the convoy was for security reasons, I think I understand the outcome of the Arab-Israeli wars a bit better!  It was like a herd of New York taxi drivers unleashed as each vehicle tried to pass the other, and the slowest vehicles were left behind in the dust.  We never saw a police or army vehicle during the entire drive up or back.  Probably the most annoying part of the convoy, though, was that it meant nearly the entire day's worth of tourists descended upon Abu Simbel at the same time.  If I were to come again, I would try to overnight there, so that I could experience an Abu Simbel lonely of tourists.

Nevertheless, Ramses II's masterpiece temple was impressive.  It sits on the banks of the Nile, its entrance guarded by four 70 feet tall statues of the pharaoh gazing serenely eastward.  As guides are not allowed inside (to prevent bottlenecks), Mohammed gave us his description outside the main entrance, as we stood gazing up in awe.  He then waved us forward and we took photos, then ducked inside.  Although packed with people, the temple was incredible.  On either side of the main aisle, 20 feet tall statues of Ramses doubled as columns.  All four walls were carved with hieroglyphs or scenes of the pharaoh slaying his enemies or receiving the blessing of the gods.  One entire wall was carved with depictions of the Battle of Kadesh, Ramses bloody draw (which he glorified as a victory) with the Hittites.  I'd seen images of these carvings for years in books on Egyptian history.  It was amazing to see them in person, and my neck was soon sore from looking up, examining it.  I saw the ordered line of Egyptian chariots, their archery tumbling Hittite charioteers to the ground. I found the depiction of the Egyptian camp, its walls composed of tombstone shaped infantry shields, beset by Hittite hordes. I even located Ramses' legendary pet lion on the wall.  After exploring the temple thoroughly, we went "next door" to Ramses' temple honoring his wife, Queen Nefertiri.  Its line of statuary flanking the entrance was nowhere near as gigantic as Ramses' temple, but was still huge and impressive.  All too soon, though, it was time for us to join the "convoy" back to Aswan. Once back in Aswan, we checked into our Nile cruise ship.  Dozens of these boxy but luxurious ships ply the river between Luxor and Aswan.  Most of the guests on ours were from a large, German tour group. Our cabin was nice, though, and the food was...well, okay.  Nile cruise cuisine is definitely not up to the decadent standards of Caribbean ones!

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The ruins of the Temple of Satet on Elephantine Island

After lunch, we decided to take a ferry across to Elephantine island, which was the main inhabited area in the ancient Egyptian days.  Our ferry docked in the middle of Elephantine's "Nubian village," inhabited by descendants of the ancient Nubians, an African people who alternated as enemies, allies, subjects and overlords of the Egyptians. We were looking for the Temple of Satet, and despite our long, looping path across the island, we did eventually find it. We stumbled across a number of other ruins on the way, and met some interesting people, too. It was definitely a pleasant afternoon, and we would remember it as a nice interlude of exploration by ourselves amidst all the guided tours. Later, in the evening, we delved into Aswan's bazaar, where Jenny picked up a number of gifts for her family. I had no luck finding what I sought: A limestone obelisk liked I'd seen in our Hotel Zoser's gift shop.

We were awakened the next morning rather abruptly by a phone call from Mohammed: "Get up!" We had less than an hour to see the Temple of Komombo (where we'd docked early in the morning) before the ship sailed. Our information from Delta Tours stated that we'd see Komombo AFTER breakfast. We'd inquired the night before, and been told breakfast was at 8 am. Turns out there was a change, and we sailed at 8 am, eating breakfast after sailing. We scolded Mohammed for not giving us a solid itinerary. We'd seen one posted in German in the lobby for the large tour group, but no one had given us any kind of schedule for the ship. Our hurried visit to Komombo was all the more frustrating because the place seemed overrun by tourists from a fleet of cruise ships. The effect of the early morning light on the temple was lovely, though, and Jenny and I snapped photos rapidly. The 2nd Century B.C. temple was dedicated to two Egyptian gods, one of which was the crocodile-headed Sobek, who was clearly depicted in carvings on the walls. We lingered as long as we could, then hurried back to the ship, five minutes before sailing.

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Carvings on the Temple of Komombo, sacred to the Egyptain crocodile-headed god Sobek

After breakfast, Jenny and I went up on deck to watch our passage up the Nile. One thing I found unusual about our three day cruise north from Aswan to Luxor, was that we actually spent only one calendar day in motion. We left after midnight of our first "night" aboard the ship (so early Day Two, in reality), and would dock late that same night in Luxor. So, we knew this would be our only chance to watch the Nile scenery slide by. I was immediately struck by the stark division between cultivated, irrigated land and the desert. The greenery on the banks was lush and thick with crops and vegetation. Just beyond, and much closer than I'd expected, was the lifeless brown of the desert. Villages passed by on both sides, each replete with square stucco buildings, mosques and hanging laundry. Children cooled off swimming in the water (must be no Nile crocodiles here!), and oxen, donkeys and farmers worked under the fierce sun. Ahead and behind us, we could see we were in the middle of a long column of cruise ships plying the waters. When ships passed going the opposite direction, each blasted its horn merrily.

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Sun sets along the Nile, perfectly by the minaret of a mosque

We were ready and waiting when we docked at Edfu. Mohammed, Jenny and I were the first ones off the ship, and he quickly hired a horse drawn carriage to take us to the Temple of Horus. This was another Ptolemaic era temple, and was the most complete one we'd see in Egypt, with all of its roof, columns and walls intact. Just inside the entrance, 18 huge columns shaped like papyrus plants soared to the dim ceiling. Each was carved in bands, alternating rows of hieroglyphs with figures of gods and people. Mohammed pointed out the significance of various carvings as we worked our way back towards the inner sanctuary, which housed the sacred boat carrying the god's image. Normally, you can climb up to the roof of the temple at Edfu, but it was closed today. So, Jenny and I contented ourselves with exploring every nook of the sprawling complex. Mohammed made sure we'd seen everything we wanted before leading us back to the ship. He was catching on that we enjoyed taking our time and were not content with superficial visits.

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A typical Nile cruise ship sails past ours

That evening, we had a good time with our tablemates on the cruise ship, Dennis and Jenny (easy name to remember, eh?), from California. This was their second visit to Egypt and they gave us some good advice. At both Jenny's prompting, I told them stories of my travels to various places around the world. I felt uncomfortably like I was dominating the conversation, so I kept asking about the Californians' own considerable travels. They were good companions after dinner, as well. We enjoyed drinks on the upper deck, watching our ship's progress through a series of locks.

The next morning we awoke in Luxor, where our cruise ship was docked directly across from the famous temple. However, Mohammed led us to a waiting car for our day's visit to the Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs of New Kingdom Egypt (around 1000 B.C.) dug their tombs into the cliffsides. The tombs were fascinating, their painted walls still replete with lifelike color. Each tomb was composed of a passageway (MUCH wider than the pyramids!) which angled downwards, passing through anterooms before finally arriving at the burial chamber. It seemed every inch of wall and sometimes ceiling was decorated with paintings. We filed past, amazed and incredulous that we were looking at images more than 3,000 years old. Our tour included visits to three tombs (Mohammed chose Ramses I, III and VI, if I remember correctly), but you could easily visit more in a day. However, they DID begin to look the same after three, and the sun beat down upon the white rock furiously, sapping our will to lobby for more tomb visits.

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Another must-do in Egypt -- the Valley of the Kings with its temples buried deep within the rock

Next, we drove to the Valley of the Queens and visited the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. This interesting woman reined as pharaoh for 21 years -- having herself depicted on temple walls as a man with false beard, wearing the double crown, and so on. Eventually, her irked and passed over son engineered her overthrow and erased her name from all monuments. Hatshepsut's sprawling temple was designed to impress her subjects with the story of her divine birth, and thus fitness to rule. Constructed on three levels, the temple has wide plazas that the sun beat down upon without mercy, making visitors scurry to the shade of its columned porticos. One of the temple's wings was dedicated to my favorite Egyptian god, Anubis. His image on the walls still retained its color, despite being painted in 1470 B.C. After a brief stop at the Colossi of Memnon, we returned to the ship, having successfully stretched our visit almost two hours longer than the schedule regimented. Mohammed apologized that this meant we'd missed the ship's lunch, but we laughed and told him we'd skip lunch every day for more time at the sites, if needed!

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Some of the paint on the columns, still surviving after millenia

The day's heat must have affected Jenny's head, because I was able to talk her into eating lunch in the modern, air conditioned confines of...you guessed it...Pizza Hut! Another country, another Pizza Hut dined at! Afterwards, we stopped by an internet cafe to update everyone, then walked the main drag back towards the ship. Luxor is the reputed "hassle" capital of Egypt, and it lived up to its billing. It's impossible to walk 50 yards without some tout trying to sell you a carriage ride, boat ride, souvenirs -- whatever. It seriously detracts from the experience of an otherwise pleasant town. As we neared the ship, the late afternoon sun's rays bronzed the columns of the Temple of Luxor enticingly. We paced along the fence, taking photos and breathing in the beauty...our reverie interrupted regularly by calls of "Felucca ride? Caliche?" We returned to the fence later that night to use my mini-tripod to get some shots of Luxor illuminated.

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Temple paintings on the walls at the famous female pharaoh's temple, Hatshepsut

After dinner, we spent a pleasant time with Mohammed, looking out over the temple from our upper deck. Jenny and I enjoyed a couple Egyptian beers, while Mohammed, a good Muslim, had tea. As he is an Egyptologist (and a staunch partisan of his favorite pharaoh, Ramses II), I plied him with tough questions like, "Who really won the Battle of Kadesh?" and "Do Egyptians consider the Kushite/Nubian Pharaohs of the 22nd Dynasty 'Egyptian'?" I had a fun time, teasing him for his partisanship and pride. Of all our guides in Egypt, Jenny and I enjoyed Mohammed the most. He sensed our interests and responded to them, allowing us more time to sightsee, and plying us with details he might not have otherwise with less historically minded tourists.

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The Temple of Luxor illuminated at night

The next morning, as we crossed the street from the ship to Luxor temple, we were amazed to see it pretty much free of other tourists. Mohammed joked that he'd arranged a private visit because he liked us so much. It made our time in that soaring temple all the more special to have it to ourselves. The columns seemed even more incredibly tall as we wandered among them. The statues of Ramses II, who in his 67 year reign had lots of time to leave his mark on Egypt, were everywhere, and gigantic in size, but as smooth and perfect in proportions as an ancient Greek athlete. Awed, I took dozens of photos. Jenny was obviously enraptured. I smiled as I watched her following in Mohammed's wake, unconsciously mimicking his gestures as she listened spellbound to his descriptions.

From Luxor, we rejoined Tourist Egypt with our visit to the sprawling temple city of Karnak. The soft early morning light had given way to mid-day's harsh glare, so I took fewer photos here, even though the ruins were as impressive and the columns even greater, if possible. I wasn't as bothered by the tour groups elbowing past us as I had been in other places, after this morning's gift of Luxor alone. Much bigger in size, Karnak seemed to stretch on and on. So many temples, obelisks and rows of columns crowded in upon each other that it overloaded the senses. You couldn't really plan a visit, but had to wander its maze numbed by the size, scale and splendor of the place. With our visit concluded, we had to bid goodbye to Mohammed. He was catching a bus home to Aswan, so we exchanged e-mail addresses and I promised to send him a link to this travelog once it was written.

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So many must-see's in Egypt! Here, the Temple of Luxor

To be honest, Luxor seemed a little empty without him, and Jenny and I kind of coasted the rest of the day. We visited the Luxor Museum (saw two pharaoh's mummies!), lingered over meals, found an internet cafe to update everyone, and wandered the streets. We were biding our time till our sleeper train back to Cairo. It was a bit easier to doze off, this time, as we knew what to expect. However, we were much happier to see the beds of our hotel Zoser in Giza, the next morning. We had a short nap there, then were picked up for our final "scheduled" day of sightseeing (the day after was a "free day").

We started the day with the medieval era Citadel of Saladin, though we actually visited only the Muhammed Ali mosque on the fortress' hilltop grounds. Our guide was different than our previous Cairo one, and she was quite chatty, going on at great lengths about Egypt's more recent history. I thought it was particularly interesting how she rationalized as a GOOD thing the Islamic tradition of allowing four wives, from a woman's perspective. I didn't quite buy her story that "women outnumber men in Egypt," so if she wants to get married, it'd have to be as a second wife. I think she was just trying to be a good Muslim, selling the infidel tourists on Islam's benefits.

Afterwards, we delved into Coptic Cairo, visiting two Medieval era churches and one synagogue (which requires government permission for Jews to hold a service there). Then, the day's grand finale was the sprawling Egyptian Museum. Our guide did a good job of touching on the highlights, then allowing us free time to roam and wander. Seeing King Tut's gold mask was my favorite. Although I'd seen countless photos of it, the beauty and grace of the artist's work comes through best in person. We skipped the mummies, as we'd seen some in Luxor, and basically wandered through various sections. I also liked the reconstructed chariots from the tombs -- they were much bigger than I'd envisioned them.

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Carved columns at the Temple of Karnak

We closed the day's sightseeing with our Nile felucca (boat) ride, which we postponed from our earlier stop in Cairo. It was definitely a different perspective from the chaotic, crowded streets. It was quiet out on the water, and a relaxing way to unwind from our rapid paced sightseeing. After dinner, we wandered the streets, as it was Ramadan's final day. We learned that the main celebration would be the next day -- our last night in Cairo.
We'd been debating on what to do on our "free day" in Cairo. We'd been leaning towards visiting the City of the Dead (Cairo's medieval cemetery), which was supposed to be fascinating. In the end, we chose to hire a taxi, though, and visit Darshur -- site of the Red Pyramid (Egypt's first, true, smooth sided pyramid). Our guidebook said it was off the tour bus circuit, and that from there, we could get views of two other pyramids, including the interesting "Bent Pyramid," which predates the Red Pyramid. We decided to splurge a little and used the hotel's taxi desk to hire our car (I'm sure it would have been cheaper on the street), figuring the language barrier would be less of a problem with a hotel taxi. I'm glad we did, as for about $20 each, our driver took us the 45 minutes to the Dashur, let us wander as long as we wanted, and tossed in a visit to the ancient capital of Memphis for free.

The Red Pyramid was great. It is called red for the color of the granite blocks that it was constructed with. The guidebook was right, and there were very few tourists present. When Jenny and I climbed the pyramid to its entrance, then followed the shaft down into the burial chamber, we were the only visitors. It was equally as steep and claustrophobic as the shaft at Chephren, but with no other people present, much less stuffy and humid. It was neat to be alone in the center of an actual pyramid, looking up at the triangular roof of the burial cavern. Not quite an Indiana Jones experience, but the closest we'd come to it in Egypt! Once outside, we circled the base of the pyramid, and had a good view of the so-called Bent Pyramid. This construction began as the first attempt at a smooth sided pyramid, but when the foundations began to show signs of extreme stress, the top one third of the pyramid was completed at a less steep angle. This gives it a "bent" look, and almost the profile of a circus tent. We couldn't visit that pyramid because it is inside a military base. As a matter of fact, Dashur is so close to the base that we had a plain clothes policeman follow us around the pyramid to make sure we didn't make a break for forbidden territory!

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The Red Pyramid of Dashur -- off the beaten path of the tour bus crowds at last!

Our stop at Memphis suffered in comparison to the Egyptian Museum the previous day. There is a colossal statue of Ramses lying on its back that was interesting, but the rest of the open air museum was short of anything unique. We then drove back to the hotel, dumped our stuff, and wandered out for a late lunch to a local restaurant which specialized in spicy chicken. The streets were packed with post-Ramadan revelers, and they only got more and more crowded as the day went on. We gave up trying to get into an internet cafe, as they were all jammed with teenagers. All the restaurants and stores were similarly packed, and it was interesting wandering around, enjoying the festive atmosphere.
We'd decided to cap our Egypt trip with the Sound and Light show at the pyramids on our final night. We knew it'd be cheesy, but the chance to see the Giza pyramids illuminated at night seemed worth it. The show lasted quite a bit longer than I thought it would, and the pyramids lit up were impressive. The narration was cheesy, as I expected, supposedly recounted by the Sphinx itself, which was 100 yards or so in front of us. The laser light projection of a pharaoh's face on its features was cool, though. I was equally amazed at the stupidity of the crowd, though, who constantly tried to take flash photographs of the pyramids, more than a mile away. All it did was blind everyone around them for a few seconds, having no effect on a subject that far away. You think they'd learn after the first attempt that the flash was having no effect on their picture, other than to throw into stark illumination the backs of the heads of the people sitting in front of them! Ah, well...I guess I needed one final reason to vent my appreciation of tour groups!

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Sun sets along the Nile turning it to gold

So, all in all, Egypt was an amazing time with incredible sights. I think, with proper research, it would be quite possible to visit Egypt without a tour package. You could arrange your hotels ahead of time and simply hire a driver for each day's sightseeing. I am not disappointed with the memories from our tour, though: Philae Island on a golden afternoon; Luxor Temple to ourselves one magical morning; The studious lectures of our Egyptologist Mohammed -- all are wonderful pictures that will stay in our heads for years. Picking one place as the highlight of 10 days in Egypt is a meaningless exercise, in the end. There were too many...orange sunsets on the Nile, a vibrant painting 3,000 years old, all the colors, all the sights of the big palette that was Egypt...one highlight after another.

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:19 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Italy's Amalfi Coast - the most beautiful in the world

Plus the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculanaeum, and centuries-old hilltop towns

sunny 80 °F

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Gorgeous Positano on the incredible Amalfi Coast

I don't think I'd be able to go back and write a travelog for this trip, which I took more than 15 years ago. It was my only solo trip to Italy, so far, but I think it was probably my favorite. I flew into Rome, then took a train to Naples, and the local Circumvesuvia (named after Mt. Vesuvius, which looms over the countryside) line to Sorrento. There, I rented a moped and spent a week exploring the south of Italy. I made it all the way south down to Metapontum -- the sole of the "boot" of Italy. I took lots of wonderful photos, some of which I have scanned and uploaded onto this page.

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Street scene in Pompeii - one of the most interesting ancient cities in the world to visit

===Pompeii===

One of the main reason I came to Southern Italy was to visit Pompeii and Herculanaeum -- two Roman cities that were destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Sorrento is a great place to base yourself out of to visit them (and the Amalfi coast, below). It is a pleasant, tourist-friendly town with seaside views and plenty of nice hotels.

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The Theater in Pompeii

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A Roman villa excavated in Pompeii

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Pompeii's arena, or Colosseum

===The Amalfi Coast===

In my opinion, this is the most beautiful coastline in the world. The road clings to dramatic hillsides whose cliffs sometimes dive deep down into the blue-green sea. Coastal towns seem to rise up from the sea like multi-colored wedding cakes. Castles and forts guard the rocky coastline. It seems impossible to drive without stopping every mile or so to admire the breath-taking views and drink in the amazing panorama of land, sea and town. Exploring its sights on a scooter was a perfect way to do it. It was easy to pull over and take pictures whenever something caught my eye -- which as every 50 yards or so!

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Approaching Positano along the road clinging to the cliffside of this gorgeous coastline

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Rocky beaches, tiny towns, medieval fortifications and the blue, blue sea are all part of the scenery, mile after mile

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A medieval fortification clings to a rocky point along the coast

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Sunset strikes a red hue on the hills bordering this spectacular coast

===Herculanaeum===

My last day in Italy, I visited the Roman town of Herculanaeum. Where Pompeii was covered by Mt. Vesuvius' ash, this town was covered by lava flow. It is equally well preserved, if less well known. Wandering its streets was like a dream. So many relics of the ancient days stood there under the hot sun, ready for the visitor to touch or run his hands along. The colors on the murals were vibrant, more than 2,000 years later.

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The interior of a Roman villa -- a wealthy noble's country home, with its colorful frescoes and mosaics

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I will never forget the striking colors which lay covered by lava for almost 2,000 years

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The spout of this fountain seemed to be smoking a cigar with its dry pipe projecting from its mouth

===The Southern Italian Countryside===

Rural, southern Italy is full of photogenic charms, everything from Graeco-Roman ruins (the Greeks colonized Southern Italy before the Roman conquest) to hilltop medieval fortifications to quaint villages basking in the sunshine. The week I spent zooming along the road in a moped was one of the most scenic I'd spent anywhere in the world. Each day, my command of Italian became better and I could converse easier with the welcoming, easygoing inhabitants. When I reached the Mediterranean coast in the far south, I knew I had to turn around. It was a long way back to Sorrento, and my time was running out.

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The rugged, hilly countryside of southern Italy is cut by rivers and gorges

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Visible from miles away, hilltop temples or monasteries decorate the countryside

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An ancient mode of transportation on a modern roadway greets the visitor to Southern Italy

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Terra cotta rooftops and a village church spire warmed by the afternoon sun in a Southern Italian town

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:50 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Exploring Albania

Ancient Greek ruins tucked away in a seldom-visited Mediterranean country

sunny 79 °F

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The Ancient Illyrian city of Byllis and its commanding view of the Albanian countryside

We'd been at it for nearly seven hours straight, pacing through ancient ruins under the warm Mediterranean sun. It felt good to sit back on the cafe verandah, taste the well-earned lunch and sip a crisp Albanian beer. While the others concentrated on the food, I could barely take my eyes from the panorama beneath me -- line upon line of hills fading away into a bluish afternoon haze. You could see this would be a hard land to take from its inhabitants, as each hill could be a fortress, and behind each fortress, yet another one.

That was one of the things that intrigued me most about Albania. Some claim that the descendants of the Ancient Illyrians -- tribes that fought the Greeks nearly 3000 years ago, still walked this land calling themselves Albanians. And you could see it in the facial features, too. If a group a school children would file past you at one of the ancient sites, maybe two thirds would be what most would expect: Olive skinned, dark haired -- typical southern Mediterranean complexions. The other third, though, would be fair skinned, blond or tawny haired, with gray eyes. The same eyes looked down from these hills at Greek invaders, at Alexander the Great's army, at Romans, Turks -- centuries of foes who had tried to put their mark upon this land. But still the gray-eyed mountain folks were there. And language experts bear this out, saying modern Albanian preserves elements of those Ancient Illyrian voices.

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The ancient Roman arena at Durres -- our base for exploring Albania

Scott and I began our trip in the seaside town of Durres, which the Romans called Dyrrachium. It was one of their chief ports when they ruled the peninsula. It is a pleasant town, with a very Italian seaside "passegiata" or evening stroll. People sat at cafe tables drinking beer, children ran around or played soccer, and teenagers clumped together to socialize.

Our hotel wasn't far from the line of Byzantine era walls, which ended in a 3-storey tower built later by the Venetians, nowadays turned into a bar with wonderful views. We walked the line of the walls our first afternoon, chancing upon Durres' most famous site, its 2nd Century A.D. Roman amphitheater. Only about half of its stone bowl remains, and houses sprout from its upper reaches. Most of the stone seats are gone, pilfered away over the centuries to build newer structures. You can clearly see steps, though, and the slope and curve of the amphitheater, the largest in the Balkans. There is a grassy area at the bottom where gladiators fought and died. Archeologists have excavated some of the tunnels underneath, and you can prowl through them in the gloom, running your hands along the Roman stone, listening for echoes of the crowds chanting the names of their favorites.

Our second day in Durres, we set out to navigate the local "furgon" or minibus system. As in other countries, these minivans post a sign in their window with their destination. Once the seats are filled, it departs. So, there is no schedule, but the prices are cheap (around 200 Albanian Lek each way, or $2). As we walked through the Durres bus station, we saw plenty of larger buses going to other towns and cities, but none to our destination of Kruja. We saw only a couple furgons, too, none going there, either. When we asked around, taxi drivers descended on us trying to con us into paying 20 euros for a ride there. They were remarkably unhelpful -- lying and saying no furgons went to Kruja (despite the fact our guidebook said they did). When we wouldn't bite on their fares or their tales, one driver made a mistake by trying a new angle. He would line a furgon up for us for 12 euros (no doubt, getting his "take"). In doing so, though, he revealed to us where the furgons actually were -- about 50 yards further down the main street. Sure enough, we saw a steady line of furgons cruising by with signs in their windows. We took one going to Fushe-Kruja (or "Kruja on the Plains" about 25 minutes from our destination). Our prospective taxi driver was left empty handed while Scott and I were out about $4 each for our ride and transfer in another furgon to Kruja itself.

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Kruja is the walled town of Skanderbeg -- Albania's medieval hero who fought the Turks

Kruja is a town built upon steep slopes. At its top is a castle that was ruled by Albania's medieval hero, Skanderbeg. He fought the Turkish invaders, uniting the divided Albanian clans into a successful war of resistance. Many times Skanderbeg -- or George Castriates, his real name -- drove Turkish armies from Albanian lands. Two of his more famous victories came at Kruja. A museum inside the castle tells Skanderbeg's tale in enthusiastic detail -- my guidebook calling it a "Skander-fest" for the interested. It was neat to see the amount of historic relics they had collected, including letters from European leaders responding to Skanderbeg's calls for assistance against the Turks. In one room, I read a letter from the Doge of Venice praising Castriates' fight and waffling (as only medieval Venetians could waffle) on whether they could send men or money to help).

Sadly, not a lot of Kruja's castle remains -- a couple lines of walls and one forlorn, boarded up tower that looks more like an Italian belfry. However, the atmosphere on the hilltop is superb, with steep cobblestone streets and a tiny village with houses surrounded by stone walls and penned up livestock. We visited one house (still lived in) that had been converted to an Ethnographic Museum, displaying the way a wealthier Albanian family lived centuries ago. The current owners give tours and are descended from the local chieftain. And finally, we visited a small Islamic shrine belonging to the obscure Bektashi sect. The old caretaker gave us a tour, and even showed us his family's living quarters built into one of the castle wall's outer towers. He led us atop the circular stone platform to take his in his majestic view of surrounding villages and valleys.

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Skanderbeg's statue stands in the hilltop town, reminding the Albanians of their glory days

We then trekked back downhill through Kruja's covered bazaar, which is lined with more souvenir shops that an visitor could possibly see. Nothing caught my eye as we paced along, peeking at the ceramic statues of Skanderbeg, brightly patterned wool fabric and merchandise festooned with Albanian's distinctive black two-headed eagle upon a red flag. Since the day had been so cheap, Scott and I splurged and talked a furgon driver into hauling us the 45 minutes back to Durres for $20, with no wait.

As we pulled back into the bus station in Durres, I prepared myself for the next challenge. We'd agreed to hire a cab for the next day's sightseeing. Albania has a wealth of ancient and medieval sites, and I had been steadily been quizzing people on a "do-able" day trip that crammed in as many sights as possible. Unfortunately, the roads and mountainous terrain meant that only about two sites in one day seemed possible. We'd decided upon the Greco-Roman city of Apollonia and the nearby medieval monastery of Ardenica.

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The entrance to the Orthodox monastery of Ardenica

Since earlier that day, the taxi drivers who tried to mislead us were all relatively older men, I sought out a younger driver. Plus, it's been my experience across the world that the younger generation speaks more English than their elders. Since my limited Italian had proved remarkably useful in our trip, so far, I took the lead. In Italian, I asked if he spoke Italian (he did), then if he spoke English (a bit). I explained what we wanted to do in Italian, as best I could. He understood, but also felt squeezing anything more than Apollonia and Ardenica in would be too much. We agreed on a price of $40 per person for a day's sightseeing, although he said it would be his father (who was from that area) who would actually pick us up in the morning. He swore his father spoke good Italian and better English.

To his credit, his father was prompt...actually 15 minutes early. It quickly became evident, though, as we set out at 7 am, that his father was nowhere near as proficient in either Italian or English. However, we seemed to be getting by on his and my less than fluent Italian, so I didn't worry. After about 40 minutes of driving, our good 4-lane divided highway degenerated into a rutted, two lane road that slowed us down to a fraction of our earlier speed. Another 45 minutes saw us turning off and climbing a lane to the top of a hill, cloaked in fragrant pine trees. We spotted the monastery's bell tower, and shortly turned down its gravel drive.

We stepped through a wooden gate set in a high, stone wall, hearing deep singing come from the stone church directly ahead of us. The beauty of the monastery's buildings held me for a minute. It was easy to see the Byzantine influence on the design. I took some pictures, then ducked inside the church. Its dark interior was lit by candles and filled with the Orthodox prayer/chant/song of a service in progress. The walls were covered in soot-darkened frescoes, through which the faces of medieval clergy peered down upon us. My gaze was drawn to the front of the church across which stretched a massive iconostasis encrusted in gold painted decoration. Along its length, circles of soulful icons depicted saints, angels and the Mary.

Through a doorway beyond the iconostasis, we could see one of the monks in a richly decorated red robe. His voice filled the church, along with that of a family who were participating in the prayer and response. The mother's voice was particularly beautiful, and echoed off the church's cool plaster walls. We watched and listened for awhile, then stepped outside to further explore the monastery. Since monks still live there, half of it was closed off to us. What we saw, though, was gracefully designed and peaceful looking.

Back in the car, we rejoined our rutted road and were shortly bouncing through the driver's hometown of Fieri. Beyond, I noticed our first concrete bunkers. These small, domed concrete structures litter the Albanian countryside, the mad genius of their departed dictator, Enver Hoxha. The communist strongman so feared an invasion by the other powers he eventually sealed off the nation from all outside contact. He had these sometimes absurdly small bunkers built for each citizen to be able to man when the Americans came...or Russians, or Yugoslavs, or whoever his paranoid worries dreamt up next. Nowadays, farmers use them for storage, or they sit abandoned like giant concrete mushrooms in the rolling landscape.

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The Ancient Greek town of Apollonia

Once at Apollonia, our driver rounded up an English speaking guide, who led us on a walk through the main sights of the Ancient Greek city (later taken over by the Romans). After we admired the columns of the restored Bouleuterion and steep bowl of the theater, the guide was pleasantly surprised we wanted to see more. We tramped through the hillsides where he pointed out a crumbling amphitheater being unearthed from the concealing vegetation. He took us to an overlook where he could outline the foundations of a sprawling Roman villa in the farmers fields beneath us. Then, obviously happy when wanted even more, he led us on a circuit of the town walls, pointing out the successive layers of Greek and Roman stonework. For a final treat, we climbed a hill to his favorite photo spot. The theater, temple columns and medieval monastery behind it blended together in a panoramic view. As he finished his tour, he urged us to visit the monastery which housed many of the artifacts unearthed at Apollonia. Despite our urging, he refused any tip or payment, which led me to believe he was actually one of the archeologists or their assistants working at the site.

The monastery was wonderful, as he said. Its collection of statues, columns, giant urns and other superb relics of Apollonia were arrayed underneath the roofed walkways and balconies that encircled the walled complex. The grounds were idyllic, built of warm, cream colored stone and rich brickwork with gardens and cypress trees softening its interior. A lovely bell tower, whose stairs you could climb to the top, added to the site, enabling you to take it all in with one glance.

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Beautiful Medieval monastery set in the midst of Ancient Greek and Roman ruins

As we returned to the car, our driver made a surprising offer. He would take us to the ancient site of Byllis -- one that I'd ached to see after reading about, but had heard was too remote to include in any other day's sightseeing. I asked him if it wasn't too far away, but he said "No problem." So, lunch was put on hold and we began a nearly two hour climb eastwards towards snow-capped mountains. The road got steeper and finally we emerged onto a triangular-shaped plateau atop the highest hill in the area. Ahead of us, we could see the town walls of Byllis, a stronghold of those ancient, fair-skinned and gray-eyed Illyrians. We parked near the cafe, going inside where we found a book detailing a self-guided walking tour. Our driver order lunch to be cooked while we explored. Only one other carload of visitors was at the site, so it seemed like we had the ruins to ourselves. Sheep and goats grazed peacefully across the site, the music of their bells accompanied by the wind that blew across the hilltop.

I have been to many ancient sites across the world, but few match the setting of Byllis. On all sides, a deep valley dropped away dramatically. For to the east, the sun glinted off the ice caps of mountain peaks, but we were at the highest point in the immediate area. An ancient city on top of the world, Byllis' atmosphere was incredible. And although the walking tour was not easy to follow (there were no signs or placards on the buildings), it didn't really matter much whether you were looking at the tumbled remains of a basilica, stoa or thermal bath. We paced alongside the walls, peered over fences at temples, looked down from rocky knolls at the ring of a theater, and eventually were able to align Byllis' layout with our guidebook map. At the driver's urging, I hopped a fence to wander through the Agora (market place), and explored a row of columns in a later period church.

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For me, the highlight of the trip, a visit to the ancient, hilltop, Illyrian town of Byllis

After more than an hour of wandering the hilltop, we returned to the cafe and had our long delayed and well earned lunch. I sat staring at the panorama of line after line of Albanian hills slowly fading into infinity. While Scott and the driver gorged themselves, I was entranced. This had turned into one of those days that are the real reason that you travel. The places you see, the people you meet and the spectacular settings combined to make your spirits soar, to truly give you a "travel high." At that point, you don't worry how your pictures may turn out because you know the images are set into your memory. I will always be able to picture myself sitting on that verandah and that line of hills stretching the distance.

Sated, we endured the long, bumpy three hour ride home in silence. As we handed over our payment to the driver, the one stain on the day emerged. He wanted extra money for taking us to Byllis. I had no problem with that, but I was disappointed he waited till the end to "shake us down." I'd pressed him closely when he offered, and gave him many chances to say he'd charge more. In the long run, the Byllis portion of the trip was well worth the extra $40 we forked over. Twelve hours of driving and sightseeing in your own vehicle is well worth what essentially cost each of us $5 an hour. I just resented him not giving us the choice. And probably subconsciously, I was annoyed at being bringing me down from my travel high.

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Berat is a beautiful rustic town, gleaming with white stone houses

The next morning, we tramped back to the bus station and located the one going to our next destination, Berat. Called Albania's loveliest town by guidebooks, it is located in the south, nestled among steep hills. Scott and I quickly found our hotel in the steep Mangelem quarter of town. There, the stone houses rise up the slopes of a wooded hill crowned by a sprawling castle. After unpacking, we grabbed lunch, then began the climb up the slippery cobblestone road leading up to the castle.

It was Monday, and we later found that many of the sights are officially closed. However, the castle is also home to a tiny village of about 200 people. So, the gates were open and the inhabitants (and other visitors) were coming and going, so we pressed on. The castle walls, towers and fortifications were impressive and extensive. We wandered amongst them for more than two hours, locating tiny, sealed churches throughout the site, ruined mosques and scenic views at every turn. Like all the other days we had in Albania, the weather was perfect. The sun warmed us from the clear blue sky, with just enough of a breeze to keep it comfortable. We wandered around, enjoying the spectacular views down towards Berat and the surrounding valley, as well as the grand castle setting.

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The castle walls and tower at Berat were an atmospheric place to wander for a couple hours

Later that afternoon, we hiked through the town and crossed the river to the Gorica quarter. The views of our own Mangelem quarter as the afternoon sun struck the serried ranks of houses were dramatic. As my gaze wandered up the slopes to castle, with its walls and towers sprawling atop the hill, I spotted the 13th century church of St. Michael. I'd read that it was perched precariously on the slopes between the castle and town, but hadn't been able to spot it from above. From Gorica, St. Michael's golden colored stones shone in the afternoon sun like a beacon. I pointed it out to Scott and vowed tomorrow to find the path leading down from the heights. I assured him that I'd read it was "steep, but safe." We continued on our wanderings, but my eye kept returning to St. Michael gleaming above us.

Castle and gate atop the hill above Berat, AlbaniaWe had been making daily visits to internet cafes while in Albania. That evening, I smugly gloated in my daily e-mail update about the perfect weather we'd experienced so far. I should have known better, and the folly of my hubris was driven home by the thunderclap that awakened me the next morning. I heard rain pouring on the cobblestones, sighed, and went back to sleep. Later, after breakfast, we were cheered to find that the rain had stopped when we ventured forth.

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The view from the hills overlooking the town of Berat

We started in Berat's Ethnographic Museum, touring another traditional Albanian house, then trekked back up to the castle to visit the Icon Museum in one of the castle churches. I asked the caretaker if any of the other churches were open today, she said yes, but that was proven wrong, a short time later. As we retraced our footsteps from the previous day, my goal was to find the path to the church of St. Michael. Just as we found an archway leading to steps going downhill, one of the villagers who'd tried to attach himself as a guide to us yesterday, showed up. We asked him if this was the path to St. Michael and he eagerly bounded ahead, gesturing the way. I smiled as he rambled on in a mix of Albanian, Italian and English, thinking of Gollum leading Frodo and Sam into Morder. Scott suggested it might be worth a few hundred lek to be sure of the path, and I agreed.

When we left the stone steps, though, and began to cut across the scrubby slopes, Scott became more and more hesitant. His boots did not have the traction of my hiking shoes, plus he admitted he was a tad bit afraid of heights. When I saw him scooting down the hillside on all fours, I knew he'd never make it. He turned back, and Gollum...er, the guide and I continued on. However, after we'd gone another fifty yards, the guide backed out, too. He gestured at his hip or back, explaining away in Albanian to my uncomprehending ears. He pulled out his packet of aspirin as proof of his medical condition which prevented him from leading foreigners down steep hillsides. He DID at least point out the path for me before he hurried back uphill after Scott.

Church of St. Michael perched high above BeratI paused for a moment. Scrambling down a steep, unfamiliar slope alone, with no one around, didn't seem the safest course. I could fall, break a leg, and no one would know. Then again, the path WAS supposed to be doable. I strapped my camera bag tighter over my suede "Indiana Jones" jacket, pulled my hat down firmly, and mentally told Short Round who was saying "Big meestake, Indy!" to stow it. Within a few yards, the path became much steeper than I'd expected, forcing me to hold onto the trunks of bushes to keep from sliding. At one switchback, I caught sight of the path as it edged path a cliff face. It got even steeper! Nowhere, though, did I look at a stretch and wonder if I could navigate it -- everything seemed within my ability.

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Gorgeous views await your every turn wandering through Berat

When I made the final turn and spotted the church, I let out an involuntary "Wow!" The church of St. Michael stood, just 30 yards away down the path, gleaming as it had yesterday in the now bright sunshine. As I approached it, I noticed the gate was locked. However, the wall surrounding it was low. So, I shinnied up and over, dropping down on the far side to explore further. Up close, it wasn't quite as spectacular, and it was obviously falling into disrepair. The padlocks were new and shiny, but there were no other signs of recent occupation or use. Hopping back over the wall, I began the more physically exhausting (but technically less difficult or dangerous) climb back up. Once back back within the castle walls, I took the steps to a nearby tower and sat down, removing my sweat drenched jacket and hat. As the sun and breeze dried me, I ate one of my power bars and drank my water, laughing inside at this trip's "Indiana Jones moment." Later, I climbed back through the village, found Scott, and we trudged back down the hill -- one of us noticeably more tired than the other!

Later that afternoon, while wandering Berat's central square, we ran into another American, James, who is serving two years in the Peace Corps in Albania. He quizzed us about our travel experiences in Albania, and Berat in particular. Part of his job is to help the local government develop tourism. He seemed perfectly suited for it, being young, outgoing and enthusiastic. His cell phone rang while we were talking, though, calling him away to meet some friends arriving into town.

Scott and I crossed the bridge into Gorica, again, this time intent on exploring its winding, cobblestoned lanes. We had the idle goal of checking out Gorica's two churches that we'd seen from across the river. We were defeated by the village's stone walls, surrounding the tightly packed buildings, which seemed to join them into one long structure with no entrances or side streets. We explored the passages we came upon, but they all ended up dead ends or leading into a family's courtyard. I told Scott we were in the same situation as a medieval attacker would be: Confused, channeled against stone walls, and unable to see any landmarks on which way to go find the center. I waved the white flag and we exited Gorica's maze, joining the open riverside road.

While having a couple beers in our hotel bar that evening, we ran into James and his friends. We scooted tables together and joined into one big party of Americans, French, Israelis and Germans, swapping travels stories. James and his friends entertained us with humorous stories about their experiences in Albania. Scott quizzed them about the differences between "good" raki -- Albania's fiery national drink -- and "bad" raki. I told them it didn't matter, it all tasted like turpentine! We had a blast and I gave out my website to everyone, so hopefully I'll hear from them, again.

That evening's bash proved a fitting end to our travels in Albania. We awoke early the next day and caught a bus to Tirana. Once there, we had less than an hour before heading to the airport. So, we took in some sights on Skanderbeg Square, then jumped on the Airport Shuttle that James had told us about. A short time later, we sat back in our seats as we took off from Albania's tiny airport, into the afternoon haze, climbing higher above the endless line of hills beneath us.

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:07 Archived in Albania Comments (0)

Lions in South Africa, and more

Self-drive safari? Yes, it is a thing in Kruger National Park!

sunny 95 °F

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The Majestic Drakensberg Mountains - inspiration for Tolkein's Misty Mountains?

The cars in front of me suddenly began to swerve to the right and left, brake lights flashing. We'd all just pulled out of Pretoriuskop Rest Camp in Kruger National Park in South Africa at daybreak, and hadn't traveled much more than a mile. "What," I thought, "is a rhino charging down the road?" As the car immediately in front of me swerved to the right, I saw what had halted the line of a half dozen cars: A pride of lions, lounging at an intersection up ahead. I joined the jockeying for a good photo position, then noticed that there was more to the scene in front of me. A herd of Cape Buffalo were faced off from the lions, wanting to cross to their side of the road to graze. The lions looked at them nonchalantly, but after a few moments, lazily got up and began to slink away into the grass.

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One of a pride of lions contending for my intersection in Kruger National Park

The buffalo plodded across the road, but had no chance to graze before one of the lions darted back and chased the herd back across the road. The lioness stood in the road, tail swishing, but the buffalo were not happy. A few of the bigger bulls lined up and and jogged across again, the lioness retreating back to the pride. Several lions took the affront personally, though, and raced back to the intersection in force. The buffalo scattered back across the road, again. This went on a couple times, before the lions finally surrendered the intersection, and stalked off parallel to the cross road. I followed alongside in my car, snapping pictures of their lithe forms and haughty glances at the bulls, the surrounding bush and me. My self-drive safari in Kruger was off to an amazing start.

The safari was the whole reason for my trip to South Africa. I'd told myself that once I was up to four weeks a year vacation at work, I'd bundle two of them and go to Africa for a safari. While researching country choices for a safari, I'd been struck by how much ELSE there is to do in South Africa, as well. Kristen and Zulu childrenWhat sold me on South Africa over Kenya, Tanzania or Botswana was actually where I headed first when I arrived: The Drakensberg Mountains. Stories said that South African native JRR Tolkein (of Lord of the Rings fame) used the Drakensbergs as inspiration for his Misty Mountains. The hiking and scenery were supposed to be spectacular, and after reading several guidebooks, I was sold.

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One of the travelers I encountered taking a photo with some local kids

I'd also been intrigued when reading about the two tiny countries in and around South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Counting out my days, it seemed like a good itinerary could be Johannesburg - Drakensberg Mountains - Lesotho - KwaZulu Natal province - Swaziland - Kruger - Johannesburg. This circuit, as it turned out, was one of the options that the Baz Bus offered. This hop on, hop off shuttle bus picks travelers up at various backpacker hotels and hostels and drops them off at other ones at their destination. Its "Drakensberg Loop" runs clockwise one day, counter clockwise the next, and seemed the perfect way to get around -- particularly in the Drakensbergs and Swaziland, which my guidebooks warned didn't offer much in the way of public transport. So, I bought a Baz Bus ticket for about $144 online, and booked my various legs. The ticket has no time limit, but you can travel in only one direction. If I'd had more than two weeks, and the ability to make more stops along the route, it would have been more of a bargain. However, I still figured it'd save me a day or two with its convenience.

On my first Baz Bus ride from "Joburg" to Amphitheatre Backpackers Lodge, more than half the 22 seats were empty. I was even more surprised when only two others got off at my stop -- Kristen, a college student from North Carolina, and Stefan, a German in his 50s. The Drakensbergs loomed so large in my plans I thought everyone would be visiting them. One of the nicest things about the Baz Bus, though, is the "instant friends" you make at each stop. Kristen, Stefan and I would pal around during our stay there, eating dinner together and swapping stories each night in the Lodge bar. Upon arrival, the owner Illsa showed us around and explained the excursions, meals, etc., at Amphitheatre. Since we'd arrived in mid-afternoon, she offered up mountain bikes for rent to explore a little of the surrounding area. The hike towards Sentinel Peak in the Drakensberg MountainsWe accepted, and had a pleasant couple hours, enjoying the scenery of the lodge's location at the base of the Drakensberg Mountains. That evening, we welcomed Rebecca, an English girl, into our little circle, and she entertained us with stories from her recent two month trip through Africa, which included exciting episodes like white water rafting at Victoria Falls and encountering the mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

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Hiking up into the Drakensberg Mountains - no goblins in sight!

The next morning, Kristen, Rebecca and I joined about a dozen others on the lodge's Tugela Falls hike. This strenuous, 11-mile hike ascends more than 3000 meters to a plateau near Sentinel Peak. To say the views were spectacular would simply be an understatement. Falling away from you on all sides, were wave upon wave of rolling, stark, green hills, with only naked brown rock for adornment. The beautiful, cloudless blue sky reflected off of mountain lakes, while above us, the jagged peaks of the "Dragon Mountains" grew closer and closer as we hiked. We ate our boxed lunches atop the plateau, marveling at the view. Imagine the Arizona's Grand Canyon surrounding you on all 360 degrees, and you can maybe get a sense of the majesty of the sight.

After a short rest, we then descended to Tugela Falls -- the second highest waterfall in the world. We followed the marshy stream up to where it plummeted more than 1 kilometer down sheer cliff face. I sat on the edge, my heart pounding, with my legs dangling over the abyss, watching the water go down, down, down. Far below, in a misty green valley, it sorted itself out and wound away into the distance as the Tugela River. The panorama was incredible, and was everything I'd hoped the Drakensbergs would be. On our return hike, we had another thrill of descending via two metal "chain ladders" down more than 20 feet of sheer cliffside. By the time we arrived back at the lodge, our feet were sore from hiking the rocky path all day, but our hearts were soaring from the experience.

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The payoff for the hike up the mountains -- the incredible view

The next day, Rebecca and Stefan joined me on the Lesotho day trip (see my blog post on Lesotho that Amphitheatre sponsors (see separate travelog). Before I left, I tried to finalize my plans for a rental car the following day. Illsa had urged me to cancel the one I'd reserved online in Pietermaritzburg, as she said it was too far away to visit the battlefields of the Anglo-Zulu war, which was my goal. She would try to get it switched to the nearby town of Harrismith. In the end, confusion reined, and I caught a ride the next day to Ladysmith -- where Illsa said Budget Rent-a-car's regional head office was. Except that there wasn't a Budget office there -- only Avis. I ended up paying a bit more with Avis, but renting there DID cut hours off my drive distance.

The roads of the KwaZulu Natal province were wonderful, well sign posted, and easy to follow. I had no real problems driving on the "wrong" side of the road. Every once in awhile, especially when turning onto a side street, I'd want to drift to the right, but I made few actual mistakes. I drove north from Ladysmith to Dundee, where I hoped to stay for the evening. Following the advice of my guidebooks, I sought out Lennox Country cottages and was rewarded with the most beautiful place I stayed. I had my own little cottage in a garden blooming with flowers, with sitting room, bedroom, bath, toilet -- all lovingly furnished with bright colors and soft blankets and pillows. The price was just over $40, and I found myself wishing I could stay longer at Lennox. My drive to the battlefields of Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana went smoothly, despite much of it being down dirt and gravel roads. Both places are in the back country, off the main highways, and the slices of rural Zulu life I witnessed along the road were priceless. Children in school uniforms, cattle herders out with their animals, and quaint villages of round huts with tall, peaked thatched roofs all flashed by my open windows.

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The famous battlefield of Isandlwana -- one of the colonial British army's worst disasters

It took me a few moments to realize that the Rorke's Drift visitors center WAS the actual rebuilt mission from history. I thought I was simply walking through a museum prior to visiting the actual building (or ruins of it) that the British defended against thousands of Zulu warriors in 1879. However, it is well explained, with lifesize displays of the various rooms where groups of soldiers held out. Less than an hour away, Isandlwana felt more like a true battlefield visit. The strangely-shaped hill (called "sphinx-like") loomed over the sloping field of calf deep, yellowish grass. Scattered across the battlefield are white-painted stones piled in pyramids, marking the spot were units fought and died. There are also monuments and grave markers, erected over the years by family or British army units to honor the dead. I had the battlefield to myself, as it was only about an hour before closing time. I tramped about in a rough circuit, imagining the tableau of outnumbered British soldiery firing at masses of brave, spear and shield armed Zulus until overwhelmed. It was interesting to see the low-lying ground, or dongas, that enabled the Zulu army to creep close to the British encampment before being spotted. As much as I'd read about the battle, I admitted to myself that the experience would have been more fulfilling if I'd hired a guide. I would urge other visitors to do so (many guides are listed on the internet or Dundee tourist information office).

The next morning, I had a nice chat over breakfast with the owner of Lennox, who took me on a ride around his working farm. In addition to cattle and goats, he also raises more exotic animals like ostrich and eland (the largest of the antelope species). We had a nice time talking about South Africa, its good points and its challenges. From there, I drove to another battlefield and museum, Talana Hill. I didn't have enough time to do its sprawling grounds justice, as I had to hurry back to Ladysmith to return the car. Once back in town, I discovered I had more than 5 hours to kill before the day's only bus to Durban. I had to be in Durban that night so I could catch the Baz Bus to Swaziland the next morning. I visited the excellent Ladysmith Siege Museum, which documents the Anglo-Boer War battle where the British were penned up inside the town for four months before being relived by approaching imperial forces. The displays told the story from both a military and personal point of view. It was interesting to read of how the both the inhabitants and soldiers coped with the privation, dangers and boredom of the siege. I found a booklet in the museum store which detailed a self-guided walking tour of Ladysmith, so I bought it and followed the first quarter or so of it before the heat drove me indoors. I've never enjoyed tramping about in my full backpack, so was not as driven as I normally would be in my sightseeing.

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A watering hold on Lennox Farm

As luck would have it, my bus was several hours late, which made for even more sitting around waiting. However, I duly arrived in Durban and took a cab to the Hippo Hide Lodge, where I had a few beers with the other travelers before turning in for the evening. The Baz Bus picked up only two of us in Durban, then took on five more in St. Lucia, on the way to Swaziland (See my blog entry on Swaziland). This was where I met Casper, Ulla and a younger German named Stefan, who I spent much of my time with in Swaziland (see other travelog). After a couple days of solo travel, the Baz Bus had once again insured I was among friendly, fellow travelers.

Following the wonderful time I had in Swaziland, came the one dark spot on my trip to South Africa. I'd expected the Baz Bus to be able to drop me off at the airport, where I had a rental car waiting for the Kruger portion of my trip. However, the driver said they weren't allowed to take people to the airport, so instead another passenger phoned a cab company and I was dropped off at a main intersection in downtown Nelspruit. I waited for a half hour, but the cab never showed. So, I decided to walk to the local tourist information office in the meantime to find out the bus schedule back to Joburg.

I hadn't prepared myself in advance for walking in Nelspruit. Normally, I photocopy a map so I can pull it from my pocket and check it discreetly. Plus, I had my full backpack and camera bag strapped to me. Looking at a map on a street corner while carrying a pack was akin to painting a target on me, and at one point I noticed three young men seemed to be following me. It was bright daylight on busy streets, but nevertheless they tried to stop me. When I refused, one grabbed at my camera bag and another my pack. I clinched tightly, shouting at the top of my voice for help. Although they pulled me off balance and I fell, everything was gripped or strapped on too tightly, and they ran off empty handed. I'd read all about the dangers of South Africa's crime-ridden cities, but I'd figured smaller towns like Nelspruit would have less of a problem, much like Ladysmith, which I walked around safely. Needless to say, I was wrong, and travelers following in my path should take note and do their best to avoid the downtown area of South African cities. At Amphitheatre, I'd spoken with a Dutch student who said that EVERY member of his class had been mugged in Joburg. To the South Africans' credit, a shopping mall security guard who'd witnessed the incident helped me find a friendly taxi driver, who took me to the Nelspruit airport. I was soon on my way to Kruger National Park to seek out the four legged wildlife, rather than the two legged predators of the cities.

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A white rhino just a few feet off of the road in Kruger National Park

Speaking of "seeking out" animals, my biggest concern with driving myself through Kruger was not any actual danger from the wild animals. Rather, I was worried that being solo, and having to watch the road while scanning the bush on both sides of it for animals, how good would I'd actually do? Would I blithely drive by a pride of lions because I was looking the wrong way? That was my biggest concern. My first night was booked at Pretoriouskop rest camp on the southwestern edge of the park. For the next three nights, I'd booked a spot on the Olifants Wilderness Trail, which seemed to me a very reasonably priced, three day walking safari. The very idea of hiking out in the bush amongst the animals (with armed guides, of course) sounded amazing. So, the self drive part was only my afternoon drive into Kruger, then the next day's drive from Pretoriuskop north and east to Letaba rest camp (6-7 hours, as it turned out), where I'd be picked up for my Wilderness Trail.

Any fears of failure to be able to spot game were dispelled in the first 15 minutes of my foray into Kruger. Pretoriuskop is less than five miles from the Numbi gate into Kruger. In that short distance, I spotted several Cape Buffalo and a pair of white Rhinos. It was astounding how close you could get to them. The rhinos were literally less than 20 yards away, and the buffalo about the same distance. I'd barely entered the camp and already could check off two of the "Big Five." The concept of the Big Five (Cape Buffalo, Rhino, Elephant, Lion and Leopard) is a relic of the Teddy Roosevelt era hunting safaris, being supposedly the five most dangerous to hunt. I didn't care about that aspect, really. Personally, I'd rather see a cheetah than a leopard, and giraffe than a buffalo...oops, too late! That evening, outside of my cozy little hut in camp, I met (and shared some drinks with) my neighbor, De Villiers Smith, a genial South African who put my fears to rest even more. He all but guaranteed I'd see elephants on my long drive the next day, as well as giraffe, and most likely lion as well. His tip was to depend on your fellow drivers -- if you see them stopped, slow down and see what they're looking at. They'll do the same if they see you stopped...we're all in this together, he emphasized.

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You'd be surprised by how much something as large as an elephant can blend into the terrain

And what a next day it was! As detailed above, I was barely out of the gate when I witnessed the standoff between the Cape Buffalo herd and the lion pride. I was told later by a camp veteran that I was very lucky to see this kind of drama -- there are folks who've come to Kruger every year for decades and have not witnessed something like that. De Villiers was right. I saw my elephants. I saw my giraffes. I saw nearly everything I'd hoped to see, except sadly, neither my cheetah nor a leopard. As I'd read, the early morning hours were best for spotting game. Once 10 am rolled around, with the sun blazing down from on high, the game either sought shelter in the trees and the gorges of stream beds, or dozed unseen in the long grass.

It does become work, after awhile, too. Scanning to the left, then to the right, then back again, over and over, is tiring on the eyes. It was especially so since I was trying to be thorough and checking the branches of trees for leopards, and the shady patches for lions. So, when I arrived at Letaba around 1:30 pm, I was actually quite happy to take a break from game spotting. I bought an iced tea and relaxed on the restaurant verandah, watching two elephants far below bathing in a stream. Eventually, I motivated myself to drive to the camp store and buy supplies for my three days in the bush. My idea of being supplied for three days was light years from a couple of my trail mates' idea, as it turned out. When we all met in the parking lot at Letaba, my meager two bottles of water, six pack of beer, and one package of biltong (South African beef jerky) looked pretty skimpy next to the cooler full of wine, beer and other beverages and food brought by Pierre and Louie -- two South African veterans of the Wilderness Trails. In addition to the ultra friendly South Africans, our group included Andy and Anne from England, and Riccardo and Stefania from Italy. Our guides were the outgoing Aron and more taciturn Michael.

It was an hour and a half ride to our "bush camp," where the seven of us, our guides and the camp cook would stay. Our two man huts (I got my own!) were constructed of wood and elevated, with thatch roofs and ample screened windows to let in the breeze as much as possible. The camp was attractively sited high above the Olifants river, where we could hear hippo snorting their pleasure (or displeasure) in the pools below. The group mixed well, with much of the credit for this going to Pierre and Louie, who could not have been more genial and helpful. There was no "you're a rookie and I'm a veteran" attitude from these two, and their geniality kept the conversation flowing around the dinner table or campfire, at night.

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Hiking on foot through Kruger National Park -- with two armed guides, of course!

Our first hike the next morning came as a bit of surprise to me. I knew that the Wilderness Trails were set up to have an early morning and late afternoon hike, with time in between at the bush camp. I was unprepared for how brutally hot it would be. At about 10am, whatever nice breeze may exist turns into a hot wind. This heated breath sucks the energy out of you, and I found myself tired and dreaming of our open air, reed-screened shower by the time we arrived back at camp. I was also a bit surprised at how little game we saw, and how far away it was. All the pictures you see of these Wilderness Trails show hikers creeping close to rhino or elephant. Whether it was our guides' preference, or simply the way the trails actually are, we had no real "close encounters" afoot during our two days of hikes. Towards the end of the second day, when this discussion came up around the dinner table, I put forth MY interpretation on what the Wilderness Trails were really all about, asking Pierre and Louie if it rang true. I said:Hikers on the Olifants Wilderness Trail in Kruger National Park

The trails are about hiking and living in the bush. You see some great scenery and get the experience of actually staying within Kruger outside of the comfy confines of most rest camps. You are guaranteed you will see animals, but usually at a distance. You will likely get much, much closer to them in vehicles. If you are luckily, you will have a "close encounter" with some big game. Ours came as we were hiking through woods, when suddenly we heard a sound like a truck driving through the trees, flattening them. Pierre was the only one who actually saw the Black Rhino about 30 yards away, but the rest of us certainly heard it!

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Sunrise in Kruger National Park

Both Pierre and Louie said my summary of the Wilderness Trails was spot on, and they agreed 100%. Was I disappointed with the Olifants Wilderness Trail? No. It was just different than I'd expected. I saw some amazing scenery. I had several signature moments when I felt close to the heartbeat of the animal life in Kruger. One was when we were driving back to camp and our spot to ford a stream was occupied by an immense herd of Cape Buffalo. Watching the animals react as we s-l-o-w-l-y eased our way through the herd was incredible. Another signature moment came when we witnessed what I called the Baboon Domestic Violence Call. We were lounging in the Olifants River bed, when a nearby baboon troop broke out into a no hold barred scuffle. Louie pointed out that a baboon's challenge, "WAH-hol!" sounds like it's calling another "Asshole!" The struggle, which included periodic beating the crap out of young baboons, went on for about a half an hour, and was an amazing thing to watch and hear.

So, no, I wasn't disappointed -- it was simply different than I expected. I'll long remember those three days, and the friends I shared them with. I'll remember Riccardo, Stefania and I sitting up late one night under the stars, quizzing our guide Aron about his experiences in Kruger. I'll remember his stories of exactly why it was the leopard, of all Kruger's animals, that he said Kruger rangers are most wary of. I'll remember the sound of a nearby hippo garrumphing into the night, as I lay in my bed. My time in Kruger did indeed get off to an amazing start with the lions and Cape Buffalo, but it had a wonderful middle and equally amazing end, as well. The same could be said of my two weeks in South Africa -- days filled with beautiful scenery, amazing wildlife, and warm friendship.

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:10 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

Into the Mountain Kingdom

A Day Trip to Lesotho

sunny 80 °F

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A village in Lesotho - a tiny country completely inside South Africa

The names were evocative: The Mountain Kingdom, nestled behind its Barrier of Spears range of rocky peaks. Lesotho is the mountain shelter of the Basuto people, who used it historically as a fortress to resist the rampaging Zulu kingdom below. Since I was going to be in South Africa for a couple weeks, I wanted to get a glimpse of this little known country and its spectacular scenery.

My original plan was to enter Lesotho through the Sani Pass, home to the "highest pub in Africa" at Sani Top Chalet. However, the public transport connections didn't line up as well as I thought, so I changed plans on the fly and decided to take a one day visit there, sponsored by Amphitheatre Backpackers, where I was staying while visiting the Drakensberg Mountains. They've been running a day excursion to Lesotho for four years through a lesser known pass about an hour's drive away. Although I normally don't take guided tours, I felt the alternative used up too much time to justify the visit.

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Basuto Hat on village school principal

So, on an overcast Spring morning, seven of us piled into a Toyota Condor with our guide and began threading our way though the stark green hills of the Drakensberg Mountains. The bright green hillsides gave way to rocky brown as we turned off of the asphalt road and bounced our way steeply uphill on the gravel track leading to the border. At the top of the pass, the South African border post was quick and efficient, processing the departures of three Dutch, two German, one English and one American travelers. Continuing on, we chuckled as the guide pointed out a windowless trailer as the Lesotho border post. Only a short while later did we realize he wasn't joking -- the abandoned trailer WAS the unmanned post. All along the way up and down, though, we passed people walking to or from the border. South Africa's nearby towns were convenient places to shop or work for the isolated villagers on the Lesotho side.

Since it was Sunday, the usual visit to a village school was off. Our guide stopped in the first village to make a few contacts for stops later in the afternoon, then we drove to another charming village of round huts with thatched roofs, situated partway up a hillside. We parked the Condor and hiked uphill, as the sun broke through the haze and turned it into a gorgeous day. Along the way, we met the school principal in her traditional conical straw hat. She posed for a photo with her village in the background, making me promise to send her a copy. After ducking through a rocky cave, we came to a scenic overlook with the village and its valley spread out below us. Here we opened the boxed lunches Amphitheatre Backpackers had provided us. Our guide explained more of Basuto culture and that of the Bushmen, whose rock paintings we were on our way to see. I shared some of my overfilled box lunch with a couple village boys who'd tagged along behind us -- no one really needs to eat TWO cheese and tomato sandwiches! After lunch in the idyllic spot, we scrambled towards a rocky overhang and the Bushman paintings. The guide explained that archeologists think that the direction figures face in the paintings may function as signs pointing towards where abundant game was, or enemies lurked. The rockface looked featureless until he pointed out the animal outlines and bow armed figures. After that, the paintings and others were much easier to spot.

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Traditional, round Basuto huts in Lesotho

From the paintings, we hiked along the slope towards a nearby village, then back to the vehicle. We squeezed back inside, then squeezed some more when the guide allowed a village girl to catch a ride to our next stop. We bounced along rocky roads, forded two different streams, and traversed high hillsides with wonderful views. Plenty of folks were out on the road walking or shepherding goats or cattle along it, and each seemed to know our guide personally, greeting him with a laugh or a wave. He pointed out the one modern medical clinic in the area (open only one day a week by visiting nurses and doctors). At all other times, sick or injured villagers had to rely on the sangoma -- the local area healer, who we were on the way to visit.

When we arrived, I was mildly surprised to find the sangoma was a woman -- I'd figured in southern Africa's patriarchal society that position would be for a man only. Her round hut was cool and very dark on the inside. She sat on a mat beneath the one window whose bright sunlight reduced her to a silhouette. Through the guide's translation, she explained the involved process of how she was transformed from an ordinary domestic worker in South Africa to a Basuto sangoma. It'd involved an undiagnosable illness, dreams in which an uncle who was a sangoma explained her calling, and directions for her to follow to receive her training. After we heard her tale, we were encouraged to ask questions, which she answered through him. I was surprised how closely she said she worked with the staff of the modern clinic, referring villagers to them when their injuries were beyond her skill. I don't know why, but I'd expected an animosity or rivalry between the two schools of healing.

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My fellow travelers take in the views of the "Mountain Kingdom" - Lesotho

Afterwards, we went for a little Lesotho style medicine ourselves with a visit to a village shebeen, or tavern, where we'd sample local brew and food. The home brewery flew a yellow pennon, which is a way of informing villagers what type of beer it had for sale. There are three types of beer in Lesotho, represented by white, green or yellow flags. The white flag beer is made from grain, such as maize. The green flag beer is made from dagga -- the local marijuana. Some of my fellow travelers seemed disappointed that a green pennon wasn't flying that day! The yellow flag was for a fruit based beer, such as the pineapple beer, which we shared a huge jar of that afternoon. There was a definite sweet taste to it, I thought, though not much of a "carbonated," beer-like texture. It was a lot like a very sweet English cider.

From there, it was time to make our way back to the border before it closed for the night. The people of Lesotho continued to wave and smile at us, bedecked in their mix of traditional or modern clothing. Most of the men wore hats of one style or the other -- some the traditional, conical "Basuto Hat" -- others modern knit caps that were pulled up to give them a peak. Many wore rubber boots, or "Wellingtons," as the British refer to them. I guess they are practical apparel when most roads or tracks cross streams via fords rather than bridges. When we approached the border post, the sun slanting in from the west struck the Drakensberg Mountains into a blaze of color. We stopped to admire the view, then continued on, leaving the mountain kingdom of Lesotho -- and its charming people -- behind us.

Posted by world_wide_mike 19:59 Archived in Lesotho Comments (0)

Walking With the Wildlife in Swaziland

Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary is a great way to see the animals up close

sunny 86 °F

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The spectacular Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary seen from the front porch of Sondzela Backpackers

As I rounded a corner on the path, a warthog emerged from its den about five feet away. We both froze, eyeing each other cautiously (me checking out the length of its tusks, in particular). Although nowhere near as dangerous as a hippo, warthogs CAN do some damage if provoked. After snapping a couple photos, I edged slowly off the path -- which the warthog obviously regarded as ITS -- and began to circle past. After I'd gone what it judged far enough, its tail sprang upright and it jogged off down the path, allowing me to return to the trail.

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Unlike the Disney version, this warthog did not break out into song but eyed me warily

Close encounters with wildlife like this are what drew me to Swaziland and Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Because the preserve contains no predators, the animals allow you to approach quite closely. My run in with the warthog was only the first of many amazing, almost "petting zoo" close experiences with some of Africa's signature wildlife -- zebras, hippos, impala and more other types of antelope than I knew existed. You are free to hike throughout the park along its extensive trails. I spent two full days exploring Mlilwane, signing the hiking logbook each morning at the main camp so that the staff could keep track of me. I'd return each afternoon, footsore but happy, to Sondzela Backpackers Lodge -- the friendly and incredibly cheap place I stayed at inside the park.

Although Swaziland itself proved to be quite the bargain, significantly cheaper than South Africa, my method of getting there was one of my splurges in my two weeks in Africa. I bought a ticket on the Baz Bus, which is a hop-on, hop-off shuttle that runs throughout South Africa, but also stops in Swaziland. I purchased the Loop Ticket for $144, which allowed me to travel in a circle from Johannesburg to the Drakensberg Mountains, Durban, Swaziland, north to Nelspruit (near Kruger National Park), and back to Johannesburg. To fully take advantage of this wonderful service, the more time you can spend -- i.,e., the more stops you make along the way -- the more a bargain it becomes. Also, the Baz Bus actually picks you up from the place you're staying at and drops you off at your next Backpackers hotel or hostel on the way. Probably the best fringe benefit of the Baz Bus, though, is the group of "instant friends" you make on each leg of your journey, especially those stopping at the same destination. At each of my stops, the people I met on the Baz Bus proved to be those who I hung out with during my stay at that place. For a solo traveler, that's a great resource.

I'd arrived in Swaziland on the Baz Bus in the early evening, along with two Danes, Casper and Ulla, and a young German, Stefan. We were all staying at Sondzela Backpackers, as every guidebook you read recommends it highly. My first impressions weren't quite stellar -- the staff was late picking us up at the drop off point, the room accommodation seemed disorganized, but the place grows on you. The first positive was the price: My private room was 100 Lilangeni, or less than $15 a night (shared bathroom and toilet, but hey, who doesn't do that at home, too?). Then we ate our first Sondzela dinner (25L, or just over $3) around the campfire -- heaps of good, wholesome food. The staff then shuttled those of us who wanted to watch the free traditional Swazi dancing at the main Mlilwane camp. And the next morning, after a filling breakfast for about $2, things just got better when Stefan and I headed off to explore Mlilwane.

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Zebra are just one of the many types of animals you can seem roaming naturally through this preserve

We found the 15-minute trail which leads downhill from Sondzela to the main camp. As we crossed the stream, we came upon a herd of impala resting in the shade. We took the left turn ("Long Way") and saw zebra and kudu before reaching the camp. After signing the log, we met our first warthog, rooting peaceably by the sign announcing the start of the self-guided hiking trail. Before long, we had another close encounter as a hefty, shaggy male Nyala let us approach within arms length as he munched leaves off a bush. Then, we rounded the corner and had our warthog face off. Afterwards, I spotted a lone wildebeest off in the distance. About that time we also saw Casper and Ulla catching up with us on the trail (Stefan and I had been taking our time, enjoying the animal-rich environment). The Danes were headed up to Execution Rock trail, a six hour hike to the highest point in the park. Stefan decided to join them, while I would continue on alone on the shorter Hippo Pool trail.

As the others hiked off, I decided to see how close I could get to the wildebeest. He stood alone on a hill, facing me square on with his demon horns. I noticed the path intersected with a dirt road that ran by the base of his hill, so I exited the trail and moved closer. The wildebeest continued to stare me down as I got closer on the road, and began to emit loud, bull-like snorts. I later read this was how a wildebeest stakes out his territory -- standing on a hill in clear view, snorting. As I reached the edge of the road, his snorting got more intense, it seemed. So, I took a photo, backed away, and returned to the trail. I found out later that my friends had stopped to watch my encounter and got a good chuckle out of it.

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Hippos can be dangerous, which added a bit to the thrill of walking through the preserve

The path delved into the woods next, and the animals became scarcer. The path was quite scenic, though, often strewn with the purple petals of the lilac tree. As the trail meandered towards the hippo pond, I slowed down, pausing every so often to listen. I didn't want to blunder onto one unexpectedly, as hippos kill more people every year than any other animal in Africa. So, it was that I heard the hippos before I saw them. The second time I heard a sharp, puffing exhalation of air, I realized what it was: A submerged hippo surfacing and breathing. I crept along the trail which rose along the edge of an embankment, overlooking the pond. Eventually, I saw them. A group of about 4 hippos partially submerged just off a point of land. I raised my camera, zoomed in all the way, framing them, and -- beep, beep! My batteries died! Hurriedly, I switched a set of spares in, but in the meantime, the hippos noticed me and slowly sank until only their eyes and nostrils showed. I took a few shots, and then crept closer to an overlook about 20 yards from them. I stayed there, watching, snapping an occasional picture and enjoying the show. The four hippos actually did very little other than bob to the surface every now and then, flip their ears and keep an eye on me, but it was an amazing experience being so close to them. I kept my vigil for about half an hour, before moving on and returning to Sondzela Backpackers.

Hippos in the Hippo Pool at Milwane After a short nap, I caught a ride with the staff to an internet cafe on the main road to update family and friends. I then decided to hunt down a shop I'd read about called Swazi Candles, which is known throughout the region. I figured their candles would make nice gifts, so I asked directions at the internet cafe and flagged down one of the local minibus taxis. For 2L (about 15 cents), they dropped me about 10 minutes down the road. I looked around, but didn't see the store. Another passenger pointed to a dirt road and said to go down that road. He noticed a group of small children nearby and instructed them to guide me. When we reached the end of the road, it was obviously a residential drive and a dead end. One of the residents saw me, discovered what I was looking for, and ushered me (and my four tag-a-long kids, who obviously had NO idea where Swazi Candles was!) through a low spot in his barbed wire fence. He pointed through his farm fields to the next road. The white tourist and four Swazi children duly trekked through the fields and across the other main road. Yet another person pointed me to yet another dirt road, which I followed and eventually found the world famous, but well hidden, Swazi Candles. It was definitely worthwhile, though, as their products were gorgeous. I later saw them in the South Africa costing almost twice as much as I paid there.

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The view from atop Execution Rock

The next morning I planned on doing my friends' six hour hike to Execution Rock. Unlike the baking hot day they'd had, my morning dawned cool and misty. I was up at first light and retracing my steps through Mlilwane. If I'd thought I'd see a lot of wildlife the day before, there was twice as much in the early morning. I saw herds of wildebeest (non-snorting variety), zebra and antelope. When I came to where the I thought the trail to the peak diverged from the Hippo Trail, things started to go wrong. The rudimentary View from atop Exectution Rock in Milwanemap Sondzela provided actually proved to be an impediment. The more I tried to follow it, the more wrong turns I took. I should have simply "followed the bricks." Every couple hundred yards along the Mlilwane trails, the staff has placed a painted brick depicting a footprint, pointing in the direction you're supposed to go.

As it was, my six hour hike turned into a nine hour odyssey through corners of Mlilwane I'd never intended to visit. If I had no luck choosing the right path, I had great luck with wildlife, though. I saw new animals I hadn't the day before, including Bushbuck (who also snort), jackal and a couple varieties of monkeys. The view from atop Execution Rock was superb, despite the gray day (the first of my trip). It was looking only slightly bedraggled that I finally returned to Sondzela, where I was greeted by my friends, who were just returning themselves from a day of shopping in town. Shortly afterwards, the newest crop from the Baz Bus arrived, and it included some of Casper and company's friends from previous Baz Bus legs. The evening only got merrier, at that point. Since a good number of us were leaving in the morning, we had a going away party that night. Which brings me to another way that Sondzela "grows" on you: Beer prices. Their fairly well stocked bar charges just a bit over one dollar for a beer (or Savannah Dry Cider, which Casper and I were drinking). We had great fun that evening, and everyone exchanged e-mail addresses and promised to update the others on our travels.

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Meeting like-minded travelers on the road, and sharing a drink with them, is one of the highlights of traveling

After a hearty breakfast the next morning, I boarded the shuttle to the main road, then hopped on the Baz Bus with my new friends, and headed out of Swaziland. I took with me memories of many close encounters with Mlilwane's wildlife, and new friendships made with my fellow travelers.

Posted by world_wide_mike 20:17 Archived in Swaziland Comments (0)

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