Cableways

Posted from Simon's Town, South Africa at 8:55 pm, September 2nd, 2014

We were told that taking the cableway to the top of Table Mountain was a “must do” in Cape Town, so this morning we drove the scenic route along the coast and to the base of the flat-topped mountain that dominates the region, and then boarded a contraption with a rotating floor that holds 65 people and travels along a flimsy cable slung from the top of the mountain. We emerged impressed and alive at the top, where extraordinary views of the entire peninsula awaited – this one lived up to its “must do” billing.

After a lunch at the cafe on top of Table Mountain that consisted of ostrich stew (which set us back a mere $8) we were back down the cableway and off to the national botanical gardens. Audrey was most impressed by South Africa’s national flower, the protea, while I was a fan of the “Boomslang Canopy Walk”, a walkway that sat on thirty-foot tall metal supports and led through the tree canopy, and that we were forewarned was designed to sway disconcertingly in the wind (it definitely did). Our final activity of the day was a return to the Cape of Good Hope, where we again saw ostriches and a new antelope for me – the bontebuk – and Audrey got to do her first driving on the left side of the road.

Tomorrow it’s back to shark diving in the morning. Heavy wind at sunset had me fearing I would need a barf bag for our five hours on the water, but the marine forecast is still calling for calm seas, so hopefully the sharks will be playful, the sea gods will be gentle, and my breakfast will stay where it’s supposed to.

Table Mountain cableway

The cableway cars, hanging on thin cables about a thousand feet above the ground. An exhibit at the bottom of the mountain showed various incarnations of the cars over the years. The second version was noted to have had a perfect safety record; ominously, the first and third versions mentioned nothing about safety record.

Bontebok at the Cape of Good Hope

Bontebok and Bontebok, Jr.

The Cape of Good Hope

Posted from Simon's Town, South Africa at 8:51 pm, September 1st, 2014

For anyone hoping for shark videos: we saw lots of shark attacks from above the water, but the big fish weren’t feeling playful and never came near the cage today; of the three boats at Seal Island today, only one got a shark, and he didn’t even stay long enough for everyone on the boat to get a chance in the cage. We have another trip scheduled for Wednesday, so hopefully we’ll get a chance to jump in a flimsy metal cage with the ocean’s most powerful predator then.

Despite not seeing them from the water, watching the sharks attack seals, with many of the seals escaping from those attacks, was pretty incredible. One of the gals on staff noted that the hunting activity was the best they’ve seen in a couple of months, and the entire crew seemed a bit baffled as to where all of the sharks had gone once they had their breakfasts.

After the morning sharks, our afternoon was filled with many penguins at Boulders Beach, followed by a drive to the Cape of Good Hope via Table Mountain National Park. We got our first two right whales of the trip just offshore, and Audrey got her first ostrich and baboon. We finished the day with a drive down to the tip of the cape and a short hike up to an overlook where we could look out at two oceans while simultaneously hoping that our car was secure from the baboons patrolling the parking lot. The view was great, the car survived, and we may be back tomorrow to see if we can find more whales and perhaps a zebra or two.

Great white shark in False Bay

We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Two’s Company

Posted from Simon's Town, South Africa at 8:40 pm, August 31st, 2014

After waking up before five o’clock this morning I made the two hour flight to Cape Town, and the girl arrived a short time later, so the adventure will now be a shared experience for the next six weeks.

Audrey was coming off of 32 hours in airports or on airplanes, so I navigated us to our lodging in Simon’s Town, took her out for some food, and then put her to bed for a while. We later made it down to the water to look at the comical African Penguins – we’ll visit them again, and hopefully get some photos for the journal. Tomorrow should be more adventurous, with an early start planned so that we can go out to look for really, really big sharks. Stay tuned.

End of the Journey

Posted from Johannesburg, South Africa at 8:56 pm, August 30th, 2014

There is a scene in Planet Earth that shows a wild dog hunt, and David Attenborough notes how rare it is to be able to see these endangered animals hunting. Today was my last game drive after a month on safari, and it was spent watching wild dogs hunting. Had I seen wild dogs hunting at the beginning of the safari I would not have appreciated how special a sight it was, but after all of the experiences in Africa, finishing the journey watching such a rare event was a perfect ending to an extraordinary adventure.

“Safari” is actually a Swahili word meaning “long journey”, so after 33 wonderful days of game drives my long journey has come to its end. 33 days ago I hardly knew the names of any animals here. Today I’m leaving knowing how to recognize several birds by their calls, how to watch impala to see if a predator is nearby, and what a cheetah’s behavior will be when hunting. I’ve seen a lion defending its kill from hyenas, thousands upon thousands of migrating wildebeest, leopards prowling a few feet from the vehicle, and dozens of other mind-blowing sights. “Luck” doesn’t seem to begin to describe how fortunate I’ve been, both during the trip and to have been given the opportunity to do a trip like this one.

Tomorrow starts a new phase of the trip, and I’ll be getting up early to catch a flight to Cape Town where I’ll meet Audrey and start the next portion of the odyssey. While the game drives are over, in a couple of days there will be sharks…

Wild dog in Timbavati Game Reserve

Wild dog (also called painted wolf) after dining on impala. We got to spend a good deal of time with them before and after their hunt, although the heavy brush and speed which they moved when hunting made pictures tough, so unfortunately I didn’t do a great job of capturing the experience.

Lions and Leopards and Dogs

Posted from Kambaku River Sands Lodge, Timbavati Game Reserve, South Africa at 9:20 pm, August 29th, 2014

Just before dinner tonight, while everyone was standing around the dinner area talking, a massive hyena ambled up to the door, looked us all over, and then moved on. Walking around outdoors after dark remains a bad idea in Africa.

Game drive #1 today was the first time I’ve hit the emergency brake on the safari vehicle (translated: I emphatically told the driver to stop) after I saw a leopard lounging behind some brush a few feet off the road. This leopard is apparently a famous resident named Rockfig, Jr., and she posed for us over several minutes, giving the best show of any leopard I’ve seen in Africa. She is a star, and clearly knows it. Following our time with the leopard we returned to the den of the wild dogs, where the puppies were less active than they were the other day, but still entertaining.

Game drive #2 started off slowly, with a couple of rhinos obscured by brush as the best find. However, after we had stopped for drinks at sunset a lion’s roar echoed across the landscape, and we were quickly back in the vehicle and off to view two big male lions by spotlight. Lions are impressive during the day, but seeing two big males scanning the horizon while illuminated only by a narrow beam of light takes things up a notch.

After nearly four weeks on safari, tomorrow morning is the last game drive of this adventure. I came to Kruger thinking it might be a letdown after the experiences further north, and have been very pleasantly surprised at just how utterly and completely wrong I was.

Leopard in Timbavati Game Reserve

Rockfig, Jr. Rock star.

Lion in Timbavati Game Reserve

Lion at night. “They rarely charge the vehicle” was the reassuring comment from the driver.

Leopards Day and Night

Posted from Kambaku River Sands Lodge, Timbavati Game Reserve, South Africa at 9:39 pm, August 28th, 2014

Shockingly great day for animal sightings: two leopards, a cevet cat, an owl, three rhinos, and my first wild dog sighting in Africa. We saw the dogs this morning at their den – if I was to see one at a pet store I wouldn’t recognize it as anything other than a domestic dog with painted fur, although these guys can take down a zebra. The four puppies ran right up to the vehicle, with the adults looking on. We stayed with them only briefly since a leopard had been sighted nearby, and then we pursued the cat off-road, crashing over bushes to get a view of it by a riverbed. At one point the tracker, seated in an open chair on the front of the vehicle, had the big cat walk only a couple of feet from him, so apparently they don’t eat people during daylight hours.

Our evening game drive was even better. A couple on honeymoon asked if there was any chance of seeing a rhino, since that was the one animal they had not yet seen during their three days at the lodge. Thirty minutes later the guide had patched into the bush news network and found us two rhinos drinking at a waterhole, followed by a third who showed up in a field. After sunset the tracker turned on the spotlight, and the eyes of a cevet cat (something I hadn’t seen before) were one of the first things to be reflected back at us. Finally, when we were just a few hundred meters from the lodge the light picked up another set of eyes, this time belonging to a leopard that was hunting next to the road. For the next two minutes we were surrounded by darkness with a leopard in the beam of the light six feet from us. This leopard was second only to the Magic Bus leopard on my list of favorite cat sightings of the trip.

Three game drives remain at this lodge, after which my time on safari will sadly come to an end as I move on to Cape Town, find the jet-lagged Audrey at the airport, and begin the “sharks from cages” phase of the adventure. The days continue to end with a deep sense of gratitude for having a life in which I get to enjoy all of these magnificent sights and have all of these incredible experiences.

White rhinoceros in Timbavati Game Reserve

It was a tough call, but a rhino in good light beat out a leopard in questionable light for the journal illustration of the day. Hopefully a decent wild dog photo will make the cut before I have to leave this reserve.

Noodles and Waffles

Posted from Kambaku River Sands Lodge, Timbavati Game Reserve, South Africa at 9:50 pm, August 27th, 2014

I managed to mostly not get killed by elephants or crash the car while driving on the left, although there was an interesting moment where an elephant in front was giving me the staredown while another moved in behind to cut off retreat; so far as I’m aware I made it out alive.

The morning activity was a four and a half hour drive through the dirt roads of Kruger, highlighted by two separate rhino sightings and all manner of hoofed creatures. From there it was a three hour drive north to my fancy private lodge for the next three nights – the entire route was paved until the last few kilometers, and aside from the aforementioned elephant misunderstanding no one seemed too bothered by my attempts at driving on the left. The lodge itself is beyond luxurious – my shower is the size of my entire bathroom at home, and there were like twelve different towels in the room; one is for in front of the shower, one is for drying off, but I have not yet cracked the mystery of what the purpose of the other ten might be.

The activities at this lodge are a morning and evening game drive each day, but the highlight for me thus far has been a herd of fifteen elephants that recently started coming by to drink from the pool. The pool is on a raised platform, so they have to reach their trunks up to it and can only reach the last few inches into the water. I watched the grey trunks slinking up and over the edge of the pool from about ten feet away, which aside from a couple of vehicular encounters is by far the closest I’ve been to the colossal animals. I told the staff that they need to put a video of the elephants on the internet, and after people see what’s in store for them here they’ll be booked for months.

The game drive seemed to be more tame than those elsewhere, with the passengers seated, the driver starting out along a paved road, and the route directly to some lions he’d found in the morning. That said, Timbavati is home to some very rare white lions, and one of the two cats tonight was a ghostly color. The last bit of the game drive was after sunset and featured an owl and three huge porcupines, so I’m confident in saying that the next three days will continue the trend of awesomeness that has been a hallmark of this lengthy adventure.

Warthog in Kruger National Park

Nearly a month after arriving in Africa and seeing warthogs almost daily, finally one stood still long enough to get a decent photo. He knows he’s a stud.

Because the local elephants have found a new favorite watering hole no one is going to be using the pool anytime soon. The lodge guests have no complaints, but the guy responsible for cleaning the pool is less than thrilled.

Seeing the Things

Posted from Pretoriuskop, Kruger National Park, South Africa at 8:14 pm, August 26th, 2014

For about ten minutes today, until they wandered back into the bush, rhinos outnumbered people in my immediate vicinity by two-to-one. There was much awesomeness, and I remain a big fan of the low-traffic dirt roads in this park.

Today’s project was a big loop around the southern third of the park. There were no elephant roadblocks along the route, although the biggest herd of cape buffalo I’ve yet encountered stalled traffic for a few minutes – somehow a traffic jam caused by two hundred giant buffalo isn’t annoying like those experienced back home. Later in the day, because I’m a fan of cliches, I dug the headphones out of my bag and put Paul Simon’s Graceland album on repeat, and revelled in the joy of being alive as the music played and I waved at wildlife.

I’ve got three nights scheduled at a private reserve outside of the park starting tomorrow, but am a bit confused about how best to reach the place – while trying to plot a route from a park gate north of here Google maps indicated that one twelve mile stretch of “road” would take an hour and a half to traverse, so I’m thinking it might be prudent to avoid that route and instead try to get there from the main roads outside of the park. The plan (at the moment) is thus to do a small loop in the park, and then leave by ten in order to (hopefully) arrive at the reserve in time for an evening game drive. Wish me luck.

White rhinoceros in Kruger National Park

Mother rhino feeding. Baby rhino included for scale.

Elephant Roadblocks

Posted from Pretoriuskop, Kruger National Park, South Africa at 7:50 pm, August 25th, 2014

After the wonder of the Serengeti I was worried that Kruger would feel second-rate, but far from it – it’s a completely different experience, and I absolutely, 100% loved the day I just had. The park has both paved and unpaved roads, allowing for interesting route options when going from A to B. The benefit of the paved roads is that they are slightly smoother, and you get to see what animals others have found since people will stop their cars when they see an interesting animal. The benefit of the dirt roads is that they are in great condition, you only see a handful of cars each hour, and when you find an animal you pretty much have it to yourself. Guess which type of road I primarily drove today?

There were a huge variety of animal sightings today, but three in particular stood out. In Kenya and Tanzania the greater kudu was elusive, but the huge and incredibly impressive antelope made numerous appearances today; hopefully before I leave I’ll get a picture worth sharing. My first cats of South Africa were two cheetah that were lounging under a bush for several minutes before something sparked their interest and they went into stalking mode. Based on the lessons learned further north I moved the car approximately where they seemed headed, and after a minute or so had the sleek cats within spitting distance. Shortly thereafter they gave a half-hearted charge towards some waterbuck and I lost them in the bush. Finally, twice today elephants decided to create traffic jams, including a herd of about twenty that occupied a bridge for twenty minutes – when an elephant wants to stand in the road, you let the elephant stand in the road. Earlier in the day a mother elephant with a baby gave me the staredown, and while there might have been a tiny, tiny voice inside saying “you want a piece of me?”, the overwhelming chorus of voices called for a quick and hasty retreat, and I backed up promptly. Elephants continue to be fascinating, and I hope to see many more before leaving this country.

Kruger is a gigantic park, and with their regulations forbidding anyone from being on the roads before 6 AM or after 6 PM, as well as a 50 km/hr speed limit, it is a challenge to see all of it. In the three days that I’m in the park I’ll barely scratch the surface of the far southern region – the upper two-thirds of this 350 km long park will remain a mystery until I come back some day. For anyone considering a trip to Africa, if you don’t want to spend the money for a safari in Tanzania but still want an incredible experience, this seems like the place to go.

Ground hornbill in Kruger National Park

Even the birds are unafraid here – five of these giant guys practically walked into my car when I pulled over to look at them.

Cheetah in Kruger National Park

When a cheetah is ten feet from your car, everything is awesome.

Stay to the Left

Posted from Skukuza, Kruger National Park, South Africa at 8:07 pm, August 24th, 2014

I got through customs without incident last night, ended up having to pay off an airport cop for helping me find transportation to the hotel, got a few hours of sleep, then returned to the airport this morning and flew to Nelspruit. From there I got a rental car and commenced driving on the left side of the road, which shockingly didn’t lead to any casualties, although I did hit the windshield wiper instead of the turn signal on about a dozen different occasions. By mid-afternoon I made it to Kruger National Park.

The experience in Kruger National Park is completely different from Tanzania or Kenya – in those countries I felt constant excitement as the vehicle barrelled over rough roads and a mind-boggling number of animals appeared all around us. In Kruger the feeling (so far) is one of exceptional calm – there aren’t a ton of other vehicles here, I’m the only one in the car, the roads are in excellent condition, the vegetation is thicker so the landscape feels smaller, and while there are a lot of animals, it’s not the overwhelming hordes like it was in the Serengeti. In addition, the animals here seem to be even less afraid of people then they were further North; I drove the car within feet of impala that just looked at me placidly through the window. One highlight of the day was sitting in the parked car, engine off, watching a bull elephant eating trees, and the only sound was the elephant chewing – no other cars, no other noises, just me and the elephant. Pretty magical.

I didn’t see any new animals today – giraffe, elephants, impala, hippos, crocodiles, bushbuck, baboons, and a variety of birds made up the species list for the day. I took less than a dozen photos, and none of them were exciting enough to post, so this will sadly be the first journal entry in a while without pictures. Tomorrow I’ll have a full twelve hours to drive around the park, so hopefully either some new species or some great photo opportunities will provide illustrations for the next entry.

The Terminal

Posted from Nairobi, Kenya at 6:06 pm, August 23rd, 2014

A minor panic just ensued as both the lady at the Kenyan Airways checkin counter and the guy at Kenyan passport control asked me where my South African visa was, and then gave me a look that clearly said “you are so screwed” when I responded that I had been advised that Americans could visit South Africa for less than 90 days without a visa. After enduring some cold sweat while roaming the mostly-empty terminal 1-A here I finally managed to get online and re-verify on the South African government site that I can indeed enter South Africa without a visa. Visions of becoming Tom Hanks in The Terminal, living in limbo in the Johannesburg customs area, have been temporarily vanquished, although the true test will be when I hand my passport over to the South African customs agent and see if he also gives me the “bureaucracy is about to make your life very unpleasant” look.

Moving on from visa issues, the giant mountain pigs and leopards decided not to visit the Mountain Lodge’s waterhole last night, but we did have a visit from some insanely noisy hyenas at 4 AM. Our sole activity for the day was a walk through the forest, the highlight of which was a small group of colobus monkeys, which sort of look like giant skunks except for the fact that they live in trees and are monkeys. From there it was back to Nairobi, traffic, and civilization, and the realization that another phase of the trip has sadly come to its end. On a positive note, I got a quick shower in our day rooms before being whisked away to the airport, then got another shower while walking from terminal 1-C back to 1-A in a thunderstorm after a mix-up over my drop-off point; whatever dust was embedded on me from the savannah has finally been washed away.

Assuming I can get through customs I’ll be heading to a hotel after midnight tonight, then returning to the airport again tomorrow for an 11 AM departure to Kruger National Park – journal entries may be delayed for a few days, as I suspect the restcamps in Kruger won’t offer internet access. There is approximately zero chance that the short safari experience in South Africa will come close to matching the adventure of the past few weeks, but it will be nice to see the animals at my own pace for a few days before checking into a private lodge and again having the chance to do some game drives. After that I meet Audrey in Capetown for the last two legs of this massive odyssey.

Colobus monkey in Mount Kenya National Park

A black colobus monkey against a bright sky isn’t anyone’s idea of an ideal photography situation, but I only took ten photos today and they were all of this monkey, so a washed-out background will have to suffice.

Night Animals

Posted from Serena Mountain Lodge, Mount Kenya National Park, Kenya at 9:33 pm, August 22nd, 2014

Last full night in Kenya, and it’s ending in a spectacular way. The Mountain Lodge is built in Mount Kenya National Park surrounding a waterhole, and I’m writing this journal entry from the patio outside of the bar area while floodlights illuminate a huge expanse with bushbucks and other critters roaming about in the shadows. Earlier tonight two genets arrived to eat scraps left out on a tall platform, and there are chances for leopards or giant mountain hogs during the night – if I eventually decide to sleep, the lodge lets you sign up to be woken up should a particular animal arrive. I wasn’t able to sit still at dinner and kept creeping out to see what else had arrived to drink – I have the excitement.

Prior to our arrival here we did a final game drive in Samburu Game Reserve, and the leopard made an appearance high on a ridge to send us on our way. Lions and other animals also made appearances before we returned to Larsens Camp, said goodbye to the awesome staff there, and embarked on the four hour drive to Mount Kenya. During the lengthy drive we stopped for a restroom break at a souvenir shop that we had used as a lunch stop three days ago, and the guys there immediately recognized me as the visitor who had been interested in an African mask on our prior visit. They wanted $250, which I thought was highway robbery, but like so many merchants in this part of the world were insistent that they might be able to offer me a better price. I’m not sure what the final price might have been – the mask was very cool, but I didn’t really want to buy anything – but by the time I finally exited the store and hid in the van the price looked like it would probably sink to $50 or lower; the key to successful bargaining is apparently to not care whatsoever whether or not you actually get the item in question.

It’s weird to think that tomorrow ends the Tanzania/Kenya portion of the trip, and that I’ve now been traveling for nearly six weeks. Time seems to fly, but somehow at the same time my days of working in front of a computer seem very, very distant; a lot has happened in these past weeks. The thought occurred to me today that there probably isn’t a child in America who doesn’t want to visit Africa and see elephants, but only a very small percentage will ever get the opportunity to fulfill that dream. I have been insanely lucky in many, many ways during my life, and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone and everything that has given me such an abundance of good fortune and allowed such wonderful experiences recently and throughout my 38 years.

Baby elephant in Samburu Game Reserve

We saw this tiny baby elephant every day that we were in Samburu Game Reserve, and stopped to watch him play almost every time we crossed his path. Hopefully today won’t be the last day on the trip that I spend with elephants, but if it is I’m glad this little guy was a part of it.

Large-spotted genet in Mount Kenya National Park

Not the greatest photo, but it’s unbelievably neat to watch a wild animal like this one at night at close range from a seat on the hotel balcony (side note: genets are the same animals that joined us for dinner at Ndutu).

Ostrich Love

Posted from Larsens Camp, Samburu Game Reserve, Kenya at 9:35 pm, August 21st, 2014

The greater kudus were again waiting for us as we departed on a game drive at 6:15 this morning, and from there it was off see more of the local animals. The Somali ostrich is found here in decent numbers, despite the fact that it is highly endangered, and we watched one large male striding with purpose across the landscape and followed him to a grazing female. He spent about five minutes singing a song and performing an elaborate courtship dance, but when the female finally signaled her acceptance he raised his head high and ran off towards another female further on the horizon. Watching the spectacle of a male pass up an opportunity, Mike astutely commented “no wonder they’re endangered”.

The species rundown for the day was much the same as other days, but I will never be tired of seeing lions, elephants, baboons, and the other animals here. You never know what will turn up around the next bend, or what the animals in front of you will do – when I woke up today I could not have predicted that part of my day would be spent watching a tiny baby elephant roughhousing with its older sibling, or that I would be seeing the wild versions of colorful birds that I had only seen previously for sale in the pet stores back home. Five weeks into this adventure, and every day is still extraordinary.

Baboon in Samburu Game Reserve

The huge troops of baboons that we see everywhere are a circus of entertainment, with grooming, fighting, sexy time, eating, babysitting, and all manner of other behavior going on within the groups of a hundred or so that move like a storm of activity wherever they go.

Orange-bellied parrot in Samburu Game Reserve

The parrots that fly around the neighborhood back in Culver City aren’t as colorful as this orange-bellied parrot, but they are noisier.

Magic Bus 2.0

Posted from Larsens Camp, Samburu Game Reserve, Kenya at 9:47 pm, August 20th, 2014

List o’ Highlights, since so much happened today:

  • In Tanzania we had a foursome that always saw good things when we drove together, dubbed the Magic Bus. Sadly one of the four is not in Kenya, but three-quarters of the Magic Bus reunited for today’s game drives and recaptured some of the juju, with a great leopard sighting in the morning only one part of our eventful day. Mike and Steph are ridiculously fun to ride with, and Mike’s good eyes ensure that all quadrants are covered for animal sightings.
  • The Magic Bus 2.0 day started with a pre-breakfast game drive. As soon as we exited the lodge a small herd of greater kudu were grazing outside of the gates. They are super-impressive antelope that are actually kind of rare to see, so it was a good omen for the day.
  • The monkeys are everywhere at this lodge, so they’ve actually hired a Samburu warrior (named Kelvin, heck of a nice guy) to hang out at meal times with a (non-lethal) slingshot to scare them away. We still saw one rush in to grab a plate at breakfast, heads were constantly peering down from the roof, and when I walked out of the breakfast area holding a pastry three furry companions seemed to materialize out of thin air and then followed along until the pastry was gone. I will not soon tire of monkeys.
  • Our third and final game drive of the day began with some elephants across the river, including a tiny baby that the guide guessed was two months old. Steph loves seeing animals by the water, and was beside herself when the family began drinking. Then the matriarch of the group decided to lead them across the river and right up to where our vehicle was sitting, passing within feet of us in the process. The baby had trouble climbing the far bank, so right in front of us we watched the entire elephant family pitching in to help it up the incline. Seeing the normally-reserved Steph with tears rolling down her cheeks as this whole drama unfolded was a sight to behold – she was the live-action version of that scene from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas where his heart grows three sizes and breaks the measuring device. At dinner Gail actually started crying just trying to describe how happy Steph looked.
  • Further down the river an elephant had recently died – we counted at least sixteen crocodiles in the immediate vicinity.
  • After leaving the river we spotted a huge variety of animals before a call came in on the radio that the same leopard from the morning was again stirring. We arrived just in time to watch her jump out of a tree and saunter right next to our vehicle – too close even for photographs with the lens that I had on my camera. Sadly more and more vehicles began arriving, creating a sort of paparazzi feel, so as the leopard disappeared and re-appeared in the bushes we asked our guide to move on rather than join in what felt like harassment of a big cat who had provided a great morning AND evening show.
  • The day ended after the final game drive with a group of us standing near the lodge pool at sunset, watching monkeys and recapping our experiences from the day. In the midst of that I saw a flash of white moving behind some trees, but when I looked closer it was the lady who runs the massage room at the lodge. Brenda then said she saw something moving, to which I responded that the massage lady was back there. She gave me a look that would melt ice and politely said “look behind her” – when I looked again the same group of greater kudu from this morning were walking along the lodge’s perimeter fence. Oops.

Days like today have been common recently, but are rare in life, and it was a joy to have this one today. When my time on safari finally comes to an end it will feel strangely empty to pass the hours without elephants and monkeys in them, but I’m hugely glad to have had the good fortune to enjoy all of these tremendous experiences.

Leopard in Samburu Game Reserve

Any day with a leopard is a very, very good day.

Elephants in Samburu Game Reserve

Watching a matriarch lead her family of about ten elephants, including a tiny baby, across a river is magical. Watching a fellow passenger absolutely melt with joy as the event unfolded was even more magical.

Vervet monkey in Samburu Game Reserve

If you think this sweet little face would be incapable of stealing you blind, you would be wrong. If you think having a troop of robbers in camp would not bring great joy to the people staying here, you would also be wrong.

Monkeys on the Tent Porch

Posted from Larsens Camp, Samburu Game Reserve, Kenya at 9:16 pm, August 19th, 2014

At tonight’s “tent” camp we were told to securely zip our tents lest curious monkeys break in – three of them were milling about on the porch when I went out just now; I continue to very much enjoy the odd little requirements of travel in Africa (note: “tent” = luxury cabin with canvas walls and roof).

Today started with a short morning game drive at Lake Nakuru that included a ten foot long python slithering out of a pool to sun itself. We then embarked on a long journey north, but the roads were shockingly good, and a significant portion were actually blacktop, with some even having lane lines. After enduring several hours in the safari vehicle we arrived around 4 PM at Samburu Game Reserve and immediately spotted a number of new species in the arid landscape here. The additions to the species checklist included new varieties of zebra, ostrich and giraffe, as well as the gerenuk, which looks like an impala but has the ability to stand up on its hind legs to browse the high branches on shrubs – I can now check “gazelle that can stand upright” off of my list of things that I never had any clue existed but am hugely glad to have seen.

The lodging is another ridiculously fancy one along a river, although we were warned not to get too close to the water on account of crocodiles, and to be careful in the mornings lest elephants are out and about – it’s easy to arrive at a comfortable lodge and temporarily forget that I’m in Africa, but the constant danger of being eaten or smooshed is an excellent reminder. The monkeys are also everywhere at this camp, so this may be another location where the wildlife around the lodging is competing heavily for attention with what we see on the game drives. Three nights here should provide for some interesting times.

Red-billed hornbill in Samburu Game Reserve

The red-billed hornbills were present in great abundance when we arrived, most of them posing on branches.

Reticulated giraffe in Samburu Game Reserve

Sometimes we get close to the animals.

Gerenuk in Samburu Game Reserve

No one knows who trained the gazelle here to stand on two legs, but tourists arrive in droves to see them do it.

Graceland

Posted from Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge, Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya at 9:12 pm, August 18th, 2014

Today and tomorrow involve lots of driving and a little bit of wildlife viewing. After a 7 AM departure we left the Masai Mara area and began a long slog over some “roads” that had more in common with riverbeds than land transportation routes. Seeing the Kenyan villages along the way was eye-opening, but just as in Tanzania people seem to be hugely upbeat for the most part.

In the midst of that long overland journey I was thinking about why I take these types of trips – journal readers notwithstanding, they don’t really provide value to anyone else, and it’s a lot of time and money for just a fleeting experience. However, there is something to be said for experiencing true wonder at the world we live in. I’m not a particularly religious guy, but I can still marvel at the miracle of creation and have a huge appreciation for the opportunity to explore even a small part of it. Additionally, as I stated to some fellow passengers at dinner tonight, visiting a place like Africa creates a sense of gratitude for things that, most of the time, the majority of us wouldn’t even notice. Seeing people manually lifting heavy culverts while repairing part of the insanely bad road, or carrying huge stacks of produce miles to market on the back of a bicycle, is a gigantic reminder that the infrastructure and opportunities back home were created for us by generations that came before and put in a lot of difficult work. There isn’t a Home Depot here, gas stations aren’t on every corner, school buses don’t bring kids to the schools that are available, safe drinking water isn’t piped into homes, etc, etc – all of those things are worth stopping to appreciate.

Moving on to the likely-more-interesting news of animal encounters, we arrived at Lake Nakuru National Park in time to do a few hours of game driving, had an up-close encounter with a massive Rothchild’s Giraffe that was a few feet from the vehicle, and spotted the first white rhinos of the trip – the second-largest land mammal walked right in front of our vehicle without giving us a second glance, all the while cameras were clicking away. Birds along the lake and some close-up encounters with baboons finished the day.

White Rhinoceros in Lake Nakuru National Park

If this two-ton fellow had strayed a couple of feet to his left he would have walked right into the front of our vehicle – we’re getting reasonably close to the animals.

Crossings

Posted from Mara Serena Safari Lodge, Masai Mara, Kenya at 10:04 pm, August 17th, 2014

Doug and Gail got their crossing today, and it was a grizzly one for the wildebeest – a herd of at least 3000 animals took their time choosing a spot to cross, and finally picked a spot with steep banks and a few crocodiles in the water. Our vehicle was on the wrong side of the river to see them going down, but the dead animals that floated by us downstream were a testament to how something we take for granted like crossing a river can be a life-and-death endeavor in the animal kingdom.

Aside from the carnage at the river, today was a very pleasant day. Everyone in our van agreed early on that we didn’t want to rush around chasing wildebeest, so we went at a slow pace and watched the herd make their way down to the river, then sat on the banks to observe while other vehicles raced to the bridge to get a good viewpoint on the other side. As the drama unfolded, our driver showed an incredible ability to anticipate exactly what the beasties would do, and accurately predicted their meandering path, including selecting the exact tree that they eventually wandered to along the river bank. The afternoon was a similar slow pace, which allowed time to sit and enjoy the animal behavior at length.

Tomorrow we’re off early (of course) to see parts of Kenya further north, so today is my last day in the Serengeti, at least for a while. It’s a great place, and hopefully I’ll be back again.

Wildebeest stampeding at the Mara River after their original path was blocked by a lion. Yeah, it was awesome. The video is a minute long (and overexposed, oops), but it took probably five minutes for the entire herd to run by us.

Waterbuck in Masai Mara Game Reserve

Waterbuck are apparently only rarely preyed upon by lions or other predators because they taste very, very bad.

Plenty of Yum Yum

Posted from Mara Serena Safari Lodge, Masai Mara, Kenya at 9:10 pm, August 16th, 2014

While watching two crocodiles try to figure out how to eat a dead hippo (side note: how awesome is it that I can start a journal entry with that?!?!) I asked our guide why there weren’t any vultures on the hippo carcass. He answered “probably they don’t find it yet”, then gestured to the surrounding Serengeti and noted “also, there is plenty of yum yum for them”. Point well made, as the vultures here aren’t hurting for selection.

The Cheesemans remain somewhat obsessed with getting everyone a glimpse of the wildebeest herds crossing the Mara River, while the wildebeest remain obsessed with the crocodiles in the river and thus far haven’t obliged Doug & Gail by taking a plunge. Given all the time spent at the river today, other wildlife sightings were limited, although we did get some time with a cheetah and her juvenile cub, and a day with cheetahs is always a good day. Heavy rains at the end of the day caused a cancellation in tonight’s night drive, although that may be a blessing in disguise as exhaustion was setting in, so a bit of extra rest will be much appreciated.

One other random story from safari thus far: typically when a vehicle spots something exciting the driver radios the other four drivers in our group so that anyone nearby can drive over to see it. The drivers speak in Swahili, and often won’t immediately tell us what the radio chatter is about because they don’t want anyone to be disappointed if the animal wanders off. However, at this point we’ve learned a little bit of Swahili so that we can sometimes figure out what is causing the excitement by picking out key words like “simba” (lion), “duma” (cheetah), “chui” (leopard), etc. Yesterday the word “barabara” was being repeated numerous times during a particularly enthusiastic exchange, so after conferring with the other passengers to see if anyone knew what it meant, a lady from Taiwan timidly asked the driver “what is a ‘barabara’”? “Barabara means ‘road’” was the answer from the driver – apparently one of the drivers had radioed for directions.

Wildebeest in Masai Mara Game Reserve

Wildebeest always seem to have somewhere to go.

Two crocodiles eating a dead hippo, for those who have gotten sick of cute baby animal pictures.

Rhinos Have Feelings

Posted from Mara Serena Safari Lodge, Masai Mara, Kenya at 9:48 pm, August 15th, 2014

I’m pretty sure I could go on safari every day for the rest of my life and be very, very happy, provided there was some time for naps on occasion. Getting up before sunrise and standing in the back of an open-top vehicle in the fresh air while driving around beautiful places and looking at amazing numbers of incredible animals is a wonderful way to experience life, even if it is only for a few weeks.

Today was more of the same, although we finally got a good look at a black rhino, which is an animal that may sadly disappear from the wild due to poaching – if you ever see a shop selling medicines made from endangered species, please call the cops and get them shut down, because it’s far too amazing seeing the animals in a functional ecosystem to even tacitly support their destruction (and I’m descending the soapbox… now). We also went chasing up and down the Mara River trying to catch wildebeest crossing, but they outwitted us and we finished the day having seen only dry beasties. For my part I’m just as happy sitting in the midst of the massive herds and don’t really feel the need to see them go swimming, but it’s supposed to be an impressive sight, so I have no complaints about spending some time trying to catch them eluding crocodiles.

The day ended with another night drive, and this one was also great – we saw a lioness stalking zebra, an assortment of mongoose, hyena, and others, and also a serval, which is like an African bobcat. The wildebeest eyes reflected in the searchlight continues to astound me – it really does look like a synchronized parade of thousands of fireflies – and I’ve got one more night drive tomorrow, so we’ll see what else pops out in the African dark.

Zebra in Masai Mara Game Reserve

Having now seen thousands of zebra, it is embarrassing how much trouble I’m having getting a good photo of them, so this one will have to do.

Rainbow agama lizard in Masai Mara Game Reserve

A rainbow agama lizard, which I came all the way to Africa to photograph on the hotel walkway.

Hippopotamus in Masai Mara Game Reserve

“RAWR!” says that hippopotamus.

March of the Wildebeest

Posted from Mara Serena Safari Lodge, Masai Mara, Kenya at 9:52 pm, August 14th, 2014

Our lodging for the night looks like it was taken from the set of the first Star Wars movie, and it has a view over the Serengeti that is most definitely worth the price of admission – all good things.

In wildebeest news, it rained early this year, so the beasties are a bit confused and dispersed more than expected, but there are still a lot of them roaming the plains below – at one point today I saw a single file line of wildebeest that must have stretched for at least five miles, with each animal following the one in front to whatever destination had been selected. The single file thing apparently has evolutionary advantages, but it’s still funny to see several thousand shaggy beasts lined up in perfect order in a queue that extends across the horizon.

The upside of being in constant motion is that the wildebeest always get good grazing; the downside was evident as we crossed the Mara River – dozens and dozens of wildebeest who hadn’t survived the river crossing were floating in the water and being picked apart by hundreds of vultures. Gail indicated that these were just the ones who had drowned, and that many others were in the bellies of the numerous crocodiles we saw. As has happened many times on this trip, I said a silent “thank you” for the fact that humans generally die in bed instead of in the belly of something with large teeth.

Other animal sightings included playful lions cubs at dawn and dusk, a super-tiny baby elephant, and a cheetah charging a herd of wildebeest thrown in for good measure. After returning from the day drives I embarked on my first of three night drives, and got to experience the odd sensation of seeing hundreds of eyes reflected in the spotlight as a herd of wildebeest ran by – it looked like thousands of fireflies moving across the landscape in sync – as well as a lion hunting along the road and dozens of hippos out grazing. More to come.

Marabou stork in Masai Mara Game Reserve

The marabou stork is a member of the “Ugly 5″ (stork, vulture, hyena, warthog, wildebeest), but don’t tell him he’s not beautiful.

Lion and cub in Masai Mara Game Reserve

Ryan’s journal: all lion photos, all the time. Variety may be the spice of life, but baby lions are very, very cute.

Cool Looking Lizards

Posted from Sarova Mara Game Camp, Masai Mara, Kenya at 8:31 pm, August 13th, 2014

We’ve seen so many amazing things on this trip that we might be getting a bit jaded – today, after driving up to some rocks with female lions sleeping on top, Bruce took a look at the inactive cats and lack of good photography light and said “well, there’s a cool looking lizard in front of them”. Life is pretty good when you can see one of the world’s fiercest predators lounging in front of you and be more interested in the tiny reptile at its feet.

Today we got lots of cats – lions and cheetahs – and more huge lines of wildebeests. The park we’re in doesn’t allow off-road driving, so when someone finds something good there is a bit of a paparazzi feel as vehicles come rushing in from all corners to get a look. We had a cheetah that had just killed a small gazelle to ourselves for about a minute before the cavalry came charging over the hill in the morning, but in the afternoon we went to a different corner of the park and managed to get a cheetah completely to ourselves. The next park on the itinerary supposedly allows off-road driving, so it may again be possible to escape the “crowds”.

Aside from the animals, today’s excitement came from driving after last night’s rains – everything was muddy, and the tires didn’t have a ton of tread, so we were slipping and sliding all over. Just before lunch we veered slightly off road to pass someone and there was a crash – our vehicle had broken through an aardvark hole and was stuck. Since being stuck in the bush isn’t exciting enough, our breakdown was right in front of a young male lion. While AAA might be hesitant to service a vehicle with a giant carnivore watching, the guides here had no such qualms and we were extricated fairly quickly.

Lions in Masai Mara Game Reserve

Hopefully people aren’t sick of seeing lion photos in this journal – they are fun to photograph, particularly when the cubs are playful and the light is good.

Lion cub in Masai Mara Game Reserve

“Simba” is Swahili for “lion”. I asked a guide in Tanzania what “Mufasa” meant, and his answer was “it means Disney made up a word”.

Seeing the Things

Posted from Sarova Mara Game Camp, Masai Mara, Kenya at 9:03 pm, August 12th, 2014

Eleven new folks joined us this morning for the safari in Kenya, although most of the day was spent driving from Nairobi to the Masai Mara Game Reserve. We still had time for a four hour game drive in the afternoon, and while afternoon game drives haven’t been as exciting as morning drives, the new folks still got a great variety of animals today, including just about every major mammal that we’ve seen previously except for cheetahs and leopards. Thinking back to my first day on safari nearly two weeks ago, the excitement of seeing a wild giraffe or hippo for the first time is pretty tremendous, and it was fun to hear the stories at dinner.

For the rest of us the exciting thing today was seeing just how many wildebeest are here at the northern end of their migration route. At some points the landscape was filled from horizon to horizon with black dots, while in other places we would see single file lines of the shaggy beasts that stretched for hundreds of animals. Beyond the scale of the scene, watching a few young animals jumping in the air and acting frisky despite the obvious dangers that they face every minute of every day gives the impression that these aren’t unhappy creatures, despite their often unhappy fates. Africa is a hugely awesome place.

Wildebeest in motion in Masai Mara Game Reserve

I’ve burned countless pixels trying to get a wildebeest in motion shot, so now that I’ve finally posted one it is inevitable that I’ll finally get a good image tomorrow morning.

Goodye, Tanzania

Posted from Nairobi, Kenya at 7:49 pm, August 11th, 2014

Goodbye, Tanzania. Hello, Kenya. I’m now in a country where the captain of the track team is voted prom king, while the football captain is the guy who got cut from the cross-country team.

Our last (brief) game drive in Tanzania allowed me to redeem myself for identifying four animals as lions yesterday when they were actually warthogs (in my defense, they were low in the grass and covered in orange mud) by sighting a huge male lion before the guides saw him. The brief time with the animals was followed by a drive back to Arusha and a goodbye to many of the passengers and most of the guides. Seven passengers, and two of our guides then hopped on a bus for the five hour drive to Nairobi, which included a stop at a Wild West border crossing filled with old Masai women shoving trinkets in our faces, truckers camped out for multiple days waiting for vehicle inspections, and vastly more chaos than one would typically associate with national boundaries. So far as I know we made it across without casualties, and a tired and bedraggled group then continued on to the Kenyan capital. After a couple of weeks of driving remote dirt roads, being in massive traffic jams again was hugely stressful, although early tomorrow morning the Kenyan safari vehicles arrive and we’ll be off to quiet, non-smoggy places again.

Tanzania is an impressive place – they’ve protected a third of the country in parks or conservation areas, the people have incredible attitudes despite whatever hardships they might face, and the wildlife and scenery are unbelievable. I’m extraordinarily glad I got to see it, and were I a betting man I’d wager that this won’t be my last visit to this astounding country.

Wildersun guides in Serengeti National Park

Doug and Gail Cheeseman with our ridiculously awesome drivers, each of whom can navigate to an exact location amidst hundreds of miles of unmarked dirt roads after driving for twelve hours straight, single-handedly extract a vehicle stuck in an aardvark hole, identify every bird in Africa just from its call, calm an enraged elephant, and spot a cheetah in the grass from over a mile away.

Impala and oxpecker in Serengeti National Park

This photo will be the cover of my upcoming children’s book “Impala and oxpecker are friends”.

Magic Bus

Posted from Tarangire Sopa Lodge, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania at 9:36 pm, August 10th, 2014

Today was set up to be exceedingly great – we arranged to reunite the Magic Bus, including Safari Stephen driving, our lucky passenger Kitty, as well as the always-fun Mike & Steph. Wake up was at 5:45, breakfast was at 6:00, and then I returned to the room to grab some things before heading out. And when I went to leave, the door wouldn’t open. Turns out that there is no way to open them from the inside once locked, and my roommate didn’t realize I had returned and left with the key. There was no phone in the room that I could use to call reception, but since there was no way I was going to miss an amazing morning I took my seat in the Magic Bus after exiting the room by climbing out of the front window.

Today would have been a horrendous day to miss – the Magic Bus juju was flowing strong. Mid-morning we got a call on the radio and Stephen took off at an astounding speed given the road conditions – another van had spotted a pangolin, which is an exceedingly rare animal to see. It looks sort of like a three foot long dinosaur, with a tiny head and scales all over its long body. Stephen last saw one of the normally-nocturnal animals ten years ago, and for the first time on the trip every one of the Tanzanian drivers who stopped brought a camera and got a photo.

Following the pangolin we headed to a different area of the park, and Stephen spotted a lesser kudu, which looks like a gazelle but with amazingly effective camouflage; Stephen said he last saw one three years ago. Shortly thereafter we found an eagle owl in a tree, and then it got really good. In a tree right next to the road a leopard was sprawled out sleeping in the highest branches. We sat underneath the tree watching her for perhaps ten minutes, at which point she woke up, did a bit of grooming, then clambered down the tree, past us, and off into the bush. Light for photography wasn’t exceptional, but I’ve still got a few photos from the experience that will make me happy for a very, very long time.

The afternoon drive was less exciting – how could it not be? – but did include an elephant snacking on acacia pods in the parking area, making lodge traffic a bit trickier than normal. We’ve got a short, two hour game drive tomorrow, and then it will sadly be time to drive back to Arusha and say goodbye to our friendly, exceptional, beyond-hard-working drivers from Wildersun Safaris as we head off for phase two of the Africa trip in Kenya.

Leopard in Tarangire National Park

Leopard post-nap, about thirty feet up in a tree.

Leopard in Tarangire National Park

Leopard descent.

Leopard in Tarangire National Park

Leopard dismount. It was at this point where I believe the phrase “best day ever” was uttered repeatedly.

Leopard in Tarangire National Park

Leopard exit, stage right.

Third World Problems

Posted from Tarangire Sopa Lodge, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania at 9:39 pm, August 9th, 2014

The Cheesemans group has five vehicles that carry four people each and different people ride with different drivers each day, so every day people come back with different experiences. Through an exhaustive mathematical process, I figured out that one lady in particular saw the best things each day, and thus as a scientific fact, it’s clear that I should always be trying to ride in whatever vehicle she is in. Today I was in that vehicle, and before we had descended into the Ngorongoro Crater we’d already seen two cheetahs. On arriving at the crater floor word came over the radio that the hyenas had another zebra cornered, but after waiting for fifteen minutes while the hyenas mostly slept we all agreed to move on, and I was spared another spectacle of nature’s cruelty (the hyenas were apparently full, and word is the zebra survived the day, but as it appeared sick and the hyenas will be hungry again soon, its odds of making it through the night aren’t good).

The luck continued as we arrived at a den of lions and the two mothers decided to parade the three cubs from the den down to the road, where frolicking commenced. Many pictures were taken as too many vehicles jockeyed for position. We left when the cubs fell asleep, only to stumble on an old buffalo carcass being eaten by hyenas. Shortly after we arrived the hyenas moved off, and thirty vultures immediately descended from all corners in a feeding frenzy. When finally we arrived at lunch and stories of our morning got out, requests to ride with Kitty (the lady with the luck) were made by several other passengers.

On our way out of Ngorongoro and on to Tarangire National Park we hit a snag – the steep ascent road out of the crater was partially blocked by a massive bull elephant, a third-world problem of the first order. We sat there a dozen feet away as he ate trees, and as we drove past about six feet from him the guide was oddly silent when asked “is this safe”? Consensus was that since we all emerged unscathed, it was most definitely an extraordinarily cool experience.

The drive to Tarangire took a few hours, and after arriving we spent a couple of hours touring the baobabs and looking for wild dogs, and while the park is chock full of elephants and zebra, the dogs proved elusive. We’ve got a full day here tomorrow, and I’m in the Magic Bus with Kitty again, so luck should hopefully follow us for another day.

Lions in Ngorongoro Crater

The lions left a den that was 150 feet off the road to play and nurse right next to the road. Guess who was in the vehicle that they sat down next to? Our guides are AWESOME.

White-backed vulture in Ngorongoro Crater

One of about thirty vultures that jet-landed next to a dead cape buffalo once the hyenas had moved off. Someone in our vehicle was literally calling out “here comes another one” about every thirty seconds as the pile of birds on the carcass kept growing.

The Eighth Wonder of the World

Posted from Ngorongoro Serena Lodge, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania at 8:50 pm, August 8th, 2014

The Ngorongoro Crater lived up to its billing today, with animals everywhere, nearly all of them habituated to safari vehicles and thus not running away as we drove by. The highlight of the day was a pack of hyenas taking down a zebra, and while the feeding frenzy afterwards was impressive with hyenas pouring in from all corners of the park, the death of the zebra took a long time and was a really tough thing to watch – it was too brutal for photos, and convinced me that I most definitely never want to be out on foot while hyenas are about.

The crater itself is one of the largest intact craters in the world (like Crater Lake, the crater walls do not have a break in them) and the eleven mile diameter depression is the result of a volcanic eruption one million years ago, after which the ground collapsed over the empty magma chamber. Animals within the crater have plenty to survive on, so zebra and wildebeest are everywhere, over a hundred lions have made it their home, nearly 400 hyenas roam about, a small herd of black rhino remain, etc, etc. At one point today we stumbled upon a lioness lying in wait in the grass, and waited some time for a line of zebras to walk by her. Safari vehicles kept stopping to see the lion and redirecting zebra out of her path in the process, but when finally a small herd crossed within a few feet of her she never moved from her hiding place in the grass – the guide said that a single lion hunting during the day won’t charge until she gets exactly the right situation, and apparently none of the zebra she saw met her standards.

The other unusual sighting today was a hippo pool that was about three feet deep, and the hippos were rolling in the water to rub their backs in the mud. We would see a huge hippo in the water slowly turn, and then its stubby legs would be shaking in the air before it would finally manage to rotate its huge body back upright – not something I ever expected to see, but hugely amusing to sit and watch.

Tomorrow morning we get another visit to the Crater before heading off to Tarangire National Park for a couple of nights, after which the Tanzania portion of this odyssey will sadly come to its conclusion.

Hyenas after a zebra kill in Ngorongoro Crater

This fight for scraps was part of the aftermath of the zebra kill. Seeing thirty hyenas, as well as jackals and vultures, come pouring in from distant corners of the crater was an impressive sight, but seeing a zebra die brutally over a long period was an experience I’m not anxious to repeat.

Grey-crowned crane in Ngorongoro Crater

On the opposite end of the spectrum from hyena killings, the crater was filled with grey-crowned cranes, which are among the prettiest birds we’ve seen so far in Africa.

Leopard Spotting

Posted from Ngorongoro Serena Lodge, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania at 9:18 pm, August 7th, 2014

I SAW A LEOPARD!!!!

Today was the day for cats. Shortly after leaving the hotel we were parked on the side of the road watching two lions doing it, and while I’m not enough of a voyeur to have taken photos of the actual act, I did get a few cool shots of the stud posing before and after. From there it was on to four male lions who had killed a cape buffalo and were surrounded by a dozen hyenas waiting for their chance at a snack. When the last of the lions had his fill and had retreated to the bushes the hyenas moved in, at which point one of the lions came roaring out of slumber and chased them away – Doug Cheeseman says he’s only seen lions male defending a kill once before in his 70 trips to Tanzania; it was a mighty impressive charge.

From there it was on to my favorite moment of the day. We pulled up on three other stopped vehicles, and a leopard was resting in a tree perhaps fifty feet from the road. Almost as soon as we stopped he climbed down the tree, and instead of just slinking off into the grass he started stalking a herd of gazelle that was nearby. Maulidi put the vehicle in absolutely perfect position to watch the leopard creeping past a noisy mongoose den, into the tall grasses, and finally charge out from perhaps ten feet away at the gazelle. It was tough to see through the grass, but we saw gazelle scatter and one in particular leap up into the air and away before a disappointed leopard emerged and walked to a far tree with nothing to show for his efforts. If I haven’t said it enough already, I am enjoying some tremendous experiences, and life is very, very good right now.

We stopped for lunch and ate with dwarf mongoose running past everyone’s feet looking for crumbs, had a pair of hunting lions pass in front of the vehicle while driving to our next destination, and eventually arrived at the Ngorongoro Serena Lodge. Tomorrow we’re up at 6AM for an early departure into a crater that is world famous for its wildlife, and as has been the case each night of this trip, I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

Leopard in Serengeti National Park

The pictures don’t begin to do justice to how awesome it is to be sitting in a vehicle next to a leopard. Hopefully I’ll get some better ones later in the trip, but for now consider this one a placeholder.

Giraffe in Serengeti National Park

Giraffes sometimes like to make funny faces while being photographed, and an 18 inch long tongue makes that task easier for them.

Everything is Awesome

Posted from Serengeti Sopa Lodge, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania at 9:39 pm, August 6th, 2014

Another day, another adventure. Our vehicle was a couple of minutes late and missed out on a leopard that was in a tree near the road, although most of the other vehicles got a good look. We hung out next to the tree for over an hour after he had climbed down, but didn’t see him again; such is luck while on safari. Cape buffalo, wildebeest, zebras, lions, and the usual complement of elephants and other critters made up most of the rest of the day’s sightings.

To give some idea of what this trip has been like thus far, we wake up early (before sunrise) and either have a quick breakfast or else immediately jump in the safari vehicles and head out looking for whatever is stirring. The more obnoxious visitors (Hi!) stand in the back of the pop-top Toyota Landcruisers with their heads in the breeze for the entire time in order to have the best view of the surroundings, and the Tanzanian guides generally pick a direction and point out whatever they see that will be of interest, while passengers point out tree stumps and rocks that we mistake for something interesting. Stops for photographs or just to take in the surroundings are frequent. At any given moment there is usually something visible, whether it’s a gazelle or a vulture or an eagle or something else. Most of the time there is a herd of something around, be it two hundred impala next to the road, anywhere from a handful to an armada of wildebeests, or four elephants on the horizon. It’s never boring for me – there is always a surprise around the corner, waiting to be found.

While it would be awesome to rent a vehicle and travel entirely at my own pace, the downsides of such a trip are that the “roads” are often little more than two uneven tracks leading into a gully (and it’s the dry season – in the rainy season they will be muddy and often flooded), and also it’s hugely helpful to have four other vehicles that can call on the radio when a particularly interesting animal is sighted or someone gets stuck in an aardvark den. The Cheesemans have mostly booked top-end lodges within the park, but options also exist for more basic accommodation, with the caveat that you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere on account of there being various creatures about who would view such a thing as a pre-wrapped meal. Overall, I think the Cheesemans have put together an amazing tour that is probably about as good of an Africa trip as anyone could have, and we still have four nights left in Tanzania before moving on to Kenya.

Cape buffalo in Serengeti National Park

The cape buffalo is one of the “Big Five” African mammals (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, buffalo) and is also supposedly one of the meanest animals in Africa, so when this guy came up a riverbank fifteen feet from the vehicle I wasn’t sure what the proper protocol was. The guide gave me his usual “you are such a tourist” look and suggested I was missing out on a really good picture.

Tidal Wave of Wildebeests

Posted from Mara Sayari Camp, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania at 8:17 pm, August 5th, 2014

Growing up in the USA we are all told stories about pioneer days when herds of buffalo filled the horizon. That still happens in the Serengeti – at one point today we watched a herd of wildebeest galloping across a pass in the hills, down a valley, and across the plain, and couldn’t see where the massive movement of animals began. The animals traveled in lines that broke like a wave around our vehicle (see the photo below), with hundreds and hundreds running by us while the majority took another path further away. The herds of wildebeest here are IMMENSE, and we’re supposedly only seeing the stragglers that haven’t yet crossed the Mara river into Kenya…

Our lodging for the evening is the ridiculously fancy Mara Sayari tent camp – my “tent” has a hardwood floor, partitioned separations for the upscale bathroom, tub, shower, etc; I am not roughing it. There is a pool here with a large pile of what is obviously elephant poop near it – I asked the manager if elephants ever stopped by for a drink, and she admitted that they do but noted that the wooden fence keeps out the hippos who once frequented it. Pool maintenance is clearly a much different task in the bush of Africa than it is in the backyards of Los Angeles. Lest anyone think this is merely a fancy resort, everyone was frequently and emphatically reminded to request a guide when walking at dark due to the many animals roaming about, several of whom would happily make a meal of any stray camp resident.

Coming on this safari was an unbelievably good decision, and I’ve already seen sights that I’ve wanted to see since I was a little kid watching nature documentaries on TV. We’ve got much more to go, but already the soul has been much refreshed from everything we’ve experienced.

Wildebeest migration in Serengeti National Park

This photo captures a tiny fraction of just one herd migrating through the Serengeti. There are more than a million wildebeest on the move, and they fill the horizon at times.

Oversized Gerbils

Posted from Lobo Wildlife Lodge, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania at 8:37 pm, August 4th, 2014

I was trying to estimate the number of mammals we saw today, and no one in my jeep could even venture a guess – 100,000 seemed to be a number that everyone felt was neither too high nor too low. It was unbelievable how many animals were grazing the green grasses as we moved north, and supposedly the numbers will continue to increase tomorrow as we make our way up to the Mara River at the border with Kenya. I know that Yellowstone is “America’s Serengeti”, and other places similarly claim the “Serengeti” label, but there is no where that could possibly compete with this part of Africa for numbers of animals.

Not to make this journal a list of species, but in addition to the massive numbers of animals, today was a good one for variety of species as well. We saw at least a dozen lions, another cheetah, at least fifty hippos, a leopard that had dragged a gazelle up into a tree in order to escape from prowling lions, cape buffalo, and the zebras and wildebeests that are part of the great migration.

After standing up in the pop-top jeep scanning the horizons for hours today, arrival at the lodge was with very tired legs, but I still climbed up on top of the rocks here for an unbelievable view of the Serengeti plains. Further hiking is limited by the small matter that there are numerous animals around that will eat people. The lodge grounds included a troop of baboons and an infestation of hyrax, which clamber all over the rocks within a foot or two of the guests and look at bit like massive gerbils – in speculating which ecological niche they fill, consensus seemed to be “appetizer”.

Lions at Ndutu

A pride of lions was casually strolling along early in the morning, including these two (among others) who passed within a few feet of our vehicle. Just another day in Africa.

Lilac-breasted roller

A lilac-breasted roller, to add some variety to what has otherwise been an onslaught of cheetah and lion pictures.

Hippotamus in Serengeti National Park

Hippos are badass because they fight and are huge and mean and everything gets out of their way. Also, when they poop their tails spin around like a helicopter (really).

Double the Honey Badger

Posted from Lake Ndutu, Tanzania at 9:08 pm, August 3rd, 2014

Two honey badgers today, making three total for this trip; the lady that runs the lodge says she’s never seen one, so clearly fortune favors those who head out in jeeps prior to sunrise at 6:15 each day. More cheetahs, lions, elephants, giraffes, ostriches, and other critters today – our driver had the best eyes of any person I’ve ever met, and spotted the cheetahs immediately when we were more than a mile and a half away and they were merely blobs on a small hill to me. I can take credit for a couple of sightings today, but if it was a football game the final score would have been something like Yuda 54, Ryan 3; the guy is a wildlife-spotting savant.

So far what we seen of Africa has been inspirational – there are a million different types of animal, but each one fills a specific niche. Cheetahs are the best hunters, but are the weakest cat and thus must be on constant patrol for other cats. Elephants are the least susceptible to predators, but also need the most food and water. Gazelle can get by without much water and only a little bit of grass, but are preyed upon by the fastest cats. It’s like a perfectly balanced system, and you gain a huge appreciation for how amazing the natural world is by being out in a mostly-pristine system each day and watching it function as it has for hundreds of thousands of years.

We haven’t seen a leopard yet, and Doug says tomorrow is a good day for them, so I offered Gail $20 if she would reunite the same four passengers and driver from yesterday in a jeep tomorrow (Cheesemans assign passengers to vehicles each night so that everyone gets an opportunity with each of the drivers). She refused the $20, but obliged on the request for the Magic Bus reunion, so hopefully our luck from yesterday will be rekindled and leopard photos will accompany tomorrow’s journal entry.

Cheetah at Ndutu

We’ve seen a lot of cheetah here, and, given how little they seem to care about having safari vehicles around, the cheetah have apparently seen a lot of people.

Cheetah at Ndutu

Cheetah camouflage. The guides still see them from a mile away, because they are actually super-humans from the future who have robotic eye implants.

Lion and cub at Ndutu

Lions being cute. Either of these two would happily eat a person, lest anyone reading think that hugging them would be a good idea. This photo is from yesterday, but there were lions today, too.

Honey Badger Cares

Posted from Lake Ndutu, Tanzania at 9:16 pm, August 2nd, 2014

At 6:15 we were off across the landscape on the hunt for whatever animals might make an appearance. The day started with a honey badger, and when your day starts with a honey badger it is going to be an awesome day. He was not feeling excited about the safari vehicle behind him, and chose not to pose for pictures as we pursued him – clearly he cared. Numerous animals followed the honey badger, and then a call came in on the radio that one jeep had two cheetahs, while another had a den of lions. Conundrum. We went for the cheetahs, and an hour after we joined them we watched the mother cheetah take down a reedbuck (think small antelope) and then patrol the area while her teenage cub had a meal. And there were still lions to see…

Our planned return to the lodge for lunch at noon ended up being closer to 2PM, and then at 3:30 we were off again to chase more lions, cheetahs, elephants, ostriches, giraffes, birds, etc, etc. While the safari jeeps have seats, I stood in the back looking out for animals the entire time as we drove over fields, lakebeds, and through forests. My camera memory card has photos of lion cubs and baby cheetahs, among 500 other pictures, so pretty much the best day ever.

In non-animal news, the lodgings are pretty lavish, the Tanzanian drivers are all fun personalities and have mad skillz at both driving through crazy terrain and finding (and identifying) hidden animals, the food is really good, and the people on safari are for the most part really enthusiastic. There isn’t a lot of time for sleeping, so journal entries may be a bit incoherent and it’s tough to find time to review photos to find some to include with entries, but I’ll do my best to keep things readable and illustrated. One more day at Ndutu, then on to the Serengeti plains.

Cheetah with cubs at Ndutu

This is a photo I took of a cheetah with her cubs (she had two, but one wouldn’t stay in frame). Do not doubt that my life is unbelievably awesome.

African elephants at Ndutu

These are elephants. I have seen many, many, many elephants, and enjoy seeing them each and every time they show up.

Acacia at sunset at Ndutu

Acacia at sunset, aka the view from my room at the lodge.

Jenny the Genet

Posted from Lake Ndutu, Tanzania at 9:16 pm, August 1st, 2014

I ate dinner with four wild genets watching from the rafters. If you don’t know what a genet is (much like me three hours ago), it’s related to the mongoose and looks like a leopard’s coat put onto a cat’s body with a fox’s head and a lion’s tail. And four of those are residents in the lodge, living in the rafters, and watching guests eat each night before they head out to look for their own meals (no, Audrey, we can’t get one).

Overall the lodge grounds are practically a petting zoo – dikdik’s (deer that are about a eighteen inches tall) tolerate people to within a few feet, you practically need to avoid stepping on birds, impala graze fifty feet from the main path, and long eared bats make chirping noises under the eaves. Apparently they’ve all come to realize that predators don’t hang out in the vicinity and that people aren’t a threat, so they’ve made the place into a wild animal park run by the animals.

In non-lodge news, we drove across the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater and down into Olduvai Gorge to see where the earliest hominid fossils were discovered. Bones are still washing up there after the rainy season each year, as we quickly discovered when looking through rocks in the wash. Strangely, the highlight of Olduvai was the birds on its rim, which were oddly tolerant, numerous, and amazingly colorful. From Olduvai we then did an off-road safari for about five hours, which was a massive amount of bouncy fun standing in the back of the pop-top safari vehicles scanning for animals. A more mature man would not have made a game out of trying to find more animals than the driver, but I am not such a man and came away with the first hyena sighting of the trip as well as a bunch of other finds. Gazelle were so abundant that we quickly got to the point where they didn’t merit a stop, giraffe and ostrich were also numerous, and a bunch of other critters made an appearance as we rocked and rolled over the terrain.

At one point during the drive a call came in that another jeep had become stuck in a collapsed aardvark den, so we went to their rescue and helped winch them out. Writing about helping to extract a vehicle stuck in an aardvark den is a subject that I never in a million years would have imagined would be a part of this journal, and I feel unimaginably lucky to have been able to put it into words. Tomorrow is another day and another adventure.

Mrs. Obama gift shop, Tanzania

When we stopped for gas the Mrs. Obama gift shop was immediately rolled up to the entrance to the gas station. The Hillary Clinton and John Kerry gift shops followed a bit later.

Secretary bird at Ndutu

Secretary bird, aka “thanks for the snake, says that bird“. They stand about four feet high and are a pretty weird sight when they’re walking around looking for snakes that are venomous enough to kill an elephant.

SO MANY ANIMALS

Posted from Lake Manyara, Tanzania at 10:01 pm, July 31st, 2014

I think I saw 80% of the cast of the Lion King today. I won’t do the full species rundown, because that would take forever and be the most boring journal entry ever, but there were wildebeests and hippos and gazelles and zebras and giraffes and baboons and monkeys and cranes and storks and hornbills and vastly more. No big cats or elephants, but for the first day of the safari this was a hell of a start. The experience was straight out of a National Geographic special, with all manner of species in huge numbers mixed-up together and going about their business – we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of yellow-billed storks mixed in with pelicans, zebras, hippos, impala and other critters in just one corner of the lake. Side note, but the sound of hippos lazing about is a deep rumbling noise that anyone hearing would be able to immediately identify as having come from Africa – hippos are clearly badass.

Lake Manyara is just at the edge of the rift valley, and tomorrow we’re off to the top of Ngorongoro Crater, down to Olduvai Gorge, and onto the Serengeti proper. Today’s park is supposedly just the tip of the iceberg, and I’m already in full-on amazement mode. More, please.

Blue monkey at Lake Manyara

Blue monkey sitting on a post near Lake Manyara. Not the greatest picture, but this monkey reminded me of Gandalf, and that guy is all right.

Yellow-billed stork at Lake Manyara

Yellow-billed stork at Lake Manyara. Africa has some weird and wonderful creatures.

Under African Skies

Posted from Lake Duluti, Tanzania at 10:15 pm, July 30th, 2014

Day two of the African adventure – the full safari starts tomorrow, and in the interim I got to enjoy the second day at Lake Duluti with a morning walk around the lake and then plenty of time to enjoy the sprawling lodge grounds. My first animal attack of Africa occurred on the walk – it rained a little last night, so a colony of red ants was flooded out of their home and covered a fifty foot section of the trail; despite running through it I had a dozen defenders doing their job on my legs. Africa 1, Ryan 0.

In the afternoon a troop of two adult and three young monkeys came through where the lodge is located, and as opposed to yesterday’s distant views these guys were fearless and were at times only a couple of feet away. Monitor lizards and more types of birds than I can count made up the rest of the day’s wildlife sightings, and another bushbaby made a fleeting appearance at dusk.

I can’t wait for phase two of this African odyssey – if the grounds around a lodge and a tiny lake reserve can produce so much, I can’t fathom what the wide open spaces of the Serengeti will yield.

Spider at Lake Duluti

A giant (5 inches across) spider from the path around Lake Duluti, since I know a girl who likes spiders.

Hakuna Matata

Posted from Lake Duluti, Tanzania at 10:15 pm, July 29th, 2014

I’M IN AFRICA !!!!!

I woke up this morning at Kia Lodge, went outside, and looked out on Mount Kilimanjaro dominating the skyline; I bet my Tuesday morning beats your Tuesday morning. Kia Lodge is actually adjacent to the airport, but it was still filled with all manner of birds in its sprawling gardens, including hornbills and amazingly-colored bee eaters. At 10 AM it was off to our home for the next two nights, Lake Duluti Lodge, which is a luxury lodge on the edge of a national reserve. The route there was Africa like you see it in movies – people herding cattle, people balancing massive loads of goods on their heads, and a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore in most western countries. There was definitely no mistaking the feeling of being very far from home.

Lake Duluti is the meeting spot for everyone joining the Cheesemans trip, and while it isn’t as iconic as the places we will be visiting, it is nevertheless a great introduction to Africa. I took a walk with a guide and one other trip participant around the lake, seeing huge monitor lizards and all manner of strange birds, and even getting a look at my first monkeys in Africa – a troop of perhaps six blue monkeys slowly made their way across the canopy towards us as the light was fading.

So far my happiness level is quite high – Africa is going to be an amazing experience. And a random side note, but apparently “hakuna matata” isn’t just a catchy phrase from a Disney film, but is a common Swahili expression that you hear all the time. The people I’ve met here have been extraordinarily friendly and genuine, and “hakuna matata” is inevitably their response whenever I apologize for a late flight arrival, asking for something at a meal, or any other little thing. Given the tough living conditions you might think “no worries” would not be such a common refrain, so it’s perhaps a lesson to learn and take home for application in the much easier world that I come from.

Update: on the way to dinner a nocturnal bushbaby was in the path – sort of like a lemur, and about the size of a cat. After dinner I went searching for him again, and found him scrambling through the trees and leaping 20 feet between branches. It was a sight that I don’t think has any comparison in America. This is going to be an awesome trip.

A second helping of Turkey

Posted from Lake Duluti, Tanzania at 12:10 pm, July 29th, 2014

News of Africa will follow, but first here are a couple of additional photos from Turkey that didn’t originally make it into the journal; that is truly an amazing country for history and culture, and I had a great time there.

Cappadocia landscape

Cappadocia landscape. If you look closely you might be able to find an ancient cave house.

Hot air balloons in Cappadocia

I highly recommend taking the hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia, and then running away before they can ruin it with a cheesy champagne toast and “flight certificate” presentation.

You Shall Not Pass

Posted from 35,000 feet over Turkey at 9:14 pm, July 28th, 2014

This entry was going to be about how sad it is to leave Turkey, how exciting it is to be going on safari, and how neat it is to be setting foot on three different continents in a single day. However, my plane broke shortly after taking off from Istanbul and had to immediately return to the airport, so I’ll write about that instead.

First, the caveats: the plane was newer and in better condition than most of what we fly on in the US, so any issue had nothing to do with Turkish airlines. Second, whatever happened was probably the flight equivalent of getting a flat tire when driving, i.e. something that just happens from time-to-time that isn’t anything serious. And third, Turkish airlines landed us safely and got us on a new plane in less than an hour, a turnaround time that I doubt any American airline could have pulled off. With that said, the plane took off, and immediately started shaking in a way that felt weird – maybe we hit a bird, or a rotor in the engine cracked or something. A weird smell accompanied this, but any time you fly there’s something that feels a little out-of-the-ordinary, so I figured it was nothing. Then we stopped ascending, and flew low out over the ocean. Also weird, but airspace around Istanbul is congested. Then the pilot came on and made a terse announcement: “there is a problem with the plane, we are returning to Istanbul”. That was it – he said nothing else for the remaining thirty minutes that we were in the air.

I’m an engineer, studied aerospace, and know that commercial airplanes are built like tanks. They can fly across the ocean on a single engine, stay aloft with damage that seems catastrophic, and everything is double or triple redundant. Still, when you’re on a plane, boat, or any vehicle travelling in an environment where you don’t want things to go wrong, there’s still a little voice that lives in the pit of the stomach that is hard to ignore. Knowing that nothing serious was wrong as we repeatedly made circles over the ocean was a different feeling from finally landing again in Istanbul, with the entire plane full of passengers breaking into very loud applause. We taxied directly to the maintenance hangar where six guys immediately descended on the left engine, but beyond that I never found out what had happened.

I’m chalking the experience up to Turkey simply not wanting me to leave, and also treating it as yet another good reminder to almost always let the engineering logic in the brain drown out the dumb guy in the stomach. I write this from the new plane, which took off smoothly, with thoughts of lions to be seen in the coming weeks, fond memories of so many historic sights seen over the past twelve days, and appreciation for the fact that planes are by far the safest mode of transportation.

Day of Rest

Posted from Alacati, Turkey at 9:36 pm, July 27th, 2014

In an effort to reduce potential driving stress I got up this morning at 6 AM, while most of the vacationing Turks were sleeping, and made an exploration of the surrounding area. Unfortunately it’s pretty developed, so I’ll need to search out the famously beautiful coastline elsewhere in a future visit, but it was nevertheless neat to look at the sea and have the Greek Isles nearly close enough to swim to (nearly – they’re still a few miles away, and I’m not swim team material). I had time for a short hike along the coast before people started waking up, after which I retreated back to the hotel rather than face the horns and congestion of the Turkish roads. Thereafter I decided to make today a rest day, since I’ll likely be too afraid of missing anything to spend much time sleeping during the upcoming safaris in Africa.

Some random thoughts about the trip so far:

  • The call to prayer is an oddly reassuring thing to hear throughout the day, even if the mosque loudspeakers make it sound like some weird mash-up of Ravi Shankar and an electric shaver. The invention of the loudspeaker has to be one of the most momentous events in the history of Islam – I can’t imagine the imams were able to rouse everyone from bed at 4 AM back in the days when they were singing a cappella from the minarets.
  • The internet makes the world seem much, much smaller. The ability to check email and Facebook temporarily makes me feel like I’m back home rather than on the other side of the world, and as a result any moments of homesickness have been short-lived. On a related note, despite having taken a few jabs at Google maps in past journal entries, driving would have been a much, much more stressful experience without it.
  • The Turkish people have generally been very friendly and hospitable, but one aspect of the shared personality in particular caught my attention: there are a lot of stray dogs and cats everywhere, and I’ve seen numerous people leaving out bags of scraps or dishes of water. The culture seems to view the animals not as strays, but as shared pets, and they collectively take care of them as such.

Tomorrow is a day of flying, from Izmir back to Istanbul and then on to Arusha in Tanzania. Internet connectivity will likely be spotty in Africa, so posts may be delayed a few days – don’t call the embassy unless I go missing for a couple of weeks. Sadly, there will be no more trekking in ancient Roman cities, but there will be lions…

Self-portrait at the stadium in Aphrodisias

Self-portrait at the stadium in Aphrodisias. I didn’t take any new photos today, but the smile in this one from yesterday sums up my Turkey experience.

Aphrodisias

Posted from Alacati, Turkey at 10:34 pm, July 26th, 2014

I didn’t make any advance plans for the last few days in Turkey, so the ad-hoc activity for the morning ended up being a trip to Aphrodisias. This was my third ancient Roman city in three days, and it might have been the best of the bunch. There were no crowds – people doing archaeological work outnumbered tourists – and only a small portion of the city had been excavated, leaving lots to explore. There were literally carved blocks sticking out of the ground everywhere, demonstrating how much of the city has yet to be unearthed. What was excavated was in amazing condition – the stadium is the largest and best preserved anywhere in the world, the amphitheatre is in similar condition, and even the marble floors of the baths are still present and intact. The massive agora is also relatively complete, and I got the impression that as they dig more that Aphrodisias will rival Ephesus for the title of “best preserved ancient city”. Finally, the museum contained the most impressive statues and carvings that I’ve yet seen on this trip, I assume because excavations were done mostly after the era in which archaeologists dug things up and then shipped them back home to the local museum. Best of all, I got to enjoy most of these sights on my own – I stood in a 30,000 seat stadium with no one else around, and then repeated the act in the 7,000 seat amphitheatre; the Indiana Jones spirit lives on.

In addition to the history and landscapes, everyone raves about the beaches and coastline in Turkey, so I figured I’d wrap up the trip on the Aegean Coast. A Tripadvisor search for hotels located within 1-2 hours of my departure airport led me to the city of Alacati, so after leaving Aphrodisias I drove four hours west to a town that is sort of like a Turkish version of Carmel. Alacati seems to be a destination primarily for well to do Turks, so it’s a slightly more authentic experience than in other areas that cater more to foreigners. This town would probably have been my dad’s favorite stop, as tonight there was a farmer’s market going on that was easily three times bigger than any farmer’s market I’ve ever seen, with everything from stalls selling dozens of varieties of olives, to stalls selling homemade cheeses the size of a human head, to fruit stalls with watermelons piled six feet high, to carts offering steamed mussels. Pa Holliday would have been reduced to a walking pile of drool.

The plan for tomorrow is to explore some of the nearby beaches, although that option is highly dependent on driving conditions in case some of the “roads” on the map turn out to instead be glorified goat paths masquerading as highways.

Marble carvings at Aphrodisias

This stash of marble carvings was sitting under a shelter to form a long wall. I don’t know if it’s temporary storage or a permanent thing, but I liked it very much.

Aphrodisias stadium

The 2000 year-old, 30,000 seat stadium, which I had to myself. I’ll leave it to the reader to guess whether I spent part of my time there re-enacting scenes from Gladiator.

Lost in Translation

Posted from Pamukkale, Turkey at 10:46 pm, July 25th, 2014

Today ended up with two adventures, one planned and awesome, the other unplanned and not quite as awesome. The latter began after a late lunch when I attempted to save 30 minutes of uphill walking by catching the local shuttle to the upper gate of Hierapolis. The shuttle bus arrived, I hopped on, and my first sign of trouble was that there was not a white face on board. Thirty minutes later the bus finally stopped at the downtown terminal in a nearby large city. Once I found a bus that was supposedly returning to my starting point I made sure to repeat the name of the town I wanted multiple times just to be certain that I wasn’t accidentally getting on an express bus to Istanbul or any other surprise destination. These sorts of things are inevitable when traveling, but it will still be nice to be able to reliably use either English or French in the remaining countries on the trip, since with the aid of a limited vocabulary and excessive hand gestures I might have a decent chance of successfully doing simple things like riding a bus.

The day’s more enjoyable adventure was a visit to the ancient Roman city of Hierapolis. Having already spent an hour of fun in shuttles I gave up on trying to get a ride to the top gate, and made the very pleasant no-shoes-allowed walk up the white travertine terraces, with pools along the route and water from the springs running down the path. At the top, the ancient city sprawled across the landscape. Visits were made to many of the buildings, and one of the things that I’ve learned to love about Turkey is how accessible things are – I climbed to the top of a hill that literally had corners of sarcophagi sticking out of the ground, obviously waiting for archaeologists to find the time to excavate them. Similarly, I’m frequently blown away by the historical significance of what’s here – as if visiting Roman cities wasn’t enough, this one is home to the tomb of Philip. The apostle Philip. A guy who partied with Jesus. You don’t accidentally stumble upon the 2000 year old tomb of a biblical figure in too many parts of the world, but that was just one of several notable discoveries during the day today. The walk back down along the terraces at sunset was a final experience worth savoring for the day.

One last note, but a giant stork has built a nest on the roof of the local mosque and hangs out on patrol for large portions of the day; for reasons I do not understand, I like both that the stork chose the mosque, and that the locals don’t seem to mind have a huge pile of sticks and a large bird on the top of their religious edifice.

Travertine terraces at Pamukkale

Travertine terraces at Pamukkale. To get to Hierapolis you walk barefoot for about 30 minutes up a path through the terraces, with foot-deep pools along the way to soak in. Combine that with the view, and the ancient Roman city at the top is almost the second-best part of the day. The only downside is the number of large, hairy people making the journey in a speedo.

Travertine terraces at Pamukkale

I’ve gone back-and-forth a few times about whether or not I like this photo enough to include it in the journal. If you’re reading this, it means I included it. If you’re not…

Road Trip

Posted from Pamukkale, Turkey at 10:24 pm, July 24th, 2014

I slept in until 7:15 this morning, and it was glorious.

The plan for the day was to visit the ancient Roman city of Ephesus. The place is so old that it used to be located on the coast, but its port silted up and it is now located a few miles inland. O-L-D. I arrived when the gates opened at 8 AM in an effort to beat the crowds and heat, and then spent nearly five hours exploring ancient ruins and trying to imagine what life was like two thousand years ago. In addition to its theaters and famous library, the town is home to an amazingly well-preserved “terrace house”, complete with frescoes, marble paneling, and mosaics. With a little imagination and some modern amenities, you could easily see how these 2nd century apartments would rival any millionaire’s home today – the Romans were awesome.

By early afternoon I was ready for the three hour drive inland to Pamukkale, home to giant travertine terraces and the ancient Roman city of Hierapolis that sits on top of the travertine hills. I’m sure there was probably a shorter way from Ephesus to Pamukkale, but after yesterday’s fun with “roads”, today I was treating Google Maps with significant skepticism. It still tried to sneak me on to some questionable routes between villages, but as the pavement narrowed I figured out the trick, and spent a half hour backtracking to a more circuitous route that actually had pavement.

I have two nights booked here, and while I had been planning on doing some exploring of the surrounding area after visiting Hierapolis, the option of a rest day in a town that has been known for two thousand years for its hot springs sounds very appealing after the frantic pace of the past ten days.

Celsus library at Epeshus

Celsus library at Ephesus.

Grand theatre at Epeshus

Grand theatre at Ephesus. The 24,500 seat theatre is used today only for classical acts due to fears of damaging it, but until recently bands ranging from Elton John to Ray Charles to Jethro Tull (!) played here.

Floating in the Air

Posted from Selcuk, Turkey at 10:35 pm, July 23rd, 2014

It’s pretty cool when you feel like you’ve gotten in a full day’s worth of activity, look at the time, and realize it’s only 6:30 in the morning.

The hot air balloon ride was totally worth doing. The pilot of our balloon was apparently some sort of otherworldly wizard who was capable of sending the balloon three thousand feet into the air before dropping down to within a foot (literally) of the canyon walls for a few minutes, and then lifting us up a thousand feet before repeating the maneuver in a new canyon. The trip started in the pre-dawn hours, and the balloon lifted off so gently that the only indication of flight was that the ground was becoming distressingly far away – it’s an unnerving sensation to be leaning over the side of a basket a half mile up in the air with nothing supporting you. We watched the sunrise from that height with a hundred other balloons surrounding us, then the balloon armada dropped down to float together through the canyons before repeating. The weather conditions were apparently perfect, and after an hour in the air we landed softly next to the waiting trailer. The much feared presentation of the “flight certificate” was as painful as I imagined it might be, but despite that bit of tackiness I would still highly recommend the experience.

Following the balloon ride I was back at the hotel by 7 AM, grabbed a quick breakfast, and then did a return visit to hike in the Rose & Sword Valleys in order to enjoy the Indiana Jones spirit one last time. Sadly, after that it was time to check out of the incredible, stupendous, and ridiculously great cave hotel, and then it was off to the airport to embark on stage three of the Turkish odyssey.

For my last five days in Turkey I’ve put my life on the line by renting a car and facing the wrath of the Turkish roads, with tonight’s first lesson being that a “road” on Google maps may be something that causes locals to jump up from their seats and yell out warnings when you try to drive on it, necessitating a long drive of shame in reverse along a narrow, one-lane cobblestone path. Assuming the necessary lessons are learned without incident and I can survive this new motorized portion of the trip, in the coming days I’ll get to see a mix of ancient and natural wonders that were old even in biblical times. Life continues to be very, very good.

Cappadocia hot air balloon sunrise

This was my sunrise this morning, but with a hundred other balloons that are out of frame. I have no complaints.

Cappadocia hot air balloons in Love Valley

I wish I’d gotten much, much better pictures that did justice to how cool it was to be floating through the valleys of Cappadocia with a hundred other balloons. Unfortunately this is about the best I got, but on a positive note you can see the previously mentioned phallic stone towers that give the valley its name.

The active trip, now with hills

Posted from Goreme, Turkey at 9:27 pm, July 22nd, 2014

The 2006 Galapagos trip was referred to (fondly, by most) as the “active trip” since we packed in non-stop activity. Thus far this adventure is definitely living up to the standards of the active trip, with the added element of massive numbers of hills. My legs and feet appear to still be on speaking terms with the rest of the body, but I fear that if this pace keeps up there will be unrest and threat of strike from my appendages responsible for locomotion.

Today was much like yesterday, with less Indiana Jones and much more finely painted stone churches. The day began before 4 AM with the man in the mosque singing me a song through the loudspeakers on the minaret. This particular melancholic lament was considerably longer than his normal pre-dawn melodies, and when it finally ended sleep was hard to find. Finally at 5:30 I went up to the terrace to again watch the balloons floating by, and thereafter it was off to the protected area of Goreme to see the most impressive of the stone churches. This area is actually managed as an open air museum, so it was quite a different experience from the previous day’s journeys into lonely corners of hidden valleys. Photos were not allowed and, since I’ve already gone on ad nauseam about how amazed I am that anyone could have built such structures inside of solid rock, like Forrest Gump I’ll sum up by saying that’s all I have to say about that.

After visiting the pretty churches the first attempt at a hike for the day ended in defeat as the trail through the Zemi Valley simply faded away, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where it had gone. Ego in hand, I made a one-eighty and came back to my ridiculously awesome cave hotel for a nap and to avoid being out in the heat of the day. Nap completed, I then headed off for a late afternoon hike in Love Valley, which I swear has to be a toned-down translation of the actual Turkish name since it was named after the giant stone formations that are found throughout the valley floor, each one looking exactly like a fifty foot tall weiner.

Tomorrow is my last day in Cappadocia, and I reluctantly shelled out the big bucks to take a ride at sunrise through the valleys with Istanbul Ballooons. A hot air balloon ride has to be the most touristy thing I could possibly do – all the balloon companies advertise that after landing they have a champagne celebration and present you with a “flight certificate”, which hurts my soul in the most severe way – but I’m hopeful that this one is a truly great experience that comes with a side of touristy schlock. Following the balloon ride there should be time for one more hike, and thereafter the second leg of this trip will have all-too-quickly come to a close.

Cappadocia sunset

Until today I’ve been lucky enough to get at least one journal-worthy photo each day, but luck finally ran out. While it was tempting to just post a shot of the giant stone wieners, instead a generic sunset photo from a couple of nights ago will have to do.

Indiana Jones of Cappadocia

Posted from Goreme, Turkey at 9:08 pm, July 21st, 2014

Yesterday I woke up at 6:15 and counted 26 hot air balloons floating across the sky. Today I woke up at 5:45 and there were too many to count. Six days in, and this adventure is still going very strong.

Prior to arriving I knew nothing about the logistics of visiting Cappadocia, and not wanting to lose even one day of this trip I had made advance arrangements with a trekking company for the first day here. After arriving I realized that there is TONS of great history and landscapes surrounding Goreme (the town I’m staying in), so today I was happily able to return to my lone, free ranging ways. A hike through any of the surrounding valleys literally passes by hundreds, if not thousands, of stone structures that date back a couple thousand years, so I was in full-on Indiana Jones mode as I scrambled through ancient churches that had been hacked from stone, roamed through eroding rock formations, and explored old monasteries that crept up multiple levels inside of the rock. Without trying to sound like a broken record, it’s unbelievable what people have been able to carve out of the rocks here – at one point today I stood in a church that was three stories high, all chiseled out by hand deep inside of a cliff.

After returning in early afternoon and getting a much-needed nap during the heat of the day, the late afternoon activity was a visit to Uchisar Castle, which is the high point in this area, and which was hacked out of the top of a stone hill (of course). From there it was a nice stroll back to Goreme through Pigeon Valley, so named for the high density of pigeon houses carved into the cliffs and built by ancient people since they used pigeon droppings for fertilizer.

One last note, put here mainly for my dad – no matter where I travel, his first question is nearly always about the food (“Antarctica, huh? What was the food like?”) Gotta say, while I haven’t been spending much time eating, Turkey does the culinary thing right. Best olives I’ve ever had. Fresh fruit that is smaller than what we get back home, but seems to pack in more flavor. Grilled meats that have all brought great joy to the tastebuds. And while I’m not yet a card-carrying member of the Turkish tea fan club, I could see how that ubiquitous drink would grow on you. The only downside for me has been that this is the wrong place to not like eggplant – at one point I politely declined some sort of curried eggplant from the guy working the breakfast buffet, and while he didn’t say anything out loud, the look on his face was pretty clearly one of very deep-seated disgust towards me and all of the evil that I represented. In my defense, I had tried the dish he was offering earlier and re-affirmed that eggplant continues to keep its position on my unapproved vegetable list.

Cappadocia hot air balloon launch

Hot air balloons launching at sunrise. This photo captures just one corner of the sky – the horizon was filled.

Aydinli Cave Hotel Room #2

Room #2 at the Aydinli Cave Hotel. A 300 year old space carved out of the solid rock of the hillside would be a national historic landmark in America, but in Turkey it’s my beyond-cool home for four nights. Giant bathroom (former stable) not shown.

Walking on Sunshine

Posted from Goreme, Turkey at 9:35 pm, July 20th, 2014

I woke up at 6:15 this morning, walked up to the uppermost terrace of my cave hotel, and watched 26 hot air balloons floating over the rock formations. Life is that awesome right now.

The day’s plan was to hop in a van and go see evidence of civilizations that were here millennia ago, starting with the Kaymaklı Underground City. The “city” part of the name is actually accurate – ancient people hacked the rock to build tunnels and living quarters that are large enough to hold 4000 people with enough supplies to withstand sieges from invaders for several months. The underground labyrinth has at least 100 rooms that extend below the surface for eight levels and a depth of at least 70 meters, with the oldest portions dating back as far as 2000 BC. I had no idea such a thing had ever existed in this world, but seeing the lengths ancient people were willing to go to in order to escape from invaders made me very, very appreciative that I live in a time when it is no longer necessary to deal with surprise raids from barbarian hordes.

The next stage of the journey was an eight mile hike through the Ihlara Valley, a hideout for early Christians escaping religious persecution (at that time “religious persecution” was a euphemism meaning “a horrible, awful, terrible death”, so the hiding was mostly justified). Cave houses were everywhere, and hidden churches appeared at regular intervals. Sadly the frescoes in the churches were heavily obscured by graffiti – “crazy lovers” was how the guide I was with described the perpetrators – so works of art dating back to the first few centuries AD are now victims of visitors who felt it was important to scratch their initials and the date of their visit into the ancient plaster. JC would have been forgiving, but it gave me a significant frowny face inside.

With all of the day’s activities there wasn’t time to take photos of my uber-awesome cave hotel room, so those will need to wait for a later journal entry when extreme tiredness isn’t such an immediate concern.

Cappadocia landscape at sunset

Cappadocia landscape at sunset. There is an ancient cave house or storage space carved into just about every piece of rock in the area.

So Many Things

Posted from Goreme, Turkey at 10:20 pm, July 19th, 2014

The days when it was a struggle to find subject matter for three journal entries a month are gone… I’ve just arrived in Cappadocia, and this journal entry would be all about my 300 year old carved-out-of-solid-rock cave hotel room(s) if there wasn’t more to recap from Istanbul. The high level overview on the lodging for the next four days: if you’re ever planning a trip to Cappadocia and think it might be better to save some money and not stay in a cave hotel, have someone immediately slap you across the face, hard. You will later thank them repeatedly after not missing out on the most unique accommodation experience of your life.

Now back to Istanbul. Thus far I’ve been going to bed early and waking up even earlier, so last night was the first night where I ventured out in the evening. Ramadan is ongoing, and when I got to the main park outside of the Blue Mosque there were literally thousands of people having picnics with their friends and families to break their daily fast. I’ve never seen anything quite like it – imagine the scene on the Fourth of July just before they shoot off the fireworks, but no one is American, the food is completely foreign, and the music and games are unrecognizable; that sort of captures it. It was incredibly neat to just walk around and absorb the atmosphere.

After last night’s meandering I got up reasonably early today for my final day in Istanbul. The first destination was to the 7AM opening of the rooftop restaurant at the Seven Hills Hotel to soak in the 360-degree views of the ocean, the Blue Mosque, and the Hagia Sophia in the early light. “Soak in the views” might be a cliched term, but in this case the surroundings really were sort of like fuel for the soul.

With the spirit refreshed and the belly full of olives and honeycomb, the activities for the day were a trip to the Little Hagia Sophia and to the Basilica Cistern, followed by an interlude at the Blue Mosque prior to heading to the airport to catch my flight. The Little Hagia Sophia was actually built by Justinian before the Hagia Sophia and, unsurprisingly, is a much, much smaller version that has less ornate decoration but some amazingly impressive carved marble columns. A thunderstorm arrived while I was there, and I was trapped in a 1500 year old church (now mosque) for an hour; that is misfortune of the very best kind. The Basilica Cistern is a 1500 year old underground Roman water storage tank, which doesn’t sound so neat until you’re in it: it is 453 feet long, 212 feet wide, 30 feet high, and supported by 336 marble columns – it’s also known, understandably, as the Sunken Palace, and probably ranks in my top ten most unexpectedly weird discoveries. The support columns were re-purposed from other structures, so most of them are ornately carved with different designs. Rumor has it that it was forgotten until the 16th century when a scholar researching Byzantine antiquities was told by locals of how they could catch fish through holes in their basement floors, and carp are still present today in the two feet or so of water that floods the bottom. Wandering around inside re-affirmed my belief that had Rome not fallen, their genius would have had us launching satellites and making microwave popcorn five hundred years ago.

Thus ended the very first leg of this three-month long odyssey. Tales of the cave hotel, hidden churches, and attempts to avoid heat stroke will follow tomorrow.

Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern. Completely full it held 80,000 m3 of water, which means that 32 Olympic-size swimming pools could be emptied into an underground storage unit that the Romans built without mechanized tools. Note that there were even more columns behind me when I took this photo – the place is not small.

Entry to the Blue Mosque

Detail of the front of the Blue Mosque. The main entry is for worshipers only, and a man with a uniform and an absolutely impeccable Muslim detector was stationed there to redirect people to the visitor’s entrance on the side as appropriate.

My Dogs are Barking

Posted from Istanbul, Turkey at 8:40 pm, July 18th, 2014

After walking all over Istanbul in the heat today I sat down while inside of the Archaeology Museum to rest my (very, very, very) tired legs and accidentally dozed off – I could be wrong, but I think that means I’m doing this adventure thing right.

It’s shockingly difficult to find a nice view of Istanbul’s Old City, but after scanning the horizon I noticed people dining on the roof of the Seven Hills Hotel and the day started with me heading over there to catch the morning light. Surprisingly they didn’t insist that I buy anything, and for the equivalent of a couple of dollars gratuity I started the day with a great view of the sea, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia – there may be a return visit tomorrow.

From there the day of much walking commenced, with a journey across the Old City and through all manner of narrow alleys to the Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Suleymaniye Mosque, Archaeological Museum, and along the waterfront. My expectations for the Grand Bazaar may have been a tad unrealistic – I imagined a labyrinth of shops straight out of the Arabian Nights, with artisans, exotic goods, hookahs, and maybe a camel or two. The labyrinth part was accurate and very cool, but the shops themselves were more flea market than Arabian Nights, and there wasn’t a camel anywhere to be found. The Spice Bazaar came closer to matching my imagination, with brightly colored bins of spices laid out in hundreds of stalls. Even better were the shops in the narrow alleys around the spice market, where labels weren’t printed in English and none of the goods were being sold pre-packaged in gift baskets.

From the Spice Bazaar it was uphill to the Suleymaniye Mosque, which is slightly older than the Blue Mosque, approximately the same size, equally as impressive inside, and filled with perhaps 1/20th as many tourists. Also, it’s less blue and more red.

The day finished with a slow meander towards the Archaeological Museum, through innumerable narrow cobblestone alleys, across public squares, and past all manner of shops. When finally it occurred to me that some sort of sustenance might be a good idea I ordered a kebab, and after I answered in the affirmative when the guy making it pointed to some french fries, I learned that in Turkey they are apparently toppings rather than a side dish, as they came wrapped inside of the kebab – yet another tiny reminder that I am far from home. Hopefully I can get my tired legs to cooperate and do a bit more wandering tomorrow, after which I fly out of Istanbul in the evening and head to the weird landscapes of Cappadocia for the second leg of this adventure.

Blue Mosque

The elusive Blue Mosque skyline view. Someday more owners of nearby buildings will realize that their rooftops are untapped gold mines, but until that day the Seven Hills Hotel will be my eatery of choice.

Spice Bazaar

Stall in the Spice Bazaar. When the labels on the spices are printed in English it is not-so-secret code for “you’re paying double”.

On the Second Day

Posted from Istanbul, Turkey at 9:52 pm, July 17th, 2014

The tour groups filtering through the Blue Mosque seemed to allow about fifteen minutes to visit the place, which means I probably saw nine rotations go through while I enjoyed the cavernous interior – at the rate I’m going, four days will be enough to see only a tiny, tiny fraction of Istanbul.

By the standards of Istanbul’s other monuments, the Blue Mosque is fairly young, having been built only 400 years ago, but it is equally as impressive as its older siblings. 20,000 handmade tiles decorate the inside walls and pillars, the central dome rises 141 feet into the air, eight supporting domes create a huge interior space, and one awed and smiling American got to enjoy it all for a good chunk of the morning.

The day’s next visit was to the nearby Mosaic Museum, which is the remnant of a 4000 square meter mosaic courtyard built by Justinian about 1500 years ago that, for whatever reason, was mostly built over and forgotten as the centuries passed by. Today archaeologists have restored a portion, and I’d put the artists who built it up against any artist living today – it’s an impressive piece of creative work. Following that stop it was back to the Hagia Sophia to see the tombs of four sultans. All of the tombs were inside of large domed buildings, all impressively decorated with tiles, and the actual sarcophagi (?) were carpeted on the outside, which I guess is the way you do it when you’re a sultan (or a relative of a sultan) of one of the largest empires ever to exist on Earth.

Thereafter it was off to the Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Ottoman Empire from 1465–1856. The palace grounds included four courtyards and hundreds of rooms, leading to a tired set of legs when all was said and done. The Sultans lived well, as evidenced by the residence area (the Harem), the museum exhibits that included an 86 karat diamond and bowls filled with emeralds, the ornate receiving rooms, and the tremendous views out over the Bosphorus Strait. The day’s final visit was to the Hagia Irene, a church that is slightly older than the Hagia Sophia but slightly less massive and in a much greater state of disrepair. Surprisingly, the worn down old building is used today primarily for musical performances, as it apparently has amazing acoustics under its high dome.

Finally, random side note, but while the focus on wildlife for this trip won’t start for two more weeks when I reach Tanzania, it’s impossible not to notice that they have (very loud) parrots here, too. In addition, there are a surprising numbers of birds that have found holes in the exteriors of the historic buildings and set up homes in hidden corners of architectural wonders. Hearing a pigeon flying through the vast interior of the Hagia Irene or Hagia Sophia isn’t what I necessarily expected in the stillness of a 1500 year old religious edifice, but at the same time it definitely doesn’t detract from the ambiance.

Mosaic Museum detail

Detail from a 1500 year old Byzantine mosaic at the Mosaic Museum. I continue to be hugely impressed with the ancient Romans’ ability to arrange tiny pieces of rock and ceramic.

Column detail in Sultan Selim tomb

The Ottomans seem to have been all about arches, domes, and colored tiles. This photo shows details of the supports for the dome above Sultan Selim’s tomb, which was built in 1577.

In the Beginning

Posted from Istanbul, Turkey at 6:04 am, July 17th, 2014

Yesterday’s plan to avoid jet lag despite sixteen hours of flying and a ten hour time change was simple – get up to catch the plane at 4:30 AM (Los Angeles time) and then stay awake until I was somewhere over the Atlantic and it was the equivalent of evening time in Istanbul. A brilliant plan, had it worked, but instead I never fell asleep on the plane and arrived in a state resembling the walking dead. On a positive note, I finally got to see Captain America 2, Thor 2, and the Hobbit Part 2 (Air Canada is really into sequels).

After landing and fetching luggage I arrived at the hotel in Istanbul at noon local time (2AM Los Angeles time), and fearing that it might not be a good idea to see some of the world’s most amazing landmarks while hallucinating, took a three hour nap before heading out. Once off, my hotel was only a couple of blocks from the Hagia Sophia, so I got to spend the remainder of the day in one of the most remarkable buildings ever built by humans. The place is old – it was built in 537 AD, and is the kind of old where you look at a marble block at the entrance and notice that it has been worn down two inches in the center from people walking on it. In addition to its age, the building is an architectural marvel that, like the pyramids or Stonehenge, makes you wonder how societies of that time could possibly have built it. The central dome alone is 101 feet across and 160 feet high, creating an absolutely immense enclosed space. I stayed well past closing, allowing the crowds to thin out, and got to enjoy the place as it got quieter and stiller; not a bad way to kick off this adventure.

The Blue Mosque faces the Hagia Sophia from across a park, so I ventured over to it as the sun was setting. It was too late to go inside, but standing in the courtyards finally gave me that electric shock feeling that yep, I’m far from home on the opposite side of the world. Hearing people speaking Turkish, not knowing what the customs were, navigating narrow cobblestone streets, wading through the touts in the park (“My friend! My best friend! You want Bosphorus cruise?”), and being awed by a sight I’ve wanted to witness for decades was just the right combination to let it sink in that I am most definitely on an amazing adventure.

Hagia Sophia mosaic detail

Detail of a mosaic of JC from the Hagia Sophia’s walls. The Byzantines apparently knew a thing or two about arranging tiny colored tiles.

Hagia Sophia interior domes

Unfortunately half of the interior of the Hagia Sophia was filled with scaffolding, so this is the best attempt I had at capturing the amazing domed ceiling. You obviously can’t tell from this botched effort at a photo, but it was the kind of awe-inspiring that makes you want to go to church on Sunday.

Hagia Sophia interior hall

Torn between waiting for a break in the steady stream of people, or of using some of them for scale, I chose secret option three, which is either turning them into ghosts or accelerating them up to warp factor five. Whatever your preferred explanation, it made for a cool shot of the halls along the side of the main sanctuary.