Tag: National Parks

Leaving on a Jet Plane – NOT

After a couple days of downhill walking, beautiful and arid landscapes, and splurging on new and exciting foods that we hadn’t seen along the trail, our time on the Annapurna Circuit came to an end. The village of Jomson is the main hub in the area and it is from here that you organize your transport back to civilization. The options include a $90 flight in a small plane that flies over Annapurna’s tallest peaks and gets you back to Pokhara in about 25 minutes. Or an assortment of 4 different buses and Jeep rides, taking 10+ hours, spread over 2 days that costs closer to $15. Please remember that the ‘roads’ are miserable – nearly all dirt, pot-holed, narrow, at times dangerous – and the transportation is uncomfortable at best.

The hike down to Jomsom

Very different, but equally stunning landscapes on this side of Thorong La Pass

Tiered irrgation in the desert

Vegetables on our pasta - what a novel concept!

For some reason, the guesthouse had an Ohio State t-shirt up. Charles was non-too-pleased

Seems like a pretty easy choice, huh? Unfortunately, when your traveling for a year dropping $180 for a 20-minute activity does not fit in the budget. And so it happened that our friends visiting from the States who were time-short and money-long opted for the plane flight while we and our fellow round-the-world trippers made the trip overland. As a reward for our misery, the village we stopped at overnight had hot springs that we happily soaked in and wicked views of an incredibly unreal peak.

Setting off on our bus journey

We wave goodbye to the flyers, and their new friend

Our bus ride back was rather spacious


But we got to do this

And see this!

So take that Charles and Kate! Or rather, we just wish you would have taken us with you.

Safaris North and South

By the end of our time in Southern Africa, we thought we were safari gurus. I mean, what first-time Africa travelers go on over 40 game drives in one visit? From Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta, to Kruger Park proper and the surrounding game reserves, we thought we knew the drill. Then, we went to Tanzania, and our whole concept of how a safari works went straight out the window. There are some big differences, and advantages and disadvantages to both. Here is a little comparison:

  • Lodge-centered vs. Operator-centered – This is the biggest single difference. Down South, your entire safari experience is organized by, and executed through the lodge or camp where you are staying. Your game drives happen early in the morning and late in the afternoon, with the hot hours of mid-day spent lounging around the lodge. Most of the time, you do loops around the vicinity of the lodge, so location is paramount. Generally, it is the lodge’s vehicles that are used for the game drives, and the lodge employs the guides and trackers. Up North, however, you’re constantly on the move, and the lodges and camps are simply a place to spend a night or two. The safari experience is organized and executed through a tour operator, who arranges your guide and decides what camps and lodges to stay in. Game drives may last all day, with a significant commute between parks being your down time.
  • Vehicle Style – Down South, most game drives cruise loops within a 20 mile radius of the lodge. Because you’re always on roads within the reserve or park, and because you want to have the most intimate animal encounters possible, safaris here use open-sided Land Cruisers. The only thing between you and Simba is a few feet of open air. Up North, you spend a lot more time in your safari vehicle. To hit all the parks along the Northern Safari Circuit (Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara, Tarangire), you’ve got to be on the move every couple days, and travel between parks can take a number of hours through urban and rural environments. For this reason, you can’t cruise around in the open-sided jeeps of the South, you need a Land Cruiser that is fully enclosed. But to get good photos of the animals, you also need a window-less environment. The solution – pop-top Land Cruisers.

Pop-tops up north

Open sided down south

  • Fences – There is a lot of controversy about enclosing protected areas throughout Africa. Some argue it’s beneficial, and allows for better protection of the animals. Others think that animals should be free to roam as they always have, even if that means sometimes roaming into a village. Down South, just about ever protected area is fenced. Now, these fences might enclose parks the size of small US states, but if you walk far enough in any direction, you’ll hit an electrified fence. Up North, they don’t seem to believe in fences, and animals up there are constantly on the move. It’s actually the migratory patterns of the animals up North that prevent many lodge-centered operations from being sustainable – only certain times of year are animals abundant in their vicinity. To deal with this migratory challenge, they’ve developed my favorite safari accommodation – mobile camps: Temporary tented camps that pick up and move every couple months with the flow of the animals.

Mobile tented camps up north

  • Vehicle Concentration – Down South, all of the game reserves and parks have strict rules on the number of safari jeeps that can be viewing a particular animal or group of animals at once – generally no more than 3. This is easy to enforce, as all jeeps belong to lodges within the reserve, and all lodges must follow reserve rules (for their own benefit). Unfortunately, up North there is no limit to the number of jeeps at any particular sighting, so it’s not uncommon to see well over a dozen jeeps looking on a pride of lions.

Line of vehicles to see a leopard in Serengeti

  • Animals – Diversity and Quantity – How could I leave this for last? You can find the Big 5 both North and South, but each region also has its own set of unique fauna. The big difference, however, is that there seem to be a much higher density of animals up North. We went 10 days in Botswana before we saw a lion, and after 40 game drives down South, we were up to 12 or so. In Tanzania, we saw 44 lions over 5 days. Then there are the thousands upon thousands of wildebeest and zebras that make up the Great Migration. You can see all the cool animals in both places, you’ll just see more of them up North.

How many do you count in this photo?

So, after all that, which is better? Hard to say. The lodge-centered safaris, open vehicles, and low vehicle concentration all favor the South. But, the lack of fences and shear volume of animals make the North pretty special. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

Kilimanjaro? Bagged It!

The first 6 hours of summit day were miserable. We started hiking at midnight, it was pitch black, we were freezing cold from the wind, the trail was loose, rocky skree and it was too cold to stop and rest. We spent hour upon hour of putting one food ahead of the other and wondering if we would actually make it to the top. Our guide claimed that for part of the hike, we were actually sleepwalking! I contemplated turning around on many occasions but remembered it had taken me four days to get to this point and I wanted, I needed, to stick it out. I have no idea if Ted was thinking the same thing because at this point we were too cold, tired, and out of it to talk. The altitude was finally getting to both of us and lightheaded-ness, the mild headaches and the nausea were not fun. When you look at your watch and it’s still in the 3 o’clock hour and you have hours to go, you wonder why you pay to do stuff like this.

And finally, oh finally, that beautiful sun started to come up. I was more excited about the sun rising for the warmth than I was for any other reason. However the side benefit was that we could see the top and we were close. The end was in sight. The pink sky was just the encouragement I needed to finish what we started. When you see the crescent of first sunlight on the horizon from the roof of Africa, everything at that moment gets a whole lot better, and man does it feel good!

Never been happier to see the sun rise!

The final few steps to the summit

Too tired to appreciate the beautiful sunrise

Summit Reached!!

Views from the summit

Views from the summit

Kilimanjaro? Bagged it!!

We owe another huge thank you to our friends at Adventures Within Reach for making it possible (and affordable!) for us to experience this opportunity of a lifetime.  If you’re going to Africa, be sure to check out their awesome itineraries.

Four Days of Build-up

Climbing Kilimanjaro is no joke. Many people discredit its difficulty because it is a mountain you can hike all the way to the top of without the need of technical rock-climbing gear. However, it is indeed a tough undertaking and the mountain deserves loads of respect.

We climbed the Machame Route, where the starting elevation for the hike is 5800 ft, roughly the altitude of Boulder. That means that throughout our 4 days of ascent, we would be climbing a total of 13,500 vertical feet. That is pretty badass. Luckily we had a LOT of help.

We assumed we would be in a group with other hikers going to the top, but that was not the case. It was just me, Ted, our guide named Goodluck (seriously), our assistant guide named Peter and 10, yes 10, porters to carry the food, tents, gear, etc. for our group. The fact that it was 2 of us and 12 of them was a little overwhelming and uncomfortable however, we were incredibly thankful for their assistance as it was quite nice to arrive at camp each day with the tent already set-up and warm food being prepared.

Our guides and porters, welcoming us to camp with a song. Hiking mountains is WAY easier with their help

Sarah and Goodluck

Though everyone who sets out to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro ultimately wants to get to the top, I’m pleased to report that the 4 days of hiking leading up to summit day are more-than-incredible in their own right: Walking through lush rainforests, seeing silhouette views of nearby Mt. Meru at sunset, camping on cliff edges overlooking spectacular valleys, walking through clouds and catching rewarding glimpses of Kili all along the way. The hiking alone is world class and THEN you get the opportunity to bag a peak.

Amazing views along the trek up

Nearby Mt. Meru in the background

Awesome views from camp

Still a ways to the top

Sunset above the clouds

Our guide was experienced and good. The motto on Kili is ‘pole pole’ (pronounced po-lay po-lay) – which simply means slowly slowly in Kiswahili. You walk slower than you want to (in fact, slower than we’ve ever walked before), but it keeps you from ascending too quickly and it allows you to keep a steady pace with minimal stopping. We’d walk about 6 or 7 hours a day with the maximum we went in one day being 12-13 km (~8 miles). We were both feeling really good, with no negative effects from the altitude – we were ready to conquer this beast.

Our 4th day of walking got us to Barafu camp (elevation 15,088 ft) around 3pm. Our job was to rest, eat an early dinner, and try to sleep as we’d be getting up at 11pm for our summit attempt. When we left camp around midnight, we were sore, we were tired (we had barely slept) and we were cold. Summit day had begun.

Safari Upgrade

Wanting the Martens to have all their animal questions answered, we spent a few nights just outside  Kruger Park in the Thornybush Game Reserve at Kwa Mbili Lodge.  The owners were a South African man and his American wife who had both worked for IBM for years in California before deciding to do something different.  Very different.  They are now raising their two young daughters in the bush and hosting visitors from all over the world at their lovely property.

We had an amazing few days at Kwa Mbili, with several different incredible guides.  Our first, AK, was a South African version of the Crocodile Hunter.  He’d been a guide for decades and it was what he was born to do.  He loves the bush and the bush loves him.  At one point we got out of the Land Cruiser and pursued a rhino on foot before it got away from us!  That was a first!

AK and a tortoise

Our second guide was a man named Ocean.  Though a man of few words, he showed us all the animals.  Ted’s mom was bound and determined to see a lion and Ted and I were crossing our fingers that it would happen.  Within 10 minutes on our drive with Ocean, we rounded a corner to see a gigantic male lion within 10 feet of the road.  Needless to say, Sarah (Ted’s mom) was thrilled as were we all.  Ocean also almost got us run over by an aggressive charging male elephant.  Luckily we were able to reverse fast enough to avoid his pursuit!

King of the bush

This guy was enormous

Ocean delivers the animals

However, our most memorable animal sitings occurred with Kwa Mbili’s owner, Neil, as our guide.  With loads of help from our mighty tracker (a local man experienced in finding and deciphering animal tracks), we were able to see a cheetah (our first!) with his kill.  In fact, the baby impala was still alive when we came upon them.  It was amazing how close the animal allowed us to get to him and how intricate and beautiful the spots are on his body.

Cheetah with a fresh kill

Resting after a big feast

And a top highlight for sure was on our last game drive at the lodge.  After our sundowners and on the way back to the lodge, we came across a leopard in our headlights.  He was literally walking across the road and we couldn’t have had better timing – 5 seconds earlier and it would have still been in the bush and 5 seconds later he would have disappeared in the other direction.  We stopped in awe and he proceeded to walk by us within feet of the car.  I don’t think any of us were breathing at that point.  It was a totally incredible sighting and the perfect way to wrap up our time in the bush.

A bit close for comfort?

Goodbye Graces, Hello Martens

As the Graces were in mid-air back to Ann Arbor, Ted and I were once again at the Johannesburg International Airport (visits 4 and 5 of 10) to welcome our second round of parental visitors.  Similar to the Graces, it was the Martens’ first time to Africa and we so appreciate them coming so far to be with us.  Rob, Sarah (Ted’s mom is also named Sarah!), Ted and I have traveled together several times before, so we knew we were in for a good time.

We spent our first couple of nights in the Drakensburg Escarpment, in an amazing hilltop accommodation that Ted and I had identified while previously driving through the area during my parents visit.  Though none of us have been there, we imagine that the surrounding landscape was similar to the Irish countryside – lots of green, rolling hills.  We spent a whole day driving a scenic loop through the region taking in waterfalls, rock formations and exploring caves.

Could be Ireland?

Drakensburg Escarpment

Blythe River Canyon


We then ventured into the Kruger Park for a couple days of self-driving safari.  As Michiganders may spend vacation time on a lake Up North every year, many South Africans make an annual trip to the Kruger Park.  You stay in the park, you drive around looking for animals all day (drinking beer optional) and you BBQ in the evenings.  We channeled our inner South African and did exactly that.  Though Ted and I knew a little bit from our previous safaris, we were by no means a wealth of information, so we opted to do a ranger-guided night drive.  It was totally worth it as we finally saw our first rhino!  Ted and I had been on safari for a total of 18 days (between Botswana and South Africa) so it was long overdue.  Those things are ridiculously intimidating and very pre-historic looking.  The good news is, we had many more rhino spottings still in store for us!

Self-drive safari treats

Self-drive safari treats



Off to the Bush

After a week in Cape Town we headed to the eastern side of the country to see some big animals.  We spent a few nights at the Pondoro Lodge in part of the greater Kruger National Park.  Pondoro is an incredible spot and my parents were treated with quite an array of beasts.  Highlights included a pride of 9 lions lying together under a tree; a gigantic elephant saying hello while crossing the road; and dozens of hippos chilling in the river.  We enjoyed our nightly sundowners; Lar dug sitting shotgun with the safari guide and we all loved the amazing dinners including ostrich filet (which tastes like steak, not chicken) and impala pie!


Larry in shotgun

Sundowners in the bush


We had an incredible couple of weeks with Sal and Lar and we can’t thank them enough for making it all the way over to South Africa, and spoiling us to boot!

Safaris Go Like This

  • 5:00 a.m. – You are woken up in your luxury tent by a personal wake-up knock from your guide.  A pot of hot water is provided to you, in case you need coffee upon rolling out of bed
  • 5:30 a.m. – You are provided with way too much food for 5 in the morning, but you eat it and love it
  • Leopard

    6:00 a.m. – Morning game drive!  You bounce around in the back of an open-air converted Land Cruiser and look for animals.  Sometimes you don’t see a whole lot, sometimes you round a corner and see zebra, giraffe and wildebeest all hanging out together.  Sometimes your guide identifies an impossible to see leopard and you are in awe.

  • 9:00 a.m. – Morning tea in the bush.  Coffee, tea and biscuits (cookies) are served en route.  If you need to use the bathroom, the guide has to go check to make sure that your desired location is free from wild animals.
  • 11:00 a.m. – Return from game drive and time for morning brunch.  Even more delicious food is provided and once again you eat more than you mean to.
  • Noon – 3:30 p.m. – Downtime.  The animals are most active in the morning and evening and kind of lay low during the hottest time of the day.  So we do too.  Ted and I spent most of our downtime napping but we also motivated to do some exercises (push-ups and sit-ups) because safari-ing requires a lot of eating and sitting!
  • 3:30 p.m. – Afternoon tea.  No, I’m not kidding – they feed you again.  Afternoon “tea” would be anything from mini pizzas, to samosas, to cupcakes.  Too much good food.
  • 4:00 p.m. – Afternoon game drive.  More driving around and more animal encounters.  Always exciting to come across something new.
  • Botho, our guide, preparing the sundowners

    6:30 p.m. – Sundowners.  We love this term as it essentially means cocktail time while the sun goes down.  We would park in some incredibly scenic spot sipping on gin and tonics and munching on snacks if your stomach had any room for them.

  • 8:00 p.m. – Return from game drive and time for dinner and more drinks.  Dinner was always delicious and it was fun to meet other groups on safari from all over the world and to chat up the staff at the lodges.  Everyone has a story.
  • 9:30 p.m. – Bedtime for us wild and crazy kids.  Five in the morning comes way to early!

In summary – Eat-drive-eat-sleep-eat-drive-eat-sleep.  And that doesn’t include snacks on the drives!

One of the 7 Wonders of the World

Before we officially went off into the bush on our first safari, Ted and I had the opportunity to visit Victoria Falls with our NatHab group.  Vic Falls is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world and it is one of the most visited attractions in Africa, so we were excited to take a look.

The falls did not disappoint.  Just a few miles down the road from Livingstone, Zambia and you are greeted with the sound of rushing water and the mist in the air from millions of gallons of water from the Zambezi River falling over the edge of a cliff.  In fact the local name for the falls, Mosi-o-Tunya, means the smoke that thunders.  It is quite impressive to say the least.  There is a great set of pathways that allow you to walk along the edge of a cliff looking directly at the falls on the other side of the narrow canyon and you can entertain yourself by watching the white-water rafters go by below.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves but in summary the falls are truly awesome.

Victoria Falls, from Zambia

Vic Falls

More falls

We were visiting at a time of the year when the water was running low so though we saw dozens of individual waterfalls, we saw pictures of the falls during wet season when the view is just one giant wall of water.

How we saw it

Vic Falls

And for you close readers of the blog, you may have noticed that prior to coming to Africa the last thing we did in South America was visit Iguazu Falls.  We realize that not too many folks get the chance to visit the two most amazing waterfalls on the planet within one week of each other so we were excited to compare and contrast.  And because we’ve already been asked this exact question, though Vic Falls is incredible and has already earned the distinction as one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, we would actually have to give our vote to Iguazu in a head-to-head comparison of spectacular-ness.  But no worries Africa, South America has got nothing on you when it comes to animals!

Iguazu Falls

The spectacular waterfalls on the border of Argentina and Brazil (and very close to Paraguay) are one of those things that you’ve just got to do if you are traveling around South America (or so we were told by everyone we met who had been). Though certainly not convenient to get to from anywhere, Ted and I went out of way to check them out.  And, it was definitely worth it.

Iguazu Falls

Ted getting soaked

From BA it is a 19+ hour bus ride to the falls. We left the city on a Sunday afternoon and arrived in Iguazu just before noon on Monday. We dropped our stuff off at the hostel and caught the transport to the falls. When we arrived around 2:00 pm we had the place nearly to ourselves. The weather wasn’t ideal but the falls were absolutely fantastic. Breathtaking, awe-inspiring, thunderous, etc. I could not believe how massive they are – they appear to go on as far as the eye can see. The boardwalk and pathways throughout the park are extensive and they even have a little train that you can hop on and off to get to various destinations throughout the park.

Lower Falls


Our favorite spot was a section of the falls called the Devil’s Throat. You have to walk on the boardwalk over the river for about a mile to get to the very top of the falls where the river drops over the edge. The power of the water is incredible and mesmerizing. We stood there watching the water moving until the very end of the day when the park staff came to tell us the last train back to entrance was leaving.

Devils Throat

Devils Throat boardwalk

Since we had a short day the first day, we decided to go back to the park the next day as well. The weather was absolutely perfect and we essentially retook all the same pictures but this time with blue skies and sunshine in the shots. We also took a hilarious jet boat ride that takes you right up next to the falls and gets you totally soaked. It is quite a thrill to be right at the bottom of the falls and be surrounded by the thunder and the mist.

View from the boat, about to get totally soaked...

Overall, Iguazu did not disappoint. I had never seen such impressive waterfalls before and I’m not sure if there are any out there that can compare. After our second day at the falls, we caught another 19+ hour bus ride back to BA and had one more afternoon in the city and South America before we had to get to the airport to catch our flight to Cape Town!

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