Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Farewell to Africa

Mar 11 - Farewell to Africa

My morning started with some hotel inspections including the sister property to Emerson Spice named Emerson Green which is undergoing a grand renovation to be completed in June.  It has much the same style and charm with a little less flamboyant color than the Spice property.  I forgot to mention that my room at Spice was named Violette and the color scheme followed in accord.  Next it was off to the famous Serena beachfront property which is part of the large Serena chain of hotels.  They had a lovely pool and terrace overlooking the beach and nice sea view rooms with very strong air conditioning.  I prefer the smaller family owned boutique hotels but this would be the best place for those seeking a more modern property, sea views, or a swimming pool.  I did a little shopping as well and picked up some beautiful hand crafted pillows from the women's cooperative and some nicely carved wooden salad spoons as well as some scented soaps.  It was hard to keep to my rule that my purchases must be functional because after a lifetime of travel I have so many trinkets and pieces of art that there is no more room for such things despite my longing to acquire one of the stunning Tinga Tinga paintings of a Masaai village scene or another of a street scene in Zanzibar.  I was also tempted by some well crafted hand painted inks of the old wooden doors.  So many choices!  Then it was off to the airport for a my quick flight to Nairobi where I connected it the excellent Turkish Air flights to Los Angeles via Istanbul...did I mention that business class lounge features free massages and a golf simulator among other treats and delicacies created by the various chef stations in the spacious 2 story of the best in the world.  If you can save enough miles to go business class it is amazing!  They even have free wifi and live TV on the plane from Istanbul to LA.  Bow that's the way to do it!  Arrived home refreshed and completely invigorated by my travels.  Once again I have fallen under the spell of mother Africa and her many charms.  It is a true honor and a privilege to be able to witness the wonders of is great continent.  As I always say, you have to visit Africa once in your life if you are able to - you won't be disappointed.

Now, time to plan the next trip - a family safari in July 2015 to Zimbabwe featuring rhino tracking, excellent leopard habitats, large populations of elephants and lion, historic and wonderful Victoria Falls, and a luxury camp on the upper Zambezi where we can do canoe safaris, walking, cultural visits and night drives!  Who is in???

Spices & History

Mar 10 - Spices & History

After a leisurely breakfast I made a quick site inspection of the Matemwe House which is a private house with a pool on the beach that is perfect for a family.  I then visited the Matemwe Retreat which makes up part of the large beach front estate we were on.  The retreat features four large villa "bungalows" with private dining and butler service.  The suites are stylishly designed and very private.  Upstairs is a fabulous terrace with a plunge pool overlooking the entire coastline directly across from the idyllic Mnemba Island.  Ideal lodging for a honeymoon couple or one celebrating a big anniversary due to the complete privacy.  Afterwards we bid adieu to the friendly staff at Matemwe and set off on a 45 minute drive to the center if the island where we were given a very informative spice tour.  Many of the common spices we use at home are grown here in Zanzibar including clove, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, lemon grass, and more.  It was interesting learn that spices come from various locations on a plant including the root, stem and leaves.  The guide gave us a woven reed basket to keep the various samples that he shared with us and the bouquet was amazing.  Unfortunately a driving rain forced us to curtail the full tour but we met some really cute kids on the porch of a hut that we took shelter under.  The guide was great and actually went out in the rain and brought us back samples of most of the plants that we were not able to walk to.   My favorite scents from the tour were lemon grass and cinnamon.  It was fun trying to guess the origin of each vibrant fragrance he brought to us.  I definitely recommend this tour for anyone with an interest in the culinary arts.

Next it was off to the bustling port in Stone Town where we had lunch as the ferry from Dar Es Salaam arrived and disgorged its passengers.  There was a myriad of vessels in the harbor from simple wooden dhows to large ocean cargo containers.  After lunch we had a sobering visit to the slave market and learned about the horrible trade in human flesh which was eventually ended with pressure from Dr. Stanley Livingstone!  That was a surprise to me...there is a huge church built on the site of e slave auction whipping post and gorgeous stained glass that was imported from England in the late 1800's specifically designed for the church.  We then set off on foot into the quaint historic streets of Stone Town having driven past the large outdoor marketplace.  The architecture was a classic mix of Arab, Indian, African and Portuguese styles and we soon came upon some stunning carved wooden doors. One could identify the Arabic doors by the arch at the top whereas the Indian doors had ornate flowery carvings and large cooper spiked caps that protruded from the door as defense against wild and dangerous animals.  The town clearly had a diverse ethnic mix as a result of its history which includes a visit by Vasci de Gama, settlement by the Portuguese who were then ousted by the Sultan of Oman who set up his palace in Zanzibar.  The British then followed and took over administration until independence in 1964 when Zanzibar unified with Tanzania's new dynamic leader Julius Nyerere who was famous for creating a socialist state.  In its easy history Zanzibar was visited by Persians, Egyptians, Phoenicians,  and Greeks.  Fascinating history!  

The shops were full of spices, soaps, carvings, paintings in a local style called Tinga Tinga, jewelry including the deep blue Tanzanite stones, hand sewn pillow cases, modern items like shoes and soccer jerseys, and much more.  It was like a mini grand bazaar...our tour included the fort and we also stopped by the House of Wonders which had the first electricity and modern wonders like an elevator.  We were glad to have a guide as the streets were very circuitous and it would have been easy to get lost.  The shop keepers were very friendly and not as aggressive as I had expected though there were some street hustlers selling CDs and other items which we easily ignored.  After sending my guests off to the airport I wandered to the port to see the opening of the night food market in the green lark by the waterfront in front of the old fort and House of Wonders.  The vendors set up a vast array of food stalls with everything from fresh lobster to pressed juices, fruits and vegetables, Indian delights like Somalis, and more.  It was a great scene to watch and smell as the aromas of spices wafted over the park and kids played soccer on the nearby sandy beach as the sun set and the last of the fisherman beached their dhows with their fresh catch spilling over.  A scene out of paradise and I felt lucky to be a part of it.  I returned to my fantastic historic boutique hotel among the narrow streets called Emerson Spice which was a converted 6 story mansion with restored lovingly restored to its finer glory.  The hotel was built around a central fountain with an open interior that rose to the sky as each floor featured balconies that allowed one to look down into he heart of the building at the fountain below.  The stair cases had beautiful think mahogany handrails and each floor boasted high ceilings with intricately carved balconies.  Each spacious room was tastefully decorated with billowing curtains in a very open floor plan with lots of windows and doors that swung out into large private balconies with chairs to sit and enjoy the street scenes below.  I could really taste the history in this fantastic setting.  They even had an original copy of the Guide to Zanzibar from the 1960s in each room.  The bathrooms were tiled with gorgeous geometric patterns and featured a large bathtub with double vanity and separate bathroom.  The furniture was antique silk embroidered chairs and a couch with a carved wooden desk and armoire.  Spacious and elegant with large ceiling fans and air conditioning to supplement the cooling.  Dinner was a real treat on the rooftop as the sun set in the western sky amongst the minarets, hindu temples, church spires, and garden rooftops of the old town.  We sat on too of the world as the chef prepared a 5 course tasting menu that was mind blowing.  From caviar stuffed eggs to lobster in garlic butter to the final cooling taste of guava givre the chef outdid himself.  We were served a complimentary glass of bubbly to kick things off and ended with my favorite - cardamom cinnamon coffee....what a treat!  A superb meal for the amazing price of $ wonder so many expats live here!  I can see why it is hard to leave.

Diving Zanzibar on Mnemba Island

Mar 9 -  Diving Zanzibar on Mnemba Island
My morning started with a nice light breakfast and then I boarded a dive boat with a nice dive master named Philip
and we headed out in a traditional wooden boat with two French man, an American couple, and two Danish women.  A storm had moved in overnight and the conditions were looking pretty bleak as the rain poured down on us.  We expected choppy waters and limited visibility from turbidity but when we anchored the skies opened and the viability was over 120 feet - the best all year according to the dive masters.  Our two dives took us down to about 60 feet at different dive sites.  The views were amazing and the name of the second site was the Aquarium which basically described the scene perfectly.  Crystal clear waters, deep blue sea, pretty coral formations and lots of fish.  We saw a great variety including the deadly lion fish, scorpion, unicorn, box, zebra, parrot, Moray eel and several groupers.  

The highlight for me was the very large 4-5 foot Napolean wrasse that approached me.  I had seen giant ones in Sharm El Sheik in the Sinai Peninsula over 25 years ago and was fascinated by their enormous size and great green color.  My guests all went snorkeling and were treated to up close encounters with dolphins and turtles while in the water.  Everyone had a great day and we all celebrated with a wonderful meal of fresh fish at dinner.  I had been saving a bottle of proseco which we popped to toast our great adventure together on our last night of the trip.  Tomorrow we will go to a spice plantation and tour the main port of Stone Town which is famous for its crooked streets and intricately carved wooden doors.  Then it's off to the airport for my guests as I stay back in town for an extra day to make hotel inspections.

Reef Walk and Relaxation

Mar 8 - Reef Walk and Relaxation

Today was a relaxing "down day" for me but some of us did join the afternoon reef walk after the tide dropped down.  There we lots of spiny urchins to avoid as we wove our way carefully out to the reef past boys and girls fishing in the inter tidal areas.  The reef was massive and flat so it made for good waking when we arrived.  Lots of spider star fish, hermit crabs, and other assorted sealift hiding under the rocks.  The rest of the day was spent pool side catching up on life in the bug world with a good Internet connection.  Really looking forward to diving tomorrow as the reports back from the snorkelers included dolphins sightings.

Goodbye Serengeti - Hello Zanzibar

Mar 7 - Goodbye Serengeti - Hello Zanzibar
Last night we had a great final meal in the Serengeti with lots of laughs and good memories of our safari.  One of the funny moments on our trip was in the last camp when some other guests heard that one of our guests was not feeling well due to dehydration. They we concerned because they understood that his age was over 80 years old.  I think they must have seen me taking oral rehydration packers to my guest's tent. Imagine their surprise when a healthy, rested, completely hydrated young man joined us at the dining table...laughs all around that we had developed the greatest rehydration solution on the planet taking 40 years off your looks...
The lion in the sausage tree was also good fodder for our camp humor.  
Fortunately our flight was at 11:00am so we had time for another morning game drive.  We we lucky to encounter an antelope called a Tope which we had not yet seen.  When we stopped at a lookout we found huge male lion prints in the sand next to the bathroom.  Then it was on to the hippo pools where we were treated to a large pod happily snorting and bubbling up the mud in the shallow depression.  A giant croc was perched on a nearby shelf.

The scene at the airport was classic - about 20 safari vehicles lined up at the dirt airstrip all picking up or dropping off their guests as about 10 caravans rotated down from the sky and efficiently unloaded and reloaded for the next flight.  We bade a faint farewell to our superb guides, Sylva the amazing spotter and Emanual the gifted interpreter of all things wild.  Our flight path took us straight over the Oldavai Gorge and then above the Ngorongoro  crater so it was good fun to retrace our journey and sport familiar landscapes.  After about an hour and a half we landed in Arusha and changed planes to Zanzibar.  Upon reaching the coast we had spectacular views of he lush green island, fringing reef, and percent white sand beaches ringing the various atols off the coast.  The classic one masted white sails of the dhows appeared as we neared the airstrip.  

It took a while for us to adjust to the humidity and heat even though it was only about 85 degrees but the humidity made it seems worse.  We transferee across the island through spice plantations to our little corner of magic on the northwest coast called Matemwe Lodge.  We were welcomed with fresh coconuts full of rich milk and cool towels to wipe down our faces.  The accommodations here we fabulous - each one of us had a beach side villa with high ceilings, four poster beds, well decorated sitting area, and well appointed large bathrooms with walk in shower,  one piece stone bathtub, double sinks, and a separate bathroom.  Out front their was a hammock and a nice couch on the private lanai.  Each unite had great privacy and was only steps from the bluffs overlooking the turquoise sea.  Mnemba Atoll was just across the channel beckoning us to its powdery white beaches and renowned coral reef for snorkeling and diving.  We quickly settled in and went for a swim in the two pools, signed up for incredible massages with Bertha at the spa, and booked our dive/snorkel excursions for the next day.  The drink of the day was a dark and stormy rum concoction that went down perfectly as the sun set.  We were treated to a lavish seafood BBQ at the restaurant with fresh shrimp, octopus, tuna, lobster, and more....the resort offered some nice table wines as well as a selection of reserve wines from around the world.  I settled on a nice Chenin Blanc from South Africa which was the house wine.  We tapped back into the internet and started sending photos and updates to our friends and family so it was great to get reconnected.  I used a VOIP application called Viber to call Jale and the kids - great to hear heir voices.  Gotta love the Internet - free calls and texts half way around the world!  We all conked out early from the long travel day as the gentle Indian Ocean breeze blew across the resort.  

Rhinos Below & Lions Above

Mar 6 - Rhinos Below & Lions Above

We got a very early start after a quick breakfast in the predawn darkness.  Our vehicles left camp just as the first light of day illuminated the few clouds on the horizon.  Our first sighting was two female lions on the edge of the river bank.  Their coats were tan and very healthy which indicates an excellent food supply in the area.  Next we spotted an endangered and rare black rhino.  It was well spotted by our guide after we made the river crossing.  It was browsing in the grasslands below the embankment we were on but it was pretty far off in the distance.  We then noticed a mother and calf black rhino in the vicinity. 

The black rhino is distinguished by its hooked lip, large front and rear horns, and not by it's color.  The white rhino is not really white at all rather it has a wide mouth with a shorter secondary horn and the word wide has been mistranslated to white. There are only about 26,000 rhino left on he planet and we are losing them to poaching at a rate of 1,000 a year or more. Fortunately they are well protected in this area where vehicles are not allowed to go offload so they have excellent habitat. Our next highlight was the classic make lion standing up on one of the rock kopjes in the morning sun.  Just a classic shot. He was joined by 2 brothers and they all set in a regal pose at the top of the 100 foot drop off to the plains below.  The light was magical.  Continuing on we went to an area that has Masaai paintings but we were not able to climb up onto the kopje to test our skills on the natural piano rock because it was already taken over by 2 female lions...oh well, they have priority!   We spotted another great male black rhino with magnificent horns shortly thereafter crossing a verdant field of short grass.  It is interesting to note that in some areas the grass has grown quite tall (maybe 3-4') which provides a very scenic landscape but does limit visibility so we avoided those areas mostly.  I have to say that it is pretty cool to see a huge cape buffalo through the grass as you can only see the top half of his body - great territory for predatory cats for sure.  We then set off in search of the elusive wild dogs but we turned back after meeting another vehicle that reported they had moved off and the tsetse flies were really bad in that area.
Good thing to general there have been very little bugs and almost no mosquitos but there are flies in some area which are not really annoying unless they bite like the Tsetse fly.  We did hit a couple of spots where the tsetse flies were bad so the trick is cover up and wear neutral colors because they are attracted to blue and black.  Luckily the camp seems pretty free of tsetse and our tents are all well screened so no worries there.  On our ride back to lunch at camp we encountered two groups of elephants with young ones under foot.  They approached our vehicles slowly and we got some great views and photos.  Then we saw two lions in a tree cooling off in the mid day heat - the temperatures here range from a high of 85 to 90 degrees to a very comfortable 70 degrees in the evening.  Just about perfect with a good cooling wind most of the day.  As I write this there are sounds of thunder in the distance and we had a brief shower while everyone was napping in their tents after lunch.  This is the rainy season or green season which is why the migration comes this way because the grasses immediately sprout up after the rains.  Despite being called the wet season our safari has been completely sunny with clear skies and just an occasional afternoon build up of fluffy white cotton ball type clouds.  Today is the first moisture we have seen and it feels kind of nice.  It does make the roads difficult to drive because of the black cotton soil which is like a slick mud when wet and provides no traction.  We briefly got stuck twice in the trip.  Once at the marsh where there was a deceptively dry crossing in appearance which actually sunk one tire straight down to the axle when we tried to cross.  Luckily we were able to make a quick extraction and keep on moving.  The second incident was also fortunately brief as we sank into a hole while crossing a shallow river but the second vehicle was able to push us back out.  These driver/guides are amazing and never tire of sharing their love of the wilderness with us.

Our afternoon drive started out just after a brief outburst of rain.  It was fun to sit and listen to the rolling thunder bellow across the Serengeti Plains.  Storm clouds were gathering all around and the sky grew darker as we made our way out past the cape buffalo and zebra at the edge of camp.  Some beautiful lilac breasted rollers flew by with their iridescent blue wings and orange of the favorite birds here along with the colorful superb starling.  We made our way down to the river where we came upon a large female lion perched about 20 feet up in a tree.  She looked so relaxed as her legs dangled down in either side of the main branch.  Such huge paws! Very fit and healthy.  We continued down the road towards Seronera and the great plains but were soon inundated with a heavy shower that had us scrambling to close all the roof hatches before we got soaked.  We decided to be safe and not try to tempt fate by continuing on because the black cotton soil could easily strand us in a bad spot and we would have to wait several hours or longer for a tractor to be dispatched to rescue us.  So we turned back towards camp and our timing was perfect because the female lion decided to sit up and pose for us before carefully making her way down the slippery trunk to the ground level.  We were perfectly positioned to see all this action as she slipped and almost fell to the ground from her perch.  Thankfully she made it safely down and everyone got good photos as she jumped the last bit to the ground.  We arrived back in camp just before another major outburst of rain preceded by a ground shaking roll of thunder...I love storms and since we have had a drought in California this storm is even more special for me.  As I write this I am listening to the rain pour down and the birds calling to each other as the light fades from the sky.  The hot water is being hoisted into the bucket behind my tent so that I can enjoy a nice hot shower safari style!  This is the life!

Journey to Central Serengeti - Lion in a Sausage Tree!

Mar 5 - Journey to Central Serengeti - Lion in a Sausage Tree!

We bade a fond farewell to our wonderful staff at the Nomad camp and set off to our camp in the Central Serengeti - an area known for lion, leopard, rhino, and even the very rare wild dog.  Our journey took us through a variety of habitat including open plains, woodlands and giant rock outcrops called kopjes.  Highlights of the drive included a pride of lion with large cubs at the edge of the marsh as we first set off followed by two cheetah sitting peacefully under the shade of a tree on the open plains.  One of the cheetah actually jumped onto the hood of one of the vehicles briefly for an amazing photo op!  We then entered a verdant landscape if gently rolling hills covered in green grass as if perfectly manicured.  We encounter large herds of migrating wildebeest and zebra on our route.  One funny thing that happened was that as we were driving along off road over the relatively smooth and flat terrain we suddenly dropped into a hyenas den and the car rebounded as we all went flying into the air briefly.  Luckily no one was hurt but the funny thing was that a hyena suddenly burst out of the den as if appearing out of thin air. Boy was he ever surprised...lunch was set under a tree with a great view onto a line of migrating wildebeest and zebra that literally flowed past us for the entire time we ate lunch - just an amazing spectacle to witness.  Later, we entered into more hilly area and started to see the giant rock outcrops that make this area famous.  We immediately saw two large male lions sitting royally on top of the smooth granite rocks accompanied by a single female.  The males had fantastic manes around their necks and we got some great photo ops.  

As we moved further into this landscape we saw over 30 giraffe and then the biggest surprise of the day - a lion up a tree!  A huge male was perched about 30 feet up a sausage tree high in the branches enjoying the shade and cool air.  What a great scene...tree climbing lions....who would have thought.  How would you like to be the fireman called to rescue this kitty in a tree? As the late afternoon came on we saw several more lions up on kopjes and then met a family of elephants with a very young 3 month old baby who was still nursing under his mother - what a sight!  Baby elephants have got to be one of the cutest animals on the planet.  Mom was not worried about our presence and they actually came quite close to the vehicles which was great.  I am now sitting in the spacious tented  lounge in a comfy couch overlooking the guests having a sundowner cocktail around the campfire as the sun sets on another fantastic day. I can see all the way across the Serengeti plains to the horizon which is appropriate because Serengeti means "endless plains" in Swahili.

Breakfast with Elephants

Mar 4 - Breakfast with Elephants

I awoke to a predawn splendor of orange which arched across the sky as the sun slowly made its way to the horizon.  Framed against the flat topped acacia trees it was a scene out of any African picture book.  I enjoyed my fresh coffee and muesli in front of my tent and listened to the sounds of all the songbirds in the bush.  The lions had been calling again last night so we set off in that direction to see if they had made a kill.  We did not find the lions but we had a gorgeous drive through the green woodlands with lots of grazing zebra and gazelles under the acacia trees...such a peaceful idyllic setting.  We saw several Masai giraffe up close and then encountered a sweet family group of elephants headed by two sister matriarchs.  They had several young babies from 2-4 years old.  We were able to slowly approach them and even to safely step out of the vehicle at a respectful distance so that we could get a little taste of encountering elephants on foot.  
We were about 35 feet away and the mothers kept a watchful eye on us but did not get stressed as they continued to munch on the acacia thorn bushes.  We decided to set up a bush breakfast nearby so we turned the vehicles around and established a position about 300 feet away with a clear view of the families.  Our guides set out a table and folding chairs and we dined on fresh pancakes, egg and bacon sandwiches, fresh fruit, muesli and tea/coffee.  It was such a great setting and even the guides got out their iPads to take pictures of us eating with the elephants as they slowly circled closer to us over the next 30 minutes.  What a treat!  A curious giraffe even came for a look as zebra and wildebeest slowly filed past behind us on their migratory route.  Later we drove to a great double coned outcrop feature that rose off the plains several hundred feet with lots of large boulders.  Think Lion King when Simba is presented to the world!  This is great habitat for leopard and lion so we scouted the ridge line and boulders as we circled the hills.  We found several Masai cattle bomas which were not in use and those who did not go on our walk previously enjoyed viewing the crude shelters of the herders.  We did not spot any cats so we went on to the pains where eventually we encountered 4 cheetah brothers just as they were commencing to hunt...what luck!  We patiently watched as they stalked three gazelles over the course of 45 minutes and eventually one of he gazelles walked towards the bushes they were waiting in.  Like a flash the cheetahs pounced but their timing was off and they missed their chance...clearly it is a lot easier to kill a lost newborn than an adult gazelle.  We were reminded again how fortunate we were to see the kill the day before right in front of our vehicle.  Anyway, we spent the next half hour approaching closer to get some good photos and then let them get in with their hunt as we returned to camp fr lunch.  The father and son guests that we are sharing the camp with showed us photos of the cheetah that had jumped up onto their vehicle to get a better perch.  Not unusual but a real treat and a photographer's dream. This afternoon I have arranged to have a ranger escort us in a guided walk to the lake which should be very cool as you learn so much more when you are walking.  More soon

Walking conditions we perfect as cooling afternoon clouds created a nice breeze as we made our way to the lake.  Our walk was full of great information about the bush...did you know that zebra poop is excellent kindling to start fires due to the dry grass content? That the roots of certain plants will cure malaria, upset stomach, and more?  Leaves of one plant is used as sandpaper to smooth out the handles of Maasai spears?  The walk took us through scattered bush under acacia woodlands and we had clear views down onto the lake where we spotted two giraffe coming down for a drink followed by a line of zebra and wildebeest who gathered just below our perch on the bluff.  It was so calm and peaceful to be on foot in the wild with only the sounds of the songbirds filling the air.  Our walk ended in a grand finale as the guides had brought a vehicle down to the lake and set up chairs and a table with a fully stacked bar.  Anyone for gin and tonics at sunset by the lake?  A perfect end to another day in paradise.

The Great Cheetah Hunt

Mar 3 - The Great Cheetah Hunt

Around 4am I heard the distinctive call of the lions as the pride re-established contact after the night's hunt. As usual on safari we awoke before dawn and after a quick cup of coffee we set out towards in search of the great migration.  We left the woodlands and entered the Serengeti plains just as the sun was rising which provided perfect illumination for photos of the spotted hyena we soon encountered. The mom had a nursing pup which insisted on getting his milk despite the presence of our strange trucks.  It is fascinating how animals become habituated to the presence of landrovers and treat them as another large animal so that you can approach to within 10 feet in most cases without disturbing them.  I forgot to mention that when we arrived in camp yesterday we were offered an afternoon walking safari experience which was really great.  I love getting out of the vehicles and walking in the bush with a knowledgeable guide.  You learn so much about traditional medicine, animal behavior, reading tracks, etc...  Our walk took us to a Masai herders enclosure which was temporarily abandoned so that we could enter the gate and view the mud and stick structure where the herders cooked and slept.  It was the first time I has been able to look into one of these primitive shelters and it was very instructive to see how simply they live in harmony with nature.  Anyway, back to our game drive... After a shirt drive we came upon a serious migratory herd of wildebeest (also know as gnu).  It was the classic Serengeti image with a line of beasts stretching to the horizon all walking in the same direction towards the expected rain.  As we sat watching this timeless scene our guide spotted 3 cheetah in the distance.  We were quite fortunate to see them as they were well hidden in the bushes near a group of Thompson Gazelles. When we arrived we could tell they were ready to hunt by their skinny bellies and roving hunters eyes.  We parked nearby and had a nice bush breakfast as we waited for the go start their hunt.  It turns out our timing was prefect because as we returned to them they arose and started trotting out onto the open plains.  The gazelles were well aware of their presence and kept a respectful distance away.  However we were patient and just waited to see what would happen and sure enough about 30 minutes late a stray wildebeest newborn stumbled right past our vehicle and the cheetah flew into action literally in front of us.  We had front row seats to an amazing spectacle as the three cheetah quickly got hold of the wildebeest and brought him down before our eyes.  

It was over in an instant as one of the cheetah got hold of the jugular and made the kill. It was a thrilling experience to see my first kill and I felt so lucky to have it happen within 20 feet of us.  The cheetah quickly devoured the carcass in a matter of minutes first going for the nutritious heart and liver and then on to the rest.  Every once in a while they would look up with crimson blood stained faces to check to make sure no lion or hyena were in the area.  We learned that cheetah tend to hunt in the middle of the day while the lion is sleeping so that they will not lose their kills.  They eat as fast as they can and then move on.  In our case, they walked just past our vehicles before wandering off to find shade. Their feast would last them for the next 2-3 days before they would need to hunt again.  It was obvious why coming in safari at the height often migration will give one the best odds of seeing his kind of predatory spectacle.  With almost 2 million wildebeest, a million zebra and 250,000 gazelles there is an abundant food source and plenty of stray newborns that are separated from their mothers during the constant movement.  By the time we left the scene almost 3 hours after arriving in the area that line of migrating wildebeest was still moving past us and the line still stitched out to both horizons...just mind blowing!   On our return we came upon a newborn gazelle that had just come into this world a few minutes before - it was incredible to watch it take its first wobbly steps towards mom.  We then returned to camp for a delicious lunch of seafood cakes, fresh avocado and tomato salad, and scalloped potatoes washed down with a lively sauvignon blanc. Yum! After a quick nap we set off for the afternoon game drive towards nearby Lake  Masek where we were treated to close up views of a baby hippo on his mother's back, pink flamingos,and a classic sundowner drink in the cool evening breeze as great thunderclouds gathered above us. As you might imagine we had plenty of stories to share around the campfire that night as we sat under the crescent moon and nursed our gin and tonics to the sounds of the wild.  Just another day in paradise. Wonder what tomorrow will bring.  By the way we met a father and son who have been coming every year on safari for the past 25 years and they have never seen a cheetah kill which made us really appreciate how blessed we were today.

Astrolopithicus, Lions and Leopards!

Mar 2 - Astrolopithicus, Lions and Leopards!

Another early start past Masai villages led us off the crater rim and down into the Serengeti.  Stretched out before us stood the vast plains of green grass that are so attractive to the migrating animals.  Our first stop was Oldapai Gorge where we were given an interesting lecture about the work of Lois & Mary Leaky who made the discoveries of Astrolopithicus, our ancestors from 2 million years ago.  We viewed their dig site and visited the onside museum which has casts of footprints hat date back to 3 million years ago.  It is fascinating to think of early man and the relation to the environment here in this ecosystem that has remained essentially unchanged for millennia.  Next it was off to our mobile safari camp which is set in the woodlands in the Southern Serengeti perfectly placed to catch the migration that has just arrived from the north.  As we drove in we started to witness enormous herds of zebra and wildebeest.  It seems our timing was perfect because we could see lots of young babies that were less than 2 weeks old.  Here and there one would see an orphan searching frantically for its mother.  
As you can imagine this is the ideal time to see the predatory cats in action and it wouldn't be long before we came upon 3 female lions who were absolutely bursting after a big feast on our afternoon game drive.  Our camp was absolutely lovely - luxury in the bush.  Set on a bluff overlooking a lush green woodland and a beautiful blue Lake Masek, our intimate camp features 6 spacious walk in tents and a main lounge area with couches and a dining table.  Hemingway would be jealous!  Did I mention they offer South African wines and wonderful gin and tonics around the fire after a a gourmet bush meal at the candle lit dining table.  These mobile camps are designed to follow the migration so that we are exceptionally well placed for game viewing. Our tents feature a comfortable double bed with hot water bottles waiting after dinner, a dressing area with wash basin and an ensuite shower and flush toilet.  The entire camp is run on solar and thus it is eco- friendly.  

The Birthday Big 5

Mar 1 - The Birthday Big 5

Our plan worked to perfection as we were rewarded with one of he first entries into the park.  The road winds its way through the lush rainforest up the side of the volcano and comes out at the rim where we were treated to a stunning sunrise and a massive view into the 100 square mile caldera below - a virtual garden of Eden...the fog rolling down the cliffs over the rim reminded me of Sausalito the way the fog fingers it's way down he ravines to the bay.  Not ten minutes
 from the view point we encountered a solitary leopard on the road returning from his evening hunt.  The setting was classic in the early morning mist and we were lucky to get to see him out in the open for several minutes before he darted into the bush.  Leopards are one of the rarest cats to be able to see so we felt ally lucky to have encountered this beauty so early in the journey.  The descent into the crater was idyllic...rolling gentle green hills led down to the plains with the lake in the background.  We saw a herd of Cape buffalo crossing the road which foreshadowed one of the highlights of the day - believe it or not we saw the Big 5 all in one day...just incredible and quite rare.  The big 5 are the legendary "most dangerous" animals from the time of the great hunters...lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant.  I really don't know where to start as each encounter just got better as the day went on.  

After the buffalo we saw 2 huge male lions and a female who walked right last the window of our car.  I could have reached out and touched her she was so close. Next came the elephant crossing a nearby ridge and then endangered black rhino on the plains among the zebra, wildebeest, and gazelles.  At one point we had an elephant, rhino and zebra all in the view line...just a great day and the first time I have ever seen the big 5 in one day.  

This group seems to be lucky...spent the night on the crater rim at the beautful Serena Crater Lodge which is reminicent of the and celebrated one of our guests 50th birthday in grand style as the entire kitchen staff came with a suprise cake and sang her several birthday songs in Swahili...we could see tears of joy in her eyes.  How cool to celebrate with a Big 5 in one day...

Off to Safari

Feb 28 - Off to Safari

We were up early and transferred to the local airport for a gorgeous 25 minute flight to Lake Manyara.  Along the route we could see little Masai villages called Manyatas in the traditional circular conical shape.  The soil was a rich red which contrasted against the vibrant green of the foothills leading the nearby volcanic chain.  We met our cheerful guides, Silva and Emanual, and set off in our comfortable landrovers to a short cultural excursion that included visiting a primary school - the cute kids sang to us and the headmistress explained about the school system and challenges of educating the kids with limited resources.  We donated some math flash cards and other school supplies that we had brought with us.  Then we went into a village and toured the rice farm, art center, and learned about the architecture and daily life of the locals.  

Next it was off on our first safari experience to nearby Lake Manyara.  This is a small park within old growth forest set along a large lake.  We started with several monkey and baboon sightings followed by lunch overlooking the lake.  We could see thousands of pink flamingos out in the center of the lake which appeared like a shimmering pink ribbon on the horizon.  We rounded off the drive with a great sighting of our first elephants - a matriarchal herd with moms and juveniles in a magical setting - under the shade of some large mahogony trees in a stream bathing themselves.  It was good fun to see how they would suck up a load of water in their trunks and then flick it onto their backs or bellies bith to stay cool and to help cake their skin with mud which effectively kills of parasites.  Elephants are some of my favorite animals and I could sit for hours watching them interact with each others. This group was not shy and we were only about 25 feet from the moms and their little babies winding their way under their mothers bellies.  

We bade farewell to the elephants and went on a short drive up the escarpment to our lodge which was set on the rim with magnificent views over the lake and park.  We enjoyed a swim in the pool and an ice cold Tusker beer.  The sun set in spectacular fashion as it often does in Africa - this time bright shafts of light shone through huge cotton ball clouds and the lake lit up with the fading light.  A local acrobatic group came and did a mind blowing performance by the pool with flips and balancing acts that showed off their power and talent.  We enjoyed some more fine South African shiraz at dinner and tucked ourselves to bed for an early rise the next day.  We wanted to be the first at the park gate to enter the famous Ngorongoro crater.

Gorilla Nirvana

Feb 28 - Gorilla Nirvana

My group arrived as scheduled and everyone was in high spirits. We enjoyed a beautifully presented dinner at the lodge and a delicious bottle of Jordan chardonnay from South Africa - one of my favorites.   Their mountain gorillas experience was phenomenal starting with the first day where they only had to walk 10 minutes until the gorillas suddenly came out of the forest and sat in the field just in front of them.  Needless to say they got superb photos up close and personal.  One described the experience as mystical and another felt it was life changing.  The next day they made a challenging 2.5 hour hike into the mountain rain forest to find their designated gorilla family.  This was a true rain forest experience with the gorillas.  Mist, lush foliage, tall trees in a verdant green landscape reminiscent of Gorillas in the Mist.  

They reported that they felt blessed the first day and they felt they earned the experience in the second day as they had to hike in muddy conditions and rain on the return leg.  

The porters were fantastic, kicking footsteps along the trail and offering steady hands to help.  I saw some of the photos which are amazing - the dominant male silverback was only feet from one of our guests and he makes a variety of great facial expressions in the photos.  

Everyone said they were blown away by the Virunga Mountain Lodge not only for the magical setting but also for the excellent service as all their muddy clothes and shoes we washed and dried instantly upon their return.  Rwanda got very high marks for its friendly people, extremely clean environment, and attitude towards the genocide which is openly discussed.  Many guests said they would go back in a heart of the best experiences in their lives!  A great start to our trip….

Great Tanzania Migration Safari 2014

Feb 24 - Off to Tanzania for an incredible 15 day Great Migration Safari and Zanzibar Adventure. Smooth flights on United and Turkish Air from San Francisco via Houston and Istanbul.  Flew business class on Turkish Air's new Boeing 777 with lay flat seats and a personal chef onboard - as usual, the staff was superb and the food was excellent. This is one of the best value mileage awards on the Star Alliance system so save up your miles so you can join me next time!  

Feb 25 - A perfect 2 hour layover in Istanbul at the amazing Turkish Airlines Business Lounge. Went straight to the vibrating massage table, then took a shower, and later received a 15 minute chair massage - this is the way to travel.  

Feb 26 - Arrived in Kilimanjaro at 3:00 and transferred to the modern Mt Meru Hotel on the outskirts of Arusha which is about 45 minutes away from the airport.  Woke up to gorgeous tropical views over the garden and golf course - you gotta love the rich diversity of trees and flowering plants - simply paradise.  Caught a glimpse of lush Mt Meru which is Mt. kilimanjaro's little brother at about 12,000 - a very steep climb if you are up for it!  Met with Richard Beatty who owns African Environments which is one of the leading safari and Kilimanjaro trekking pioneers.

Richard showed me around the extensive ground operations where I inspected his vehicles, tents, commissary, and met his friendly staff.  He told me about his new walking safari in the Serengeti - the first company to be granted this privilege due to their outstanding track record of conservation and community support.  We designed a new program for Blue Odyssey guests that will be offered in March 2015 so if you are interested please let me know as space is limited and this is a very rare opportunity to combine game drives and walking in the park.  Later I transferred to the new Legendary Lodge for an inspection and overnight stay.  This property is set amidst the lush Selian coffee plantation and features an historic main house with 8 luxury villas spread out among the extensive grounds.  This lodge will certainly set the new standard for exclusive luxury and stellar cuisine. After checking in I had a refreshing swim in the pool as monkeys climbed around the tree tops above - the property has some amazing old growth trees and is impeccably manicured with flowering plants of yellow and red in every direction.  Later I met with the manager, Natalie, who brings 16 years experience working at some of the top lodges in South Africa including Lion Sands (one of my favorite's in Sabi Sabi private reserve) and Sinigita Lodges.  She brings her background as a massage therapist to the job and they feature one of the only spas in Tanzania.  I was so happy to see that the lodge offers Africology products to their guests - this is one of the finest producers of lotions, shampoos, and conditioners in the world.  When I smell the lotion is just takes me back to South Africa where these products originate.
My villa was stunning with a huge king bed, full living room, luxury bath room with a classic claw footed tub ( yes, I am a sucker for baths).  They even had satellite TV so I could catch the Turkish team Galatasary play Chelsea in the Champions League. Dinner was exquisite with a nice South African Sauvignon Blanca to pair with my caesar salad, a creamy mushroom soup followed by a beautifully prepared steak.  I retired to my villa a happy man...

Feb 27 - My group arrives today - most are coming from Rwanda where they spent two days tracking the great mountain gorillas - one of life's great experiences.  I have now transferred over to the lovely Arusha Coffee Lodge where I am enjoying a masala tea as I write this.  tomorrow we fly to Lake Manyara to start our safari - I can't wait.  It has been almost 15 years since I was last here with my mom, my brother, and my wife Jale on a walking safari.  I am curious to see how things have changed...