How to Have an Amazing Birthday

My 45th birthday was a couple of months ago, so I’ve had some time to really think about this.

  1.  Be born. Done, easy, check.
  2. (OK, this one is going to take a while.) Find a life partner as fabulous as XFE. Took me about, ummmm, 34 years and a couple of failed attempts.
  3. Agree to let this fabulous, XFE-like life partner plan your birthday trip every single year.
  4. Show up and go along.
  5. Drink champagne (thoughtfully purchased by said life partner) in a plunge pool at your private beachside villa in Sri Lanka while watching the sea turtles ride the waves (*stuff that actually happened).

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So we went to Sri Lanka in March. And the Maldives. Yes. The Maldives. Yeah. It was awesome. It’s the MALDIVES. Of course it was awesome.

But first, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a very interesting place. It wasn’t really on my radar. I knew that it was close to India (geographically) and I’ve never really had much desire to go to India, so yeah. Sri Lanka wasn’t on my bucket list.

The only people I know of from Sri Lanka are M.I.A. (“Paper Planes,” y’all. That song is my jam.) and Pettifleur on “Real Housewives of Melbourne.” And as far as I can tell, both of those ladies are crazy hotheads who bring all the drama.

I also knew—vaguely—that there had been a recent civil war there and I knew that one of the warring factions were known as the Tamil Tigers. But that’s it. I mean, it’s not like this stuff is covered on the news very much. If I hadn’t read an article about that “Paper Planes” song back in the day, I wouldn’t have even known the name Tamil Tigers, let alone details about the civil war.

So, I did what any good history nerd would do. I read a book–“Elephant Complex” by John Gimlette. A very good book which I can’t recommend highly enough, even if you aren’t planning to go to Sri Lanka. It’s just good, good stories.

Here’s the deal (in a very simplistic nutshell): The Tamil Tigers were (are?) a group of separatists who wanted to (still do?) carve out part of Sri Lanka as a separate, independent state–a homeland for ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, to protect them from discrimination in the hands of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, which is mainly Buddhist. The war started in 1983 and (technically) ended in 2009. It was, as modern, ethnic wars go, horrible. A conservative estimate is that around 100,000 people died.

Make no mistake, the Tamil Tigers were/are basically terrorists. They used suicide bombers and targeted internationals for maximum impact/headlines. But the discrimination and hate perpetuated upon the Tamils that brought them to that state was also really, really bad. And, of course, we have the British to blame (Kidding. Sort of. The seeds of the war were tied to colonialism and favoritism of one caste over the other.) As usual, nobody’s a saint and there are no winners when it comes to civil war.

So that’s some recent, not-so-cheerful history for you. Bet you didn’t see that coming from the headline, amiright? Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about the country’s current conditions, why you should go, and how we decided to go there.

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Nope, I do not think it’s possible to have too many unflattering pictures of yourself goofing off outside a temple in Sri Lanka.
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Where to Safari? Tanzania or South Africa

It’s the question that everyone asks when they hear about our recent African safari.

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No, not I packed for essentially three weeks of travel (although, that would be my first question and the answer is: not that much). It’s not even whether we ever got bored of seeing many of the same animals day after day (answer: nope, not at all).

The question is: which African safari destination did we like better? Tanzania or South Africa?

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The answer is a bit complicated. Actually, it’s not that complicated for me. It’s just that it’s a different answer than my travel-companion-for-life, XFE, and it always feels a tiny bit awkward when we don’t necessarily agree. Especially as he is the one who does most of the travel planning. It makes me feel like I’m being slightly ungrateful of all his hard work or something.

Anyway, XFE liked the Serengeti (Tanzania) slightly better. I preferred Sabi Sands (South Africa). Which is just fine. I don’t think either destination is going to pack up their tents and call it a day based on our meager little preferences. And guess what? Neither of them suck. Like, at all. So don’t worry. No bad decisions here.

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Safari in Tanzania or South Africa? They both beat a handful of poop.

Look, the Serengeti is beautiful. Vast grass plains that go on forever and ever. Little purple and white “tissue” flowers signaling the approaching of spring. Rocky outcroppings that allow animals to hide in plain sight. Completely empty savannas with just a single tree providing shade for a couple of leopard brothers. The viewing is plentiful and easy.

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And, as far as sheer numbers of animals, you cannot beat the Serengeti. You don’t just see one lion, you see a whole pride of them, scattered out in a dry river bank, nursing their babies and snoozing and washing themselves and just generally being cats. The Serengeti has the Great Migration, and herds and herds of wildebeest participating in a truly awe-inspiring, bucket-list experience. We saw plenty of everything, especially the Big 5. (But between the two destinations, we saw the Big 7 – that’s the Big 5 plus cheetah and African wild dog).

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A whole bunch of hippos in the Serengeti.

We also saw plenty of death, which bummed me out and contributed to my personal preference for Sabi Sands.

But actually, for me, it comes down to the focus on conservation, which varies greatly between the Serengeti (a vast, open public park) and Sabi Sands (a private reserve set in the midst of a public park).

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A couple of young Sabi Sands lions, approximately 18 mos old. They had been part of the Ottawa pride. They’re mother had been killed by a hyena (!), but they were adopted and raised by the rest of the pride. Our guide Stefan knew all of this.

In Sabi Sands, the drivers and guides know the animals—they know who their parents were, they’ve given them names, they have whole identity kits on each of them and they have spent years acclimating the animals to their human sounds. They approach new or unknown animals very cautiously and respectfully, so as not to scare them.

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Making friends with a new group of skittish rhinos in Sabi Sands.

The guides in Sabi Sands also coordinate over the radio so that there aren’t too many vehicles converging on an animal at once—a vehicle will drive up, spend a few minutes viewing the animal and then back out. And they only drive off the established trails when they’re chasing a Big 5 animal.

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Sleepy cheetah in the Serengeti

The Serengeti is a bit more casual, much more Wild West, if you will. And the guides there are a lot more focused on making sure you (the paying and tipping customer) get your NatGeo-worthy photo, rather than the comfort of the animals. For example, when we rolled up on some sleeping lions one day, our guide began clapping his hands to get the lion to wake up and look up, so we could get a better picture. We assured him that that was not at all necessary and to just let the lion be.

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Believe me: there was more than just the one other vehicle.

In addition, there are a lot more vehicles around in the Serengeti, including all sorts of private guides from outside the park. So there’s no coordination amongst them. The day we finally found black rhinos still makes me cringe, as about half a dozen (at least) trucks encircled the two rhinos. Even though most everyone kept their distance (to some extent), I still felt like we were pinning them in and they really had nowhere to go (they were trying to retreat back into the bush and trees along the river bank behind the trucks–including ours).

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Serengeti family. No names, but lots of babies.

The guides in the Serengeti also do not know the names or lineage of the animals, and in fact, when I asked about the name of our first lion sighting, I got a bit of a strange look. And they definitely drive off the trails quite a bit, in pursuit of any animal. And I do mean pursuit. A couple of times it felt (to my sensitive soul, at least) like we were chasing animals, which I did not like.

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Mom coming to the rescue of a couple of young cheetah brothers we went offroading to see in the Serengeti.

There are a few other things: I much preferred the guides in Sabi Sands. They were knowledgeable and excited every day. Both locations are a little difficult to get to, but Tanzania was definitely more difficult. I also liked the safari style of Sabi Sands–morning game drive, break in the afternoon, evening game drive. There were no nighttime game drives in Tanzania, so it was an all-day safari drive. Although, eating breakfast and lunch out in the wild in the Serengeti was amazing in its own right.

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Leopard climbing up the tree for the snack he’d saved (upper left, hanging). He had a name, I think it was Dayone? Definitely not Scotia. She was a female.

But for me, it ultimately comes down to the entirely different focus—animals first or clients first. Neither is wrong, but I definitely preferred one approach over the other.

Plus, Sabi Sands = honey badgers!

The Hottest Spot in the Serengeti

There are no plush velvet banquettes. No artisanal craft cocktails. No happy hour specials or hipster DJ pushing play on an iPod.

But the bathroom at the airstrip in Kogatende is hands down the most happening. most popular spot in the entire Serengeti.

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Now listen: I’m from Texas. Clearly I have no issue with peeing out in the bushes. Not at all. But I also understand that some people prefer even a modicum of plumbing and privacy. So it’s easy to see why this otherwise unassuming cinder block/tin roofed building was everyone’s favorite watering hole while we all were on our respective game drives.

And like the wild animals we observed navigating the ponds and watering holes across the Serengeti, there was a ritual to the gatherings.

Our particular gaggle of genus: homo touristus would swing by the Kogatende “watering hole” at least twice a day, and invariably, we’d see dozens of other safari jeeps and vehicles parked in rows on the hard-packed reddish dirt parking lot.

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Here’s how it generally went down (told in my best NatGeo Wild “Safari Live” voice):

A safari vehicle pulls up. Now, watch carefully as the white female inhabitants dash quickly out of the car and hotfoot their way up to the building! Notice they carry with them a supplemental item: why its….its…toilet paper! And a wise decision as well, since there’s a 99% probability that neither of these two stalls will not be outfitted with that particular nicety.

Wait….our female is pausing….she’s shirked back and is wrinkling her nose now. Oh dear! Apparently, despite the best efforts of the erstwhile male bathroom attendant lurking about, our female homo touristus is a bit suspicious about this particular watering hole. It appears she is not a fan of the large dual septic tanks flanking the building and filling the air with one of the many aromas unique to the Serengeti. Whatever will she do?

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Meanwhile, back at the safari vehicle, the male homo touristus are loitering about, seemingly unsure of whether they need to partake of this particular watering hole, or just wait to hang out near some trees. They decide to pull a beer from the cooler while they make up their minds. As with all male species, these male homo touristus know they have other options and are quite lucky in that regard.

Ok, so right now we’re also getting a not-so-rare glimpse into Kogatende watering hole life as the homo safarium guiduses slowly abandon their vehicles and charges to gather in clusters with others of their species. Notice how they are laughing and chattering away. There’s no rush here at this robust watering hole. There’s plenty of time for everyone to partake in both the amenities and the social bonding rituals available.

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Now, back to our female homo touristus. After a bit of a dance, she has finally, tentatively made her way into the bathroom vestibule. She appears to be investigating her two stall options quite carefully….perhaps she’s comparing their flushability merits, or perhaps ascertaining the presence of a toilet seat. We can’t really be certain, but we can be sure that she will likely be disappointed on both counts.

Holding her nose and picking the lesser of two evils, she dives into a stall to heed the call of nature. Mere seconds later, our female bursts out of the stall, helps herself to several pumps of watermelon hand soap, and engages in an extended round of hand washing under the cold and weak tap. This is a rigorous grooming ritual, indeed!

Slapping her hands back and forth over her shorts, our triumphant female struts out of the Kogatende watering hole and makes her way back to the vehicle to share all the details of her latest bathroom escapade with the other, uninterested inhabitants of her vehicle.

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Me, hanging out with a rhino at a different type of watering hole in South Africa.

 

Thanksgiving Dinner at Borago in Santiago, Chile

For Thanksgiving this year, we ate stone soup. Oh, and leaves. I guess I should mention the leaves, since there was a plethora of leaves.

Nope, I’m not even joking.

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I guess we did it because we’re totally authentic, old-school Pilgrims. And that’s what the Pilgrims probably ate that first Thanksgiving.

(Actually, that first Thanksgiving menu was a lot better than our meal at Borago in Santiago, Chile. And, at least we had wine. Sorry, original settlers. Sucked to be you—on so many levels.)

Not really. We did it because we jumped on a low-cost fare and went to Chile for Thanksgiving week. And, well, you gotta eat somewhere on Thanksgiving, right?

 

Borago is the no. 36 restaurant in the world. As the World’s 50 Best explains: “owner-chef Rodolfo Guzman’s interest lies as much in the pastures and woods as much as it does the markets and kitchen.”

Let me tell you, this Guzman dude has been spending a LOT of time in the pastures and woods. So get ready to masticate some dusty flowers and lick sticks—literal sticks, aka: “pre-spring flowers skewers”—because eating at Borago means you will be eating items picked from the nearest tree and foraged from the wild woods of Chile.

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This girl before she realized she’d be paying a whole lot of money to eat foilage.

Especially leaves. So, so, so many leaves. A cornucopia, if you will.

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We had dry leaves next to a cube of grilled lamb.

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Pickled leaves sheltering some grilled octopus, aka: murder-y plate.

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Slimy seaweed type leaves over a tiny piece of fish.

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Leaf sandwiches with a couple of water crackers and a schmear of cream stuff in between.

Then, of course, there was the rock soup. Literal rocks—one of which is covered with a black bean paste and two are covered with some sort of gelatin—over which a rock broth is poured. You are then instructed to “scrape the rocks” and make your own bean soup.

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It was all….a bit much. We’re pretty adventurous eaters. Sidenote: My sister was asking me about this just recently, and said: “When did y’all start…..or why do you…. eat stuff that’s like…ummmm….not American?” Which legitimately made me chortle and snort. And then I said, “I don’t think you mean un-American, I think you mean, like, unconventional stuff.” Which—thankfully—she confirmed was what she meant, pointing out that I have willingly eaten rabbit, which she considers a no-go.

Oh, dear younger Poe. I’ve eaten so much weirder stuff than rabbit. Like, (below) raw kambucha fashioned as meat and a side of Pewan (aka, tree bark, I think!)

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And we love a big tasting menu event. We trust chefs and want to go on a journey with them into what inspires them. We consider it all very much theater or art you can eat.

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It’s ummm, pretty, I guess.

But Borago definitely had us scratching our heads. We’re cool with being inspired by your country’s flora. But honestly? Almost nothing was very tasty. We just weren’t into the flavors. Or the flowers. I feel bad about it, but that was just the way it worked out this time.

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That’s fine. When we got back home on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, my own personal-forager/chef-for-life XFE struck out into the wilds of our local Trader Joe’s and Harris Teeter stores and made me a fantastic, totally American Thanksgiving feast with nary a leaf or rabbit in sight. My Thanksgiving meal at Borago made me appreciate and love it all the more.

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Ah yes. More like it.

(XFE was also inspired to rake up all the leaves in our backyard that weekend, while I toyed with the idea of reaching out to Borago to see if they’d like to buy some.)

Ten Other Animals We Saw at Leopard Hills (Including…Leopards, Natch.)

So many photos. Heads up: I’m no photographer, as you will see from many of these images, but especially, the very last ones. So, with that endorsing caveat, enjoy!

Leopard on safari at Leopard Hills

 

I believe this was taken on the evening drive on our first night at Leopard Hills. If so, this is Dayone, a 9-year-old male who was out and about marking his territory.

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We, of course, saw many elephants during our time at Leopard Hills (especially babies!), but one of my favorites was this young one that walked right up to the lodge deck.

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Our suite was near the kitchen and on our way back to our room each night, we walked past the kitchen where a spotted genet lived and hung out in hopes of some kitchen scraps.

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Just a typical safari traffic jam.

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When we were in Sabi Sands in 2014, we hardly saw any rhinos. Two reasons: it was late summer and everything was still very lush and green, making visibility difficult and second, sadly, poaching had caused the population to dwindle. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the Sabi Sands lodges and their teams–we’re talking night vision goggles, helicopters on full moon nights, even hiring private security to sleep out in the bush and keep an eye out for poachers–poaching incidences have been greatly reduced since our last visit and we saw quite a few rhinos this trip, including this fairly shy trio who we kept our distance from.

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We did not, however, see as many lions at Sabi Sands as we saw last time. Apparently, the pair of brothers we saw last time have been very aggressive in the intervening years, taking over territories and killing off rivals. Everyone at Sabi Sands is hoping the young ones, including this young male who’s mane is just starting to grow in, will be able to stick around.

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Another fairly unusual sighting: a porcupine! We saw one porcupine last time we were here, but only from behind and he was hightailing it away from us. The only photo I have of it is a blur. This one was completely different and weirdly calm. We’re not sure if this guy was hurt or sick or what his deal was, but he didn’t really run away from us at all. We sat there looking at him, looking at us for a good long while. Such an odd animal and an odd sighting.

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Definitely one of my favorites: We went on a walking safari (aka: learning all about animal poop) with Stefan one afternoon and this family of warthogs followed us the whole time we were out. We’d stop. They’d stop. We’d walk. They’d walk. They were very curious about us.

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Giraffes are my absolute favorite. I love them. I have way more photos of giraffes than any other animal. They’re so peaceful and beautiful and they have no real enemies. But, I had never seen them drinking water, which is an exercise fraught with difficulty for these guys, the tallest animals in the bush. This was at the watering hole right near the lodge.

Sad side story: the same day I took this photo, an adult female giraffe–none of these guys–ran into an utility wire that was hanging far too low after a herd of elephants had rammed the utility pole and the utility company had not yet come out to fix it. The giraffe died immediately and Duncan, GM at Leopard Hills, arranged to have the giraffe carcass dragged to the riverbed so the other animals could eat it, which, I understand, while heartbreaking to me, is actually the right thing to do. Later that night, on our night drive, we drove over to check it out and they hyenas were eating her. It was very upsetting and I couldn’t even look, but I could hear it in all its’ gruesome glory and it really bothered me. Luckily, my super-excellent, sensitive travel-partner-for-life, XFE urged our guide Hugo to call it a night and head back to the lodge.

If that carnage of my favorite animal had been my last memory of Leopard Hills, I would not be feeling very warm and fuzzy about the whole safari at Sabi Sands experience.

However…..

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WE SAW HONEY BADGERS!!!

The next morning, we got up early to drive ourselves back to Johannesburg. Along the way to Newington Gate, XFE saw TWO honey badgers standing right next to the side of the road. My side of the road! Of course, everything was packed away, including my camera.

After confirming that yes, those were honey badgers, and holy crap, they’re just standing there looking at us, and screaming, “ohmygod, honey badgers, honey badgers, honey badgers, shit, there are honey badgers, and they’re looking at us, what do I do, where’s my camera or phone, crap!!!,” I finally dug around in my backpack, yanked out my camera and took about 4-5  “Blair-Witch”-meets-Loch-Ness-Monster quality pictures through my closed car window. Honestly, I must have been delirious and panicked because some of the pictures aren’t even pointing at the termite mound they were slowly retreating into.

But in the above picture, you can sort of make them out. No? Here:

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I drew a circle around them. Now here’s the closeup:

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See that white stripe right there? And to the right, that dark spot half obscured by a tree?

OK, you’ll just have to believe me. Those were two honey badgers! You know what, it’s fine if you don’t believe me, because just like honey badgers, I don’t give a shit. It was seriously amazing and I couldn’t stop talking about it the rest of the day. The rest of the trip even.

This was a very big deal. It’s fairly unusual to see honey badgers. They’re pretty solitary (it’s really unusual to see two together) and they don’t hang around too often for pictures. They’ve got places to be and cobra ass to kick. Actually, after digging around, I can’t even tell if they’re endangered or not: this site says “nah, not doing great, but not endangered” while this one says “there are only 1,000 left,” which seems pretty damn endangered to me. All I know is that Duncan, who’s lived in Sabi Sands for more than 20 years, said he’s never seen one and our guide Stefan-WHO RIDES IN AN OPEN VEHICLE ALL DAY LOOKING FOR ANIMALS–said he’s only seen one once.

In fact, these were the second and third honey badgers we saw during our stay at Leopard Hills. I spotted one from a pretty good distance moving pretty purposefully through the bush a few days earlier when we were out on a drive with Stefan. My first thought was, “huh, I didn’t know they had skunks in Africa. Hey, that’s a pretty big skunk, let me ask….HONEY BADGER!” We all caught a glimpse of him, but nothing compared to our early morning coffee klatch with the duo on our way out of the park.

Just call us the honey badger whisperers.

 

Hotel Crashing: Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve, South Africa

In case you are wondering, yes, you will definitely see leopards at Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve in South Africa’s Sabi Sands.

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A little Leopard Hills branding opportunity right there. Clearly, a stunt leopard.

 

And a whole lot of other animals, including (if you’re very lucky like we were) the very rare African wild dog.

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We actually saw three generations of the adorable calico-spotted dogs a ton during our first couple of days on safari in South Africa. I mean, a ton. To the point where I was like, “OK, got it. Dogs. Yeah. Can we please see something else?”

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Then our guide Stefan explained to us just how rare African wild dogs are. They’re the second most endangered species in Africa after the Ethiopian wolf. There are only around 6,000 African wild dogs worldwide and less than 500 in South Africa. Human encroachment is one part of the problem—more people means less land for these shy creatures. And, because they are such effective hunters and they hunt several times a day, African wild dogs are being killed by humans seeking to protect their own animals and livestock. Hence, looming extinction.

And here we were, watching a pack of around 25 of them (including baby pups) frolicking around their den (a renovated termite mound) and even (one morning) the older dogs out hunting (successfully) for food.

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Suddenly, I saw the dogs in a whole new light and I remembered just what makes safari in Sabi Sands, and at Leopard Hills in particular, so special.

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Leopard Hills is a five-star luxury lodge located in the Western Sector of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, bordering the Kruger National Park. The lodge is situated on top of a rocky outcrop, with most (if not all) of the eight luxury suites offering spectacular views over the bush and the natural waterhole on the plains below.

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Each suite has its own plunge pool, deck and outdoor shower, and yes, the suites are air conditioned. In fact, pretty much every modern hotel amenity is available at Leopard Hills, including a gym, a spa and complimentary daily laundry service.

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The rooms are decorated just as you’d expect a safari lodge to be decorated – Ralph Lauren-meets-Out-of-Africa, with mosquito nets, lots of wood and wicker.

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They also provide a variety of books to help you learn more about some of the animals you see on the game drives and a handy checklist to tick off the ones you’ve seen. But, if you’d like more reading material (or to catch a soccer game on TV), there’s a very good library onsite.

The lodge is pretty much all inclusive, including the mini-bar in your suite and all of the meals and drinks. And man, do they stuff you with the delicious food and drink! There’s morning coffee before the 5:30 am game drive, coffee and muffins or biscuits during the 4-hour game drive, breakfast ordered off the menu when you get back from the morning game drive, lunch later in the afternoon, tea with snacks before the evening game drive, sundowners with snacks during the evening game drive and then dinner (which you ordered from a list of two options per course while you were busy stuffing your face with tea sandwiches before the game drive) when your return to the lodge.

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There’s a beautiful main lodge area where you have your meals and gather for morning coffee or a quick tea/snack before the game drives. Breakfast and lunch were usually served on the outside terrace (if the resident vervet monkeys weren’t too aggressive) and dinner at one of the three long, communal tables inside.

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To change things up a bit, the lodge also had boma nights, which are outdoor barbecues a couple of nights a week in an outdoor enclosure made just for it and featuring a large, central fire pit.

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But as great as all these luxuries and amenities were, (and they seriously were) what really makes Leopard Hills (and Sabi Sands, in general) stand out, are the people. Yes, I know it’s a cliché, but it’s really true. The people at Leopard Hills are awesome. From general manager Duncan Rodgers and his daughter, Meaghan, to the incredible guides and trackers (we had Stefan/Sipho for a couple of days and then Hugo/Moelle) to the excellent chef (Jock) and waitstaff (including Millet, Sam and Neville), it was clear that everyone who worked there took a great deal of pride in their work and really wanted us to have the best possible experience. They were always professional but very friendly and welcoming. The perfect hosts for our stay in every way.

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That’s Stefan on the left, Hugo on the right.

After six days at Leopard Hills, we were genuinely sad to leave and had already began planning our next trip back before we’d even finished packing. After all, we’ve got to come back and check in on the African wild dog pack. There aren’t too many places left where you can get that opportunity.

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The Basics on Planning an African Safari, aka: Should You Use a Travel Agent?

Let me start by saying: there’s nothing basic about planning a safari trip to Africa. I mean, come on! It’s beyond exciting! It’s the trip of a lifetime! We’re talking bucket list stuff! You gallop headlong into it with visions of the “Lion King” and “Out of Africa” dancing off in the distance. You start buying khaki and olive colored clothes, because, obviously, you’re going to want to fit in and look the part. You envision bush lunches with zebras relaxing nearby and sundowners at watering holes with rhinos and all the glamorous aspects of a safari vacation.

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It’s all sundowners and friendly rhinos in South Africa.

And you should have all those safari expectations because guess what? They’re all going to come true. But first, my little dreamer friend, you’ve got some serious planning to do.

When we first began to plan XFE’s 40th birthday trip to Africa, we knew we wanted to go back to South Africa, and Sabi Sands in particular. There were several reasons: we had a great time when we were last there in 2014, we loved Savanna Lodge, we liked the fact that it was a private reserve and therefore, less busy.

But we also knew we wanted to try somewhere else, which led to tons of research and double guessing ourselves. Should we go to Kenya? Maybe we combine Kenya and Tanzania. What about Namibia? I’ve read/heard good things about Zambia—should we go there?

After we finally narrowed in on wanting to see the Great Migration and spending a few days on the end of our trip on a beach somewhere, we were really torn between two places: Kenya and Tanzania. They both had a lot to offer but I think it ultimately came down to two considerations: price and crowds. Kenya was much more expensive based on our initial research and Kenya was, we’d heard, a lot, LOT more crowded.

(Above: giraffe in South Africa and giraffe in Tanzania. Or do I have that backwards?)

Now that we knew where we wanted to go, the real work began. There is no doubt that planning a safari trip to Africa is totally overwhelming. There are just so many options—hundreds of lodges and camps in every imaginable price range located on dozens of different national parks, which then have different reserves within them. Then there’s all the different visa and inoculation requirements, the limited or convoluted transportation/transfer options, the time of year and weather considerations.

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For example, perhaps you want to know if you will you be sharing your plane with some local fruit?

Honestly, planning a trip to Africa almost requires the use of a travel agent. They’re experts, they can work with your budget (if you have a set budget in mind) and they usually work closely with certain lodges. Plus, they can sometimes get you a discount.

After finding out that Savanna Lodge was already fully booked a year out, the folks at Savanna suggested we reach out to Shereen at Pride Lodges to find another Sabi Sands lodge. Shereen was great. She is hands down an expert on Sabi Sands and South Africa and was even helpful in guiding us a bit on the Tanzania part.

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Notice that live animals and plants (like the fruit we flew with above) are merely restricted while obscene materials and pornography are completely prohibited.

I will say: we don’t typically use a travel agent. We actually like doing research and reading reviews and finding places that we think will suit us. Travel agents, while they tend to work with certain lodges (and that’s great and all) often aren’t up to date on some of the deals the lodges might be offering, such as “stay three nights, get a fourth free” or “book with us and we’ll add in a couple of nights at our partner lodge.”

Plus, agents tend to not be so great at breaking things out and explaining the pricing. They just hand you this very large number, so you don’t really see where your money is going or have the ability to shop around a bit to see if there are other options. For example, when we reached out to a travel agent affiliated with a line of luxury lodges we ended up NOT staying at, she quoted us an exorbitant amount that didn’t include the lodge’s current web deal but did include a crazy price for the regional flights. When XFE asked her about the flight legs then went and priced them out on his own, it became clear that the quote was way off.

(Above: South African white rhinos on the left, Tanzanian black rhinos on the right)

This particular agent had also included an overnight (really, a six-hour stay) at a very nice and expensive coffee plantation (gourmet meal included) when really all we needed was a place to shower and flop until our early morning flight. I’m sure the place was lovely during the day (we would be arriving at around midnight) and the gourmet meal was delicious (the kitchen would not be open when we arrived), but it really wasn’t necessary when all we needed was the African equivalent of the Holiday Inn.

But, I can absolutely see how and why people end up using a travel agent in Africa. Doing all that legwork on something that involves quite a bit of money and logistics is exhausting and stressful. And Shereen at Pride Lodges is great.

I’ll also say: it’s Africa. It’s unpredictable. Things happen. Flights get delayed, or you didn’t leave yourself enough time to transfer between flights (no exaggeration: give yourself 3-4 hours at the airport.) For example, we had a flight on a regional carrier who had upgraded their computer system in June and no longer had any record of the flight we purchased in February. Luckily, we had a printed out copy of our February confirmation and record number. But what followed was at least an hour of standing around while the desk agent tried to sort it all out over the phone. And that was AFTER we’d already waited 45 minutes in the check-in line to begin with (note: there is no premier access or first class line at most of these regional carriers).

(Above: South African elephant mama and baby on left. Tanzanian elephant mama and baby on right)

That’s just one example of an instance where a travel agent might come in handy. Think of them as your insurance policy or personal advocate. If something goes wrong (and, it’s Africa, so it will) they can try to help fix it or figure out another option.

Later this week, I’ll start reviewing some of the lodges we stayed at and I’ll answer the question we get asked the most: which did we like better? Tanzania or South Africa?

The Wildest Ride: A Wildebeest River Crossing in the Serengeti

“This is not at all like the shows on NatGeo,” my restless mind was thinking. “This is actually sort of….boring.”

We’re sitting in a beige, pop-top Toyota Land Cruiser in the midday African heat with four other people. All six pairs of eyes are trained on the nervously shuffling, brownish-gray mass of wildebeest on the far bank of the Mara River, a couple of hundred yards away. And I’m thinking about when we might have lunch.

We were just picked up from the Kotagende airstrip about an hour and a half, maybe 2 hours ago and now, we’ve joined about 20 (or so) other safari vehicles amongst the trees and bushes and dry grasses overlooking the Mara River’s famous Crossing Point #7. All of the nearly-identical Land Cruisers are parked far back from the river so as not to scare the notoriously skittish wildebeest.

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We are here, in the Serengeti National Park at this particular time of year specifically for this: The Great Migration. Each year, approximately 2 million wildebeest (as well as several hundreds of thousands of zebras, gazelles, impalas and elands) complete a 5,000-mile trek every year known as the Great Migration aka The World Cup of Wildlife.

The animals are doing what they’ve been doing for thousands of years: following their stomachs. Specifically, the wildebeest are following the grass as the rains move south through the short grass plains of Kenya and the Serengeti at the end of a long, dry winter.

The herds are hungry, starving even, and we’ve already seen several wildebeest carcasses on our way to this spot (we’re told that they die from starvation or exhaustion from the Migration, and sometimes, from a bacteria that lives in very young grass that they know they shouldn’t eat, but they’re so hungry, they just do).

The wildebeests will eventually settle in the Southern Serengeti and Western Ngorongoro Conservation area in January and February to give birth to their calves during a synchronized two-to-three week period before they head west at the end of the rainy season (March) and eventually north again (April), all the while following the rains and the grass.

Back on the banks of the Mara River (or, more accurately, the plains overlooking the river), the air is thick with tension from the indecisive wildebeest and excitement from the safari vehicles. As a lone, brave wildebeest moves up to the waters’ edge, you can hear a murmur ripple through the visitors peeking out of the tops and windows of the gathered cars. “There goes one.” “Looks like they’re going to go.” “Will he or won’t he?”

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As the lone wildebeest sniffs the water, shakes its’ head and backs up in retreat, you can hear a sigh from the assembled visitors and drivers. “Nope, not yet.” “Changed his mind.” “Something spooked him.”

There’s plenty for the wildebeest to be afraid of. For one thing, there are loud hippos in the river, who I prefer to think are honking their encouragement. But the hippos won’t hurt the wildebeest. The crocodiles lying in wait however, certainly will. And do.

Then there’s the swift river currents that can carry the already-weak-from-hunger wildebeest away. And do. Sometimes into the waiting jaws of those crocodiles.

Then there’s the slippery river rocks. It’s not at all uncommon for a spindly-legged wildebeest to break a leg on those rocks, limping out of the river only to be caught by a predator a couple of hours or days later. Or die as it falls further and further behind the herd and gets picked off by a lion, a leopard, a cheetah, a hyena, etc. etc.

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Oh, and then there’s the panicky herd in general. Even if a wildebeest has made it through the currents, outmaneuvered the crocodiles and traversed the slippery rocks, they’ve still got to get out of the river. There are hundreds if not thousands of wildebeests stampeding each other in a rush to make it out and on to the dry shores. It’s a mad crush that can lead to potentially life-threatening injuries and, of course, death from any of the many, many carnivorous predators lying in wait throughout the Serengeti.

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Did I mention that wildebeest crossings, aka “Tango With Near-Certain Death,” happen several times a day at various points along the Mara River? So yeah. It’s no wonder that these particular wildebeests are a wee bit hesitant to get started on this—our first—crossing.

But the waiting and the multiple false starts isn’t the stuff they show you on NatGeo. And on that particular day, while I’m getting warm and impatient in a non-moving, non-air-circulating safari vehicle, I don’t yet have a clue as to just how dangerous and powerful and exhilarating a wildebeest river crossing really is. Sure, I’ve read about it, briefly, but I don’t really know. They can’t really show you the full emotional breadth of such a breath-stopping spectacle on NatGeo.

So, we wait, as lines and lines of wildebeest come and join the hesitant herd gathering on the banks.

Finally, there on the sandy bank, a brave wildebeest throws caution to the wind. His or her survival instinct and hunger finally overrides all the numerous fears and common sense and the first wildebeest charges into the water, followed by another, then another, until the whole herd starts making its way through the river.

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We all hold our collective breaths until the first wildebeest reaches the halfway point and the CB radios cackle and the trucks start moving forward very, very fast, as if someone has shot a start gun.

(Actually, at least one of the trucks did jump the gun a bit at this particular crossing. The proper protocol is to wait till the animal gets to the halfway point. But some impatient folks start gunning a bit earlier than that, which can totally cause the animals to turn back around. That is, providing they don’t have the crush of the herd behind them. I know this because a few days later, on our fourth crossing, our truck was the premature racer and we did cause the wildebeest to turn back to safer shores. Womp, womp. Don’t worry. They did eventually cross.)

All 20 or so Land Cruisers lurch forward and what follows is the wildest 30-second ride in the Serengeti as all the lodge drivers maneuver to get their well-paying (and potentially well-tipping) clients in the very best spot to view and photograph the crossing.

I have to admit: I was really bothered by all the zooming vehicles and I was pretty concerned about the effect we were having on the poor, already-stressed wildebeest. I get the why and I understood that getting to see a wildebeest crossing is what we were all here to see and our drivers were just trying to deliver.

I started to get a bit emotional about us awful humans and our intervention into nature just for entertainment’s sake when I looked over and saw a crocodile take a small wildebeest down in the water, its dying bleats ringing in my ears. Then I saw another one get carried away by the current. And a younger wildebeest waiting on the far shore while its mother made it safely across. And another wildebeest come limping out of the water, me knowing that it probably was going to die.

Well, I thought, there’s that, then.

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I tried to focus instead on the tremendous power of the sight going on in front of me, the thunderous sound of approximately 500 animals charging through the water, intent and intense and singularly focused on just making it across. And the relief they must have felt when they did make it across, pausing to catch their breath and slow their heart down and let the African sun dry their backs.

While the river crossings were not my favorite part of our safari in the Serengeti (honestly, I could have just seen one and been done), I do have to admit, they did stir up a powerful mixture of emotions. I was in awe of the power of the herd, bemused by nature’s impulses, and dumbfounded and sad that these wildebeests chose to go through this every year. I didn’t understand it but I was definitely awestruck by it.

And there’s nothing on NatGeo that can prepare you for it.

 

 

Flying Fancy: Review of Emirates First Class

And we’re back! Actually, we’ve been back from Africa over a week, but I’ve been in post-vacation mourning.

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I remember when I was on vacation. That was nice.

That coupled with the fact that as a self-employed person, I made $0.00 during my little three-week break, and yet, my bills still came in during that very same three-week period and—quite rudely—those not-so-nice credit corporations and utility providers still expect to be paid. Which led to a flurry of “Hey, remember me? Can I do some work for you this week?” full-on panic-work activity and therefore, no blogging.

I’ve got TONS to say about South Africa and Tanzania and different safari styles and small little islands north of Zanzibar and Great Migrations and artisan gins and hot air balloon flights over the Serengeti (yes, that happened and wow), but before I get to all of that, I have to start at the end—with our flight home.

Because we flew in the rarefied air of Hollywood royalty in Emirates First Class.

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I’m sure we’re all familiar with Emirates First Class at this point. It’s pretty ridiculous. And I say this as someone who has flown in Singapore First Class, which I also deem….pretty damn ridiculous.

Once again, lest anyone think we’re secret millionaires who won the lottery, we used airline miles to fly Emirates, this time in the form of 200,000 Alaskan Airline miles and $65.46 per person in fees and taxes (FYI, Alaskan Airlines has already caught on to schlubs like us using their miles to book Emirates First Class and has doubled the miles now needed to book the same ticket we booked. Womp. Womp.).

Similar to our Singapore flight, we were facing more than 21 hours of time in the air plus layovers, so for us, upgrading to such comfortable accommodations made total sense. Here’s how our return flights home broke down:

  • Pemba to Zanzibar: 30 minute flight on a Cessna that held 12 other people with questionable hygiene and no air conditioning.
  • Zanzibar to Dar Es Salaam: 30 minute flight on the same Cessna with a group of new people with questionable hygiene and no air conditioning. Actually, I have no further questions on the hygiene of my fellow passengers. It was abundantly, nose-stingingly clear.
  • Dar Es Salaam to Dubai: 5 hours, 40 minutes.
  • Dubai to Dulles in D.C.: 14 hours, 20 minutes.

It was, to put it mildly, a haul, even in First Class. Which, I know, sounds a bit like complaining that my diamond shoes are hurting my feet.

Continue reading Flying Fancy: Review of Emirates First Class

What I Learned About Africa the First Time Around (and Why We’re Going Back)

I uttered what I think might go down in history as the most bougie phrase ever known to mankind last week.

“Weeeeell, last time we were in Africa, we stayed at…..”

I said it not once, but TWICE while catching up with friends, both of whom probably immediately regretted asking me what big exciting trip we had coming up.

My manpanion/life-partner XFE and I have become known as “those people” in our own individual circles—the couple who are always planning their next big trip. Finagling airline partnerships and air miles to upgrade to first class and work in the longest possible layovers on a multi-stop ticket, cashing in hotel points and free resort nights to stay in ridiculously luxurious rooms, relentlessly researching destinations and options and meticulously planning where we’re going to spend our time and money.

Our next big trip is a bit different. It’s XFE’s 40th birthday and there was only really one place he wanted to spend it, regardless of airline miles (we were able to use plenty of those), hotel points (nope, none of those being used this trip) or cost (yikes)—on safari in Africa.

This is not our first time in Africa. We actually went to South Africa for my birthday in March 2014, which is why I was able to say something as bougie as, “Well, the last time we were in Africa, we stayed at….”

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Of course, with our next trip to Africa only three weeks away, I’ve been thinking a lot about that last trip.

South Africa was never really on my travel bucket list. As I’ve said before, I’m pretty risk adverse, and well, Africa seemed a bit risky, a bit unstable.

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Speaking of risk, I do not recommend ingesting the priced-to-move ostrich bitong, unless you want other parts of your body to also move. (Not mine: I learned my lesson about cured meats from the Great Northern Italian Food Poisoning of 2011. XFE, however…..)

Sure, I’m a huge animal lover and intellectually, at least, I’d like to see animals in the wild, but again, being risk adverse, I always worry something bad might happen. I have a huge amount of respect for animals in the wild and would not want to do anything that might set them off. And who the hell knows what might set them off? I have a lunatic house cat who meows at walls, corners and sometimes electrical sockets. No idea why.

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He is asleep, right? Like, really asleep, yes?

Plus, a lot of those animals in the wild look pretty dang skinny. I’ve been poor. I know what hunger feels like and when you’re hungry, you might just be willing to eat anything, including some stupid tourist distracted by their camera.

But it turns out, there was a whole lot I didn’t know about South Africa (shocker, I know).

Like, how much I would love beautiful, bustling, exciting Cape Town.

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I also had no idea Cape Town had such a crazy good food scene. Like, really, really good.

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The Old Biscuit Mill where we had a couple of great meals.

Including probably my favorite meal ever at Test Kitchen. No big deal, just the best restaurant in Africa. No, seriously. Other, fancier people have said so, too. They even made broccoli super cool and delicious. BROCCOLI, people.

Test Kitchen collage

I didn’t know about South Africa’s amazing wine country (we only made it to Stellenbosch, but there’s also Franschhoek, Constantia Valley and Helderberg, among others).

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So much amazing wine.

SA Wine Collage

And so many really gorgeous hotels, especially our villa at the Clouds Estate.

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I didn’t know I’d be allowed to pet a cheetah (check that one off the life list).

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That’s my pudgy little pale hand on an actual young cheetah. Right there. I died.

I didn’t know about Sabi Sands, a 65,000 hectare private reserve bordering Kruger National Park. It’s very unique in that it’s privately owned by individual land owners/families.

Sabi Sands Collage

I didn’t know South Africa had places like the 5-star Savanna Lodge, where we stayed back in 2014.

Savanna Lodge Collage

I suspected–but didn’t know–that Africa had so many wonderful people like the staff at Savanna Lodge. We were treated like treasured family members (including a little post-game drive champagne party on the morning of my birthday).

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Or like our ranger Patrick and his nice gun-toting tracker friends who pointed out all the cool, dangerous animals and would protect you from said animals if necessary.

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The biggest revelation was the animals themselves, who aren’t really interested in eating stupid tourists at all when there are plenty of other, more tasty, less noisy food options available.

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And actually would just really appreciate it if humans would leave them to their whole Circle of Life business.

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In fact, they’d probably also appreciate it if humans would stop killing them into extinction.

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The African rhino (on the right) was our most elusive animal to find, mostly because they’ve been poached into near extinction. And we all know about elephant poaching.

So, we’re going back to South Africa. Sadly, we’re skipping Cape Town and Stellenbosch. And we weren’t able to book Savanna Lodge, despite planning this trip a year out (there is, understandably, quite the demand for their nine luxurious tent-suites).

We’re really excited to be staying five nights at Leopard Hills, another 5-star lodge in Sabi Sands.

Then we’re going on to another six nights of safari, this time in Tanzania, including stays in a glass-fronted tent suite at Lemala Kuria Hills and a bushtop tent at Serengeti Bushtops. We’ll finish up with four nights at the Manta Resort on Pemba Island, including a night in their underwater room. Yes, I said underwater room. The room is underwater.

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It’s really an once-in-a-lifetime trip. But, for the second time.