The Loop

Windy rural roads

Clouds floating over impressive rock walls

Mountains jutting out of nothingness

Rice patties as far as the eye could see

Lush green fields

Occasionally muddy roads

Chance encounters with Slow Boat friends

Women working in the rice patties; men with oxen plowing the fields

Adorable children

Quaint rural villages

Lots of open space, very few obstacles for nervous motorbike drivers

Fairly fantastic weather

Not a lot of other travelers, very little English

Lots of Beer Lao (post-driving, of course)

Dozens and dozens of caves to be explored

Surprisingly nice accommodation and food options

Two extremely happy people who were so glad they did The Loop.

To Moto or Not to Moto

Ted had confidently and adeptly displayed his motorbike driving skills throughout Thailand and other parts of the world, and I was always quite happy to be the passenger. However, our next activity was a 400km (250 mile) driving loop that required each of us to have our own bike. To further complicate matters, the bikes were not automatic transmission, so it required an additional skill that I do not excel at.

But we were excited to experience “The Loop” after the rave reviews we had heard from other travelers from as far back as Bolivia. So we took the bus 5 hours south from Vientiane to our starting point in Tha Kaek, a small town among the foothills of Laos’ central region. We got hooked up with Mr. Ku who rented us our bikes, taught me a few things about driving, provided a pretty impressive hand-drawn map, and got us some decent helmets. We also met another traveler who was going to do The Loop too, so we had a partner in crime – Deo is Philipino but on vacation from Thailand where he was currently living and working.

Mr Ku's not-so-to-scale map of the Loop

When we set off on our ride, it was dry but the clouds were quite ominous and we were pretty sure rain was in our future. We knew we were on the front end of the rainy season, but we were optimistic/naive about how much rain we might get. Well, about 7 minutes into our 4 day/3 night 400 km motorbike loop, it started raining. Then it started raining harder.

We pulled off to get our rain gear on and pull down the visors on our helmets before we pressed on again. Our Philipino friend was leading the way, followed by me, with Teddy pulling up the rear. Twenty kilometers north of town, I rounded the bend to see our new friend in a ditch by the side of the road. He had apparently taken a curve too quickly for wet the roads and slid right off. His bike was busted up a bit, his rain poncho was in shreds, and his poor foot was a wreck. He may have broken something and at the least needed a ton of stitches. He was a little discombobulated – as you might imagine – however, still coherent enough to call Mr. Ku and to contact his health insurance provider in Thailand! Thank goodness he was traveling with a cell phone because we were not!

Another traveler stopped to help us as well as a Lao family who spoke zero English but knew exactly what needed to happen – this kid needed to go to the hospital. They were headed the wrong direction but they waved down another passing truck, helped load the kid into the back and off they went to get medical attention. Laos is one of those countries that you hope to not need medical care in. Our Lonely Planet guide states, “There are no good facilities in Laos; the nearest acceptable facilities are in Northern Thailand”. Fortunately for Deo, that wasn’t too far away!

So as our friend headed off to the hospital, we stayed by the side of the road with his motorbike waiting for Mr. Ku to come pick it up.

At this point, only 20 km into our trip, I am convinced our driving extravaganza is over. I was nervous to begin with and then I saw what could easily happen in just a moment’s time. We had already met dozens (literally dozens) of other travelers in Thailand and other parts of Laos with motorbike injuries – ranging from cuts and bruises to broken bones. So after Mr. Ku rescued the bike, we got back on our own and headed back towards town and where we’d come from. The rain had lightened up but we still took it easy because I was a little shaky from all the adrenalin and nervous excitement.

And that’s where this story might end. But it doesn’t. No more than 5km back towards town, I changed my mind. I don’t know what really came over me but I decided I could it. I wanted to do it. We’d come all this way to do it. We should probably do it. So just like that, The Loop was back on! We decided to take our kilometers/hour down a notch, and we were not going to drive in the rain – but we were going to do it. And boy am I glad we did!

A taste of what was to come...

Stunning landscapes

Happy travelers

P.S. Our friend made it safely to the hospital in Laos but decided to return to Thailand for his medical care. He must know what the folks at Lonely Planet know!

Lucky Us

While in Kathmandu, Ted set up a couple of work-related meetings for himself, one of which resulted in us getting a driver and tour guide for a full day of sight-seeing. With our guide, Soneil, we drove out into the Kathmandu Valley and saw some amazing sites and people. While many people dismiss Kathmandu as a dirty, smoggy big city worth only the time required to pass through, we disagree – there are some beautiful and fascinating stops throughout the valley, showcasing the rich Nepali culture, religion, cuisine, and history.

Our first stop was the city of Bhaktapur, which along with Kathmandu and Patan, was one of the three medieval kingdoms that once competed for power in governing the area. Eventually, Kathmandu won that battle. The Newari architecture is particularly impressive.

Bhaktapur entrance

Soneil, our guide, teaches us the history of Bhaktapur

Newari architecture


While in the neighborhood, we headed to Changu Narayan Temple. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the oldest temple in the Kathmandu Valley has carvings dating back from the 4th-9th centuries.

Changu Narayan Temple

This piece dates back to the 4th century!

After a quick lunch, we visited one of Nepal’s largest and most impressive stupas – Bodhnath Stupa. Stupas are sites of religious significance to Buddhists. The day we were there just happened to corresponded with Buddha’s birthday so we got to see quite the celebration. There were thousands of people, hundreds of prayer flags and lots of excitement. It was a pretty wonderful experience.

Bodhnath Stupa - once the biggest stupa in the world

Special celebrations for the holiday

A Tibetan Monestary near Bodhnath


The day ended back in Kathmandu proper at the famous Durbar Square. Though hard to describe, the Lonely Planet calls it “the traditional heart of the old town and Kathmandu’s most spectacular legacy of traditional architecture.” Definitely a must see for any visitor.

Durbar Square

Guard, Durbar Square

Durbar Square

Taxi stand, Durbar Square

We were very grateful to our excellent guide and driver, and Ted’s friend Pawan, who arranged the action-packed day for us. We loved our day in the Kathmandu Valley, and appreciated the opportunity to get out of the middle of the tourist ghetto and learn a little about Nepal’s history.

A Camel Safari

Though we didn’t quite know what a camel safari would entail, we had been told we had to do it. So that’s how we found ourselves in the back of a van being driven for miles west of Jaisalmer into the Thor Desert. We were not sure where we were headed exactly, but it appeared that our final destination was just an arbitrary mile marker (rather a kilometer marker), because that is where we met our guide, his young apprentice, and our camels.

I can’t remember when or if I have ever hung out with camels before, but they are pretty funny looking things. Their facial expression reads a combination of curiosity and ambivalence mixed with annoyance, and they audibly chew their cud at all times. Not exactly cute and fuzzy, but somehow kind of endearing.

Suiting up on Mr. Rocket for our journey

Sideways chomping

Regardless, we were excited about our adventure. Ted’s camel’s name was Mr. Rocket while I was on Johnny Walker. Getting on the camel is no problem as they are kneeled on the ground, but when they need to get up, you’d better be holding on and leaning back or you will surely fall off. We made it up incident free, thank goodness. We were led by our guide and our little helper, who was no more than 12, was pulling up the rear.

Cruising the camel trails

Our guide and his apprentice

As we set off into the desert, there were still signs of civilization for the first half day, but as we continued west, it was just us and the sand. After a couple hours of camel riding, we thankfully took a several hour lunch break. Between the heat of the day and the need to stretch our legs and rest our bums after riding a relatively uncomfortable camel, we were happy to relax and nap.

Relaxing in the shade

Fresh curry and chapatis for lunch!

A couple more hours into the desert and scenery changed completely – rolling sand dunes as far as the eye could see. It was an incredible place to watch the sunset while our guide prepared curry and fresh chapatis for dinner. We slept under the stars on the dunes – no tents or pillows for us, just a simple mat on the sand. We were only a few short miles from the Pakistan border and from where we camped, we could see the glow of the giant spotlights the Indians use to patrol the boundary.

Cruising the dunes

Sunset in the desert

The Dunes

The Dunes at Sunset

The second day we headed back in a different direction to an equally arbitrary finish point as where we started. We’d had a good couple days on our camels, but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that we were ready to be done. With super sore bums, a hot shower and a proper sand-free sleep were in order!

Sarah and Johnny Walker

Getting a camel to stand up can be difficult

Kinda like riding a horse, but not really

Going on Safari…Again

Don’t get me wrong, safaris are absolutely fabulous. However, Ted and I had done a fair bit of safari-ing in Southern Africa both in Botswana and in South Africa with our parents (about 40 game drives to date). We thought we pretty much knew the ins and outs of safaris and couldn’t imagine that a safari in Tanzania could actually be that different. But we were wrong. Tanzania hit the safari ball out of the park.

On behalf of Adventures Within Reach (AWR), Ted and I tested out a new safari operator and reported back to AWR about the quality of everything from their vehicles and guides to the meals and accommodation provided (once again, best job ever!). To be honest, we probably wouldn’t have sought out another safari in Tanzania ourselves (read: we couldn’t afford another safari), however, I’m glad this opportunity presented itself or otherwise we would have missed out. Big time. In summary, we have never seen so many animals in our entire lives.

Giraffe drinking

Elephants in the sun and shade

We hit the much-acclaimed and popular Northern Safari Circuit, which took us to 4 different protected areas including the famous Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Highlights of the trip include:

  • The scenery – Straight out of the Lion King, the scenery in Tanzania is what you see on National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. Wide open expanses as far as the eye can see with a tree and a rock outcrop here and there.

Serengeti Plains

  • Mobile camps – These camps are basically fancy tents that can be moved seasonally to follow the migration of the animals through the parks. You are literally in the middle of the bush with nothing between you and the lion you saw on your way back to camp. And though these tents may sound rustic, some have flushing toilets, hot-water showers, open bars and amazing food. Not exactly roughing it.

Sunset at Exclusive Mobile Camp

  • Momma lion and her cubs – Our guide got us up early for a morning game drive. Within 20 minutes of setting off, we came upon a female lion in the tall grass with three baby cubs. The little guys were hilarious to watch as they wrestled with each other and lovingly pawed at their momma as she cleaned herself up after a kill. They were too much fun to look at that we couldn’t tear ourselves away.   (Photos on the previous Picture of the Week Post)
  • The Great Migration – We literally saws tens of thousands (of the millions) of wildebeest and zebras in the plains of the Serengeti. They follow the green grass which takes them from Tanzania up into Kenya. Nothing can prepare you for seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling the movement of so many animals in such a small area.

A few wildebeest on the move

A LOT of wildebeest on the move!

  • The Ngorongoro Crater – Part animal happy place and part Garden of Eden. The world famous Crater is PACKED with lions, flamingos and beautiful scenery.

The Crater from above

Lions, chillin in the Crater

Crater pics

The list goes on, and it is long. We were continuously blown away by the animal encounters in these parks, not to mention the African landscapes, our well-informed guide and the unique and varied lodges where we got spoiled each night. We quickly learned that the country’s National Parks and Conservation Areas (which are unfenced, by the way) are packed full of millions of animals who are living relatively undisturbed in the same environments that they have inhabited for thousands of years. Tanzania has a good thing going and for a trip to see big animals, you’d be hard-pressed to do better anywhere else.



More cool animal photos from this portion of our trip can be found in our Best of East Africa photo album

Psyching Ourselves Up

Let me start with the fact that climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak at 19,340 feet, was the hardest physical thing we have ever done in our lives. Ted and I do a fair bit of hiking in Colorado, including several 14ers (14,000+ foot peaks) the past few summers. We even did a 15er in Peru on our hike to Machu Picchu. However, Kili is a 19er and that extra 4000 ft in altitude makes all the difference in the world.

Gonna bag that peak

Many people prepare for weeks/months/their lives for this particular undertaking. However, we had spent the last few days lying on the beach (at sea level, obviously) in Zanzibar drinking cocktails. Prior to that we had been on and off safari for the previous 2 months which includes ridiculous amounts of eating and hours upon hours of sitting in a jeep. What I’m getting at here is that we were not in the best hiking shape of our lives, yet we were about to take on our biggest physical challenge to date.

Before our climb, Ted reached out to a few friends that had climbed Kili to ask them about the hike and to hear their experiences. He got a few intimidating responses ranging from miserable altitude headaches to incredibly grueling hard work. After hearing these reviews, he decided that there was no good reason to share this information with me until after the climb, and to this day I thank him for that.

With ignorant bliss, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the mountain for the first time on the drive from Kilimanjaro airport to Moshi, the access town. Glowing in the evening sunset, Africa’s biggest peak dominates the skyline, literally popping out of nowhere. It is nothing less than breathtaking.

Kilimanjaro at sunset

We got our hotel just as it got dark. We carbo-loaded on some pasta for dinner, repacked our bags for 6 days and 5 nights of mountain climbing, and did our best to get some sleep before the big trip.

Southern Africa Wrap-up

We visited a total of 6 countries in Southern Africa – Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mozambique – but some for only a matter of days, and some for only a matter of hours! That being said, we’ve decided to combine them all together for a regional wrap-up. Below, in no particular order, are our Top 10 Highlights, Bottom 5 Bummers, as well as Favorite Food/Drink and Animal Sightings (new category for Africa!) of our two months in Southern Africa. You can also check out our Best of Southern Africa photo album for some more visual highlights (and don’t forget the African Mega-Fauna album for our top animal sightings).

Top 10

  1. Mokoro Ride

    Victoria Falls – What can we say? They are one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World and they are some incredibly impressive falls.

  2. Remoteness of the Botswana bush – A safari in Botswana is a unique experience. You are hundreds of miles into the wilderness away from cities, towns, and other people. There are no power lines or fences or signs of civilization. The only way in and out is via bush plane. It’s just you and the animals in the bush.
  3. Small plane flights between safari lodges – Due to the remoteness of the safari camps in Botswana and seasonal weather conditions, several times our transport between camps was by small plane. One flight was a total of 8 minutes and Ted got to sit shotgun with the pilot.
  4. Mokoro ride – Our safari group in Botswana got treated to traditional Mokoro rides, which are similar to dug-out canoes. Powered only by a long pole, you are gliding just inches above the water and kinda feel like you’re flying.
  5. Family-filled January – How incredible is it that both sets of our parents came all the way across the ocean from the Northern United States to Southern Africa to visit us?!
  6. View from Table Mountain – Nothing quite like it and I think we appreciated it even more due to the energy we expended to get up there!
  7. Morning at Clifton Beaches – Just around the corner from Cape Town’s city center are the most beautiful, tucked-away beaches. We went with the Graces on a weekday and nearly had the place to ourselves.
  8. Cheetah!

    Animal Sighting Good Luck Charms – The Martens saw it all in the animal department – including the much talked about Big 5 (elephants, leopards, rhinos, buffalo and lions) plus cheetahs and lots of other good stuff in a matter of days. Ted and I had not seen a rhino or a cheetah before their visit and we’d been on nearly 30 game drives before they came.

  9. Bush to Beach to Bush – I wrote about this day in a previous post, and it was really quite awesome. Seeing big animals and swimming in the ocean makes for an incredible day.
  10. SCUBA Diving in Moz – We both love being underwater and I wish we got to do it more often. We were very impressed with the coral and the variety of fish in Mozambique.

Bottom 5

  1. Lame NYE – We’d love to have a memorable, exciting story to share about our New Year’s Eve on the trip, but low and behold, we were asleep before midnight.
  2. Theft – At the lodge we stayed at in Cape Town with my parents, we had an issue with some sticky-fingered housekeepers. Wily Ted was able to prove their misdeed. The manager was appalled and immediately and appropriately addressed the situation, including reimbursing us for the small amount taken.
  3. Bad Bus Ride

    Bus to Tofo BeachWe’re wimps. We didn’t take a whole lots of public transportation in Africa, and I’m using this fairly uncomfortable bus ride as justification of why we didn’t do so.

  4. Visa debaclesLet’s just say that in Johannesburg we went to the India Embassy three times (to get a visa), the Mozambique Embassy four times (to get a visa), and the U.S. Embassy once (to get more pages in my passport).
  5. Failing to visit NamibiaWhen we left the US for our trip, we were 100% positive we were going to Namibia. Ted has a travel industry friend and contact living there with his family and we were planning to pay them a visit. Sadly, it didn’t happen.

Favorite Meals and Treats

  1. Sundowners – The idea of having a cocktail while watching the sun go down is a good one. We enjoyed our sundowners on the Zambezi River in Zambia, in the Botswana bush, with city views in Cape Town, throughout the greater Kruger Park area, and the list goes on.
  2. Ostrich Fillet - Mmmmmmm

    Stuffed Crabs – Mmmm. We discovered these stuffed treats in Mozambique and ate them all week.

  3. Unique Game – Never before had we eaten ostrich or impala – and we quite liked it. Other game options included crocodile, kudu (a type of antelope), and warthog!
  4. Ocean Basket – OB is a South African chain restaurant that serves fresh seafood, fish and chips, and sushi. They are everywhere and we ate there many a time including with both sets of parents.
  5. NatHab Safari Meals – When we were on safari in Botswana, we ate entirely too much amazing food. How they got such fabulous fresh food out into the middle of the bush in order to feed us so well is beyond me.

Animal Sighting Highlights

  1. Wild Dog

    Wild Dog – Our one and only sighting of wild dogs was in Botswana. They are endangered and extremely rare to see. Even the guides were excited, that is how we knew we were lucky.

  2. Pursuit of first leopard – Francis, our guide in Botswana, is the man. With his animal tracking know-how, his persistence and determination, his off-road driving and a little bit of luck we spotted our first leopards – a momma and two older cubs. You wouldn’t believe the amount of vegetation we got to drive over just to find them.
  3. Baby animals – Due to the time of year we were visiting, we got the opportunity to see lots of mommas and their babies. There isn’t anything much cuter than baby lions, elephants, and impala.
  4. Elephants – Ted’s favorite animal to see. We saw lots.
  5. Giraffes – Sarah’s favorite. Oh, and to see a giraffe running is incredible – it appears to be happening in slow motion.
  6. Rhinos

    Game drive with Ocean – Ocean was one of our guides with Ted’s parents and he kept things interesting. Within a couple hours we saw 4 of the Big 5 (elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo and rhinos) and evaded an aggressively charging male elephant!

  7. First rhinoceros – Finally! After our Botswana safari and several days in the Kruger Park area we were beginning to think they didn’t exist. But they do!
  8. Cheetah with it’s kill – What an amazing site to come upon. We didn’t realize it had just hunted until the little impala almost got away and the cheetah had to finish it off.
  9. Surprise night-time leopard sighting – Last night in the Kruger Park area and our way back to the lodge we magically came upon a leopard.
  10. Lotsa fish – Between snorkeling with the Martens and SCUBA diving in Moz, we got to see some great underwater animals as well!

Don’t forget to check out the Best Of photo albums here and here.

Sani Pass to Lesotho

Upon leaving the beach, we headed inland to the Drakensburg Mountains. South Africa does not disappoint with the rich variety of scenery packed into a relatively small space. The Drakensburg Mountains aren’t jagged and pointy like the Rockys, but rather impressively green and endlessly rolling hills. The drive through the area is quite stunning and we were happy to be spending a few days in the region.

The Southern "Burg"

Drakensburg Mountains

The Drakensburg Mountains are also where South Africa and Lesotho (pronounced le-su-tu) share a border. Similarly to Swaziland, Lesotho is a teeny, tiny country that few have heard of that is surrounded by South Africa on all sides. The popular day trip in the southern “Burg” takes you by 4×4 Jeep up the wickedly steep, rocky and bumpy Sani Pass and into Lesotho. The road was more gnarly than we anticipated, but our experienced guide got us safely to the top and the views along the way up kept us quite entertained.

Sani Pass Border Control

Up the road to Lesotho

View to South Africa from Lesotho

After the hilariously brief ‘customs’ and ‘immigration’ procedures, we got the opportunity to visit a local village. Though just miles from the border of Africa’s most developed nation, Lesotho is a much poorer country and we felt it right away. In the village we visited, the men are traditionally shepherds that spend weeks and months at a time in the hills with their flocks. The women are busy at home carrying for the family and all of life’s other tasks. They did not have electricity or plumbing and have to rely on their blankets and indoor fires to keep them warm during the brutal winters at high altitude.

Lesotho Musicians

Traditional Lesotho Family Home

The tour finished up with a meal and a beer at “The Highest Pub in Africa” topping out at 2874m (9500 feet). We made it safely back down the mountain to our little B&B and our gracious host. We had one more delicious dinner at the only restaurant in town and the next morning we woke up and headed back to Johannesburg (visit #8 of 10 to the JoBurg airport). It was time for the Martens to go home and we couldn’t believe how fast the two weeks had gone by. We had an amazing visit and managed to pack in 3 different countries, hundreds of big animals, mountains and beach, and lots of kilometers on the rental car. We can’t thank them enough for their generosity and look forward to our next group road trip!

Safari Fun Facts

Everyone knows that a group of lions is called a pride and a group of wolves is called a pack.  But did you know that…

  • A group of zebra is called a dazzle
  • A group of warthogs is called a sounder
  • A group of giraffes standing still is called a tower but a group of giraffes in motion is called a jenny
  • And my personal favorite – a group of mongoose is called is a business


Christmas in the Bush

We had the opportunity to spend the holidays in the Botswana bush this year.  Not surprisingly, we were reminded that what makes the holidays the holidays are the traditions and build-up associated with the big day, as well as the people you spend it with.  To us it didn’t feel much like Christmas as we were in Christmas carole withdrawal, we didn’t step foot in a mall, the weather was hot and dry and our families and friends were thousands of miles away.

However, our hosts at Savuti Camp in Botswana did a helluva job of celebrating Christmas and we were thankful to spending both Christmas Eve and Christmas with such entertaining people.

Christmas Party!

Our Christmas Party Hosts

For Christmas Eve, all the guests and all the staff dined together in the outdoor gathering area – the boma.  It was fun to sit outside under the stars and meet folks from all other the world.  The camps are so remote that staff work for 3 months straight and then have one month off so even though some were in their home country, they too were hundreds of miles away from family.  However unlike at home, we learned that moments before we arrived for dinner the staff had had to shew away a hyena that had helped himself to the small candies on the table!

On Christmas we kicked off the day with an early morning game drive.  Normally Christmas morning is spent nursing a mild hangover and opening our stockings, but this year we were hanging with elephants and giraffes and ostriches.  The group devised an animal-focused version of 12 Days of Christmas, based on our sightings that day.

Christmas Elephants

Christmas dinner was delicious with many of the fixins’ we get at home – turkey, mashed potatoes, veggies, rolls.  Oh, and champagne – lots of it.  The Savuti staff had a little Christmas tree (more like a dead branch) that they had decorated with lights.  One of our tour group members had given us all flashing necklaces (thanks Carolyn!) and we were spoiled with little wrapped presents both in our room as well as on the table at dinner.

Christmas on safari!

Though absolutely nothing like Christmas as we know it, we had an absolutely wonderful couple of days and we are sure to remember Christmas 2010 for the rest of our lives.

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