Hotel Crashing: Lemala Kuria Hills, Tanzania

Sorry for the lack of posts this week. I was a bit bummed out by the election results.

For a variety of reasons, I’m not going to get too far into this topic, but this post from my favorite blogger, The Everywhereist, pretty much sums up EXACTLY how I feel. Go. Read it. It’s really good. Then come back here to read about luxurious lodges in Tanzania and maybe I’ll throw in a few gratuitous cute animals, just to soothe all our souls.

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See? A baby zebra and it’s mommy. Makes everything all better, right?

It was not easy leaving Leopard Hills, in part because the place and its’ staff were just so wonderful, but also, literally: it was not an easy transit. We’d had enough foresight to rent a car and drive ourselves to Sabi Sands because we knew from our last trip to South Africa just how unreliable Federal Air (the small-plane airline that flies into Sabi Sands) can be. We didn’t want to risk it.

So, on the day we left Sabi Sands, we got up at the crack of dawn so that we’d have plenty of time for the four-hour drive from Sabi Sands to Johannesburg, where we’d catch our 1:30 pm flight to Dar El Salaam, Tanzania. I had slept horribly the night before, dreaming of dead giraffes. Then, we forgot where we’d put our Sabi Sands/Kruger Park exit pass (which was my responsibility to keep track of) and had a 5 am panic attack before we finally were reminded that we’d stored them safely in the car when we arrived five days before. And then I spilled coffee all over the front of my t-shirt (the exact same t-shirt I’d spilt coffee all over at the airport before we’d even left D.C.). Oh, and then, honey badgers. Very eventful morning.

There was, of course, some confusion at the Precision Air check in at Dar El Salaam (which I described here), but we caught our 3 pm flight to Arusha (landing at 11:30 pm). Where we had the pleasure of taking a $70 cab ride along 50 kilometers of the worst road I’ve ever been on (and I’m including unpaved ranch roads in West Texas, y’all), for the honor of spending the night in Arusha ($200 basic room!) before our 8 am tiny-plane flight to Kogatende.

In case you can’t tell, I was not at all charmed by Rip-Off Arusha.

After two full, long days of not-completely-smooth travel on sketchy-ass small airplanes, we were thrilled to see the Lemala Kuria Hills Land Cruiser at the Kogatende airstrip.

Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania
A sight for sore eyes.

(I just looked it up and it’s about 4,000 miles from Sabi Sands to Kogatende and Google estimates it would take you 52 hours to drive it. We flew and it took us about 2 days, so yeah. That checks out.)

And right away, just during the drive from Kogatende to Lemala Kuria Hills, you realize that the Serengeti is about to blow your lid off. You basically do a game drive right after you get off the plane. We saw a wildebeest crossing, lions mating, and got a flat tire, all before we even arrived at the lodge. (I don’t think that last event was supposed to wow us).

Mating lions in the Serengeti
Right before the big (and very quick) main event. You can see she’s flirting with him.
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The other main event on our drive to the lodge.

We were met by the managers, Anita and Peter. I had already been in contact with Anita to arrange a few birthday surprises for XFE and she was incredibly helpful and gracious in every way. From what I understand, they took over management of the lodge about six months ago and there have been a few minor changes, from what I understand, including a new upcharge for premium alcohol—which was only a couple of extra bucks per drink, but still a bit annoying.

Main tent & bar at Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti
Main lodge with bar in the background. And Peter photobomb.

After getting the rundown on the schedule and amenities, we were shown to our tent, Room 12, on the far end of the camp, and it was gorgeous. Huge, comfortable bed, beautiful modern African artwork, sliding glass doors lead to an expansive deck overlooking Rift Valley with a plunge pool and outdoor shower, and huge bathroom with a giant soaking tub in front of floor-to-ceiling windows. I will say, those floor-to-ceiling windows turn out to be a bit of a negative. There’s no air conditioning in the tents and the windows really turn the room into an oven in the late afternoon.

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Here, as at the other lodges we stayed at this trip, we were told that it was high season and we had been charged high season prices. But in fact, none of the three lodges we stayed at had full occupancy on any of the nights we were there. If you aren’t going to be fully booked, maybe offer us a better deal?

The main reception/staging area at Lemala Kuria Hills is a collection of tents, including the dining tent and a large central tent with lots of nice seating areas for reading, talking, playing board games, and the long bar area on the other side. A tree-shaded deck runs along the back of the tent and leads down to a very cozy fire pit area.

The staff is amazing and everyone—from the management to our guide (Nahume) to the housekeeping staff to the bartenders and waiters—went above and beyond to make sure XFE’s 40th birthday was celebrated in fine African style. So for that, I will be forever grateful. It was a great, great night.

Guide at Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania
Our guide, Nahume, during an amazing sundowner on top of a rock.

There are, however, a couple of areas that could be improved at Lemala Kuria Hills. We thought their safari trucks had seen better days – in addition to the flat we got on day one, our truck also got stuck in a mud hole another day, and there was a super annoying, persistent and loud squeak along the pop-up part of our Land Cruiser where the joists meet the top of the vehicle. Three days in and we were hearing that squeak in our sleep.

And, unfortunately, the food was not that great. Or, I should say, the food at the lodge wasn’t that great. The food out on the bush was just fine. Simple, but fine. Most days, you’re up and out early (6 am) and you eat a bush breakfast of pancakes/crepes, bacon/sausage, hard boiled eggs, homemade granola with milk and fruit and coffee. I actually liked the bush breakfast very much. Then you’d stop midday for a bush lunch, which would be maybe some tortilla-type rollups of some sort, strips of grilled chicken, pasta and vegetable salad, some cookies and again, I liked that a lot.

Bush lunch in Tanzania, Lemala Kuria Hills

But the dinners were kind of a disaster – meats were often overcooked, sides were a bit lackluster, potatoes tasted slightly off. I probably would have just written it off as some difficulties in logistics except when we finished our trip with a two-night stay just down the valley at Bushtops Serengeti, we found the food there to be really, really excellent.

Sundowner at Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania

Still, a beautiful, friendly lodge in a gorgeous setting. Just bring some earplugs for the squeak!

Lemala Kuria Hills, Serengeti, Tanzania

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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.

 

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)

And a very happy birthday to me (on safari in SA, 2014)

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.

Cape Town collage

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).

Stellenbosch Collage

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.

bored animal Collage

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.

Rhinos Collage
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.

His Take! Tea at Sketch, London

(AKA: The great British treat of extended pinkies and wasted afternoons.)

(Editor’s note: This post was written by XFE. Check back on Monday for the MUCH shorter “Hers” version of our tea at Sketch.)

This post is most likely a bad idea and will get me in trouble.

But somewhere during a very lovely afternoon spent with Sheryll in London in March, we hatched the idea to do a “His-and-Hers” take on the same British tea experience.

This tea outing was something that Sheryll wanted to do and I truly went in to it indifferent, having no real prior knowledge of what to expect.

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Let me just say on the outset that I had a really lovely afternoon. While I am not sure she felt that was true at the time (due to my non-stop joking) and I know she will not believe me now after she reads the rest of this post (due to my continuing non-stop joking).

But in all seriousness it was a great experience doing something new with the person I love. The post has merely been crafted to engage readers through the more entertaining aspects of the experience and not comment on the truly lovely time I had with Sheryll.

Now on to putting another nail in my coffin.

Continue reading His Take! Tea at Sketch, London

Football Friday: That 10 Minutes When Spurs Were Top of the League

Editor’s note: We’ve been doing something a little different on ThePoeLog this past month. You could say it was in honor of the Euro Cup. Or the Copa Cup. Or the Poe Cup (not a real thing. YET.) But today is the last of our “Football Friday” posts. The first one can be found here, the second one here, and the third here. We hope you’ve enjoyed the series and have become lifelong Tottenham fans. 

Three days later, our next football experience came in the form of the biggest game on our agenda, the North London Derby between the Tottenham Hotspurs and Arsenal at White Hart Lane.

It is at this point that we should probably digress from football briefly, to tell Sheryll we love her. I am not sure why this year for her birthday trip she decided to let me take her to London, and then let me convince her to spend three days pregaming in pubs and standing outside watching football, but she did, and it was bloody awesome.

Granted, I did trade a few hours at afternoon tea (more to come on that) and museums, but she definitely deferred to my football obsession during this trip and it was appreciated.

So on Saturday March 5th, the eve of Sheryll’s birthday we got up early for tea, a quick review of the papers before boarding the Tube for White Hart Lane for our second time that week.

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Hello again, our old friend.

Now that we were old pros, we had a plan. Dress warmly, take the bus from the Tube station to the stadium, and save room to eat grilled meats at the pub. In fact, I think we arrived at White Hart Lane almost a full three hours before kickoff, more than enough time to visit the team store for a new track jacket before settling in at the Pub No. 8 Tottenham for beer, food and revelry with the growing crowd.

As game time approached, the pub was packed and filled with chants, toasts and an excitement not regularly experienced.

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And hello to you again, our old friends.

A short walk across the street, and we entered White Hart Land and headed towards our designated section. Our seats were located on the lower level sideline, just off of midfield and we were in the second to the last row and sharing an aisle with one of the more boisterous fan sections.

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As the game got set to kick off, the anticipation was unbelievable. The cheers were loud and the crowd was riding high. The game started and the crowd was not disappointed as Tottenham kicked off aggressively, really attacking the ball and generating a couple of early scoring chances.

We were on our feet the whole time, living each pass, tackle and shot as if we were on the field. Unfortunately, the joy was shattered late in the half when Arsenal scored the opening goal six minutes before half time. The goal was like a fatal blow to the crowd, which quickly shrank at the shock of now trailing. The half time whistle blew with Tottenham trailing 1-0.

As the second half started, Tottenham again was aggressive, and the crowd, although not as loud as earlier, was back in the game and supporting their team. Ten minutes into the half, Arsenal player Francis Coquelin, was given his second yellow card and a red card for a tackle on Harry Kane. With the red card meaning he had to leave the game and could not be replaced, Tottenham had a man advantage and the crowd saw a way out from trailing 1-0.

Sure enough, five minutes later, Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld scored the equalizer during a Tottenham corner kick. The crowd responded and belief in a win was restored as White Hart Lane went nuts, except for the wankers in the away section of the stadium.

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Obviously, not our picture. It’s from The Mirror. 

Not to be outdone, a mere two minutes later, Harry Kane scored again for Tottenham and in a truly indescribable scene, 33,000 fans erupted! This was not a home run or grand slam kind of cheer. This was a true explosion. High fives, hugs, scarves, fist pumps, shouts all erupting in a celebration that even as I write this, gives me chills. It truly was magical.

Remember how 2 or 3 blog posts ago I mentioned Sheryll might have even felt true joy during all this soccer? This was that moment. I didn’t have a mirror on me, but if the smile and pure jubilation on Sheryll’s face was any reflection of mine, we were happy, very happy, and swept up in an experience like none other.

Tottenham continued to press and had a couple of more chances to score, but were unsuccessful and then in a brief lapse 11 minutes before the final whistle, Arsenal somehow scored again. It wasn’t brilliant; it was just a shot that somehow found its way into the back of the net. Quite honestly the goal out of nowhere crushed the crowd. The rest of the game saw a few more chances for both sides, before ending in a 2-2 draw. Normally, a tie would be fine, but giving up the lead while our team was up a man clearly felt like defeat.

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Happy Poe and your’s truly at an earlier game at White Hart Lane. 

Sheryll and I, along with those around us made our way towards the exit and ultimately towards the Tube. Along the way we stopped into a known supporters pub to see if we could watch some of the other games scheduled that afternoon, but after waiting forever to get a drink and the building scent of BO from the growing crowd in the packed pub, we moved on waving goodbye to North London and jumping on the Tube towards home.

In all, it was a day of truly tremendous highs and some lows, a true rollercoaster of emotion and fun that ended our live football experiences in London.

The following morning we awoke to a beautiful London day. We did a little packing, went downstairs for tea and the morning papers, and to relive the excitement and disappointment. Then, finally, as we got cleaned up to head to Sunday Roast at noon, I remembered the main reason behind our three days of football and wished Sheryll a Happy Birthday. Oops.

Writing and reflecting on our experience now, even a couple of months later, I still can feel and hear the sounds of our time as London football hooligans. I loved it all, and can’t wait to do it again. Until then, we have started flying the Tottenham flag over the front porch at home, and I am back to watching games on the couch with Pinot.

Fairytales for Grown-Ass People: London Edition

Once upon a time….o.k, 1981…there was a young girl who lived way out in the dusty fields of West Texas who became infatuated with princesses and castles and royalty.

One day when she was nine years old, the little girl got up very, very early to watch a beautiful blonde maiden in a humongous poofy white dress marry a not-so-fine prince in a gorgeous spectacle in a faraway place called England.

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Princess-in-training. I think this might have been around 9, but honestly, I have no idea. None of the photos have any info on the back of them. Let’s just go with this one, which is embarrassing enough. Also, someday I’ll get unlazy enough to scan my photos in, instead of taking a photo of a photo. (#glare)

Everybody on the television was lining the streets, cheering and wearing jaunty party hats and waving Union Jack flags as very refined-looking people in brightly colored jackets and matching hats and red military uniforms made their way towards a giant, Gothic church in horse-drawn carriages. There were trumpets. And commemorative tea mugs and towels. And a big fancy photo op, complete with a kiss on a palace balcony.

It was nothing short of magical and about as far away from the reality of everyday life in a dusty West Texas trailer park as you could get.

And that was the day that I fell in love with England. Actually, obsessed is probably a more accurate word.

I become obsessed. Completely, singularly focused on all things British with the ultimate goal being to one day live there. And lo and behold, thanks to a student work visa, I did get to go live in London for six months in 1997.

London Poe

And it was freaking awesome. Everything I dreamed it would be. Believe it or not, England totally lived up to all the unrealistic expectations I had created. I embraced it whole-heartedly. I bought a bike and on my days off, I would take it on the train out to small country towns in Essex and Kent and Surrey and would ride around just gawking at the adorable small towns and the patchwork quilt fields. I joined my friends Jill and Gil on their drive through the Lake District to Edinburgh, then rode the train back to London. I went to museums, stately homes, churches, West End matinees for musicals. I sat for hours in pubs, just listening to the accents all around me. I went to Glastonbury and got stuck in the ridiculous mud. I made amazing friends, I made bad decisions, I made so, so, so many memories.

I loved it all.

So when my personal travel planner XFE asked if I wanted to go to London for my birthday, oh, and sorry it’s not as exotic or as exciting as Australia or Japan or any of the other places he’s taken me for my birthday the last several years, I jumped at it. It’s not every day that you get a chance to travel back in time and see a place again with completely different eyes.

And this visit to London was equally, if not more, awesome than my first stay. Because this time, I had a co-conspirator to share it all with. I got to introduce XFE to all my old friends and favorite places. We went to see a show and we didn’t have to line up for the cheap seats. We visited new places and sat in pubs–and also, really, really nice restaurants–for hours on end listening to the accents around us. And I got to make a ton of new memories with my beloved, ever-patient schmoops, who had to hear me wax nostalgic and tell the same damn stories over and over again, all of which started with, “When I lived here 19 years ago….”

Not pictured: my schmoopies, XFE, who prefers not to be on the blog. And no, that’s not him sleeping at the theater on the bottom right. That’s a grumpy old man who scolded me for having my coat sleeve hanging over his seat arm. 

Even if I have (technically) outgrown princesses and fairytales, and I no longer fantasize about living in England, I still pinch myself every day that I have my own super-fine prince–with a very nice mini-castle here in Northern Virginia–who has created this wonderful fairytale life for both of us to share and enjoy.

Football Friday: Navigating EPL Tickets

Editor’s note: We’re doing something a little different on ThePoeLog and declaring the next couple of Friday’s “Football Friday.” Guest editor and soccer expert XFE has kindly written up a series of posts on the soccer games we went to in London. 

That’s right our recent trip to London was fabulous, filled with tea, tea sandwiches and most importantly football (soccer). Lots and lots of football. Poe survived. She liked some of it, hated some of it, was a little scared at times, and I am pretty sure she experienced pure joy as well.

In a recent post I shared how we would not be enjoying the game, but this is all about what we did do.

As we’ve mentioned before, we are avid Tottenham Hotspurs fans and follow them religiously. So our focus this trip was on seeing our team in action, and fortunate for us, they were scheduled to play two games the week we were in London for Poe’s birthday trip.

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That would be Chirpy, the Tottenham mascot. Looking a bit stuffed there, boy.

After we decided to take a pass on the prohibitively expensive VIP experience, we set about working with our hotel concierge to get tickets to the two Tottenham games that would be played while we were in town.

Despite being two months before our trip (usually, tickets are only released to the public much closer to match day), the concierge worked with a London-based ticket broker and we were presented with options and prices. We quickly confirmed our desired tickets and arranged payment. In the end, we had two tickets in the away fans section for the Tuesday game at West Ham United and two tickets for the Saturday North London Derby (pronounced Darby) against Arsenal at White Hart Lane.

So tickets reserved, we went about the rest of our lives feeling confident that we had tickets and that our trip was coming together nicely.

One thing to note about soccer leagues and individual team schedules: they are fluid during the season, meaning they can and do change. A game time of 4 pm may change to 2 pm or 7 pm as the television networks adjust their own schedules to show the “most popular” game in the best window of time for viewers.

Also, because English Premier League soccer teams are playing in multiple competitions simultaneously, a game may be cancelled and rescheduled for a future date because the team is in another competition or the scheduled opponent is in another competition. These risks exist and are real, so a little caution is always warranted when buying or reserving game tickets too far in advance.

EPL so hard

For this particular trip, one of our original two games was similarly impacted. The West Ham game was moved by a day from a Tuesday to a Wednesday to accommodate another game (Swansea) that needed to be played on the preceding Sunday. That meant that Tottenham would now be playing on a Sunday, a Wednesday and a Saturday—all within the same week.

When we first became aware of this schedule change, we were bummed out because we were traveling on that Sunday and would just miss the opportunity to try to see three games in one week.

But about a week before our trip, I noticed that tickets were available on Stubhub for the new Sunday game against Swansea, and that they were reasonably priced (relative to the other matches we were attending).

After a little airline and hotel searching, I found that we could make some adjustments and change our travel day from Sunday to Saturday. So after convincing Poe, I bought the soccer tickets, changed our flights and added a hotel night. We were now going to get to see Tottenham play three times during our visit.

Britney Spurs
Oh hey Britney, I didn’t know you were a fan. Britney Spurs, folks.

Check back next week to read all about our first big English Premier League soccer match, including how we fought jetlag, tried to stay warm on a blustery London day, and how our full bladders led to the best fish and chips of the trip.