Despite having been out late with Shane and Renee the night before, I was up somewhat early (and far early that I had hoped), waking up around 08:00. I had a slight hangover, but nothing too terrible (and certainly nothing compares to that morning on Zanzibar!).
I went out to get a light breakfast and some coffee while I waited to hear from Mat and Kelly. They had been out the night before at his company’s annual party, so I expected that we’d all be dragging this morning. Kelly ended up staying at home so she could rest, but Mat came into the city around 14:00.
The weather was rather crappy and it rained most of the afternoon. Mat drove us into some of the outlying neighborhoods of Melbourne, which I enjoyed getting to see. My favorite area was Fitzroy, where we spent some time walking along the street and looking at the shops. We stopped in a local bar, the Naked for Satan; the bar was amazing and had such a unique atmosphere. The walls were decorated with vintage snuff photos, both men and women. We grabbed a beer before heading out to further explore the city.
We explored a bit more before stopping in the Middle Eastern area to relax with some shisha; we got apple flavor that was served in a hollowed-out apple. None of the shisha in Melbourne can contain tobacco, which made it far less harsh and more enjoyable. Our next stop was to grab a quick bite to eat before Mat dropped me back at the hostel.
It was getting late in the afternoon by this point, but I decided to head back out for one last stroll around the city. I decided to just retrace my steps and revisit some of the places that I enjoyed the most. My first stop was the Pilgrim Bar, where I’d met Shane and Renee the day before. The bar served good beer, but it was the location, right on the river, that I enjoyed the most. It was quite deserted in the late afternoon, so I just had one beer before continuing on. I meandered around the CBD area for about an hour before finally returning to the hostel, where I packed up and prepared to leave early the following morning.
Monday, 14 November
Today I caught an early flight to Cairns, in the northeast of Australia. We landed just before noon and I reached my hotel in less than hour after that. I was immediately struck by how hot and humid the city was, far different than the chilly weather of Melbourne!
After checking in and changing clothes, I went out with the intention of lounging on the beach. Cairns is nestled among the mountains, right next to the Pacific Ocean. To my disappointment, I found that there was no proper beach in Cairns – in fact, the tide was out when I got to the waterfront and the water recedes quite some ways from the shoreline (several hundred meters). I resolved to just walk along the esplanade area along the waterfront, which was a pleasant enough walk.
The city had built a large public pool at the end of the walkway, complete with fountains and even a sandy beach area lining it. The pool was packed with people, as was the surrounding grassy fields. People were finding any way to escape from the heat! I stopped in a local coffee shop to cool off and do some reading before walking around the city a bit more.
Cairns is not a particularly remarkable city; it is a small beach resort town, very similar to what we have in the States. I went out for Chinese food for dinner, finally satisfying a craving that I’d been having for several weeks. The food was ok; not the best, but ok. While walking back to my hotel I stumbled upon a German restaurant that served some good imported beer – including Lowenbrau! I grabbed one quick drink and then went back to the hotel to get some much needed sleep.
On the way, I remembered that tonight was to be the “super moon” event, when the moon would be closer to Earth than it had been for 70 years, making it appear far larger in the night sky. Several people were lined up along the esplanade to watch the moon and I joined them. The view was spectacular! The moon rose over the mountains to the east and was massive! I tried to snap a few photos, but none of them did justice to the awesome sight.
Tuesday, 15 November
I had a full day tour planned for today, heading up the coast to see the Daintree Rainforest. The tour started early and I was picked up shortly after 07:00. The tour guide was an upbeat, energetic guy named Marc; he added a lot of personality and humor to the day – definitely one of the best tour guides I’ve had.
Our first stop was at a wildlife reserve, which was very similar to the park we visited in Sydney. This park was larger and better organized, but they had fewer animals on display. The park was divided up into different sections based upon habitat (rainforest, forest, wetlands, etc). Each section contained the animals that usually live there. They had a few koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, and a monstrous crocodile. I walked around the entirety of the park and then made my way back to the bus.
Our next stop was at a gorge in the Forest, where we took a separate shuttle to go further into the forest before taking a short hike. Marc guided us around, explaining about the various different trees and animals that live there. We saw a forest dragon, which is a small lizard. As we walked closer to the water, we saw several large spiders; thankfully they were far enough away that I didn’t get scared of them. There were several people swimming in various areas of the water.
We had a 90-minute drive to reach our lunch stop; thankfully I’d booked the option with lunch included. At the start of the tour we were able to pick our meal from a small selection: chicken, steak, or kangaroo. I went with the kangaroo, of course. Lunch was at a small resort hotel deep in the Forest, but also right on the beach. The kangaroo steak was quite delicious; the meat it very tender and not gamey at all. After eating, I went for a walk along the beach, which was rather deserted, making it a calming and serene 45 minutes.
Our next to last stop of the day was at an overlook, providing us views of the rainforest and the ocean. During this stop, Marc found some ants crawling along the fence and explained that the rear of the ants is very acidic and rich in vitamin C, but the ants also bite. He killed several ants and let us try licking their butts to taste the acidic area; it was a fun experience.
Finally, we took an hour-long boat ride along the river to try and spot crocodiles. Having seen so many crocs in the wild in Africa, I was unenthusiastic about this portion of the tour. The boat captain was quite discouraged because he had done eight tours that day and only seen two juvenile crocs during the entire day. We spotted the same two crocs, who were quite small. They were both near the shoreline, swimming along, hunting for food.
We then drove back to Cairns, arriving shortly before 18:00. I stopped for a quick bite to eat and then a walk along the esplanade on my way back to the hotel.
Wednesday, 16 November
Another full-day tour planned for today, but this one took me out to the Great Barrier Reef and Green Island. Thankfully the tour didn’t begin until 09:00, giving me time to sleep in.
The boat was packed with a group of Chinese tourists, but I was lucky enough to find a lone seat still available. The boat took roughly an hour to reach Green Island and the trip over was quite rough. The water was choppy, rocking the boat around; I spent the entire ride with my eyes closed, listening to music, trying not to get sick. I was so happy when we finally reached Green Island.
I had roughly 45 minutes before lunch was to be served on the boat, so I spent the time relaxing on the beach. The water was crystal clear, beautiful shades of blue and green. It was the most beautiful beach and ocean that I’ve seen (so far). I could see the Great Barrier Reef through the water, including several fish. Green Island is actually part of the Reef; it is a sandy outcropping on the Reef itself.
Lunch was a decent buffet on the boat, with a variety of hot dishes. Once I was finished, I spent the next hour walking around the entire island. There was a beach area with chairs and umbrellas, but these had to be rented out. The walk around the island took about 45 minutes and I was the only person walking around for much of that time. The views were breathtakingly stunning.
At 13:15 I returned to the boat for the first boat tour of the day. The first tour was in a semi-sub boat around the Great Barrier Reef. We boarded the smaller boat and headed down into the seats, which sat below the water level; windows lined the room, providing us close-up views of the Reef and the fish. The tour lasted 30 minutes and we were able to see tons of fish swimming around; many would come right up to the windows.
Immediately after the semi-sub tour ended, I boarded the glass-bottom boat for another 30-minute trip around the Reef. This boat didn’t allow us to see as much as the semi-sub, but we did get to see a turtle swimming around. A kid on the boat, maybe 12 or 13, screamed and shouted when we saw the turtle; the scream startled everyone onboard – it sounded like a scream of terror.
After returning to shore, I spent the short amount of time remaining walking around and relaxing. The ride back to Cairns was – thankfully – not as bad as the morning. We left Green Island at 15:45, arriving back in Cairns around 17:00.
Thursday, 17 November
Today I left Australia and flew to New Zealand. Nothing eventful or remarkable happened during the day. The flight was direct – one of the few direct flights out of Cairns – and I arrived in Auckland around 17:00. I took the SkuBus into the city and then walked over to my hotel.
I was staying at the Shakespeare Hotel and Brewery, right in the heart of the CBD. The hotel portion was quite nice, but it was the bar on the ground floor that was the true highlight. They brewed a couple beers on-site and served several others.
I didn’t do anything during the evening; I spent the time unwinding at the hotel, having a beer in the bar downstairs.
Friday, 18 November
My plans for today centered around taking the ferry over to a couple of the islands nearby and hiking around them. I walked down to the waterfront after breakfast, planning to board the ferry directly, but then I noticed several signs advertising the 75th Anniversary Celebration for the Royal New Zealand Navy. There were several events planned for the weekend as representatives of navies from around the world had come to participate.
On the schedule for today was a parade down Queen Street of the bands and military members from all of the naval forces in attendance. The parade was set to begin at 11:30, so I decided to skip going out to the islands in order to watch the parade; I could visit the islands tomorrow. I had a short time to waste until the parade began, so I stopped in to grab some coffee. As the time for the parade neared, I noticed that Queen Street was still full of traffic. I did a Google search and discovered that the parade had been cancelled! The organizers decided to cancel the parade in response to the earthquake that hit the South Island last week in which a couple people died. I’m not quite sure how canceling the parade did anything, but I was disappointed. I checked the ferry schedule and I had missed the last ferry to the main island (there are only a few going out early in the morning), so I decided to spend the day wandering around town.
Auckland doesn’t have many sights to see and I soon decided to do some clothes shopping. Most of my clothes were far too big for me and I wanted to get some clothes that actually fit. I stopped in several stores and found nothing that I liked or that was affordable (one store wanted $150 NZD for a simple t-shirt, which I refuse to consider paying). I stumbled upon Cotton On, which had several great shirts at really low prices. I also found a smaller store nearby, where I bought a new hoodie and a couple shirts. The sales guy who helped me was very friendly (and clearly gay); he even just hung around and chatted with me for a little bit…. Perhaps flirting?
Everyone I spoke with in Auckland called me (and every other guy) “bro” all the time. “What’s going on, bro?” “How’s your day going, bro?” “Paying with credit card, bro?” “This is a good beer, bro.” It was really… interesting that it was so common for people to use that word. All I could think of was South Park:
I’m not your friend, buddy. I’m not your buddy, guy. I’m not your guy, friend.
I would add in: “I’m not your bro, guy!”
By late afternoon I had run out of things to do, so I opted to see the movie “Doctor Strange” before dinner. The movie was visually stunning, but overall I found it to be boring (I was struggling to stay awake during the second half). The theater was decently full and several people were munching their goddamn popcorn, necessitating my moving around a few times to escape the sound of their chewing.
Saturday, 19 November
Today the weather was far from ideal: cold and rainy, which ruined my plans for heading out to the islands to hike around. I could have done the hiking in the cold, but I didn’t have the clothes for the rain. I was rather disappointed, but I found that there was a naval vessel review scheduled for the afternoon, so I decided to go and see that.
I walked down to the waterfront in the morning and visited the free naval exhibit that was setup in The Cloud, an exhibition space on one of the piers. The exhibit chronicled the 75-year history of the Royal New Zealand Navy through a series of photos and videos. There was a large section devoted to the integration of women into the general armed forces (rather than having two separate groups for the genders); it was nice to see how the process evolved and was embraced by the military.
When I left the exhibit, I was disappointed to see that the weather had worsened. The wind had picked up and the rain was coming down harder (not a downpour, but unpleasant to be in, even with an umbrella). One of the naval vessels was having some sort of ceremony nearby, with the sailors standing at attention; I wanted to stay and watch, but it was miserable standing around outside.
I went into town a little bit and found a small restaurant to have brunch. I ordered the French toast, which was topped with cooked bananas and bacon, with a side of peanut butter and syrup. The flavors blended so well; it was rich and decadent and delicious! It was very filling and I could barely finish it, but it was too tasty to waste.
By this point I’d missed the naval review, which I’d decided to do before brunch. The weather was just too awful to stand outside and watch the ships in the harbor. I had given thought to taking the free shuttle out to the aquarium, but the shuttle timings would have left me with only 30 minutes or so in which to explore the aquarium, so I opted to skip that idea.
I walked around the city for a little bit, but the wind picked up, so I went to grab a coffee to warm up with; I spent some time reading and working as well. After a little while the weather improved (well, the wind and rain stopped), just as night was coming on. I grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading back to the hotel so I could pack and head to bed early.
I went down to the bar and had one final drink to celebrate my travels. Four months had flown by all too quickly. The prospect of returning to the United Stated was not one that I welcomed - I would rather continue traveling indefinitely. Alas, all things must come to an end. Though this was the end of this epic adventure, it has merely whetted my appetite. Bigger and better things are in store for me in the no-so-distant future!
However, I still have the four day stopover in my wonderful Seattle to help ease me back into life in the States...
Today dawned with such hope and promise… the presidential election had finally arrived. Happily, I had voted while I was in Scotland back in September; as a Hillary supporter, I was hoping to call Hillary “Madam President” by day’s end. She may be a divisive person, but there is no one more qualified for the office of President of the United States; I was proud to cast my vote for her. The polls would be open throughout most of the day and it would be the afternoon before any results started to come in.
I was up earlier than I had expected today, but it gave me time to have a relaxing morning before heading out on my day tour. I walked over to the Kings Cross area of town to grab a bite to eat; I quickly realized that this isn’t the best part of town. I saw several homeless people who had obvious mental issues, as well as a couple prostitutes. After walking around for a little bit, I headed over to the pickup location for my day tour to the Blue Mountains.
The tour bus was (thankfully) not very full for the day’s trip (perhaps 12 people in total); I like smaller groups as things seem to be able to run smoother. There was another solo guy on the tour and we said a quick hello to one another before the tour started.
We drove for about 45 minutes before reaching our first stop, the Featherdale Wildlife Park. This is a small, interactive animal park with animals from around Australia, including kangaroos and koalas. We could walk around and pet the animals as we passed by them; several animals were free to roam around and in some areas we could enter their enclosures.
My first stop was the koala sanctuary, where they had several different koalas. They were all up and eating, providing some great views of the animals. One area had a koala that we could pet and get a photo with him, which was fun.
Walking to the next section there was a guy with a snake, letting those who wanted to hold it; I avoided the snake and went on to look at the birds. The park had a plethora of birds, from macaws to hawks to cockatoos.
The kangaroos and wallabies were really fun to see; they were so inquisitive and were obviously quite used to humans. Several came right up to us and we could reach down to pet them.
The park even had a huge crocodile, far bigger than any of the crocs we had seen in Africa! He was lying around in a pool, but soon began to move about. It was amazing getting to be so close to the croc; I snapped a few photos and send one to Chris, letting him know that I “took care” of the croc, just in case it was trying to hunt him down…
The park had an enclosure for the Tasmanian devil, but the animal was not out for us to see, which was disappointing. I went into the bat enclosure, which was very cool to see them flying around and hanging from the ceiling.
After leaving the park, we drove up into the Blue Mountains; the mountains are actually quite small, not getting my higher than 3,600 feet in elevation; even the guide referred to them as hills rather than mountains. We made a stop in the town of Leura for lunch; I walked down to a local bakery to have a meat pie for lunch. I ordered the kangaroo and tomato goulash pie, which was delicious!
As I was walking back to the bus after lunch, a violent thunderstorm began; the lighting and thunder was intense and VERY close. Seconds after we boarded the bus the rain came down, which was quite lucky. The other solo guy ran back in the rain; he had found a place that was showing the election results and lost track of time watching them. This caught my attention and we began to discuss the election.
His name is Shane; he’s from Ireland, but currently lives in New York. Throughout the afternoon, we kept checking the news with our phones for the latest updates. After lunch, just the east coast polls had closed and Hillary was leading Trump by 2 electoral votes.
Our next stop was at Scenic World in the Blue Mountains, which was nestled right next to the stunning Three Sisters. Our tour included admission to the three rides that they had; we were dropped off on one side of the valley and took the Skyway across to the main visitor center. The Skyway is an elevated cable car with glass panels on the bottom, allowing us to look straight down at the rain forest.
Shane and I decided to head around the park together and took the cable car from the visitor center down to the forest floor to walk around. The cable car was quite steep, which was exciting, and it provided even more great views of the entire area. Once we reached the bottom, we got out and decided to take the longer walking path around the forest. The forest was quiet and peaceful; there was not much to do along the path besides just admire the beauty of the forest.
To get back up to the visitor center, we took the scenic railway, which is the steepest passenger railway in the world, running at a 52 degree incline! We wanted to get the front seats, so we waited for the next car and then got in. At the front there was just a wire mesh to keep us from falling forward and out of the train. The train ran backwards up the mountain while playing the theme from Indiana Jones; the path was incredibly steep and it was exciting to ride it backwards.
Once we got to the top, we decided to take the train back down the mountain so we could get the best views from the front of the car. We hopped over the railing and got back in line for the first car. Going down was even more exciting than going up; we had to hold on to the safety bars to steady ourselves. Sadly, the ride is a short one, but we were able to just stay on-board and ride it back to the top again.
By this point the storm clouds had caught up with us and the views of the mountains and valley was obstructed by the clouds; we were lucky to have seen what we did when we arrived. We drove on to Echo Point, which would normally afford some spectacular views; all we saw was clouds. There was a walkway leading down to the first of the Three Sisters, which Shane and I followed. It was raining lightly as we walked along; in a short time, we took the steep stairs down to the Honeymoon Bridge and to the base of the Sister. We were able to see more of the Sister from this close vantage point, which was nice.
Before heading back towards Sydney, we checked on the election results; Hillary and Trump were neck and neck; far too close for comfort…
We had a 90-minute drive back into town, where we drove by the Olympic Village and then stopped at the riverfront, where we got off the bus and boarded a boat to take us back into town. The rain hadn’t let up and we were thus unable to see anything as we sailed down the river and into Sydney Harbor. Shane bought us each a beer, which we drank while monitoring the election; by this time Trump was taking the lead, but the west coast polls had not yet closed, so there was still hope!
By the time the boat reached the city, Trump was further in the lead… Shane and I knew we needed to get some drinks. We’d talked about going out after the tour and the election results just fueled that.
When we arrived in Sydney, we got off the boat at Circular Quay and walked over to a nearby bar, naked Buckley’s, to have some drinks. We sat at a table and were nearly done with our first beer and Shane was checking the BBC News on his phone; suddenly he tossed in down on the table for me to see: Trump had been declared the winner. We were both stunned, shocked and in disbelief at what had happened. We both swore, cursing the results, wishing they were somehow an elaborate joke.
We sat at the bar and had two more beers, lamenting the election results and discussing our fears for the future….
BEGIN POLITICAL RANT
My gut reaction was one of revulsion that Trump would live in the White House, be addressed as “Mr President” and shown the due respect. By winning the election, he has cheapened the office of the presidency. How could we go from Barack Obama… to this man?
How could a man like Donald Trump win the election? A man who has openly and repeatedly declared hateful, bigoted, xenophobic, racist thoughts and ideas. A man who had insulted and offended every single minority. His candidacy started out as a joke, one that we never took too seriously… until it was too late. Even so, the idea that such a horrible person could become President of the United States was unthinkable.
Trump represents the resurgence of the white, Christian, straight male; the one group that has oppressed every other group in society for centuries, during which time they have held the reins of power. In recent decades this power of theirs had been threatened: they were no longer able to keep minorities down; women’s rights in the early 1900s to Civil Rights in the 1960s to Islamic rights in the 2000s to gay rights in the 2010s. These minorities were finally getting treated equally, with the respect they deserve, but this threatened the power that these man held. Trump is the logical backlash against these equality movements; the last hurrah of the white, Christian, straight male. Looking at the voting map of the US, it is quite clear that the old South had indeed risen again…
What terrifies me most about a Trump presidency is the fact that the Republicans now control all branches of government. The Republican Party may now pivot and embrace the hate-filled rhetoric of Donald Trump, making it the party platform.
Presidency The powers of the White House are now at the disposal of a temperamentally unpredictable, childish bully. Anytime anyone insults him, he flies off the handle to fire back at them. Now that he has real power, what can’t he do in retaliation? He will be a target for intense ridicule from around the world. How will he react to North Korea’s hostile behavior? We cannot have a president take drastic action; we need someone to carefully weigh the consequences of their actions, which Trump has never been able to do; he acts on impulse, without thinking. This is not the type of person who should have control over national security, the military and, most frightening of all, nuclear weapons.
Congress With the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, they can pass any legislation that they see fit. With Trump as president, any right-wing, conservative and bigoted law will easy be signed into law. Republicans can now overturn the Affordable Care Act, pass discriminatory legislation aimed at oppressing minorities (along the lines of House Bill 2 from North Carolina).
Supreme Court There is already one vacancy on the Supreme Court, with one or two possibilities to follow during the next few years as the two liberal judges are getting older. This raises some serious fears as the vacancies will be filled by conservative judges, which will give them the majority on the bench. This could lead to serious setbacks for minority rights: Roe v Wade could be overturned, gay marriage could be banned, etc.
There is one other possibility that is even more fearful: that Trump will repudiate his campaign rhetoric and promises, which he used just to win over the voters and get elected. If this happens, no one will have any idea where he stands on any issues. He would have been elected based on what he said during the campaign, but if he abandons those ideas, we’re venturing into no-man’s land, which can be even more dangerous.
I will acknowledge that Donald Trump has been elected president, but I cannot and will not accept it. I will do everything I can to combat his hateful policies at every turn over the next four years. The rights of minorities must be vigorously defended and championed!
END POLITICAL RANT
Shane and I made our way over to the Opera Bar, which was just a short walk away down the waterfront. It was getting late, but we each needed to have something to eat as we drank. We ordered some food and another beer; the view from the bar of the harbor and the Sydney Harbor Bridge was amazing. My friends from Melbourne, Mat and Kelly, had suggested drinking here at sunset, which would be spectacular. We sat around chatting while we ate and drank, talking mostly about the election as we were still in shock, but also about traveling (our shared passion) and movies (Shane has a shared love of films like I do - he likes "One Hour Photo", enough said!).
We then hopped in a cab to head over to the Darling Harbor area, where we wanted to go to a bar that Shane had visited the day before, called Beer DeLuxe. The taxi driver didn’t know the bar, but Shane was able to provided directions that got us there. The bar was right on the waterfront, but they were getting ready to close when we arrived. We spent a long time discussing the election and then beer with the bartender while we had a beer. We ordered one final beer and sat out on the terrace while they closed up the bar. It was a relaxing way to unwind and distress, commiserating over the devastating news together.
We then walked along the waterfront for a little bit, chatting some more. We were both happy to have met one another; it made the day tour more fun to spend with someone, as well as gave us something to do during the evening. We decided to spend the next day together as neither of us had definite plans; I was really happy with this idea as it would make the day more interesting and fun to hang out with someone.
We were planning to call an Uber to come take us to our respective hotels, but we ended up grabbing a taxi instead. Our taxi driver was from Sri Lanka and was an outspoken Trump supporter, which baffled us. We told him that we were upset by the election and the driver would not stop talking about Trump, which was quite annoying. We dropped Shane off at his hotel, with he and I making plans for the following day. When we got to my hotel, the taxi driver kept talked about Trump for about 10 minutes while I was trying to get him to shut up and charge my credit card.
Back in my room, I turned on the news and got online to absorb more of what was happening back home. I was in total and complete shock. I was numb. I was speechless.
My friends back home and I had been texting throughout the day and they were all sharing the same feelings that I was. We were going through the grieving process: anger, disbelief, sadness. One minute we would be mad as hell; the next minute we’d be in tears. One of my main concerns was what this would do to women’s rights; Trump is a misogynist and that attitude for four years could set women’s rights back by decades, preventing another chance for a woman president for years to come.
I finally went to bed around 02:00, sad and dejected by the day’s events.
Thursday, 10 November
Today was my last day of my short stay in Sydney and thankfully the weather was supposed to be nice, so wandering about the city would be pleasant.
Shane and I planned to meet up and spend the day together until I had to catch my bus at 19:00. I took it easy in the morning, watching the news and catching up on the latest from the election debacle. The news was not pleasant; I watched Hillary’s gut-wrenching concession speech, which was possibly the most difficult part of the past two days.
Shane and I messaged one another via Facebook and I headed off to his hotel at 10:00; I had to check out of my hotel by that time, but Shane graciously let me bring my bags over and keep them in his room during the day. His hotel, the Y Hotel, was right by Hyde Park and was quite nice – I would definitely stay there when I return to Sydney.
Our first stop was a small café near the hotel so Shane could have some breakfast; I’d eaten at my hotel, so I just grabbed a coffee. After that we walked through Hyde Park, stopping to admire a memorial to all those who have died in military service to Australia; the memorial was a series of large bullets.
Nearby was a large building that we went over to check out; it turned out to be a memorial for World War One. Inside was an eternal flame and a very interesting statue that was housed on the floor below. Outside of the memorial was a reflection pool, which was rather pretty with all of the trees surrounding it.
We continued heading north, towards the Botanic Gardens and the Opera House. On the way we passed by several interesting buildings, including a massive church and a very pretty fountain. At one point we took a sidetrack into a courtyard of an old building, which was rather quaint.
We finally reached the Botanic Gardens and began exploring it on our own. The area was part of a larger park, right on the waterfront. We were both really impressed and pleased with the area; Shane commented that he wished that Central Park in NYC was more like this park; I had been thinking along similar lines not two minutes before he said that!
We stopped to take some pictures in front of the Opera House before walking over to see the building up close. From the balcony of the Opera House we were able to get some great views of the Harbor Bridge.
We still had most of the afternoon left to us, so we decided to take one of the ferries out on the harbor as we walked over to Circular Quay. We picked the ferry that went over to Darling Harbor, which would allow us to explore that area of the city for a little while. We stood in the queue to get the ferry tickets and barely made the boat at 13:05 (we were the last to board). To our delight, the ferry didn’t go direct to Darling Harbor, but made two quick stops (including one at Luna Park), which allowed us to take some truly amazing pictures of the Opera House, the Bridge and the city.
Once we docked at Darling Harbor, we decided to walk around and eventually head over to the fish market for lunch. The harbor area was teeming with people; we took the long way around the harbor. Christmas decorations were staring to be put up, including a large Christmas tree; we both commented that it all seemed so out of place, especially since the weather was so warm! Christmas is supposed to be cold!
The fish market was about a 20-minute walk away from Darling Harbor; it was fun just walking through a different part of town as we made our way over there. When we arrived at the fish market, we were both rather disappointed: it didn’t appear to have any of the restaurants or actual markets that we’d expected. All we saw was a large parking lot and what appeared to be a large warehouse, but no storefronts. We walked around and discovered that the warehouse was where everything was located, we just couldn’t see it from where we entered.
Inside there were several different restaurants, selling all kinds of seafood. We explored the area for a bit before settling down to have lunch. I had a minced meat pie, while Shane had sushi, prawns and clams. We were both really pleased with the food; we sat outside to eat right by the waterfront; the birds were everywhere, eager to get scraps of food.
After eating, we walked back over to Darling Harbor and then tried to decide what we wanted to do for the rest of the afternoon. We only had a couple of hours left before I needed to head to the bus station. We decided to head over to the Queen Victoria Building mall for a little bit. The mall was massive, with four floors of stores; there were some really interesting clocks and decorations around the mall. We stopped in a couple of stores, including one called The Art of Dr Seuss. It was filled with large paintings of his work, which were really interesting to see – but they were insanely expensive (in excess of $10,000 AUD); one statue was priced at over $25,000 AUD!
We also went into a hobby store, which was filled with some really fun things, like action figures from the Terminator and TONS of the vinyl pop figures. We wandered around the store, admiring some of the things they had, and then discovered the model train section in the back. The prices for some of the trains and the model buildings were outrageous! The store had a large display with several trains running on it; it was encased by glass, but there were four buttons on the outside. Shane pressed one of the buttons, which did nothing. I then pressed the other three and it stopped one of the trains. Then we noticed that the buttons were stuck. Shane quietly said “I think it’s about to go!” and I agreed, so we quickly made out way out of the store.
We stopped in a small café to relax and grab some coffee. The café was small and quaint; it was nice to just sit back, chat and get some energy again from the coffee. When we finished, we got up to leave and walked right out of the café – and I suddenly realized that we hadn’t paid! We rushed right back in, paid and then left. We honestly just forgot; I think we were in a bit of a zombie trance, waiting for the caffeine to kick in. We were laughing about it as we left the mall and headed back to Shane’s hotel.
Back at the hotel, I checked through my bags and repacked a few things to get ready for the bus ride that night. Shane turned on the news and we got caught up on the analysis that was going on. Shane then pulled up a trailer clip for the next season of Planet Earth, which showed a lizard escaping from dozens of snakes – it was so cool to watch!
Finally, it was time for me to leave. I was sad to have to say goodbye to Shane; we had a lot of fun over the two days in Sydney. We were both going to be in Melbourne on Saturday, so we made tentative plans to meet up again there. Shane walked me out to the elevator and gave me a big hug before I left. Even though we’d just met the day before, I felt like we’d made a good connection and we’d keep in touch, no matter where we end up living in the world.
The short walk to the bus station took me only 15 minutes; I arrived early, so I grabbed some snacks from 7-11 before getting in the queue for the bus. The bus was packed, but I was happy to find that the bus had ample led room, the seats were very comfortable, and there were USB charging ports at every seat! As we started the journey, the bus driver turned on a movie (“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”), but I fell asleep less than 30 minutes into the film.
We made a couple of stops throughout the night: two 20-minute rest stops and then another to pick up some more people. Aside from those stops, I managed to sleep during the majority of the bus ride.
Friday, 11 November
When we arrived in Melbourne, it was just after 07:00, so I stopped at Starbucks to grab some coffee and breakfast. I then spent a couple hours reading as I couldn’t check into the hostel until 10:00. Thankfully, the hostel was only a 5-minute walk away from the bus station. When I arrived to check in, the two guys at the front desk were very friendly and helpful; when they found out that I am an American, a look of pity came over their faces and they said “I’m so sorry!” I said that I didn’t want to ever go home and one guy joked that I could just stay in Australia!
My room was quite nice; two bunk-beds in a rather large room. The bathrooms were clean, with plenty of showers as well. One of my roommates was named Michael and he was visiting from Prague; we chatted for a few minutes and then connected on Facebook; he offered to show me around town anytime that I come to Prague.
I spent some time hanging out in the lounge area of the hostel before leaving to go meet my friends Matt and Kelly. I had met them last year during my trip to Iran; I had come to Melbourne specifically to hang out with them. Kelly was pregnant (the baby is due at the end of the month). I took the tram out to Port Melbourne to meet up with them. It was so nice to get to see them again!!
We went to grab some lunch at a local restaurant; we all had burgers and they were amazingly delicious! I devoured mine. After lunch, Mat had to head back to work, so Kelly and I took a drive over to the beach. The weather was cool, with a slight breeze, but sitting in the sun warmed us up; we could both had happily stayed there all day. The water was so clear and a beautiful shade of blue.
Kelly then suggested that we head over to the Shrine of Remembrance, located in the city’s botanical gardens. This shrine was in memory of all the casualties from the wars in which Australia has taken part. When we arrived, they were cleaning up from a service that was held earlier in the morning for Remembrance Day. The shrine itself was a massive building; inside, several wreaths had been placed and there were various flags of the armed services. I walked up to the balcony, which afforded me some amazing views.
Downstairs there was a museum about Australia’s involvement in various wars, which was very detailed and interesting to explore. We were both really impressed with the facility.
We then decided to head into the city to grab some drinks and wait for Mat to get off work. We went to a rooftop bar and had several drinks. The bar had some fun cocktail drinks…
Mat met up with us and we had a couple more drinks before heading out to grab dinner. Most of the restaurants were packed, with long wait times; Kelly decided to head on home and let us have a night out on the town. Mat and I had dinner at the Hofbrauhaus; the band played one or two German songs, before starting to play some awful American music. We quickly let once dinner was through and made our way to another bar.
We ventured over to a whiskey bar, which I rather liked. I’m not a big fan of whiskey, but the atmosphere of the place was great. We had a whiskey from Tasmania and then decided to move on. Mat took me to a bar named the Butterfly Club, which was perhaps my favorite bar that I’ve been to on this trip. The main floor was decorated like an old mansion, overflowing with an eclectic collection of trinkets. The lower floor had a stage where a guy was playing piano and singing. We went down there and listened to him perform for a while.
He was playing “The Lonely Goatherd” from The Sound of Music when we arrived and everyone joined in and sang along. Then he played “I Want it That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, “Oops I Did It Again” by Britney Spears, and then “Stop” by the Spice Girls. During the last song, he taught us all the hand gestures that go along with the song and we all joined in. It was great fun!
The last bar that we went to was full of old arcade games, including the TMNT and The Simpsons. People were also playing Donkey Kong County 2 for the SNES on one TV; other TVs had Mario Kart 64 on them. We played an NBA game, TMNT and the Simpsons before calling it a night (it was nearing 1am by this point!). Mat walked me back to my hostel before heading off to the train station to head home.
Saturday, 12 November
I was up somewhat early this morning, despite not getting to bed until around 02:00. I grabbed a quite breakfast and then went out to explore the city a bit on my own.
As I was walking along, I came across an outdoor Christmas concert being performed for kids. I stopped to watch them for a little while, though I had clearly shown up near the end of the performance. They got the kids to start chanting for Santa, who soon rode in on a motorcycle… driven by Captain America. Even the MC was surprised: “It’s SANTA! Oh, and he’s being driven by… oh, it’s… Captain America…” They all got up to sing and dance for a little while longer, before heading into the department store next to the stage.
I continued on my walk and discovered a sign posted on a lamppost: “Stop Trump!” along with information about a protest rally that was starting in 15 minutes. I quickly got on my phone to get directions to the rally starting point – I had just enough time to make it, so I rushed over.
When I arrived I spoke with some of the organizers; when they found out that I am American, they all just said “I’m sorry!” and encouraged me to take part in the protest. The crowd was around 100 people or so; several signs were being held up saying things like “Fuck Donald Trump!” and “Can’t Build a Wall. Hands Too Small!” The age of the protesters ranged from students to the elderly, which was encouraging to see.
The rally consisted of several people getting up to speak to the crowd; they had someone representing the various minorities that are now threatened by Trump’s election victory: women, immigrants, LGBTQ, and Muslims. Between the speakers we would yell and chant out various sayings. The press had quite a large press presence at the event as well – I was even captured in several of the photos, including one from the local News 7 (I’m in the yellow circle below).
After about 45 minutes, we turned to march through the streets of Melbourne. The police, who had been peacefully monitoring the event, escorted the group through the city. I was right near the front of the crowd and we shouted the chants as we walked; the favorite chant was “Fuck Donald Trump!” People along the street would stop to take photos and several chanted along with us. It was thrilling an exciting to take part in this event, to do something to get my voice heard.
I left the protest crowd after about 20 minutes of marching so I could continue walking around the city. I walked over to the old exhibition building, which is a wonderful Victorian-style building situated in a beautiful park.
I spent some time in the park, before turning around to head back. On the way, I stopped by a beautiful old church and another couple of parks. My route back took me down to the riverfront and over to Batman Park.
When I returned to the hostel, I grabbed my computer and headed out to grab a coffee. Shane and I had made plans to meet up at some point during the day, so I decided to relax until I heard back from him. He sent me a message and told me that he was at Pilgrim Bar with his friend, inviting me over.
I walked over to Pilgrim Bar, which is located right along the riverfront, next to Federation Square. Shane and I gave each other a big hug when I arrived, before he introduced me to his friend Renee. Renee and Shane had been at the bar for a little while, so I had some catching up to do with the drinking. Soon enough I’d had a few beers and was feeling good. Renee was really awesome and crazy funny; I immediately hit it off with her. Shane and I both said how great it was to get to see one another again; when he introduced me to Renee, he put his arm around me and described how we’d bonded over the election travesty in Sydney.
As we were drinking our beers, Shane noticed a couple lying on the grass across the river from us. The woman had climbed on top of the guy and draped a blanket over them… and it was quite clear that they were fucking! Shane used his camera zoom lens to make sure… and they definitely were fucking. People were walking by on the path not 10 feet from where they were lying on the grass. We were laughing and fascinated with it.
After having a few beers at Pilgrim Bar, we decided to head out to a different bar. I suggested the Berlin Bar, which Mat had told me about the night before. It is a bar that uses the Berlin Wall as inspiration: the bar is divided in half, with one side being quite decadent (the West) and the other side being bery sparse (the East). We decided to give Berlin Bar a chance, so we headed out.
The walk to Berlin Bar took about 20 minutes… and it was an eventful 20 minutes! We had to cross Flinders Street, a large and very busy street with several lanes of traffic and tram tracks. Did we wait for the crosswalk sign?
Like true drunk tourists, we simply jaywalked across the road; I can still see Shane calmly walking across the street, arms outstretched, while Renee and I laugh and run after him.
Our next stop on our adventure through Melbourne was a fountain that was a stone wall with a slow stream of water cascading down it, which allows people to put leaves up on it to make pictures. There were some leaves already up on it, but Renee showed us how it works. She tried to make a smiley face, but the water pushed several of the leaves down the ‘face’ so we decided that it was a ‘stroke face’ due to the sagging. Shane was more… mature? … and he just made his initials out of leaves.
We stumbled on to Berlin Bar without making any other stops or sidetracks. When we reached the building, we walked into the bar… and I was instantly let down. I didn’t see the stylized differences that Mat had mentioned; the people in the bar were douche; in short, it sucked. …and then I realized that we were in the wrong bar! Berlin Bar was on the floor above us!
I was instantly happy when we entered Berlin Bar! We entered on the Capitalist West; there were lush, comfy chairs and sofas, bright lighting and everything was well decorated. There weren’t many people sitting in the West though and I had my heart set on the Communist East. This area was more simple: hard chairs, small tables made of wood, stark decorations and lighting, two military cot beds in the corner. On the wall, they were projecting the movie “The Great Dictator” starring Charlie Chaplin. I was so glad that Shane knew the movie and loved the final speech just as much as me!
I ordered a beer; Shane ordered a Italienishen Hengst cocktail (AMAZINGLY good, with a small bar of chocolate in it!); Renee ordered… I can’t recall. I only remember Shane’s drink because of the chocolate bar, but Renee’s drink was equally delicious. I ended up speaking to one of the waiters, who was quite attractive; once again, I received the “I’m sorry” when he found that I’m American; we chatted for a bit before I returned to our table. Shane got up and asked another bartender if he was gay, but there was some confusion over who I was speaking about, so we never figured it out. Shane even asked our waitress and she coyly said that she’d find out (she didn’t).
We all decided to leave after having our one drink (the prices were rather high); on our way out, I decided to give the waiter my number. Per Shane’s suggestion, I gave him the piece of paper and said “I’m not sure if you’re interested, but I’m here for a few days.” And then left. (No, I didn’t hear from him.)
We walked outside and tried to decide where to go. Renee wanted to stop inside the bar on the ground floor, which was playing some good dance music. We went in… and Shane and I were quickly disenchanted with the place. It was filled with douchey guys and the vibe wasn’t very good; we left before having even one drink.
Shane came up with the brilliant idea of going to do karaoke! He found a place nearby and we set off into the night. We jaywalked across several more streets, being quite drunk by this point. The karaoke bar, KBOX, had private rooms, so we rented a room out for three hours and we got some drinks included. We opted to order pitchers of beer to share, rather than ordering individual drinks; we ended up going through four pitchers of beer during out time there. We eventually extended our stay by another hour and ordered some snacks, since we’d not had dinner (and it was 01:00 by the time we extended it!). We ordered some fries, dumplings, and veggie wraps.
We began going through the two song books: one organized by artist and the other organized by song name. Shane had wanted to sing “Just Can’t Wait to be King” from the Lion King, but they didn’t have the song. We all took turns getting up to sing songs, sometimes singing together or as a group. The room had three mics: one on a stand that was the best. Our song choices for the evening were wide-ranging and covered all genres. The songs that I can recall are:
Living on a Prayer – Bon Jovi SkyFall – Adele (a duet by Shane and me) Ghosttown – Madonna I Want It That Way – Backstreet Boys Summer Lovin’ – Grease (a duet by Renee and me, though the song cut out half way) Making Love Out of Nothing at All – Air Supply Paint It Black – Rolling Stones Wannabe – Spice Girls (Shane and me) Rape Me – Pretty Fly (For a White Guy) – The Offspring Creep – Radiohead Bohemian Rhapsody (all of us) – Queen (we all sang this one together) Otherside – Red Hot Chili Peppers Animals – Maroon 5 S&M – Rihanna
..... and YES, there are oodles of videos of us singing.... I have more videos than pictures.
By 02:00 we were all pretty drunk… but did we want to call it a night?
Renee had the brilliant idea earlier that we should get ramen for a very late-night dinner and she knew of a place nearby. The ramen place was only about a 5-minute walk down Russel St; it was packed when we arrived, so we sat in the tiny waiting area for a couple of minutes. When we were seated, we all ordered the same thing: shujinko noodles. The portion was huge and the food was delicious! We all devoured every last bite.
By this point it was nearing 03:00 and it was finally time to call it a night; Renee and Shane had a long drive the next day as they were heading out of town. Renee ordered them an Uber and I was able to walk back to my hostel (it was a straight shot down Little Burke St). When we got out to the street, Shane and I exchanged several big hugs, telling each other how much we enjoyed hanging out, how glad we were to have met, etc. I told them that I am awful with goodbyes and that I’d wait until their Uber showed up, which gave us a few more minutes to hang out together. When their car arrived we gave one another one last hug, promising that we’d see each other again in New York or Chicago… or somewhere in the world!
The walk back to my hostel was… difficult. I hate saying goodbye, especially to some amazingly great new friends who I’ve just met. Shane and I commented several times how we felt a strong connection to one another, like good friends, despite having only known each other for a few days. He’s a great guy, with a warm and caring heart. I can tell that we’ve got the start of a good friendship.
I’ve decided to change up the blog for my Middle East sojourn; rather than blogging about each day, I’ll blog about each country. My stay in each country was brief, so I think this is the best way to capture everything that happened.
I arrived in Muscat around 04:00 and, after clearing customs, I went out to find the driver the hotel had sent over to collect me from the airport. There were several drivers waiting with their call boards, but none with my name. I walked around for quite a while and exchanged some money, but still my driver did not show. Finally, one of the other drivers asked me where I was heading; he then got out his phone and called the hotel! I hadn’t asked for any assistance; he just did it on his own and I was very grateful to him. After speaking with the hotel, I agreed that it would be best to just take a taxi (which was just slightly more expensive than the hotel shuttle).
Upon arrival at the hotel, I managed to check in early; the room was massive, larger than my first apartment! I had a separate bedroom and living area, with a kitchen as well. After the camping in Africa, it was a welcome bit of luxury (THIS was a luxury tour now!). I relaxed in the room for a little while, showered and eventually got ready to head out into the city.
I had no definite plans for the day, so I set off to wander around the city. My hotel was rather far from most things; instead of taking a taxi, I decided to walk. Yes, walk… in Oman. The heat was miserable and I was soon sweating profusely. However, I didn’t let it deter me and, after about an hour, I arrived at a rather nice hookah (shisha) lounge. I’d read up on where some good lounges were located and decided to give it a try.
The lounge was very nice, tucked away in the corner of an alley – not a place one would easily find without knowing about it! The shisha was very nice and smooth; I had an iced mocha to go with it before eventually ordering some food (a wrap with lamb). I spent the time reading; I had finished “Atlas Shrugged” a couple days before leaving Africa and had started in on Richard Nixon’s autobiography; I am amazed at how engrossing the book is!
Finally, after spending a few hours at the hookah lounge, I walked back to the hotel. I stopped at a local grocery store to get some snacks and ice cream, which I needed after the long walk back.
The next day I planned to take the Big Bus Tour of the city; this tour is a hop on/off type of tour with recorded narration as the bus drives around the city. My hotel was rather far from any pickup location, so I got up early and walked the 90 minutes there. On the way I passed several embassies and had the “delight” of having to run across several rather busy roads (a bit like the game Frogger). The pickup location was in a shopping center right on the beach. After snapping some photos, I went to Starbucks to cool off before starting the tour.
The tour itself was quite good; the buses run every hour and there are a total of 10 stops where you can get on and off at. The tour covered the majority of the city and the major highlights.
Given the bus schedule, I couldn’t get off at each location (and some stops weren’t worth exploring. I did get out and walk around at the royal palace though. I spent the hour wandering around the streets and taking numerous photos of the palace. It is a beautiful building!
I next stopped at the souq, but, to my disappointment, most of it was closed (I had forgotten that the shops close for several hours in the afternoon). I walked along the waterfront for a little bit and then sat down at a café to have some lunch. I ordered a milkshake, which was enormous, and a pita with hummus and lamb meat.
I took the bus back over to where I began the tour. When I arrived I opted to take a taxi back to my hotel, rather than walk. Thankfully there were several taxis waiting in the area and I managed to get one for a pretty cheap rate. I spent the rest of the evening at the hotel, getting ready to head out to Kuwait the next day.
KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT
My flights to Kuwait were short and uneventful; I arrived to my hotel just after noon. My original plans had been to spend two days in Kuwait, flying to Bahrain late on the night of the second day; unfortunately, that flight had been moved to the morning, which left me just the one day to explore Kuwait.
I set off to walk around the city, thankful that the heat was not as intense as Muscat. I intended on visiting the Kuwait Towers, but the day was quite hazy and I would have seen nothing from the observation deck, so I opted to skip visiting.
I walked through the city, marveling at the various buildings and their unique architecture; one thing you can always feel in the Middle East is the wealth of the area.
I made my way to the waterfront, where I spent some time enjoying the view. There were several stray cats in the area as well; they would gather under the bench of anyone that had food.
I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring more of the city. I was really impressed by the amazing architecture of the city.
That night I decided to head out and explore some more, intending to find another shisha lounge. Having failed to find one, I walked over to Starbucks to relax and read. The barista at Starbucks was quite clearly gay and started to flirt with me, check me out, etc; when I gave my name for my order, he said that it was such a beautiful name. Several times while I was sitting there reading, I would look around and catch him looking at me and smiling. When I left, I walked by the drive through area and I suddenly heard his voice “Have a good night sir – thanks for coming in!” He’d gotten on the drive through speaker to say goodbye – and I knew he was talking to me because there were no cars or other people around. It was rather flattering; sadly he was not my type.
My flight from Kuwait to Bahrain got me in around 11:00; I was through the border controls and at the hotel by noon. This hotel had a free airport shuttle, which was quite handy. Being such a small city, I had only planned to spend one full day there, but the flight changes gave me an extra afternoon to spend in the city.
I located a well-reviewed shisha lounge nearby and walked over, passing by the Grand Mosque and one of the royal palaces on the way. This shisha lounge was my favorite of the trip; it was full of locals (with a few other foreigners), the staff was friendly; the shisha and food were outstanding! I ordered some Arabian dish with lamb meat in it (I don’t recall the name of the dish); I ate every bite though, it was delicious!
The next day I planned to walk around and explore the city. My first stop was the Grand Mosque, which had been closed to visitors the day before as it was a Friday. The mosque arranges guided tours for foreigners and non-Muslims – for free too. My guide spoke excellent English (he had spent several years in the USA, working in a training exchange program with the Coast Guard). The tours usually last 20 or 30 minutes; we spent 3.5 hours together!
We started out in the main courtyard. The land the mosque was built on was reclaimed land and they had to *import* sand from Saudi Arabia to do the reclamation. Yes, a country in the Middle East had to actually import sand! During his talk, the call to worship rang out and he said that we could go in to watch. I was given a seat at the back and my guide went to worship. It was very interesting to get to observe them worship, having only seen videos on the news or online.
The “call to prayer” that rings out five times a day is based on the position of the sun in the sky; Muslims must find time (around 10minutes) during each time period to do their worship. It isn’t a true call to prayer though; as my guide explained, no one can tell you when to pray or how often to pray; the call that goes out five times a day is to summon the people to worship (or salah/salat), which is different from praying, which can be done at any time and as often as desired.
One person leads the salah, guiding the group gathered through the various protestations. This person is called the “imam” and it can be anyone who happens to be the first to arrive, though the position is usually granted to one of the elders who has gathered, allowing them to set the pace that best fits their abilities. This concept of the imam, which my guide said literally means “the person at the front,” was entirely new to me; I thought there was one designated person who did it all the time.
In addition, during Friday worship, there is a brief sermon that is given out between the time that the noon call goes out and when the salah actually begins (usually a 20-30 minute window). The person giving the sermon changes each week and anyone from the community is allowed to speak. In Bahrain, a person who wishes to speak must submit their topic and material to the state ministry; once approved, they are put on the schedule. People can question and discuss the subject with the speaker as well, so he must be able to defend what he says.
One of the things that really struck me as we talked was the true sense of community that came through with the various beliefs and practices. The community is central and emphasized over and over. The change of imams and speakers on Fridays was a great example of this: everyone can participate, not just a few religious leaders.
My guide spoke a lot about their beliefs that Muslims will respect you as a human being and that they cannot force you to be a believer; to be a true Muslim (or believed of any religion) requires sincerity, which only you yourself can truly know. We talked for hours about the beliefs, tenants, and perceptions of Muslims around the world. I think he realized that he was talking to a sympathetic ear; I didn’t express my atheism, but I did make it clear that I don’t think Muslims are evil by any means. We talked about the extremism that exists in every religion, as well as the similarities between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (in my opinion, they’re all basically the same – they worship the same god!).
While we were walking around the women’s balcony, we walked by an area set aside for various educational courses. Without missing a beat, he said “And that’s where we teach them to hate Americans and build bombs, of course.” We both burst out laughing and our laughter echoed throughout the mosque.
Before we knew it, the call for afternoon salah was going out! We made our way back downstairs to gather our shoes and head out. Before leaving, he gave me some delicious date cookies (or biscuits, for any British reading this…), along with some juice. As a final gift, he wrote out my name in Arabic calligraphy, which I enjoyed. He told me that my name in Arabic (or the name that most closely matches ‘Ryan’ - Rayyaan) is the name for one of the gates of heaven. This particular gate is reserved for those who closely observed fasting during Ramadan.
After leaving the mosque I found my mood quite uplifted and I was very happy. I walked around to take some pictures of the mosque and then meandered through the city a bit more. I had to be back at the hotel by 16:00 to check out; my flight to Qatar was at 22:00 that night. I had spent so much time at the mosque that I didn’t get to full explore the city, but I had an outstanding time chatting with my guide that I didn’t mind.
To help pass the time before my flight, I walked over to a Starbucks across the street to do some more reading. I could have walked to a local café, but I didn’t feel like lugging my bags around (the hotel kept my large bag for me, thankfully).
I had one full day to spend in Doha and I spent the day wandering around the city, exploring it and trying to escape the insane heat. The past couple days I’d been able to avoid the really crazy heat, but it was back with a vengeance in Doha.
Breakfast wasn’t included at my hotel, so I found a local place nearby that had decent reviews. They served a wide range of foods, including American-style pancakes (which I ordered). The place was clearly run by Americans as there were flags from the States everywhere: universities (including Colorado State), some of the 50 states, and, yes, the American flag. The food was good and the portion was massive; I wasn’t able to eat all of it.
I walked around the city and made my way to the waterfront, where there was a nice park running along it. To one side was the Museum of Islamic Art, which had a great view overlooking the water and the other side of the city.
I continued along the waterfront and stopped at the giant pearl fountain. It was a nice fountain and, after taking some pictures, I turned to head back into the city itself. I’d planned to walk further down the waterfront, but it was getting far too hot to stay outside much longer.
I walked by the Islamic Center, which was my favorite building in Doha; it was a modern take on a mosque, with a spiral minaret.
I then made my way over to the Souq Waqif, which is a large outdoor market with lots of restaurants. I decided to stop to grab a drink, enjoy some shisha and read while I cooled off. I sat outside, but the staff turned on the aircon, which was pointed at my table. The shisha was good, but the service at the restaurant was awful. There were several of us having shisha, but I was the only one who never got fresh coals for the shisha; the guy would routinely replace the coals on everyone else’s, but I had to ask for mine and then he never came back. Needless to say, I was rather pissed off about it. I’d planned to have some lunch there, but I left instead.
I spent the afternoon relaxing, but I went back out to the Souq for dinner. I wandered around the souq for several minutes, trying to decide where to eat when I stumbled upon an Iraqi restaurant! I instantly decided to stop and eat there. I ordered lamb, which came with rice and bread. The lamb was, without a doubt, the best meal I’ve had this entire trip; it was incredibly tender, falling off the bone and melting in my mouth. I was getting quite full, but I ate every delicious bite! I was brought a small bowl of something sweet for dessert; it was like a custard and had some dates in it; a small glass of tea was brought as well. This was the perfect way to finish up the meal; it wasn’t too sweet and it was quite tasty. If I had another day in Doha, I would definitely have returned there for another meal.
After dinner I thought I’d find another place to enjoy some shisha; I again wandered around the souq, searching for a good place to relax. The place was packed with people and I wasn’t able to find a free table anywhere, so I eventually gave up and returned to the hotel.
I spent the evening watching some shows on Netflix and packing. My departure flight was at 03:40, so I opted to stay up until it was time to leave for the airport. Rather than calling a taxi, I used Uber, which was much faster and cheaper.
Monday, 7 November – Tuesday, 8 November
Today began the long travel from Doha to Sydney. I had several flights and long layovers:
Doha -> Dubai (3 hour layover) -> Colombo (9.5 hour layover) -> Kuala Lumpur (4 hour layover) -> Sydney
I managed to sleep through the first flight, but it was only an hour long. I spent the time in Dubai getting something to eat and grabbing some drinks for the longer flight. After buying the drinks, I discovered that I had to go through another round of security screening (despite having already gone through one round), so I had to toss the drinks that I had bought.
The flight to Colombo was alright; I watched “The Thomas Crown Affair” and got some sleep in as well. The layover in Colombo was pure hell though. I had to go out through passport control, pickup my bags and then check in for my next flight; I had booked two separate tickets (Doha to Colombo and Colombo to Sydney, which saved me several hundred dollars). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to check into my flight until just after 20:00, which meant I had 6.5 hours to waste in the lounge area. There was nothing to do there though: no shops, no food, nothing. I wanted to store my bags and head into town, but the lockers were full. So I sat around, reading and working on my laptop; the wifi was complete garbage, requiring me to sign in repeatedly every 3 or 4 minutes.
My flight to Kuala Lumpur was rather pleasant as the plane was rather empty, allowing me to have the entire row to myself. As there was no in-flight entertainment, I stretched out and got some sleep. Upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur, I grabbed some coffee and then relaxed in their “movie room” which was a large room that aired various movies on large TVs; on air was a movie called “Burying the Ex” which was so-so.
The flight to Sydney was equally pleasant as it was even more empty than my previous flight. My seat was in a designated “quite zone” which forbid children from sitting anywhere nearby; I managed to get several hours of sleep during the flight.
I arrived in Sydney around 20:30, quickly making my way through border control and hopping in a taxi to reach my hotel.
My last full day in Africa… This was a difficult day to get through, far more difficult than I thought it would be.
Max and I were up early; it had been a cool night and we were both bundled up in our sleeping bags. After breaking down our tent for the final time (farewell Rhino tent! … yes, we’d labeled our tent “Rhino” so we could identify it in the truck), we went down to the restaurant area to use the wifi for a little bit before breakfast.
Breakfast was – again – cereal, but Norman had also made fried eggs. We also packed lunch before leaving so we wouldn’t have to make a lunch stop on the road. What was for lunch? Norman’s lunch specialty: sandwiches! I know he skimped on the breakfasts and lunches to provide us with good dinners (T-bone steak one night; springbok steak for our final meal), but the basic food got old quite fast.
Max, Chris, Svenja, Rafa, Joana and I gathered at the front of the truck to play cards during today’s drive. We’d not played cards up from for several days (probably due to the crazy heat), but today we made the most of our final day. Rafa got out her portable speaker and we played our music. We’d not had music on the truck since the first day with the larger group and we’d had enough of it; we didn’t play the music too loud, just loud enough for us up front to enjoy. I refrained from playing cards and I was feeling slight motion sickness, but I sat with them so we could all chat.
A few hours into our drive we made a brief stop for some petrol (the truck had developed a steady gas leak at the dunes, so we had to make frequent stops to fuel up). To our delight, there was a KFC right next to the gas station. Chris, Svenja and I headed over there to buy something for lunch – screw our prepacked sandwiches! I bought a chicken sandwich and they bought some chicken bites. The food was *delicious* - though probably only because we’d been deprived of such food for so long.
We drove on to our first event of the day: wine tasting at a local winery. The place was packed, but luckily we were able to get right in (we’d arrived an hour early). We got to try six different wines, each one pairs with a cheese. The wines were decent, but nothing particularly amazing. The entire event was clearly aimed at getting tourists to spend money. One or two people in our group bought something, but we left shortly after the tasting concluded.
We reached Cape Town in early afternoon and drove to our final sight: Table Mountain View, which afforded us some amazing views of the city, along with Table Mountain and the water. We were all blown away as we stood around taking pictures. The wind coming off the water quite strong and several people were flying kites.
We then drove into downtown Cape Town, where the tour formally ended outside the Nomad office. My hotel was a five-minute walk from the office, thankfully. We all unpacked our luggage, which happened far quicker than I had anticipated. Besides myself, only Siri and Jasmin were staying at the nearby hotel; everyone else had made other reservations. Rafa, Joana, Chris, and Svenja all decided to walk over to my hotel with me so they could use the wifi access. Max grabbed a cab to drive over to his hostel; he promised to come out with us later that night though. I was worried that he wouldn’t show up and that we wouldn’t get to say a proper goodbye.
I checked into my hotel and we all went up to my room, which was gorgeous! I had a spectacular view of Table Mountain from my window; the bathroom was huge; the bed was uber comfortable. I was in heaven.
Rafa and Joana used the wifi to find a hostel to stay in; they’d been trying to find a place via CouchSurfing, but had no luck. Thankfully they found a place and decided to head over to check in; we planned to meetup at the waterfront later. I arranged for an Uber car to take Chris, Svenja and me over to their hostel, which was less than ten minutes away. We were all amazed by how nice the hostel was: there was a bar, a huge kitchen and lounge area; their private room resembled a hotel more than a hostel! They quickly changed clothes and then we took another Uber down to the V&A Waterfront.
The waterfront was packed with people out shopping, getting food and enjoying themselves. The three of us wandered around for a while, heading inside so Svenja could do a little shopping. I kept trying to access the wifi networks so I could communicate with Rafa via WhatsApp, but my phone couldn’t get a stable connection; the result was that we missed meeting up with the girls. We went back outside and walked across the rope bridge before grabbing a taxi back to my hotel.
We went up to my room and dropped off our bags before heading out to walk to dinner. We’d made plans for a group of us to meet up at the Beerhouse at 19:00. Soon after turning down Loop Street we ran into Rafa and Joana – a happy coincidence! They stopped in at a hostel to inquire after their rates and they ran into Norman and Fadz.
The Beerhouse was a great bar with a large beer selection and a decent food menu. We were the first to arrive and I was wondering if the others (Max, Fabian and Tamara) would show up. A few minutes later I was excited to see Max walk up the stairs – he made it! I felt joy and relief at the same time. The bar had quite a wide selection of beer from around the world; I was surprised to see Innis & Gunn from Scotland listed; I ordered one of them (with the rum finish) so Chris could try it.
We were in the midst of ordering our food and drinks when Fabian and Tamara arrived. It was so great that everyone was able to make it, especially since we were all staying in different lodgings and the plan was quickly thrown together. Fabian and Tamara got their orders in and we sat around chatting together.
The food was really good; I ordered a burger with avocado (Chris ordered the same thing); he and I were both in heaven as we devoured our food. We had a few more drinks during and after dinner. A couple of us ordered dessert; I ordered an ice cream sandwich, which was delicious. Around 21:30, Fabian and Tamara decided to head back to their hotel. It was sad to have to say goodbye to them; I’d had a lot of fun playing cards with them over the past 12 days.
The rest of us decided to head out to another bar. Earlier in the day we’d decided to head to a gay bar and I’d found a couple for us to go to. Svenja was excited to go to gay bar, but she didn’t know about Chris. I simply asked him if he’d like to go to *a* bar… he picked up the way I said it and deduced what I was saying. He gave a slow “yes” and we all laughed.
The gay bar was a 20-minute walk away and we all set off together. The streets were rather empty since it was a Sunday evening. When we reached the gay bar, we were all devastated to find that it was closed – despite the website stating that it was open on Sundays! There was another gay bar next door that was open, but there was no one inside, so we just moved on.
We walked back to a Cuban bar down the street that was full of locals. Beerhouse was clearly patronized by the white community of the town, but the Cuban place was popular with the black community. It was fun to see the two sides of the city. We sat outside and ordered some drinks; the beer I got was not very good and I gave it to Max to finish. The place had hookah, so we ordered a mint hookah to share. The flavor was very smooth and we all shared it (except Chris, who refrained). It was a wonderful way for us to relax together. Shots for the entire table came with the hookah; I let Svenja pick out which shots to get from the menus; they were so incredibly sweet – it was like drinking pure sugar. Chris got hungry and ordered some nachos for the table to share; I was still so full from dinner so I didn’t eat anything.
Finally, around 23:30, it was time for us to head out. Rafa and Joana ordered an Uber to come and pick them up. When the car arrived, I walked them out and gave them each a big hug before saying goodbye. It was, unfortunately, a rushed goodbye since the car was waiting. We’d been traveling together for so long and now it was coming to an end; it was really quite difficult to believe.
Max, Chris, Svenja and I walked back to my hotel together so they could collect their things that they’d left there. The walk back was rather sketchy at times, with some obviously drunk or high people wandering the streets, along with a large number of homeless people. When we reached my hotel, I got on Uber so I could order them each a car to take them to their respective hostels. I ordered Max’s Uber first and we went down to the lobby to wait.
When Max’s Uber car arrived, he turned to me and gave me a long hug. We told each other how much we enjoyed getting to know one another and he insisted that we keep in touch. I was very touched that he was so insistent upon that; it really showed how much our friendship means to him. I stood there with Chris and Svenja as Max got in the car and waved to us. Svenja came up and put her arm around me and I fought back the tears, but I know Max could see them; Svenja even said that he looked equally sad and that he was crying too. I couldn’t tell if he really was, but it comforted me either way.
I didn’t think that saying goodbye to Max would be that difficult. I watched his car drive away, wishing and wanting to run after it and give Max one last hug, to say one last goodbye. I hate to say goodbye to dear friends and for good things to come to an end. Once he was gone, Svenja gave me a big hug to help comfort me, which I needed very much.
Chris, Svenja and I stood around and chatted while we waited for Max’s Uber to drop him off, at which point I could order an Uber to take them to their hostel. While we were chatting, the police pulled a car over right in front of the hotel; they handcuffed the driver, searched the other passengers and the car as well; to our surprise, they let everyone go! We couldn’t figure out what exactly happened.
Chris and Svenja’s Uber car was due to arrive around 00:15 and we began to say our goodbyes. We all knew that we’d be staying in touch and that we’d see each other again soon (hopefully in a matter of months when I’m back in Europe), but the goodbye was still difficult. When their car arrived, the tears started coming on both sides. I gave Svenja and Chris each a big hug, wishing them happy travels in South Africa. I stood on the sidewalk as they got into the car; they turned and waved goodbye several times from the car; Svenja and I blew each other kisses; I began to cry and so did she. It was the last goodbye I would say to my wonderful Nomad Family.
I went back up to my room in tears; so sad to have said goodbye to these amazing, wonderful and dear friends of mine. I sent Chris a message on WhatsApp to make sure they made it back ok; he let me know that they had and that Svenja too had cried on the way back. It was a difficult night for all of us. Our Nomad family was ending.
Monday, 31 October
I was up early so I could pack, shower and have breakfast before heading out to the airport at 09:00. I was still quite upset from the night before, crying several times as I got ready for the day. I sent Max a quick email, letting him know that I was glad to have met him, that I truly value his friendship and that I would miss him. It made me feel slightly better, though I was still struggling as I sat having breakfast.
After eating I spotted Siri and Jasmin sitting at another table; I went over to say hello and goodbye to them. They were so sweet and kind; I was glad that they had joined us on the tour. I could always count on Jasmin to be ready with her camera to take pictures of whatever we happened to be seeing; Siri and Jasmin were always ready and eager to play 5,000 with us as well. I chatted with them for a few minutes and then went up to grab my bags.
On my way back down to the lobby, the elevator appeared to get stuck around the fifth floor: the floor counter stopped and the elevator seemed to not be moving; after 45 seconds or so, the floor number went down one number, indicating that we were moving agonizingly slow. The doors opened on the first floor and I got off so I could use the stairs to get down to the lobby.
My shuttle driver was there waiting for me; he was a very nice guy and we chatted together during the quick drive to the airport. He talked about fishing, swimming and surfing in the water around the area – and the many sharks they had to deal with. One of his friends had caught a shark in their fishing net one day and he showed me the pictures of them freeing the shark (it was HUGE! – that’s what she said).
The airport was not very busy and I was able to breeze through check in, security and passport control. I spent some time walking around the shops and then getting some work done; I had arrived far too early, having planned on dealing with longer lines. I eventually returned to the gift shop and bought myself a rhino crossing shirt and a rhino bracelet (the proceeds from the bracelet go to combatting poaching).
As I was walking over to the boarding gate I saw that Max had written back to me! It was really nice to hear back from him. His email was rather sweet too:
Everything went smooth. Txs for the ride, apprecuated.
It has been also a pleasure travelling with you. I am going to do a survey if anybody else along my travells will have the same amount of red kings in carbo or wikdcards and aces in 5000 as you. I am going to miss the sound of your lough. Goodbyes are also not my strength but the good thing is nothing is defenite and we gonna see each other again. In Vienna I can show you some good places, also for food. If you need a place to stay in vienna, either for crushing a couch or flat. Let me know I can ask some friends if they know something. And if its a good time we can visit Graz and its beauty amd no its not me
I wish you a couple of relaxing days and luxury in Oman after the campingtour Letme know if you arrived safe in Oman.
I'll think it gonna be a good time here in south africa.
Needless to say I got sad again and struggled to keep myself composed while waiting in line to board the airplane. I truly wished that I could skip the flight and spend a few more days in Cape Town with my friends, but I knew this wasn’t possible.
The flight to Doha was around nine hours and was one of my best international flights ever. I managed to watch several films, including “Hello, My Name is Doris” which I thoroughly enjoyed. I heard about the film when it was released in the artsy movie theaters, but I never got around to seeing it; it was the perfect movie for how I was feeling. I also watched “Funny Girl” and most of “Batman Returns” during the flight, before taking a nap for around an hour.
My layover in Doha lasted just over an hour and I used the time to Skype with my sister – the first time we’d been able to do so since Nairobi! It was nice getting to catch up with her before boarding my next flight to Muscat at 00:45. I tried to sleep on the flight, but I didn’t get much rest. It was a quick flight though.
Upon arrival in Muscat, I had to buy my visa, which was as easy as just paying the 5 OMR and walking through the passport control. I was even able to skip the long line of GCC nationals who were queued up for passport control.
After collecting my bags, I went out to meet my driver to head to the hotel. To my dismay, no one was waiting with a sign that had my name on it! I spent some time walking around, getting money out of the ATM, hoping that my driver would show up. Eventually a local man came up and asked where I was going; I told him the name of the hotel and that they were supposed to send a driver. The man got out his phone and called the hotel for me and helped me get everything sorted out (I ended up taking a taxi to the hotel, which cost the same amount). I was very grateful to the man for his help; so many of the people that I have met in the Middle East are incredibly friendly, outgoing and helpful.
I’ll continue with the first day in Muscat on the next blog post since it is technically a new day (1 November).
Reflections on Africa
The 41 days of my trip through East and Southern Africa were some of the best I have ever spent overseas. I tried not going into the trip with high expectations; I would take each day as I came and enjoy everything as much as I could.
I was hesitant and nervous about camping for such an extended period of time, not having done any real camping until now. This was quickly dispelled after the first night in the tents. They were so simple to put up and take down, and sleeping in them was actually rather fun. There were nights where the temperature would drop and it would be quite cool, but those are the nights that I slept the best. Many nights the tents were the best place to sleep as they offered relief from the heat, such as at Lake Malawi. Also rather fun was having to use my torch to get around at night since most campgrounds didn’t have lights everywhere. It is a silly thing to enjoy (and miss now that it is over), but there was something about walking around in the dark with only the torch to light our way (especially in the game parks, where animals could be anywhere!).
The sights that we saw on the trip blew me away. We started with a bang in the Serengeti, getting to see a plethora of animals (everything but a rhino!); this was followed by the relaxing days on Zanzibar and again at Lake Malawi. Victoria Falls was a lot of fun and a great way to break up the two halves of the tour. The second half didn’t start out as well as the first; Okavango Delta was a major disappointment (aside from meeting my Captain). Our final night with some of the original group was both fun and sad; swimming at the rock quarry in Ghanzi was one of the most relaxing afternoons of the second tour. Etosha was exciting for the simple fact that we FINALLY saw some rhinos, but by that point we were bored with game drives. The Namib desert offered us something different from the game drives and was quite interesting to see, despite the intense heat. Skydiving in Swakopmund is definitely one of the major highlights from Africa; I am still amazed that I was able to actually do it.
I would have to say that the first half of the trip (Nairobi to Vic Falls) was better than the second half (Vic Falls to Cape Town). I think the sights and activities were more fun and we didn’t move around every day, giving us more time to really enjoy where we were staying.
It was the people on the tours that truly made this one of the best trips that I have ever taken. The first group was almost a fluke: every single one of us got along with one another, joking around and having a good time; this doesn’t usually happen with a group of 17 people – there’s usually one or two people who don’t get along. This group truly embraced the idea of the “Nomad Family” and we all bonded quite well. The second group was a bit more disjointed: those who joined us in Vic Falls were amazing, those who joined us in Windhoek never seemed to bond with everyone else. Those of us who bonded together became like a small family on the tour. We’d help each other out, share our snacks and drinks; hang out together at night.
There are a few specific people who I will always cherish and who I feel became quite good friends over the course of the trip: Jane, Linda, Rafa, Joana, Christian, Svenja, and – of course – Max. We all bonded together quite quickly and remained close throughout the tour. Chris and Svenja, despite joining us at Vic Falls, quickly joined with the rest of us and it seemed as though they’d been with us since Nairobi.
Rafa, Joana, Max and me all had the experience of the RhinoMax truck in the Serengeti to help us bond; that was a group that stuck together throughout the tour. Rafa and Joana - mi amors! <3 They are two of the funniest people I’ve ever met; they feed off of one another’s energy and make every day exciting. I really enjoyed their signing throughout the trip and their dancing around the trucks even more; it could always make me laugh. They were also very kind and loving people; we became so close with one another, as though we’d been friends for years.
Jane and Linda joined us in Dar Es Salaam, but they quickly became two of my favorite people on the tour. We soon bonded while playing cards and, together with Max, had regular card games going every night before and after dinner (while enjoying a Fanta Passion – only in Malawi!). We could joke around so easily together. It was very sad having to say goodbye to Linda in Vic Falls; we all wished that she could have stayed with us through to the end. Thankfully Jane was going to be mirroring my tour for the next several days, so we still have some time left together. Jane and I have a very similar sense of humor, very sarcastic; her laugh was infectious. One of the things I’ll remember most about Jane is her random signing of nothing other than “Da da da da da” during silences as we’d be walking along (a trait that I’ve now picked up).
Chris and Svenja have become two of my favorite people that I’ve ever met on a trip. When we first met, Max didn’t hesitate to show them my Germany tattoo and explain that I adore Deutschland. Thankfully this wasn’t off-putting for them and we started to bond while walking around Victoria Falls. The week we spent together at the start of the second tour (when it was just the nine of us on the turck) solidified our friendship, allowing us to get to know one another so well. Svenja is a lot of fun to be around, with a great sense of humor; she could always find a way to make me smile and laugh. Chris is incredibly friendly, easy to talk to and he has a wicked wit.
Together they are an incredibly sweet and loving couple. We’d all shout “Awwwe!” every time they showed some affection. They would affectionately call each other “schatz” (which means “honey” or “darling”); the rest of us eventually picked up on this and started calling each of them “schatz” as well. When we’d called after Chris and say “Schatz!” he’d always respond with a slower, questioning (and sarcastic) “Schatz?”
One of my favorite memories of them was when Chris played “500 Miles” on his iPad while we were driving one morning; I had mentioned how much I dislike the song, which is why he downloaded it the night before. On this day they were sitting in front of Max and me; during the chorus they would take turns turning around, looking at me and singing along (“Da da da!” “Da da da!”). It was hysterical… and now I my opinion of the song has quite changed since I have such a fun memory associated with it now.
And Max. What can I say about Max? Max is the person that I think I shall miss the most. We spent more time together than with anyone else and I felt a real bond with him (and yes, I was smitten with him…). I saw the many faces of Max throughout the trip; he started out as someone who would talk endlessly and tried to push people’s buttons (his debate with Rafa over fate in the Serengeti was epic); he evolved into someone who was outgoing, kind, caring and incredibly sweet; he pulled back and became more introverted for a short spell; he eventually became a mixture of sweet and sarcastic. He was always showing his friendly affection as well, from just putting his arm around me to a pat on the back; little gestures that he’d do to those he cared about (he didn’t do these things to or for everyone).
Camping with Max for so long was a real treat and we developed a good routine for putting up and taking down our tent. Each night before bed we’d chat for a little while, which was always nice. Max was an enthusiastic card player, though I have to admit that he could get too competitive at times; when we won a round or a hand, he liked to point out how you could have done better in order to beat him. He wasn’t trying to be rude or show off that he’d won though; he never gloated. The game “Black Stories” that he brought along… ugh, don’t get me started. No one who played liked that awful game except for him…. I still find the random score sheets from our many games of 5,000; we would use the back of any paper that we could find. During one game, Max decided to deduct 0.1 points for some joke I made - and he held to that scoring system during the game!
Max and I always bought snacks and drinks with the intention to share them; anything either of us bought we could help ourselves to, which was rather nice. We also made sure that neither one of us spent more than the other. One of Max's favorite snacks was peanuts, which became running joke starting in the Serengeti. We also loved to get the gummie snacks as a sweet treat. Simba chips and Hoppity Poppoty popcorn became favorites later in the trip.
What I will remember most about Max is his sense of humor. He and I could joke around with one another all day long, each laughing at the other’s jokes. He has an infectious laugh and a great smile. He would always do little things to help me or others out; little gestures that showed that he cared. He wasn’t this way to everyone on the trip, but rather just to those who he seemed to have a strong attachment to (Jane and me both come to mind).
During the Okavango Delta excursion, Max actually asked Jane and me to correct his English whenever he was speaking incorrectly; she and I looked at each other and laughed; he had no idea what he was asking for. For the next several days I would hear Jane, in her proper British accent, correcting Max’s English (his English is fantastic; Jane and I would get extremely picky, just to tease him). My favorite phrase he would use was “I didn’t knew…” (rather than “I didn’t know…”). I don’t know why I still find that endearing, but I do.
To those who I’ve not had time to write extensively about (Marca, Emma, Maite, Dennis, Synthia, Hana, Tim), I miss and love each and every one of you as well!!
I shall miss each and every one of these wonderful people. We started out as complete strangers and ended up being good friends.
How best can I sum up Africa? I cannot begin to describe just how amazing the experience was; this was a trip that I will remember for the rest of my life. I think something I saw at the Cape Town airport sums up the spirit of these 41 days best. While shopping at the airport, I found a rhino charm for sale; on the card was written the following message:
May the African sun always shine on you. May the rhythm of its drums beat deeply in your heart. May the vision of all its glory fill you with joy, And may the memory of Africa be with you, always
Today… today the trip changed. Today the glorious group of nine was invaded by nine more people who joined the tour. None of us were excited by this change as we’d gotten quite used to our small group. The entire atmosphere on the truck changed; gone were the music jams and dancing around; gone were the jokes being tossed back and forth; the truck was quiet… and it was depressing.
I decided to introduce myself as Wilhelm to the new people. Chris and Svenja helped me develop a persona: Wilhelm Gerhard Neuer from the tiny country of Biergarten, situated at the very top of an Alp in-between Deutschland and Liechtenstein, right next to the Wiesen (Biergarten is only the top of the Alp; the rest of the mountain is part of Deutschland… it’s a very tiny, secluded and secretive country).
Max… being Max, decided to try and tell everyone that my name is Bryan, knowing that I hate when people mistake my name for Bryan. Now it has become his thing; he always refers to me as Bryan now!
One guy, from England, asked me if I was from the States; when I said yes, he asked who the other American on the tour was. I responded that there was just one and he then asked who Ryan was, upon which I had to explain the story. He and his wife thought it funny and understood my desire to be called Wilhelm.
Our drive today took us to Etosha National Park to do two days of game driving in our Nomad truck. Those of us who did the Serengeti tour in the smaller safari trucks were disappointed that we would be in the Nomad truck; it isn’t built to give everyone the best views for game driving; we all wished that we could use the same types of trucks that we had on our other game drives.
Heading into our campsite in Etosha, we made a brief stop at a souvenir market so people could do some shopping. No one bought anything, but we did spot a giant rhino statue!
We spotted some animals on the road into camp: giraffes, zebras and – oh yes! – impalas!
We stopped by the campsite for a quick bathroom break and then Norman took us out for a quick loop nearby. I jokingly asked him if we’d see a rhino; he just smiled and said that we’d have to see… I secretly hoped that someone at the camp had told him of a rhino sighting. We drove to a nearby water hole and saw… lions. Just some lazy lions lying by the water with some other lions eating a zebra carcass.
Everyone was excited to see the lions, which were rather close. Max, Rafa, Joana and me… couldn’t have cared less. Can you see the utter excitement from these photos??
All we want to see is a god damned rhino! Lions? Seen plenty Giraffes? Boring Elephants? Fat asses Impala? Fuck them
We headed back into camp to get our tents setup. Max and I grabbed a large beer and walked over to the camp’s water hole lookout. We sat there chatting, enjoying our beer for about an hour before it was time to head back for dinner. We didn’t see any animals at the water hole, but it was very nice to just hang out together.
During dinner I developed an impression of an impala: big eyes staring out with no brain or intelligence behind them; mouth stupidly chewing on grass; ridiculous jerking head movements at the slightest noise; body locks up and falls over when it dies. I started just doing the facial impression for Svenja, but then got down on the ground to do the full impression for her (and the rest of the group who was there to watch). Svenja laughed hysterically!
After dinner, Chris, Svenja, Max and I went to the bar to watch the football (soccer) game between FC Bayern Munich and Eindhoven. It was rather fun getting to watch the game in the middle of Africa with two Bayern fans (my favorite team as well, though I’ve had little time to actually follow much at all due to school). Bayern easily won the game, 4-1.
Thursday, 20 October
Another full day of game driving… joy…
Our first sighting was… more lions back at the same water hole from the night before. They were closer this time and up walking around. An elephant then walked up to get a drink of water; it didn’t see the lions right nearby. I wished that the lions would just attack, as foolish as that idea is, but I just wanted to see something exciting.
Our next sighting though was… a RHINO! Yes, we finally saw a rhino! It was walking around behind a bunch of bushes (“too much bush!”), so it was quite difficult to see. I was eagerly looking out the window, hoping to get a good picture of the rhino, but he wouldn’t cooperate. Chris managed to get a few great photos of the rhino (they’re the photos below, which he was nice enough to share).
Up next, we saw a giraffe sitting down by a tree, which is quite a rare sight to see. Most giraffes that people see are up and walking around; to see one sitting down is quite unique.
We saw several other animals as we drove through the park. Rafa, Joana and Max all fell asleep at different parts of the drive; we had quite a bit of fun taking some funny pictures with one another asleep – it helped to pass the time and relieve the boredom of the game drive.
The next animals that we saw were some white elephants grouped together around a water hole, along with several other animals. Rafa and Joana were rather bored with the elephants, and I took a picture that accurately sums up our collective feelings about going on yet another game drive.
We stopped for lunch at a campsite in the park, where we had several hours to relax by the pool. The pool was quite large and very cold, which we desperately needed on this very hot day. I spent some time at the pool and then some time at the bar, with a beer, working on my blog.
After lunch we passed by several more animals: kudu, Oryx, etc. We drove out to the desert proper for a few minutes to take photos; thousands of years ago this area had been a massive lake, but now all that’s left is the desert.
And then – finally – we saw another RHINO! This one was lying next to a water hole and was in plain view for us to see. The first view we got was, typically, of its ass (how many animal asses have we seen on this trip…). I was giddy when I saw the rhino – like a kid on Christmas morning. I reached over and put my arm around Max, excitedly saying that we'd finally seen a rhino!! I kept looking over at him with a huge grin as we sat there watching the rhino. This seemed like such a great achievement, the culmination of something that began at the start of the trip. I was very, very happy that he and I got to see a rhino together.
We needed to move the truck around to get a better view of the rhino, so Max leaned through the small window into the front cabin to ask Norman and Fadz to drive forward. Rafa grabbed me and pointed to where Max was leaning forward: “Look, another ass sighting! Quick, take a picture!” she said and sure enough, we got a view of Max’s ass along with the rhino ass.
We sat there for quite some time watching the rhino and he eventually stood up and gave us a great profile view. It was an amazing few minutes getting to sit and watch this beautiful animal in the wild.
En route to our new campsite, we spotted some lions sleeping in the grass, along with some hyenas. The hyenas are such ugly creatures!
After arriving at camp, Max, Chris, Svenja, and I walked over to this camp’s water hole to see if there were any animals there. We brought some Savannah Dry Ciders with us to drink. We spotted three giraffes drinking, which was rather interesting to see because they stand awkwardly when they bend down to drink.
Then we spotted it: a rhino walking up from the left to get a drink. Chris started snapping some photos (all pictures from this evening posted on here were taken by him). As he was taking pictures we were shocked to discover that there were two more rhinos sitting by the water – and they had been there the entire time that we’d been sitting there! Then a fourth rhino came walking up from the right side! I couldn’t believe our luck – four rhinos were mere feet away from us!!
We sat there for about an hour and then several lions came out of the grass to get a drink of water; the first hint that something else was coming was when the giraffe ran away at high speed. The rhinos stood very still and just watched the lions as they came for a drink.
By this point we were slightly late for dinner, so we left to grab a quick bite to eat before heading back to watch more animals. We told everyone at dinner about everything that we’d seen and almost everyone joined us when we returned to the water hole.
When we got back, only three of the rhinos were still there, but we were able to see them quite well. They eventually walked around to our side of the water and then waded into the middle of the water.
About 10m away from where we were sitting was a large tree with a huge python sitting in it. Despite the fact that I hate snakes, I had to go over and see it. Thankfully the camp guards were keeping a close eye on the snake.
As we resumed watching the rhinos, the power at the camp went out, killing the floodlights that illuminated the water hole. Plunged into total darkness, Chris turned to taking photos of the night sky; this was the first night in weeks in which we’d been able to see the Milky Way in the night sky.
Today also marked the one-month anniversary for the five original tour members: we started our tour on 20 September and seeing our first rhinos was truly the best way to celebrate!
Friday, 21 October
Today marked our last game drive of the tour – huzzah!! We drove out from the camp to see what wildlife we could as we made our way out of the park. Happily, we spotted two more rhinos: a mother and a young rhino walking through some bushes nearby.
We made a brief stop back in camp for a bathroom break. Rafa ran up to me saying that she had found another “Rhino Max” bracelet in the gift shop, this one much longer. We went to the store and, happily, the new bracelet fit around my wrist! I bought the new one and gave Rafa my old one that didn’t fit (she had lost her bracelet at the rock quarry). It was a great find by her!
I fell asleep for the rest of the game drive; I honestly couldn’t care less about seeing another giraffe or elephant; I’d seen so many during the other game drives that I was bored of the whole experience. The game drive ended in mid-morning and we drove the 100km to our campsite for the night, in Outjo.
We had the entire afternoon to relax, so I spent the time getting some work done and posting a blog (finally!). After dinner we all made our way back to the bar (except for Max, who went to bed early; he’d been quite tired for the past few days and hadn’t been feeling well, so he needed to get some rest). At the bar, I joined Chris, Svenja, Rafa, Joana, and the Swiss couple who joined us in Windhoek (Fabian and Tara). They taught us a new card game called Wizard in which one states how many sets (also called ‘stitches’) they hope to get each round; points are awarded based on how close one comes to that number. It was great fun and we had some drinks while we played.
The owner of the bar, a very nice man in a wheelchair, came by to say hello and then he sent over some drinks to us: it was called a Springbok and was part Amarillo and something with mint. It was delicious! We sat around playing cards until around 22:00 and then called it a night.
By this point, Rafa and Joana had left the card table and joined the bar owner at his table to chat and have some drinks. Chris, Svenja and I joined them for a little while. The owner provided us with several (free) drinks as we sat around chatting; the group drank three bottles of wine, various shots of alcohol, and beer. We then started to play a drinking game: - One person rolls two dice under a cup and states the value of the dice (5 and 1 is 51) - You can lie about the value of the dice as only you get to see them - The next person can call your bluff and look: if they are right, you drink; if they are wrong, they drink - The next person then rolls and their score must be higher than the score before them
I saw between Svenja and Chris and decided to stop drinking by this point. I always believe what Svenja said and Chris never challenged the score that I stated, which saved me from drinking. The game was a lot of fun to play though. Joana particularly enjoyed it and drank quite a bit; she is hysterical when she drinks (she’s hysterical sober as well).
Finally, around 01:00 we decided it was time for bed. Rafa stayed behind, but Chris, Svenja and I helped Joana get back to her tent. I unzipped the tent door for her and she literally fell into the tent, laughing. By this point she was also calling out loudly for Norman in a playful, joking way. “Norman!” “Nooorman!” “NORMAN!” The three of us were laughing hysterically each time Joana called out his name. All of our tents were right next to one another, huddled under a tree, so Joana’s calls could easily have woken the others.
I crawled into my tent, trying not to wake Max up; as I was about to fall asleep several minutes later, I heard Joana call out “Norman!” She called out his name several more times and it was all I could do to stifle my laughs so I didn’t wake Max.
To sum up Joana’s evening, here’s how it happened:
21:00 Rafa: Joana, do you want to come to the bar and just talk with us? Joana: No, I want to go to bed. I’m tired. ………. 01:00 Joana: Norman? Norman? Norman!
01:15 Joana: Norman?
It was actually an amazing evening. We got to bond with two of the new people and then enjoy some drinks with locals at the bar. We all had a great time.
Saturday, 22 October
Today we had a late start, thankfully: breakfast was at 08:36 and we left about 45 minutes later. Our schedule for the day was just a visit to a local Hiba tribe. I’ll be quite honest and say that I wasn’t looking forward to this visit; the Massai visit in the Serengeti had been such a disappointment and I was worried that this would be the same thing.
We met our guide and he took us into the village. We were able to interact with the villagers and wander about on our own. The kids loved to come up and visit with us; they were interested in the water bottles that several people brought with them and even took the bottles (they thought that there must be something special about such water).
Max took to the kids right away, talking to them and playing games with them. He and I picked up several kids and swung them around; they each had such big smiles on their faces.
Chris was the true center of the kids’ attention though. They crowded around him and wouldn’t let him go the entire time that we were visiting with the tribe. He would pick them up, swing them around, carry them; the kids all loved it and one could easily see the joy that Chris got out of it as well (though he was exhausted by the end).
We were able to go inside one of the village huts and one of the women showed us how the women ‘bathe’ in smoke and use smoke to clean their clothes; only the men are allowed to clean with water. The smoke smelled rather good as it was mixed with things to make it smell good.
After we finished with the village visit we drove on to our campsite for the night in the town of Khorixas. I slept throughout the drive, which gave me some energy when we reached the camp. Max and I walked over to a local grocery store to grab some drinks (sadly they didn’t have Fanta Passion – I’ve only found it in Malawi!). We then came back to camp and joined the others by the pool, which was frigidly cold. I took a quick dip in the pool before retiring to the bar area to continue working on the blog (which I am now – finally – caught up on!).
Before dinner we filmed my fantastic impala impression and had Max and Rafa play lions hunting me. Svenja filmed it using her GoPro while Chris took several photos of the hunt. I crawled around, ‘eating’ the grass while Max and Rafa stalked me. I thought I’d heard them when they pounced, but it happened quite suddenly, which was awesome! Max grabbed me from the side and Rafa from behind; Max bit at my neck and Rafa just grabbed on and pulled me down. It was actually a ton of fun. As this was being filmed, the rest of the group saw us and wandered over to watch as well.
Sunday, 23 October
We had quite a full day today, with a lot of driving and also some activities.
After leaving camp, we made a brief stop at some local stands for souvenir shopping. One or two people bought a few things, but most of us just wandered around. Norman picked up a baby who belong to one of the women working one of the stands; the baby was adorable and had the greatest smile; when I went to say hello, she wanted to reach out and feel my beard.
We drove further south and made a longer stop at the Spittskoppe, where we spent about two hours walking and hiking around. The rock formations were quite impressive. We met up with another Nomad group (their guide was Nyika’s sister!) and we all walked over to one of the rocky hills, where we had time to hike around and explore. The hill was rather steep, but the rock gave us a lot of traction so we could walk up and down. The view was spectacular.
We then made our way under a ledge where we could see some old paintings done by the bushman people; the paintings were 2,000 to 4,000 years old. Many of the figures depicted the animals of the region – including a rhino!
Lunch was served when we returned to our truck. To our amazement, the other Nomad truck was camping at this location for the evening, despite it only being around 14:00 (they were driving the opposite direction from us, but following the same route); we couldn’t see any bathrooms or showers for them to use, let alone a bar for them to enjoy. We couldn’t understand why they would be camping there and not at the same place that we had left earlier that morning (especially since it was in the desert and blistering hot).
During lunch, Max managed to get a hold of my camera without my knowing… these pictures are the result. :-)
Our route then took us to Swakopmund, where we are spending the next two nights – in a hotel too! The town is very Western and feels like a beach resort in Florida or North Carolina (I’m reminded of Wilmington, actually). The town is located right on the beach, on the west coast of Africa. The weather was considerably colder on the coast; we all had to put on pants and jackets! We stopped off at company to book some option excursion for tomorrow, as it was an entirely free day to do whatever we wanted. Several people signed up to do quad biking, sand boarding, or a dolphin cruise. Not me… oh no, not me…
Back in Zanzibar (yes, on THAT horrible drunken day), Joana and I had talked about doing skydiving; we had promised each other that we’d do it together when we go to Namibia. Well, the day is finally here and Joana still wanted to do it… and, to be honest, so do I, though I’m terrified of the whole idea. I asked the women working there a million questions about skydiving. And… then Joana and I booked it. I handed over my credit card, saying that if it was rejected, the event wasn’t meant to be… and I’ll be damned if the charge didn’t go through just fine – my last method of backing out was gone! So… at 10:00 tomorrow morning I’ll be leaping from an airplane…
Max took great delight in telling me that I’d be dying tomorrow, playing on my fears of skydiving. It was actually pretty funny and he meant it all in a fun, joking manner. He said he’d have a sign on the ground waiting for me: “Welcome back Bryan!” I joked back that skydiving would be a great way to have an impact on Namibia!
Max and I checked into our room and proceeded to do some laundry before we rejoined the group for our dinner out. The entire group went out to a local restaurant that served Italian, burgers, and game meat. I ordered an Oryx burger with “secret sky-diver’s sauce” on it; Chris ordered the same thing and Svenja ordered a pizza. We were all amazed at how delicious the food was! Chris and I LOVED our burgers; I’m not sure what all was on it, but it was amazing. Svenja shared a bite of her pizza, which was also quite tasty.
After dinner we all came back to the hotel to head to bed early; we’d had a long day and most of us had fun activities planned for tomorrow.
Monday, 24 October
Today… I face my fear and go skydiving!
I woke up early, around 07:00 and I was immediately hit by the reality of what I had planned for the morning. I was struck with fear and nervousness, but then dread set in when I looked outside: the sky was full of clouds, which meant that we wouldn’t be able to do the skydiving unless the clouds cleared up. I had psyched myself up so much for this that I didn’t want to miss the chance.
I met with Joana at breakfast and she was equally nervous. We ate a small breakfast (mainly so we wouldn’t puke it up later) and then hung around the reception area until it was time to go. We listened to music to help pass the time – and to calm our nerves. Joana likes Celine Dion, so we played a lot of her music.
Our driver collected us at 10:00 and drove us out to the airfield. The two guys in the car were very friendly and talkative, telling us that we had nothing to worry about. Joana and I were the only two booked to do skydiving for the entire day. Thankfully the sky had cleared up mere minutes before we were picked up – it was a good sign!
Upon arrival at the small airfield, we had to fill out some forms and then decide on which photo or video package we wanted. We couldn’t both have the same package because they didn’t have enough equipment for it; I went with the GoPro on my partner’s wrist, giving me a good video of the jump; Joana did the photo and video package, which has another person jump and film her.
Up next we met our partners: Derek was going with me, while Ramon was going with Joana. Derek has done over 11,000 jumps, so he was quite relaxed about the whole thing. He gave me my jumpsuit and put on my harness, but then went off to chat with some friends. Ramon was more thorough with Joana and he appeared very nervous; we later found out that this was to be his first jump in Africa! He was from Spain and had been doing skydiving for five years, but he just arrived in Swakopmund yesterday!
Derek then gave us a briefing on how we would be jumping from the airplane: Derek and I would be going first… He showed us how to tuck our feet under the plane when we started to exit, how to hold our arms and head, etc. It actually helped put me at some ease to talk about what we would be doing… though that all changed as we then walked outside to board the airplane.
The airplane was very tiny, with only one seat for the pilot. Ramon and Joana climbed in first, with Joana sitting in between Ramon’s legs right up next to the pilot. Derek and I sat the same way, but just behind the pilot. The other two jumpers, one of whom was Joana’s cameraman, climbed aboard and sat to my side and in front of me. We were all sitting quite close to one another. The door to the plan simply slid shut like a garage door and then we were off!
The plane made quite a steep climb, but we had such an amazing view of the area! To one side was the Atlantic Ocean and the miles of beautiful beaches; we could see all the way to Walvis Bay to the south. To the east was the Namib Desert, with dunes stretching out to the horizon. While we were flying, Ramon and Derek attached their harnesses to ours and the pilot would announce how far we were from the jump zone.
5 miles… we start to get harnessed together 2 miles… we get our goggles ready to put on 1 mile… goggles go on and the door opens up
Suddenly one of the jumpers goes… and then it’s my turn! By this point I was terrified. During the flight up, I kept turning to Joana and grabbing her hand for support. We sang the “Fuck It All” version of “Let It Go” as inspiration.
There’s no warning or countdown; Derek just scoots us forward to the door and I realize that this is actually going to happen. There is no turning back. Suddenly, my entire body is hanging outside of the airplane! I don’t have time to think and Derek tells me to tuck my feet under, which I quickly do. He rocks forward a few times and then… we’re out!
The first second, right after leaving the airplane, was the only really scary part – and the only time that I could feel like I was falling. I looked down during the first few seconds and was thankfully not that terrified. I thought to myself “Well, you’re falling now. Nothing you can do but enjoy it!” Once we were in position, Derek tapped me on the shoulder to indicate that I could now open my arms up. I stretched my arms out and relaxed, taking in the entire experience.
The feeling of freefall is spectacular! The wind is rushing by and I couldn’t hear a thing. I looked down at the ground for a bit and then all around me to take in the view. To my surprise, I didn’t swear as much as I had anticipated. I said “Oh fuck!” once (which is clearly on the video), but it was in awe of the view that I had while falling. I smiled and laughed with joy for most of the time. Derek was using the GoPro to film the entire time; he kept prompting me to do a thumbs up or the “hang ten” sign with my hands, which I did.
The freefall time seemed to last only a few seconds, but in reality it was somewhere between 30 and 40 seconds. Derek release the parachute and the freefall ended; it wasn’t a sharp jerking movement either; it was very smooth and soon we were drifting through the sky. Derek removed my goggles so I could see better. The breeze was very light and refreshing.
As we drifted down, I could see Joana and the other guys falling and releasing their parachutes. Joana and me had our parachutes deployed at 5,000 feet, while the professionals went down to around 2,500 feet. Joana and Ramon ended up almost directly above us, so Derek had to maneuver us out of their way. This was the scariest part of the entire experience: we sped up and made some very sharp turns. We quickly settled down and continued to glide down towards the airfield.
As we came in to land, Derek instructed me to simply stick my feet straight out in front of me. As we landed, I did as I was told and then we were on the ground. Derek quickly told me to stand up, which caught me by surprise; I did my best, but we fell forward, laughing. A couple guys came up to help grab the parachute and unhook us. By this point, Joana was nearing her landing and I saw that she too fell when they landed – it must be a common occurrence.
After snapping a few photos and celebrating that we’d just gone skydiving, we changed out of our jumpsuits and then headed back to our hotel. Joana needed to grab her purse to pay for the videos and photos; the guys were happy to do a quick trip to the hotel and back – it gave them time to edit together our videos. While Joana was grabbing her purse, the driver talked to me about his skydiving experiences; he’s done just over 100 solo jumps. To celebrate the 100th jump, their group jumps complete naked!
When we got back to the airfield, we celebrated by having a Windhoek beer and some Simba chips. The TV was playing some great music videos from the 1980s and we sang along to them. Ramon eventually came up to chat as we waited for the videos to finish. Finally, we got to watch both of our videos on their big TV; we laughed at ourselves the entire time. The videos are amazing!
Back in town, Joana and I grabbed some lunch at Spar and then met up with everyone at the hotel. After eating and watching our videos again, a group of us (Chris, Svenja, Rafa, Joana, and me) headed out to explore the town; Max stayed behind so he could exercise. We walked down to the beach, which was breathtaking. There were so many rocks around and the waves were intense.
Chris decided to go swimming for a few minutes, so the rest of us went to a nearby bar to grab some drinks. The beers were the first truly good beers that we’ve had in Africa (the African beers are good, but somewhat watery); these beers were craft beers and they had a variety of styles. Chris and Svenja met up with us for some drinks after a while. It was great getting to just relax and chat with everyone.
We made a brief stop back at the hotel to change clothes and grab Max so we could all go to dinner; we’d made reservations at the Swakopmund Brauhaus at 20:00. Before going to the restaurant, we made a stop at a hostel to pick-up the DVDs for the people who went sand-boarding (Rafa, Chris and Svenja). We got to watch the video as well and it was quite clear that they’d had an equally amazing time during their excursion.
We had ample time before our reservation, so we walked back down to the beach to watch the sunset. It wasn’t the most stunning sunset that we’ve seen, but I found it fun to see the sun set over the Atlantic, rather than rise over it like we get in the States.
The restaurant wasn’t quite as German as I had hoped or as their brochure made it appear; there were German flags on the walls and some imported German beers (Paulaner!), along with a small selection of German food. I went with a dish of smoked meat, potatoes and asparagus with Hollandaise sauce. The meat was thinly sliced Oryx and perfectly seasoned; it was a delicious meal! For dessert, Svenja and I split a panna cotta.
Tuesday, 25 October
We had a somewhat early start today, leaving shortly after 07:15 and heading further south. We made a brief stop in Walvis Bay to see the flamingos, which were gathered together along the beach. Further on, we made a stop on the side of the road at the point where we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn! There was a large sign on either side of the road, so we stopped for a quick photo.
After lunch we went on a drive around the Namib Desert with a local guide named Frans. Frans was the best guide that we’ve had this entire trip; he was funny and told some amazing stories. He turned what would normally have been a boring drive into something amusing and entertaining; we were all gripped every time he would talk. The drive took us around some rock formations and up to the top of a hill, where we could see some mountain zebras.
Camp for the night was rather nice, which a small pool and a decent bar. We all took a dip in the pool to cool off and many of the new group members joined us at the pool. I was able to spend some time chatting with them, getting to know them better. Today was Fabian’s birthday and Norman brought out a cake to celebrate; we all sang “Happy Birthday” to him and then everyone sang to him in their native languages. After dinner I played a few rounds of 5,000 with Max, Chris, Svenja and Rafa. Everyone seems to really enjoy the game, which is still amazing to me (I’m glad they like it so much!).
Max and I stayed up playing Carbo after everyone had gone to bed. It was nice spending time one-on-one with him, relaxing and chatting. We talked about the trip, the differences between our two tour groups, and tons of different subjects. I truly enjoy getting to chat with Max; he’s a very smart guy and it is easy to have an intelligent conversation with him. He can get very passionate about certain subjects, stubbornly defending his opinions; it can be somewhat irritating, but amusing as the same time.
Wednesday, 26 October
I woke up in a panic this morning – I left my camera at the bar area when Max and I went to bed after Carbo. I frantically got dressed and ran up to the outdoor seating area where we had sat, but the camera was gone. Thankfully the woman from the bar last night was starting to unlock the doors and open the reception for the morning; she saw me and smiled. I went to the reception and she happily gave me my camera. I was so relieved!
We set off early this morning, skipping breakfast so we could drive to the Sossusvlei Dunes before the sun was too high (and the heat unbearable). The dunes were a gorgeous shade of red and the landscape was spectacular. The national park set aside one dune, Dune 45, for tourists to climb. Upon arrival, we all set off up the dune while Norman and Fadz prepared breakfast.
Dune 45 is rather high and we walked up the path along the ridge. I was one of the first of the group to set off up the dune and I was soon amazed at how steep the slope of the dune was on either side, especially as the path began to narrow. People were coming down along the same path and I was always afraid that I would fall when they passed.
Eventually I reached a point where I could go no further; the slope and height were too much for me. I sat down on the dune so I could relax before turning around to head back down. Rafa and Joana soon met up with me; Rafa could clearly see that I was not doing alright – I was on the verge of a panic attack. She kindly walked me down back down the dune, talking and guiding me the entire way. We would stop and let people pass by us, each time Rafa would help calm me down. I tried to control my breathing so I didn’t panic. Thankfully I reached the bottom safe and sound; Rafa then climbed back up the dune to join Joana.
I spent the rest of the time back at the truck, recovering and drinking water. Breakfast was delicious: bacon and fried eggs (a wonderful change from the usual toast and cereal). While eating breakfast, Svenja and I noticed a group of attractive guys in another truck… a truck full of definite Fs.
Once breakfast was done, we drove to the next sight, which was at the dead tree area of the dunes. We rode out to the trees in a wagon pulled by a very slow tractor, while other tourists took 4x4 trucks. We spotted the truck of attractive guys again on the way. When we arrived, we had to walk one kilometer to reach the trees. During the walk, I spotted the group of guys, so I sped up my pace (I’d been rambling along in the sand, worn down by the heat. It was worth the effort…
The trees themselves were nice, but not as impressive as I had expected. The trees have been dead for hundreds of years, preserved by being in the desert. We spent some time walking around, taking pictures. Rafa and Joana played the song “Gangnam Style” and danced around with the Korean couple, who laughed and got into the dance.
Our last sight for the day was the Sesriem Canyon, which was a small canyon that no longer has water in it. Norman led us on a short walk through the canyon and then left us time to wander around. We could see the layers of rocks along the walls: large rocks indicated periods of heavy water flow, while small ones or sand indicated little to no water.
We then made our way to our next camp, where we spent some time by the pool. The campsite itself was total shit: far from everything, including the truck; the ground was covered with animal poop as well. We talked to the manager and were able to move to a different location, but he warned us that we needed to be quiet for the accommodated guests (we promptly began to communicate by shouting).
Before dinner I joined Max, Tamara, and Fabian to play Wizard. We had started a game on the truck while driving to camp, so we resumed where we left off. Tamara easily beat the rest of us – I had a streak of bad luck that never seemed to end. After dinner, we started a new game; this time I had some great hands and was leading in the scores until the final round, when Tamara and Fabian pulled ahead (and tied).
Tamara and Fabian went to bed around 21:00, but Max and I stayed up playing Carbo again. We only played for about 30 minutes before heading to bed; again, it was wonderful spending more time with him. We sit next to one another on the truck every day, but most days we sleep, read or listen to music; this time in the evenings is really special to me.
Thursday, 27 October
We had a very long day of driving before us today, driving around 500km. We had one stop for sightseeing today at the Fish River Canyon, which we reached late in the afternoon. During the morning dive, I alternated between sleeping and reading more of “Atlas Shrugged” – I reached the chapter of John Galt’s political statement, so I wanted to be able to really focus on what I was reading.
Fish River Canyon was nice to stop and visit; it is the second biggest canyon in the world (after the Grand Canyon). We could only walk around the rim of the canyon, not descend into it; we still had some amazing views though. We started out at one lookout point and were then given time to walk along the rim over to a second lookout point, where we were picked up. I walked along with Chris and Svenja since I didn't want to walk along the edge alone (my fear of heights rearing it's ugly head once again).
Camp for the night was pretty nice (except for the showers, which had mold all around!). There were three pools, all part of a hot springs complex. The bar was large and well stocked; I spent some time having a beer and relaxing.
After dinner a large group of us returned to the bar to play cards. Max, Tamara, Fabian and I played Wizard, which the others played 5,000 (we didn’t have enough cards for the entire group to play either game). I’ve really taken a liking to Wizard and I think that I’ll buy a set of the cards when I get home; it is a fun and easy game to play with people. Almost everyone went to bed around 22:30, but Max, Chris and I stayed up a little longer and played Carbo together.
Friday, 28 October
I was woken up early this morning by the sounds of baboons getting into the campsite’s trash bins, as well as stealing any food that was left out in the kitchen. They created a massive mess; there were about ten baboons that I could see and one of them even came up and knocked on our tent!
We had a late start from camp (leaving at 09:30) and I spent the time doing a little reading before playing a couple rounds of 5,000 with Svenja and Max. Out drive today took us across the border into South Africa; the border crossing was uneventful and we soon reached our camp.
Camp is located along the river that borders Namibia and South Africa, so we didn’t drive all that far today (around 200km). The camp is… very disappointing. There is nothing to do in the camp; we’re in the middle of nowhere. There is a small pool and a bar area, but Norman didn’t stop for us to do any currency exchange, so I’m not sure how we’re supposed to buy anything at the bar. The only activity today is canoeing on the river, which doesn’t interest me in the least; we’ve got nearly the entire day to sit around this camp… doing nothing.
Fabian, Tamara, Max, and me played a game of Wizard to help pass the time, which was actually quite fun. I also did some work and blogging before we had dinner. After dinner we all went back to the bar area and played cards: some of us played Wizard, while others played 5,000. I played 5,000 and had a kick-ass round that night: I kept getting tons of aces and wild cards, racking up well over 4,000 points (and taking a commanding lead). Max kept telling everyone that I *always* have all of the aces (just like I *always* have the red kings when playing Carbo).
Saturday, 29 October
Today’s agenda was quite brief: drive around 500km to our next campsite where we would have a dinner provided (no more Norman dinners!). The drive was smooth; we spent it talking, reading, listening to music… all of the usual activities. We didn’t play cards today as we were all rather tired and it was still hot on the truck (though nowhere near as bad as it was in the Namib desert!).
Camp for the night was one of the nicest campsites that we’ve had; it had really nice (and clean!) bathrooms, a large dining area with a bar, a decent sized pool. It was rather crowded, but that didn’t interfere with us at all. Best of all: the camp had wifi!! We’d been through such a wifi drought over the past couple of weeks; everyone hopped on their phones as soon as we got access.
We pulled a table from the dining room outside and sat around having some drinks together. The afternoon was getting rather cool, so we soon returned back inside, where a nice fire was going. We soon saw the staff start to cook our dinner (chicken) over the fire and it smelled delicious! Svenja, Rafa, Joana, Max and I sat around the table, chatting and hanging out until it was time for dinner.
Dinner was delicious: chicken, mashed potatoes, homemade bread, and even ice cream for dessert! The family who owned the place made the food and they were all so incredibly nice and friendly! They would chat with us, helped us take the table outside in the afternoon, and did everything they could to make our stay wonderful. They even offered to play the videos of our skydiving on their projector, but we forgot about it until it was too late.
After dinner several of us hung out at the bar and played a couple rounds of 5,000 before we left to head to bed. We would have played longer, but they wanted to close up the bar at 22:00. This was to be our last night in the tents – and our last night together. Max and I stayed up for a little while chatting in our tent; it was very nice to just chill and chat with him. He continued to tease me that a spider would come crawling into our tent, using his fingers to make noises and then running them up my arm or back to make me think it was a spider.
I went to bed feeling rather sad that this would be the last night Max and I would spend in our tent. We’d been sharing a tent together for nearly 40 nights and it would be strange to not have that anymore. I’ve come to consider Max a very, very good friend.
The second half of the African adventure officially began today!
We were all quite happy that there were just nine of us on the first leg of this tour, thus giving each of us our own row of seats on the truck! We have another nine people joining us later on, a fact which none of us are particularly excited about. We started early, around 08:00 to make the short drive (100km) to Kasane, in Botswana. The border crossing into Botswana was quick and easy, particularly since no one needed to get visas. Our driver, Captain Fadz, was amazing and we all took a liking to him right away. Norman, our guide, started off on the wrong foot and tried too hard to assert his authority (an obvious hangover from his days in the military).
We had a full day of activities planned just outside of Kasana, in the Chobe National Park. In the afternoon we had (yet another) game drive and then a boat cruise on the river in the evening. The five of us left over from the first tour were not excited in the least about going on another game drive, but for the new people in the group, it was exciting.
Can you guess what animals we saw? Yep – impala! Followed by giraffes, zebras, and dozens of elephants. We saw a massive herd of elephants in Chobe, which was actually rather interesting to see. At one point we spotted a small family of lions under a tree, but they were behind some bushes and we couldn’t get to a good spot to take any pictures without having to go off the path (which is forbidden). The (sad) highlight that we saw was a buffalo that had gotten stuck in the mud, sinking down to the point where it couldn’t get out. The poor animal had been there for two or three days and was nearly dead (we saw some slight movements).
We ran into the other Nomad group, with Jane, Emma, and Marca, at several points during the game drive. Mmatsie and I got rather bored of the game drive, particularly because of how insanely hot it was (in the 40s C), so we started playing a game: Fuck, Marry, Kill (FMK). We looked at the men in the various trucks that we passed, deciding if we would F, M or K them; nearly every one of them was an immediate K, though there were a few Ms and Fs.
The boat cruise was the more interesting event of the day, allowing us to get out on the water and cool off. Both Nomad groups were on the same boat, so Jane was able to join Max and me for the cruise. She was smart and brought some beer, which she shared with us; the cool refreshment was desperately needed. The temperatures in Southern Africa were considerably higher than what we’d had in East Africa.
We saw many of the same animals that we’d seen earlier in the day, but the best part was getting to see the hippos in the water and several crocodiles. I was amazed at how many crocs we were able to see during the cruise. Finally, we stopped in the middle of the river to watch the beautiful sunset, which was stunning.
And then this random, candid photo was taken of Max - quite possibly my favorite photo of him. I've no idea how this was even taken; I think it was an accident when I was putting my camera away.
Arriving back at camp, we had some time to kill before dinner, so we either went to the pool or the bar (which did not have working wifi). The urinals in the men’s bathroom were… interesting: they were shaped like hippo mouths. We all eventually met at the bar to chat and have a few drinks. Jane taught Max a new game involving moving coins around to arrange the by size; he seemed quite stumped by the game, much to our amusement.
Thursday, 13 October
Today we left camp by 08:00 and set off to cross the border into Namibia, driving through the Caprivi Strip, a stretch of road that was incredibly dangerous to travel on during the 1990s due to the wars. We entered Namibia to take advantage of a shortcut to the Okavango Delta, which is back in Botswana; had we stayed in Botswana, the route by road there would have been an extra several hundred kilometers.
During the 430km drive, Max, Svenja, Christian, and me went to the front of the truck to play Uno. After playing a round of two, Rafa came up to join us as well. Finally, Siri and Jasmine joined the game, while Joana came and watched. It was a great bit of group bonding!
Camp was descent and thankfully the other group was staying in the same camp again, so we joined them at the bar after dinner. Chris and Svenja joined us at the bar as well; they joined our old Nomad group and really fit in quite well; we are all really happy that they are on this leg of the tour with us.
Friday, 14 October
Back to Botswana today! We drove to a meeting point, called the Big Tree, which was just that: a large tree on the side of the road; once there, both Nomad groups transferred to a single large truck for the drive to camp. The two-day excursion to the Okavango Delta was handled by a third party service provided, so we said goodbye to our Nomad guides.
Max, Jane and I sat next to one another on the truck and we decided to play a game with Max: we challenged him to not speak for the duration of the drive (about 40 minutes); if he succeeded, Jane and I would each buy him a drink; if he failed, he owed us each a drink. He accepted and throughout the drive we did our best to get him to talk, but, to our amazement, he succeeded! He even continued not talking to us for a few minutes once we reached camp, speaking to everyone but Jane and me!
The campsite was descent; the best part was that we didn’t have to put up or take down our tents – there were permanent tents with camp beds inside each one of them. They weren’t as nice as the permanent tents that we had in South Luangwa, but they were a step up from our regular tents.
We had a boar cruise in the lagoon later in the afternoon, so we all went to the bar to have some drinks and play cards. There was a group of French people also staying in the camp and they had taken all of the seats, but once they left for lunch we were able to take over. We decided to play 5,000 and we had to teach several new people how to play: Svenja, Christian, Jasmin, Siri, Rafa, and Stephanie (an American from Jane’s Nomad group). I was amazed by how many people wanted to join in and play the game; who knew that the simple card game I learned from Caleb all those years ago would become the favorite game here in Africa! Jasmin was dealt an amazing first hand – getting several aces and wild cards; she easily won the round with nearly 800 points!
While we were playing, a pilot came in to the bar to have his lunch. He was a young guy and very attractive (we all agreed that he was an F and an M). Stephanie called over to him and invited him to join us for cards; he said that he was curious to learn the game and moved to our table. His name was Chris (Christopher), he was from Cape Town, but had recently moved to Botswana to fly tourist flights around the region for Mack Airlines. The girls and I were all ogling him, but thankfully he sat right next to me and I explained the game to him. Chris quickly picked up the rules of the game and we played several rounds together, before he had to leave to go fly some people to the town of Maun. I joked that he should just stay with us, citing “mechanical issues” with the airplane. Before he left, he asked over the rules of the game again so that he could then teach his friends how to play – I’ve now passed the game on to even more people!
During the game, I chatted and shamelessly flirted with him (what did I have to lose?!). Once Chris left, Jane called me out on it and I just laughed. We began to refer to him as Captain Chris and as my Captain, to which I replied “Oh Captain, my Captain!” Sadly, he was scheduled to fly to Victoria Falls the next day and thus we wouldn’t be able to see him again. Every time we heard an airplane go by, we’d look to the sky and shout after my Captain…
The afternoon boat cruise was relaxing, if nothing else. Being out on the water was cooling and we saw several different birds. It quickly became evident that birds were going to be the highlight of the boat cruise; the lagoon and its tributaries were surrounded by dense reeds and papyrus plants, making it near impossible to see anything besides the birds. I did think several times how much Poppop would have enjoyed getting to see these birds – and I wondered if he’d seen any of the species that we saw.
Jane and I constantly made “That’s what she/he said” jokes during the entire time we were together. Max would join in and made some of the best comments to things that either Jane or I said. It helped to pass the time and make us laugh. My particular favorite was when we saw a Swallow fly across our boat path…
Again, we stopped to watch the sunset, which was the most amazing one we’ve seen yet on the tour. As the sun was going down, several small clouds appeared in front of it, which looked really amazing.
Arriving back at camp, we had a delicious dinner and then settled in to play more 5,000 before heading to bed.
Saturday, 15 October
This morning we had quite a busy schedule planned out. After breakfast we headed back out on the lagoon to drive over to a small island where we transferred to smaller boats for a trek through the smaller channels of the Delta. The small channels were actually hippo paths: as the hippos walk through the Delta, they create paths that are then filled in by the water. This makes the hippo one of the three essential animals for the Delta. The other two are the elephants (they bring new plant seeds to areas through their dung) and the termites (they create termite mounds, which are the starting points for all of the islands in the Delta).
I was nervous about taking the small boats because Norman had mentioned that spiders can sometimes fall from the reeds into the boats; I had Max ride in the boat with me to fed off any evil spiders who came into the boat. Max found great amusement in teasing me about the spiders: making me think that several we nearby or using his fingers to create the feeling of something crawling on me. Thankfully we saw no spiders at all during the day!
The boats were small and canoe-like, allowing only two people plus the man who piloted the boat. The captain used a pole to propel and guide the boat; the boat seemed quite wobbly at first, but we got used to it quite quickly. Sailing through the narrow channels was really interesting, especially being so low in the water. Max and I spent the ride discussing politics, especially Austrian politics, which I found fascinating.
Our destination was a small island where we disembarked from our boats and prepared for a walking tour through the bush. The descent into hell began… The next 90 minutes were, by far, the worst part of the entire tour thus far (and everyone in the group agreed). We walked through the reeds, passing an incredibly amount of elephant poo along the way. We were shown several different trees and a termite mound; at each stop our local guide would talk for what seemed like ages, killing us with information. The best part of the walk was when we were just walking along in a single-file line.
After the walk ended we sat around the water to have our picnic lunch. Max, Jane and I sat together to eat our lunch; Max and I kept whistling the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python. I also taught him the true Southern saying “Bless your heart” and how it truly means “Fuck you!” in the South (ah, the Southern hypocrites!). During the lunch, Max reached around and put his arm around me and we sat that way for a few minutes. Marca looked over and noted how we were sitting, telling me that “This is love!” We were also dubbed WilhelMax due to our bro-mance. Ever since the second half of the tour began I found myself being more and more attracted to Max; he became much sweeter and more caring; gone was the sarcastic and antagonistic Max from earlier in the trip.
After we ate, it was time to return to our small boats for the trip back. En route, Christian decided to give poling a try, so Svenja switched boats and left him to it. He did a pretty good job, especially for a first timer. He managed to steer the boat around for a few minutes before we all resumed the trip back to camp.
When we got back to camp, Max and I went back to our tent to relax and get out of the heat. He took a nap while I spent some time reading Atlas Shrugged. I also decided to take a nice, cool shower, which was refreshing. After showering, we headed back over to the bar area and met up with Jane. Jane and I started to play a game of chess using the board they had (each piece was African-themed); she had to leave to take a helicopter flight over the Delta before we finished the game, so Max took her place. The game ended in a draw, but it was still fun. We then started to play 5,000 with Svenja, Christian, and Rafa. Max went to get us some drinks and heard that there was an elephant nearby; he called out to us to see if anyone wanted to go see it… and we all collectively sighed and shrugged it off. We just couldn’t be bothered.
Christian and I left the card game after a while so he could go fly his drone; I joined him because I wanted to check out how good the drone was. We went behind the camp and he flew the drone up about 50m, which provided a decent view. When he sent it higher, to around 80m, the wireless signal got lost and the drone was drifting around. When Chris regained control, he started to bring it down and, about 10m from the ground, it died and dropped like a rock – thankfully it wasn’t broken.
We rejoined the group and continued to play cards until it was time for dinner; we continued playing cards for a little while after dinner as well. Sitting on the outside deck was the best way to cool off, though it wasn’t much relief from the heat and humidity.
Sunday, 16 October
The stay at Okavango Delta finally comes to an end!!
None of us were very sad to say goodbye to the Delta; it wasn’t the most interesting excursion of the trip and almost everyone agreed that it could easily have been skipped. I think the main problem was that we came at the wrong time of the year; the water levels were quite low during the dry season and there weren’t that many animals around.
On the way out of the Delta, Jane and I were challenged by Max to not speak in exchange for beers. Max did his best to get us to speak, but we won out in the end. On the drive back we saw several elephants, which turned out to be the only game that we actually saw in the Delta.
When we reached the Nomad trucks and were splitting up into our respective groups, we asked Jane’s guide, Loius, and her cook, Tara, if it would be possible for the two groups to have dinner together in the evening. This evening would be the last that we would be sharing together; Jane’s group would split and head off toward Jo-burg, while our group would head to Windhoek; both groups were to stay in the town of Maun tonight though. We were shocked to find out that, while we would both be in Maun, we wouldn’t be at the same campsite; we would actually be around 20km away from one another! We thus had to say our rushed and rather unprepared goodbyes to one another, which was quite difficult to do.
As we were driving toward Maun, everyone on our truck was rather sad and depressed at the rushed goodbyes that we had; we had all been counting on having one final evening together. Rafa came by to ask if I would be interested in taking a taxi over to the other camp for the afternoon and evening, to which I happily agreed. Max, Joana, Rafa, Chris, Svenja and I all agreed that we’d talk to Norman about getting the taxi arranged.
Our camp was on the outskirts of the town, more in the desert than in the town. When we asked Norman about our idea, he said that it would be fine; the truck drove us all into town after lunch so we could grab some water and snacks; it was there that we were able to grab a taxi to the other campsite. We had to take two taxis and the drivers were very nice. When we arrived at the other camp, we arranged with the drivers to have them come back at 21:30 to pick us up again.
The other campsite was more of a hotel than a true campsite; it had a huge pool and bar area. When we entered the reception area, we ran into Tara and asked her if it was ok for us to join them for dinner. She happily agreed, but said they might not have enough food for us; Norman had let us make sandwiches before we left, so we told Tara that she needn’t worry about feeding us.
We spotted Jane and the others by the pool and made our way out to them. Joana and Rafa queued up “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” on the speaker as well. When we were all out by the pool I shouted “Jane Marr!” to get her attention; she looked up and was so shocked to see us. She came up and gave me a big hug and I told her that we just couldn’t let what happened in the morning be our final goodbye. Emma and Marca were in the pool and were equally surprised to see us at their camp. We all dropped our stuff off by the pool and went for a swim.
Max tried several times to dunk me under the water, but I was able to get away from him. The few times I tried to dunk him, he too got away. Jane wasn’t so lucky… However, I finally relented and let Max and Jane dunk me under the water.
Max, Jane and I each had a milkshake from the bar, which was the perfect treat on yet another hot day. We got out the various snacks we brought with us and sat around chatting, drinking and eating. Emma, Marca, Joana and Rafa bought some wine and sat together, chatting and drinking. It was a fantastic afternoon together with some truly great friends.
During the afternoon I managed to find Captain Chris (from Okavango) on Facebook and, at everyone’s urging, sent him a friend request. To my surprise, he accepted! Since he lived in Maun, I sent him a message, inviting him over to play cards with us. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the message until the next morning, so he couldn’t come join us.
We joined their group for dinner and found that Louis had built up a campfire for them as well. They had schnitzel for dinner and we happily ate our snacks and sandwiches. It turned out that they did have some extra food at dinner, which we were invited to eat; the schnitzel was quite good. As we were eating, the moon began to rise and it was amazingly huge and quite orange.
After dinner we went back to the bar area to have some more drinks and hang out for a little while longer. When 21:30 rolled around we began to say our proper goodbyes. It still wasn’t easy to say goodbye to any of them, but this time we felt that we’d been able to have a proper goodbye party of sorts. I was particularly sad to say bye to Marca, whom I truly enjoyed spending time with; she and I had some wonderful conversations throughout the trip (and she was one of the first people to notice that I’d become… smitten with Max). Saying by to Emma, Steph, and especially Jane was equally difficult and sad, but they all walked us out to the taxis when it was time to leave. Driving back to our camp I felt good about the day and incredibly happy that we’d made the decision to go and make the surprise visit.
Monday, 17 October
Today the nine of us set off for the town of Ghanzi, which is still in Botswana (our last day in Botswana). The drive was good, we played cards at the front, did some reading and listened to music.
Our camp for the night was pretty nice, but there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment, aside from some option activities which no one signed up for. Norman suggested that we drive over to an old quarry that is now used as a swimming pool; we all eagerly agreed and so we set off after having our lunch.
The quarry was beautiful and the swimming pool was huge! There was a wooden dock tied up at one end with several body boards for us to use. The owners of our campsite also owned this property and were in the process of developing it into another campsite. We changed into our swimsuits and spent a couple hours enjoying the refreshing coolness of the water.
After swimming, we headed back to our camp for dinner before our tribal dance show in the evening. The bushmen came to our camp to do some traditional healing and entertaining dances around a bonfire. To be quite honest, all of the songs sounded exactly the same: the women clapped and chanted while the men danced around the fire. It was interesting to see though.
Tuesday, 18 October
The nine of us were rather sad that today marked the last day before the rest of the group joined the tour. We had gotten used to having the truck all to ourselves; having a small group also allowed us to bond quite well. Alas, all good things must come to an end.
During our drives, Norman and Captain Fadz would put music on over the speakers for us; we would dance around on the truck, sing along, having a fantastic time relaxing with everyone. We’d even play pranks on one another if we happened to fall asleep. Rafa tried to write on Max’s back using a Sharpie, but he woke up before she could finish. We’re all awaiting his revenge for that one…
Today took us back across the border to Namibia as we drove to the town of Windhoek. Driving into Windhoek, we were all amazed at how urban and Western it felt. I couldn’t help but think that the former German colonies are rather well established, with order and infrastructure, while the former British colonies are… well, not.
We were given 90 minutes to explore the city; after changing some money into the local currency we visited several souvenir shops, but I found nothing that I wanted to buy. The city still retains a lot of German heritage, with people still speaking German and many signs still in German. Needless to say, I was in heaven being around so many German things!
We walked by an outdoor display of several meteorites that were found in Namibia, which was somewhat interesting. We then made our way over to the history museum, which was free. The museum itself wasn’t terribly interesting: there were tons of photographs on display, but no explanations for what happened during the history or what was going on, so it was near impossible to put anything into context. We did get some amazing views of the city from the top floor of the museum.
Our lodging was outside of town, in the middle of the desert, which we were all rather disappointed in, but tonight we were all in hotel rooms – huzzah! We had about two hours before we drove to dinner, which we all spent showering and checking emails (this was the first wifi that we’d had since Victoria Falls).
Dinner was at a local restaurant, Joe’s Beerhouse. It was a wonderful restaurant, with many German-theme dishes and tons of knick-knacks around the place, including a random outhouse setup (not functional).
The highlight of the restaurant was the variety of game meats that they had available. I settled on the Bushman Sosatie: a kabob with Springbok, Oryx, Zebra, Crocodile, and Kudu. Every bite was delicious, especially the zebra (easily my favorite game meat – it just melted in my mouth!).
Max had a game knuckle, which turned out to be kudu. We were all shocked by how huge the piece of meat turned out to be.
Svenja was only going to order chicken, but Chris and I nagged her into ordering game meat (kudu). Chris ordered the same dish as me, but he was hesitant to eat the crocodile; he promised not to eat any animal that could, in turn, eat him. I reminded him that the crocodile on his plate was already dead, so the other crocs would already have reason to eat him. We eventually got him to try a bite of the crocodile.
The night ended with DJ Norman and DJ Fadz playing some romantic music over the speakers. When Celine Dion came on (the song “Because You Loved Me”), Joana gave a scream of joy and got up to dance at the front of the truck. She and Rafa had both danced to the song “No Matter What” earlier in the evening as well. It was priceless entertainment!
Today we left Malawi and crossed the border into Zambia. This border crossing was smooth and easy: we got our exit and entry stamps without any problems and quickly drove on to our campsite for the next two nights.
The campsite was on a river overlook; the river is known for its high population of hippos and crocodiles. The manager of the site greeted us and showed us all around the grounds, which were quite nice. We were warned that animals frequently came through the camp at night, especially elephants and hippos. The elephants would routinely break into the rooms looking for food. The hippos would always walk through the camp, past the bathrooms and tents (their regular path). Thankfully the camp had guards that patrolled throughout the night to scare the animals away and to escort us around.
To our surprise, they had permanent tents (enough to accommodate six people) and a dormitory (enough for eight people). Max, Jane and I decided to take the tents and gave the dorm to the rest of the camping group.
Larry threw a bitch fit when we told him to take the last available dorm bed. I wasn’t having any of his attitude (he always liked to have things his way; no one could tell him otherwise; everything had to be his very particular and picky way). I snipped at him that we’ll do whatever he wanted, which ended up being exactly what Max and I said: that he should stay in the dorm so he could use his oxygen mask while sleeping.
The tent that Max and I shared was AMAZING! Being a permanent tent, it was outfitted with actual beds with sheets and a bedside table. They were right next to the river overlook as well, giving us an amazing view. Max and I left the front flap open each night so we could look out through the netting to see if any animals came by.
The afternoon was spent hanging out in a small bungalow near the tents and also by the pool. I did quite a bit of reading before rejoining the regular card group for another night of 5,000. This time Larry decided to join us. The game was all over the place throughout the evening, with everyone staying near one another. Max and I struggled the most, which was frustrating, but it was still a lot of fun. We wrapped up the game shortly before 22:00 so we could head to bed.
Before we could leave the bar area, the guards told us that there were several elephants around and we had to wait. To our surprise, the five elephants were right next to the restaurant, walking around the huts; I was really surprised by how quickly they walked through the camp. We didn’t have to wait for too long before we were escorted to the tents.
As we were settling in to bed, we could hear the noises of the hippos, which were amazingly loud! They were still quite far away, but the sound echoed all around us. It didn’t take too long to drift off to sleep; the bed in the tent was the best bed I’ve slept in on my entire trip.
Friday, 7 October
To my surprise, I woke up around 07:15 – I actually got to sleep in! We had nothing planned until the late afternoon; it was amazing to get to rest us. I had the best night of sleep of my entire trip; I sincerely wish that I could take the bed with me! There was something relaxing, exciting and fun about camping like that.
Breakfast was very simple: just cereal, coffee and tea. Several people went on an optional morning game drive in the South Luangwa National Park; we had a late morning brunch planned for when they got back. I opted to skip the game drive for a few reasons: (1) we’d seen all of the same animals already in there Serengeti (that park spoiled all future game drives for us!); and, (2) we were going on a late afternoon and evening game drive in the park (this was included with the tour).
I spent the morning back in the bungalow-gazebo, reading quite a bit in “Atlas Shrugged” (I read about 10% of the book – Who is John Galt?).
Brunch was served around 11:00 and it was truly spectacular! We had sausage with onions, pasta salad, and BACON! Yes, we had delicious bacon; Nyka made enough for us to have a second round and I took full advantage of the bacon. One of the monkeys brazenly jumped onto a table and took two apples: he shoved one in his mouth, stared at us and quickly grabbed the second before running off! The guards chased him off and shot rocks at him in the trees using a sling-shot.
I spent much of the afternoon reading, but the heat began to set in. I was sweating profusely just sitting in the shade (and without a shirt on!). I eventually took a quick dip in the pool to cool off, which was quite refreshing. After roasting in the sun for a while, I headed over to the bar area to continue the game of 5,000 from the night before.
The luck of the game changed dramatically that afternoon: Max and I began to fall further and further behind (especially me – I had five rounds of negative points!). We had quite a few good laughs throughout the game though; I loved getting to play cards with them (we’ve become known as the card playing group among the others on the tour!). We ate all of the snacks that we had bought as we played as dinner wasn’t until around 21:00.
At 16:00 we set off on our afternoon game drive in the South Luangwa National Park. Once again, Team Rhino Max grouped up and Emma joined us. The tour jeep had no roof, which actually made viewing the animals easier. Since there was no roof, we couldn’t stand up though: standing up would allow the animals to differentiate between the truck and a human; while we were sitting, we appeared as one giant animal with the truck.
We didn’t see many animals during the afternoon game drive, but the drivers did their best to find some for us. We saw lots of impalas and zebras, as well as some giraffes.
We made a stop at a beautiful river overlook for the sunset, which was truly stunning. We were given a refreshment drink while we hung out and took pictures. Larry went around taking pictures with everyone, including several with all of the girls (he gave Joana a hug after taking some Titanic-esque pictures that seemed to last too long…).
After the sun went down, we started the second half of the game drive – in the dark! We had a guy at the front of the car with the light that he would use to scan for animals. It was really peaceful and exciting to be driving through the park in the dark. We saw a few interesting animals, including a hyena who walked right next to the jeep; a honey badger; a vulture perched on a tree; and zebras.
The greatest sight was two lions crossing the road right in front of the truck. The male lion stopped in the road and looked right over at us, quite alert, before moving on around some trees. We followed them around and watched the male lion lay down, while the lioness walked into a field to lay down.
The rest of the game drive was uneventful and we didn’t see very much. Several areas smelled terribly and the driver mentioned that the smells were dead animals that were nearby. We made it back to camp around 20:30 and soon after had dinner.
We didn’t play cards after dinner as we were all exhausted, so we sat around to chat for a little bit. Max, Jane and I called it an early night and went to bed in the tents. We found out the next morning that several hippos came through the camp around 23:00 and one of them was literally right next to my tent – maybe one or two feet away! Those who remained in the bar saw it all, but I saw nothing. I had woken up in the night and heard the hippos making noise; the noise was very loud, but I didn’t think that there was anything nearby. Reflecting back, I did hear some noise of something moving around and it is highly possible that I heard the hippo walking around.
Saturday, 8 October
We left our campsite today, but thankfully the start wasn’t until 08:30, giving us time to sleep in once again. Max got up around 05:00 to check for animals down near the river, but he came back to bed not long after, having not seen anything. We woke shortly after 07:00 and I again felt very rested. The bed and the tent was truly amazing!
We drove for about 45 minutes to a local textile factory, where we were given a short tour. They make all of the textiles by hand, painting all of the designs and mixing the colors by hand. The process was really remarkable to see; the talent and skills of the workers was amazing. We were given some time to shop around after the tour. I didn’t expect to buy anything, but they had a kid’s section and I found two wall hangings that I bought: one for my nephew Jack and one for my niece Jane. Each one had four panels with cartoon animals on them.
We then drove on towards out campsite for the night in Petauke. I read quite a bit on the drive and listened to music as well. The campsite is rather nice, with great showers and bathrooms. My first priority, after getting the tents setup, was to take a nice, warm shower (perhaps I should have taken a cold shower since it was so hot, but the warm water felt so good). Sadly, the campsite didn’t have wifi, extending our wifi drought to over a week now; everyone is craving wifi access!
Sunday, 9 October
Today was another one of the long drives, nearly 500km, as we drove to the capital of Zambia, Lusaka. We made excellent time on the road and reached Lusaka by lunchtime. We made a quick stop at a local mall to get some shopping done at the supermarket. Jane, Linda and I grabbed a few candy bars and drinks before heading to a coffee shop to relax. I had a “Frappuccino” which turned out to be a coffee and chocolate milkshake, which was delicious!! Jane noticed the sign out front of the store and we both got quite a laugh out of it.
Jane is a really fun and great person. She’s from Hong Kong, but has British citizenship and currently lives in the UK. She is the same age as me (and Max as well) and she had a similar sense of humor as me. We’d constantly make “That’s what she/he said” comments, which went right over the heads of the others (much to our amusement). Sadly, Jane is splitting from our group in Victoria Falls and not continuing all the way to Cape Town.
We reached the final campsite for the tour around 13:00 and hurriedly setup our tents so that we could have lunch. After lunch I went to the bar to access the wifi, post a blog entry and get some work done. The bar sold internet access by the megabyte and I bought 200MB, which ran out after about an hour or two. After that I joined Max, Jane, Linda and Larry for a few minutes before the entire group gathered to take a final group photo.
Once the group photo was finished, we all pulled out our sleeping mats and sat on the grass, chatting, taking photos, and relaxing. This was our last official night together and we wanted to spend some quality time together as a group. It was really amazing and I am so glad that we were able to do that.
While we were all sitting around chatting, several zebras wandered into our campsite. Jane, Max and I walked over to where they were to take some pictures. To our surprise, they didn't run away as we got closer; we were able to get quite close to them as they grazed and ate their own dinner.
Dinner was one of Nyika’s best of the trip and consisted of several main dishes and, best of all, ice cream for dessert! After dinner we presented Nyika and TK with the tips we’d gathered as a group. I bought some envelopes at the supermarket and organized the effort to gather the tip on the bus, but we had Mika present the tip to them and give the “thank you” speech.
After dinner we all went back to the bar to have some drinks. Dennis, Jane, Tim and I played a game of pool; Jane and I were on one team, with Dennis and Tim on another. They barely beat us, which was surprising because Jane and I weren’t that good (she was far better than me!).
Joana took over the role of DJ and played music from her iPhone over the speakers while she sat on the bar. She played several songs by the Backstreet Boys, including “I Want It That Way” and “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and we all (Jane, Max, Linda and me… along with the other girls) sang along to them.
After playing pool we played a game called Heads Up, which is an app that Jane had on her iPhone. One person holds the phone up to their forehead and different words are displayed; the other players must describe the word and get the player to say it. There are several categories, including animals, movies, songs, and “act it out”. Finally, we all played one final game of 5,000 to finish out the evening. We played just five quick rounds and didn’t bother keeping score.
I went to bed around 22:30, but several people stayed up until well after midnight.
Monday, 10 October
We were up around 04:00 this morning so we could hit the road early; we had a drive of around 400km to reach Victoria Falls and we wanted to get there as early as possible. Hana only had the afternoon to see the falls, so we all wanted to make sure that she had enough time to really explore the falls.
We all said goodbye to Larry and set off down the road. We opted to skip breakfast before leaving, choosing to stop along the side of the road around 08:00 for a quick breakfast of coffee, tea and cereal. The border crossing into Zimbabwe was quick and easy. This was the one country that I needed to buy a visa at the border as I wasn’t able to get one in advance; thankfully the visa only cost $30 and was quite simple.
We made a quick stop in town at the Shearwater Tour office so we could book any option activities we wanted to do the following day. Several people opted to visit the Devil’s Pool (an area right on the edge of the Falls where one can swim); the price was rather high ($150), so I decided to just do the sunset booze cruise the following evening. The entire group (except for Dennis, Cynthia, and Hana) signed up for the booze cruise as well, making it the final group event that we would have.
Our arrival at the hotel in Victoria Falls was rather chaotic though. The truck arrived and we all piled out, grabbing our luggage, and rushing to check in. The first half of the tour officially ended when we arrived at the hotel, so we were now on our own. To my dismay, they did not have me registered to stay at the hotel that evening – despite the night being listed on the official voucher that I received from Nomad! They needed some time to sort things out, so Max let me take my bags to his room while I waited. I got to shave, cut my hair, and shower in his room as well, which was really nice and refreshing.
Finally, Nomad called the hotel to speak with me. The hotel was fully booked, so they booked me in a different hotel on the other side of town (about a 10-15 minute walk from the current hotel). They also arranged for a shuttle to come take me to the new hotel. I wasn’t too happy about the arrangement, but there was nothing else to be done. Max, Jane and Linda accompanied me over to the new hotel as we were planning to explore the town before dinner.
The new hotel turned out to be truly amazing! It was the Ilala Lodge and it was a palace compared to the Rainbow Lodge where I was supposed to stay. The lobby was incredibly nice with a huge restaurant/bar area overlooking the Falls. My room was on the ground floor, with a massive bed and an even bigger bathroom; I even had French doors opening onto the back lawn of the hotel. When we arrived, we were served complimentary juices while waiting to check in.
After basking in the luxury of the hotel, we headed out into the town to do some exploring (and to get a cold drink – the heat was insane!). We passed by a few souvenir shops and even found a restaurant that advertised zebra burgers and giraffe ribs for dinner (I wanted to go eat there for dinner, but TK told us that they would be ripping us off; since we wouldn’t know the difference between the meats, they’d really serve us something cheaper and claim it was zebra). We finally made our way to the Shearwater Café, where we had some iced coffees and cold beers while playing a few rounds of Uno – the perfect way to relax on a hot day!
The group had planned to have dinner at the Rainbow Lodge restaurant; they prepared a buffet dinner, but I decided to skip eating because it was quite expensive ($30 per person!). I relaxed with a few beers and chatted with people during the meal. TK and Nyika joined us for dinner, which was really great; I was glad to get to see them one more time before setting off on the second half of the tour.
Nyika and TK truly made the first half of this African trip amazing. They were always smiling, friendly, and fun to be around. They would joke around with us and put up with our ridiculousness all the time. We were all truly sad to have to say goodbye to them; I wish they were able to continue on to Cape Town with us!
After dinner, Max, Jane, and Linda all walked me back to my hotel, which I really appreciated. The town wasn’t dangerous or anything; it was just nice to have the company during the walk. I settled into my room and turned on CNN to catch up on the news and get some work done – I finally had a good wifi connection and I had a lot to catch up on! I finally went to bed shortly after midnight.
Tuesday, 11 October
I wasn’t able to sleep in at the hotel as the shuttle taking me back to the Rainbow Lodge was due to arrive around 07:00. Thankfully I was able to get some breakfast before heading out. The cold spread was buffet style and there was a full menu of hot dishes to choose from; I grabbed some pastries and ordered pancakes as well. The pancakes were served with fresh cream and berries – delicious!!
I met up with Max back at the Rainbow Lodge and sat with him while he had breakfast. At 08:00 we met up with our new tour guide, Norman, and driver, Captain Fadz. They both seem like good guys; not quite as relaxed and fun-loving as Nyika and TK, but still very nice. Some of the group was at the Devil’s Pool in the morning and so we didn’t get a full briefing, but we did get to meet a German couple who was on our tour (Christian/Chris and Svenja); they were very friendly. Included with the second tour was an entrance ticket to Victoria Falls; Max and I opted to do the Falls without our group as we’d planned to visit the falls with people from our first tour group (we weren’t aware that our new group would be going together when we made the original plans). Thankfully Norman said that we just needed to give him our ticket receipts and he’d reimburse us.
Max and I met up with Jane after her new tour briefing; she was starting a 9-day tour that mirrors our tour as well for the first few days, before heading to Johannesburg. Linda met us in the lobby, along with Fritz and Mika. Together we all walked through town and over to the Victoria Falls park entrance, which only took us about 20 minutes. By the time we reached the Falls, we were all quite hot and sweaty from the heat and humidity.
We made our way through the park, following the path around to the various lookout points. The first one was the Devil’s Cataract, which I found to be stunning and the best part of the Falls. The force of the water was incredible.
As we were walking along we met up with Chris and Svenja, who joined us as we walked along the path. It was fun getting to chat, getting to know them better. Max wasted no time in showing them the tattoo of Germany on my left arm – such a good first impression to make! Thankfully they weren’t put off by my inexplicable love and devotion to Germany! LOL
One area of the path let us through an area that seemed like it was raining – the mist from the falls was so intense that it got us quite wet. There were about 17 lookout points for us to stop along and take some pictures.
The final lookout point was called Danger Point and it was aptly named: it was a series of rocks right on the edge of the canyon without any guard rail to stop one from falling over. This area of the falls was quite dry and there were only a few tiny falls coming down, but this also made the Point safer as the rocks weren’t wet from the mist. I didn’t get too close to the edge, but I got close enough that I could look over and see down.
We then retraced our steps and made our way to the final lookout point near the entrance, which also had a statue of David Livingstone, the first European to see the Falls and who named them.
We met up with the rest of our first tour group at the café near the entrance; I had a milkshake to help cool down with. Then we all took our new Nomad truck back to the Rainbow Lodge so we could pick up our tour t-shirts. The day before a man came to our truck to sell us some custom t-shirts for our tour; we could pick from a variety of prints on the front and sleeves, as well as put the map of our tour on the back of the shirt. I ordered a green shirt, with a map of Africa on the front that was made up of different animals, the flags of the countries we visited on the right sleeve, the map of the full tour on the back, and a rhino on the left sleeve with “Rhino Max” written beneath it.
After collecting our shirts, which were amazing, Max, Linda and I headed back into town to meet up with Jane at the Shearwater Café for lunch. I had my heart set on pizza, so Jane and I split a pizza. I ordered another iced coffee and then a beer with my meal. After eating we headed out to do some shopping at the local shops. There were tons of tiny shops around and everyone kept approaching us to have us buy something; they were rather pushy and quite annoying. I found a wooden rhino that I liked and I managed to haggle the guy down 50% from the price he stated. Max bought an amazing tablecloth that was hand-made.
We went back to the Rainbow Hotel so we could all catch the sunset cruise at 16:10. The cruise had a few people besides our group, but we went to the top floor of the boat to party and relax. I grabbed a Fanta and water to start the night off, but quickly graduated to beer (though I only had three beers throughout the 3-hour tour). Everyone else went with a gin and tonic, which became the staple drink for the evening (the bar ran out of tonic by the end of the night). Snack food was also served during the cruise, which was quite nice.
During the cruise we saw several hippos in the water, quite a few crocodiles, and some elephants. Throughout the entire cruise we were busy taking tons of photographs with everyone. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves and show how much fun we all had on the boat. It was an amazing final night with everyone – the best way to say goodbye to everyone.
ME, JANE, MAX, LINDA
MAITE, JOANA, RAFA, EMMA
ME AND "MI AMORS" - MAITE, JOANA, RAFA
When we got back from the cruise, we headed over to the Shearwater Café again, this time for our first group dinner with the new tour group. Rafa and Joana stayed at the hotel, but Max and I went to the dinner. Norman told us that it would just be nine of us for the first week or so of the tour (Joana, Rafa, Max, Chris, Svenja, Maitsie, plus two German girls, Siri and Jamine), which was fantastic – plus our new tour truck, Miles, has USB charging stations at every seat! This is going to be a luxury tour in comparison to East Africa!
We spent dinner getting to know one another and spent some time after dinner was over chatting. I immediately felt at ease with everyone and knew that we’d all have a great time together. Jane was at her new tour group’s dinner at the same café, but headed back to the hotel for their briefing. Max and I went back to the hotel to get our things together for departure the next day. As we were leaving, everyone from our first group arrived at the café to have dinner. Mika came by to say goodbye to us, which was really touching. She gave me a big hug and mentioned how much she enjoyed getting to spend time with me on the tour. I truly enjoyed getting to know her and Fritz; being in their 70s, I hadn’t expected them to keep up with everyone, but they were always right there with us. I hope I’m like them when I reach their age.
We didn’t stay, but said that we would come back. We went back to the hotel to get ready to depart in the morning. While packing we turned on the TV and watched “Spectre” for a little while. Around 21:30 we decided to head back to the café so we could say goodbye to everyone.
It was great to see Tim and Linda one last time. We arrived just as they were paying their bill and we all walked over to a nearby hostel bar, but we didn’t end up staying with everyone. Max, Linda and I said goodbye to everyone before walking back to the hotel. Max and I said goodbye to Linda at her room, which was rather sad. I really felt that we’d made a good connection and I consider Linda to be a good friend; I wish that she was able to come with us on the rest of the tour.
Another long blog update, covering over a week. The wifi here hasn't been cooperative enough for me to post more frequently.
Sunday, 25 September
Today was uneventful: a full day of driving lay before us. We had to drive around 550km, from Arusha to Bagomoyo.
We had returned to the same campsite in Arusha, which was nice. The drive to Bagomoyo was quite long. Since there wasn’t much going on during the day, I’ll illustrate a typical day spent driving on the truck.
We’re usually up early to take down our tents and pack up the truck before heading in to have breakfast. Our amazing driver, TK, and guide, Nyka, have been making us some truly amazing food thus far on the trip. Breakfast has been hearty and filling, with toast, coffee or tea, fruit, and occasionally something hot (like French Toast). We have a short time to eat the breakfast before we need to wash up our dishes and board the truck to leave.
We while away the time on the truck talking with one another, reading, sleeping, or playing cards (there is an area at the front of the truck where four people can sit and play games on a small freezer). I’ve done a considerable amount of time reading and listening to music (I’ve been finishing my history of the Crimean War).
Around midday we find a nice place to pull over on the side of the road for lunch. We all help get the tables and chairs setup outside the truck and occasionally help TK and Nyka with the lunch (for example, washing or cutting up veggies; wiping off the plates; organizing the silverware). Lunches are sometimes quick affairs where we just have a sandwich (which is still quite filling); other days they can make more elaborate meals (ie. hamburgers).
The afternoon is spent driving and entertaining ourselves. Once we arrive at our campsite late in the afternoon, we have to scramble out to get our tents put up. The tents are quite easily to put up and down, thankfully. After the first day we got the hang of it and have become experts at it. The tents themselves leave something to be desired; they smell rather musty, but are large enough to fit two people. Max and I have been taking turns sharing a tent with Larry, who prefers to share a tent with someone rather than have one to himself.
Dinner is typically around 19:00 or 19:30, which gives us some time to shower and relax before eating. We usually check email (if the wifi is working), have drinks, and play cards (either Carbo or Uno).
The campsite in Bagomoyo was decent and went spent a quiet evening there.
Monday, 26 September
Today was the start of our excursion to Zanzibar – and some much needed relaxation on the beach!
We drove a short distance (70km) to Dar es Salaam, where we boarded the ferry to Zanzibar. Prior to boarding the ferry, we walked over to a small supermarket to stock up on some snacks. The ferry ride itself took just around two hours. We cornered two rows at the front of the boat; I spent the time on the boat reading and listening to music.
Upon arrival in Zanzibar we had to go through passport control (strange, given the fact that Zanzibar is part of Tanzania…). The arrivals hall was pure chaos as everyone from the boat was scrambling to collect their luggage and clear passport control. We had all packed a small day bag for our excursion and left our large bags locked away on the truck in Dar es Salaam, so we weren’t part of the mad rush. Nyka stayed behind with the truck, while TK journeyed to Zanzibar with his wife for holiday.
The excursion was handled through a third party provider, Sun Tours, who met us outside the ferry terminal. Our guide, JJ, took us to our lodgings for the night and left us to relax and explore for the rest of the day. We reached the hotel around 15:00; we were all in hotel/bungalow rooms during the stay in Zanzibar, which was amazing!
The hotel was right on the beach, so we all unpacked and them headed out to the beach to relax. The beach was quite pretty and clean. We lounged around on the beach, chatting and soaking in the sun while drinking beers. I also spent a little bit reading more of my book. We had nothing to worry about, no plans; nothing to do but kick back until dinner.
Dinner was served buffet-style in the hotel restaurant overlooking the ocean. We spent some time hanging out, playing cards again after dinner before retiring for the night.
Tuesday, 27 September
Larry and I decided to wake up at 04:00 this morning so we could watch the first presidential debate on the BBC. Surprisingly we stayed awake for the entire debate too! I rather enjoyed watching Hillary take on Trump, though I wanted to scream at some of the ridiculous things that he would say. Once the debate ended, we went back to sleep. I hadn’t planned to monitor anything election-related during this trip, but I am quite glad that I was able to watch the debate.
Today we had a few guided tours arranged before we got to relax on the beach again in the afternoon.
After breakfast at the hotel, we met back up with JJ for a guided walking tour of Stonetown, the city where we first arrived. The town was rather interesting to get to explore. We first got to see the so-called “House of Wonder”… which is anything but nowadays. It is a massive, old colonial-style building with a clock tower on the top. The part that made this house so wondrous was the fact that it had a lift in it! The city planned to use it as a museum, but abandoned those plans as it continued to deteriorate.
We walked on through a small square near the port before heading into the city’s fort, which was built by the Portuguese. Inside the fort there was a large amphitheater and then several stalls where we did some souvenir shopping. I bought myself a necklace and an artsy picture of a rhino (the mascot for this tour!). All of the vendors swarmed to Larry for some reason, pushing their wares on him; I said that I think it is because he’s always got a smile on his face and he seems approachable.
We left the fort behind and started going through the city proper, stopping outside of the house where Freddy Mercury was born (yes – the lead singer from Queen was born in Zanzibar). There were several signs outside the house to commemorate his birth there.
Afterwards we spent a little while walking around a shopping street, buying more souvenirs. Some shops had some truly amazing paintings for sale displayed along the street. I bought my sister a postcard, but otherwise refrained from buying anything else. Rafa stopped in a so-called dollar store (though nothing actually cost a dollar); she found a collection of friendship bracelets there and called me over. She had the idea of buying seven of them, one for each member of Team Rhinomax. We tried to negotiate with the vendor, but he wouldn’t come down in price (we offered $1 each, but he wanted $10 for the seven), so we left. As we were preparing to leave the area, the vendor ran up to us and agreed to the price of $1 each.
The next stop of the walking tour was rather somber and sad: the museum of slavery. The slave trade had been a major part of business in Zanzibar, with slaves being brought to Stonetown and being sold there. We went inside a church that had been built on the site where the slaves were sold. The slaves were brought to the town, kept in chains in a small room for two days, then whipped with a stingray tail while tied to a post to test their strength, and then sold. Inside the church was a small circular tile near the altar where the whipping post was located.
Outside of the church was a memorial to the slaves: several statues of slaves in chains, and the chains were some of the chains that were used by slaves! It was haunting.
Nearby was a very nice museum that we explored, detailing out the history of the African slave trade in Zanzibar (which was only abolished late in the 1800s). In the basement were two of the original rooms where the slaves were kept for two days, without food or water. The rooms were very small and there were usually 50 to 75 people in each room. This experience really hammered home the cruelty and brutality of slavery; I kept thinking that half of the United States had fought a war to maintain those horrors.
The final stop in Stonetown was the fish market, which smelled awful! Joana and I were reluctant to go inside, but we hurried through the place. There were a lot of stalls with squids on display, as well as on with some massive stingrays. We found our way to the vegetable vendors and the smell instantly cleared up.
We boarded the bus and headed off to our second event of the day: a tour of a spice farm. Upon arrival we were met by two guys who worked there; they weaved frond necklaces for everyone (ties for the men, frogs for the women). We were shown around the various spice plants, where we could smell and taste several of them. Later on we saw a guy climb a palm tree to retrieve coconuts, during which we was singing and dancing around. Once he was done we were all treated to our own coconut.
Lunch was at the spice farm and was ok, nothing spectacular. We all sat on the ground around a communal tablecloth (I was reminded of meals from Iran). The spice farm was just so-so; it was interesting to see the different plants, but they kept bombarding us to buy products and to tip everyone, which got quite annoying.
Once we were done eating, we headed out to the town of Nungwi, where our next lodging was located. This was another hotel and we stayed here for two days; I was lucky to get the single room during this stay. Previous travelers had mentioned in their reviews that many of them had been robbed at the hotel (the hotel staff would steal things from their rooms), so I was very careful with my valuables.
Several of us headed out to the beach to relax, but it was not nearly as nice a beach as our previous hotel.
Next to us on the beach was a very attractive guy who we surmised must be a gymnast as he was doing various gymnastic moves on the beach: stretching, handstands, leg lifts, etc. I... may have "accidentally" turned me camera his way and he... may have ended up in some of my photos. How that happened is beyond me...
Thankfully the hotel was located on the beach and had a wonderful outdoor bar/restaurant where we went to relax during happy hour. The drink service was extremely slow, taking nearly an hour to get our first drinks (the drinks themselves were quite weak).
During the buffet dinner I sat next to Dennis; he kept playing some amazingly hilarious videos; I was laughing so hard that I was crying.
Wednesday, 28 September
Today was a day for relaxation for me and several of the girls. There were two optional activities (snorkeling or diving) that several people opted to go on, but I decided to spend the day at the hotel. Sadly the weather was not very good and it rained most of the day.
After breakfast, Rafa and Joana walked out to the beach; Maite and I stayed behind and had a shot to start the day off.
Rafa, Joana, Maite and I walked into the small village to find some snacks and alcohol. Our plans for the day revolved around relaxing and drinking. We wandered across the main square to a small shop, but it was an Islamic shop and thus didn’t sell alcohol; we were directed to a different store. After visiting two different shops that sold alcohol, we settled on some vodka and mango juice.
Back at the hotel Rafa and Joana mixed up our drinks using some empty water bottles. We had planned to walk out along the beach, but the rain began to pick up, so we returned to the hotel restaurant. Oddly, we came across several cows on the beach and then some dogs ran up and began barking at them.
We ran into TK and his wife at the hotel restaurant; they kindly agreed to look after our bags while we went swimming in the pool. It was raining quite a bit, but it was quite wonderful getting to swim around. We brought our drinks over to the pool to enjoy while we relaxed there. As a thank you to TK, I bought him and his wife each a beer.
We continued drinking throughout the afternoon. When those who went snorkeling returned, we all hung out around the pool. I took a break to head back to my room so I could trim my hair and work on my blog update (this was the update for the Serengeti, not this one… I was behind in my writing).
When I rejoined the group we were all playing cards and drinking before dinner. Dinner was rather good and filling. Two of the people from our group were leaving us the following day and we were getting two new people upon our return to Dar es Salaam; we joked that we should all go by different names when meeting the new people. I decided to be Yuri from Estonia (I’d vowed to be “Estonian” during the trip).
After dinner… it was a rough night. Continued drinking by all. Much debauchery. I eventually passed out. And puked. Klassy, with a capital K. This pictures... speak for themselves. Good times were had by all!
I’m now called Yuri by one and all – including Nyka and TK.
Thursday, 29 September
Ugh… this morning. I was surprisingly only lightly hung over; more exhausted than anything. I was the first person out to breakfast, where I forced myself to eat something. It was a rough morning… I napped on the bus back to Stonetown, hoping that I could just sleep until we got to Dar es Salaam, where I would just crawl into bed (we had another night with a hotel room).
The ferry back to Dar es Salaam was pure hell. The crossing was rough, with the boat pitching around quite a bit. The crew handed out sick bags to everyone and a vast majority of the people onboard did get sick during the crossing. I sat in my seat and tried to sleep, but spent the entire ride with my eyes closed hoping to not get sick. Thankfully I made it… barely.
Back in Dar es Salaam we had to take the BRT bus from the terminal to our hotel. The bus was packed and at each successive stop more people would cram onto the bus. The ride lasted about 15 minutes and then we were able to check in to the hotel. Larry opted to have the single room, so Max and I had to share. When we reached the room, we discovered that there was only one bed (and the door would barely open). The staff moved Max into his own room at no additional cost.
Larry and I walked a short way down the road outside the hotel before deciding against further exploration. Upon returning to the hotel I went back to my room to finish my Serengeti blog while watching the BBC.
The hotel left a lot to be desired: keys wouldn’t work for many of the rooms; lights didn’t work; the water for the showers ran out (I thankfully got a nice warm shower in before that happened). Dinner was alright; I ate a lot of the fried rice, which helped to settle my stomach. After the events of the previous night I vowed to refrain from drinking during the rest of the trip, so I had a Coke instead. Two new people joined our group at dinner, replacing the German couple who left in Zanzibar: Jane from the UK and Linda from the Netherlands.
After dinner we played cards again before I finally went to bed around 22:00.
Friday, 30 September
Today was spent on a long drive: around 300km from Dar es Salaam to Mikumi. There was nothing exciting about the drive.
The campsite was rather dodgy and unpleasant. Prior tours had been robbed at this location, so we were all hyper-aware of our belongings. There were random animal statues throughout the site that were quite strange. There was also a small pool that looked questionable; none of us went swimming. There was even an empty “Snake House” building in the complex; I was very glad that there were no snakes. The place had ants everywhere!
We spent the evening playing cards before and after dinner.
Saturday, 1 October
Today we started with an early morning game drive through the Mikumi National Park. Team Rhino Max reunited for this game drive. Sadly, the game drive was not very exciting (we were spoiled by our excursion to the Serengeti!). The drive lasted roughly four hours.
We saw several giraffes, zebras, and buffalo on our way into the park. The first giraffe was right next to the road and quickly started to walk away. Rafa yelled after it “Come back bitch! I paid for you bitch!” The giraffe just ignored her though!
The true highlight of the game drive was watching some lionesses preparing to hunt a giraffe! We drove up to the lone giraffe and saw two lionesses slowly stalking it, each one coming from a different direction. Sadly, they decided not to go for the kill and walked away after a little while. We waited around for a few more minutes to see if they would change their minds or go for a different kill, but no luck. Had we been able to follow them around the park all morning, we were sure that we would have seen a kill; the lions were hungry and clearly on the hunt for something. As we were leaving that area, Maite yelled at the giraffe “You’re supposed to die today, bitch!”
The next highlight was seeing a crocodile on the side of the road, right next to a watering hole. The trucks pulled up and we were able to get out to walk around. The crocodile was perhaps 10 feet from where we were standing; just lying there soaking up the sun. We cautiously took several photos, the girls deciding to take some selfies with the sleeping crocodile.
The last thing we saw was a small herd of elephants, including a mother elephant with her baby. We got to sit around and watch them for a few minutes before it was time to return to our campsite.
Upon arriving back at camp, we broke down our tents and had lunch before setting out on our drive for the day. It was a short drive, around 200km, to reach our next campsite in Iringa. Camp for the night was in a very charming complex with small huts and bungalows dotted around it. We gathered outside of our tents to play some cards before having dinner.
Dinner was prepared by the staff at the site inside their restaurant and was served by candlelight. After dinner a few of us went to the bar in the next room over to have a brownie; it was the first true dessert that we’d had on the trip and tasted so damn good! I decided to head to be around 21:00 as we had to be up at 04:30 the next morning for a very early start to the day. On the way back to the tents I met Dennis and Cynthia; they were taking some pictures of the night sky. Once again we were able to see an incredible amount of start, including the band of the Milky Way. No matter how many times I see a night sky like that, it will always be breathtaking. Dennis tried to take some pictures with me included, but I ended up looking like a strange space alien: my face was a bright spot among the darkness, which was hilarious.
Sunday, 2 October
Today was the longest day that we’ve yet had on the trip, but it wasn’t as terrible as it may sound. We were up at 04:30 to break down the tents, pack, and have breakfast. We hit the road around 05:30 so we could make the 465km drive to northern Lake Malawi. The distance may not sound too bad, but this is Africa and roads are awful. The road heading out of Tanzania was particularly bad as the main road was under construction, so we were forced to used several detours that were littered with potholes. The truck (and us inside of it) were bounced all over the place for quite a long time.
Passport control leaving Tanzania was a breeze: we simply walked up to the window, the female officer was incredibly friendly as she quickly stamped our passports and we left.
The border crossing into Malawi was the… “highlight” of the day. Nyka had warned us that the Malawi border guards were very corrupt and would often try to exert a bribe from people. The typical procedure revolved around claiming that one needed an invitation letter to receive a visa; this is bogus as no letter is required and the visa can be obtained at the border. However, buying this “letter” effectively means the money goes into the pocket of the border guard. This problem only affected those who had to actually get a visa at the border; thankfully I had obtained mine before leaving the United States (along with the other visas I needed for this trip). Nevertheless, I was still apprehensive when we arrived.
I filled out the entry card and handed it over to the guard with my passport open to my Malawi visa. He studied it all for a minute and then started asking me a question; it was hard to hear him and I was worried that he was going to make me pay something extra. All he wanted to know was whether my visa was single-entry or multiple-entry (mine was multi-entry). He stamped my passport and I was done.
Those who had to get a visa did so without any issues and no one needed to buy the mysterious invitation letter. However, we ran into a major problem when their processing system went down before they could process our truck through. The system was down from 13:00 to 16:00, effectively stranding us at the border. Nyka and TK were highly annoyed and it quickly became clear that this wasn’t a form of corruption that money could solve. We simply had to wait since they had to manual process in place for this eventuality.
After about an hour, Nyka and TK managed to arrange for the truck to go through the border gate and pull over so they could make us lunch (by this point it was 15:00 and we hadn’t eaten since 05:30!). While lunch was being made, the rest of the visas were issued and the system came back up. As we were leaving after lunch we discovered the real reason for what happened: the border control office was without electricity!
We drove on for roughly two more hours before finally arriving at our campsite right on the beach of Lake Malawi. We were rather disappointed with the site as it seemed run down. Those with actual accommodations had rooms that were extremely hot without any air flow. Those of us in tents pitched them in spots on the sandy hill heading down to the beach. Larry, Max and I setup our tents closest to the beach.
Jane and I explored the campsite for a little bit and found a charming little bar area overlooking the beach. The more we explored, the better the campsite appeared. We hung out at the bar area after dinner, chatting before taking a night stroll along the beach. We also met the manager of the facility, who is an American from St Louis; she is here in Malawi for a year doing volunteer work. The campsite belongs to the charity organization and helps the locals.
Monday, 3 October
Despite not having to be up for breakfast until 08:30, many of us were up around 05:00. The sun had already risen and so I decided to do some reading. I finished my Crimean War book and was now starting to read “Atlas Shrugged” (my second time reading this amazing book). I found a seat under a tree overlooking the beach and settled in to read for a while. It was the most relaxing and enjoyable morning of the trip yet!
After breakfast we headed out for a two-hour walking tour of the village, guided by three locals. They were involved with the charity organization, which focuses on education for the locals, especially helping them to get into university; the three guides were awaiting their entrance exam results to see if they were accepted into university.
We walked by the elementary school, where the children rushed to greet us. Most of them were eating their breakfast of porridge, which is provide free by the school (this food is often the incentive to send a kid to school). We took several pictures with the kids and were shown around their classroom; there were around 120 kids at the school, split into two classrooms where they were taught spelling, math, morals, etc.
Later we visited the primary school and got to interact with the children some more. They were all so happy and energetic. They loved to see the pictures that we took of them; they would gather around the cameras and get huge smiles as they looked at themselves in the pictures.
Our next stop was the local health clinic, where we were shown around by one of the attendants. We were shown the maternity ward, where mothers would recover after giving birth, as well as the room where the babies were born. They had an extensive family planning program, including providing condoms free to locals and contraception options. We got to meet the head doctor of the clinic, as well as see the female and male ward rooms for those people needing to stay for longer periods of time. The attendant told us that the number of people with AIDS had been declining in recent years, which is really promising to hear. Sadly the beds and equipment they had to use were old and run down, but they made the most of what they had and what they received (which was very little).
The last stop was a goat house, which is part of a woman empowerment effort; the women take care of the goats and other animals, learning farming and other essential skills to help make them self-sufficient so they can make good livings on their own (ie. without being beholden to a man).
The charity organization supports all of these areas of the village, helping to improve the lives of the locals. Their main problem is a lack of money; they have tons of kids wanted to attend school, but not enough money to pay for them all. The village tour was a really moving experience and was really enjoyable (despite the fact that it was insanely hot!). It really emphasized the struggles that millions in Africa go through on a daily basis; hammering home the incredible differences between the luxuries of the Western World with the poverty of Africa, especially here in Malawi (the poorest country in Africa). It was encouraging to hear how many young people are eager to get a higher education though; more education will help the process of improvement.
I spent the afternoon back at the bar, doing some work. A soccer game with the locals was held on the beach; Max, Tim and Larry went down to participate. Today was Maite’s 30th birthday, so she and the girls (Rafa, Joana, Hana, and Emma) spent the day relaxing at the beach before starting in on the drinks they brought from Tanzania (vodka). Larry joined them after the game; by dinner time they were all rather tipsy and having a good time.
There was a store next to the campsite that sold a lot of local handicrafts, including hand carved keychains. The guy who owned the shop would carve them within 20 minutes or so: an animal on one side and words on the other side. Max and I headed over to negotiate with him to order seven keychains for Team Rhino Max. We got him to agree to a price of $3.50 each, which was a discount from the original price of $5 each. Several people had ordered similar items from the guy, so it took him a long time to get them all done. He brought them around to us after dinner while we were at the bar and they were truly amazing.
I eventually met up with Jane, Max and Linda to play some cards. This time I taught them how to play “5,000” - the card game that I had learned in Seattle when I lived with Caleb; we’d played the game for hours on the weekends with some of his friends, while drinking (often mimosas). Here in Malawi, I drank Fanta (orange, passionfruit, or pineapple) instead of alcohol. They all caught on to the game really quickly and we played for hours before dinner. Linda started out kicking our asses, before taking a break to shower; we continued playing and by the time Linda rejoined us, Jane had FINALLY caught up to Linda’s score! We took a break for dinner before resuming the card game afterwards. By this point the luck was with Jane, who clobbered the three of us.
After dinner, Nyka and TK surprised Maite by presenting her with a cake they baked for her birthday! We had jokingly asked them about it on the first night and I was surprised that they’d been able to pull it off (there is no oven with the truck, so I didn’t think baking a cake would be possible). It was a great treat and we all sang “Happy Birthday” to Maite.
Another Nomad Tours truck had arrived in the afternoon and they were gathered eating dinner next to us; they must have thought that we were an insane crowd, being so loud and obnoxious (by this point half of the group had been drinking all afternoon, but it was all in good fun). Everyone came to the bar after dinner to continue partying (this was during our card game, so we weren’t involved with the drinking too much.
Larry had been drinking quite a bit by this point; after dinner we left him at the truck, where he was repacking him bags (he’d bought quite a few souvenirs from a local shop in the morning). He briefly mentioned to Max that he wanted to go swimming, but since it was dark at this point, we thought he was just talking. About an hour later, as we were playing cards, we realized that Larry wasn’t around. Being the only four people who were sober, we split up to go find Larry: Max and Linda searched the complex and tents, while Jane and I headed down to the beach. We were worried that perhaps he actually had gone swimming! The two groups met up where the tents met the beach, not having found Larry. Thankfully I spotted Larry a dozen meters or so ahead of us on the beach; he was laying down, using his backpack as a pillow. We woke him up and brought him back to the bar.
After playing a few more rounds of cards, we all decided to head to bed. Several people (Larry included) were scheduled to be up at 05:30 in the morning so they could go for a morning hike.
All told it was a good day! True to my vow after my rough night in Zanzibar, I’ve refrained from drinking since!
Tuesday, 4 October
I was up early this morning once again, waking around 05:00, primarily because the sun had already risen and I didn’t want to waste the day away. To my surprise, everyone who had signed up for the hike managed to make it up on time! I wished them a good day and then settled in to read more in “Atlas Shrugged” while sitting on a beach chair.
After breakfast I went to the bar area to get some work done before returning to my beach chair to read some more. There was a nice area under a large tree that we had gathered several of the beach chairs; Rafa, Joana and others were there relaxing and soaking up the sun as well.
Lunch today was truly amazing: steak and pasta salad. Nyka truly outdid himself today. The hiking group hadn’t returned by lunch, so those of us who stayed behind got to enjoy the meal fresh and hot (the hikers had their lunch when they got back, but it was cold by then). After lunch I spent the entire afternoon reading more. It was amazing and relaxing.
In the evening, Max, Jane, Linda and I gathered to play 5,000 once again. We started around 17:00 and played until dinner at 19:30; we resumed the game after dinner. Unlike last night, Max and I had rather better luck – especially Max. This time Max kept getting great hands of cards and he ended up reaching 5,000 points, clobbering the rest of us:
Linda: 3570 Jane: 2780 Max: 5075 Me: 4445
After finishing the game, we all decided to head in to bed so we could get up and head down to central Lake Malawi in the morning.
Wednesday, 5 October
We set off early this morning to our next campsite, further south on Lake Malawi. Our drive was around 350km, but we made a stop at a local supermarket to stock up on snacks and water. We were all surprised by how nice the supermarket was, I felt like I was in a Western store! I grabbed some Pringles and candy since I still had three bottles of water left in the truck.
After the shopping stop, a few of us (Max, Jane, Larry, Rafa and me) played Uno at the front of the truck. Today was the day for Max and me to sit at the front of the truck, so we gathered everyone up to join us. I played two rounds before having to bow out as I started to feel some motion sickness.
We reached the campsite around 13:00 and quickly setup our tents before having lunch (burgers!). The campsite was on the beach and we were all eager to get out to enjoy the sunshine and relaxation. During lunch we noticed several monkeys climbing around the trees nearby.
After lunch I settled into a chair under an umbrella to spend some time absorbed in my book. Max came and joined me; we spent a couple of hours in quiet relaxation reading. Later on, Max went and joined some others for a game of volleyball. I went and watched them play for a bit, but I didn’t feel like joining (despite their asking several times).
After dinner, Max, Jane, Linda and I gathered to play cards again; we settled on playing 5,000 once again. Linda became a natural at the game, constantly kicking our butts by going out early on in each round. We were constantly asking her if she was going out!
My first week in Africa has been absolutely outstanding – I truly cannot begin to describe just how awesome this trip has been so far (7 days down, 34 to go!). Since this is my first update in over a week, I’ll try and break down the events of each day.
Monday, 19 September
I spent the entire day at the hotel in Nairobi, relaxing before the overland tour started the following day. I had given thought to exploring some of the city on my own, but I decided against it. I stayed in my room and watched Netflix, binge-watching a television series called Versailles, which centered around Louis XIV of France and the building of the palace. I watched five of the ten episodes and really enjoyed it. I also spoke with my family via Skype, which was quite nice.
Tuesday, 20 September
Today was an early day as I met with the tour group for our departure. My tour dossier stated that the group would meet at 08:00, but I went down to the reception area shortly after 07:00; to my surprise, the time had changed and I was a few minutes late. Thankfully most people weren’t aware of the change and I wasn’t the only one.
I met our tour leader, Nyka, and our driver, TK, at the reception area. I then headed out to the truck to load up my luggage. Depsite all of my stressing over the size of my travel backpack, it fit easily into the locker, allowing me to also store my camera bag as well. After storing my bags, the entire group met for a quick briefing by Nyka. He quickly introduced himself and then we hit the road; we had a drive of around 360km to Arusha in Tanzania.
The tour group is a good collection of people from around the world, mostly young (around my age), though there are a few older people in the group. The group is split between those of us camping throughout the trip and the few people who are in actual accommodations/hotels.
The drive went well, though the road was anything but smooth. I sat next to Maite (from Chile), right behind Max (Austria) and Hana (Czech Republic). We chatted quite a bit on the drive, getting to know one another. The border crossing between Kenya and Tanzania was rather chaotic. We all got off the truck and walked around a fence to the Kenyan passport control, where we were all quickly processed through. We then walked over to the Tanzanian passport control, where they checked our yellow fever vaccine cards before stamping our passports. Those people who didn’t have visas for Tanzania were able to buy then at the border, which took a little bit of extra time, but it was easy.
We made a quick stop on the side of the road for lunch, where Nyka and TK prepared some things with witch to make sandwiches. The wind was blowing and it was rather dusty, so we prepared the food in the truck. The break was quick and the food was good.
We arrived in Arusha between 17:00 and 18:00. The campsite for the night had joint accommodations for those not camping. Several tents were already setup by a group that had just gone through a few days before us (we were swapping trucks with the group and so we used their tents). TK did a quick demonstration on how to put up the tents, which was far easier than I had anticipated. Max, Larry and I were the solo male travelers and decided to take turns sharing a tent; the first night I got the solo tent. We were camping out in the yard of the hotel.
Dinner was in the dining hall and prepared by Nyka and TK, but before that we all gathered to have some drinks at the bar. We had a local beer called Kilimanjaro, which was refreshing after the long travel day. The drinks also gave us all time to chat and bond more.
Camping out on my own wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected. I slept quite well and enjoyed the experience; I didn’t hear any noises in the night.
Wednesday, 21 September
Today we set off on our 4-day safari tour to the Serengeti; this portion of the tour was handled by a third party provider, so we left the truck and the guides behind. The group was split into three smaller safari trucks; the group in my truck was Max, Larry, Rafa, Joana, Hana, and Maite. Our driver was named Ernest and he proved to be a really amusing guy. The entire group was amazing – I truly lucked out.
The drive to the Serengeti was a long one and we had to drive through the Ngorongoro Crater park. The roads progressively worsened: from paved roads to dirt roads to very bumpy rocky dirty roads. We drove through a small town that had several small shops along the side of the road – including one called “Hillary Clinton Shop”.
We stopped for lunch in a large field shortly after entering the Ngorogoro Crater park. Ernest handed out our boxed lunches (fried chicken, a biscuit, mango juice, “Glucose Cookies”, a banana, and a small piece of chocolate); he then warned us to be careful of the birds in the area. We headed out to an area of the field that contained several tree logs for us to sit on.
… We should have listened to Ernest! The birds were insane and aggressive. Maite had just unwrapped her chicken when a bird dove down and snatched it right out of her hands – literally! She was holding it and BAM, it was gone! Several birds began to circle the group, driving down to try and snatch our food. Several other people had their food grabbed before we all headed back to the truck to finish eating.
After we finished eating we saw a new tour group heading into the field to eat their lunch; they setup an elaborate picnic table and their meal. We all piled out of the truck to watch the birds attack them as well; Dennis even got out his huge camera and tripod to film it. We were all laughing hysterically as we watched for the attack to come. After several minutes a bird finally attacked and grabbed some food.
We drove on for a little while longer before reaching the Serengeti park. At this point Ernest opened the roof of the truck so we could stand up to see any wildlife that we passed on the way to the campsite.
The first animals that we saw were three lionesses sitting in a field. They sat there as we drove around and we were able to snap several pictures of them. After that we saw a warthog as well.
The next animal was a treat: a lion eating a gazelle! He was laying down on the top of a hill, chowing down on the head of the gazelle. We drove to within 20 feet of him and could even hear him chewing on the carcass. Around the hill was a hyena, eagerly waiting for his turn to nibble at the carcass. A second lion on the hill went down to chase the hyena away.
En route to the campsite we passed by a giraffe and an elephant, which was right next to the road. Right next to the campground were tons of zebras.
The campsite was quite large and there were a few other people staying there as well. There was a large cement building that served as the dining hall; right next to that was a similar building that was the kitchen; further away were the toilet and showers. These three buildings surrounded the grassy camping area, though there was a lot of open space between everything. The tents were arranged in two rows. During the Serengeti safari I shared a tent with Larry; these tents we didn’t need to put up or take down ourselves.
Dinner was at 19:30, which consisted of a soup and then a main course (which I forget now). Ernest gave the group a briefing, warning us to not wander around alone at night as the animals were able to wander around the site at any time.
After dinner several of us needed to trek out to the bathroom, but it was pitch black outside now. We put on our headlamps and headed out. Right near the bathroom were several water buffaloes; being very aggressive animals, we needed to have them scared off so we could go to the bathroom. I headed back to the tent to get some sleep, but much of the group remained in the dining hall to have drinks and hang out. Later that night they saw several lions around the site and even a hyena running toward them near the bathroom! They had to take shelter in the women’s bathroom and the guides had to scare the animals away.
Thursday, 22 September
After breakfast we set out for a full day of game driving in the Serengeti.
We got back into the same trucks; again I was very happy with the group I had in my truck. Throughout the day, Rafa and Joana would burst into song snippets, often taking a cue from something that someone said (for example, if someone didn’t understand what another person said, they would sing “What do you mean?” by Justin Bieber). They provided the musical “radio” entertainment throughout the four days we spent on the safari truck, which was the source of a lot of laughs.
We saw several gazelles, zebras and water buffalo as we left the campground; they proved to be the most common animals that we would see throughout the game parks. We then spotted an elephant out in a field along with some beautiful birds.
Right before lunch we spotted several other trucks parked around a tree and we drove over to see what was there; it turned out to be a leopard! It was sleeping on a branch in the tree and we were able to drive right up to the tree (within 15 feet of the leopard!). As we sat there watching him, he sat up and looked around… and then took a piss while just sitting on the branch. He then climbed down from the tree and went to sleep on the ground.
After stopping for lunch, where we ate the same boxed lunch from the day before (we’d have the same boxed lunch every day during the excursion), we drove around and didn’t see any animals. All I could think of was Jurassic Park: “There will eventually be dinosaurs on this, uh, dinosaur tour?”
“There will eventually be animals on this, uh, animal tour?”
We spotted a lioness sitting under a tree in the shade, along with a group of hippos in a large pond. We were also quite lucky to spot a cheetah, though it was VERY far away; we had to use binoculars or camera zooms to see the animal.
Our next discovery was a lion and lioness in a field… and we saw them fuck a couple of times. According to Ernest, lions mate every 15 to 30 minutes over the course of several days. These lions were around 25 or 30 feet from the truck and we saw them fuck twice.
We drove around a rock formation that rose abruptly out of the flat Serengeti plains; nestled among the rocks was a large group of hyenas. I was reminded of The Lion King and the den of hyenas from the movie. Throughout the time in Tanzania I saw the name “Simba” scattered all over the place; I was curious if the locals used the word (which means lion) much before the movie came out or if the movie drove the usage of the word.
The final sighting of the day proved to be the highlight: a cheetah and her cubs. The four cubs were sitting still in a small clearing to the right of the truck and the mother was walking through the field on the left side. In the distance we saw some gazelles and it became quite clear that she was stalking one of them. As we sat there watching, she circled around down-wind of the gazelles. Several minutes passed before she suddenly darted out and chased down the gazelle on the end of the line. The gazelle tried to run, but the cheetah jumped and took it down; the kill itself was blocked by some tree branches, but we saw the dust cloud that it generated. After the kill the mother sat up and looked around; after several minutes the four cubs ran across the road and over to the mother, where the carcass was. We got to see the cubs eating, though it was too far away to take decent pictures.
During the driving time we found ourselves joking around with Ernest quite a bit. Max kept asking about rhinos, which became on our many running jokes during out time. Ernest laughed and always said that we’d see them tomorrow. Then Rafa and Joana asked Ernest if he had ever see a unicorn, specifically the Portuguese unicorn. Rafa explained that it was a horse, with a horn and wings, but it couldn’t fly very far because it was so big; a male was white and a female was pink. Ernest wasn’t familiar with the word unicorn, so he stopped to Google search it on his phone; he found only cartoons and didn’t believe us, but Rafa found a cartoon of Portuguese soccer star Christian Ronaldo riding a unicorn!! The unicorn was the second of our running jokes.
Max (and the rest of us) repeatedly asked after the rhino though. After every animal sighting we’d ask about the rhino. Lions fucking. “What about the rhino?” Cheetah killing. “Where’s the rhino?” He’d bring it up at the most inappropriate moments and it was constant, which made all of us either laugh or join in the demands for a rhino. Ernest laughed about it all too, wondering why we wanted to see a rhino so badly. We asked about the rhino so many times that we decided to name our truck “RhinoMax” and our motto was “Shit Happens”… thus “RhinoMax: Shit Happens!”
Finally, Ernest kept flirting with Maite throughout the game drives. She sat in the passenger seat next to him and thus had the most opportunity to chat with him. Those of us in the back of the truck noticed it every time he would say something and we would laugh, turn around to “chat amongst ourselves” so as to give them privacy, etc.
We arrived back in camp around 17:30 and spent a few hours relaxing before dinner. I took a quick shower, which was rather cold, but refreshing. Rafa, Max and I gathered in the dining all early to play some card games. Max taught us a game he learned in South America called Carbo, which is all about remembering the various cards in play. It took me a few rounds to truly catch on to how the game was played, but once I did, I really loved it.
After dinner we had to scare off several water buffalo that were wandering around the tents, along with some lions laying outside of the campsite. In the middle of the night we were woken up by a loud commotion, which turned out to be hyenas viciously attacking the garbage bins nearby. The bins were tied up on a tree about 40 feet from out tents and the hyenas kept knocking into them in order to get to the trash inside. I also heard some large animal, mostly likely a water buffalo, walking in between our tents. During this commotion I heard several people talking and the zippers of other tents either opening or closing, which shocked me. It was both exciting and scary at the same time.
Friday, 23 September
We left our campground for the last time this morning, heading out for a half day of game driving around the Serengeti. We saw animals all over the place in the morning: zebra, elephants, warthogs (which we routinely called Pumba – we wanted to see a Timon riding a Pumba, but that never happened), even another lion. We stopped by a small watering hole and saw a small crocodile as well. Despite our requests, a rhino did not appear.
Later on we stopped to see some vultures that were sitting in a tree. Nearby we happened to see some baboons walking along the side of the road, including some with their small babies hanging onto the adults. Was there a rhino? Nope. Shit happens.
We stumbled across a large herd of water buffalo standing on either side of the road, so we stopped to take some photos of them. As we were watching, the herd to the left side began to rapidly run to the right side of the street; the entire group stampeded across, clearly frightened by something hidden in the grass (though we couldn’t determine what it was).
Our next find was a family of lions: two lions, several lionesses, and two small cubs. They were lounging under a tree sleeping. The two cubs were curious and walking around among the adults; at one point they were playing with the tail of one of the lionesses. One of the lionesses was sprawled on her back in the sun, just like a house cat would. Alas, no rhino though.
Nearby was a large watering hole that had quite a few hippos laying around in them. We also spotted a small family of elephants walking around and even managed to get near a warthog on the side of the road (they are quite skittish and would always run away when we got near).
Ernest took us over to see a group of three lions: one lion and two lionesses, who were taking turns mating with the male. We got to see them mate twice during our stop; after each round the lion looked exhausted. The mating itself lasted for less than 30 seconds, during which the lions would snarl and growl at one another. Lions fucking is cool, but where the hell is the rhino??
This was our last stop in the Serengeti, though we spotted several animals on the way out of the park, including a female ostrich… but no rhino.
During the day Rafa and Joana taught Ernest the Spanish phrase “Mi amor” so he could refer to Maite by that, feeding into his flirting with her. However, he had never heard of it; we explained that it meant something similar to friend. He got the idea that it was a name that could be applied to anyone, so we said that today Joana was “mi amor” and we all called her that. Ernest didn’t believe a word we were saying and wanted to Google the phrase to understand it, so Rafa spelled it out for him: “U-N-I (space) C-O-R-N”… We were laughing hysterically at this point, saying that we would die in hell for this, but it was just too much fun. Ernest too laughed when he saw what came up on his phone.
Our final stop for the day was at a Maasai village. The Maasai people are the nomadic people of this area that still hold to their old traditions. They build temporary housing out of grass, branches, with roofing made from cow dung and urine to make it waterproof. We were greeted by the son of the chief, who spoke English quite well. Many of the villagers performed a small dance and song for us, before welcoming us to the village.
We had to negotiate the price for entry as this was not included with the tour. Some of the group members didn’t want to visit the village and remained in the car, however the Maasai charged entrance by truck rather than by the person. We got a small discount and managed to negotiate that each of the women get a small gift of jewelry.
We were draped in Maasai robes (blue for the women, red for the men) and then participated in a dance. The women did a small dance together and then the men. The men simply stood around and jumped straight up into the air while holding different objects (I was holding a long stick). After this we were shown around the village and the inside of the traditional huts. The women are responsible for building the homes while the men handle the hunting and defense of the town. Each of us was paired up with a villager and shown around on our own; my guide was the chief’s son.
After seeing the huts, we were shown the jewelry and trinkets that they had for sale. The village is laid out in a large circle, with the huts making the outer ring; the inner ring consisted of the stalls with jewelry. They were pressuring us to buy something, though I found nothing I wanted to buy (which I think annoyed the chief’s son). Strangely, every time I walked up to another group member to chat, the chief’s son would come up and usher me on to the next stall.
The last stop in the Maasai village was the schoolhouse, where the kids welcomed us with a short song. The kids are taught in the village through primary school and then attend a public school many miles away, which they have to walk to each day.
Our camp for the night was on the ride of the Ngorongoro Crater – quite high up. The temperature there was much cooler than what it had been in the Serengeti: the Serengeti was quite warm, though it was a dry heat; the Crater was a refreshing cold. This campsite was packed with other people, row after row of tents. There was one large dining hall for all of us to share, but each group in the camp had their own section. Max, Larry, Rafa and I all gathered there and played Carbo until dinner was served.
During the night the temperature kept dropping, though not severely. Everyone was bundled up in long pants and jackets, while I was sitting there in shorts and a t-shirt. It was cool, but not freezing cold for me. Towards the end of the evening I finally got cold enough to put my jacket on.
When we left to head back to the tent I was shocked by the number of stars in the sky. It was just as breathtaking as what I saw in Greenland. We could very clearly see the cloudy band of the Milky Way streaking across the sky, which was awe inspiring. Dennis, who has the most powerful camera in the group, had his tripod setup and was taking some truly amazing photos of the night sky.
Saturday, 24 September
Today was the final game drive of the excursion. The 4-day/3-night excursion was optional, though everyone on the tour went on it (who would go all the way to Tanzania and not visit the Serengeti?!).
We had a very early start to the day, leaving the camp at 06:30 so we could descend into the Ngorongoro Crater for the game drive. The road down into the Crater was amazing: it was a slightly cloudy morning and we could see the clouds start to rise over the rim of the crater. The Crater itself was huge and we were able to drive around a good portion of it during the day. I had expected the Crater to be rather lush with many green plants spanning the entire area; however, only a small portion was actually green, with the remainder being grasslands (granted, it is currently just starting spring here in Tanzania and the rainy season is still months away, so the green plants may appear then).
Our route took us through the lush green area on one side of the Crater, which had a stream running through it. In this area we were able to spot some elephants and monkeys. At one point we thought we had finally spotted a rhino off in the distance, but to our dismay it turned out to be a buffalo. This only fueled us to continue asking… where are all the rhinos??
Soon after we left that area we entered the grasslands and discovered a lioness with a fresh buffalo carcass. She was just starting to eat, but there wasn’t any blood or gore to be seen. From what we could tell, she had only eaten the tail.
We continued to drive into the Crater and saw one of the more amazing parts from the entire game drive: a male lion hunting a zebra. There was a large herd of zebras ahead of us that began to hurriedly run around, stampeding across the street. At the tail end of the group was a lion chasing after a zebra. Somehow the zebra managed to escape, leaving the lion standing, exhausted, on the other side of the road.
Lion photos courtesy of Petra Pinotage - a big thank you to her for sharing them!
Driving through the park we saw tons of other animals on our way to the hippo pool, which was full of hippos. They were all clustered together in the watering hole, though this group was far more active and restless than the group we had previously seen. Several got in and out of the water, including a mother with her small baby. Was there a rhino though? Hell no.
All around us during the day we were amazed by the beauty of the scenery, especially the clouds rolling over the rim of the Crater; in many areas the clouds looked like they were pouring over the rim or like a giant wave about the break. After seeing a male ostrich, we came upon a group of vultures and hyenas fighting over the scraps of a hippo carcass. The hyena was clearly the dominant predator there and fending off many of the vultures. Can you guess what wasn’t around there? Yep, no rhino in sight.
We stopped for lunch along a large lake in the river, which was beautiful. There was a large tree right on the bank of the lake and there was a buffalo skull at the base of the tree. We posed for several pictures with the skull – and yes, I did hold it – and yes, I did wash my hands after handling it. After eating, the RhinoMax group took some group pictures with our truck and Ernest in front of the lake.
We then took several group photos with the truck as well, which was quite nice.
After lunch it was time to leave the Crater and head back to Arusha and the same campsite that we had stayed at the first night of the tour. The road back out of the Crater provided some amazing views back down to where we had been. It was a good ending to the amazing 4-day excursion.
The past week in Edinburgh was truly amazing and quite relaxing – just what I needed at this point in the trip.
I had to get up early on the morning of 12 September in order to catch my flight; I left the hotel just before 03:00 and walked to the bus station which was about a block away. The night bus was the easiest and cheapest way to get to the Warsaw airport in the middle of the night, but I was nervous waiting around on the street at that time. Several people walked by, including some who were visibly intoxicated, but thankfully no one approached me.
The bus picked me up slightly after 03:15 and I was surprised to find it quite crowded. We made it to the airport within 20 minutes, far faster than I had anticipated and I had to wait around for a little bit before I could check in. After going through security I grabbed a bite to eat and watched some of “The Dark Knight Rises” on Netflix.
My flights were quick; I had a short layover in Brussels and I arrived in Edinburgh around 11:00. The landing in Edinburgh was very rough; there was a lot of turbulence and we seemed to just slam into the ground when we landed.
I met up with my friend Kevin just outside the airport terminal and we drove off to his house, which was less than 10 minutes away. Kevin and I were roommates in Seattle in 2008 to 2009; he had come over to the States for school and we spent a year living together in a house with two other roommates (Jay – the Supreme Chancellor Douche – and Oscar). It was probably the best year I spent in Seattle. I visited Edinburgh back in March and had such an amazing time that I decided to add in a week there during my world tour.
Kevin lives with his family, who were all so amazing and welcoming! His sister Michelle cooked us lunch and dinner almost every day, which was an unexpected and much appreciated treat. Everything she made was delicious; it was great having some home cooked meals after eating out all the time over the past month or so.
Our first order of business was to get some beer and snacks; we stopped off at Tesco, the local grocery store, and stocked up on a variety of beers and Pepsi and then grabbed some Krispy Kreme doughnuts before heading back home. The only real plan for the week was relaxation and playing World of Warcraft (WoW). The newest expansion, Legion, was released about two weeks before I arrived, so Kevin and I planned to play that all week.
Kevin had a man cave on the upper floor, complete with a TV and his computer desk; there was a smaller desk which I was able to use to play WoW using an old laptop that Kevin had. Sitting there and gaming together was just like old times in Seattle. We would hang out at our house and play WoW for hours, drinking beer or rum and coke; often taking breaks to play Rock Band together. It was during the time that we were roommates that I was introduced to WoW and I became hooked. Later, after we’d both moved out of the house, we’d spend time holed up in his bedroom at his new place and play WoW for hours, often with South Park or Family Guy playing in the background (or playing the soundtrack to Sweeney Todd, which we’d goofily sing along with).
*Start Nerd Alert* This blog post is going to be pretty nerdy as I write about playing Warcraft for a week.
We played WoW all day, every day, taking breaks just to grab something to eat. Kevin started playing a paladin healer and I decided to focus on my paladin tank – a combination that would let us queue up and instantly get into a dungeon (a DPS player could wait for 15+ minutes); we grouped up and set off to explore the new expansion. We were both blown away by how the story and game play pulled us in; it was really engrossing and engaging.
The only picture I have of Kevin and me, he's playing WoW on his computer behind me:
We made it through the intense starting quests and then went solo to get our special class weapons. This expansion focuses heavily on giving each class and spec their own unique weapon which you power up. We finally got to the point where we could go questing in the new zones; up first was Stormheim. The primary story line was rather good, though neither of us read any of the quest text so we missed large pieces of the story.
The second day Kevin switched characters and started playing the new demon hunter class, which became his primary toon for the remainder of our time gaming together. We quested together for a short while, but eventually went off on our own, though we’d often run several dungeons together. A nice feature of Legion is that all content scales to your character’s individual level, so you can play with other characters regardless of your mutual levels.
Eventually my paladin reached level 110, the new max-level in the game. At that point I started to chip away at the enormous about of end-game content that the game offered. My primary focus was on completing the storylines and quests in each of the questing zones. By this point I’d made it through Stormheim, Azsuna, and Val’Sharah, so I only had Highmountain left. I managed to complete the Highmountain quests about an hour before we went out for dinner last night (my final night in Edinburgh).
Reichwolf, level 110 paladin
*End Nerd Alert*
On Wednesday the 14th we met up with my friends Pip and Stephen for drinks and dinner in the city center. We met up at the Thistle Street Bar around 18:00 (Kevin’s sister Michelle was nice enough to drive us into town). After having a couple of beers we headed out for dinner around 19:30. We each had a starter and a main course; my starter was a pork ear salad and my main was pork knuckle. We all shared a bottle of the house white wine, which was nice; Kevin, Stephen and I each had a beer as well.
After dinner we went to a small bar nearby; it used to be called the Jekyll and Hyde, which apparently had some strange bathrooms. It was just a regular pub this time though; we had a couple of beers here and then moved onto a different bar, where I had some strange cocktail that I didn’t much care for.
It was amazing getting to hang out with Pip and Stephen again. I met them in Iran in 2015; we met up during my March visit as well. They were getting ready to take a trip to Uzbekistan, which sounded absolutely fantastic! I’m rather jealous of their trip, but I’ll make it there some day (ideally I’d like to take a tour of the 5 Stans at some point… too many places to visit, too little time and money!).
We all caught a cab to head home; surprisingly Pip and Stephen live relatively close to Kevin! Once we were home, Kevin and I played some more WoW and I had another beer. At one point I abruptly declared that I was drunk, asked for a bottled water and then went to bed. I was so drunk that I just passed out in bed in my regular clothes and still wearing my glasses!
As a thank you to Kevin for letting me stay with him and to his sister Michelle for all of the meals she made for us, I took us out for sushi on Saturday the 17th (my last night in town). We made reservations at an excellent restaurant in the city center and ordered several different rolls which we all shared. The food was quite tasty! It was nice getting to go out and chat with Michelle for a while too.
After dinner Kevin and I headed over to a nearby pub named the Hanging Bat Bar, where we waited for my friend Alan to arrive. Alan, who is in the British army, just got back from Cyprus (he was supposed to be back earlier in the week, but his return flight via the RAF was continuously delayed). Thankfully he made it back to the UK before I left town; he is currently stationed a few hours south of Edinburgh and made the drive up Saturday afternoon. He brought his girlfriend, Kim, with him and she was really nice! It was great fun getting to hang out with everyone.
I met Alan on another one of my trips, this one back in October 2011 when I visited North Korea (the DPRK). He was traveling with his buddy Tom (who is also in the army; he came to North Carolina earlier this year and we managed to meet up at the Flying Saucer for some drinks). Alan, Tom and I all had tailor-made “Kim Jong Il” suits made up at our hotel in Pyongyang, which we then wore to the “mysterious” 5th floor on the hotel to take pictures with the propaganda posters.
After returning to Beijing from North Korea, the three of us spent a few more days hanging out; by a happy coincidence their hostel was about a 5 minute walk from my hotel. The time we spent in Beijing was the best time I had during my travels in China.
The last time that I saw Alan was in September 2012, when he and his friend Rob came to the States for a visit. The closest they made it to Raleigh was Washington DC, so I drove up to see them there.
We had several rounds of drinks and spent hours just hanging out and chatting. We reminisced over our travels in the DPRK, which never gets old talking about. We also talked politics quite a bit; Alan is one of the few people I know who truly takes the time to educate himself and stay on top of current events around the world, something that is woefully missing from so many people in the United States.
After a few hours Kevin grabbed a cab to head home and I decided to stay out with Alan and Kim for a little while longer. The three of us decided to head to a different bar, ending up at an Irish pub named Footlights. We had two rounds of drinks there before the bar started to close up (bars in Edinburgh all close at 01:00). During our time at Footlights we discussed a lot of LGBT politics and issues; Alan has always been supportive of me being gay, always interested in if I’m seeing someone, etc.
We took a tuc tuc ride over to a cab hire station, which gave us flashbacks to our time in Beijing where we took a similar ride (though that one was more terrifying than fun). The queue at the taxi stand was quite long, so we had to wait. A woman in line ahead of us fell over at one point and we were able to see right up her short skirt – and she was not wearing any underwear; we got a full view of her ass and vagina. Disgusting! Two guys in line got into a fist fight at the same time.
Alan decided to get us an Uber car instead, despite Uber costing significantly more money than a regular cab. We cross the street to wait for the driver to show up; while we were waiting the cops showed up to sort through the fight and everything. Our driver showed up a few minutes later. Alan and Kim wanted to continue drinking and tried to go to a club (which is open later than the pubs), but the queue was far too long. Instead they were dropped off at a casino where they could have a few drinks. I hopped out of the car to say to goodbye to them. I truly wish that we’d had more time to hang out; they were staying overnight in Edinburgh and it would have been great to spend more time together. However, I had to get back so I could get some sleep before catching my flight the next morning. I was really sad at having to say goodbye to Alan, just as I was when I had to say goodbye in Beijing and DC.
I’ve known Alan for five years, during which we’ve spent less than a collective two weeks hanging out; despite this I consider him a very good and close friend. I always wish that I had more time to hang out with him. Hopefully he’ll be able to come visit Chicago once I move there. I’ll definitely be visiting the UK again soon to see all of my friends there.
I got back to Kevin’s house around 02:00; luckily he was still awake and playing WoW. We talked for a few minutes before I went in to bed. We had to be up and leave for the airport by 06:30 as my flight was at 08:30.
Saying goodbye to Kevin at the airport was difficult as well. I’d had such an amazing time getting to hang out with him again; it was just like old times. Nevertheless, I had to say goodbye and head off to Africa.
I had a short layover in Amsterdam and am currently on my flight to Nairobi as I write this. The flight to Nairobi is around 7.5 hours. I paid extra money to have a window seat, which was worth it; the row only has two seats, rather than three, since I’m near the very back of the plane and the hull starts to narrow here; I’ve got a large open space to my left where I can stretch out. Sadly, the in-flight entertainment is not working at my seat. The TV works, but the remote at my seat doesn’t work, so I can’t watch any movies to help pass the time on the flight. The man sitting next to me is having the same issue with his remote.
I’m both nervous and excited for my safari tour through Africa. I’m nervous that I have over packed and that my luggage is too large for the safari truck that the tour group will be taking; the trip dossier stressed luggage size repeatedly, stating that any oversized luggage could get left behind. I have my travel backpack full of clothes and it’s no bigger than a large duffel bag, which I’m sure will be fine, but this is a new type of travel for me, so I’m just unsure of what to expect.
I’m sure that the trip through Africa will be amazing though. It will be nice and weird being cut off from the world for such a long time. The trip is 41 days long, during which we’ll be camping most of the time, without Internet or even cell phone service. Wish me luck!!
Today was my final day here in Poland before heading to Scotland for a week of relaxation (and drunken debauchery with good friends!). My plans for today revolved around taking the train to the city of Lublin, in the eastern region of Poland (I was surprised to see how far east the city truly is). The train departed shortly before 08:00 and arrived around half-past 10.
Upon arrival at the Lublin train station I set off towards the main attraction in the city: the former concentration camp of Majdanek. The camp was about an hour-long walk from the station; my path led me through a somewhat shady looking residential area that was run down, even passing by a shanty area near a stream. I made my way to a main street and soon arrived at the camp.
Majdanek is a very impressive memorial/museum and I was quite surprised by the number of tourists at the site; this area was rather out of the way and not a major tourist destination. Many of the tourists were carrying large Israeli flags; I couldn't tell if they were actually from Israel or Jews showing their solidarity with Israel. The entire complex was free of charge, which was quite nice. The first sight was a massive monument at the location of the former gates to the camp: a gigantic stone sculpture that was quite impressive.
I followed the exhibit path down from the gate monument, down to the location of the old camp buildings. The first building turned out to be the gas chamber and shower facility. The building used to be separated into two different ones: the showers and then the gas chamber. Majdanek never concealed the gas chamber as a shower, so the shower room was an actual shower. The gas chamber itself was smaller than I had expected, but I could only imagine how it would appear packed with people about to be murdered. The Nazis initially used carbon-monoxide to kill the victims, before switching to the Zyklon-B gas. Interestingly, the camp guards initially used Zyklon-B to disinfect the inmates' clothing. One room housed a massive amount of old Zyklon-B gas canisters.
Outside of the gas chamber was the selection field, a smallish area where the new arrivals would be sorted out: those who would live would go to the showers for disinfecting; those unfit for work would go to the gas chamber. Moving up the row of buildings, some had interesting exhibits about different aspects of the Nazi occupation: life in the ghetto, liquidation of the ghettos, the Lublin occupation, etc. One building had a huge collection of shoes from the victims killed during the ghetto liquidation.
One of the most interesting (and disturbing) buildings housed a memorial to the unnamed victims of the camp. Inside was a large art installation of balls made of barbed wire; some were suspended from the ceiling with one light inside each ball, while others simply laid on the gravel flooring. Playing over speakers were voices speaking Polish. It was haunting. The room was quite dark and I did my best to capture the memorial.
I continued to walk down the rows of buildings; one the left side sat the double fence of barbed wire and the now empty fields where the old inmate blocks used to stand. One field had several recreations of the block housing and it was shocking. All of the buildings, including those with exhibits, all resembled small barns: no windows, dark, and very stuffy inside them.
I finally reached the other end of the camp (a walk that took about 30-40 minutes) and saw the crematorium, the location of which was quite surprising. The gas chamber and the crematorium were on complete opposite sides of the camp from one another; the bodies from the gas chamber would thus have to be openly transported to the crematorium. The other camps that I had visited combined both functions into one building complex. The crematorium was one of the largest that I've seen, with a large collection of ovens. Adjacent to the oven room were the rooms where inmates would thoroughly search the bodies for any valuables.
Outside the crematorium was one of the most amazing and powerful memorials that I've seen at a concentration camp: a massive mausoleum for the victims of the camp. It was a large circular structure with a domed roof; there was a small open section on the terrace where visitors could look inside... which was filled with soil that was mixed with the ashes of the camp's victims. The ashes had been buried by the Nazis; when the mausoleum was erected, the soil was turned up and preserved.
I walked toward the old town area of town, which was just over an hour's walk away. The heat was quite intense and I stopped in a local grocery store to buy a bottled water and a Popsicle, which gave me some much needed energy. When I reached the old town area, I walked around and admired many of the old European buildings. There was some sort of festival going on, with food stalls lining the main pedestrian street. I walked over to the Lublin Castle, which was formerly used as a prison.
I stopped at an Irish-style pub for lunch, where I had some traditional Polish dumplings. The meal was... disappointing, sadly. I'd seen this dish advertised in several restaurants all over Poland and finally decided to give them a try. This version was quite bland and tasteless; adding salt and pepper didn't really help either.
After lunch I started making my way over to a square that had a Holocaust memorial, but found the area under construction and thus I could not access the square. I turned back toward the train station, hoping to make the earlier train back to Warsaw (my original ticket was for 18:00, but the earlier train left at 16:00). I arrived back at the train station and just missed the earlier train. Thankfully there was a small cafe in the station where I enjoyed a mango smoothie and spent the next couple of hours relaxing. The train arrived in the station quite early, allowing me to board the train about 40 minutes early so I could rest and relax.
The train back to Warsaw was quite unpleasant. There was a mother with two young kids sitting in the same car as me; one of the kids was quite well behaved, but the little girl was absolutely awful. She was around three and never shut up during the entire 2.5 hour journey; I'd truly hoped she would fall asleep. She would jump around on her seat, stand on the table between seats, and would scream/screech at the top of her lungs repeatedly - all with the mother doing nothing to stop her. The mother didn't try to quiet her, talk to her about using an "inside voice" or anything; she just sat there. Bitch. The girl would also start throwing a tantrum for no discernible reason; she'd sit in a seat and start screaming and toddler crying (just to get attention); again the mother did nothing. Everyone in the car was quite put out with them.
One of the perks of working remotely is that it makes these long train trips (or flights or layovers) seem like nothing; the time speeds by, thankfully.
I caught the train to Warsaw early this morning, leaving Krakow at 08:20. The train was different than the one I had taken to Krakow and, despite following the same direct route, it took slightly longer to reach Warsaw. I spent the time on the train getting some work done, which helped to pass the time. Upon arrival in Warsaw I made my way to the hotel; I arrived too early for check in, but I was able to store my luggage.
It was another hot day in Poland and I would be out in the heat all day today as I explored the city. As I set off into the city, my first brief stop was outside the Palace of Culture and Science, which was quite near the train station. It resembled similar buildings that I had seen in other former Soviet cities: the 1950s Stalin Soviet style. The entire complex was rather large, with a square and fountains in the front.
I was quite a ways from the old town area (I had chosen a hotel close to the train station to make my departure to the airport easier on Monday). The walk through the city was nice; I was surprised by how large and modern Warsaw felt. The city was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War, so the city had been steadily rebuilt ever since. Among the modern buildings are the random older-style buildings. My progression through the cities of Poland resembled my progression through the Baltic States:
Tallinn - Gdank Very old European, Gothic cities with a lot of charm
Riga - Krakow A blending of old Europe and modern Europe
Vilnius - Warsaw Large modern cities with a small taste of old Europe, which is lost in the bustle of the modern side
oh, and then there's... Kaunas - Kaliningrad Garbage
I walked through the city and found my way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, located in a massive square at the end of a very nice park. The tomb is a small structure with an eternal flame and two guards on either side; the structure has a roof, so the guards are not exposed to the sun and heat. Listed on the pillars around the tomb are the names of battles where Polish soldiers served. Several military personnel were setting up some rope barriers in the square, which seemed odd. I found out later that some sort of military parade was going on, though I've no idea why.
I spent a few minutes walking around the park, which had a large fountain and some beautiful flowers - very vibrant! Scattered around the park were benches that would play classical music when a button was pressed; the composer Chopin once lived in this part of Warsaw.
Nearby was the presidential palace, which was quite impressive. It was larger than I had expected. Across the street was some sort of protest movement; they had several large signs spread out on the ground and hung up. Directly in front of the palace was a large cross on the ground made out of jars with candles.
By this point I was needing a break, so I stopped for lunch at a local cafe. The cafe served traditional Polish food and I went with Polish sausage with sauerkraut. It was incredibly delicious, as was the beer that I enjoyed with the meal. Sitting next to me was an older couple who sat silent during their entire meal, not speaking once; the woman ordered a beer and 7up, which she then mixed together! Yuck!
After lunch I reached the traditional old town, where I saw the Warsaw Castle and some of the old city walls. The square in front of the castle was nice and full of tourists. In one area, a woman was singing and some people were dancing the tango (badly) as she sang. Right next to that I saw a man running around in a thong and fishnet stockings; he was stopping to take pictures with female tourists. It would have been amusing had he been attractive!
I continued to explore the old town, stopping briefly in the main market square, which is simply a collection of old buildings and full of sidewalk cafes. I stopped to grab an ice cream before venturing further on. I found another section of the city walls and was able to walk around them for a bit.
I left the old town area and made my way to the former Jewish ghetto. In random areas I would find memorials with pieces of the old ghetto wall. Along the ground was a marker embedded into the sidewalk marking out where the wall had once stood. I took a short detour into a park that I stumbled upon nearby, finding a rather nice building that turned out to be the Krasiński Palace. This was the most interesting and beautiful building that I saw in Warsaw, with a lovely garden attached to it.
As I started to leave, I noticed a sign on the street indicating that the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising was nearby, so I decided to follow the signs and find it. The memorial was much further than it appeared, but it did allow me to discover the military parade. I only saw the very end of it, but there was a large group of military members on horses making their way down the street (which was consequently full of horse shit!). I finally managed to find the memorial, but discovered that I'd gone to the wrong memorial! I've no idea how it happened and the memorial I found was dedicated to the heroes of Warsaw; it was... ok, but not worth the detour and significant backtracking.
I had one last sight to see on my list: Umschlagplatz, which was a holding area where the Nazis kept the Jews before deporting them to the concentration camps. (It turns out that I passed by the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising on my way there, but didn't even realize it). However, I did stumble along a different memorial during the very long walk to Umschlagplatz: the Museum of Independence at the former Pawiak Prison. The prison was a former Tsarist prison and was used by the Gestapo during the 1940s, imprisoning and killing thousands of people. The prison was destroyed during Nazi reprisals after the Warsaw Uprising; only a small section of the main gate and walls remain.
When I reached Umschlagplatz I realized that it was worth the long walk. The memorial was in the shape of a walled-in courtyard with signs along one side of the memorial. It was toned-down and somber, but very effective. When I reached the memorial there was a group of younger tourists laying around the memorial, goofing off and not showing any respect for what the memorial commemorates; they were all in their late-teens and should have known better. When the group was leaving, one girl refused to get up from lay down on the memorial; I couldn't tell what language they were speaking, but I could tell that she was indicating that she just couldn't go on; she was offered food and water, but she refused; it was clear she was being a drama queen. Thankfully she eventually left and I could finally take some good pictures.
This was my last day here in Krakow and I had another full day of touring planned.
I booked a half-day tour to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which is about 30 minutes outside of Krakow. The driver picked me up at 09:00 and, after one last pickup of additional tourists, we headed out to the mine. The driver, who resembled Christoph Waltz, made some very inappropriate comments during the short drive, including some anti-gay comments: "Here in Poland we don't like the modern family. Two men and a dog. We don't like such experiments." He was talking to a couple sitting at the front of the car and went on to explain how important religion is to the Polish people and how family is man and woman. I know that Poland (and most of Eastern Europe) is very conservative on many social issues, but I didn't expect for our tour driver to be spouting out this crap. Thankfully he was just the driver and we went off with a different guide at the mine.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine was a salt mine began work in the 13th century, but it ceased operation in the late 20th century. The mine has gradually been opened to tourists over the past 200 years. We were given personal audio devices so we could easily hear our guide as we explored the mine. The beginning of the tour had us walking down 54 levels of stairs (7 stairs per level, total of 378 stairs). The mine's temperature is a constant 14-16 degrees Celsius year-round, which was quite nice since today was going to be another hot one.
Throughout the mine were several statues and monuments to show what life was like for the miners working in the mine. There were also statues of mythical figures, including several gnomes/dwarfs. Salt deposits covered the walls and we were able to taste the salt; it wasn't too strong. However, there was some running water in the mine (naturally running through the mine); we tasted this water and it was much stronger - far saltier than sea water too!
There were several chapels scattered throughout the mine as well, including a gigantic chapel that is still in use; it regularly hosts weddings. In the large chapel there were several religious carvings in the rocks, including one of the last supper. At the end of the chapel was a statue carved from pure salt, which was rather spectacular. The room also had three large chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
We continued to walk deeper into the mine and came across a large salt lake; the water has such a high salt content that a human would simply float on the water. One of the final rooms that we saw was the largest of the excavated rooms. It was supported by massive wooden structures and had a massive 8m tall chandelier hanging from the ceiling!
We made our way back to the surface via elevator. We saw barely 1% of the entire mine complex during out tour; the entire mine extends for over 287km (178mi)! We met up with our driver and made our way back to Krakow. To avoid hearing any more off-color remarks, I put in my headphones during the drive (I listened to recordings of The Howard Stern Show).
Upon arriving back in Krakow I headed out to visit the old Jewish ghetto area of town. There were not many parts of the old ghetto that remained (or that we obviously part of the ghetto in the 1940s). There was a small square near one of the entrances to the ghetto with a nice memorial: a series of large - and empty - chairs appeared throughout the square. Down the street from the square was a small section of the original ghetto wall. Seeing the wall was rather moving; I couldn't imagine what it would be like to live inside the ghetto, walled up like that. I was initially surprised to see that the wall had some design included with the top of the wall; I had imagined it would be a plain wall with barbed wire or something (similar to how simple and crude the Berlin Wall was). I later found out that the top of the ghetto wall was meant to resemble a tombstone, which thus gave the wall an even darker symbolism.
My final stop for the day was the museum at the Oscar Schindler factory (yes, that Schindler from the movie Schindler's List). The factory isn't located in the best part of town; it is still a manufacturing section of town, but there were numerous tourists around. The factory was actually smaller than I had expected. Inside I bought a ticket to tour the museum, which is explored on your own.
The museum is one of the best museums that I have ever visited! It thoroughly details the occupation of Poland during the Second World War. Included with the numerous artifacts and pictures were dozens of explanations of the events that transpired. One of the most interesting areas covered what everyday life was like under the Nazi occupation. Most of the time we just hear about the awful treatment of the Jews (which was undeniably horrendous), but life for the average Polish citizen was not pleasant as well. The section explained the changes in shopping, going to restaurants, even using public transit changed for everyone.
The first areas, covering the initial attack and occupation in the fall of 1939, included numerous Nazi and Third Reich artifacts: several flags, books, portraits of Hitler, guns, signs, etc. One room even played the music that the Nazis would blast over the public loudspeakers during the occupation (I recognized one piece as a military march - it was used in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, during the book burning scene in Berlin). Even the floor in this area was covered with swastikas - literally!
Throughout the museum were personal stories recounted by survivors and victims of the Nazis, along with their pictures all over the wall. The section concerning the treatment of the Jews was especially moving; the area was quite dark; pictures were everywhere, along with personal accounts of the events in the Krakow ghetto.
There was surprisingly only one small area of the museum dedicated to Oscar Schindler; I don't feel it truly represented what the man did - it definitely didn't adqeuately explain what his "list" did to save the Jewish lives. Perhaps the museum relies too heavily upon the film to convey that. There was one sign about his "lists" - plural, not singular. I couldn't quite decipher what it all meant, but there were multiple lists and it was clear that events didn't transpire exactly as the film showed; this made me wish the section was larger so I could learn more. There was a replica of his working desk, across from which was a very nice memorial listing out all of the people that he saved.
There were some very interesting pieces in the museum, including Nazi propaganda posters and examples of Christmas presents from the war years - even an Adolf Hitler marionette!
At the end of the museum was a room filled with statements from survivors and victims in various languages. The final room had photographs of many of the people that Schindler was able to save.
I was really surprised by how spectacular the museum was; everything was in both Polish and English, making it easy for me to understand everything that was displayed. The level of detail that went into creating the museum and detailing out all of the events from the war was amazing. I could easily have spent an entire day at the museum; I had to rush through the last half since it was getting late (and I'd spent so much time reading everything during the first half!).
I made may way back to the old town for a quick dinner and one last stroll through the main square. Oh, and there was a guy playing the piano on the street... wearing a horse head mask.
When I got back to my hotel I received a rather unpleasant email concerning my safari tour of Africa: the tour price had increased $200 due to a new tax imposed by Tanzania. The government imposed an 18% VAT on safari tours and provided only a 1-week notice before it was implemented. Since the excursion into the Serengeti is in Tanzania, this caused the price to jump. Hardly good news one week prior to leaving on the tour.
Though this bad news was offset when I received my electronic ballot for the November election! I'll be able to print it out next week while I'm in Scotland and get it sent in before I leave for Africa! Huzzah!
... and now there are loud and obnoxious Italians in the courtyard outside yelling and screaming at one another...
Today was the first of several days that focuses on the Holocaust, a history that is sadly unavoidable when visiting Poland.
I was picked up from my hotel around 07:30 and we started the hour-long drive out to Auschwitz. En route we watched a DVD about the Soviet liberation of the camp in late January 1945; the film interviewed the cameraman who was with the Soviets and was the first to film the camp and the survivors. It included several scenes that he filmed, many of which I had never seen before; it was not easy to watch, especially when they showed the dead bodies (and the Soviet doctors performing autopsies; this was used as evidence against the Nazis after the war).
We arrived at the Auschwitz I camp and I was surprised how much the surrounding town had built up around the camp. During the Nazi era, nothing was allowed within 40km of the camp complex. This was to help keep the activities of the camp secret. When the camp was being built, the Nazis relocated the Polish population and cleared away the buildings they left behind. The Auschwitz I camp, though, utilized the buildings that were already on the site.
I was surprised by how small the Auschwitz I camp was. This was the first camp of the larger complex (Auschwitz II - Birkenau would grow to be about 20 times larger than Auschwitz I). Our group met with our camp tour guide and we were given individual headphones and receivers so we could hear her speaking as we walked around together.
We made our entry into the camp through the main gate with the famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign ("Work sets you free"). Walking past the barbed wire fencing and entering the camp proper was somewhat eerie, knowing that thousands of people had made this same walk and had never left the camp alive.
We made our way through several of the camp blocks, which had been converted into museums. There were several pictures and artifacts from the camp on display, as well as a map of the European camp complex that fed Auschwitz. There was an interesting glass container on display - our guide explained that it contained the ashes of some of the camp victims. There was a display case with a small metal container and dozens of small pellets next to it - Zyklon-B gas pellets and the container that it was transported in. Next to this was a larger case full of empty Zyklon-B containers from the camp.
There was one room where pictures were forbidden: on display was a fraction of the human hair that was found when the camp was liberated. There was one display with the hair and an example of the cloth fabric that was made using the hair. The primary exhibit was a large room full of human hair; the mound was immense. After this we were shown a room with several suitcases and dozens of shoes that were taken from the new arrivals at the camp. The final room showcasing the looting the Nazis carried out contained hundreds of pots, pans, and other kitchen tools.
The next block building was the so-called "Death Block" where several prisoners would be kept before being sentenced to execution. The walls were lined with the ID photos that the camp guards used to take of the new arrivals (this process would be replaced by tattooing the inmates' numbers on their arms). The photos had their birth date, occupation, date of arrival at the camp, and date of death. So many of the people died within only a few months (a year max) after arriving at the camp. Seeing all of their pictures put a more personal touch to the horrors of the camp. One photo really struck me: it was of a woman who was grinning in her photo; it was the only one I saw that showed any emotion (the rest were dead-pan stares). It made me wonder what made her grin in the photo: defiance against the Nazi cruelty? Ignorance as to what was in store for her?
The basement of the Death Block was the only other area where photos were forbidden. We were able to see the cell where a Franciscan monk was placed to starve to death; he volunteered to take the place of a fellow camp inmate who was sentenced to starvation. The monk survived for an unbelievably long time and the Nazis eventually had him killed. The other inmate survived the camps.
We were also able to see some of the standing cells: small, windowless rooms of 3m by 3m where the guards would force four or five people to stand in overnight. To enter the cell, the inmates had to crawl through a small door along the floor. The inmates would often die of suffocation; if an inmate survived the night, they would be sent to work the next day and be brought back to the cell the next night; this cycle would continue until they died.
In a courtyard next to the Death Block was the execution wall (today it is a reconstruction). This black wall was where the executions would take place. The block building next to this one had it's windows blocked out from the outside so the inmates couldn't see what was happening (though they could of course hear the gunshots). Up to 200 people could be executed here each day.
Next we saw the roll call square and the small guard tower for the guard responsible for the roll call. It was here that the inmates were counted every morning and evening. If there were missing people or any inmates committed any infractions, they could be forced to stand in this square for hours; the longest time spent standing was 19 hours.
There was one somewhat good sight that we got to see, if there's anything good to see at such a place: the gallows where the first commandant of the camp, Rudolf Höss, was hanged after his trial. He left the camp in 1943 and went into hiding after the war; thankfully he was soon captured and brought back to Poland for trial and execution. He was brought to Auschwitz for his execution; a fitting place for him to meet his fate.
We made our way through the camp to our final stop: the gas chamber and the crematorium. This facility wasn't destroyed by the Nazis when they evacuated the camp, so we were able to see everything. The gas chamber in this camp wasn't disguised as a shower, that was saved for Birkenau and other death camps. We saw the holes in the ceiling where the gas pellets would be dropped into the chamber. A door opened directly into the crematorium where the bodies would be burned. I found myself wondering how many bodies each of the ovens could hold at a time: the gas chamber could kill a massive number of people in 20-30 minutes, but the ovens seems quite small to handle that kind of volume. It's scary to think of such a methodical murder and disposal of human beings.
We made our way out of the Auschwitz I camp and then drove over to the Auschwitz II - Birkenau camp complex.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is the camp that everyone thinks of when they speak of "Auschwitz" - the train track leading into the camp; the deciding area where the guards would point to the left or right (the gas chamber or the camp); row after row of barracks.
We entered the camp along the train tracks running through the main gate. The tracks ran into the middle of the camp: on one side was the original camp area (later turned into the women's camp), on the other side was the enlarged camp area (expanded into seven different small camps for different prisoner groups). Along the train tracks was one cattle car - an original car that was used to transport the prisoners to the camp. The car was amazingly small; to think of 60+ people crammed into such a place for days at a time is unthinkable.
The larger camp area is largely in ruins now; the block buildings had been built of wood and were burned down by the Nazis when they evacuated. The only things that remain are the foundations and the chimneys. In the women's camp are several brick buildings that had survived; the bricks used for these blocks came from the former Polish homes that were demolished to build the camp.
We walked along the train tacks, down the path "to the left" that thousands of prisoners had made over 70 years ago. At the end of the path were the ruins of two more crematoriums; the Nazis blew up the buildings prior to evacuating the camp in 1945. Much of the complex is still visible and the ruins have been left untouched. We could see the long room where the prisoners would undress; the would turn into a side room where they would be gassed; the bodies would be brought up on a lift to the ovens that were above ground.
Between the two ruins is a beautiful memorial to the victims. The various sculptures are designed to represent the burial markers for each of the areas where the victims came from. At one end of the memorial was a sculpture that was supposed to represent the oven chimney. Along the memorial were signs, all stating the same thing in different languages (one sign for each language spoken by the various victims).
We walked into the women's camp, walking among the rows of blocks. On the way we passed by a small memorial and a pool of water. The water was pooled in an area where the ashes of victims were buried; now the ashes are in the water.
Inside the women's camp we were able to enter one of the blocks - the one for children. Most of the children who came to the camp were immediately sent to the gas chamber, but those who weren't stayed in this special block for them. We were able to see the crude bunk beds where they would be crowded into. One inmate was allowed to paint some happy pictures in the block for the children and the paintings are still on display.
This concluded our visit to the Auschwitz camp complex. It was a sad, depressing and very moving couple of hours. I'd visited the Dachau camp outside of Munich in 2001 and this brought back many memories of my time visiting that camp.
We arrived back to Krakow shortly after 14:00 and I spent the afternoon walking around the old town area. I stopped at a Georgian restaurant for a late lunch. I ordered a meat dish with some rice; as a starter they brought me some traditional Georigan bread and sauces (spicy, mayo-based, and garlic).
After lunch I did some more exploring and saw some more street performers around the main square. One group was dressed in traditional Polish clothes, playing some pretty music and a woman was signing with them. I stopped to listen to them for several minutes.
I finally stopped by Starbucks to relax with a coffee and read. I treated myself to a pumpkin-spice frapuccino! I spent some time reading before finally heading back to my hotel for the night. On the way back I found a large sculpture of a head in the main square; I'd walked by this area yesterday and didn't see it (not sure if I was just oblivious or if it was moved there today).
I did venture to the shopping mall near the train station during the afternoon as well. My beard trimmer finally died early the morning and I needed to find a replacement. The razor itself still works, but the charger broke. I plugged it in to charge before I showered, planning to let it charge during the day. After the shower, right before I left for the tour, I noticed a strange smell and saw that the charger light wasn't actually on, despite being plugged in. The smell was coming from the plug and when I pulled it out, it was very hot. I'm not sure what happened, but I decided not to try plugging it in again. Thankfully I found a new razor for less than $10 USD!
Today I had to leave my hotel around 05:15 so I could make the 45 minute walk to the train station. I left before the buffet breakfast started, but the hotel staff packed me a nice bagged breakfast to take with me! It had two meat and cheese sandwiches, some fruit, yogurt, orange juice and a candy bar; I was really impressed and grateful!
I took a different route to reach the train station that what I walked yesterday on my way in; this time I went through the old town area, which was quite nice in the pre-dawn light. There were only a few people milling about, including the city's cleaning service (they power wash the streets and sidewalks at night to keep them looking nice). I passed a red-light house and saw one of the girls leaving, which was... interesting. There was also a pub still open and a couple people drinking beer.
I reached the train station in plenty of time, so I ate half of the breakfast and did some reading before heading out to catch the train. My ticket was in Polish, but I was able to decipher my seat number (045) and found the car with my seat; it was at a small table, so I got out my laptop and spent the journey working and listening to music.
We made a stop in Warsaw, where many people got on the train. A family came to my seats and said they had booked them; we compared tickets and found that my ticket was for car 5 and I was in car 2! The woman was quite nice about it and helped me find my way. I moved my stuff down to car 5 and found my seat... and there was someone sitting in it! I had to wake her up, but she was very nice and moved. The rest of the journey went quickly. The man sitting next to me was from Krakow, but has been living outside of Chicago for over 20 years!
Upon arrival in Krakow I made the short walk down to my hotel, a nice place located in a private courtyard just minutes from the old town area. After dropping off my luggage, I went out to do some sightseeing in the city.
My first stop was the Warsaw Castle, which was only about ten minutes away. It was a very impressive complex, with fortifications, a cathedral and a palace all within the castle walls. Apparently the Austrians made some major changes to the buildings and destroyed much of the old castle when they occupied this area of Poland in the 1800s. The restoration work is amazing. The central courtyard was quite nice, with three levels of balconies running around it.
I bought a ticket to get into the castle, but found the ticket process to be somewhat convoluted. There are several sections and exhibits in the castle, and each one has its own separate ticket that is priced differently; they had no all encompassing ticket for the castle. I bought a ticket for the state rooms; the crown treasury and armory; and the dragon's den. I wanted to see the royal private apartments, but apparently the tours were only in Polish and German and the cashier wouldn't sell me a ticket (I'd have been happy to see them, even if I couldn't understand the tour). No photos were permitted in the areas that I visited though.
My first stop was at the state rooms. These were a series of very nice public rooms that were used in the palace for formal receptions, visitors, and other such functions. The first few rooms were rather plain, with some tapestries hung up; the rooms grew increasingly more impressive as the tour continued. The throne room was especially nice, as was the grand ballroom (which doubled as a meeting room for the state senate).
I next visited the crown treasury and armory, which was as impressive as it sounds. There were not many jewels - certainly no crown jewels - but there was a very large collection of royal artifacts and belongings: gold and silver cups, decorations, holy icons, etc. Most of them were from the 1600s and 1700s (the period before Poland was partitioned by Russian, Austria and Prussia). The armory was the true highlight of the entire castle though. The collection of weapons, dating back to the 1500s was incredible! Massive two-handed swords, pikes, pole-arms, smaller (and more ornate) swords, maces, cannons... the armory had it all! Some of the cannons were intricately designed and looked rather stunning.
Finally I descended into the dragon's den... To reach this area underneath the castle, I had to walk down a very long spiral staircase; I found myself getting dizzy as I walked down the stairs! At the bottom I found myself inside a small cave that was built into the stone hill the castle was built atop. It was quite cool in the cave and a tiny bit spooky; it was fun to imagine that a dragon could have lived there!
The dragon's den exited at the base of the castle, right next to the Vistula River. I started to walk into the old town area and was quite taken with the city. It had the same old European charm of Gdansk, mixed with the feeling of a large city; it was an interesting combination. Everywhere I looked I saw old-style buildings; horse-drawn carriages were everywhere as well. I passed several churches on my way to the main square.
The main market square was one of my favorite areas of the old town. There was a large and impressive church in one corner, a large building in the center (this building was the old "cloth market" that was used when the square was a working street market), and at the opposite corner was another church. The square was massive; it was used as a market for years before the Second World War and this tradition was maintained, even through the communist times. Now the square was lined with restaurants, souvenir shops, and stores. In one corner of the square was a small memorial: it was an old water pump with a sign to remember a protester who committed self-immolation in the 1980s.
Several street artists were performing around the square: signing or playing the guitar. One performer caught my eye though: he was simply blowing bubbles, over and over again. He had a home-made tool that he was using to blow the bubbles: two long sticks tied together with a series of strings and loops. He would dip the strings into the bubble solution and then wave it through the air. This would create dozens and dozens of bubbles in mere seconds. Little kids were flocking over to that area, running after the bubbles. I decided to give him the few coins that I had in my pocked (maybe the equivalent of $1 USD).
I had one last loop to make on my sightseeing journey for today. I headed further north to a nice park just outside of the old city walls. This area had fewer tourists, which I rather liked. As I was walking through the park I came across an old fortification. Across the street from the fort I spotted a large monument with several statues around it. I ventured over to get a closer look and was really intrigued by the statues, especially one of a knight lying dead at the bottom.
By this time I was quite hungry and I walked back to a restaurant that I had noticed near the castle. It looked to be a Polish-German restaurant; they were serving German beer in liter mugs, so how bad could it be?! I walked in and sat down... and then waited for several minutes for someone to come by; later on I realized that this was one of the few European restaurants where the hostess seats the guests - you don't seat yourself! I ordered a liter of Pilsner Urquell and the schnitzel for dinner. When the food arrived I was blown away by how massive the portion was - it could easily feed two people! The couple sitting next to me were equally shocked and we joked about the size of it. I managed to eat about 3/4 of it before I had to stop.
Now I'm relaxing at the hotel, hoping to get some sleep tonight before heading out early for a guided tour tomorrow.