Thursday, July 19, 2018

Back to Africa - What Happens When Things Go Wrong?

I'm travelling back in my mind to continue with the African Travel Agent Study Tour of Kenya.

Soggy Travel Agents
My last African blog post had us arriving in Maasai Mara National Park and unpacking our bags in the glorious Sand River Luxury Tented Camp.   We had scheduled a sunrise balloon tour of The Mara for the next morning which meant we had to rise at 3:30 a.m. in order to make the 2+ hour drive to the rendezvous spot.  Stewards bearing hot coffee awakened us with a knock on the of the little luxuries of life on safari.  

During the night, heavy rains had poured down on the tent, so we knew the roads would not be good.  By the time we gathered in the reception area, the rains had settled into a drizzle, but everyone was in a good humour anticipating our adventure and so we collected our rain gear and headed into the dark night.  I was in the front seat behind the driver.  About a half hour into the drive we landed with a thud.  Stuck!  The other Land Rover was unable to pull us out, so it was decided to continue on with everyone crowded into the second vehicle. 
Me and Mirlin

I was the first to get out of the stuck Rover, and by the light of a flashlight, I stepped onto a small, soggy island formed by two deep water-filled ruts.  It wobbled and I stepped very carefully so as not to slide into the water.  I was lucky.  The island collapsed by the time the last passenger descended and she went crotch high into the water.  In the second Land Rover, I occupied the last and highest seat in the rear with three other passengers.  After losing so much time, the second driver wanted to catch up.  He sped through the night slipping and sliding on the saturated roads.  Suddenly...BOOM!  The Land Rover flew over a large bump,  sending the three of us in the back high into the air and thumping our heads on the roll bar.  We stopped to examine the damage and found three passengers had bloody lumps on their heads.  After a short, soggy discussion, we decided to plod on.  

Talek River entrance to Maasai Mara
The Swollen Talek River
We finally reached our destination, another tented camp, this one on the Talek River.  The sun was just beginning to lighten the grey, cloudy sky and we were glad to exit the Land Rovers.  After examining our wounds and looking at the grey morning, we decided to abandon our plans for the balloon ride.  Merlin, our African Travel escort, arranged for us to be served a hot buffet breakfast and also arranged for us to have temporary use of the camp's rooms to shower and recover.  Our bodies felt the trauma even though no permanent damage had been done.  Mirlin was our hero, making all arrangements efficiently and without being asked.  That just goes to show the value of booking your African trip with a company you can count on to take care of things when they go wrong.  And when you travel, things can almost assuredly go wrong.  Thank you, African Travel!

The next decision involved whether to continue with the scheduled afternoon activity -- a visit to a Maasai boma.  Happily, we unanimously said "yes" to that, and it will be the subject of my next blog. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

From Canyon to Canyon

Canyon de Chelly Overlook
We started our summer road trip at the Grand Canyon and finished at the Canyon de Chelly.  While not as magnificent or as well known as the Grand Canyon, the Canyon de Chelly has an interesting human history.  It is currently home to the Navajo Indians and a National Monument.  It's steep sandstone walls hide a river bed that is often dry, but is still farmed by Navajos.  If you look closely at the photo, you can see rows of crops as well as cattle wandering up the canyon.  The canyon has been one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes in the U.S.  It is home to rock art and Ancient Puebloan ruins. 

The gateway to the monument is the town of Chinle, where we stopped and Dwight enjoyed a Navajo taco.  Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located entirely within the boundaries of the Navajo reservation and its operation is a joint venture between the U.S. Park Service the tribe.  To access the Canyon you must be accompanied by a Park Ranger or a Navajo guide; however, one foot trail from the rim into the canyon which visits the "White House" ruins is open to the unaccompanied public.   The highways which run along both the north and south sides of the canyon have overlooks, only one of which we found that was accessible.  Dessert landscape surrounds the canyon. 

We were in touch with the man tiling our floor as we progressed through Arizona and were finally given permission to go home.  We arrived to a new floor, some of which was taped off because it was still drying, and a living room full of  stacked and covered furniture.  It would be awhile before our lives could get back in order, but it was good to be home in spite of the smoke which filled the Animas Valley and our house in the early morning.  The good news was the coming of rain which has continued and finally begun quenching the fire.  The first sign of the impending rain was a long line of dark cloud exuding moisture.  I've been told that the Hopi Indians call this walking rain.  Nothing could provide a better welcome home from our summer road trip! 

Walking rain over the 416 fire

Saturday, June 30, 2018


Sanctuary at Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa
Sunset from our Sanctuary terrace
Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa is aptly named.  It fits the description of both dictionary meanings for sanctuary:  1) a place of refuge or safety, and 2) a nature reserve.  We were road weary when we arrived at Sanctuary and were ushered into a cool, comfortable suite with a terrace overlooking the sunset.  Our Durango friends wondered why anyone would head to Scottsdale from Durango during the heat of summer, but we were using the excuse of a one-day travel agent conference to escape from the Smoke of the 416 fire and also vacate our house while our kitchen was being re-tiled.  While the heat in Arizona topped out at 111 degrees, the locals kept telling us that it was a dry heat and we would get used to it.  I didn't believe them, but after three nights at the Sanctuary with summer rates to assuage the heat, we definitely felt cool and comfortable.

A Sanctuary suite.  Note the butterfly on the wall which
honors Sanctuary's status as a nature reserve
The resort began its life as John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch.  It was built during the 70's heyday of the sport and served the rich and famous such as professionals Ken Rosewall and Billie Jean King and Hollywood luminaries like Clint Eastwood, Liza Minnelli and John Carson. The featured event during its heyday was the Senator's Cup, a charity event which pitted Democrat and Republican Congressmen against each other back in the days when political rivalry was still a friendly competition. The resort gradually lost its focus on tennis as the popularity of the sport faded, but to keep the resort from disappearing and becoming just another upscale development, fans bought the land and dedicated it as a nature reserve so the resort could continue to provide refuge for man and beast. It's even a dog-friendly resort, so you don't have to leave your best friend at home.

Butterfly blessing
There's really no reason to leave the Sanctuary since it has a well-known and locally popular elegant restaurant in Elements, a comfortable bar in the Jade Bar, an absolutely gorgeous infinity pool, and a magnificent spa.  We did decide to leave, however, to check out the unique Butterfly Wonderland, where Dwight was blessed by a butterfly.  Summer time in Scottsdale -- elegant accommodations at good prices, good food, neat attractions -- great destination for an old-fashioned road trip.

Thursday, June 28, 2018


 I'm leaving Africa behind for a short while to take a detour on an old-fashioned American road trip.  A one-day travel conference caused us to schedule a trip to Scottsdale on a Wednesday of the last week of June.  That is not an ideal time for one to leave the clear mountain air of Durango for the hot desert sun of southern Arizona, but it provided us with an opportunity to get out of the house while our kitchen was re-tiled.  It was also an opportunity for us to get out of the smokey fog surrounding Durango from the 416 fire.  So we packed our bags and headed south.  Our plan, since we wanted to be gone at least a week, was to take two days to complete the journey to Scottsdale,three nights there, and two days coming back.

Our first decision was where to stop on the first night out.  We, of course, opted for detouring through the Grand Canyon, but were uncertain if we could find reasonable lodging.  I remembered some controversy earlier about incorporating a town just to the south of the National Park, so we drove through the park and, sure enough found the town of Tusayan.  It almost all looks brand new!  According to Wikipedia, it was only recently incorporated with a total population of 558, but the incorporation was unpopular with some and they are fighting it.  Typical Western politics.  I stopped at the Holiday Inn Express; they had a room, but it was $250 for the night. 
I thought that too extravagant for a Holiday Inn and drove away, but next door found a little gem of a motel from the 50's called the 7 Mile Inn.  The "vacancy" sign was lit, so I walked in.  A friendly, smiling woman came from a back room that looked like her living room and signed us in for $109 plus tax for the night.  The motel was almost engulfed by two new behemoth hotels which surrounded it.  I think we had found the incorporation opposition.  The 7 Mile Lodge accepts only drive-in traffic, so it doesn't have the expense of a reservation service or on-line booking engine, but they have old-fashioned friendly owners, meticulously clean rooms, and all the amenities including free wi-fi at a great price. 

Brunch at the El Tovar Hotel

The next morning we rose early and drove back into the Park (thank you, Golden Passport) for breakfast and to feed on the view once again.  I had forgotten how spacious the "Grand Canyon Village" was with markets, hotels, overlooks, and trail heads. We ended up at the old El Tovar Hotel which was built as a Harvey House at the end of the railway in the early 20th century.  It's been recently remodeled and proudly occupies its prime spot at the edge of the South Rim.  The hotel itself reminded me of the Strater Hotel in Durango with its period furniture. And, best of all, breakfast was superb.  Good detour!

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Sand River Maasai Mara Tented Camp

Keekorak Airstrip, Maasai Mara National Reserve
We departed the Laikipia plains and flew southwest to the Maasai Mara National Reserve on the 16 of April.  The Mara became a National Reserve in 1974.  It is contiguous with the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania and the Kenya government wanted to take advantage of the tourist attraction known as The Great Migration.  The Great Migration takes place year-round as zebra, wildebeest, gazelle and other plains game follow the rains and the good grass.  And, of course, where the plains game goes, the big cats (lion, leopard, and cheetah) are sure to follow.  The circle begins (or ends) in the southern Serengeti from December to May and reaches its peak in the Mara from October to November.  Without hyperbole, I can say that it is the most stunning display of wildlife to be seen on earth.  Because there's always migration going on at some point between the Serengeti and the Mara, it makes for a perfect vacation from May through the winter. The equator passes through the center of Kenya so the temperature typically doesn't vary much.  Much of the country is also at altitude; if you can read the Keekorok sign you can tell it is over 5500 feet.  There are two rainy seasons, however, the short rains in the fall and the long rains in the spring and the long rains are the only time not recommended to visit, although we saw all the game we could handle.  If the Great Migration is not on your bucket list, it should be!

Room at Sand River Masai Mara Tented Camp
Of the three camps we visited on our Study Tour, the Sand River Tented Camp was my favorite.  The 16 spacious tents are spread out along the banks of the Sand River which marks the boundary between Kenya and Tanzania.  Since the surrounding area is not fenced, wildlife can wander freely through the entire area.  Each tent is furnished in a style matching early 20th-century colonial furnishings evoking the romance of early explorers, complete with a Hemingway-style writing desk in the sitting room, canopied beds, and a huge footed bathtub.  Perhaps it was the bathtub which made it my favorite since a hot bath qualifies as my cure for whatever ails you.  If a bathtub isn't to your taste, however, Sand River tents also offer an outside shower. 
Hippo in the river

While it doesn't have the great soaring vistas of Loisaba, Sand River is the perfect place to sit with a sundowner on your patio while watching hippos wallowing in the river waters and monkeys jumping through the trees on the opposite bank.  The river was running high since we were there at the height of the long rains which have been particularly heavy this year.     

We had all booked a sunrise balloon ride over the Mara for the next morning and after signing documents and getting a briefing on the balloon adventure, we all went to bed early.  We were to leave the Sand River Camp at 4:30 the next morning and were told to expect an hour's drive to the balloon launching.  We were really looking forward to the adventure.  Little did we know how much and what kind of adventure awaited us.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Elephants, Camels and Sky Beds

Spot the Leopard
 We found more wildlife in Loisaba than I had anticipated.  The Loisaba bush lacks the tall grasses of the plains of the Lewa Conservancy; it is rockier and more purely bush country.  At a man-made water hole, we saw the largest herd of elephants I can recall seeing so up-close and personal in all my years of game viewing.  A leopard lounging in a tree provided a rare viewing of that animal, although I have no photographic proof that the leopard exists unless you count a photo of a tree with a long dotted branch swaying the breeze.  One negative factor in the Loisaba bush is the presence of an invasive species of prickly pear cactus that was originally imported into Africa to provide fencing.  The cactus plants now outnumber the African thorn bushes.  I remember going on hunts in this area when I lived in Kenya in the early 70s.  Almost all of the Laikipia plains were private ranches and many of them leased hunting blocks. 

Camels and lunch
Game viewing is hard and we were relieved to round a bush and find a table set for food and libation.  Our bush lunch in Loisaba offered the opportunity to take a camel ride.  The camel rides, as well as the the mountain biking expeditions and horseback rides offered by Loisaba, are possible because Loisaba is a private conservancy.  Wildlife viewing is more closely regulated in Kenya and Tanzania's national parks which require closed vehicles for tourists.  Loisaba is hoping that the more active wildlife viewing options, along with the elegant tented camp, will draw millennial travelers. 

Loisaba Sky Bed
One of the unique offerings of Loisaba is their sky beds.  Comfortable double beds with feather duvets are built on car tires and rest inside a thatched shelter.  The beds (and their occupants) are rolled out at night on to an open platform where two lucky people spend the night under the clear African skies, counting the innumerable stars and locating the Southern Cross.  They wake with the sun to a cup of hot tea or coffee delivered to their bed while they watch the elephant bath in the water hole below.  The Sky Bed units even have one made for families with two double beds and a small "crib".  Each unit has its own "facilities", and there is a comfortable central lounge and dining area where guests can gather and share their safari experiences.
Sky Bed washroom, family room and viewing platform overlooking the waterhole.
In the afternoon, the Camp host treated us to a "back of the house" tour of the Tented Camp.  The most amazing things there were the ONE (yes, only one) washing machine that providing clean sheets, towels and laundry to the entire camp, and the water treatment and storage area.  If you'd like to try glamping in Africa, think of Loisaba!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Loisaba - Better Together

Cheers! at the Lewa Air Strip
Bidding us farewell from
Lewa Safari Camp

Our glamping adventure continued on the morning of 16 April when we packed up and were transported to a cloudy, misty Lewa Air Strip.  The mist prevented us from seeing the other side of the air strip, and it looked like we would be spending another night at Lewa Safari Camp.  In typical Safari Camp fashion, however, our drivers broke out the Sundowner supplies and we toasted our situation with cold Tusker beers.  It must have brought us luck because shortly thereafter the skies cleared, our airplane arrived, and we were quickly transported to the other side of the Laikipia plains to the Loisaba air strip.

At Loisaba, were greeted by our drivers and invited to enter a display hall which told the story of the Loisaba Conservancy whose motto is "Better Together."  It explained how the local population, which previously had often poached animals on the plains of Laikipia, had bought into the value of tourism and game conservation.  The conservancies on the plains have joined together with the government to form the Northern Rangelands Trust.  Local pastoralists still graze their herds on the plains, but they are taught how to conserve grazing lands and over-grazing which was previously widespread, has disappeared; farmers are taught modern farming techniques and gifted with manure fertilizer collected from the bomas (corrals) of the pastoralists; poaching which was previously widespread, has diminished to next to nothing.  Wildlife, specifically those subject to the most poaching such as elephant, rhino, and lion, are banded with radio receivers and their movements tracked.  Rangers patrol the area constantly.  Ranger headquarters are equipped with computers, GPS tracking systems, helicopters, and dogs used to direct anti-poaching activity. The area has not had a rhino poached in over three years. Like the Lewa Conservancy, the Loisaba Conservancy has been a win-win for the game and for the local community.

Our glamping headquarters for the next two nights would be Loisaba Tented Camp.  The camp occupies a stunning location at the top of an escarpment.  Tents are lined up along the edge of the cliff and each has a splendid view of the valley below where a large water hole attracts plentiful game in the dry season. 
Deck of the lounge/bar area of Loisaba Tented Camp
after a refreshing rain

Infinity Pool at Loisaba Tented Camp
Loisaba is a newer and a little more luxurious camp than Lewa, but somehow it lacked the warmth of Lewa.  Maybe it was the mist and rain which dampened the mood.  Our rooms were huge, luxurious, with better plumbing than Lewa, and the view from their patios spectacular.  At any rate, it was a festive day because two of our members were celebrating birthdays on this trip and the party went on into the night, although yours truly has to admit to an early bedtime.  Nevertheless, snug in my tent, I could hear the strains of Miriam Makeba's Pata Pata late into the night and feel the joy of another night in Africa.