A Travellerspoint blog

On a Zodiac Searching for Whales

Fun on the sea in the Azores

sunny 65 °F

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A dolphin leaps put of the water alongside our zodiac boat

I had never been on a whale watching tour before, but the Azores were supposed to be a great place to go on one. The best months for viewing were April through June, supposedly, but I figured it was worth an attempt. There was no money back guarantee at Terra Azul, the tour company I chose. A plus on their side, though, was they went out in a zodiac - an inflatable rubber boat - as opposed to a larger vessel. This would let them get closer to the animals. The reviews I read on TripAdvisor praised them, but warned that people often get seasick. The zodiacs go very fast, and the company recommended a light breakfast (at most) before getting on board. To be safe, I chose no breakfast - not even a glass of orange juice.

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The dolphins often approached within an arm’s length of the boat

There was a sighting board with some disheartening statistics posted outside the office where the passengers checked in. No whales had been spotted the last four days, and only three in the entire month of February. Every day had spotted either Bottlenose, Striped, or Common Dolphins, though. After our briefing, we geared up with life jackets and waterproof jackets (they warned their would be “spray”). I wore five layers - t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, hooded sweatshirt, suede travel jacket, and rain jacket. I was never cold on the entire cruise, no matter how fast our captain gunned it! Interestingly, you straddle a padded cushion in your aluminum seat, which is also well-padded. This helps you stay upright and inside the boat when it hits a big wave and bounces high.

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The pods of Common and Striped Dolphins we encountered often surfaced in groups

On our initial high speed cruise to the best viewing spots in the ocean, I felt a slight uneasiness in my stomach. I focused on scanning the waves looking for fins or spray or other signs of marine life. The initial ride was the worst part. After that, I never really felt queasy. I was too into the experience and trying to spot whales or dolphins. At some point, the guide (a marine biologist) spotted a pod of dolphins and we were soon alongside them, where he cut the engine. Then dolphins swam closer and closer until they were directly alongside our zodiac.

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Although we were disappointed to not spot any whales, the playful dolphins made up for it

Then began the frantic game of trying to capture them with my camera as they surfaced to breathe, or even jump, before they disappeared back into the water with a splash. I had my camera set on automatic, and slowly felt I was getting better and better at getting shots of the group of Common Dolphins. When we started up the engines and began to cruise away, the pod invariably followed us. They could keep up really well. This was my favorite part. You could see them just beneath the surface, their broad white stripe clearly visible in the clear blue water. I trained my camera on them, finger poised over the shutter button. Sometimes, I knew my pictures were snapped too late. Other times, I felt I timed it well. I just hoped the photos would not be blurry.

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Just a tad blurry, or this would be my favorite shot

Later, I experimented and put it on “Sports” mode. I discovered that was where I should have had it on my digital SLR camera all along! That setting enabled my to keep taking a series of shots as I held my finger down on the button. It was fun trying to anticipate where the dolphins would surface. We came alongside several pads over the course of the three hour cruise. We spotted both Striped Dolphins, too - though, honestly, they looked the same to me. It was incredible when the guide deployed the underwater microphone and we could hear them communicating with each other. Dolphins are such amazing creatures, and the marine biologist had all kinds of information about them. Apparently, They can be super-aggressive towards other species, and have been know to try to mate with other sea mammals, as well.

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Approaching Ilheu da Villa, just outside the harbor of Vila Franca do Campo, Sao Miguel

After encountering and taking pictures of several dolphin pods, our guide informed us that our two spotters on the coast had yet to locate any whales. Instead, we would range out further looking and hoping to encounter some. He explained how to spot a whale blowing spray and to differentiate it from a wave splash. I pulled my hood tight as the captain gunned the zodiac’s engines and we took off. The zodiac bounced along, obviously airborne at times. The other passengers reacted with shrieks and giggles. The jolting was never uncomfortable, I felt. Instead, I mentally channeled my inner child and thought, “Wheeeeeee!” while enjoying the ride.

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I had fun zooming way in on things with my telephoto lens, like these seagulls

We came up empty, though. Sadly, there would be no whales spotted, today. We did get to check out a really cool rocky island just off the coast that I had spotted on the drive to Furnas, yesterday. It is a giant volcanic plug with vegetation growing on it. During the 1800s, it was inhabited by a wealthy family. At other times, it was a whale blubber burning station. Now, it is vacant, but you can see the relics of its former days as you cruise slowly around it. I switched between my Digital SLR (which had my telephoto lens on it) and my iPhone camera. I did the same as we cruised along the coast, taking pictures of the villages perched on their cliffs and shining in the brilliant sun. Although I had not been lucky with the whales, I hit jackpot with the weather. It was an amazing, warm, beautiful sunny day out on the water. I had fun taking pictures of the dolphins, so I didn’t consider the 55 Euros wasted.

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Zooming in on a town on the coastline of Sao Miguel, Azores

Hungry once back on land, I checked out a TripAdvisor recommended restaurant - the snack bar for the local volunteer firefighters (or bombeiros, a much cooler sounding name in Portuguese). I tried a local favorite sandwich. Picture a ham and steak sandwich, with an egg on top, placed in a wide, shallow bowl of tomato soup. It was interesting. Not sure I would order it again, but it was a filling first meal of the day at noon.

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The dramatically sited lighthouse of Farol Ponta do Arnel on the northeast coast

Next, it was off to a scenic lighthouse at Farol Ponta do Arnel, on the northeast coast of the island of Sao Miguel. The reviews I’d read said it was gorgeously sited along a rugged coast. It was reached by an astonishing 35% grade asphalt road that was NOT recommended for tourists to attempt. Non-locals were encouraged to park at the lot along the main road up top and walk down and back up. I took the advice, and found the walk much shorter than it implied. It took me less than 20 minutes to walk back up the 35% grade - which WAS the steepest road that I have ever encountered!

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The rugged coastline near the lighthouse

The scenery was nice - not as good as Sete Cidades or Sera Devassa, though. Still, the rugged green cliffs and waterfall tumbling down the escarpment were pleasant follow up to the whale watching tour. There were a number of tiny cottages perched along the road between the top and the tiny concrete pier for fishing boats on the waterside. The cottages all had balconies facing the magnificent view. I could imagine it would be a wonderful place for a writer to spend his days, staring out at the panorama of cliff and sea during the day, and listening to the crash of waves upon rock in the evenings. The lighthouse was white with red trim and looked pristinely kept up. Apparently, they do tours on Wednesdays, which I think would be very interesting.

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More beautiful coastline on Sao Miguel’s north shore

I had been using Apple maps for my GPS to navigate around the island. Other than an early hiccup, it worked very well. Today was its swan song. It routed me along the northern coast, which I had yet to visit. This coast is very scenic and has a number of miradors, or scenic viewpoints, that are well signposted and have ample parking to pull off. I stopped and took pictures at here or four of them, enjoying the sunshine and excellent views. Driving in the Azores was relatively easy, except for the incredibly narrow streets in town. The roads themselves are well paved for the most part, but also narrow. I would highly recommend anyone reasonably confident driving (and navigating) choose that as a way to get around.

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I was glad the GPS routed me along the coastal drive

This was my last full day in the Azores. There were a number of firsts on this day, and it was a fitting way to close out the trip. I would have a little time tomorrow to walk to some sights around town. Hopefully, that would provide new experiences, as well.

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Cows and scenic views — two staples of scenery on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:53 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

An Easy Hike Around a Volcanic Lake

Furnas provides a day of rest for my battered feet

rain 57 °F

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Pleasant lakeside views and an easy path soothe the feet and soles of a weary hiker

Day three started off promising with my first sighting of a group of pilgrims. The pilgrims are called Romeros, and they walk from town to village across Sao Miguel for seven days. They eat only food given to them and either sleep on a church floor or are welcomed into homes by the inhabitants. The tradition started in the 1800s when the inhabitants were seeking God’s mercy for a series of earthquakes that had devastated the island. The group of men I saw were leaving the village of Furnas and headed to the Chapel of Nossa Senhora das Vitorias. At the airport, there were signs warning those renting cars to be on the lookout for groups of pilgrims on the island’s winding, narrow roads. The twenty of so pilgrims were all men, from young to old, clad in the traditional apparel of hat, cloak, and walking staff.

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A group of pilgrims - called Romeros - trek towards a ruined chapel on the shores of Furnas

I was in Furnas to hike around the volcanic lake, with active steam vents bubbling muddily along one shore. The hike would be the easiest one I did on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores. In truth, it was supposed to be my whale watching day. However, the tour operator postponed the trip to Thursday on account of the low clouds and spitting rain that morning promised. My feet and shins were still sore from my first two days of hiking, so Furnas was chosen because it was mostly level, and would be a nice rest. The only steep climbs or descents were at the beginning and end and along paved roads.

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More than a dozen steam vents, bubbling with boiling mud, cluster along one shore of the volcanic lake

Unlike the lakes at Serra Devassa and some at Sete Cidades, Furnas lake looks like any other lake. No odd colorings hint at minerals bubbling beneath the surface. This is a blue lake and with the wide easy path surrounding it, the Furnas hike reminded me of a walk in any urban park with a large pond or small lake. Of course, the lake quickly reveals its volcanic nature early in the hike as trekkers encounter the hot springs. These are visited by wooden boardwalks, and view a dozen or more percolating holes or pools. The rotten egg smell of sulfur is rank in the air, and clouds of vapor are blown away by the breeze.

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I was surprised to see bamboo growing thickly along the trail surrounding the lake

One unique tradition is the islanders create special dishes cooked in these hot springs. The pot is buried in a vent and covered with earth. Although I never found any of these dishes on the menu, there were about a dozen buried pots, each labeled with a sign advertising the restaurant where you could purchase Furnas’ culinary talents. It reminded me of Iceland’s amazing black bread, which is baked in steam vents on that geothermal island.

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Hikers Ford a stream by a line of stepping stones placed in the water

The walk around the lake was pleasant and easy, and only the misting rain and persistent clouds kept it from being even more enjoyable. Furnas is no Sete Cidades (or even a Serra Devassa) when it comes to scenery. There are no dramatic towering calderas, and no vistas that go on forever. Probably the most interesting sights are the plant life. The variety in this area is mind boggling. A wall of bamboo runs along the pathway on one side of the lake. Beautiful orangish-red Japanese cedars hem in the trail on another. There is a side trail that leads to a towering Sequioa tree. It was later explained to me that many Azorean immigrants returning home to the islands brought back plants from all corners of the globe to replenish the island’s plant life.

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A local woodcarver dots the path with his creations, including “Furnie” - the Azores answer to the Loch Ness monster

Another humorous addition to the pathway around Furnas are the carved animal sculptures. A local artist created these and placed them every quarter mile or so. My favorite was “Furnie” - the island’s equivalent to the Loch Ness monster. Unfortunately, no spotting of Furnie were to be had that day, though the misty, gray day was appropriate for the Caledonian cousin.

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This red stone chapel built in the 1800s stands vigil over the far end of the lake

The most interesting historic sight on the trek is the Chapel of Nossa Senhora das Vitorias, finished in 1886. It was commissioned by a gentleman-farmer of the region, distraught over the terminal illness of his wife. It’s rich red color comes from the local stone used for its brickwork. Both Jose do Canto and his wife lie alongside each other inside the chapel. This Taj Mahal aspect to the chapel’s origin, along with its Gothic lines and spire, make it a striking addition to the island’s religious sites. To visit it, you need to pay 3 Euros to enter the more than 200-year-old gardens. A bonus to the entry fee is the 30-minute hike to a charming waterfall, and the garden’s inclusion of a towering Sequoia tree.

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A waterfall is an add-on to the Furnas hike, tucked away in a more than two century old garden with plants from all over the world

The walk ends with a steep climb and steep descent to the lookout point of Pico da Areia. The modern antennas and humming machinery distract only a little from the sweeping views of Furnas and the surrounding villages. The white houses and buildings clustered in rows down the town’s main streets. Occasional brightly-colored buildings stood out in the panorama. Farmsteads and cow pastures, along with patches of dark forest, completed the picture. The very steep descent was a cruel end to the hike, but the footing was secure on the asphalt road. Walking through town, I enjoyed the brightly-painted tiles that families set outside their doorways. Invariably religious themes, they gave a splash of color to the whitewashed street. Since it was a day of rest, in essence, I sought out a local snack bar and enjoyed a late lunch/early dinner, washed down with a local beer. The sun was finally coming out, and my feet had been given a rest from their workout on the Azorean hills the last couple days.

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The town of Furnas sprawls throughout this wooded, rural valley

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:39 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Along the Rim of an Extinct Volcano

Blue skies and beautiful views reward hikers to Sete Cidades

sunny 61 °F

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The view from atop the rim of the extinct volcano, looking down at the lakes of Sete Cidades

Today’s hike to Sete Cidades would be the highlight of the tour, I was guessing. This massive volcanic caldera features two lakes , one green and one blue, separated by a tiny sliver of land. There are actually other smaller lakes inside the cone, too, but these two are the image you see on tourism photographs promoting the Azores. You begin the hike in a parking lot and gradually start to the climb. Once atop the caldera, you hike along the rim about halfway around its circle.

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Looking back down at the steep ascent near the beginning of the hike

The path is wide for most of its nearly seven miles. Like all the hikes in the Azores, it seems, it is very well maintained and signposted. On this one, though, you can hardly lose your way. You are literally following the rim of the crater. Looking down inside the bowl, you see one beautiful view after another. The town of Sete Cidades is spread along the largest lake, its white houses gleaming in the sun. Farms and forests are also laid out beneath you, curving slowly down to the water’s edge. A beautiful blue sky arched above, with only occasional whisps of white clouds momentarily dimming the sun.

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The path winds along the rim of the extinct volcano’s cone

The caldera’s rim looks jagged and steep from a distance, but as you approach each bend, you see its edges have been worn down over the millennia. There are no vertiginous drops to set your heart pounding. The path is so wide that cars can and do drive along its dirt and pebble surface. However, on my trek, perhaps only three to four drove past - so it is not a common thing. I saw far more hikers, but Sete Cidades’ vast length swallows them up, and you mostly have the walk to yourself.

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In the caldera’s bowl, farms and pastureland are bordered by dark forests sloping down to the lakeshores

This is one of those hikes where every view seems to be better than the last. I took dozens and dozens of photographs, all the while wondering how I would ever sort through them all. I had saved this hike for the day the weather forecast promised would be the sunniest. The beautiful skies held true, and the gorgeous views followed, one after another. High atop the rim, the wind often whipped at my jacket and hat mightily. All day long, I would pull up the hood of my jacket to secure my hat, and for once stretch, I clipped it to my belt to keep it from flying off. Some parts of the hike were sheltered from the wind, though. Stands of trees would shield the path, or the way itself had worn down into the soft soil deep enough to be recessed and out of the wind.

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As the steeps sides of the rim tumble down towards the water, they are densely clad in thick, almost jungle-like greenery

The views into the crater were stunning, but the ones looking away from it and down onto the coastal countryside were nice, too. The sea came into view, and the rural landscape of farm, village, and pastureland spread out beneath me. Judging by the number of cows I would see, dairies must be common in the Azores. Surrounded on all sides by the Atlantic Ocean for thousands of miles, the islands must get lots of rain. The greenery is persistent throughout Sao Miguel, providing acres of pastureland. In fact, I saw a lot more pastures than fields of crops, so perhaps the soil is too spongy and moist for farmland.

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Looking away from the volcano, views of rural Sao Miguel life stretched towards the sea

Towards the end of the hike, the path descends towards the town of Sete Cidades. Strangely, it leaves the wide road it had been following, and instead shrinks into narrow, rocky and very steep path. This was the only part of the hike were the footing was treacherous, at times. Looking at the map, though, the dirt road it had been following arcs around to virtually the same destination. It was if the path suddenly was in a hurry to get into town. I saw other hikers not take the turn off that I did, and follow the gradual road instead. It was a strange end, but there were some nice views as I descended sharply.

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Gorgeous sunshine illuminated the hike throughout my trek, shimmering off the water far below

Once in town, it seemed mostly deserted. Perhaps many of the homes are weekend or vacation homes. This being low season, maybe that is why they seemed empty? I used my cell phone’s map feature to locate a restaurant, and it seemed one of the few places with people around. I enjoyed a late lunch and rewarded myself with an Azorean beer. The hike had taken nearly five hours, with lots of ups and downs along the ancient volcano’s rim. Spring is definitely not the busy season here, but I saw more other travelers on this hike than anywhere else in the Azores. I could tell my legs would be sore the next day. However, I was glad I did this hike. Sete Cidades didn’t disappoint. It was a day of rewarding hiking and incredible views.

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A tiring but rewarding day’s hike

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Zooming in on the gorgeous scenery below with my telephoto lens

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Farm on the outskirts of the town of Sete Cidades

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:25 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

First Day of Hiking

Seeing the amazing scenery of the Azores up close

sunny 62 °F

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Looking down at Lagoa das Eguas sul on my hike

I had chosen the Azores as my spring break destination for one reason: the hiking. The islands were formed by volcanic activity and many of the hills you see were former calderas. A lot of them have mountain lakes inside their circular depression. That, combined with the lush green landscape, and the dark zig zags of pine forests, makes for stunning scenery. Prior to leaving, I’d picked out a number of the islands’s well-maintained hiking trails. There was even a GPS-enabled app called WalkMe to help you get to and stay on the trail.

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The otherworldly scenery of the Azores on the Serra Devassa hike

Shortly after unpacking at my hotel in the largest town on the island of Sao Miguel, Punta Delgado, it was off to my first hike. Called Serra Devassa, it takes you from barrren, grass-clad hilltops, through pine and scrub forests, and around a handful of lakes. The climb in some parts was steep, but the trail is mostly wide and very easy to follow. The trails often follow ridge lines, which means you have sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. It is sparsely inhabited, with only occasional farms or the black and white dots of cows grazing.

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The verdant countryside earns Sao Miguel the nickname of the Green Island

An dark stone aqueduct is visible not too far away, much of moss-clad and crumbling, disused. Roads loops among the hillsides, but traffic is sparse. Less than a quarter of a million live on the Archipelago, which was colonized during the Age of Discovery by Portugal. Many of the buildings that dot the countryside are traditional whitewashed with orange tile roofs, though you see modern structures as well.

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A close up of the stone aqueduct built in the 1800s to supply Ponta Delgado with water

I stopped to take pictures often, and stretched the one to two hour hike (according to the app) into four hours. Of course, there was the extra half hour climb to the mirador do Pico do Paul, with great views across the island. The trek passed by five lakes, with views of a couple more. Some more blue, some green, and some a tannin-like brown, speckled with floating vegetation. Very little wildlife was seen - other than bright green finches, another dark blue and black bird, and an occasional seagull. Strangely, every tiny pool of water - too small to be called a pond - was host to a frog rave with dozens of amphibians singing along to some bizarre, frog tune.

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Pau Pique, another extinct volcanic cone, contains a tiny oval lake in the remains of its crater

The soil of the island seems to be mossy and was often very spongey. More than once I stepped off the trail to get a better angle and felt my hiking boots sinking in the moist ground. Looking at the vivid greens, it seemed to me the Azores must receive lots of rain. Of course, they are in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean, about two thirds of the way from the U.S. towards the Mediterranean. That made me doubly glad for the bright, sunny day I was enjoying.

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The surrounding green countryside, with its dark patches of pine forest zig-zagging across the island

By the time I reached the parking lot, I was pretty worn out. The flight hadn’t arrived till about 9am, and I had slept less than two hours on the five and a half hour flight from Toronto. My usual crappy luck meant I had the standard crying baby two rows ahead, and directly behind me, Mr. Tuberculosis. Every time I began to doze off, he would try to hack up a lung onto the back of my seat. Light sleepers like me can never count on getting any shut eye on overnight flights. So, I was beginning to drag by the end and was happy to see the car.

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More mountain and lake vistas on the Serra Devassa hike

After dinner, I tried to write this entry into my blog, but kept nodding off. That’s why I am a day behind, and will likely remain so on this short, five day trip. Tomorrow’s hike was likely the most scenic on the island, so I went to bed looking forward to more amazing sights in the Azores.

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I will have to research why the colors of Sao Miguel’s lakes are so varied

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:49 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

An Unexpected Day in Toronto

Canceled spring break flight allows me to check out a great museum

sunny 39 °F

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A half hour out from the Toronto airport, my phone buzzed to inform me my flight had been cancelled. I was rebooked onto another flight from Toronto to the Azores islands. Tomorrow night. At midnight. Sigh. Luckily, the airline sprung for a nice airport hotel through 7pm the next day, along with some meals. After checking in, and changing all my reservations, it was off the 3 Brassuers brewpub. I posted on my Facebook the question that I finally had a chance to research: what to do with a day to spare in Canada’s premier city?
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One of my friends recommended the Royal Ontario Museum. Checking out their website, I was definitely intrigued. I am a History buff through and through, and it looked like they had an amazing collection. The other contender was the CN Tower, but at $50 for a scenic view on a cloudy day, I opted for the museum, and am very glad that I did! The big choice was which of the special exhibits I wanted to see. They had three, and they hadn’t packages that included two with the museum entrance for about $35. The choices were:
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- Treasures of a Desert Kingdom: the Royal Arts of Jodhpur
- Zuul: the Life of an Armored Dinosaur
- Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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I have to be honest. The only reason I eliminated the dinosaur was that it would be a weekend, and I imagined throngs of shrieking kids would plague that exhibit. Seeing how many kids were in the museum’s other sections - especially the animals exhibits - I am glad that I made the choice that I did. Finding parking was a bit of a challenge, but I found a college sports field nearby that had an automated parking meter and small lot. A 10 minute walk and I was there. I started off taking the elevator to the third floor, which was pretty much the world history section. I started in the South Asia section, with amazing statuary of Buddha’s and other religious art. There were even suits of armor from Sassanian Persian mounted warriors, as well as Ottoman soldiers.
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There was also an incredible ancient history section, too. It included four to five thousand year old figurines and seals from Ur and Sumeria. I think I saw more cylinder seals there than I had seen in my 56 years, to this point. The museum also had Assyrian relief carvings, votive figurines, weapons, and more. Everything in the South Asia section seemed kind of mixed together, but once I left that slice of the museum, it was more separated by civilizations.
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Egypt was next, with lots of sarcophagi, mummies, statues, and relief carvings. There were even entire wall sections of temple or funerary complexes. I saw mummified cats and even crocodiles. The Egyptian section was very well organized by periods. And they did a great job putting all the artifacts in context. It blended seamlessly into the section on Rome - probably my favorite Ancient civilization. There were lots of statues and busts - all doing a great job of illustrating Rome’s very realistic style of artwork. The Royal museum also covered other Mediterranean civilizations well - Greeks from Minoan and Mycenaean Times, through the Dark Age “Geometric” period, into classical Greece, Hellenistic period, and more. There was more Etruscan artifacts than I had ever seen, plus a great section on Cyprus through the Ancient period.
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The last exhibit before my late lunch break was the Wildlife Photograper of the Year section. These were huge, video screen enlargements of about 50 photos. Not all were from the winner, though. There was a nice variety of types of photography - animal, macro, scenic - you name it, it was the most crowded the museum had been all day, though, which was annoying (but probably unavoidable on a weekend).
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The Royal museum lets you leave and re-enter, so a lunch break was next. There are a number of fast food and other restaurants across the street, so I ducked across and had a sandwich and pop to re-energize myself. On my return, it was time to hit up the special Jodhpur exhibit. I was honestly a bit disappointed with it, even though it was interesting. The bulk of the exhibit was paintings of court life in Jodhpur. The paintings were incredibly colorful, detailed, and interesting. I just expected more artifacts. There was a very cool Mughal pavilion, a nice collection of jewelry, and lots of clothes and vestements. It seemed very centered on the royal family of Jodhpur, but considering they are the ones who donated everything, not surprising.
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I finished my visit off with the First Peoples exhibits. There were some very interesting artifacts, including birchbark canoes, Indian apparel, weapons, and more. I was surprised to see the actual compass case and medallion given to Tecumseh. However, the British in Canada aided the Shawnee leaders’ attempt to form an Indian coalition against the Untied States, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I was dragging by this point, I have to admit. I had been in the museum for nearly five hours and was done.
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I headed back to the hotel to stretch out in my hotel room before my overnight flight to the Azores. The Royal museum was a great way to spend an unexpected day in Toronto. I highly recommend it to anyone who has a day to kill in Toronto!
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Posted by world_wide_mike 19:18 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Mexico's Sunny Beaches

The joys of non-revving (airline employee travel)!

sunny 90 °F

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El Arco, Cabo San Lucas' trademark site

We landed in Cabo San Lucas Friday afternoon. My first impression was: "Ye Gads, it's hot!" And more humid than I remembered Baja Mexico being! The only breeze I felt in the terminal was myself whisking through Immigration and customs. The officials were a bit wiser when it came to Allen and Sharon. They inspected their luggage, leaving mine untouched. The face of innocence is unmistakable. That of guilt is equally so.

We caught a cab to our hotel, which was a windy 40 minutes away from the airport. I was encouraged that the countryside didn't look as poor as it did the last time I was there. I hope some of the tourist dollars are reaching the ordinary people. We arrived at the hotel, which seemed to have trouble finding our rooms. As a matter of fact, the room they gave me was occupied! Imagine my (and the senorita's) surprise as I attempted to enter the room!

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A trip to Mexico's Cabo San Lucas is hardly complete with plopping down on a strip of sand

The La Finisterra Hotel was gorgeous, though, with nice views of the Pacific's waves crashing down onto the beach directly below us. Our pool area was a blue and straw fantasyland, with swim-up bar. We headed to the Whale Watcher bar for our free "Welcome" margaritas. After a couple rounds of drinks, we decided to set off into town. This proved to be our big party night. Lynda had margaritas in all the cool places -- a killer one at the Giggling Marlin (where Allen cruelly forced me to have a Tequila slammer), and a special, huge "Waborita" at Van Halen's Cabo Wabo bar. I think that was where Lynda (and Sharon), officially became "slammed."

The heat in all but the air-conditioned Cabo Wabo was oppressive. We danced and drank anyway. Allen and Lynda absconded back to the hotel slightly earlier than Sharon and I. Allen, an evil man, made poor Lynda climb "the hill" to our hotel (it is so steep they have a shuttle which runs just from the top to the bottom for guests). Meanwhile, I dragged Sharon off to grab something to eat, we danced a little more, then headed home. Like a paragon of gentlemanly virtue (unlike Allen), I paid for a cab for our journey home.

The next morning we did the obligatory Time Share spiel (not really, but you got $70 credit in food and drink for suffering through it). We listened politely, said No, collected our credit, and proclaimed "Pool Time!" It was great, floating away in the pool, without a care in the world (A cliche? Ah, well -- I'm relaxing! Writing's tough work!). As noon neared, we started in on the drinks. Lunch at our Whale Watcher Bar/Restaurant followed, naps, then back into the town. This time for shopping more than drinks.

Sunday proved to be a disappointment as the sea was too rough for the snorkeling trip we'd planned. So, it was back to the pool. Life was, indeed, rough. Basically, it was a repeat of Saturday.

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Looking back at the town of Cabo San Lucas from our boat trip to the arch

On the day we left, we took a morning boat trip to the arches of Land's End. The sea was less rough that day. However, "rough seas" are a relative term. When we neared El Arco, where the calmer Sea of Cortes meets the Pacific Ocean, there were some pretty massive swells for our tiny glass-bottomed boat. Normally packed Lover's Beach was deserted (too choppy to land) and the sea-lion colony was hiding out elsewhere. Still, the scenery is really neat around there and we got some decent pictures.

Posted by world_wide_mike 21:13 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Mexico's Ancient Ruins

So much History to see in the Mexico City area!

sunny 80 °F

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Not far from Mexico City, Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Sun with the Pyramid of the Moon in the backgroud

I've explained before my concept of a Back Pocket Trip. This is a place you've done some research on and picked out to go to when plans for your original destination fall through. As idea after idea was dashed this past March, Jenny and I reached into our pockets and pulled out a gem: The pyramids of Mexico.

As I did even more research in the weeks leading up to the trip, I began to wonder why I hadn't undertaken this one before. The Mexico City area has a wealth of Ancient ruins, pyramids and temples -- way more than I'd thought. Paring the list of ones we'd like to see down to a half dozen or so was difficult. We wanted to minimize the amount of time we'd spend in transit, though, so we decided to base ourselves out of Mexico City. From there, we further narrowed it down to sites within two hours of the city, on its excellent bus network. Everything we'd read steered us away from attempting to rent a car and drive ourselves. Two excellent resources were "Archeological Mexico" by Andrew Coe, and the website of George and Audrey Delange, who in a half dozen trips to Mexico, have managed to see more than 70 different Aztec, Toltec, Mayan, etc., archeological sites, and feature tons of photos and interesting accounts of their visits to each.

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We met up with George and Audrey Delange, who have a great web page for visiting Mexico's Ancient ruins

So compelling is their site that Jenny and I actually began our trip by visiting George and Audrey! They live in Phoenix (where our flight to Mexico City departed from), and we arrived the evening before so we could meet them. George and Audrey were excellent hosts. They drove to our hotel, picked us up, and took us to dinner in their favorite Mexican restaurant. We spent hours talking with them about Mexico, other trips, and our lives in general. The time we spent with them erased the bad start we'd had to the trip (flights were so full out of Columbus, we didn't get out till two days later than we'd planned), and got us off on the right foot for our journey to Mexico.

The omens seemed to improve even more when we were upgraded to first class on our flight from Phoenix to Mexico City (nowadays, a rarely obtained perk for airline employees). To save money, Jenny and I had planned on extensive use of the city's subway system. The price of less than 20 cents a ride is hard to argue with, and Jenny and I pretty much used it -- and walking -- as our exclusive means of transportation within the city. We took the subway from the airport to Hotel Roble, in the historic center (which required three connections, but taxis are about $25 there: "Hmmm...$25 or 20 cents...which one...?).

After checking in, we decided to visit one of the many Aztec sites within the city, itself. We headed north to the Tlatelolco, or the Plaza of Three Cultures. It is named that for the Aztec ruins, Spanish church and modern apartment buildings which are all essentially in the same plaza. George and Audrey recommended it, and we figured it was close enough to get to before closing time. A gentle drizzle fell while we slowly paced around the ruins, which prompted me to tease "Jamaica Jenny" -- who claims an amazing ability to draw rain to her wherever she goes for vacation. I'd seen it firsthand last year in Jamaica, thus the nickname. Tlatelolco was an interesting primer for our upcoming overload of ancient Mexican sites, and the attendants were gracious and let us stay nearly a half hour past closing time to take it all in.

That night, we discussed how to rearrange our sightseeing schedule, since we'd lost the two days getting out of Columbus. Monday (the next day -- our first full one in Mexico), was a bit of a problem. Many archeological sites in Mexico are closed on Monday. Our guidebooks (in addition the Coe book, we also took Joyce Kelly's "An Archeological Guide to Central and Southern Mexico") listed the times for each site, and it seemed only two were open tomorrow: Tula, an hour and a half north of Mexico City, and Teotihuacan -- a world class site only about 45 minutes from town. We thought it'd be a good idea to save Teotihuacan for last -- build to a climax -- and do Tula on Monday. That plan was dashed when we arrived at Mexico City's "North" bus station, and were told Tula is also closed on Monday. So, Teotihuacan it was! Start at the top!

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Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Moon

Teotihuacan is dominated by the Pyramids of the Moon and the Sun (which is the third largest in the world). It is a huge site, the main street along which most of the temples, plazas and pyramids are located is more than a mile long. The street is atmospherically called the Avenue of the Dead. That name, though, along with the Sun and the Moon are not necessarily what the builders called them, though, because Teotihuacan is a bit of mystery. With many ancient Mexican sites, archeologists know who built them, i.e., Tula is Toltec, Cacaxtla was likely Olmec, and so on. They have little clue as to the identity of the original builders of Teotihuacan. Later cultures like the Toltecs and Aztecs knew about the place, and some even used the buildings for sacred ceremonies. However, who the Teotihuacanos were is still a mystery.

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Glyphs on a column at Teotihuacan

What is certain, though, is that Teotihuacan is one of the most amazing places in Mexico. Jenny and I spent an entire day tramping around the ruins, climbing temples and pyramids, and marveling over murals that have survived more than a thousand years to today. And somehow, Jenny's jinx made for only about 10 minutes of rain sprinkles -- the rest of the day was gorgeous, sunny and warm! Our guidebooks were great, and we were able to follow our progress on the maps, read about the various buildings, and experience it fully as if we had an English-speaking guide. More importantly, we could take our time visiting the site, and not be hurried through it like tour guides often do. The view from atop the pyramids of the Moon and Sun was panoramic. Teotihuacan was the only site we visited that was thronged with tour groups -- mostly Mexican school children (dressed in identical athletic apparel). There was a constant line ascending the towering Pyramid of the Sun, despite its breathtaking steepness. Nevertheless, Teotihuacan is such an overpowering place that its appeal wore through the crowds, and we had a magnificent day.

In our original trip plans, Jenny and I had planned on staying two days in Puebla -- a city two hours east of the capital. There were three distinctly different sites in the Puebla area that we wanted to see, and we figured it would take about that long, including travel time. I proposed that we still try to do all three, but as a day trip from Mexico City. I suggested that, upon arrival at the bus station in Puebla, we hire a taxi to shuttle us to all three sites (and leave us at the third, Cholula, where we would take a bus back to the capital). Jenny agreed, and we got started early Tuesday morning to give us the maximum amount of time that day. In Puebla, we quickly found a couple of the independent taxi drivers and began our bargaining. We must have negotiated a good price (300 pesos -- little less than $30), because one of them absolutely refused to do it for that amount, while the other accepted.

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Under the covered roof at Cacaxtla

The first site on our list was Cacaxtla, which is a palace complex located atop a hill covered by a 459 foot by 230 foot metal roof. The roof is to protect the amazing murals that Cacaxtla is known for. The most famous is called the Battle Mural. This six foot high mural is 72 feet long, and its bright blue and red colors are still vibrant today. Archeologists have had long discussions over the POINT of this mural, why it was painted, and what are the politics behind it. It depicts Jaguar Knight warriors slaughtering Eagle Knights. The ancient peoples of Mexico had military "orders," or associations, named after certain animals -- jaguars and eagles being most popular. Their colorful uniforms were even made to resemble that animal. The mural is done in a very southern, Mayan style, and the faces of the victorious Jaguar knights look very Mayan, while the defeated Eagle Knights look more Aztec (and this in the heart of Aztec country, so to speak). Whatever the truth behind the mystery of the mural, it is an exciting and interesting place to visit.

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Two Mayan-looking Jaguar Knights kill an Eagle knight

Next on our itinerary was Xochitecatl, which is also built atop a hill, and is visible from Cacaxtla. Xochitecatl is one of those small to medium sized archeological sites that I simply love. They are off the beaten track enough that you often have them to yourself (we did, other than two couples that had left by the time we finished). They are reconstructed enough so that you can climb around on them, admire the view, and imagine what it was like in its heyday. Plus, there are no distractions to jolt you back to the present -- no chattering tour groups, no vendors hawking wares and no waiting for half a dozen folks to get their pictures taken standing in front of something. As Jenny and I explored Xochitecatl, we enjoyed the magnificent weather -- the sky was so blue and the weather so comfortable that Jamaica Jenny was in danger of losing her nickname. Xochitecatl has several interesting features, including a spiral pyramid. There is no grand staircase ascending the face, instead, archeologists think that celebrants (or victims) wound their way around and around the circular base till they reached the top of the conical building. Across from the spiral pyramid, the Pyramid of the Flowers actually had a row of stone columns at its top, surmounted by "Stonehenge-like" lintels (one of which survives today). The view from its summit is incredible, the countryside stretching out green and inviting beneath you. Jenny and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit.

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At Xochitecatl, view to Pyramid of the Flowers

Our final stop on our taxi-aided schedule was Cholula, perhaps the most unusual one we would visit in Mexico. The archeological site of Cholula is dead center in the town, and when you pull up to it, looks like nothing more than a natural hill. Beneath that hill, though, is the unexcavated base and sides of what would be the largest pyramid in the American continent. Archeologists have dug tunnels through the "hillside" (which is the accumulation of earth over the top of the pyramid in the intervening centuries). You can access these tunnels burrowing into the side of Cholula, and you come to various points where archeologists have widened it so you can see the sides of the pyramids, its staircases and sloped sides. This was one place where I wish we HAD hired a guide, as I found out later that they will open some of the locked gates we encountered and explore even more underground.

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Round and round -- Xochitecatl's spiral pyramid

After about ten minutes of creeping through the tunnels, you come out on the western face of the hillside where most of the excavations have been done. There you get your first look at one of the most interesting aspects of Cholula -- the Spanish church built atop the hill! This gorgeous, tile-domed yellow church soars overhead and has dramatic views of the ruins, town and countryside. Since the church is atop the hill (essentially the pyramid itself), the only actual excavations and reconstructions archeologists can do is on the hillsides. They can't very well knock down the beautiful church, so Cholula is an interesting place to visit for that duality alone.

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Cholula model showing the pyramid beneath a hill, with a church atop it

After our explorations, Jenny and I plopped down in a colorful local restaurant for a late lunch of Mexican tortas, or sandwiches. We then climbed the hillside to the church and admired the view for miles, watching the approach of a storm and wondering if it had heard "Jamaica Jenny" was in town and was rushing to its appointment with her. The storm missed us, though, and we then toured the site's museum, found the bus station, and waited for our ride back to Mexico City. That night, while we were heading to an internet cafe to check in with folks back home, the rains came down in earnest, perhaps angry that it has missed us in Cholula.

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The tunnels beneath Cholula

Our final site to visit was the Toltec site of Tula, which is known for its "Atlantean" statues atop its main pyramid temple. My guess is a clever archeologist came up with that name because the statues were once the carved stone columns supporting the wooden temple that was built atop the pyramid. The wooden building is gone and all that remains are the free standing columns, shaped like Toltec warriors. Like mythical Atlas, they once supported the roof on their backs (or heads in this case). Anyway, the pyramid with the statues atop is the main draw of Tula and is an amazing sight. It has a suitably amazing name, too, the tongue twisting Pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli. I always make it a point to learn how to correctly pronounce the various Mayan/Aztec/etc. sites I visit, but I didn't even TRY that one!

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Tula and its magnificent pyramid and Atlantean statues

Anyway, Tula is a one of those medium sized sites, like Xochitecatl, that I adored. After about an hour's exploring, Jenny and I looked around and noticed that we had the place to ourselves. I dashed back up the steep steps of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, to take some pictures without a crowd of folks jostling for position or milling amongst the statues. Jenny was visiting the restroom, so I had my moments alone atop the pyramid, communing with the 1000 year old Toltec warriors. The blue sky and sweeping views, made for a special moment, and I once again wondered why I had not taken this trip sooner.

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The 1,000 year old statues of Toltec warriors at Tula

Since our flight did not leave till about 4 pm Thursday, we took the morning of the next day to visit Mexico City's awesome National Museum of Anthropology. It is truly a world class museum, with amazing displays of Olmec, Aztec, Toltec and other cultures that have blended to create the people of modern Mexico. I was able to see a couple of the giant Olmec heads that I wanted to see, as well as massive Aztec calendars, statues, reconstructions of temples alive with colorful paint as they would have been in their heyday, and so on. In 3 1/2 hours, we barely scratched the surface of the museum. Too soon, it was time to hurry back to the hotel, grab our bags, and head to the airport.

All in all, it was a gem of a trip that contained many sparkling memories -- the view of the soaring Pyramid of the Sun from atop the nearby Pyramid of the Moon, the whisper of the wind while admiring the panorama of the countryside atop the Pyramid of the Flowers, and quiet moments under blue sky in the presence of 1000 year old statues of Toltec warriors. Mexico's wealth of ancients sites offers up many memories like these for those who will come and take them.

Posted by world_wide_mike 20:48 Archived in Mexico 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)

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)

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)

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