Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Magic in Malamala!

Monday, May 5th, 2008

Malamala -- Last Day 028 We left Johannesburg Friday morning and flew to Malamala, a private game reserve abutting Kruger National Park in South Africa.  After checking in, eating lunch, and doing some homework, we headed out for our first afternoon/evening exploration drive.  The first drive, along with the rest of our stay, were phenomenal.

Malamala -- Panasonic 182 The big five on safaris are the African Elephant, the African Lion, the African Buffalo, the White Rhino, and the elusive Leopard.  The “five” were established back when big game hunting was big here, but remains as a goal for many photo safari participants.  Before coming to Africa, we had hopes of seeing each of these great animals.  Little did we know . . .

Malamala -- Nikon 028 We left the Malamala lodge at about 3:45 p.m. and headed out on our first exploratory drive here.  About fifteen minutes into the drive, we were stopped trying to identify a woodpecker.  As we got ready to leave, we noticed right behind our jeep was a big, hulking African Buffalo.  Wow!  Big Five #1! 

Malamala -- Nikon 061 We then got a radio call about a potential lion sighting.  We headed off the road onto terrain I didn’t think we could possibly navigate, but did.  We went down a steep ravine, and managed to climb up the other side, to see . . .  12 LIONS!!!  There were three female adults and nine young (8-12 month old) cubs.  As dusk settled in, we watched the lions hang out as an extended family, stunned at our good fortune to see this many lions in the wild.  Big Five #2!!

Malamala -- Nikon 222 Now that it was completely dark, we got our floodlights out and headed down the road, to identify a very odd set of fresh tracks in the soft dirt of the road.  There were two parallel fairly-deep lines cutting across the road.  Our guides suggested it was a fresh kill being dragged into the woods, but I didn’t take that too seriously.  We then followed the likely path, wound down an unbeaten opening in the woods, and someone spotted . . .  an Impala head up in a tree.  Unbelievable!!  There was a dead Impala head sitting about fifteen feet up in a tree, perched on a limb.  How anyone spotted it is beyond me.   [In the photo above, the Impala head is on the right.  We ended up seeing the same Impala head the next day, where it was an afternoon snack for the lion family we had seen].

Malamala -- Nikon 095 But, . . . , speaking of spots, we then looked further into the surrounding area, driving up and down and through incredibly thick grass in the dark to arrive at the backside of the tree, only to find . . . a big male LEOPARD.  Big Five #3!!!  This animal is incredibly hard to find in the wild, but there he was, right in front of us.  It was unreal.  We heard a rustling noise shortly thereafter, and our newly-made leopard friend had a visitor — a Spotted Hyena!  The Leopard zeroed in on the Hyena with laser-like focus and issued a deep growl.  The Hyena backed off, and the Leopard then jumped up into the tree.  He grabbed his Impala head and carried it higher up in the tree, and camped out there chewing away on fresh Impala meet. 

Malamala -- Panasonic 125 At that point, we heard loud “clump, clump, clump”-ing in the forest bush, and a huge African Elephant approached us.  Big Five #4!!!!  Being in a jeep between an Elephant and a Leopard didn’t seem too smart, so we pulled out a bit, watched the Leopard awhile more, and then headed off.  But even though we’ve seen plenty of elephants this trip, seeing them in such close proximity to other big game animals was exciting.

Malamala -- Nikon 203 Was our viewing night over?  Hardly.  We crossed a bridge and got a great look at a Hippo and another Elephant.  We then headed over to the airport landing strip, where we got a great look at a White Rhino!  Big Five #5!!!  So in one three hour game drive, we had great sightings of all five of the “Big Five.”  At this point, we headed home, knowing anything else for the evening would be a let-down.

Malamala -- Panasonic 100 So the next morning, we tried our best to manage our expectations down.  What could we see that could match yesterday afternoon’s great set of sightings?!?!   Well, our wake-up call came at 5:30 a.m., and we were off just after 6:00 a.m.  Shortly into our game drive, we started heading fast for a corner of the reserve.  A Cheetah had been sighted, and we would love to get to see it.  The problem was that the Cheetah was heading toward the boundary with Kruger National Park, and visitors to Malamala can’t enter the park.  So the clock was ticking!  And, as our good luck would have it, we caught up with the Cheetah just a few minutes before it disappeared into Kruger.  The Cheetah is the fastest land animal in existence, and it was fabulous to see this powerful cat in the wild.  Along with our Big 5, we now added the Cheetah, making for the Super Six!! 

Malamala -- Panasonic 155 It’s hard to believe that the rest of our time at Malamala could live up to the first twenty-four hours, but it did.  We had a fabulous time here, seeing all sorts of great animals, including Zebra, Giraffe, the Nile Crocodile, the Water Monitor Lizard, and lots of great birds (including this pair of White-throated Bee-eaters on the right).  It was a magic place, and our last night drive underscores how great a place it is.  We ended up on a sandy beach by a river, in the middle of a family of twelve lions.  The cubs wrestled and played with each other, while the adults would occasionally roar, which is quite a sound to absorb from 20 feet.  The night before we followed a different group of lions (one adult male and six adult females) as they patrolled the reserve, looking for prey.  At one point, they circled an Impala and mounted an attack, but the very fortunate Impala escaped. 

Malamala -- Last Day 002 Our last lunch at Malamala was out on the deck, and we watched a family of three elephants march by, coming within 30 meters of the deck.  We’d regularly see great wildlife from our room, and found it an amazing place for wildlife viewing.  Over the course of three days here, we saw twenty different lions, fifteen different rhinos, countless elephants, three leopards, a cheetah, and a couple of buffalo.   And we saw all sorts of great animal behavior in the wild, including the leopard below (and the first photo in this post) devouring a poor Impala.

Malamala -- Last Day 022 There was so much to love about Malamala.  It is a much plusher site than the earlier safari sites we visited.  You stay in rooms with phones, there’s internet access in the main room, and the roads were fairly smooth.  If I had one quibble with Malamala, it was the meals.  For you Spanish speakers, “La comida es mala, mala.”  But this is a great place to visit, a quick one hour flight from Johannesburg, fabulous wildlife, and a great experience.  In 2007, some 99.5% of visitors staying two nights or more saw all of the Big Five, and much more!  So you can’t go wrong with a visit to Malamala, and a whole lot will go right!

Alexandra and Apartheid

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

Joburg Apartheid 099 We didn’t get to spend much time in Johannesburg, but it’s a place that will have a lasting and powerful impact on us.  A couple of weeks ago, we played baseball with a great set of kids in the Wesbury and Soweto areas.  Today, we spent the morning exploring Alexandra, perhaps the poorest urban area in Africa, and the afternoon at Joburg’s Apartheid Museum, a very powerful experience.

Joburg Apartheid 026 We were very fortunate to have Robin Binckes as our guide to Johannesburg.  Robin grew up in South Africa, and has seen the evolution of this most interesting country from its apartheid history to modern South Africa.  He readily admits to being a proponent of apartheid in his early years, but made a dramatic departure in perspective and life focus in 1993, when a black leader here was shot. 

Joburg Apartheid 111 For the past several years, Robin has been involved in many non-profit initiatives in the Johannesburg area, focusing on Alexdrandria.  The area used to be called “The Slaughterhouse,” since so many killings occurred in this compact area.  Today, some 400,000 black South Africans live in one square mile here, and that’s the area we visited.  Unemployment here is well over 50%, and only a handful of the area’s youth make it through high school.  And AIDS is a huge problem for many in this area, with little acceptance of basic measures of prevention (e.g., condoms).

Joburg Apartheid 025 It was immediately apparent that Robin is beloved in Alexandria, and he was greeted by person after person on the street.  He is involved with a pre-school, with a hostel, has “adopted” or sponsored a gorgeous nine-year-old girl, helps some of the local women with a business making jewelry and bowls, and has brought almost 800 bougainvillea plants to the area, each dedicated to a visitor.  He is a great example of one person making a huge difference.

Joburg Apartheid 076 We visited Nambuhle, a hostel that is home for some 5,000 people.  We met with two women selling beautiful things they had made, met many of the kids, and got a real feel for life in a hostel.  We were so impressed with the energy and curiosity of these children, who were adorable.  We could see why Robin is so energized by the work he does in this community.  And we had some extra Red Sox hats, so we gave out a bunch to the children, who were thrilled to get this gift.  As we find over and over on our trip, those with the least are often the happiest and most appreciative.

Joburg Apartheid 101 We then drove all over Alexandra, including where Nelson Mandela lived in this community.  These streets were just alive with the energy of the people here.  We had been warned, and warned, and warned about the peril of being in Johannesburg.  And here we were, the only five white people anywhere in sight (the tourists all go to Soweto, which is much more middle class now), yet we felt welcomed by the people we’d pass by.  Robin said, “If you wave to anyone, you’ll see a huge smile on their face and get a big wave in return.”  And he was right.

Joburg Apartheid 119 We learned about the South African concept of Ubuntu, which is a humanitarian ethic binding together a community.  Bishop Desmond Tutu talked about ubuntu as follows, “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”  You could see Ubuntu everywhere in dirt-poor Alexandra.  And, sadly, I realized that ubuntu is what seems to be slowly disappearing from the United States.

Joburg Apartheid 180 After a quick lunch, we went to a spot in a nice section in Johannesburg, and saw where Nelson Mandela lived while planning the resistance to Apartheid rule.  It was such a peaceful spot, somewhat ironic in light of the bloody and horrible struggle that gripped this country for so many years.  In the next six weeks, this site will open as a museum, and we’d love to visit it in the future.

Joburg Apartheid 199 We ended our day with a very powerful trip to Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum, which illustrates the rise and fall of apartheid.  The film footage, photographs, and artifacts lay out this history in a very powerful way.  After seeing all of the oppression, the many people who lost their lives, and the clear pain of this period, we ended at a photograph of a line of people voting in the first free elections in South Africa (photo above), which were in 1993.  I’m not an emotional person, but felt like crying to see the positive result of years of struggle.

There are clear parallels between South Africa’s history and that of many other countries, including the United States.  But there’s an intensity, compression, and recency to what happened in South Africa that makes it all so tangible.  The country still has a long way to go before the black population is on its feet economically, but the progress over the past 14 years has been impressive.  And it shows what can happen when a people are willing to fight with their lives against an oppressive regime.  All in all, this was a very inspiring day for all of us.

For those interested in learning more about the great work being done here by Robin Binckes, check out his website.

Mind-Boggling Botswana!

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

Well, in our wildest dreams, we never imagined having as much fun in Botswana as we had during the past week.  It was a real highlight of our trip, and a place we can’t wait to return to.  We visited two camps — Jack’s and Stanley’s — and loved each.  There’s just no doubt that Africa is a great place for our family, and we’re having a ball here.

Like Namibia, Botswana is a relatively unpopulated country in southern Africa (1.8 million total population).  It’s a land-locked country, with few agricultural resources.  But Botswana has lots of mineral resources, including diamonds, and has been investing aggressively in its future.  It’s a terrific country, safe, with lots of nice people, and great wildlife viewing.

Makgadi-kgadi Salt Pans

Botswana -- Jack's 149 We started our stay in Botswana at Jack’s camp, in the Makgadi-kgadi Salt Pans.  The area is fairly dry and flat, with its main feature being a huge salt pan (or flat) that stretches for hundreds of kilometers.  The area is physically attractive, although it’s main draw is the wildlife and the local bushmen.

Botswana -- Jack's 427 We saw some great wildlife at Jack’s, including the Aardwolf, the Bat-eared Fox, African Elephants, Zebra, the Cape Porcupine (see Gibson’s report on this interesting creature), and the fascinating Meerkat.  We also picked up a number of new bird species here, as well as a Kalahari Tent Tortoise.  This area was so rich in wildlife that each hour brought a new surprise.

Botswana -- Jack's 108 While at Jack’s we also went out with three local bushmen, including the legendary “Cobra.”  It was great to meet them, learn about their culture, see first-hand some of their survival skills, and explore the local area with Africa’s original inhabitants, a culture that goes back as far in history as any around the world.

Botswana -- Jack's 227 Our highlight at Jack’s was a great experience with wild Meerkats.  If you’ve seen Lion King, you know about Meerkats.  They are fascinating animals, about the size of a house cat, with a tight sense of community and endlessly cute.  We walked among a Meerkat cluster here, and this may be the only place in the world where you can get this close to an elusive animal.  All of us wanted to figure out a way to have a Meerkat as a pet next year, but suspect they’ll all stay right here in Botswana.

Botswana -- Jack's 337 We also went out one night on ATV’s and explored the salt flats at sunset.  We stopped at a remote spot, watched the sun come down and the fabulous Southern Hemisphere stars rise.  We took some blankets and laid down on the salt flats, and really didn’t want to leave.  This time of year, though, there is enough moisture in the pans that animals occasionally cross at night.  But during the dry season, you can sleep under the stars there, which would be a fabulous experience.

Okavango Delta

Botswana -- Stanley's 055 We then spent three days exploring the Okavango Delta, one of Botswana’s top attractions.  This place is flat out unreal when it comes to wildlife.  We saw so many great things here, and loved the location, the camp, and the wildlife.  It’s much wetter than the other places we’ve visited so far, with many water crossings, dense forest, all attracting a different type of wildlife. 

Botswana -- Stanley's 277 While at Stanley’s, we saw a large number of new birds (37 new species after almost two weeks in the wild, including the Bateleur Eagle on the right), as well as some great reptiles (the Rock Monitor Lizard, the Flap-necked Chameleon, and the Striped Skaapsteker snake), the Painted Reed Frog, and several great mammals, including a look at a Hippo, and great looks at the African Bush Baby (an adorable tiny primate), the Impala, close views of the African Elephant, and many encounters with Giraffes (including one on the side of our air landing strip!!).

Botswana -- Stanley's 078 Our highlight, though, was a chance encounter early one morning with a waking Leopard, perched on a tree limb.  We watched the Leopard up close for about ten minutes, when it decided to come down the tree — right before our eyes!  We followed the Leopard’s path down the tree, by our vehicle, and along the road behind us.  It was totally amazing!

Botswana -- Stanley's 173 We spent a morning with an elephant researcher, who had moved to Botswana from Oregon twenty years ago, and now spends every waking hour caring for a set of three semi-wild elephants.  We learned a ton (well, 5-6 tons, to be precise) about elephants from him, and got to spend some time with these very smart animals.  They have such a great social structure, including a collaborative approach to raising their young.  By the end of the morning, we felt like we had become great friends with these three massive animals.

Botswana -- Stanley's 357 And we spent another morning out on canoes in the Okavango Delta.  We got some great close-up views of the local frogs, as well as getting a chance to explore a very peaceful and beautiful location in this part of the world.  We had mixed feelings about having a chance encounter with a hippo on this outing, but didn’t come across any.  That said, some wild elephants crossed behind us while we were out, and we were glad to keep our distance from them!

We left Botswana feeling like we had just spent a week in one of the world’s most amazing places.  It is so beautiful, so preserved, and so exciting that it was tempting to just call off the rest of our trip and spend the next seven weeks in Botswana!

Mind-Numbing Namibia

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

Namibia 242 Namibia was called Southwest Africa when I studied Africa’s geography.  It’s a sparsely-populated (total population of two million) country on Africa’s Atlantic Coast, lying north of South Africa and south of Angola.  We stayed at three different places in Namibia, and loved every minute here.  It was a great start to our time in sub-Sahara Africa, and a country we will definitely visit again.

Namibia 001 The frigid Benguela Current runs up from Antarctica along the west coast of Africa, meaning the Atlantic Ocean water off this coast is quite cold and carries little precipitation.  Consequently, the west coast of Africa gets almost no rainfall, and is desert.  Our first two stops in Namibia were in desert territories, although quite different from each other.  We completed our great stay in Namibia in the Waterberg area, and stayed at a place focusing on wildlife research.

Damaraland

Namibia II 057 We started at a great spot called Camp Damaraland, which we loved.  The land there was gorgeous, the people running the camp so hospitable, and we saw some great wildlife.  Although the area is desert, it was rugged and hilly/mountainous.  We were fortunate to be in this area after a period of rainfall that caused much of the land to covered by grass.  This grass will soon disappear, but the waves of grass, with the mountains in the background, were simply phenomenal.

Namibia II 032 We saw more animals than I can show here in pictures.  We had great looks at the Springbok, Gemsbok (Oryx), Baboons, Kudu and Zebras.   We saw some African Elephants at a distance, which was an exciting first look at these huge but very smart creatures.  It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to find elephant tracks in the grass, follow them, and eventually come across a “parade” of elephants in the wild.  And we never tired of watching any of the different antelopes here, each spectacular in its own way.

We also saw lots of great birds and reptiles, most of which we’d never seen before.  This area is terrific for wildlife, and hardly a minute went by without a great sighting.  But for us the highlight was the gorgeous desert hills and grasslands of this great area.

Skeleton Coast

Namibia 361 The Skeleton Coast lies in the upper northwest corner of Namibia, on the Atlantic Ocean.  This area has lots of great dunes, rugged coast line, canyons, and desert landscape.  We stayed at the Skeleton Coast research site, which was quite basic, but worked just fine for us.  Our guide from Skeleton was Kallie, who was terrific.

Namibia 311 Our highlight was exploring the dunes of the area.  Our first big highlight was when Kallie was driving alongside a dune, suddenly stopped the vehicle, jumped out, and sprinted onto the dune.  He had spotted the elusive Desert Plated Lizard on the dune, chased her down, and eventually caught her.  This lizard was a big hit with Gibson and Sterling, who immediately put this at the top of their “NEXT PET” list.

Namibia 414 We saw some great animals at Skeleton Coast, including fields with Ostriches, Springboks, and Oryx.  It’s impossible to describe the beauty of the wide open hills of Namibia, full of some of the most beautiful wild animals on the face of the earth.  We also got some of our initial good views of  Giraffes in the wild.  These animals are really remarkable, and we could watch them for hours on end.  For their size, they’re remarkably graceful, and seem so calm and dignified.   And we saw at a distance some African Savanna Elephants — truly remarkable creatures. 

Namibia Waterberg 052 We went fishing one morning in the Atlantic, and the kids had great success.  It seemed that as soon as their line hit the water, they got a big bite.  Apparently, the coastal waters of Namibia are very rich in fish, and there’s a fair amount of controversy in terms of managing the fishing done in these waters by foreign nations.  Namibia is a very poor country, so they need to protect all the (meager) resources they have.

Namibia 447 A real highlight of our time at Skeleton Coast was a visit to a very primitive Himba village, inhabited by members of the Himbu tribe.  We got a chance to see, and even crawl in, the huts they live in (think igloos, but made of cow dung and sticks).  We also got a chance to observe the social dynamic of the tribe, with the men huntingNamibia 480 all day, the women weaving and cooking, and the children (of which there were many) being taken care of by grandmothers.  As we’ve seen over and over on our trip, the people with the fewest material possessions are almost always so happy.  They did sell a few items that the women in the tribe made, and that in itself was an interesting experience.  They had a full table of items, but we ended up involved in multiple transactions with different women in the tribe.

Waterberg

In Waterberg, we stayed at a lodge and spent a fair amount of time with people from Namibia’s Rare and Endangered Species Trust, as well as with the Cheetah Conservation Fund.  Namibia has an active non-profit community focused on conservation issues, and these groups were quite interesting, and a highlight of our time in Namibia.

Namibia Waterberg 175 You’ll be shocked to learn that the Cheetah Conservation Fund is focused on Cheetahs :-) .  We visited their facilities, and got a jeep tour of a holding area that is home to a number of cheetahs.  It’s not the same as seeing the animal in the wild, but we got some great looks at Cheetahs there.  One of the big challenges for the Cheetah population in Africa is the occasional attack made by a wild cat like this in farm animals, which invites retaliation by farmers. 

Namibia Waterberg 303 Less obvious is the prime focus of the Rare and Endangered Species Trust, but their passion is vultures.  As a venture capitalist, I can relate to the unfortunate negative stigma attached to vultures.   The organization was founded by Maria Diekmann, who grew up in California, came to Namibia over a decade ago, and is now a Namibian for life.  She fosters research efforts to protect the vulture species in Africa, especially theNamibia Waterberg 280 Cape Griffon Vulture.  Incredibly, vultures are under attach worldwide, and some 10 million were killed in the past decade in Asia!  Vultures are nature’s vacuum cleaner, scooping in on dead carcasses and picking them clean — but preventing the spread of disease in the process.  The problem is that many carcasses are dead due to poisoning, which in turn kills the vultures.  It was fabulous for us to spend time in Waterberg, observe biological research and conservation in action, and meet some really terrific people. 

Namibia II 158 We definitely plan to return to Namibia.  It’s just a fabulous place.  It’s an especially great place to start in exploring southern Africa, since you can see some great wildlife, but animals are much sparser here than in other locations.  Each of the three places we explored is a location we’d highly recommend.  And, on our next trip, tops on our list is the Etosha National Park, reported to be one of Africa’s top sites for game viewing.  The biggest sand dunes in the world can be found at Namib Naukloft Park, where it’s possible to take a hot air balloon safari.  Fish River Canyon Park is the second biggest canyon in the world (after then Grand Canyon), and worth a day’s visit.  And other places we’d love to take in at some point include Swapukmund, Cape Cross, Serra Cafema, and Doro Nawns.  This country, bigger than Texas but without George W. Bush, has so much to offer! 

On Safari

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

We’d never been on a safari trip before our time here in southern Africa.  Well, now we’ve been on several here, and have a far better idea of what is involved.  For our family, these explorations have been fabulous.

Locations

Botswana -- Jack's 401 The campsites are located in the middle of remote wildlife areas in Namibia and Botswana.  We flew to these places on small prop planes, landing on crude airstrips.  One “runway,” for example, was a dirt road for cars that doubles as an airplane landing strip.  The planes are small, holding six to twelve passengers, and without bathrooms.  The flights are typically an hour or two in length, over beautiful terrain. 

Botswana Jack's by G 400 I’m not quite sure how these places do it, but the food is incredible.  Breakfast is usually fruit, bread, cereal, and eggs cooked to order.  We had “pancakes” at one place, but learned that African “pancakes” are our version of crepes, and we needed to ask for “crumpets.”  Lunch is generally light — soup, sandwiches, some prepared meats or casseroles, and maybe a light dessert.  And dinners are fabulous, most often local meat of some sort (one of the local antelopes or cows), great vegetables, a terrific soup or salad, and desserts (generally pudding or cake).

The Days

Wake up time on safari is typically 5:30 to 6:00 a.m., and out exploring by no later than 7:00 a.m., returning in time for lunch.  Mid afternoon, when it’s hot and most animals are hunkered down, we did our home-schooling (most other guests took naps).  Then, around 4:00 p.m., we’d head back out for a couple of hours, and return for dinner. 

Namibia 118 When we’re out during the day exploring, we’re in a vehicle that’s kind of a combination of a jeep and van, with a driver and another spotter.  They are incredible at finding interesting things to look at in the wild.  We were very fortunate to have an outstanding guide (Trevor Carnaby) in Southern Africa, who not only knew all the animals and plants, but shared with us all sorts of interesting context.  We’d see lots of birds (some big, some small), reptiles, smaller mammals, and the bigger animals.  Hardly an hour went by without seeing something that the four of us found quite exciting.  We are a bit quirky as a family, though, since we can get very excited by the smallest of reptiles, amphibians, or insects.

Botswana -- Stanley's 128 We learned that the vast majority of people on a safari have very simple criteria for success.  If they see lions and elephants, they’re happy; if they don’t see both species, they feel they had a lousy safari, no matter how much else they saw.  Anyway, we had a few outings where we saw very little, but many where the sightings were spectacular.

Botswana -- Stanley's 087 The roads can be rough at time, but aren’t too bad.  We got out and hiked occasionally (almost not all is in parks with big game).  The biggest challenge when hiking is the high concentration of burrs in the grasses, a huge number of which find their way into socks and shoes.  We were wishing we had packed “gators” to protect our lower legs and ankles.  The vehicles are covered, so we were largely sheltered from the sun. 

Botswana -- Jack's 313 We’d occasionally pick up tracks of interesting animals and pursue them, often with success.  And the guides were great at picking up interesting sounds and knowing exactly what to do.  The vehicles all have radios, so if there’s a particularly interesting sighting, you may well hear about it from someone else, and make a beeline to see what’s going on.  But often it was the chance encounter with something remarkable (like the morning we encountered a Leopard sleeping in a tree, waking up, and coming down) that stood out.

 

The Nights

Namibia V by Gibson 359 Most nights we’d do a night safari of about an hour, with a jeep and searchlight, looking for nocturnal animals.  The “rules” were that the searchlight couldn’t focus on diurnal animals (animals active in the day), for fear of spooking them or damaging their eyesight.  But we’d see some great animals at night.  One night, for instance, we saw a porcupine (hard to see), and Aardwolf, and Brown Hyena.  Another night we parked and watched a Spotted Hyena, several Impalas fighting among themselves, a herd of Wildebeests, some African Elephants, and some exotic frogs — without ever leaving our location.  And just taking in the African Savanna at night, under a sky full of stars, was awesome.

Botswana -- Stanley's 441 The campsites range in level of accommodations from quite basic to fairly plush.  They generally have a small number (four to eight) two-person tent cabins, a central larger tent for eating and congregating, and a set of interconnecting paths.  Each individual tent can be isolated, and we weren’t allowed to leave the tent at night (the risk of wildlife attack is real).  Consequently, we slept with one adult and one child per tent.

Botswana Jack's by G 406 Tents had their own bathrooms, with flush toilets and showers of some sort.  At Skeleton Coast, they’d bring in a bucket of hot water at certain times of day, and you could drip out the hot water to take your shower!  Others have a fairly predictable, but limited, supply of hot water.   But the water can go from hot to cold in a moment’s notice (generally just after your hair is full of shampoo!).

These sites generally rely on a range of solar power and a small generator for electricity.  The tents either have very limited electrical power, or none at all.  The quality of lighting was poor enough that we generally couldn’t read after dark.

Botswana Jack's by G 052 The beds in our tents have been, for the most part, remarkably comfortable.  I’ve had several beds here that are among the most comfortable I’ve slept in over the past eight months (and that’s a LOT of beds!!).  We’d check under the covers each night before going to bed, to make sure a stray scorpion or other nasty creature hadn’t gotten under the sheets ahead of us.  And we’d keep our  bags closed, and would check shoes before putting them on, just to make sure there were no wildlife surprises.

Namibia 031 Our very first night on safari got off to an ominous start.  Our kids spend almost every waking hour hunting for lizards, toads, snakes, you name it.  So, after ten minutes after they went to bed in their tent, they came sprinting into our tent, scared to death by a large Wall Spider.  So much for our fearless wildlife hunters!  As fast as you can snap your fingers, we were switching sleeping arrangements (even thought the Wall Spider is harmless), and had one adult sleep with one child.

Of course, the one thing that can keep you up at night, or wake you up, is the sound of nearby wildlife.  Some nights we’d hear the roars of lions or hyenas.  One night Elizabeth and Sterling were woken up by an elephant pulling up plants and trees right outside their tent!

Other Interesting Issues

The camps are very conscious of guest safety.  There are places we can’t walk and times when we can’t walk without a guide.   When we’re out in a jeep exploring, we can’t leave the jeep without a guide first surveying the area (no matter how much a bathroom break is needed!).  Also, there was lots of discussion about the “do’s” and “don’t's” of chance encounters with wildlife.  Rule #1, #2, and #3 is — “DON’T RUN”!  If you run, most animals follow their natural instinct to chase you down and attack you.  So running, while having considerable appeal, is the worst thing you can do.  Best to stay still, raise your arms to look even bigger, and yell at the potential attacker.

A challenge of safari is the extreme temperature ranges you experience.  The days can be quite hot (close to 100 degrees), while it gets cold at night (maybe 40 degrees, but feels colder).  And it’s pretty darn cold in the morning when you go out, but warms up quite quickly. 

Electronics is a huge challenge when on safari.  I now know what the “out” is in the phrase “out of Africa.”  It’s out of internet contact!  I had some hope that the camps would have a satellite link, and offer some internet availability.  So far, no luck on that front.  Even charging batteries is a challenge, and it’s generally not possible to charge things in your room.  So it takes real organization and discipline (not my strong suits) to keep things charged at the charging location in the main tent area (which is limited in outlets, power, and often only available at certain times of day).  And in some locations, my only option was to give the cords and charging devices to someone else and hope they’d handle it the right way at some off-location site (hopes generally not realized).  Finally, I did bring a charger that plugs into a car’s cigarette lighter, and that’s been invaluable a few times here. 

Cell phone coverage is non-existent in most camps, and iffy even in the bigger cities.  Since we had internet access in Antarctica, I assumed (quite incorrectly) that there’s be some connectivity at these tent lodges.  Wrong!  This is the longest I’ve gone in ages without access to the internet or e-mail, and it definitely had its pluses.

 Almost everywhere we’ve stayed did most of our laundry, with the exception of underwear.  This laundry service was very helpful, meaning we could pack lightly and always have clean clothes.

We didn’t face any real issues with mosquitoes, although a visit during the rainy season would be worse.  We did have big challenges with dust, which in some places was just everywhere.  It really permeated our clothes, and was a big issue for our cameras.  We lost yet another camera in Southern Africa (three have failed us so far on the trip), and it was hard to keep dust out.

Net, Net

If you love wildlife and nature, then Southern Africa is an absolute joy.  The accommodations are still fairly basic, but perfectly great, and the sights are wonderful.  We heard that some tent lodges are becoming more upscale (adding spa services, pools, internet access, etc.), and it may be a matter of time before all get forced into giving up their rustic nature.  But we loved the lodges as they are, and hope they don’t change before we’re back again.

Baseball in Johannesburg!

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Baseball in J'burg 167 We had a wonderful time playing baseball with a group of about 50 young boys and girls in Johannesburg, South Africa.  The head of the program, Mohammed Basson “Ali”, pulled together a fabulous late afternoon of fun baseball for us, along with a great dinner afterwards.  They were incredible hosts, and we really had a great time with them on our first day in South Africa.

Baseball in J'burg 147 We’ve now played baseball in ten countries — Australia, China, Thailand, Bhutan, India, New Zealand, Peru, Argentina, and South Africa.  Tonight, I felt particularly emotional about our little baseball ambassadors program for our trip.  These kids are almost all from the very poorest parts of Johannesburg, and have so little.  Several of them live in an  Baseball in J'burg 175 AIDS center, having contracted AIDS from birth.  The children were so nice to us, enthusiastic about baseball and America, and thrilled to get a simple gift like a Red Sox baseball hat.  There was such joy at this little athletic field in Johannesburg tonight, from kids facing such great challenges, that it was baseball and ambassadorship at its very best.

Baseball in J'burg 021 In South Africa, baseball isn’t a popular sport.  They play a lot of football (our soccer), rugby, and some golf and tennis here, but baseball isn’t on the radar screen yet.  So the progress of this baseball program is impressive.  They now have about 100 kids involved at all levels, and participation is increasing rapidly.  They are located near Soweto and Westbury, two of the most economically challenged areas of Johannesburg, and they have very few resources for their program.  But they are doing a great job with these young players, all of whom seem really excited to be playing baseball.

Baseball in J'burg 004 They put together a special practice session for us, starting at 5:00 p.m.  The kids are all in school, which runs late in the afternoon, so 5:00 p.m. was the earliest that everyone could be there.  The kids first said their team Baseball Pledge, then they all did stretches, warm up throws, practice grounders, and then some scrimmaging.  Most of the practice was under the lights, and their field (Bill Jardine Stadium) is used primarily for rugby, so it lacks the things you’d normally find on a baseball field (backstop, bases, outfield fence). 

Baseball in J'burg 151 Few of the kids have their own equipment.  The program has gotten some help from the New York Yankees, who they said are helping a range of teams in South Africa.  The Yankees have donated equipment and hats, so they’ve really helped jumpstart this program.  They teams aren’t part of Little League yet, but will be joining a Little League here in the next few months, which they are very excited about.  It was great to see this program getting help from U.S. organizations, and we were thrilled to be part of helping them out.

Baseball in J'burg 037 I was impressed by the number of coaches there for the session, as well as the broad involvement of parents.  The head coach, Ashley (in photo on right), was on top of his baseball.  His favorite player is Manny Ramirez.  This coach will be coming to the United States for the first time in July to spend three weeks at a Cal Ripken camp for coaches, and is very excited about the trip.  He was helped out at the practice by a half dozen other coaches, as well as a number of women who do a great job there with the management of the league — not to mention preparing a great dinner for us.

Baseball in J'burg 114 Our baseball session was joined by a group of children from the Sparrow Village, a center for children in the Johannesburg area with AIDS.  This center has some 250 kids, and the issue of AIDS-impacted children here is quite serious.  It turns out that this center has a field and a baseball coach, but no equipment at all, so we’ll be helping them jumpstart a program at their facility.

Baseball in J'burg 022 On our first day in South Africa, we couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the country.  We had a very demanding day getting here, leaving on a 4:30 a.m. flight from Dubai, which meant getting up at 1:30 a.m. Dubai time (11:30 p.m. Johannesburg time).  But we were all wide awake for the baseball, and met some great people.  And just seeing all of these young children having a great time playing baseball was worth the challenges of the “commute.”

Baseball in J'burg 202 Baseball in J'burg 159

You just have to go and check out our pictures from Baseball in Johannesburg!  There are so many kids that you’ll just want to give a big hug to.

Dear Egypt

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

Dear Egypt:

We just spent two weeks touring your country.  What are you thinking?  You have such an astounding history, much of it still more or less intact.  And you treat it so dreadfully.  Egypt, here are a few suggestions:

1.  Your country has 84 million people with an unemployment rate estimated in the 30-40 percent range.  Put some of these people to work cleaning up the trash all around your pyramids, tombs, museums, and city sidewalks.  After two weeks in Egypt, we’re convinced that the word in Egyptian for “trash can” is “any public space, especially one of great historical significance.”

2.  Get the corruption out of your police force.  Everywhere we went, there were “tourist police.”  As best we can tell, they spend their entire day standing around, smoking cigarettes, and trying to extract money from tourists.  We saw some egregious tourist actions at sites we visited, and the tourist police did nothing to stop it, probably because the perpetrator slipped them a five pound note ($1 U.S.).  BTW, is it out of the question that these “tourist police” might actually keep the place looking halfway presentable?

3.  Change the way you staff these sites.  Everywhere we went, we were met at Egypt’s historic sites by chain-smoking scuzzy-looking guys whose job was to take tickets.  These guys were of no help whatsoever.  They seemed to thrive on polluting tight, closed-in spaces with volumes of cigarette smoke.  Occasionally, they’d grab your camera and make the oh-so-familiar Egyptian hand motion of rubbing their fingers against their thumb — meaning “give me money.”  Egypt, you can do soooo much better than that!

4.  Your sites really are fragile.  If you let millions of tourists a year climb all over them, chip away at rocks, rub their hands all over 3,000 year old carvings, well . . .  THEY AREN’T GOING TO LAST!   And if things like your great pyramids are located in a city with horrendous air pollution, that won’t help.  Make sure these great monuments last another 3,000 years!  Your future depends on it.

5.  The rest of the tourism infrastructure in Egypt is also in need of help.  For instance, your restaurants generally have surly waitstaff, mediocre food, and two sections — smoking, and heavy smoking.  You have to be starving to death before eating in an Egyptian restaurant begins to have any appeal.  

Egypt, you have no oil.  Only 4% of your land is inhabitable.  You have meager natural resources.  But you have the world’s greatest man-made treasures.  Ancient Egypt was an amazing civilization.  Modern Egypt needs to keep pace.  If you have any hope of lifting your country up, you need to treasure your treasures, not treat them as the country’s garbage dump.

Sincerely,

Our Family

Down the Nile!

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

Nile River 023 Our best several days in Egypt came as we explored the Nile Valley and all of the ruins along its path.  We covered many astounding sites, and found ourselves constantly amazed at what this civilization had accomplished over three thousand years ago.   To put things into perspective, the Egyptian temples were largely built 2,500 to 3,500 years ago.  Other things we’ve seen on this trip include the Great Wall (5th to 16th Century B.C.), Machu Picchu (1450 A.D.), and Angkor Wat (12th Century A.D.).  So the Egyptians were really way ahead of their time.

Nile River 029 We left Cairo before daybreak, taking an early (6:30 a.m.) small plane south to the site of Abu Simbel, site of the temple of Ramses II.  This place is incredibly remote, and positively jaw-dropping.  It’s a site that was nearly destroyed as Egypt constructed the Aswan dam, but a massive (well, by Egypt standards massive — $40 million) fund-raising effort was able to entirely re-locate the ruins, and preserve them for future generations.  So you land at a remote airport (few people actually stay here) and take a short drive to see . . .  the most amazing tomb entrance Nile River 044 imaginable.  I can’t describe it adequately in words, but a few pictures help.  The face of the temple is dominated by four enormous (almost 20 meters tall) statues of the Pharaoh Ramses II.  They surround the entrance to a tomb, and its interior is also stunning.  There’s a second tomb at the site which, in its own right an amazing accomplishment, built in honor of Ramses II’s favorite queen, Queen Nefetari.

At this point, it was beginning to sink in just how advanced the Egyptian civilization was.  They had a written language, advanced engineering and math, great organization skills, and real science expertise.  It’s somewhat silly to compare some of these ruins to modern construction projects, but you sure wish the Egyptians of 3500 B.C. had been running Boston’s Big Dig project :-)

Nile River 078 We then took a quick flight to Aswan, where we saw Aswan’s High Dam, which is 1,500 feet long, and has transformed Egypt.  Prior to the construction of this dam, the Nile would flood periodically, or go through drought years.  Egypt was very challenged agriculturally, and a more stable river line has helped food production.  Also, the dam generates a significant amount of the oil-poor country’s electricity requirements.

Nile River 100 In Aswan, we took a short boat ride to the Temple of Philae on the island of Agilika.  This site was also recently relocated to avoid flooding from the dam.  Those darn dams!  This temple was dedicated to Isis, and is decorated with the image of her alter-ego, Hathor.  We also saw the granite quarries in Aswan, including the very sizable unfinished obelisk, which has a length of some 39 meters (??), but abandoned in situ due to cracking.

Nile River 233 We boarded a boat, the Sun Boat IV run by Abercrombie and Kent, and prepared to head down the Nile.  Gibson and I tried to get in some last-minute baseball catch on the sidewalk by the boarding point for the boat.  Ever alert, the Egyptian military realized that our game of toss represented a serious threat to Egypt’s nation-state, and rushed out to stop us (I wish I were kidding, but I’m not).  A bunch of soldiers with nothing to do with their time stepped in and kept Egypt safe from the threat of a thrown baseball!

Nile River 239 The boat surprised us in being both wireless-less and smoke-full.  The A&K boat on our Antarctica trip offered decent wireless access on board, but the Sun Boat didn’t seem too aware of this technological breakthrough.  But they did manage to put ashtrays everywhere on the ship, making sure you couldn’t do much of anything on deck without inhaling some of that great Egyptian tobacco smoke.  At least the boat didn’t offer wall to wall hookahs, and didn’t have ashtrays in the swimming pool.

Nile River 205 On our first full day on the boat, we made two stops at temples as we worked out way north on the river.  The first was the Kom Ombo Temple, returned to the boat for lunch, and that afternoon took in the Edfu Temple.  These temples seemed somewhat interesting at the time, but have long since blurred into a sea of ruins that prevent me from recalling anything specific about either.  We also bought for the kids some Egyptian wear for a dinner on the boat that night.  Sterling looked fabulous in her outfit, and is already contemplating using it for next October’s Halloween costume.

Nile River 260 We slept like logs on the boat each night, and spent the next day docked at Luxor, known to the ancient Egyptians as “Thebes.”  Luxor, along with Abu Simbel and the pyramids around Cairo, were the “can’t miss” locations of our Egypt stay.  The highlights of Luxor include the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the Temple or Luxor, and  the Temple of Karnak.  We also went to the Temple of the Nobles (very missable), Hatshepsut Temple (moderately interesting),  the Colossi of Memnon (brief but interesting), and blew off Dendara and Abydos.  And there was even an “Egyptian Night” on the boat, where many of the passengers attempted to look like Egyptians of yore. 

Nile River 287 The Valley of the Kings is a location not too far from Luxor where some sixty-four tombs have been discovered, including the tomb of Tutankhamun.  The tomb of King Tut was discoved by Howard Carter in 1922, and it was largely (some say entirely) in tact.  To walk through this tomb, after seeing so many of its contents on display in Cairo, was really powerful.  What really made me think was the trace of history from thousands of years B.C., to less than 100 years ago when this tomb was first discovered by modern man, to today when you can walk through the tomb.  And work continues to this day on the site, as new tombs lay scattered throughout the area awaiting discovery.  Amazing!

Nile River 313 We couldn’t take pictures inside the tombs, but they shared many common characteristics.  We’d generally go down a long corridor, with pictures and hieroglyphics carved on the walls, and often the ceilings.   Some were quite elaborate and beautiful, others more crude.  Some were simply carvings, others were painted and, in some cases, vivid colors survive to this day.  Further into the tomb, the walkway would level out into an inner sanctum with higher ceilings, more drawings, and some smaller side rooms. 

Nile River 334 The Temple at Luxor was one of my favorite places in Egypt.  It was hard to take in the magnitude of the structure, and what must have been required to build it so long ago.  It was built by Amenophis III, Tutankhamon, Haremhab, and Ramses II during their respective reigns, and includes spectacular columns, statues, and inner sanctums.  Luxor is also the site of the Temple of Karnak, a huge complex that took 2,000 years to construct.  It was originally connected to the Temple at Luxor by an alleyway lined with sphinxes, which must have been quite a site.

By now, we were fully “templed” out, and spent an afternoon reading and hanging out at our hotel in Luxor, preparing to depart for our next country, Jordan.

You can check out our photos of what we saw along the Nile.

Contradictory Cairo

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

Cairo 169 Cairo. The last time I felt like this was in Beijing. Both are cities with long-enduring, breath-taking history, providing real insight into the development of important civilizations. Yet both cities impose a set of challenges for visitors, and the conflict and contradictions between the old with the new are evident every step of the way.

Cairo 233 One of my life goals has been to see the Great Pyramids, and that was a clear highlight of our time in Cairo. They are surprisingly close to the city, and we even had a decent view of them from our hotel room. We spent two days exploring them, both at Dahshar and at Giza, and marveled at their size, beauty, and the complexity and sophistication of their construction.

Cairo 118 Of our two pyramid days, we enjoyed the one at Dahshar more than the one at Giza (site of the Great Pyramid), although (or maybe because) it’s far less of a tourist destination. When we were at Dahshar, there were only a handful of other people there, while Giza was cram-jammed. Dahshar features the so-called Bent Pyramid, which is the world’s best demonstration of the way the pyramids used to look. The Bent Pyramid has part of its outer layer of smoothCairo by Gibson 032 limestone still in place (see above) so you can see their original form. Apparently, almost all pyramids were constructed originally with a smooth external layer, but it’s been removed from the other 106 pyramids still standing in Egypt. At Dahshar, we also went down into the center of the Red Pyramid, and found it amazing to work our way into the center of such a structure. Exploring this pyramid involved backing down a fairly narrow ramp (pitch of about 25 degrees) for a couple of hundred yards, then moving through some narrow, and at times low (about 3-4 feet) stone corridors into the inner chamber. While these pyramids aren’t as tall as those at Giza, being able to experience them in relative solitude was well worth the visit.

Cairo 195 We prepared for our visit to Giza by using pyramids as the basis for a couple of weeks of education on solid geometry. We deduced the formula for the volume of a pyramid (1/3 of the height times the surface area of the base, if you’re curious). We then took the measurements of the base of the Giza Pyramid, computed its height (which is tied to a math relationship the Egyptians favored), did some measurements of the stones used at the sites to estimate an average stone size (one cubic meter), and got an estimate for the density of limestone to arrive at a stone’s weight. Our estimate was that the Giza Pyramid weighs in total some 5 billion kilograms. We then compared notes with the best estimates made by Egyptologists, and our calculations were spot on!

Cairo by Gibson 164 At the Giza site, we walked around the different pyramids, took a camel ride across the surrounds, and explored the famous sphinx! We opted not to go inside the one open pyramid at this site, since the line was long, and the tunnels aren’t conducive to dealing with crowds. We also went to a small museum that houses a boat that was part of the original pyramid site (some 6,000 years old) that was discovered and pieced back together in the mid 1900′s.

Cairo 177 We also met with the head of Egypt’s Antiquities program, Zahi Hawass, author of many text books about the archeology and history behind Egypt’s pyramids. It was a fascinating hour, and really influenced and informed our perspective on the history here. He entered the field of archeology at age 19, and has become Egypt’s top archeologist, and fancies himself as a Harrison Ford “Raiders of the Lost Ark” sort of guy, complete with the classic hat (missing in the photo on the right). He struck us as someone who has done a great job of promoting Egypt and its archeological wonders.

Nile River 284 While in Cairo, we visited the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, which has some amazing artifacts from ancient Egypt. Included in their collection is the King Tut collection. As most of you know, the grave of King Tut is the only royal grave to be found more or less intact, with an astounding assemblage of jewelry, hieroglyphics, and sarcophaguses. We spent a few hours in the museum, and easily could have returned if our schedule permitted. The collection is second to none, and could actually grow over time, as Egypt is litigating against museums in other countries that have somehow managed to build collections of Egyptian artifacts that Egypt feels bleong in Cairo.

Cairo 055 We spent one morning visiting the older Muslim section of Cairo, including two mosques, the military museum, and an ancient aqueduct. The architecture was fascinating, and we also picked up on a fair amount of Egypt’s history, which is as long running as any in the world. Some of these buildings dated back to the Thirteenth Century.

Cairo by Gibson 290 We ended our stay in Cairo with an an afternoon at the Cairo Zoo. We walked into the zoo and soon found ourselves walking beside one of the zoo’s senior hands. He spoke broken English, but eventually we realized he wanted to show us some “behind the scenes” things at the zoo. We went to the hippo cage and he took us close to the hippos, got us some of the hippo food, let us feed and touch the hippos, and then asked for some Cairo by Gibson 233 money. We also spent time with the zoo’s fur seals, lions, African Elephants, and North American Black Bears. Each time, we crossed our fingers that we weren’t about to lose a family member. Sterling and Gibson, for example, sat on the back of a baby lion (left). And Sterling held a good-sized nut in her mouth and let a fully-grown Black Bear take it away from her with its mouth (above right) — her first kiss! And each time the zookeeper held out his hand, asking for some more money. It was a memorable afternoon on multiple fronts! The Cairo Zoo at one point was one of the best in the world, with a magnificent downtown location. Somewhat symbolically, it’s now fallen into a state of disrepair, and is a shadow of its former self.

Cairo by Gibson 075 Our true highlight of Egypt was meeting close friends of ours from Jamestown, Rhode Island, Jane Garnett and David Booth, and their daughter Taylor and son Oliver. We went out for dinner on a boat (a felucca, to be precise) that circled around the Nile. It was fabulous catching up with them, although the boating experience was a bit surreal. We were on the Nile for about 2 1/2 hours, but spent most of it in a tight circle of about 30 yards. Anyway, we all traded notes, laughed, and had a terrific time thousands of miles from Rhode Island!

Cairo 215 So, what are the challenges of Cairo? First, Cairo is an ugly, dirty city. At the site of the Giza Pyramids, the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, there was filth everywhere. Seeing this magnificent pyramid in a sea of litter was sad beyond words, and a real diminution of the pyramid’s dignity. Cairo is cram-jammed crowded, with bumper-to-bumper traffic everywhere. Cairo’s air is quite polluted, and the city is just a mess. As if the noise, dirt, and bad air aren’t enough, the buildings are hideous and the landscape is largely barren and trash-littered.

Nile River 244 Is that it? Sadly, no. The restaurants in Cairo are divided into two sections — smoking and heavy smoking. I wish I were joking, but it’s just gross to eat in a restaurant here. Even if the food were good (it generally wasn’t), you couldn’t enjoy it because you’re constantly under attack from second-hand smoke, including the dreaded hookahs (twenty times the nicotine input of a cigarette). Of all the countries we’ve visited on our trip, the smoking was the worst in Egypt — Ugh! We stayed at the Four Seasons at Giza (not recommended, despite how much I like most Four Seasons), and they seemed clueless on many fronts.

Cairo 147 And is that it? Alas, not quite. After seven months of being amazed at how nice people have been in country after country, our streak ended for me in Egypt. I generally didn’t like the people here. We were constantly under siege by people, especially policemen, harassing us for money. It’s a coin-operated society. People were often rude, arrogant, clueless, or all of the above. There were some exceptions, of course, but not a whole heckuva lot.

Feel free to check out our photos of Cairo.

Redeeming Sharm?

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

Sharm El Sheikh 038 “Not with a bang but a whimper”  is a famous line from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.   And our trip to Africa got off to a somewhat whimpering start.  We wanted a place where we could hang out for a few days to get used to the six-hour time zone change, have access to a great beach, and be close to some interesting things to explore.  Since our first country in Africa is Egypt, we decided on Sharm El Sheikh, at the bottom of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.  Sharm has some redeeming aspects, but by and large will be a forgettable part of our trip.

The main attraction of Sharm El Sheikh, at least for us, is the coral and snorkeling here in the Red Sea, along with a great climate.  It’s one of the world’s top snorkeling and diving places.  We spent parts of several days exploring the coast line, and saw some amazing coral structures and fish.  We didn’t have an underwater camera with us (and our attempts to use one at the Great Barrier Reef weren’t all that useful), so you’ll have to take my word for it that the fish and coral were spectacular.

Sharm El Sheikh 036 The best snorkeling was at a local national park, Ras Mohamed (photo of the entrance to the park on the right).  But apart from the snorkeling, this park was desolate.  We saw a few shorebirds and nothing, and I mean, nothing else roaming the protected parklands.  No hiking trails.  A few mangrove trees.  And lots of rocks and desert.

Sharm El Sheikh 087 We spent most of one day driving up to St. Catherine’s Monastery, where we saw the Burning Bush (photo on the left, with the Burning Bush on the right hand side of the photo).  Elizabeth appreciated this visit more than , but the five hour car drive made it a challenging day.   One thing many people do here is a nighttime hike to the top of Mt. Moses, starting the hike at 1:00 a.m. and reaching the summit in time to see the sunrise over the Red Sea.  It sounds like a great experience, but not one that the four of us were up for. 

Sharm El Sheikh 090 The Monastery itself was built around 330 A.D. at the site of Moses’ Burning Bush.  It has a collection of precious icons, hanging lamps, and rare books (although only a few are on display).  Behind the monastery is a 3,750 step stone stairway leading up to the spot where Moses is believed to have received the Ten Commandments.

The hotel didn’t really have a beach, although it had a small access point for some snorkeling along the coral.  And the rest of Sharm El Sheikh was kind of a cross between Atlantic City and Palm Springs — lots of casinos (most looked tacky, but maybe that’s an oxymoron), lots of desert, and a really eclectic set of tourists.  But we are all relaxed, adjusted to the time zone, and ready to explore Cairo!

If you have way more time on your hands than you know what to do with, check out our Sharm El Sheikh photos.