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We left New York on a frigid Friday evening in January, and after a brief stopover in Paris to acclimate to the time change, we arrived in Kigali Rwanda on the eve of the Inauguration of Barack Obama. I was wearing my official Obama tee shirt and cap, and everyone at the airport and at our hotel were cheering and shouting, “Obama, Obama!”

Rwanda is a tiny country, just over 26 thousand square kilometers or half the size of Scotland. There are over 11 million people here and over 25% live in the capital, Kigali. We stayed at the Hotel Des Mille Collines, the actual hotel from the film Hotel Rwanda, the powerful film depicting the genocide in this country during 1993 and 1994. Over a million human beings were slaughtered.
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We were in Rwanda to be part of a film we helped to finance about the life of George Schaller, arguably the greatest living conservation biologist on the planet. Fifty years ago George did the very first studies of the mountain gorillas, actually preceding the more widely known work of Dian Fossey. Also part of our film team was Amy Vedder, who with her husband Bill Webber started the mountain gorilla tourism program in 1979. This program has grown dramatically over thirty years and now attracts some twenty thousand visitors annually. The program employs many local people and has made tourism to Rwanda the third largest source of revenue in the country.

It is a two hour drive from Kigali to the Virungas, a chain of still active volcanoes that form the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These areas are the home of some seven hundred mountain gorillas, which are the only remaining primates of their kind in the world. On the drive, as we climbed higher into the mountains, we saw the typical agriculture of Rwanda. There are terraces from the base of the hills right to the top, in layers and tiers of different crops. We also saw many workers in dark blue shirts creating new, yet unplanted terraces. Our driver told us that these were Hutu’s who had killed Tutsi’s during the genocide, and building these terraces was part of their punishment, which also includes prison time.

Thankfully, the genocide did not affect the mountain gorilla population, and today, with their protected status, they remain healthy and productive. In fact, as I am writing this, an announcement came in over the BBC website that ten new baby gorillas have just been born in the DRC! These gorilla’s are quite habituated to humans and as curious about us as we are about them.

We stayed at the locally owned and operated Kinigi Guest Lodge located at the foot of Mt. Sabinyo, one of the active peaks and an absolutely magnificent site in the early morning light with clouds sitting above the crater like a halo above an angel’s head. We had a suite with two bathrooms, a sitting room with a phone, TV and fireplace, and a very comfortable bedroom. The staff was terrific and the food exceeded our expectations.
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Our first day of seeing the gorillas started at 6 AM. We met George and Amy and the three person film crew for breakfast and discussed our plan for the day. My companion and life partner, Edith, is the Vice Chair and a trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the New York based organization that employed George and Amy when they were in Rwanda and for many years thereafter. The film was being made in partnership with National Geographic and will be shown in December of this year. We met our head tracker, guides, porters and security at the staging area and were given a complete orientation as to how we should behave while in the Park. This included a no contact whatsoever policy with the gorillas, as they are very susceptible to contracting human disease.

As we set off I thought we must have made an interesting sight: the film team, George and Amy, Edith and I, and an assortment of guides, tracker’s, porter’s and guards. We all were loaded down with filming equipment, personal camera’s, binoculars, rainwear of every type and most importantly, waterproof boots with deep cleats. The trail was up and steep and covered with thick slick mud that climbed over the top of our boots and threatened to suck them off our feet! We all had our pants tucked well down into our socks. This was to avoid the awful biting red driver ants that infest the ground in the Virunga’s.
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Our head tracker said the gorillas were about a forty minute walk away, but it took us twice that time to even find their sleeping nests due to the difficulty of the terrain and the steepness of the trail. While the main group rested near the gorilla nests, the film team and the trackers went to see where the gorillas were. A half hour later they returned and said we would have to wait because the gorillas were in high bamboo, still feeding, and that the filming conditions were not good. The half hour turned into two hours, during which time it started to rain, just a mist at first, building into a torrent that had us scurrying for our rain gear and umbrella’s. It also got cold, and we got out vests and other warmer clothing. The rain stopped after an hour but we were told we still had to wait for the gorillas to move into better filming areas.

Some of us, including this writer, were becoming quite impatient, but after another fifteen minutes we were told to follow the guides. Within ten minutes we started to see the gorillas! We saw babies and juveniles first, then several females and black back males. The leader of this group of forty three individuals, the silverback male, was not in view. Mountain gorillas are the largest primates on earth. A full-grown silverback male can weigh over seven hundred pounds, and these are massively powerful creatures.. Mountain gorillas have thick black fur, prominent noses and foreheads, and keen, penetrating brown eyes that reflect the sunlight. They are strict vegetarians, eating the plethora of plants that abound in the Virunga’s. Their favorite foods are celery, bamboo shoots and other green stalks. These plants also provide all the gorillas their daily intake of fluids, as they drink almost no water. The gorillas seemed quite comfortable in our presence and very interested in what we were doing, especially when we made eye contact with them. The first young male I made eye contact with stared intently into my eyes, and I felt an immediate bond and sense of intelligence between us. It was I who broke the eye contact, and I believe the gorilla would have kept staring forever! It occurred to me that we had much to share if I had the language of the gorilla and he had mine.

The gorillas love to climb and play, and knock each other about, and their antics are quite funny to watch. We found ourselves laughing out loud many times as we enjoyed their spectacle. Since every group visiting the park is limited to one hour of actual viewing time, we were becoming anxious that we would not get to see the silverback. Within ten minutes that fear was dispelled. The silverback was gigantic! It’s head the size of four men’s heads, with hugely powerful arms, shoulders and legs. The guide said he weighed almost eight hundred pounds and stood head and shoulders above all the other gorillas. He was busy pulling down large bamboo trees and stripping the shoots, continuously feeding himself. Every now and again he would look at us, unperturbed, and then go back to eating. As we were frantically taking pictures and the field team getting every angle they could, several females started crossing between us and the silverback. They had small babies on their backs and they stopped just before they were about to come abreast of the silverback. He glanced down, looked back up, and the females went on by, apparently with the blessing of their Lord and Master.
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Our hour was up and we began the long, muddy trek out of the forest. When we rejoined our porters and collected our gear, I took a look back at where we had seen the gorillas and found that tears were leaking from my eyes. It was a lifetime moment, a chance that few will ever have. I kept thinking about the gorillas as we slogged through the mud and the stinging nettle plants, I thanked my lucky stars that we had turned down an invitation to Obama’s Inauguration and come to beautiful Rwanda instead.

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“The Sahara on a bicycle, is that possible?” A group of 25 enthusiastic cyclists accepted this challenge and left from the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, on 10 September 2006 to hit the road to Dakar. They completed this incredible new venture of crossing the Sahara by bike, passing sand dunes and surprised camels.

 
We leave Paris on a sunny Sunday morning along the banks of the Seine in search of adventure for the next ten weeks. The condition of the cyclists increases rapidly during the stages which pass through historical French cities and green valleys. We are in shape just in time to climb the high mountains of the Pyrenees. Here we reach the highest point of our trip at the 2,407 meter high Port d’Envilaria in the Princedom of Andorra. Englishman Andy manages to avoid this point. He turns his bike into a dark tunnel but is kicked out by the police immediately, fortunately for him, at the other side of the mountain. A memorable day follows. Never ending rains combined with low temperatures and thick fog push all leisure riders into a small bar to attempt to get the body temperatures back to acceptable values. Most of the espresso ends up on the floor as result of the heavy shivering. Finally everybody continues the journey through sunny and, above all, fascinating Spain with its rough rocks, magnificent views and an abundance of culture in Moorish cities.
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A fast ferry drops us at the other side of the Straits of Gibraltar on the African continent. Within 50 minutes we are in a new world with a different culture and among other cultures, a world where we have to share the road with goats, sheep, donkeys and monkeys. During the stages through the rough Atlas mountains in Morocco we already notice that we are getting closer to the Sahara. Slowly the vegetation disappears in favor of sand and rocks. Cows are replaced by camels.
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Two colossal sculptures of camels greet us near Tan Tan form the symbolic entrance gate to the Sahara. From that moment the distances, temperatures and our water consumption increase day by day. Despite the emptiness of the world and the endless straight roads, the days pass by quickly. The Sahara fascinates us with its yellow sand dunes, crossing camels, friendly Bedouins, and the sparkling starry sky. The strong wind is alternately our best friend or worst enemy. Stages of 160 kilometers (96 miles) are sometimes covered within 4 hours by the fast guys in the front. Other days it is a struggle to keep the speedometer above 20 kilometers (12 miles) per hour. The more relaxed leisure riders use every scarce opportunity to get a cup of tea or cold Coke and arrive in camp sometimes just before sunset. Since we ride close along the Atlantic Ocean a breeze from the ocean drops the temperature by a few degrees. However, regularly we are surprised by a scorching wind directly from the Sahara, like a hot hair drier straight in the face.
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Our camps are always situated at unique locations. One night we sleep at the base of a huge sand dune as tall as a flat building. The next day we stay on the edge of a gigantic rocky plate, which descends to the Atlantic Ocean. Incidentally, our camp is visited by an old Mauritanian Mercedes passing by to get a bottle of water. Most of it is used for consumption; however sometimes the valuable liquid of life is used for washing hands and feet as preparation for a prayer in the direction of Mekka.
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The contrast is big as we enter from the emptiness of the desert into the noisy and crowded streets of Nouakchott, the biggest city in the Sahara. Farther on, after we leave the capital of Mauritania, we see the vegetation, people, and animals return along the road slowly, and so our delight. Amazingly, we have crossed The Sahara!
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A day through a fresh green swamp full of meter-long lizards, brightly-colored birds, and sprinting wild boars along the river Senegal brings us into the country with the same name. Several days we traverse the sloping savannah. We are encouraged loudly by enthusiastic waving kids and women in colorful dresses standing in front of little huts or under centuries-old baobab trees. The last stage brings us in the chaotic centre of the metropolis of Dakar, the final destination of our trip.
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In Dakar, Priit Salumäe from Estonia is celebrated as the strong winner of the first ever “Paris Dakar by Bike.” Margus Püvi from Estonia and the Dutch climber Rob van den Heuvel are completing the stage. But in fact everybody feels like the winner after fulfilling 7,200 fascinating kilometers ( 4,500 miles ) on a bike crossing enormous mountains and the endless Sahara.

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Like getting your hands dirty? Fancy feeding a giraffe, handing out meat parcels to vultures, and then heading off to put out a raging bushfire on the African plains?

The Global Volunteer Network’s South Africa program made it all happen for Chris Fong, a 23 year old engineer from Atlanta, Georgia, when in June 2006, he volunteered on a game conservation reserve for four weeks.

`My initial motivations were to get out and explore the world a little bit, and meet some people from different parts of the world that had different experiences and viewpoints on things. I had a co-worker of mine who was down there for a little bit, and he recommended that I check it out.’

His gamble paid off, and Chris was given an experience he won’t soon forget.

He worked on an award-winning game conservation reserve located in the Gauteng Province, which is home to a dozen or more species of native African wildlife and over 150 species of birds. Because it is a conservancy, rather than a reservation, it receives little financial support from the government, so the help of volunteers is crucial to its success.
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Volunteers are required to work hard, and are kept busy five days a week. They have a wide range of jobs, including feeding the parks animals such as the giraffe, zebra, and many other animals. Volunteers also participate in game management, including in-depth game assessment and anti-poaching practices, bird field studies, and collecting, transporting and distributing meat donations to the vultures, as well as any general handiwork around the park, such as fence repair and road maintenance.

Another job on the reserve, and perhaps the most important one, involves a combination of controlled fire-breaking, and fighting real fires. Brushfire is a crucial part of South Africa’s eco-system, as it helps to rejuvenate the earth by burning dead matter, to prepare for new growth. But, as the country’s population increases, and the wildlife becomes less migrant, controlled burning called fire breaking is now done, in order to make sure the burning process still occurs, without risk to life.

The South African bush fires can spread very quickly, destroying homes and taking lives of both animals and humans. Common causes include lightning, human carelessness and arson, and in fierce wind, fires in South Africa can move very fast. Lack of resources to fight the fires is a major problem, as there are no major voluntary firefighting organizations in South Africa, so fire control done by volunteers is a very important task.

`We actually had a real brushfire when I was there,’ said Chris, `and I was amazed at how fast the situation developed. We were just sitting around, hanging out, waiting to go to work, and we got news that there was an actual brushfire, and so we all just jumped in the cars, and drove over there, and within five minutes, the fire burned pretty much as far as you could see.’

Volunteers and locals attempt to put out the fires with a combination of water-filled backpacks, hoses and specially designed fire-beaters.
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We got it under control eventually, but it was really an eye-opening experience to see how fast, and how little time you have to react, and it gives you an appreciation for why the work we are doing there is so important. These fires get so out of control in such a big area…I’d never seen anything like that, so it was pretty incredible.’

Another of Chris’s main jobs was to drive around and drop off the volunteers and other staff around the park.

`On the reserve, really there’s no paved roads, just a bunch of dirt trails, so one of the main things I got to do was drive the old Land Rover around. I had a lot of fun with that. I don’t have any kind of real off-road driving experience, I guess, but that was a really fun thing to do, even though the Land Rover did break down quite a bit.’

Volunteering provided Chris with the opportunity to step outside his comfort zone and experience a new way of life, all the while making a valuable contribution to South Africa’s environment. But his trip was not without its challenges.

`The biggest challenge was being so far out of my normal element,’ says Chris. `When you work with people in the U.S, they have similar viewpoints…I’m an engineer, and I feel very comfortable in my job every day, so traveling half-way round the world to work with people I’ve never met before, and to do things I’ve never done before, that was the best part of the whole experience. But it was also the biggest challenge, because it was so different, so new, that I had to think on my feet while I was there.’

Volunteers have weekends to explore South Africa, which can range from exploring neighboring Kruger National Park to try and spot the `big 5′ (Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Elephant, Rhino), to doing a wine tour, hiking in the mountains, or visiting a local beach.

Chris volunteered during South Africa’s winter, which means sunny, crisp days averaging at about 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but very cold nights, dropping to freezing point. Winter provides a much more comfortable climate for those sensitive to the heat, as compared to an African summer.

`I got a kick out of that,’ laughs Chris, `because when I got back, everyone said `wow, I thought you’d be a lot more tanned.’

South Africa is a unique country, as it is home to some of the world’s most fascinating wildlife, but it also home to huge amounts of unemployment, poverty and crime, and some of the worst statistics in the world. Even though Apartheid, a system of racial segregation which discriminated against non-whites, was overthrown in 1994, South Africa is still suffering from the effects. According to Global Insight, 20.5 million black South Africans (56% of total black population) were living in poverty in 2003, compared with 190,000 white South Africans (4% of total white population). Also, according to the UN, unemployment has reached 40%. This figure is expected to rise, as the population increases, and yet the Gross National Profit (GNP) stays the same.

Chris and the other volunteers visited Soweto, a town next to South Africa’s capital, Johannesburg, and were quick to discover that the country is not one big wildlife safari. Chris was about to undertake what he could only describe as `an emotional rollercoaster’.

`One minute we were having beers and joking around with the locals at the popular bar, The Rock. The next minute, we were walking through a squatters’ camp, where people live in shacks made of corrugated steel, scrap wood, and chicken wire,’ said Chris.
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Soweto is an urban area, mainly consisting of black South Africans, and is one of the poorest areas in Johannesburg. Problems in Soweto include high unemployment, overcrowding, and poor infrastructure, and only 20% of the houses can afford to have electricity.

Chris and the other volunteers had brought some supplies for some of the Soweto people, which they handed out door to door. A small gesture, but one which would no doubt have been greatly appreciated by the community, and given the volunteers an insight into life in an African slum.

`I was equally struck by the attitude of the people as I was by their living conditions,’ Chris said. `Nearly everyone we encountered had a smile on their face and seemed very upbeat about life. They were all very glad to see us and the kids were especially excited about the lolly-pops, pens, pencils, and notebooks that we bought for them. Many hugged us and wanted to pose with us for pictures.’

It is all to easy to simply stick to the tourist path in countries like South Africa, but Chris was able to visit the slums of Soweto, a city of three million, and really see what life is like for the poorest of poor.

Volunteering overseas is emerging as an exciting and rewarding way to travel, as volunteers are able to integrate with the communities they visit, and give back to the landscape and the community. Also, as any overseas volunteer will tell you, you are guaranteed a life changing experience, that would never be experienced simply by sticking to the tourist routes.

A highlight for Chris was getting to know the other volunteers, and really getting to make a difference, not to mention the South African people.
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`We interfaced with a lot of people from South Africa, and they were all really friendly, and they seemed like they were really happy to have us there. We actually felt like we made a contribution.’

Chris is keen to advise others to volunteer, and stresses the need to make sure it happens.

`What I did was, I made the decision I wanted to go, and just bought a plane ticket and did it. The advice I’d give is that there are so many reasons to not do it, that if you let yourself just dwell on all the negatives, you’ll never go.’

`I think a lot of people get too caught up in why they can’t do it,’ said Chris, `and I’d say think about why you can, and why you should, and then just make it happen.’

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I was last in South Africa 28 years ago. I remember the “whites only” beaches; the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg (now part of the convention center); Nelson Mandela was unknown outside a small circle of people (and in prison); The Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town (still going strong); The Blue Train (the Orient Express of Africa); Kruger National Park (once the top game park in South Africa); Stellenbosch and the wine route (mentioned later in this story). How had the country changed since my last visit?

Nelson Mandela is semi-retired and aging (88); the mixture of Indians, Colored (local term for mixed race); blacks and whites seem to be in harmony. There is a democratically elected President Thabo Mbeki finishing his final term in office; the economy may be the strongest in Africa (although there are still large pockets of poverty, unemployment and sub-standard living conditions). Of the 44 million people 75.2% are Africans, 13.6% white, 8.6% colored and 2.6% Indian.

The country is divided into 9 provinces, two of which are ruled by kings (KwaZuluNatal and the Eastern Cape). There are 11 different languages spoken and often little tolerance of other cultures, a nuance that escaped me 28 years ago. South African Airways flew our group of 5 journalists to Johannesburg and on to Durban, the country’s second largest city and known as the surfing capitol of the world (although Hawaii and Australia might disagree). The flight is 17 hours with one stop and arrives the evening of the following day (7 hours ahead of NYC). SAA Business Class had fully reclined seats and I actually slept 5 hours. An hour’s flight and we were in Durban (part of KwaZulu-Natal) and ensconced at the 5 Star Beverly Hills Hotels, a few miles outside the city center and along the Indian Ocean. Must visits include the UShaka Marine World with one of the world’s largest marine aquariums (Sea World) and Wet & Wild Water Park, all included in a single admission. The Sibaya Cultural Show featuring a functioning Zulu village is behind the Sun International Casino. I especially enjoyed the “Golden Mile” beach promenade and watching the surfers do their thing.
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We took a day side trip to Ixopo for a history lesson. Alan Paton in Cry the Beloved Country (reenergized as an Oprah Book Club Selection)-“There are hills, grass covered and rolling and beautiful beyond the singing of it”. The book inspired the 1951 original movie featuring Sydney Poitier and the 1995 remake starring James Earl Jones. We rode the 1939 steam locomotive and its narrow gauge tracks that were used in the newer film version. The train dropped us off at the Carisbrooke Elementary School where the original movie was partially filmed. We were sitting comfortably and eating a typical meal while many of the children were barefoot and on their way back home to tend to their chores. I wasn’t entirely at ease having the children “perform” for us. One of their classmates had just died in an accident and I could see the sorrow in their young eyes.
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I would recommend a less strenuous drive going south from Durban into the Eastern Cape Province through the Wild Coast region (formerly known as the Transkei) to Umngazi River Bungalows. The Eastern Cape is the second largest of the 9 provinces with 14% of the total land (2.5 million acres), 6.8 million people and a malaria free area for viewing the Big 5 game (Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo & Leopard). I wish we had time to visit the Addo Elephant National Park and its 400 plus packaderms. The Eastern Cape was both home to the current President Mr. Thabo Mbeki as well as Steve Biko, who began the Black Consciousness Movement and in 1977 died mysteriously while in police custody. Nelson Mandela was born there and still keeps a home in the Eastern Cape. We visited his museum which was opened in 2000 and consists of three sites. One where he was born, another where he grew up, and the third the “long walk to freedom” exhibition (he spent 27 years in prison). “Each time one of us touches the soil of this land we feel a sense of personal renewal.”

The Umngazi River Bungalows & Spa began as a trading post in 1929. In 1933 three huts were built and in 1993 the Goss family bought it and expanded to 66 bungalows with a capacity of 144 people. I could have lived just on the wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables but the meals had lots of other choices. When the weather cooperates eat outside overlooking the pool and lagoon or see if you can book the underground wine cellar known as the Green Door for dinner. Fresh orange juice and the local newspaper are delivered every morning. This is Africa where livestock roam at will- including the highways- so drive carefully and skip the night driving or be prepared to run into animals. I sat down by the boat dock and dipped my feet in the water feeling very much at ease until one of the rangers rushed over to me and pointed out the two hippos only a few yards away that I thought were tree trunks. I was told the hippopotamus kill more people than any other animal in Africa as they are intensely territorial.
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I recommend continuing past the Mandela Museum to East London (one million people), along the Indian Ocean and then inland to Pumba Private Game Reserve. The areas have wonderful names such as The Wild Coast (Port St. John area); Sunshine Coast (East London area) & Garden Route (Port Elizabeth area). If you fly into Port Elizabeth you can arrange a transfer (1 ¼ hours) to Pumba for $125 for your entire party. There is an alternative to driving or flying- the Wild Coast Meander “take a walk on the wild side”. Thirty miles in five days with 3 Star hotels at night and all meals and transfers for $750. You walk along the coast and they have locals follow behind carrying your bags.
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Pumba was the highlight of the entire trip. This 5 Star property has 8 stone-walled thatched waterfront cottages with a private deck and plunge pool. Please don’t think “roughing it.” The cottages are air conditioned with a fireplace and huge bathroom. There is a small kitchen, large living room and you are but steps from the dining room. We were warned about walking off the lighted path at night and one of the guests came face to face with two rhinos that were grazing less than a hundred yards from our cottages. The entire Eastern Cape Province is malaria free so there is no need for pills. The rates are all inclusive; including two game drives a day and average $500 per person double occupancy. We got to see three of the Big Five including a lioness on the attack and watched her bring her kill to her cubs. Most lodges also have a day safari which includes a game drive and lunch and should cost under $150. We spent the first afternoon at Amakhala Game Reserve which is a 4 Star property run by a husband (vet) and wife (5th generation) team. They have 6 lodges on their 14,000 acre reserve with rates from $250-$450 per person during the high season of October through April.
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I spent a few hours in Port Elizabeth before flying to Cape Town and my wine tour (that is another story). As a center for the auto industry this city of 1 ½ million is centered on the casino/boardwalk area. There are cinemas, a 9 hole golf course, bowling, shops and restaurants. I had lunch at 34 Degrees South. My one hour SAA flight brought me to the third largest city in South Africa- Cape Town and its 3 ½ million inhabitants. Called the Gateway to the Wine Route (the largest in the world) you are less than an hour from Stellenbosch and the vineyards. In 1990 Nelson Mandela took his “walk to freedom” here.
I hope not to wait another 28 years before returning to South Africa.

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We crossed the Mediterranean Sea in a half hour trip from Algeciras, Spain to Ceuta, Spanish territory strategically situated north of Morocco. The border was the first contact with this different world that we were about to explore, so different and just from a few hours to the one we where used to hike and travel in our beloved old continent.
We arrived ´bout nine in the morning. ‘We’ were three friends that met in Dublin working in a traditional Irish pub. Only one, Nacho, had a valid driving license so he was the one behind the steering wheel during the entire trip. We gave our passports and papers to the Moroccan police; they stamped them and gave us a free entry visa for three months. The border was the first glimpse of what we were about to see during the eight days we spent in Morocco. Rows of women wearing long dresses and black veils covering part of their faces carrying heavy baskets full of lambs wool over their heads. Men wearing long and heavy hooded tunics walking quietly behind loaded mules following the way which non- friendly faced policemen ordered them to go. Little kids were running and playing soccer with a torn ball, some of them begging along the cars on the way out of the border.

When we finally crossed the border; a loud silence joined us while we were looking wide eyed from the window. Nacho was driving carefully and once in a while turned back to Agustin or me saying: ‘Look man!’.

The city of Tetouan was on the way to our first town scheduled, Chefchauen. We didn’t know where the exit was to grab the national road that would lead us to Chauen, so we asked for directions from a really nice guy in a motor bike, who cheered for Spain and Madrid when he saw us. We guessed that he saw Nacho’s car plates. He told us to follow him, which we naively did. We hadn’t been warned that people might take advantage; we asked him several times to take us to the road but instead he made us a city tour and finally left us where we met him twenty minutes before. Of course he asked us for some money for the service provided, and after fighting for a couple of minutes we gave him two euros and left him behind swearing at us. From that moment onwards we decided to ask the police for directions and finally found the road that took us to Chauen.

The journey took us into the heart of the Riff Mountains, the road was twisty and in bad condition. Paul McCartney’s acid interpretation in ‘You never give me your money’ from Abbey Road sounded from the CD player, whilst we encountered people running beside the road waving their hands offering us big packets of what we later found out from a local guy was hashish, a common thing to do in that region.

We finally arrived in Chauen, a little white town washed with the sweet sun of the Mediterranean. Every town and city in Morocco is divided in two parts: the ville nouvelle or new city, and the ancient medina where you find the real Morocco, a maze of little and noisy streets, houses, shops or souqs, street sellers and mosques, all surrounded by fortress walls with entrance arches generally located in the four corners of the medina.
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We found a very cheap hotel in the ville nouvelle, left our backpacks in the room and wondered down to the medina. When we entered the medina a completely new world appeared before our eyes. People stared at us with such intensity we felt like we were people running away from a mental institution. I gotta tell you that we never felt that watched before, we were starting to wonder when they last saw foreign people.

Chauen´s medina is small and quiet, houses and stairs are dyed with soft blues and cream colours giving a sensation of coolness and cleanliness. You just have to let go of everything else and get lost in the hundred of tiny narrow streets, trying no to bump on beggars sitting on the floor and street dealers offering you hash or marijuana. You have to answer politely but firmly and they won’t bother you any more. If you pass by any house-shop you will get the inevitable offer of visiting: ‘Please feel free to look around and touch, there is no need to buy, try it!’

The real thing is that you feel terrible entering their houses and not buying anything at all, all quality products and everything so beautifully on display. They even offer you tea or coffee. But you always end up feeling guilty because you wasted his time. During the next days we began to understand that it was all part of the game, so we relaxed and enjoyed.
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We decided to stop to have a mint tea in a typical coffee place, where woman are not allow to enter, when something incredible happened. For the first time, we heard the chants to call the people to prayer, coming from the speakers from one of the many mosques. It felt like time stopped and we were special guests in an Indiana Jones movie. The first stage in this amazing trip was as good as it gets. We went to sleep and woke up early the next morning to go to our next stop.

Nacho drove the two hundred or so kilometres between Chauen and Fez while Agustin and I quietly looked from the window trying to memorise everything that happened the first day. When we finally arrived at Fez, we found our hotel Hotel Amor, after asking several people for directions with Agustin’s best french: l´Hotel Amour?. Morocco has two official languages, Arabic and French, however Spanish and English are widely spoken due to the increase in tourism.
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Founded in the 8th century, Fez has been eclipsed by the big cities from the west: the official capital Rabat, and Casablanca and Marrakesh, tourist capitals. However no visit to the country is complete without seeing Fez. The medina is perhaps the most difficult to navigate due to the almost nine thousand streets and half a million residents. It makes sense to hire an official guide to show you the inside. Everything we expected from this trip when we were planning it in Dublin we found right there in Fez.

It was absolute chaos, from the sensation of being touched all the time by hurried pedestrians, to the traffic mules carrying heavy loads on their back struggling not to lose equilibrium while climbing steep streets, street sellers offering spices in big baskets over the floor, tourist groups trying to stay together, bazaar souqs selling huge varieties of meat. The medina itself is divided into quarters, in every quarter you find a mosque, a water fountain and a mud oven for bread. Sweet smells coming from these bakeries and for only ten dirham (one euro) you can eat a very tasty crepe. Our unofficial guide, Ahmed, led us to the main sights of the medina. He showed us a beautiful Koranic school in the Andaluz quarter, a couple of hammanes or baths, where women shower in the morning and men shower in the afternoons.
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We had lunch in a really cosy restaurant, gathering strength for the last part of the day. Shopping, is sometimes a great and sometimes an annoying experience in Morocco. Bargaining is an accepted was of life. The initial price will be extraordinary high, so you’ll have to counter-offer with a really low price. The salesman will be angry and even try to make you feel bad, saying things such as ‘I have to feed my family, this is excellent quality, hand made stuff, etc., etc’… But it’s all part of the game, so don’t fall for that and stick to your offer. He’ll ask you if your offer is the final one, say yes until he gets tired and sees that you are not changing the offer. It could help if you pretend to leave the shop and enter in another one, but he may grab you and throw you inside to finish the deal. We were now nearly at the end of our trip to Fez, so we made our deals and thanked Ahmed for the wonderful tour and went to the hotel to sleep. A long journey on the road waited for us.

Nacho’s brother, who had visited Morocco on several occasions told us that the Cascades d’Ozoud were a must. This oasis is located in the heart of the Atlas Mountains, running across the entire country, with a high peak of over four thousand metres. The road that led us to the Cascades was beautiful, with big views over olive fields, a natural lake surrounded by snow and small villages spread out over the coloured hills. Since we took longer than we expected to get there we decided to spend the night in Azilal, a red-brick coloured lost village in the middle of the Atlas. We spent the night in a gorgeous hotel where we had the best dinner of the trip, the hospitality was superb. We left early the next morning and arrived by noon at the Cascades. We hired a guide because we wanted to go down the waterfall to see where it flowed. We never dreamt of seeing these landscapes in Morocco, we thought that everything was arid and deserted. However the waterfall formed way up in the top of the canyon, three streams flowed in a tiny lake in a second level which finally flowed in an enormous and unique stream forming a deep and vast crystal lake.

With the end in sight, we were on our way to Marrakesh and Casablanca. We left the Cascades and took the national road to Marrakesh. After arriving in the afternoon, we found a great hotel with a balcony looking at the Djema’a al -Fna, the main square of the medina. This is the famous square where you can walk between musicians, people listening to storytellers, box fights between boys and girls, snake charmers, acrobats and mystics; it bursts with the noise of motor bikes, people offering their wares, kids running from the dangerous cobras. When the sun goes over the horizon the whole square converts into a big fast food restaurant, with dozens of different stands offering any Moroccan dish you can imagine. We spent three days there, just relaxing and wondering around the medina. We drank tea enjoying the sun and breathtaking views that terraces offered us.
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We said goodbye to Marrakesh, promising to come back again in the future and took the ferry to Casablanca. We wanted to see one of the two mosques that tourists are allowed to enter. After the three hour journey we arrived in the city. Flashbacks from the famous movie came to my mind and unfortunately we couldn’t find Rick’s Café. To be honest only Agustin entered the Mosque, but Nacho and I waited for him outside laying on the grass. Back at home we watched everything on Agustin´s video camera. It looked like the Basilica of San Pietro of Mosques, everything so boastful and wealthy, built with brilliant mastery, particularly on tiny details.

We spent the last night in Kenitra, a town near the frontier. We drank some beers in the hotel celebrating the end of the trip. Morocco is the most moving place I’ve ever visited; the places we visited and the views we saw will stay with me forever. Being on the road is a lifestyle waiting for you, it’s just there, within hand’s reach. All you need a backpack and the will.

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Travelers nowadays have to expect the unexpected. Our cruise from the Suez to Indian Ocean proves travelers today need flexibility. Recently, during fall’s hurricane season, passengers scheduled to sail on a cruise to Bermuda had their itinerary changed and headed up the northeast coast because of weather reports. In our own case, last November my wife, Gail, and I were on a Silversea cruise on the Silver Wind from Egypt to the Seychelles Islands when the unforeseen happened.

In our first week out the news came that a Seabourne Cruise line ship was attacked by pirates in the Red Sea off the coast of Somalia. People on our ship were concerned because this was the very place we would be sailing for the next day. Fortunately, the Seabourne ship evaded its attackers, but we learned that the dangerous situation there dictated that we change our course.

Capt. Angelo Corsaro informed us that Silver Wind would head west 200 miles away from the African coast. As well, he said that scheduled stops in Djibouti and Eritrea were cancelled. This alteration would give us extra days at sea, but this fact was sugar-coated with the news that we would make an additional stop in the Seychelles. Naturally, everyone agreed with the captain’s decision, but the additional sea days seemed a little more than anyone wanted. Ironically, though, the time turned out to be very enjoyable and certainly relaxing. We think that, as a group, Silversea guests may be more flexible than the average traveler.

What attracts passengers to Silversea, besides the impeccable service and luxury accommodations, is the adventurous nature of the itineraries. With an average 260 passengers aboard, Silversea ships are smaller than most cruise ships, which carry a thousand or more. Thus, its vessels can anchor in smaller ports and sail through passages which are inaccessible to the large ships.

For example, the Passage to Seychelles itinerary attracted us because it went to out-of-the-way places. The journey would take us through the Suez Canal with stops in the Red Sea at the Egyptian resorts of Sharm El Sheikh and Safaga, as well as up into the narrow Gulf of Aqaba to Jordan. Then it would dock on the Red Sea coast in Djibouti City, Djibouti, and Massawa, Eritrea. We are avid snorkelers and had heard about the great snorkeling and diving in the Red Sea. In addition, we enthusiastically looked forward to the Indian Ocean and our stay in the unspoiled Seychelles.
We arrived in Cairo a couple days before we were to board ship. We had visited the main sites in Egypt on a previous trip, but the extra time gave us an opportunity to overcome jet lag and to visit the Pyramids and the Cairo Museum again.

Our Cairo stay was at the lovely and ideally located Le Meridien Pyramids. After arriving early evening in Cairo, we staggered into bed, fatigued by the long flight from Los Angeles. When we awoke the next morning, we opened the curtains and there they were, the pyramids, looking to be about a half-mile from our hotel–a nice morning walk, we thought.

After breakfast we found out that walking was a “can’t get there from here” situation. What with the congested streets (Cairo’s traffic is among the world’s worst) and the confusing directions from folks on the street, we decided to take a taxi, which turned out to be the best way anyway. Our driver guided us through and gave us time to see everything.
At the Cairo Museum, first floor exhibits were easy to see and appreciate, but we found utter chaos with the crowds at the King Tut section on the second floor. We were happy to see work is progressing toward building a new, much larger museum out near the pyramids. Next day the bus left to take us and fellow passengers to Port Said, two hours away, to board ship.

There are four ships in the Silversea fleet. The Silver Cloud and Silver Wind, were the two original ships when the company began operations in1993. Dedicated to ultra-luxury cruising, each accommodates 296 passengers; both have recently been refurbished to join the line’s new ships, Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper, which are somewhat larger holding 382. Silversea has an all-inclusive policy with all beverages complimentary, including wine and spirits, as well as a no-tipping policy. The ratio of crew to passengers is one of the highest in the business–you know you’re going to get good service. Usually there are a majority of American passengers onboard, but on our trip there were more Europeans, attributed to the long flight from the United States.

On our drive to the port, the highway followed the Nile River delta, and the land was lush and green, full of farms. But beyond lay the arid Sahara Desert. (On our return flight from the Seychelles, when we flew over Egypt there was a ribbon of green winding through the vast expanse of desert–the inevitable path of the Nile, bringing life to Egypt.)
Late afternoon, we boarded ship in the bustling Port Said, where the Suez Canal begins. We were greeted by Silversea hosts, offered champagne and caviar, and taken to our cabin where we happily looked over our lavish quarters. We had our own private teak verandah, as do 80 percent of suites. We unpacked and had time for a drink before dinner as we gazed out at the twinkling lights of the city. We would set sail at 11 p.m.

There was no rush to the dining room for a specific seating as guests can dine when and with whom they please. We prefer to dine with others, finding it a great way to get to know fellow travelers. And, this proved to be perfect on our first night as we met a delightful British couple traveling with her mother. Over the course of the next 16 days, we continued to visit with other interesting passengers while enjoying delicious cuisine, including low calorie, low carb and Relais & Chateaux specialties.

After dinner and a late-night walk under the stars, we returned to our spacious suite. These larger than average suites (staterooms) add to the pleasure of sailing with Silversea. In addition to a comfortable queen-size bed (or twins), walk-in closet, mini-fridge and cocktail cabinet, each features a tastefully furnished sitting area with plenty of room to relax.

 

 

Through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea

Walking on deck next day, we saw ships of all types from freighters to luxury yachts, in front, behind and beside us cruising down the canal. (Traffic goes only one way at a time.) The canal, officially opened 1869, was built by Egyptian and French interests. It is approximately 108 miles long and a minimum 180 feet wide. It is extensively used by modern ships as the fastest crossing from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. In fact, taxes paid by vessels represent an important source of income to the Egyptian government. Likewise, the canal is the primary point from which goods are imported and exported.
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The banks alongside were sparsely populated. Occasionally we saw small settlements. Patches of green in the distance marked an oasis from time to time, but most of the way there was endless desert. The canal flows through two small lakes and at the end is the large Bitter Lake which makes up almost a fifth of its length. When we exited into the lake, a conglomeration of ships was waiting in line to head up to the Mediterranean.

First stop in the Red Sea was in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh, a famed spot for diving and snorkeling. For those not into water sports, the ship offered an excursion to St. Catherine’s Monastery, the oldest Christian Monastery in the world, with roots all the way back to Moses and the Burring Bush. Today it is still in use, inhabited by Greek Orthodox monks.
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We were anxious to check out the marine life in the Red Sea and signed up for the ship’s Red Sea Snorkeling Adventure which took us out to the reefs our first morning. To say that we were impressed would be an understatement. The water was crystal clear and the coral in all its various types was amazing–and the assortment of fish astonishing. We saw species we had seen in the Pacific and the Caribbean but in new colors here. For example, wrasse were in unique shades of blue, reds and greens And the surgeon fish were decorated with turquoise and white stripes.

We had rarely seen clown fish (our Egyptian guide called them “Nemo” fish), but they abounded, venturing in and out of its protective anenome shelter. We were ingratiated by a large three-foot orange-spotted emperor fish which invited us to pet him. Most surprising, though, we saw the outrageously bedecked lion fish sporting his lacy, striped wing-like fins, floating by as if he was in a fashion show. (We’d only seen one before hidden away in crevices.) By the end of the day we were in agreement that the Red Sea was our new favorite snorkel spot. Of course, we still had the Indian Ocean awaiting us in the Seychelles.
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Next day took us to Aqaba, Jordan. Most of the passengers opted to take the one-day excursion to world-famous Petra, a 2,000-year old Nabataen fortress city. Some went on for another day to a Dead Sea resort and to visit the ancient Biblical sites of Mount Nebo and Madaba. We had been to Petra before, so we opted for a half-day trip to see Wadi Rum, the place made famous by Lawrence of Arabia. We were enthralled by the cathedral-like Seven Pillars of Wisdom rock formations rising from the endless sand dunes. We finished our trip by taking tea with a tribe of bedouins in their leader’s lavish tent.

After two days in Aqaba, it was on to Safaga, Egypt. For many, this stop would provide the cruise highlight. They would take the three-hour bus ride to stay overnight in Luxor, visiting the Temples of Karnak and Luxor, followed next day by a walk in the Valley of the Kings. We had visited Luxor before and were anxious to stay in Safaga, listed in travel books as one of the Red Sea’s prime diving spots.
Safaga is a small port town with a few luxury resorts on its outskirts. Adjacent to the Sheraton Soma Bay Resort is a long pier, going some hundred yards out. Divers and snorkelers as well enter the sea from the end and are immediately on a reef. The resort itself is something to see. Replicas of ancient Egyptian statuary line the long driveway entrance. A golf course lies close which contains very narrow grass fairways (water being a premium). If you’re drive is slightly off, you’re in deep sand. Silversea arranged for passengers to have access to the resort. When we weren’t out with our mask and fins, we lay on lounge chairs on the beach or by the pool.
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Relaxing on the High Seas

After leaving Safaga, facing the extra days at sea at first seemed somewhat daunting, but soon we fell into a routine, and, ironically, when we finally reached land days later, we felt a slight tinge of regret that our pleasant routine would be interrupted.

First thing in the morning, after breakfast, we would do brisk laps walking around the top deck; then it might be time to go to an informative talk. Most days there would be 10:30 a.m and 2:30 p.m lecture programs in the theater lounge. For example, Dr. Roger Lederer, biology professor at California State University, Chico, informed us about the places we would visit from the Suez to the Seychelles; he also gave power-point presentations on the oceans, as well as the plants and animals we would encounter at our various stops.

Since the theme of this cruise was “The Spirit of Exploration,” one of the world’s renowned underwater explorers, Dr. Joe MacGinnis, was on board to speak and show films of his many deep-sea expeditions. He was on the Titanic discovery dive which inspired James Cameron to make the movie, “Titanic.” MacGinnis continues to work with Cameron and showed the director’s recent IMAX feature “Aliens of the Deep.” To further entertain us were stage shows at night performed by a company of talented young singers and dancers.

When physical or mental activities became too much, we didn’t miss a chance to relax on our verandah with a book, looking up every once in a while to see flying fish or dolphins chasing the ship. Nodding off for a little nap wasn’t out of the question. Everyday as we sailed closer to the equator, it became warmer, and the pool area was increasingly popular.

 

 

Past the Equator–On to the Seychelles

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The day before we arrived in the Seychelles we crossed the equator, and, as most know there are rituals imposed on “first-timers” going over the earth’s dividing line. These ceremonies, dating back to when the Vikings roamed the sea, were pretty rough in olden times. “Shellbacks” initiated “pollywogs” by making them go through disgusting actions before a designated “King Neptune,” such as kissing the belly of the “Royal Baby,” the fattest chief on board, and eating sickening food.

Today’s proceedings are less serious, more a celebration. The ship had its own ceremony pool-side which was fun for all. A representative sample of voyagers (all volunteers) were presented one by one and doused with flour and raw eggs, and then made to kiss a fish. It was a lively event witnessed and photographed by most of the passengers.
The next day we arrived in the Republic of Seychelles, a nation of islands in the Indian Ocean, some thousand miles east of Kenya. It constitutes an archipelago of about 115 islands, of which 33 are inhabited. Mahe is the largest, containing the capital city of Victoria. The granite islands around Mahe are the most populated. Those outlying are mostly coral atolls.
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The Seychelles are home to 81 endemic species, the most famous being the Coco de Mere, sometimes nicknamed the “love nut” because of its suggestive shape. There is no indigenous population; citizens are predominantly of French, African, Indian and Chinese descent. The French took control of the islands in 1756, but the British gained possession in1814. The Seychelles were granted independence in 1976. Today the islands are clean, well kept and the citizens are comparatively well off–no hustlers and beggars on the streets.

We visited three islands before disembarking in Mahe. Here are some highlights:
*Desroches is small, flat and sparsely populated. Its major attraction is a beautiful beach fringed by palms.
A reef lies about 50 yards out. After swimming to it in shallow water, we had one of our greatest ever snorkeling experiences. After awhile, we came upon a tower of coral with the most varieties of fish we had ever seen in a small space, including many of our favorites–the moon-shaped marong fish and the oriental sweetlips with his polka dot patterned fins–even a lionfish slowly gliding through the multitude. (*Photo of Beach)

*La Digue consists of four square miles, with 2,000 islanders, the majority of whom work in coconut and vanilla plantations. There are a few cars here, but most get around on bicycles and oxcarts. Many ship’s passengers piled towels and gear into baskets and pedaled to the beach–the most photographed in the world with giant granite boulders sculpted into strange shapes by the elements, looming like sentinels above the sand and in the water.
We swam to the outer reef. At first the water was almost too warm, but a cool current came in and it was perfect. I was entranced watching a large octopus wind in and out of the coral, but Gail made a hasty exit back to the shore when she saw several ugly scorpion fish lying on the bottom–deadly poisonous if touched.

*Praslin, called a tropical Eden, is the second largest in the chain. Here we took the excursion to the Vallee de Mai World Heritage site located in the lush tropical highlands where the coco de mer grows in abundance. Our guide took us on a lovely walk, while explaining the strange features of the palm and pointing out exotic birds.*(Photo of coco palm)
All too soon, we reached Mahe and our 17-day cruise was over–but, fortunately for us, we had two more days before flying home. We stayed at the Le Meridien Fisherman’s Cove, the hotel of honeymooners as it’s been called. There are 70 guest rooms and suites with oversized bathrooms and private terraces.

Individual bungalows face the water, a few yards from the beach–the ultimate in romantic getaways. Also a snorkelers paradise–out the door, a minute to the sand and into the lagoon. Meals were delicious, particularly in the open air, over-the-water Le Bourgeois restaurant. I had one of my best dinners ever–a whole fish, pan-grilled, probably caught an hour ago. In addition, there is the Le Meridien Barbarons on the west side of the island. It is more suited for families with a modern, sleek design and an abundance of activities for children. Together the two cater to all aspects of the tourist market.

Fisherman’s Cove’s manager said that the hotel gets most of its business from Europeans because of its distance from the United States. We think, however, more Americans should add a jaunt to the Seychelles when in Africa on a game safari. It’s only a short flight from Kenya and not far from South Africa. Better yet, sign up for a Silversea cruise. You can bet the ship will be going back.

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I visited the Lake Eyasi region, in Tanzania, for the first time. It is an incredible area that is remote and one gets a sense of how life must of been hundreds of years ago in Tanzania. This area is worth the visit for those of you that enjoy hiking and beautiful scenery.

There is a remote tribe that many conservationists, ecologists, and local concerned citizens have for years and continue today to help protect. This tribe is called the Hadzabe. These Nomads of Tanzania have gone through many hardships of the decades, but with assistance and good fortune their lifestyle has been maintained. I
have never heard of this particular tribe, during my last two visits, so I was anxious to meet them and learn about their culture. Depending on who one speaks to there are approximately 200 – 2,000 of these hunters left. That is not a lot so you can see why they need help to preserve their lifestyle My guide took me to meet one of the Karatu village (small town) locals by the name of Momoya Muhindoi. Momoya is a very pleasant gentleman who seems to be well respect-ed within the region.
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Many other tour guides use Momoya because of his knowledge of the region, his connections, and he speaks many of the local dialects that a lot of guides do not speak. So, we were off to spend sometime with one of the adzabe groups.

After a brief introduction to learn about their lifestyle and palm branches huts we set off for a hunt. The hunt lasted approximately one and a half hour. These people hunt like their ancestors did hundreds of years prior, with bows and arrows. They are excellent trackers and their prey may allude them for awhile, but not for long. We were in search of a Dik-Dik and when one was observed the first arrow went through the neck.
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A fire was started and the Dik-Dik was placed on it. The fur had to be burned off before there could be a meal. The small game animal was gutted and nothing went to waste. What they did not eat, including the brain, their dog ate. Their food is not cooked. It is eaten raw and bloody. I was asked if I wanted to try some and I agreed if they would cook my portion somewhat. Dik-Dik, to me, taste like liver which is not my favorite.

When the meal was over we returned to their temporary home, campsite. These are wonderful people to spend some quality time with. A visit with the Hadzabe is educational, exciting, and adventurous. Be prepared to get very dirty when you go on a hunting trip with them. When the wind starts blowing the dust can be very heavy and will stick to you like glue. Hopefully these people and their traditions will last for several more decades for others to experience.
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Since I was a child, I always wanted to go on an African Safari. With my husband and two other couples, we decided to book a private tour. We departed Nairobi and connected with a charter bush flight from Wilson Airport to the Chyulu Hills. We stayed four nights at Campi ya Kanzi, which means “Camp of the Hidden Treasures”. The camp is located within a 400 square mile private ranch with a spectacular view of Mount Kilimanjaro. It accommodates 14 guests in seven luxurious thatched roof guesthouses, with elegant bathrooms. At night, the Maasai guards, patrol the camp, as the animals roam freely about.
The Maasai own the land, making it one of the last unspoiled areas in Africa. It connects three national parks and becomes a highway for the vast wildlife population. A portion of the daily rate, is given to the Maasai people of the KuKu Group Ranch. The money is used to improve the health facilities and education of the people. It provides water and the preservation of the land and animals.

Twice a day we would go on a game drive in two 4 wheel drive Landrovers with our Maasai trackers. Elephants, cape water buffalo, hartebeest, giraffes, cheetahs and lions, were in constant view. We learned about medicinal plants and discussed animal behavior. Pashiet, our tracker, explained that until recently, the way a Maasai boy would achieve warrior status, would be to kill a lion single-handedly with his spear. Pashiet, himself was a warrior. Their bright red robes set them apart. With a spear in hand, they are calm and courageous, regardless of danger. Normally, the Maasai and the wildlife live together peacefully.

One morning, we had breakfast down by a watering hole, where the animals were going for a drink. They were passing right by us, as if we were not there. We could not believe they were not looking at us, as a meal. Some evenings, we would experience a great tradition known as the “sundowner”. We would climb the hills and look at the magnificent sweeping views and watch the most beautiful sunsets, we had ever seen. Afterwards, we would take a game drive back to camp in time to freshen up for supper. Our guides took us to their village and explained about their culture and traditions.

The Maasai are mainly cattle herders and measure their wealth by the number of cattle. We were able to visit and see them in their daily life. The women construct an “enkang” (corral) in a circle, enclosed by a fence of thorn bushes. The huts are made out of cow dung, urine, sticks and ash. They walk many miles daily to get water and carry it back. They care for the children and prepare the meals. The men and boys tend to the sheep and cattle. The men are allowed to marry more than one woman, but it is expensive as they must pay about 20 cattle to her family. She then lives in the same village as the first wife. The first wife also builds the huts for her husbands other wives. Periodically, the group will abandon the enkang and build a new one in an area with better grazing and water.
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We visited a Maasai school. The children, who attend school, must wear a uniform. They were delighted to see us. In front of a classroom, I asked if they had any questions. They asked where I lived. I explained I lived in Florida, near an ocean. They had no idea what an ocean was. I explained that it was like seeing the Serengeti, only with water, instead of ground. I told them I swim in the ocean. They asked what animals I swim with. They liked having their pictures taken. They are taught 3 languages, Kiswahili, Maa (a spoken language) and English. They learn history, and Algebra. The children were so happy and eager to learn. They asked if we would come back and teach them. Reluctantly, we had to move on to the next part of our trip. We flew by bush plane to Tanzania and drove to Ngorongoro Highlands, to stay at Kibo Farm House. The camp is built on a 500 acre farm and tends a 6 acre organic garden and 15 acre coffee plantation. They produce their own fruits and vegetables as well as lamb, chicken and beef.
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We departed in the morning for an all day trip into the Ngorongoro crater, which has been designated a World Heritage Site. It is a two million year old, 126 square mile volcanic crater. The crater walls are 2000 ft high. It contains three rivers, several swamps, a soda lake, an acacia forest and open plains. It is said that it rivaled Mt. Kilimanjaro in size. The lava that had filled the volcano, collapsed when the molten rock subsided. There are over 25,000 larger animals within the crater. When we approached the soda lake, it looked as though it was outlined in pink. Only when you drive closer, do you realize it is flamingoes and other water birds in the lake, on the floor of the crater.

After breakfast we drove to Serengeti National Park, where we stopped at Olduvai Gorge, the famous archaeological site where the Leakey’s discovery, brought us to a better understanding of the evolution of the human species.
We drove to our next stay in ‘luxury’ mobile tents, with king size beds, flush toilets and bush showers. This was supposed to be the same way Hemingway stayed. When we entered our tent, we noticed a battery operated lantern and right next to it a very large machete, to protect ourselves. I cut myself slicing a bagel!
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That night, we were so surprised to hear this loud deafening sound. It turned out to be the wildebeest and zebra. They are very vocal with grunts and snorts. It was especially loud, as there turned out to be 1 million of the estimated 1 ½ million migrating through our campsite. This became our background over the next 5 days.

The Serengeti is the most impressive wildlife sanctuary in the world. We spent our days up close and personal with all the animals. One day, we were driving through some high grass when our other car got stuck in an elephant footprint. It had rained the night before and as the elephants passed through; they made large ruts in the ground. The cars tire was in this hole as they tried to push it out. Our car was on ‘cat watch’. The time had come to say “kwaheri” (goodbye) to our guides and Africa. I will always have a special place in my heart for the Maasai. I don’t feel there will ever be a trip that will come close to this one. A piece of my heart has been left there. I will be back!

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September 11, the war in Iraq, and resultant fears made some wonder why we would continue to travel. However, we needed to put the risks in perspective and use this as an opportunity to interact in a positive way with people outside our borders. Using the same common sense precautions that we would in any large city, we came home with incomparable memories.

It is better to walk than curse the road. – Wolof (tribal, Senegal) proverb
Our cruise began in the Amazon on the Royal Princess . We were docked in Dakar, Senegal, the westernmost point in Africa, a major commercial port.

 

 

Senegal: scenic, sensory, and spirited

Yes, the street vendors are persistent in Dakar, but it is part of the culture and experience, best treated with good humor. Produce, household goods, and jewelry dotted the sidewalks. Women in brightly colored dresses balanced bowls filled with cloth dolls on their heads. We made our way along the bustling port to the to the local ferry stop, winding our way through the hubbub of the street. We were headed for the Ile de Goree on a Saturday, the ferry teeming with families, other tourists, and peanut vendors.

Until Dakar was established in the mid-19th century, Ile de Goree was a leading commercial trade center. From the 16th century, shipping barons also profited from intertribal rivalries; victors sold the defeated into slavery. “There it is,” a father told his little boy, pointing to a building just in sight– “The Door of No Return”. We docked and headed for the Maison des Esclaves (Slave House) 1776, preserved as a memorial to past horrors. Looking out the door through which thousands passed, we could see only the ocean. Inside were holding cells, chains… symbols of man’s inhumanity to man… Today the house was filled with tourists, taking photos in what might for some have been the path of their forefathers. !

Now the island is an inviting weekend destination, an escape from the city, with ochre-colored colonial houses, gardens, museums, schools, restaurants and shops. Warm breezes carry the scent of fragrant flowers. Children scurry along the underground passages of the fortress; others enjoy spectacular views.
Shopping here is more laid-back than the markets of Dakar, with colorful wares from throughout Africa — batik cloth, and caftans, jewelry, masks, sand paintings and wood carvings for sale. We bought cloth dolls from one of the young women eager to make a sale. She followed us, pressing into my hand two colorful bracelets, “A gift to nice people”, she said, “a souvenir”— now a personal treasure.

There was time to see the center of Dakar, and boarded the Princess cruise line shuttle to the Place de l’Indépendence and walked to the handicraft markets and the Palais Présidential, surrounded by lush gardens. We returned to the ship just in time for the folkloric show, featuring energetic local dancers, musicians and firebreathers! What a treat!

 

 

Morocco— Medinas and minarets, sultans and souks, kaftans and carpets…

Next was Agadir, Morocco, a fishing port and Morocco’s top tourist resort, averaging over 300 sunny days yearly. Once home of Morocco’s Barbary pirates, it was rebuilt after the devastating 1960 earthquake. Our driver took us to the Kasbah (fortress) for the spectacul! ar view overlooking the city, modern harbor, golden beaches and luxury hotels.

Goats herders were on the steep slopes below. Wide, tree-lined boulevards led to narrow streets and the old Berber village souk (market) – a sensory delight — spices, vegetables, clothing, pottery, leather goods, jewelry, metalware, and more — and a display of meats, animal heads and hooves that elicited gasps from unsuspecting tourists! We sat with a merchant clad in a traditional jellaba, the hooded garment with wide sleeves, sampling sweet mint tea as he described spices in a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere….
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One more day remained on this continent — in the celebrated Casablanca — Morocco’s largest city, and the busiest seaport in North Africa. This leading industrial and commercial center of Morocco is quite unlike the movie of the same name. We headed first for the capital city of Rabat. Mohammed’s English was limited, but combined with what I remembered of my high school French, we communicated well enough with our driver. A CD of rai music set the mood as we became absorbed in the contrasts of old and new surrounding us.

Rabat, a modern mix of European and Islamic influences, is the last of the four imperial cities. The political and administrative capital since the French occupation, it is also the royal family residence. Our first stop was at Chellah, considered most beautiful of the Moroccan ruins. Established in 200 BC, it was for a millennium the prosperous Roman town of Sala Colonia. From the 14th century, it was a necropolis (burial area) for such notables as the great Sultan El Hassan and the “Black Sultan” and his favorite wife, until destroyed by an earthquake in 1755. Beyond the massive Merenid gate is a valley of flower gardens and fruit trees overlooking the river. Storks swoop down on the menagerie of nests perched high on the ruins, bringing tidbits to tiny mouths. The archaeological museum is the best in Moro! cco.
The traditionally Moroccan white marble Mausoleum of King Mohammed V, inspired by Napoleon’s tomb is most impressive. An intricately tiled modern Islamic interior surrounds the white onyx tomb of the king. The Royal Guard protects this magnificent site by day and night, honoring the king who led the country to independence.

Opposite is the 12th century Hassan Tower, a massive 144 foot high minaret with walls 8 feet thick and interior ramps that can accommodate a horse and rider. Two hundred columns stand where the original mosque was to have been constructed. Want a henna tattoo, inexpensive jewelry—or a fez? Bargains are just outside the gate.
After passing the royal palace, mosque and gardens we walked through the grand gate of the Kasbah des Oudaïas, former fortress of the Almohads, Merenids and Andalucians. A labyrinth of colorful lanes led us to a terrace overlooking the ocean. Nearby is the Musée des Oudaïas (Museum of Moroccan Arts), in a 17th century palace, and the lovely Andalusian Gardens.
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The scenic shoreline route back to Casablanca brought us past crashing waves and fisherman, some selling their catch. Casablanca’s Corniche area offered beautiful beaches, promenades, popular restaurants and nightclubs.
Our focus was traditional Morocco, and our first stop was Old Medina, the original town, now a market district with rampart walls, narrow streets, whitewashed houses, and fascinating food and spice stalls. Many souks line the traditional Arabian style streets and courtyards of the Habous Quarter, or “new medina”. Bargaining for copper, silver, ceramics, cloth, and rugs is an artful game, part of the experience. Hungry? Stop at Chez Benis, renowned for its pastry. The local Central Market completed our shopping experience.

The day’s finale was the magnificent Hassan II Mosque, a masterpiece of intricate mosaics and marble completed in 1993 at a cost of $500 million. It is the only mosque in Morocco non-Muslims may enter. The largest religious building in Africa, it is second-largest in the world, after the mosque in Mecca. It features a retractable roof and accommodates 25,000 inside and 85,000 outside. The world’s tallest minaret stretches 650 feet high, appearing to touch the bright sun.

It was time to return to our ship, but not before our driver had presented us with a bouquet of roses. As we sailed away, darkness surrounded us, except for the brightly lit mosque, the laser beam shining brightly atop the minaret, a beacon toward Mecca, beckoning us to return to this exotic continent.
Believe what you see and lay aside what you hear. Moroccan Proverb