Tag Archives: Africa

The Calm before the Storms

Alternatively, I was thinking of titling this post, “Restful Day and Red Bananas”, but I couldn’t help but throw a little literary allusion to my writing for the day 🙂 I’ve been alternating between thinking about blogging about several days at a time vs. one day at a time, and so far, the daily blog seems to be the way I’m going. Takes a lot longer, but there’s lots to talk about when it comes to a once-in-a-lifetime trip. This post is one of the few days where we didn’t really have much on tap. We were slated to visit a local village and do some shopping, and our base for the day was a really cool ‘permanent’ camp where there were tons of blue-balled monkeys running around. Yes, there is a very good reason that they are called that, and if you turn your attention to some of the pictures that were put up from the day, you’ll see why 🙂 As it turns out, this was also really the only chance we’d have at doing shopping for our Secret Santa. Read on for more.

The camp where we had stayed for the night was a real treat in my mind in comparison to the various other lodgings we’d be seeing on this trip. We truly were running the whole gamut. Hotel, lodges, cabins, tents, and now permanent camps. So what is a permanent camp? Well, rather than describe it for you, the best bet is for you to just check out a short video that I made of the tent I stayed in. Essentially, it was more like a cottage, but with canvas walls. We had a nice deck, and an attached washroom / shower area as part of our tent. Ours happened to have a big queen bed, whereas others had two single beds in them. As usual, Deb was a good sport, and got her own place, complete with a vacant bed, to which we started teasing her that it would be for her ‘company’. Perhaps the monkeys? Of course, she would have the last laugh up in the mountains, where she had a tent all to herself where the rest of us had to crowd 2 people and all our gear in the ~3-person tents.

Each tent was pretty separated from the rest, and there were nice paths winding all through the grounds to take you to each tent. Also, there were monkeys everywhere here during the day. They were more scarce at night, but at that time, there were other animals making their way around camp. Our meals there were served in a big mess tent, complete with bar (which we once again made good use of). As per usual, wine, beer, and conversation flowed easily. This was also one of the first nights we decided we might want some local music to enjoy. As the night wore on, Deb and I were determined to try and get the bar staff to turn the tunes up a little louder so that we might have a dance party. Instead, things sort of fizzled out and we made our way back to our tents.

As a group, we decided that for the next day, we wanted to only spend a little while shopping locally, and hopefully be able to head back to Arusha early in the afternoon in order to take advantage of the pool, and to get all our gear sorted out for Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro. On the safaris, we’d only taken daypacks, so most of our gear was still in storage. That plan suited everyone, so we just relaxed for the rest of the evening.

At this point, we also firmed up the plans for Secret Santa. I’d already distributed names, so everyone knew who they had to buy for. The plan was you had to buy for someone you didn’t know on the trip (i.e. couples couldn’t buy for each other, nor father and son). We set a 10,000 Tanzanian shilling limit as well (about $8USD). We figured that would give it enough money to buy something with some meaning without breaking the bank. Now the race was on to do stealth shopping. Several of us started the next morning early by heading to a nearby artist gallery. That’s where I actually bought the gift I gave my secret santa, which was a Masai Calabash (similar to the one pictured here). While there I also snagged a cool abstract zebra painting for about $20USD (which I’m sure will cost more that 25 times that to actually frame!).

I can’t say whether everyone else was as successful with their shopping for Secret Santa there, but I know for certain that both Deb and Jody came out with numerous newspaper-wrapped goodies. After breakfast, our man Julius swung by to drive us into the actual village of Lake Manyara, where there was a big shopping area. In truth, this market was quite overwhelming. People weren’t super-aggressive or anything, but everyone wanted us to visit their shops. Most held the same range of hand-made goods, even though they all claimed their goods were the best. No sooner were you trying to exit one booth as another smiling African would corral you to his wares. Always with the promise that you would get their best price of the day, since you were their first customer. Sure thing, boss 🙂 In the end, I did do pretty much all my touristy shopping here, and got what I thought were pretty respectable deals (like bartering from 90,000 shillings to 35,000 shillings for a Masai game).

The other aspect of the market which got tiring was the fact that everyone there wanted you to trade what you had on you. Had I known that I might have brought some extra stuff. I kid you not when I say the ONLY thing that they didn’t seem to want to trade me for was my underpants! Shoes, socks, shorts, shirt, hat, sunglasses, watch… everything! I didn’t have the heart to explain that in order to get my watch, they’d pretty much have to give up a quarter of their booth! Like I said though, they were terribly pushy, just always there. The Peruvians were much more annoying at this game. Regardless, I did grow tired of it, and had to find some refuge, which ultimately lead me to one of my ‘purer’ African cultural moments.

After the cluttered booths, I made my way to the rear of the market, which was actually the vegetable and food market for the locals, where less of the tourists would trod. I wandered around to the very back, until I came across a little vegetable booth being run by a fellow probably a little younger than me. I’m not sure how, but we ended up striking a conversation, and this fellow was keen to learn all about me and Canada. Best part of the conversation? He wanted nothing from me, just a talk. He learned with great interest that I was an engineer, to which he explained he wanted to be an engineer for cars (mechanic), and was running this booth in the meantime. However, he really loves his vegetables and only sells what he likes. By this point, I wanted to make a gesture to show my appreciation for this moment, and asked how much for a cucumber. He didn’t want to take any money for it, rather wanted to offer it to me for free. He even took it away to wash it for me, and proceeded to peel and cut if for me. So here I am, smile on my face cucumber in my hand just enjoying the moment. We actually exchanged addresses and I promised to send him news from Canada. It was great!

I bid him farewell, and with a light step, made my way back forward where I came across John and Dylan working on a negotiation for some red bananas. They are a local specialty, and one which we wanted to try out. They are sweeter than regular bananas, but take longer to grow, and are therefore a bit more expensive. I jumped in on the haggling, but soon found out that the price he was offering was pretty much the best I’d heard in the market. So, we picked up 8 bananas, enough for 1 each in our group including Julius. We paid the man, and headed back up to the truck, since it was time to make our way back to the camp for lunch. The banana was definitely unique and tasty, but not really earth-shattering. But where else have you ever seen red bananas I ask??

Back at the camp, we had to settle in for ‘Africa Time’, which basically means you have to adjust your expectations for things happening at the time when you were told they would. We had been previously told lunch would be at noon, but that time came and went with no hint of food. We were anxious to get back on the road to Arusha, but what can you do? So we sat. And watched monkeys play and fight. They certainly can be nasty to one another. I think we still managed to get back on the road by around 1:30pm, which put us on the final stretch to our mountain lodge at about 3:30. Still plenty of time for dip in the pool and a nice quick shower before more beer and food could make their way to us, which is exactly how the rest of the day played out. My meal du jour was a delicious Jaeger Schnitzel. Yum. Not what I had expected to order in Africa, but what can I say, once I read it on the menu, I had to try it!

Well, it looks like I’ve come to the end of yet another blog post, so I’m faced with trying to come up with my parting thought of the day. Hmm, let’s see, I think my take-away from this day would be: take the good days that are given to you. Enjoy all the good things, tolerate the less-then-perfect. The future is never a certainty, so find enjoyment in what you can. If you are finding yourself in an uncomfortable place, seek peace in a quieter path. Rest up friends, for tomorrow, I start dragging you up a real mountain 🙂 !

Mountain March with a Masai Ranger

Good news everybody. Today I can finally write about getting out of the safari vehicle and actually doing some real hiking. Mind you, I’m not talking about a multi-day challenging trudge or anything, but at least the dust in my nose would be from kicking at the dirt rather than by driving through it, so that’s something. Our first foray into the hills was a hike up Mount Lemagrut, which is one of 9 craters in the Ngorongoro conservation area. Although we’d be trekking up to 3100m this day, we were starting out at about 2400m, so the overall altitude gain and loss wasn’t going to be that great. This would however serve as our first acclimatization hike of sorts, and give us an idea how we might do as a group on the more challenging days ahead of us. This is also the first time I’ll be sharing a nice map of the trek with you all. As you might expect, I carried a GPS with me for most of the trip, and made a number of maps to show you where we went. Along with the map you can also head to flickr and check out the set of pictures and videos from the day. Once you’ve taken all that in and set the scene, come on back and read the rest of my tale!

Our day got off to a nice start, as the sun was shining, and there were almost no clouds in the sky. We all got back together for our final breakfast at the Rhino lodge, and before we knew it we were packed back into our safari vehicle for another dusty ride to the start of our mountain trail. The way to the trail was some more dirt roads winding its’ way around the park. We drove by several Masai villages just waking up for the day. Each night in these villages, the Masai take their animals in to protect them from predators, and each morning, the animals are led back outside the village to graze during the day. There are fairly well defined roles and responsibilities in the villages as well. The young boys are first allowed to tend to the goats and sheep, and as they get older, they are eventually given the responsibility of looking after the cows, which are a sacred animal to the Masai.

At any rate, it was always an impressive site to see the Masai around their villages. They typically wear just a red coloured cloak and have leather sandals. To protect the animals, each warrior carries a long slender spear, and a knife strapped to their waist. Nothing more. To become warriors, they must prove that they are capable of killing a lion with their bare hands. Of course, they aren’t actually allowed to kill lions anymore, but that is the way tradition was. Furthermore, they must wander the plains usually for around a year before they are ready to become true warriors. It makes for a very fascinating way of life (at least to us tourists). The Masai have lived this way for hundreds of years, and will likely continue to live that way for hundreds more. That isn’t to say that many young people are lured away to the ‘cities’, but the culture does indeed appear to still be alive and well.

Before getting to the mountain, we also had to swing by the ranger station to pick up our ‘guide’, which is basically an armed ranger to hike with us. His job? Lead us up the mountain, and make sure no animals decide we’d make a nice snack. To fulfil that part of his job, the ranger carried, what else, but an automatic weapon. Apparently we had to wake him up to get him to join, but after seeing his gun, we decided not to give him too hard a time 🙂 His english was spotty at best, but he did try his best throughout the day.

Along the walk, I learned that he himself was also a Masai warrior. I saw my opening, and asked him why he wasn’t defending us with only a spear and a knife. His response? With a pretty much straight face he showed me his weapon, and said “automatic spear”. ‘Nuff said. I cracked up with that one. It was easily the quote of the entire trip to me! 🙂

Upon arrival at the start of the hike, our little team was quite excited to actually get on our feet I think. We stood around the truck while our driver Julius explained that the guide would take us up alone, and that he would be back at 3:30pm to pick us up. And with that, we started our hike. The path first took us through another couple villages, where we got a closer glimpse of life in the villages. There were lots of children interested in talking to us and seeing what we were up to. The guide always seemed to take the time to talk to the children and learn a bit about them. He was also quick to keep reminding us that taking pictures of the villagers was a definite no-no. We could take some pictures of the village provided there were no people in the shot, but that was about it. If we really wanted a picture though, it would have simply been a matter of paying some money to the village. We weren’t too keen on that though, so we kept our cameras respectfully out of sight for the most part.

The actual hike was really pretty easy. Think of it as a gradual hike up grassy slopes. The terrain changed a few times, but in general, there wasn’t much to this hike. A couple of us were keen on hiking a bit quicker that others, but for safety reasons, we all had to maintain pretty much the same pace. This sort of modus operandi would repeat itself throughout the rest of the trip. In this case, it was mainly to make sure no animals were stalking any of us or would take us by surprise. I’m happy to report that fear never materialized. The most we saw were a few buffalo. No lions or anything else of real danger.

Our biggest struggle probably would have came when we had to hike through the really high grass, that tended to grow in ‘clumps’. At the top, is just looks like a field of deep grass, but you soon found out that at its’ base, all of the grass was part of clumps, meaning we kept tripping or bumping into the clumps. It wasn’t very graceful. However, we got through it unscathed.

About halfway up, we stopped at a nice spot to have a look down the valley to the villages. It was a nice moment. We hadn’t really been working too hard, but it was still nice to finally be ‘away from it all’. Here we were, high up on a grassy slope, no cars, no roads, no people, no noises. Just us. Looking down in the sunshiny day at African tribal villages. In the distance we could see other lakes in the region, as well as the general national park goodness that was all around us. We snapped a few shots, including a group shot, then turned tail and started making our way up to our eventual lunch stop at that 3,100m mark of the mountain. We got there in what was probably exactly the time that the guide had anticipated. Here’s another funny thing about the Masai. We were told they usually only drink once a day, and rarely need food or water. However, before too long on the hike, our guide actually asked for water from Deb. A bit ironic I thought, but we decided not to poke fun, nor tell the elders. Wouldn’t want him to get in trouble would we? We also gave him food while we ate lunch at the top, as he didn’t have anything with him.

The view from the top? Well, let’s just say it was very peaceful. We each ate our boxed lunch and then laid back and relaxed and watched the world roll by at our feet. We had a view down to the Serengeti, although much like the crater, from our height, we couldn’t see much other than vast land stretching before us. We were actually able to roughly trace out the route we’d driven yesterday, as we could make out the ribbon of road, and picked out the Olduvai Gorge, then on to the actual Serengeti where we drove around far off in the distance. I felt completely relaxed for the first time in quite a while. Having nothing in particular to do or place to be, I just let myself watch the clouds and shoot the breeze with my travel mates.

However, I eventually became a bit antsy, and got my pack back on and asked if it was time to go. Turns out, it was 🙂 We loaded back up and once again picked our way back down the mountain. Funny enough, I kept getting the feeling that the guide didn’t really have a route in mind, he just meandered throughout the various trails and fields, trying to avoid the grasses that would irritate our legs (and there were quite a few of those). Wearing shorts would have been ill-advised. Even through pants, most of us ended up getting some irritations. Generally, it would last for about 15-20 minutes of burning, then pass. Not fun, but not the end of the world.

The route down was another leisurely stroll for the group. It was obvious that not everyone wanted to go at the same pace when we were hiking, but all in all, I didn’t see any need to get concerned about pacing or our ability to finish the hikes. It was a great first day of hiking. We made it out to meet Julius right on time, and made our way to a permanent camp at a place called Lake Manyara for the evening. I’ll write a bit about that in another post, but basically, we were going to have a day more or less off to do some shopping and touring before preparing for our major hikes. Check back later for those stories.

Thought of the day for this post? Life is as hectic and as complicated as you make it to yourself. Keep that in mind, and you can slow it down when you need it to. Take the time to just look at the clouds sometimes. It’ll help clear your mind and get ready for what’s next 🙂

Following in the Footsteps of Ancient Man

Good evening and welcome back to another exciting chapter in the African Adventures saga. Once again, strap yourself into the safari vehicle, as Team Cantrailia was once again taking to the dusty roads in search of more of the ‘Big 5’, and any other animals we could scare up. After a lovely evening at Rhino Lodge, it was now time to make our way to two other very famous Tanzanian destinations. First stop of the day would be the Olduvai Gorge, followed by a visit to the Serengeti. If you’re interested in taking a preliminary trip through the eyes rather than needing to read my ramblings, click on over to Flickr and check the set of images out from the day. As you might already imagine, it was another successful journey, so I’ve got a few interesting little tales of the day to share. Read on my friends, read on.

To start our day off, we had a nice breakfast buffet put on at the lodge. It was pretty quiet there, as apart from our group, there weren’t too many people staying there (it was apparently still low season). We dined, then headed to the truck to get settled in for another day of dust and bumps. We didn’t get far before Sarah realized she’d left here travel wallet in the dining area. In it? Money, passport, credit cards, etc. Yikes. We circled back, but it was too late. Unfortunately, someone had unscrupulously helped themselves to the rather large wad of USD that was in it. That was the end of the day for Mike and Sarah, as they opted to stay and deal with the police, etc. As a precautionary measure, the rest of us decided to also grab our bags and keep them with us. This was a major blow to the group. We felt horrible, but after a small delay, we carried on without them. It was a little awkward, but the trip must continue. We weren’t sure what would happen later, and hoped for the best.

We made our way in quiet for quite some time, reflecting on the recent events, as well as just taking in the scenery. It wasn’t too long before the second bit of excitement happened for the day. The roads we were on were pretty twisty, and trucks often try to overtake each other at inopportune places. Well, inevitably it leads to some accidents, one of which we came across on our way. Another Land Cruiser was totally flipped, with another truck stopped with them. No one was killed, but there was quite a bit of carnage. Once again, we were sort of helpless to do much. The injured were being treated for shock as people waited for the rangers or police to show up. The car appeared to be carrying ‘local’ tourists, not western tourists and made us all to aware of the dangers of this country.

At the same time we were pulled over to check on the other vehicle, we were also treated to our first sight of Giraffes, who were grazing not far from where we were stopped. We took the opportunity to snap some shots and even got to see some of them running. It is a very odd thing to watch. They are so tall that their running looks very fluid, but in slow motion. So once again, we had the uncomfortableness of a terrible event, but around us, nature was still going about its own business. It was shaping up to be a rather odd day for us, and we’ve barely gotten going yet. Back into the ‘beast’ and rolling along to the Olduvai Gorge.

Not sure what I really expected at the gorge, but there really wasn’t all that much to see. One of the funnier moments was when Dylan, John and I all went to the washroom on arrival. Stretch to call is a washroom. There was door, but it just led to a room with a hole in the floor should you need to do that. We soon realized the low wall on the outside was actually a ‘trough urinal’, so we just sort of lined up and did out business. It was at that moment that we realized while relieving ourselves, we were actually staring down to the floor of the gorge. It was sort of a weird moment, but ironically also served up one of the best views into the gorge in the area. I couldn’t help but wonder if someone had done that on purpose.

On site was also a little museum with various artifacts, photos, and information on the gorge, and of Mary and Louis Leakey, the pair who were responsible for some of the best finds of the area, including Lucy, one of the earliest hominids ever discovered, as well as incredibly well preserved footprints. However, none of that stuff was located where we stopped, rather, this was just a little museum and interpretation center. We also got a nice little presentation by one of the people working at the museum, who at one point explained how the name Olduvai was actually a misnomer coined by a German fellow a long time ago. In fact, it should have been the Oldupai gorge, named after the sisal plant of the are. He was also well versed in the history of the hominids and explained the various stages of human evolution and the type of humans they were. It was interesting to a point, but we were all quite keen to get back in the truck and make our way to our next stop, the Serengeti.

To get there, we first had to stop at the official entrance to deal with some more paperwork and such. While here, we took a short hike where we caught sight of some pretty colourful and interesting lizards enjoying warming themselves on rocks. Another thing we got to witness on the way to the park was amazingly the Wildebeest migration! This happens only once a year, and timing and location is everything. We’d hoped we see some of it, but there were no guarantees. If you check out the video I’ve just linked, you’ll get a bit of an idea what it is. Basically, a rolling black ‘train’ composed of hundreds of thousands of these creatures. Describing it wouldn’t work, so just check my link, ok? 🙂

Inside the park itself we once again had to endure lots and lots of driving around. I was already looking forward to when we’d actually start the hiking portion of our trip. This was only compounded anytime we’d pass another vehicle, as it would basically mean a nice dust shower for our truck, and when the roof is popped up, you can only imagine what it meant for the occupants! Luckily, our guide had the most amazing eyesight, even while driving. He could spot and identify various animals from great distances, and then try to get us closer. Let’s see, what did we get to observe up close this day? Well, how about Lions, Giraffes, Zebras, Camels, Wildebeest, Hyrax, Cheetahs, Hippos, Elephants, Gazelle, Antelope, plenty of birds (none which stole my food this time!), buffaloes, hyenas, and some monkeys I think.

The highlight for me would probably be after lunch when we finally managed to track down a pride of lions. They seemed to have absolutely no care in the world about our presence. I suppose when you’re at the top of the food chain, trivial matters such as humans probably don’t really matter to you. Apparently, they sometimes even go under the trucks to sleep while you’re watching them. Isn’t that nuts? As you can see by the video accompanying this post, we were definitely close to them.

A couple other high points in my mind included us seeing a hyena take down some prey, and also seeing a lion chasing a pair of cheetah’s out of its’ territory. The cheetahs were trying to score a free meal from the lions, which had left some of their food nearby. The lion ultimately decided it wanted the meat for itself, and chased two of them off. The cheetah’s apparently know better than to mess with the lion. While they can outrun a lion, they know they couldn’t win the battle, so they slunk away. Another nice part of the day was our little lunch break. Here we were, in the middle of the depths of the serengeti. We ate our boxed lunches while all these little birds landed all around us trying to score some scraps, as well as groups of cute Rock Hyraxes that were strolling around bumming food as well. We were told not to feed any animals, and we certainly weren’t trying to, but they are still very present in the area, as crumbs always find their way to the ground.

After eating, we also got to do a short hike along an interpretive trail that explained a lot about the cycle of life, and the habits of some of the more interesting animals that call this area home. While some of the group was content to stroll and just look at things, I made it my mission to read a lot of the interpretive panels and try to learn a bit about the area. There was a lot of information there, and I don’t remember a lot of it, but one interesting story talked about a time when over 90% of the buffaloes and wildebeest were wiped out by disease (Rinderpest) that had been spread by cows which grazed alongside in the late 1890s. It was an amazing statistic and one that pointed to the resiliency of life on the plains. Apparently the effects of that plague are still being felt today.

Once we’d had our fill of driving through the vast plains of the Serengeti, it was time to head back to our little lodge for another meal and night of rest. The next day we’d be embarking on our first official hike of the trip, a walk up the 3,100m Mount Lemagrut, an old volcano within the park, which has views out over the Serengeti. On the way back to the lodge, we once again stopped at the entrance, where we discovered there was a little grocery store. Deb picked up a bottle of red wine for the evening, intending to share with John and Sarah, who could probably use a drink! For my own enjoyment, I grabbed a beer for the ride back, enjoying that as we bumped along.

Once back at the lodge, we were reunited with John and Sarah. It was good to see them, as none of us were sure if they would have stayed or headed back to Arusha out of anger. Apparently, they did still get to do a bit of touring. The lodge arranged for another driver to take them around after they’d dealt with the police. Sadly, the money was gone. It was actually a really big deal to all. Even the Masai Chief had come up to the lodge to say he was sorry. In all likelihood, the money had already been distributed into the tribe, and no one would ever know who had done it. Apparently, the lodge also basically went through an entire re-staffing during the day we were told. After all, that kind of money would pretty much set someone off for life! We had a nice meal in spite of everything, and decided to sit around the fireplace and enjoy more beer and wine after the meal. The lodge even gave us a complimentary bottle of red from the region to try. It was quite nice. In spite of all the odd and bad things that had happened throughout the day, it still ended up being a very nice night spent in the company of our fellow travellers. It’s also the place where I came up with the idea that our group should do a Secret Santa gift exchange while on the slopes of Mount Meru. More on that in another post though.

For now, I’ll sign off, and let you get back to your own lives. Final thought of the day based on time spent in the Serengeti? Man, as well as animal, is incredibly resilient and can overcome almost any tragedy or danger that befalls them. In our own daily struggles, it’s important to try and keep things in perspective. However, there is always something bigger out there, so you have to be ready to react, and can’t be too complacent or risk losing it all! Till next post, have a great day!

Walking on the Moon…

Okay, so this post isn’t really about walking on the moon. However, it is about spending some quality time in a crater. I’m of course talking about the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, which was the first official stop in our tour of Africa. After all the time spent in transit, it was finally time to get the trip underway in earnest. The first part of our itinerary had us getting in some quality Safari time. This meant a lot of time in a safari vehicle, and an awful lot of dusty roads. However, it also meant some truly amazing scenery and wildlife spotting. Imagine heading to the best zoo you could ever imagine, only take the cages away and let all the animals just roam free and do as they pleased. Yup, that’s a safari in Africa for you. If you’d like to check out pictures from our first day of safari, head on over to flickr and look at the set. Afterwards, click your little self back here and read about my thoughts and impressions of that day.

I can tell you this for starters, all of us were quite looking forward to finally experiencing some of the legendary wildlife of Africa. We’d all gone to sleep fairly early in the evening, in order to be fresh in the morning. We met back up for breakfast, and then headed to the lobby to meet with our guide for the next few days, Julius. He arrived in a beast of a vehicle. It was a custom Land Cruiser, with seats for 8 passengers and the driver. On top of that, the roof could actually be raised to provide for a mobile viewing platform, which I assure you came in very useful over the coming days.

We were now headed into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The main goal of the day was the crater, which is a huge protected wildlife area. I think the stats are somewhere around 20km across, but it is home to countless animals that live truly wild, with survival of the fittest in full effect. For full details about the crater itself, you might want to just read the article on wikipedia. The trip in the car to get to the crater was a few hours in a the safari vehicle. Along the way, we passed through several villages again, noting once more the humanity of Africa in the form of people, bikes, and little shops. We didn’t really stop on the way, as there wasn’t much to stop for. Although this area gets a fair number of tourists, there is no real development on that front save for a few shops along the way. Our only stop was actually to pick up some batteries for Sarah’s camera, which had already suffered battery death. She picked up some questionable batteries (which didn’t last long), and we made our way to the park entrance.

We soon learned that gaining entrance to any park in Africa is a matter of time and patience. We weren’t there terribly long, but every park requires detailed permits and paperwork, which luckily we didn’t have to deal with. To kill time, we had a little museum to go through, including a diorama of the areas we’d be passing through, as well as some story boards showing the various wildlife we’d see on our journey. We killed the time there quite handily, and before we knew it we were back in the vehicle heading to the actual crater lip at about 2600m above sea level. That was our first stop. Once through the gate, the road became just a dirt road. The guide pointed out to us where elephants would dig up minerals with their tusks and explained that at night, cars wouldn’t be caught out here at all, as the animals make these roads their own.

Before long, we found ourselves at the very impressive crater edge. Staring down at a vast open expanse, completely encircled by the actual walls of the crater. From this vantage point, it was hard to believe that the area below was teeming with life. Even with my binoculars, all I could really make out were more safari vehicles far below stalking their prey. To this point, I still had no concept of what was in store for us. All that would change starting with lunch, which was coming up soon. We’d already been on the road for a while, so it was time to bust out the boxed lunches we’d gotten at the hotel. Our guide drove us to ‘the picnic spot’. We ere the first ones there, so it was pretty deserted.

Well, deserted except for some very large birds who seemed to be waiting for us. Upon arrival, we were warned to be careful as we ate our lunches. I paid no heed. Big mistake. You’ll learn why soon. The picnic area itself was just a grassy patch with log stumps to sit on while we ate. We each took up station at a different log, and dug into our typical box lunch: “butter” sandwich, hard boiled egg, chips, sweets, bananas, and eggs. And for us non-vegetarians, a hunk of chicken. That was the death of me. Chicken.

Now, picture this: there are large birds on the ground waiting for scraps, but there are also bolder scavengers circling the sky around us, looking for food. I believe there was some sort of warning that they’d take the food from our hands. Must’ve missed that. So here I am, eating my chicken, minding my own. I start chatting with others, chicken in my left hand sort of to the side. Next thing I know, the guide is saying something about be careful. What? Swoooosh, flak, boom! Out of the sky, this freaking bird (a Black Kite) dive-bombs me and grabs my chicken right from my hand. It scared the shit out of me! Not literally mind you, but it was pretty friggin’ scary! I was incredibly fortunate that its’ talons didn’t totally shred my hand and wrist. I was more upset about losing my lunch than anything else. I only wish it had been caught on video, because it was truly ‘one of those moments’ that you carry with you for life….

Enough about that though, you’re probably wondering how the rest of the day went, non? Well, after lunch, we finally started making our way down the crater wall in to the actual wildlife are. I’d be lying if I said it was anything short of amazing! When we got to the crater floor, it soon came very apparent just how much wildlife was living down there. No sooner had we got back to flat land were we inundated by Zebras, wild Buffalo, and Antelopes. They were everywhere. And completely unafraid! We popped up our little roof, and for the next 5 or so hours made our way to all the remote corners of the crater observing the wildlife.
You name it, we pretty much saw it. Here’s a partial list of what we saw (I couldn’t say for sure what all the birds we saw were): Zebras, Buffalo, Antelope, Wildebeast, Warthogs, Hyenas, Elephants, Heart Beast, Ostrich, Storks, Flamingos, Monkeys, Lions, Hippos, Rhinos…

Oh yeah, all that stuff tough guy. Some were more prominent than others, but we did see them all. It’s hard to say which were most impressive. Hippos and Lions were really cool, but very passive in the hot son. In case you are wondering, the most deadly animal in Africa is the hippo. More people are killed by hippos each year than any other big animal in the country. Hot tip: Never, EVER, get between a hippo and water. Of course, when we were observing them, they were already in the water, so they could care less about us. Same with the lions. They were happy to just hang out, lazing in the grass mere meters from our vehicle. It was very surreal. It also made the countless hours spent inhaling dust and bumping along terrible roads worth it.

As the late afternoon light was finally fading, we had to make our way back out of the crater. I wasn’t sure how anything could possibly top the experiences we had in the crater, but this was only Day 1 of our safari adventures, so you’ll just have to read on to see if there were more amazing things in store 😉 Our final animal spotting on the way out were a huge family of Monkeys right on the side of the road on the crater exit road, preening and taking care of each other. For this night and the next, we were staying at Rhino Lodge, a place at the top of the crater. Still very much in the wild….

One of the warning we got was to not leave our rooms at night without the Masai Warriors escorting us. You see, at night, the animals would actually come right into our lodge area to munch on the tasty grass there. That night, we had a great meal, and once again enjoyed each other’s company and learned more about each other. We shared popcorn, wine, beer, and bread together. I started a little game to try and come up with a definitive list of all the animals we’d seen throughout the day. I believe we came up with almost 40 just that day alone. Nuts, isn’t it?

Hmm, it appears this post is running slightly long now, so I believe I shall retire to my beverage, and let you all dwell on the info I’ve written about here. As usual, questions are welcome, and fear not, there are far more stories to share. Thoughts for the day: There is a huge, amazing, diverse world out there. Surfing the net and watching shows on TV is no substitute for experiencing it. I’m not sure how long I can stay still before I need to experience more of it. But all that will have to wait for future posts. Take care of you and yours, and check back for more African adventures…

Getting There was Half the Battle!

Alright, so now you’ve been properly introduced to Team Cantrailia, I might as well go back slightly in time, and cover off the journey to get to Africa. As the title implies, making our way to the snows of Kilimanjaro would prove to be the longest journey I’ve ever taken for a vacation. New Zealand seems a relative cakewalk in comparison. Just imagine for a moment being in transit for over 40 hours! Not a really fun endeavour, but a necessary evil. Part of the problem was that we were flying into Nairobi, Kenya, but would be based in Arusha, Tanzania. The two, while seeming to be relatively close on a map, are in fact a long way apart. But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself here. Settle into a comfy chair, and let me regale you with the story of flying the friendly skies and bouncing our way through Africa. To put you in the mood, here is a set of pictures from the trip over. After that, click back and read my tale.

When we first started looking into this trip, we had found a few cheap flights that would have taken us right to Kilimanjaro Airport, pretty close to Arusha, for a decent price. However, after hemming and hawing, we ended up having to book a flight to Nairobi instead, adding some distance to the trip, but lowering the price. Our actual routing was Ottawa -> Montreal -> Zurich -> Mombasa -> Nairobi. And you all know how much I love sleeping in moving vehicles. That’s right, poor ole ActiveSteve could only manage to really squeeze in an ActiveNap in the Zurich airport on our 6 hour layover. All in all, the flights weren’t all that bad, although the in-seat entertainment systems were old school, with no movies ‘on demand’ but rather on a schedule. I still managed to watch quite a few, and the food was pretty decent, so that was nice.

The first legs from Ottawa to Zurich were basically overnight, so there wasn’t much to see. Luckily, the next segment was in daylight, so I got to snap a few good shots of the alps, as well as marvel at the massive shifting sands of the Sahara desert which we flew over. By the time we actually landed in Kenya though, it was night time once again. We had a brief layover in Mombasa, a coastal city in Kenya. It was quite unbearably hot and muggy, but luckily, heading back inland to Nairobi dried the air out a bit, and brought temperatures back to a manageable level. When we finally landed in Nairobi, it was after midnight local time. The customs procedures were pretty easy to breeze through, and we had soon met with our local driver taking us to a hotel. We finally got to sleep around 1am, but had to be up by about 6am in order to eat some breakfast and be on our ‘shuttle’ to Arusha with the rest of our group.

This is where we first got to do a bit of meet and greet. As we were waiting in the lobby, Deb from Australia first introduced herself to us (after she had mistakenly paid twice for her room ;-), and soon after that, the other 4 in our group made their way over, and we soon found out that we were the core group of our trip. Good start, and we all chatted together while waiting for the ‘shuttle’. By now, you’ll note I used quotes to describe our transport. Whereas we sort of thought we’d have semi-private transport, we were instead put into a 20 or so person van, which ended up stopping multiple times to pick up locals and another tour company group before finally heading onto the open ‘road’.

Note again the quotes here, as the road from Nairobi to Arusha is an interesting study in road sciences. Most of the way was bumpy dirt road, with many ‘deviations’ and detours to keep us on our toes. Although the distance was only around 250km, it ended up taking us over 8 hours to make the trip! This included only a single stop at a tourist shop and the border crossing between Kenya and Tanzania. At the tourist shop, I of course had no Kenyan money, but Deb was kind enough to offer us some cash for a snack should we want it. As Vivien Leigh said in A Streetcar Named Desire… “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” It was a small gesture, but in terms of how long this ride was becoming, it was very nice. This ride was becoming absolute madness. Here we were looking forward to Day 1 of our trip, but it was totally spent in transit again 🙁

Once in Arusha, we had to change to yet another shuttle to take us from the depot to our actual lodge for the night, which was located on a crazy road up in the hills around Arusha, in the foothills of Mount Meru. However, before heading there, I asked our driver to take us somewhere to change our Yankee bucks into Tanzanian shillings. While they are happy to take USD everywhere, the price is literally 30% or so more expensive, so we opted instead to put all our money into local currency. Now, given that the exchange rate was around 1300 shillings per USD, we all felt like millionaires after converting our money, after all, we each had hundreds of thousands of shillings in our pockets (try stuffing that into a wallet and folding it!). With that out of the way, we completed the final part of our trip to Arusha.

Tired, thirsty, and dusty, we finally arrived to our home base. All in all, it was a pretty impressive little lodge (with surprisingly good cooking). It had Internet, a gift shop, a big fresh water pool, a bar, restaurant, and reasonable rooms and beds (with awesome mosquito nets!). On arrival, staff were on hand and waiting to carry our bags to our rooms and eager to help us out. The African people in general everywhere we were had a very genuine friendliness to them. That was nice. Language was occasionally an issue, but politeness was the norm.

By now, I’d also taken charge of suggesting to everyone we should first settle in, then meet poolside for a dip, before adjourning to the restaurant / bar for an early meal. Oh yeah, did I mention that no one had told us we’d be on the road for 8 hours? As a result, we hadn’t eaten all day, so hunger was definitely an issue. Although by that point, I was more interested in cooling off with a dip and a beer 🙂 After a quick unpacking and luggage check, I made my way to the pool, where most of the group did eventually pay a visit to (although not everyone braved the chilly waters). Regardless, it certainly made me feel much better. Off for a quick shower, then to the bar.

There is nothing quite like the first beer after a long journey, is there? I opted not to go straight to the ‘Kilimanjaro Ale’, as I didn’t think I deserved it yet. Instead, I tried out a Tusker Ale. Delicious. Although tempted to drink the night away and get to know everyone even better, we all took it pretty easy that night. After all, the next morning we’d [finally] be starting our adventure in earnest. We were to be picked up early in our Safari vehicle to make our way to Arusha National Park and the incomparable Ngorongoro crater. However, I’ll save that for another post. Wouldn’t want to spoil you with too many stories at once 🙂

Final thoughts on the first day in Africa? Hmmm, well, they have a long way to go in the roads department, but are working on it. From what we saw, it appears as though China is sinking quite a bit of money into pushing through improvements. Secondly, it was amazing to see in all the little towns how many people are on foot and on bicycle (yay!), as well as the fact that every 3rd storefront seemed to be a bar (but for locals only). Also, good travel mates go a long way to making a trip bearable, and even in those first 8 hours, bonds were being made that would sustain us throughout the trip.

Stay tuned for the next chapter in this story….

Introducing Team Cantrailia!

Hello dear friends. Well, as hard as it is to imagine, it’s been just over a week now that we’ve gotten back from Africa. So of course, you are all wondering where the heck are all the exciting stories about adventures in foreign lands, right? Well, fear not, for this post will be the first of many detailing all that happened in Tanzania on this trip of a lifetime. Yes, I consider it the trip of a lifetime as for me, it was on the life list. Summit Kilimanjaro while there is still snow on the peak. I’m happy to say that it was mission accomplished, but the journey to get there will be several blog posts in length, so you’ll have to hang in there over the next couple weeks while I write it all up 🙂 Before I could even contemplate writing about the trip, we first had to sort through all the pictures we took, and I also wanted to put together some of my custom GPS maps. So on the plus side, you don’t have to wait any longer to view the collection of pictures from the trip, or even peruse some of the maps that I created. Once you’ve done that, come on back and learn more about the trip.

The most important aspect of taking a trip like this is getting along with the people you’ll be making the journey with. As we had signed up through a local tour company, there was basically no way to know who would be on our trip with us, so showing up in Africa, there was a bit of trepidation. After all, we’d be spending the better part of 3 weeks traveling in close quarters, and having a lot of shared experiences with what amounts to a group of strangers. Well, happily, we were extremely to have a really great group of adventurers with us. As a result, I’ve decided that for the first post, I’ll introduce you all to the group of people that we shared the mountains and the safaris with, not to mention both Christmas and New Year’s!

Our entire group consisted of 5 other people besides Jody and I. We all came from either Canada or Australia, so I suggested that we name ourselves as a combination of the two countries. In the end, the name Cantrailia was selected. Not only is it a combination of the two countries, but also has a little pun in the middle. Did you spot it? “Trail”. What can I say, we had a lot of time to reflect and come up with all sorts of little things.

So, starting with North America, allow me to introduce you to the father and son team of Dylan (pronounced ‘die-lin’) and John, hailing from Vancouver, BC. Dylan was just on a break from his job as a result of being displaced by the Olympics, and John was a retired Engineer, who has plenty of experience in these sorts of trips under his belt. If I were to categorize these two, it would probably have to be the ‘strong and silent’ type. Neither made much fuss either way whether the weather was good or bad, but were always there to contribute to our conversations and let us know where they stood on things. Along with the strong silent characterization, they managed to pick up the reputation for being the rocks. John knew the pace he wanted to take on this trip, and what pace would make sure they finished the trip in one piece. After an early failed summit attempt in the trip, most of us decided we’d follow in their footsteps to make sure we got to the top as well!

Moving across the ocean into Australia now we have Sarah and Mike, another couple who decided to tackle Kilimanjaro as their wrap-up to 2010. As to describing Mike and Sarah? Well, Mike has a military background, with a specialty in logistics, whereas Sarah is an anesthesiologist. Both had a lot of great stories to share, and Sarah always had us curious to see what else she might pull out of her travel bags (umbrellas, hats, gloves, etc..). We definitely had a good time getting to know them. Mike usually looked to plod on and get things done, whereas Sarah was quite content to take a relaxed pace and make sure she stopped to smell (and photograph) the flowers.

Last but not least on our adventure was Deb from Australia. Deb came to Africa looking for answers, and was in the midst of a transition of sorts in her life. Did she get the answers she was looking for? Hard to say for sure, but she had more travels ahead of her after our part of the trip to reflect more on the things she sought clarity on. Either way, she was a firecracker in the group, and always willing to step up the pace and head to the front of the line. We were pretty sure she was actually a robot, and the jury’s out on whether that was true or not.

So there you have it. A quick introduction to the team which was about to embark on safaris together, as well as scale some of the highest peaks in Africa. Of course, the last two members of the team were Jody and I, rounding out the Canadian contingent and bringing our own stories and personalities into the mix. As you might guess, we took a ton of pictures, and I was always quite keen to head up the hikes. What can I say, old habits die hard. Put me in boots with a pack on, and I slip into the mode of ‘gotta get there’. That’s not to say I didn’t take the time to enjoy the journey itself, but I tended to always move forward with a purpose. Of course, you’ll hear all about it in my next series of posts.

First, we’ll take you into the heart of the Ngorongoro crater, the Olduvai Gorge, and the Serengeti. Stay tuned in this space for those stories 🙂