a day in London

Finishing off our trip, Meghan and I flew back to Nairobi and then on to an overnight flight to Heathrow.

We took the Picadilly Underground into the city which dropped us off just across the street from our Kensington Gardens area hotel.  Since we arrived first thing in the morning, we were unable to check in to our hotel room so we just dropped off our bags and walked around for a bit.

We started off through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, eventually hitting Oxford Street but being a Sunday, it was pretty quiet as most of the shops were still closed.  But, we found a cafe for breakfast and enjoyed a light meal with some good coffee.

After our breakfast we continued walking around for a bit and eventually found ourselves in front of Buckingham palace where the changing of the guard was going on – or so we thought.. we later realized that it was a bit more than that, with two marching bands performing and was probably associated with the annual Colonel’s Review (which happened the previous day) and Sovereign’s Birthday (which would happen the following week).  We stayed there for a little while and enjoyed the music and watched the crowds and then eventually moved on.

We next walked along the Thames for a while checking out the London Eye and walking along the water.  The weather was quite warm and there were a lot of people out on the streets enjoying the sun, as were we, though we were starting to feel the effects of the overnight flight, no shower, and a little too much sun.  So we sat on the shade side of a pub with a couple of pints and relaxed for a while.

We decided to take an underground back to our hotel so that we could finally check in and shower but the tube station was closed so we found ourselves walking further to the next station.  Along the way we saw a billboard for the Lion King which we thought would be a fun end to our Africa trip so rather than heading back to the hotel we grabbed a train in the opposite direction and got tickets for the matinee performance.

It was a lot of fun seeing the Lion King and fully appreciating all of the Africa references in the performance – like the sets and costumes and the way the animals move – so much of it is right on.  And with all of the kids in the theater for the matinee we got the added treat of enjoying the show with their perspective exhibited through their laughter and gasps.

After the play we finally head back to our hotel where we showered and changed while watching a little of UEFA EURO 2008 soccer.  And when we were ready to head out we went to a local pub to watch the beginning of the next game (Germany Poland).

For dinner we found an Indian restaurant with a TV so we could watch the remainder of the game while enjoying a good Curry.

By the time we finished dinner it was about 10:00 and we were amazed that it was still light out!  During our whole Africa trip the sun had been setting by 6:00 so we were a little taken off guard that it was already so late.  And with the weight of the flights and the trip behind us we were pretty beat.  So off to bed and up the next morning for our flights home.

Rwanda and the mountain gorillas

After our unfortunate experience in Dar Es Salaam, Meghan and I were just about ready to call it quits on the rest of the trip and just head out of Africa.  We had realized pretty early on – during our planning for the trip – that to make it to Rwanda was going to create a bit of a travel headache.. and indeed it did.  Getting up to Rwanda (with a swing through Tanzania) meant a lot of time in airports and airplanes and the mix up with Kenya Airways was the straw that broke us.

Our energy was low.

But, we were able to get onto flights the next day so we only lost one day from our original itinerary which in the grand scheme of things, isn’t too bad.

We flew up to Nairobi and then over to Kigali where we were met at the airport by a representative from a tour company who would be arranging our trip.

After a good lunch at “Bourbon Coffee” (an interesting coffee enterprise in Kigali started by, we later overheard by an ex-Starbuck’s guy) we drove through the countryside up to the Virunga mountains.  We were instantly aware of the differences between Rwanda and Tanzania/Kenya.  It was surprising to that the city of Kigali was really well kept and seemed almost more Asian than African.  This may have been because of all of the motorbike taxis zipping around, but there were also the parks – which had flowers.  And the city was just cleaner than other places we had visited recently.

The countryside also reminded me of Vietnam or Thailand – with lots of lush hills supporting a lot of agriculture.  The steep slopes of the hills had plots for grazing and farming running clear up to the top of the mountains.

We arrived at our hotel near the Volcanoes Park where we settled in for the evening and had a few beers (Mutzig is definitely the beer to drink in Rwanda – skip the Primus).  While sitting in the hotel bar we overheard a conversation that a producer for CNN was having – making arrangements for Anderson Cooper who would be visiting the area soon.

The next day we got up early (again) and after a brief breakfast made our way over to Volcanoes National Park where we were matched up with a guide and other guests to trek into the mountain jungle.

We hiked up the densely-vegetated volcano for about 1 to 2 hours until we finally met up with our designated group of gorillas.  We were able to spend only 1 hour with the gorillas but it was incredible.  Our group consisted of 1 silverback male and 5 females – 4 of which had ‘baby’ gorillas 2 years old or younger.  We sat and watched them all in amazement.

It was really great to juxtapose the Gorilla trekking with the game drive safaris that we had done earlier in the trip.  While I also really enjoyed those experiences as well, there’s something satisfying about hiking yourself in, rather than just sitting in the back of the car.  Also, watching the animals out in the open – without the benefit of the safety of a vehicle – is just more intimate.  Finally, the Gorillas were just different creatures – and when you get eye contact with a silverback it’s just nothing like staring down an impala.

After our time was up we hiked back down the mountain to our awaiting car.  We then drove back to Kigali where we spent the night.

Before heading to the hotel we made a detour to the Genocide Memorial.  The memorial/museum does a really good job of explaining how the Rwandan troubles began – the history leading up to the massacres – and it gives a lot of very personal testimonies to the atrocities.  It was very moving.

And unfortunately, that’s all that we had time for.  Our flight out was the next morning where we returned to Nairobi (on a flight that swung through Burundi just in case we hadn’t touched down in enough countries) and then took an overnight flight to London.

Rwanda is definitely on my short-list of African countries to re-visit.  The countryside is beautiful, the nature-opportunities are quite varied with great National Parks around the hills and mountains and you can also see rare species of monkeys there as well as more ‘traditional’ safari animals like Giraffes, Elephants, etc., on top of the gorillas.

But, for now, it’s on to London for 1 day of walking around to break up the flights back to the US.

Tanzania and the ‘spice island’ of Zanzibar

Our safari adventure was coming to an end so it was time for Meghan and I to head off.

We woke up at 5:30 AM for our last game drive, and after the following brunch we droveout to the airstrip for our last bush flight(s).  As it turned out we’d be making 1 stop somewhat along the way.  30 minutes flight to another camp and then another 30 minutes and we landed in Maun Botswana – hey this looks familiar..

From Maun we got our flight to Johannesburg.  There we went back through passport control and customs and collected our bags.. only to move to the departure lounge for our next (and 4th take off) of the day.  But that wouldn’t be for several hours which we spent hanging out in airport cafes and lounges until we were allowed to check in – after which we found a quiet corner in which to sleep.  Our flight left after midnight and took us up to Nairobi – but we weren’t done there.

A couple of hours in Nairobi and we were boarding our flight for Dar Es Salaam.  Upon arriving in Dar Es Salaam we found out that only 3 of us made it.. Me, Meghan, and Meghan’s bag.  We filed a claim with the luggage desk and then took a quick taxi ride to the old terminal where we boarded our LAST flight (6 for those keeping track) to the island of Zanzibar.

At Zanzibar we were met by a driver arranged by our hotel.  Wali drove us the hour up to the Northern tip of Zanzibar where we spent a few days lounging around the beach.  Unfortunately we didn’t find Zanzibar to be the awesome destination that it had been made out to be by just about everyone we have talked to..  Perhaps this was due to the fact that the island hadn’t had power for 8 days – and woulnd’t likely have it for several weeks more…

We also spent one day on the island wandering around the small streets of the old “Stone Town” section of Zanzibar town.  This was entertaining and we played the tourists and got lost in the miriad of streets changing directions here and there.. but still we were not as enamoured with the island as we expected to be.

After Zanzibar we took a ferry (2+ hours) back to Dar Es Salaam where we checked in to our hotel for just the one night.  Unfortunately this would not be true.. After losing my bag (which I had since recovered), Kenya Airways also managed to lose any record of us having paid for our next flights – and thus cancelled our tickets.  This, of course, we didn’t find out until we were standing at the check-in desk at 4:00 in the morning…

So we spent an additional night in Dar Es Salaam pretty annoyed with Tanzinia and Kenya both.  Because of this delay we would be pushed out one day and thus lose a valuable day in the next leg of our journey – trekking gorillas in Rwanda.. but that’s a story for another post.

Botswana Safari

After our stay In Livingstone, Meghan and I departed on our Safari adventure. We had an AMAZING time. We traveled with a very nice company – Wilderness Safaris – that provides for an exceptional safari experience. We stayed in small Safari “camps,” situated throughout the Okavango Delta and the Linyanti Spillway areas of North-Eastern Botswana.  Each camp held 12 – 20 people in luxurious semi-permenant tents (think Curry Village in Yosemite, but really really nice).

We flew bush planes into our first camp, and between camps.  The planes were little prop-planes seating 5-15 passengers and the airstrips were little more than clearings in the bush – Bumpy landings and short take-offs for sure!

Each day was pretty similar from camp-to-camp.  Our routine went something like this:

  • Wake up call at 5:30 or 6:00 AM
  • Breakfast (light meal) at 6:00 or 6:30 AM
  • Game Drive until about 10:00 to 10:30
  • (during the morning game drive of course we would stop for tea)
  • Brunch (second breakfast!) at 11:00
  • Siesta from 12:00 to 3:30
  • Tea at 3:30
  • Game Drive from 4:00 to 7:30
  • (during the afternoon game drive, a stop for a sundowner (Gin & Tonic of course)
  • Dinner at 8:00

So, as you can see, we were really suffering.  I think I finally understand what it means to be British.

We saw an exceptional variety of wildlife – easily 70 or more species during our trip.  It was too amazing for words.  I can’t recommend enough that everyone do this, however they try to struggle to pay for it.

Needless to say, I have LOTS of photos and I will publish many of them once I’m back at my computer and able to reliably download images from my camera onto a computer and up to the internet.  I can’t wait to see many of the images myself and I can only hope that they come out as well as I can remember the scenes unfolding before my eyes.

As a highlight, we saw Lions, Cheetah, Leopards, Elephants, Hippo, Cape Buffalo, Giraffes, Baboons, Wart Hogs, Jackyls, Hyenas, Wildebeasts, Aardwolfs, Bat-Eared Fox, Gennets, Civets, and about 7 different species of antelopes.  We also saw birds, birds, and birds.  Oh, and more birds.  And some Owls and Bats.

We did not see any kills or feeding (for better and worse) though we did see a little attempt and some aftermath.  The amazing thing overall is just sitting in the open-air vehicle watching these animals so close up.  I just can’t do it justice sitting in this internet cafe rushed for time.

Meghan and I both hope to be able to return for another Safari experience (and hopefully soon!) and we’ve come to realize how easy it would be to make a trip here and do a safari without needing a month-long trip.  Reallly with a 2-week vacation it would be very possible from the states.

Victoria Falls

The ‘guided’ part of our Africa trip (the part where a travel agent booked everything for us) started with a flight from Windhoek, Namibia to Victoria Falls via Maun Botswana.

We took the smallish propeller plane (2 seats per row, 12 or 14 rows) to Botswana (an airport we’d see at the end of our safari) and then on to Victoria Falls.

Since the travel agent booked all of this for us, we hadn’t paid much attention to this part of the trip.  Imagine our surprise when we’re filling out the arrival card in the airport that we were in Zimbabwe!  Who knew?

We were met by a handler (arranged again by our agent) who guided us through the entry process and then drove us to the Zimbabwe/Zambia border – where we were then met by our Zambian handler.  This is not only the first trip where I’ve used a travel agent, but it’s now the first trip where we’ve had our own fixers!

Our Zambian driver took us all the way in to our stupidly nice hotel the Royal Livingstone.  This 5-star hotel is located just off of the falls (you can easily see the mist and hear the falls from the lawns of the hotel).  We spent the rest of the afternoon checking out the falls – oh, after high tea that is.

Victoria Falls really is impressive and it’s the first of the world’s 7 wonders that I’ve seen.

We got soaked by the mist whilst walking along the pathways checking out the overlook spots.

That night we skipped dinner first because we had the ridiculous high tea and second because we didn’t feel we had the attire to join the rest of the diners.

We did, however, enjoy a sunset drink along the Zambezi river.

The following morning (after a quick last check of the falls) we were again picked up by our handler and we were off on our safari adventure.  But that’s for another post.

Alive and Kicking

Meghan and I are backfrom the wilds and once again find ourselves connected after 2 weeks away from the hyper-connected world.

We’ve had a great time which I’ll post about in the next few days.. that is, assuming we can connect.  It seems Zanzibar (where we are now) has been without electricity for 8 days because of problems with their under-sea electrtic lines.  Since they have no generation facilities on the island everyone (that has them) is running off generators.  They expect they could be without electricity for another 2 – 3 weeks.