Tanzania: The Serengeti Edition.

Our entry into the park took longer than we anticipated. It was a bit of mayhem. There were different desks to file the paper work and then pay, and lines are not something they use there… It’s more of a mob mentality where you have to push your way through. The last time we had experienced this was at the border between Botswana and Zimbabwe the year before. I didn’t expect this as much in the tourist regions of Tanzania, but I suppose it’s because primarily only Tanzanians were frequenting the “lines”.

DSC_1146Once, we had everything squared away, we passed through the final checkpoint with our car where they verified our documents and then dropped the chain barrier so that we could officially enter the park. We still had quite a ways to our next hotel, which as you know, was an impromptu booking.  On the drive in, we were ecstatic to see a hyena bathing in a big muddy puddle right on the side of the road. We were able to stop right next him, and as he got up and began to walk away we were able to move forward side by side. Even though, I have encountered hyenas in person (fed one by hand even!),  and just seen them earlier that day in Ngorongoro, I had never been this close to one in the wild. I was electrified.

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As we passed through the park “center” we saw a petrol station, and figured it would be a good idea to top off the tank since the park was so vast, and we didn’t want anything stopping us from exploring in the coming days. As it turned out, the petrol station in Serengeti National Park was the only gas station we had found in Tanzania that took credit card. haha. Brad was in utter disbelief, and it allowed us a good laugh.

Once we found our lodge, checked in, unpacked & got settled, we decided to head back out for a little while. The one thing we quickly learned about was the dreadful tsetse fly. They loved our big white SUV. Flocked to it, really. There we were in the African savannah constantly swarmed with massive gnarly flies. ..but it didn’t slow us down. …and it definitely did not stop me from hanging out the sunroof despite their aggressive bites, that had Brad cursing and swearing constantly as they snuck into the car.

That night, we were under strict instruction not to wander off on our own on the hotel grounds. We were to be escorted  to our room after dark because of the wildlife. While dinner was good, but not exciting we didn’t linger too long. Instead we headed back to our room to get some rest which was aggressively interrupted in the middle of the night when we were awaken by a ghastly intense screeching roar. I had a feeling what we had heard was a leopard, and it was right outside our room. …no wonder they had the rule. I was accustomed to hearing buffalo or antelope or night, but I was not prepared for that bone trembling sound that I experienced. You know, the kind that even though you just turned 30 (literally, that was the early hours of my birthday) makes you want to hide under the covers and wonder if it could break through the tiny window by the door because it can smell you and your snacks!

DSC_1202That new day was my birthday, but not just any birthday, my 30th! …and I was ready to get the show on the road. I was eager for lions, cheetahs, leopards, anything and everything I could see, but especially the big cats I had never seen before in the wild. So, we loaded our gear back into the car & headed out once again.

With our sightings few and far between, mostly just giraffe, warthogs, baboons, etc… You know, the basics. We decided to call it a day since Brad’s stomach was starting to act up. We raced to get to our hotel in order to beat an incoming rain storm. We were navigating a very rough, and overgrown road, and at this point, the humidity and the bush areas of the park were giving us the royal tsetse treatment. It was the most we had seen, and even our hotel host couldn’t believe the amount of flies that we had brought with us.

As the rain began coming down, we hunkered down in the lobby. Our host told us that on occasion they have a visiting leopard that likes to come into the open air space and take up comfort on the sofa along the wall. I was hoping it was something I could bear witness to, but I did not have the opportunity, unfortunately. Wouldn’t that have been something??? To just wander into to lobby one day, and see a leopard ‘posted up like it ain’t no thang’. I don’t even know what I would do in that situation, but if I had to guess I would say that I’d probably just start talking to it! haha.

When we got to the room, it was clear that Brad was done for the day. He was feeling pretty crappy. He decided to soak in the tub, so I went and walked the grounds hoping to see wildlife. I got nothing, not even a monkey. It just wasn’t my day, which was very disappointing since it was my birthday, after all. My husband was sick, and I had no critter sightings. Romance & adventure were definitely out the window!  When I got back to the room, Brad was in bed. I talked to our hotel host, who was kind enough to bring us some tea, ginger ale, and crackers. Their service was top notch which was great since the room cost us nearly 1000 USD a night. …but if you could see our view from our balcony, and feel the beds… It was worth every penny, and definitely the only place where Brad could be sick and comfortable at the same time! The massive tree house-esque tent was pretty luxurious considering we were in the bush!

We had a gorgeous view at dinner again overlooking the Serengeti. We sat on the patio and enjoyed a wonderful meal, until it started to drizzle again. They were kind enough to move us under cover to finish dining. Again, we were waited on hand and foot, and shortly after dinner they surprised me with a birthday cake and song! It was truly special to be treated in such a way in one of the most incredible places I have been. Despite the disturbances in our day with the tsetse flies and Brad’s intestinal troubles, the views and first class treatment were definitely easing my woes!

We finished off a movie before bed that night, and the following morning were packed up again before breakfast. It was a bright new day for wandering the savannah, as well as, Brad’s stomach.  We found our way back through the high grasses that covered the rough muddy road, and were headed toward the next hotel which was the opposite direction. We spent the bulk of the day just driving around in hopes of something  spotting magnificent.

With the luck we were having, I wasn’t expecting to see much more for the rest of the trip, but I tried to stay positive. We kept trying different roads, and watched where the other vehicles were headed, and sure enough we got lucky a couple hours later. In a new area we stumbled on a long line of cars overlooking a log with 3 lions lounging the day away. They had no interest in the tourists or their snapping cameras; just the cool breeze brushing through their fur and warm sun. It was perfect basking weather for a cat. After a little while, we moved along to let some other people in.

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DSC_0241As we continued our journey on the opposite side of the main road, about 30 minutes later we were just doing our thing when we were caught completely off guard by a LEOPARD carefully settled in the middle of the road drinking out of a puddle. He blended so well with the color of the dusty road and the shadowy shades of gold and green behind behind him that we barely even saw him at first. It all happened so quick that at first I couldn’t tell if it was a leopard or a cheetah. Within a couple seconds of us spotting him and him spotting us he was on the move. He played coy for a bit hiding behind the grasses before crossing the street right in front of us and heading for cover in the overgrown pasture. While I stumbled to get my camera and focus in on the leopard I was in complete shock that we had just miraculously encountered this shockingly beautiful creature, whose movements were paced with poise. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that I was just gushing over this animal as we went our separate ways. As I lost sight of the tips of his blackened backs of his ears, it was as if he was waving goodbye with the tip of his tail.

DSC_0836-2Brad & I continued to traverse around that same area in hopes of seeing other big cats, but no luck was had. There were plenty of buffalo and birds, but then our luck continued to change. As we headed back to the main road, we noticed a group of cars huddled near a tree…. We new that meant only one thing: a sighting! We headed that direction with steep anticipations, and thankfully were towards the front of the pack with an excellent line of sight of a pride of lions, mostly cubs and a couple older females hanging out in a tree. Yes, your read that right. These massive kitties were in a ginormous tree. We were probably there for 20-30 minutes, but because of the nature of this sighting we ended up getting trapped in a massive mob of safari vehicles. Thankfully, because of our excellent position, we were not bothered to be stuck. I was having the best time photographing the sweet youngsters as they rested in the tree, and then one by one followed their mother across the dirt road to a new tree. This was probably one of my favorite and most special safari memories.

It was a good day for cat sightings, and we had our full day of adventure, but with the evening start to creep up, we decided to try to find our next hotel. It proved to be a massive challenge. Probably, the biggest of our trip. We attempted to follow the GPS, but it was of no use. We ended up heading down dirt paths in the completely wrong direction, so we tried a different route, but no luck. At one point, we headed to the Visitors Center to get help, however they were of no help. While they had sent us in the correct general direction, there was no possible way that we could have found the place alone. At this point, tempers were starting to flare as we had no idea what to do. We had passed another tented camp that I thought could have been it but there was no signage, it seemed to be in the wrong spot, and we couldn’t figure out how to get to it (because of roads). Thankfully, at this point after hours of trying to find our way, we met a safari guide on the road who was able to help us. In fact, he was headed to our exact same tented camp with other guests! It was an honest to God miracle! In that moment the Lord was looking out because there was no way we could have found this place on our own.  We thought we were pretty far out, but it turned out that we had to go even farther!

DSC_0623 (3)We were in the middle of nowhere now & our hosts were telling us about how they had been having lions in the camp hunting… which we never saw, of course.  It is safe to say, the tented camp was the least luxurious place we stayed while in Tanzania. It was just us in a giant hot tent with small dim bathroom amenities, but we still had an overwhelming thirst for adventure to compensate. Our dinner was incredible, but followed by a rough night of sleep. The winds were so aggressive as they whipped against our tent that I thought it might start to pull up from the ground or the roof might blow clean off. It was mind boggling!

DSC_0815-3We had a really early breakfast the next day, and our camp hosts were kind enough to pack us to-go lunches for the road. We spent the day mostly exploring the area closest to us. I loved seeing the large rocky outcroppings where I hoped to see a pride of lions chilling, or cheetahs resting…. but during the first half of the day, we only got one big loner male lion sleeping on top of a stone heap… Just his head was hanging down a bit, as the flies buzzed around his large snout.

Later on in the earlier hours of the afternoon, we were roaming solo on what felt like the southern most parts of the Serengeti. There was no one around. It was quiet and the sun was beating down on us through the windows, but we just kept driving hoping for a sighting while fighting the urge to give up. When we finally saw another vehicle we pulled up behind it, and noticed they were watching something in the far distance barely even noticeable to the naked eye. It was two female lions stalking a family of warthogs. The lions would come up and down from the tops of the waving grass whilst keeping a watchful eye, waiting for the pigs to unsuspectingly inch closer and closer. However, as far as I know things didn’t work out for the lions. Despite their patience and talent for ducking low, the warthogs headed farther away. We were disappointed not to see a mad dash for a meal, but I was, also, relieved for the pig family knowing they probably got another day to stick together. We ended up leaving with the suspicion that the lions were not going to be having warthog for dinner, and felt our time may be best spent elsewhere.

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It was crazy how one day we had incredible success, and the next we saw hardly anything. It was hard to stay enthusiastic when all you wanted was to see more leopards, and even a cheetah for the first time. That’s what is crazy about doing a self-drive. It can really be an all or nothing gig. It’s all left to chance!

DSC_0553 (2)-2As Brad was ready to turn back & head to camp for the rest of the afternoon, I wanted to push on a little further as it was still early in the day with nothing waiting for us at camp; and thank God we didn’t! Lady luck was shining down on us after all! As we drove down the windy and very bumpy quiet road with no one even miles near, we stumbled upon a cheetah. One gorgeous cheetah who didn’t really want to give us the time of day, but also was in no rush to get away from us.  We stalked her from a safe distance, hoping to respect her boundaries as she sauntered away, but all I wanted to do was leap from the car and walk along side her through the giant field while I stroked her back with admiration.

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Feeling lucky again, we pressed on more, but nothing more came to be seen. At one point we lost track of the road, so we decided to stop so that we could figure out where we were at. I climbed on top of the car to get a higher vantage point, but I couldn’t see anything. We had no choice but to do a little mild off-roading. NOTE: Both getting out of your car & going off road are big No No’s in the Serengeti. You can get a big fine like Kristen Bell & Dax Shephard (complete with music video).

Once we found the road again just a short jaunt away, we knew it was time to head back. I was ready to be out of the car since it had been another  long day on the road, and I was psyched to clean myself up and have a hot meal again. That night was, also, a rough night of sleep. I didn’t think it could be any noisier than it was the night before, but I was dead wrong. It was so loud, I was actually slightly concerned for our safety.

The next morning we were up early as usual, enjoyed breakfast, packed up our bags, and began making our way out of the Serengeti. The sun had barely risen, but we noticed a little tan head just above the grasses watching some warthogs in the distance. We sat and watched the patient girl for a few minutes, but then passed on figuring that this could go on for hours.

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DSC_0721 (2)I was sad to leave the Serengeti, but was, also, kind of eager to head home since this trip had very much so had its challenges. That morning began our long journey back toward Arusha.  We cruised around some of areas near the main road and actually had some fabulous encounters with elephants, impala, and even a chameleon crossing the street before we officially said goodbye and topped off our fuel.

…to be continued.

 

Here are some of our other photos from the Serengeti:

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Tanzania: The Tarangire Edition.

It was a long drive in. As we got closer to our turn off point, we realized we needed to stop for petrol because we wouldn’t be able to get any for a couple days. The problem… There was not a petrol station anywhere in sight. We had to turn back. At this point, we were ready to kill each other. It was just one of those days… I felt Brad didn’t listen to me or think things through, so here we were rerouting, wasting time, etc. It was nothing short of classic marital nonsense.

So with our journey slightly rerouted, we searched for a petrol. We found a spot, but they didn’t accept credit cards, so we decided to check one more station… …and, naturally, they didn’t accept credit cards either.. We were at a loss and just decided to bite the bullet and fork over more of our cash. We didn’t have a choice. We were burning through our cash faster than we knew was possible. This was a major unexpected problem we were having in Tanzania.

Back on track, we followed the long dirt road back to the Wildlife Management Area which was further back than the GPS made it seem. We wondered if we were on the wrong road, but decided to press on because we had no idea where else it could be. Our perseverance paid off, and we got there around 3PM, but we were not ready for the headache that we were about to experience. Brad got out to speak to the guard who insisted that we were supposed to get our permit back in Arusha. He refused to take payment there, and told us the only way for us to get through was for us to go back to Arusha for the permit. We were flabbergasted, given our experience at Lake Moshi, where the man took our cash without hesitation. NOTE: I wonder if the man at Lake Moshi, just pocketed it…  We wondered, could this day get anymore frustrating?

Young WarriorWe waited patiently as possible, and Brad insisted the man call our hotel to work out the details. After constant back and forth phone calls, the manager of our next hotel worked out a deal wit the guard that the hotel would pay for the permit, and it would be delivered the following day by a colleague in Arusha, but the guard had to let us through. He agreed. NOTE: Thankfully, this time wasn’t totally in vain; the silver lining to this mess of a situation was the pictures I was able to get of the Young Maasai boy dressed in his warrior costume. I was able to trade these photos for a bottle of water 1000 Tanzanian Shillings.

Finally past the gate, feeling agitated and simultaneously relieved, we pressed on. We thought we made it through all the obstacles for the day, and were finally ready to dropped our bags, relax, and unwind so that we could enjoy tomorrow. Unfortunately, an even bigger obstacle lay in our way. A river. IMG_1871-2I wish it were a joke, but it’s not. At this point, swear words were flying from my mouth, and we were feelng defeated and disheartened. We could literally see our hotel on top of the cliff across the river. We were envisioning the worst, such as a night without dinner and breakfast and sleeping in our car. Quickly, I tried to pull it together and plan. We got out of the car to try to examine the depth, thinking it might not be as bad as it looked. I was throwing in rocks the size of my head and sure enough it was a hard plop and they were gone… Brad volunteered to wade in and see how deep it was, but I was strongly advising against it because if I lost him to the river, there was absolutely nothing I could do. I had seen a sign for a hotel a little ways back and decided we should head there to try to call our hotel. We did just that, however, we hit another snag. IMG_1874When we pulled into the parking lot, we were dumbfounded. The place had burned down (I am cracking up while I write this, by the way). Was this situation real, we were wondering. It was straight out of bad dream. Brad took the lead, and headed to speak to the workers who were working on rebuilding the place. They sent for the manager, while Brad and I waited restlessly for about 15 minutes. We still hadn’t heard from anyone so Brad wandered off in search of someone who could help us. Finally, two people came over, and we were able to explain our dilemma. They tried to call our hotel, and while this was going on some of the construction workers ran off to the river to check the depth. We followed along in our 4×4 with the hotel management in the back seat.

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When we pulled back up to the river side, one of the workers was wading his way across the river. He was able to navigate all the way across on foot, and it never went past his hips, so we knew we would probably be fine. Our path was determined.

Once that man was back on our side, a car came charging down the hill to the water, and pushed its way through to us. A British chap hopped out of the vehicle and gave us the run down. He was the manager of our hotel, and came to our aid. He informed us that they had been yelling to us from the hotel, but we were never able to hear them.  Brad and I thanked the locals & hopped back in the vehicle, and followed our new guide across the river, to be led to our next restful location.  As we wandered up the hill and into the tall grass we were delighted to see elephants right by our hotel… NOTE: This meant there were rules… like, don’t walk anywhere alone at night. Stick with your Maasai guide. 

When we got there, the Tarangire River Camp, we followed our rescuer to the lobby area. We had a good chat about the river (it had appeared just a couple of days earlier because of all the rain), Tanzanian politics and tourism, and how difficult it is to do your own self-drive tour in that country,  then filled out our forms…and, next, we were ushered to our tent. The Maasai carried our bags for us, and led us down the dirt path to our little piece of heaven. We unpacked a bit and got ourselves organized before we went to wander the grounds.

IMG_1884We found our way to the viewing deck which overlooked the river we had to cross. We couldn’t believe the day we had. We were so grateful to be at camp and be able to let loose. We wanted drinks with dinner to help take the edge off, but with our cash situation being slightly dyer we kept it light. We enjoyed the incredible meal, and turned in early.

It was a great night’s sleep followed by an early morning. We were eager to get a jump-start on our day. We got our bags back to the car, and enjoyed a simple breakfast. We had to pay cash (cards weren’t accepted) for the remainder of tab which included our fee for the WMA gate and our beverages with dinner.

With everything loaded and ready to go, we were ready to cross the river again, and take on the challenges of the day. Thankfully the water level of the river had lowered over night, so navigating the water wasn’t quite as challenging.

DSC_0214.jpgWithin 20 minutes we were back at the WMA gate. Brad got out to see if we were okay to exit, but sure enough the guard would not let us through. We were beyoooond frustrated. Brad had the guard call the hotel and speak to the manager, who assured the guard that his guy was on the way with the permit. …but that still wasn’t enough. We were required to wait until the man with the permit arrived, despite showing him the proof that we paid the hotel for the permit. We discussed just going around the barrier and taking off, but we didn’t. We waited about 30 minutes, Brad kept going in and out of the office hoping the man would cave, but he was resistant. Brad contacted the man with the permit who assured him he was on his way and would be there soon… but “soon” seemed to be a loosely used term in this country. Finally, Brad called the hotel manager himself to see what his take was. His advice was exactly what we wanted to hear… just go… haha. So, we did. Brad told the guard we were leaving, quickly got back in the car, and we took off around the barrier. We were not going to keep playing the games. We had shown proof of payment and he had assurance, from multiple people, that it had been taken care of. It was out of our hands; we had to get on with our day.

Luckily, it was a short drive to Tarangire National Park. We got out of the car, had one last bathroom break, filed our paperwork, and paid the fees (they took card). We took the map and high spirits, got back in the car and went through the gate.

DSC_0543Tarangire took us completely by surprise. We were in the park for several hours. We took turns driving, and went down many differentroads in search of lions and leopards and cheetahs. That portion was all standard, but what got us was the insane amount of elephants. We saw hundreds!!! That is pretty much the only thing I even remember seeing in Tarangire: elephants. Old elephants, baby elephants, bulls, females, families, pachyderms… it was absurd. Several hours of our life were spent invading herds of elephants. I would stand out the sunroof filling, photographing, and of course, speaking to these beautiful, powerful, majestic animals.  There was one time we were even threatened by an elephant to back off. Don’t worry, we did.

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Thanks to you pictures, I can tell you that in addition to the elephants, we saw zebra, antelope, springbok, a variety of birds, giraffe, vervet monkeys and more. But, elephants were the only animal in the Big 5 group that we saw. Aside from the quantity of elephants we encounter, Tarangire wasn’t quite what we were hoping for, but we were, also only there for maybe 6 hours. I think with the right amount of time, we could of tracked more.  Here are additional images from the park:

We eventually decided that it was crucial for us to make our way out of the park, and get back on the road. We had to make our way to our next overnight location Gibb’s Farm, which sat on the exterior mountainside of Ngorongoro Crater.  It was about a 3 hour drive, and we wanted to make it in time to relax before the sun went down.

…to be continued.

A Tanzanian Road Trip: The Kilimanjaro Region Edition. (Day 1-3)

DSC_0489 copyAfter our grueling journey from Cairo to Kilimanjaro International Airport, which include nearly 4 hours of layover time in the Nairobi Airport, just enough time for a nap and meal, we were in Tanzania, outside of Arusha. We hit the ATM at the airport to get all the cash we could, because despite setting money aside for the car from day 1, we had to pay $250 USD cash to Tanzania’s immigration department for our Visas. NOTE: when we visited Zanzibar in 2016, we were able to pay with card, but since then their payment terms have changed.  With this unexpected issue, we had to visit the airport ATM to get more cash, however it was still not enough for our rental car. When we met up with our car provider, for our rented 4×4 Land Cruiser for this leg of the adventure, we had to strike a deal with him to pay with credit card when we returned the car because even with the ATM withdrawl we did not have enough cash for him and what lie ahead. Thankfully, he was flexible on this issue.

It wasn’t long before Brad was behind the wheel on the opposite side of the car & the opposite side of the road, cruising. We were warned by the owner of our vehicle to not exceed the speed limit because of photo radar (aka a man hiding in the bushes of Tanzania with a radar gun). Well, somehow, despite not speeding, we were pulled over on the side of the road by a Tanzanian officer dressed in all white. He claimed that they had a picture of Brad (it was on the officers cell phone) & that he was exceeding the speed limit. Brad had a choice.. fight it and possibly be taken in and have to fight it in court, or be quiet, pissed, and pay up $15 USD. Well, Brad paid the man… and got his very first speeding ticket… haha. (don’t worry I have a copy)

Anyways, we continued on to Moshi. We stopped in the small town in hope of picking up some snacks, and we did find a small convenience store but the options were very limited, but we were able to get a large pack of water and KitKats.  From there, we continued onto our hotel at Lake Chala. On our way down the incredibly rough dirt road, we had to stop at the Wildlife Management Area office to register. Not just register, but pay a fee. My weaselly and stingy husband (who works in the Congo, mind you), who knew about this ahead of time because of my research, was trying to get out of it. He tried every way he could claiming that hotel covered it, the hotel said it was covered, blah blah blah. Meanwhile, I was just sitting there so aggravated and slightly taken aback at how far Brad was willing to go to try and get out of giving the Tanzanian government any of our Tanzanian shillings …which they didn’t even want. (They wanted US Dollars.) NOTE: Do I blame Brad for wanting to get out of it, absolutely not. African governments can be astoundingly shifty. …but I was exhausted, sweaty, and just wanted to rest. I WANTED TO GO. Finally, Brad had no choice but to surrender more of his hard earned shillings to the man.

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DSC_0372With Brad feeling even more irritated and ready to lose it, we got our paperwork, continued on our way & finally arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon. We were the only guests staying there (now I know why). The place was very clean, and the view over Lake Chala was stunning, but this was easily one of the most poorly run hotels we have ever stayed at (we’ll get more into that later). Before showers & dinner, we decided to take the hike down to the lake since we were already covered in travel grime. It was a bit slippery from the recent rain, but it was a beautiful short jungle trek with gorgeous views over the turquoise water below. We spent a short while on the dock overlooking the deep jewel toned waters & watching the locals a little ways down the water’s edge making a fire.

We headed back to our tent which had a deck that overlooked the lush plains below. We stood there for a little while hoping to spot some wildlife, but there was little to see.

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After washing hours of travel grime off of ourselves and changing into clean clothes, we headed over to the “lounge” for dinner. It was basic, not just basic, but dry… It was not the first meal I was hoping for in Tanzania which was a bummer since food in Africa is typically always mind blowingly delicious, and something I always miss. Not only was IMG_1741our meal not great, but the staff was telling us how horrible their boss was which made our meal a little uncomfortable. We were the only ones there for dinner and it began to rain as we ate. We made a game of counting the geckos that had joined us. Itwas their turn to feast.  They shut the area down early, before the daylight was even 100% gone because we were the only guests and the rain. We headed back for a quiet nights sleep. It seemed there was no big game in the area, and not even the baboons kept us up.

The next morning we had our bags packed early, and grabbed our breakfast. Then we headed to the main house to pay for our stay. Well, what we found out when we got there was shocking. They didn’t accept credit cards, only accepted cash. We were trying to find ways around this but there was nothing to be done. They had no way to process a credit card, The internet didn’t even work,  so wiring funds at that moment proved impossible. We weren’t willing to hand over cash because it was going to take up the vast majority of it, and holding onto cash in this country was already proving to be more challenging than anticipated. So, after probably an hour of dealing with their mess which included bad communication from the time of booking, and Brad trying to help get their internet up and running,  we left with an agreement to wire money when we returned to the states.

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Once we were back in the car, we headed back through the Wildlife Management gate, and went on towards our next adventure. We stopped back in Moshi for lunch and cash, and were going out of our way to avoid the police. We found the bank, but getting money there was a hassle. Our car had to be inspected, we had to park a certain way, and getting cash naturally was a challenge.

Needing a break, we stopped at the Coffee Union Cafe for lunch to hold us over until we got to our next hotel. The food was decent, and it was nice to have a quick meal that met our expectations, as well as a break from the Tanzanian roads where it felt like anything goes in terms of being pulled over. NOTE: …I got pulled over while driving so that the could inspect the vehicle, and verify our credentials… crazy

We had to face the roads again at some point, and once we were far from the city and reached our off road point we finally felt like we could breathe again. We were in Maasai territory, and I was in heaven. We were headed to the Maasai Lodge, a 5 star heaven in the middle of nowhere. I have nothing but praise for this hotel. For starters, the drive in was a blast! There was so much to take in… Villagers, rock scapes, livestock… I was in my African heaven. When we got there, we were greeted wit dance and song which was enchanting. They got our bags to our room for us, gave us a run down of the place and showed us to our incredible mud hut.

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It wasn’t long before we were back outside with a couple of other women who were recovering from climbing Kilimanjaro. They were a riot, and in Maasai costume, and we had a great time talking to them while we all learned about Maasai culture and got to learn spear throwing and experience the Maasai dance and song for hunting (it gives me butterflies). We were all like a bunch of little kids with huge smiles on our face as we raced the rains to the main house. We had to outrun the downpour. It was so fun. A little while later was dinner. ..and it was exceptional. We were fed a wonderful 3 course meal of soup, meat and veggies, and dessert. The perfect African meal and completely worthy of the 5 stars the hotel bares.

IMG_8176We were so lucky because the next day they let us check out at 3PM because they didn’t have anyone coming in after us. We made the most of it. We had breakfast, did a walk through the plains with Jeremiah, our Maasai guide, took in the views and rested. Then after lunch we decided to get out of their hair, but I was definitely sad to go. We were suppose to visit Arusha National Park that day, but because of the number of days we had coming up in National Parks, we opted to take it easy. NOTE: A big part of this decision was also the cost. The planned cost between park fees & conservation area fees was in the thousands, and we thought it would be wise to reduce this a bit, since we just wanted to relax anyways. Our drive back was just as exciting, we had to cross the shallow ponds created by the rains, and wait for herds of cattle to move. We met some of the local kids, and chased by others. We watched a storm move through, and embraced it.

IMG_1851When we got back to Arusha, we went straight to our hotel, Mount Meru Game Lodge. So while the rooms and bathrooms were just alright, the location was AMAZING! The outside was like a giant garden. With towering trees that monkeys going from end of the property to the other in a flash, towering cactus, and water buffalo. Yes, buffalo…. They were on the other side of a low wall, but you could get within feet of these giant beauties. There were also several species of birds. It was awesome! This hotel was far more exciting that I anticipated when booking. Despite the constant light rain & the mob of mosquitos, I couldn’t not keep myself inside. I wanted to be with the animals. Naturally, I was speaking to them constantly.

Eventually, though, I had to give into the idea of dinner, so I ordered a nice piece of Chicken Schnitzel with chips (French fries) which was a funny change of African eating. With bellies full, after the long, but restful day, we decided to retire to our room to prepare for day 4.

After a decent night’s sleep at the game lodge in Arusha we packed up our bags, again, and grabbed breakfast. We hung out a little bit longer so that I could get some additional pictures of the resident animals & then we checked out to head to our next stop…. We stopped and loaded up on snacks and water again for our next drive. It was about 3 hours to the Tarangire area, but we were ready. We are road trip champions after all.

…to be continued.

Colombia: The Cartagena Edition.

Our trip to Cartagena wasn’t a big dream of ours. Honestly, there were other places in South America we preferred to visit, but with a limited amount of time (8 days), we didn’t want to spend too much time in the air. To be honest, I think we mostly went simply because I wanted to get in my 6th continent.  It would have been easier to book a trip to Cancun for some great diving & good food, but we both agreed we needed and wanted to continue visiting new places.

7.22.17 056DAY 1:

From Phoenix to Cartagena took approximately 10 hours with Delta, through Atlanta, which was incredibly reasonable considering. …and it was even better when we were upgraded to first class from Atlanta to Cartagena. Because of traffic below we had to circle several times for close to 45 minutes before we could land. This is when disappoint began to set in.

I had done all the research that I thought was necessary on the city & the things we could do & places we could stay. One thing I took note of was the beautiful crystal clear blue waters that are shared with the bahamas, the Caribbean Sea. As we circled through the air & I stared out below from my first class seat, I notice that the water wasn’t nearly as blue as I thought. In fact, it was brown …dirty murky brown. I hoped we were staying in a different area and that, maybe, what I was seeing wasn’t our beach destiny.  Those dreams were quickly crushed.

When we arrived at our hotel, Hilton Cartagena, we got checked in and laid down… It was lights out in the middle of the afternoon. What was supposed to be just a quick siesta turned into a major snooze fest. (Our flights left at midnight Phoenix time, so we really never slept.)  When we woke up… hunger set it in & we knew we needed to head out to search for food.  We walked off the grogginess in the intense humid air. We made our way down Carrera 2, a main road, and found ourselves at what would be a favorite for us, Carbon de Palo.  There, we were serenaded by a group of older Colombian men, we feasted on international cuisine like pasta with an incredible bolognese sauce & the best fried beef empanadas I have ever head. It made the damp heat tolerable, and put our bodies at ease.

7.22.17 446Because we were still tired, we decided to head back to the hotel. We felt like our meal at Carbon de Palo had made up for the oversleeping & missing out on the culture on day one. But… on our way back, we spotted one of my favorite things, CREPES!!!! How could I not… Nutella crepes and I were made for each other. I had googled where to find crepes, and I had found Crepes & Waffles. However, what we had found on our journey was Mr. Crepe (now permanently closed). …and Mr. Crepe understood my needs & fulfilled them… and my tummy.  With bellies satisfied, we stopped at the convenience store for a few liters of water, before we headed back to bed.

Day 2:

We awoke at a reasonable hour with enough time to hit the breakfast buffet… It was your typical buffet with a bunch of Colombian fare as well. I myself, went with the omelettes and fruit.   Once we were fed, we headed back to the room & readied ourselves for the day ahead. Which meant, I loaded up my bag with necessities & Brad put on sunscreen.

7.22.17 0787.22.17 079We headed downstairs & grabbed a taxi that could take us to the old city of Cartagena about 5 km away. We wandered aimlessly for a while. While we walked, Brad decided that he wanted a hat. It was the first time, in our travel history that he had decided he wanted to buy something before me. So we searched for a Panama hat for Brad in some of the small shops along the North wall of the old city. He walked out a happy man, and slightly more protected from the sun. As we headed back towards the center of town, we went in search of an antique shop I had found online prior to visiting, El Arcon Anticuario. After hours of wandering & trying to follow the GPS on our phone, we found it. The whole reason to visit was for a door knocker. The store was a decent size & filled with all sorts of miscellaneous things (pictures were not permitted). They had ample amounts of beautiful door knockers in all sorts of different shapes. However, since we still had another 5 days, we decided to hold off on buying in case we found anything better.

By this time we were hungry again, so we headed back to where we started at the Plaza Fernandez de Madrid, searching for a place to grab lunch. We walked by cafes, one after another, looking at the menus for something that sounded interesting. Our choice, Atahualpa. Although Google labels it as Caribbean food, I believe it may have Peruvian influence, partially because every picture on their wall is of Peru in some capacity.  Our food was really good.  I had a rice and chicken dish, similar to Paella, that came with long fried potatoes that were like long tater tots & Brad had steak with what I think were fried plantains. YUMMY! Each of our dishes were preceded with a delicious soup. …but to be honest, it was way too hot for soup.

7.22.17 089After wandering a little more, and enduring as much sweating as we could handle for the afternoon, we headed back to our hotel to unwind & check out our beaches. Unfortunately, this is when I discovered the unpleasantness of our beaches. Although they were clean & private, the water was very murky from the up swept sand due to all of the seasonal weather (so I was told). Also, just because it was private doesn’t mean they don’t permit the locals from trying to sell you boat rides across the water, massages, and other miscellaneous things.  We tried walking along the south beach near our hotel, which seemed a little better. But I just have no desire to be in murky ocean water… Jaws! lol.  In this direction, people were also trying to sell us things, and the beach was a bit dirty due to it being public. We felt our only option was to turn around.

As the day wore on we made plans for dinner. We showered & got cleaned up, and then Brad led the charge to a Mexican restaurant he had found, DF COMIDA MEXICANA. To be honest, I had completely forgot about this meal. I don’t even remember what I ordered…which I think speaks for itself. I remember thinking it was decent food, but I think for Mexican I will stick to eating it here in Arizona. With the night still young, we headed on to just walk. Our walk, naturally, led us to Mr. Crepe where I indulged in my usual.   With that, we just headed back to the hotel.

Day 3:

This day was a challenging one. I think it was the only day we really thought that we didn’t like Cartagena & it was because we felt like we had been duped.

After breakfast, we were ready for something new. We had decided that we wanted to go diving, and had found a place just up the way along the lagoon. We were impressed with what they had to offer & booked three dives the following day. We were really excited to get back to it.

As we began our walk into town, we were talked into a trip across the water to another beach, Buru. We were so enticed by the beautiful photo we were shown of candy blue waters and bright white sand. We were told it was just a boat ride away for a set price (I think $20 each). We were sold. We went back up to the room to change & grab all of our beachy needs. We headed back down & met the guy who directed us to the boat. We loaded on & then were pushed out to sea. It took between 20 & 30 minutes to cross the bay, and to our dismay it was exactly the same as the other side, except worse. We were directed out of the boat and shuffled along the beach & shown a “cabana” where we could sit and set our stuff.  We were unsure about what to do at this point, so we tried to make the best of it. The water was warm, we had semi-cold beers to drink, 7.22.17 099and that was kind of it. I couldn’t get over how murky the water was here too. The air smelled of gasoline from all of the boats, there was load music blaring, it was full of people, there were jet skis screaming by & other water activities happening that just did not suit the relaxing mood we were looking for. Our dreams of just lounging on a picture perfect beach where we could relax and drink cocktails had been smashed.  We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t want to be under the cabana because really it was just a long tent crammed with plastic chairs and tables and other people & we didn’t want to be in the water because you couldn’t see what was going on… We opted to leave, less than an hour after getting there.

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We found our guide, and told him we wanted to go back. We asked him where the place was that he showed us & he then told us that it was another 40 minutes away. That the weather had made Baru all murky. He proceeded to tell us that we had to pay for the table we had been sitting at in addition to the beer.  7.22.17 107Brad started getting very upset at this point because none of this was communicated to us. We told him we would only pay for the beer, not the table. …and it turned into a whole debate that we finally ended up winning. It took another 20-30 minutes to get back on the boat since it had to come back from the other side. This time, they packed it full of people.

When we were off the boat outside our hotel, Brad paid the guy for everything. We were both frustrated at this point & had to just shake it off. We knew we would laugh about it later, and with beaches out of the question, we opted for the hotel pool. The area was clean & there was a swim up bar… (I should make a mention that I don’t typically use hotel pools, especially beachside ones.. so that should really tell you about the ocean water here.)

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We decided it would be a good night in for us after all of the craziness, so we made a reservation at the hotel restaurant, Tinajero Steak & Seafood House. This was probably the most low key moment of our trip. There was no pressure to find anything, deal with language barriers,  minimal sweating, and we didn’t have to go far. The food & vibe were great & we finally were able to laugh about what had happened earlier.  We enjoyed the setting of an old-fashioned Cartagena style home with loads of Spanish influence. It made the meal that much more enjoyable.

Day 4:

7.22.17 126It was scuba day!!!!!!!!!! We were so excited to dive & were at the dive shop, La Tortuga Dive school, bright and early.  We were loaded into the vehicle with another family, and we did our best to squeeze in. It really was a tight squeeze. They drove us a little ways to a dock around the bay where we boarded the small boat & headed for the open water. We  had two separate dives planned off of the Rosario Islands. We first headed toward an island where we dropped the first group who were doing a shallow dive.  Then we headed to our location. The first  dive was around a large sunken boat, we were able to swim all around it’s surface which was truly neat because this was our first time diving around a wreck. There were many little colorful fish & the boat was covered in colorful coral & large clams. When we were finished we boarded the boat, stripped off our gear, and headed back toward the other group.

Once the other group had boarded they parked the boat & we all jumped back in and swam to shore. It was so fun! This was another first. Usually, you are never close enough to an island to do such a thing.  This little event added to the adventure. We all rested on the white sand, some of us shade and others not. We had little snacks & just enjoyed the warm water rushing up onto our legs.

7.22.17 177Before long, it was time to head back to the boat. We swam for it. After we all climbed abouard, we headed to our next dive location. It was around a reef. There were loads of colorful fish, but nothing I found to be truly noteworthy. One way or the other, I was in my happy place, the ocean.

When we arrived back to the mainland, the guys unloaded the boat, and we were taken back to our hotel. Brad & I got cleaned up and headed back out. We wanted to get some food & in our American shame knew exactly what we wanted. Domino’s. Just off of Carrera 2, was our pizza paradise. A nice cheesy pizza with garlic crust was calling out to us!  We feasted.

7.22.17 185With our stomachs full, we decided to just walk. We walked, and we walked, and we walked. We walked in the rain a little ways, but as it started to come down harder we took cover inside of Juan Valdez Cafe. Brad sipped down some coffee, and I just hung out until the rain seemed to slow. As we continued on our way down the road, we did make a pit-stop for crepes… But this time we stopped at Crepes & Waffles7.22.17 191I ordered my norm, while Brad ordered nothing (a mistake). He insisted I share, and I did involuntarily, as usual. I enjoyed my sweet treat, but I assure you that it was not has good as Mr. Crepe (RIP). We returned to the street once again to dry skies and kept to our path. We walked all the way into the old city which was approximately 5 kilometers (from our hotel). It was necessary considering the pizza we had just scarf down… and the crepe. 

We spent the rest of our day here. The late afternoon turned into night. We explored the streets in the dark with the city lights shining bright. We encountered a musical performance and dancing in one of the squares, and were wandered in and out of small shops. In one of them, I bought a beautiful water color painting of the old streets of Cartagena. We ate skewers of grilled meat and vegetables and had salted corn on the cob from street vendors. We even tried the arepa con queso, a cheese stuffed corn cake (it is incredibly salty). It is safe to say that the meat and veggie skewers were our favorite since they cook their corn a little less than Americans.

It was a really fun night. I think possibly one of my favorites. I love wandering & discovering new places, things, and food. …but maybe not the arepa con queso.

With the night coming to a close for us, we decided it would be good for us to head back to the hotel. It had been a busy and active day for us. The heat had worn us down & we knew we would sleep well.

Day 5:

yosemite & cartagena 1333With a tinge of uncertainty of what the day would hold for us, we decided over breakfast that it could be a good idea to visit Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. So, we grabbed a cab back to the old city & started from there. Brad grabbed a snack & a local food cart, an amazing arepa con pollo (maybe), and snapped some photos of more of the lovely buildings. Even though our walk wasn’t extensive, the humidity on this day was insane. It was mostly cloudy, but we were dripping sweat. It was the Colombian Cleanse! Thankfully, I always carry an umbrella, which Brad used to guard himself from the peaking sun. …and I just managed. We wandered up to the top of the Castle (fortress), and through the winding tiny hallways throughout. To me, it seemed that Colombians were a smaller people (There is no way that vikings would have ever fit down the narrow corridors). After exploring for maybe an hour, we couldn’t take the heat anymore. We were melting & Brad was riding the struggle bus. (He should’ve brought his hat.)

Before we crossed back over the bridge, we both new we wouldn’t make it without water. We found a small grocery store & made our way in to the air conditioned mecca quickly. We tracked down the refrigerated liter bottles of water & checked out. Within minutes, our bottles were half empty. We were quickly restoring our bodies lost water contents.

Then came our desire for lunch. We made it back across the bridge into the Gethsemane side of the old city. We stumbled upon an Indian restaurant, Ganesha Restaurante, and thought, “why not!?”. We sat down in the cool restaurant & ordered chicken korma & naan. A perfect combination for the sweaty day. It was exactly what was needed. By now, the sun was out with a much stronger force. It was a brutal day as we pressed on.

I found another great shop full of imported goods and antiques, Casa Chiqui, they had beautiful things. However, alot of things I could buy here at home, and for some of the more local pieces the prices were way to high to be justified. It was a fun place to look, maybe dream, but not to buy… and definitely not with Brad by my side.

Instead, we ended up buying a brass iguana door knocker from the man on the street. Unfortunately, when we had gone back to the antique shop from a few days before, they were closed.  The one we had bought was very nice, and the price was fairly reasonable. It wasn’t my ideal situation, I don’t even know if it’s an antique (extremely unlikely).

yosemite & cartagena 1385-2.jpgAgain, we needed a break. So we headed up the stairs of a small cafe called El Balcon. We just got a couple of drinks, and tried to regroup, but it felt impossible. We sat on the balcony overlooking the street below and taking in the breeze, we did our best to let our bodies cool. Finally, with Brad tipsy and me hydrated, we hit the streets again. We were spent. We began to try to find our way back towards the outskirts of the old city to grab a taxi back. The inevitable heat had us stopping for gelato on the way at Gelateria Paradiso.

When we reached the outer wall, we found a line of kiosks that offered boat rides & a day on a private island in the Rosario Islands. We were very intrigued. We knew the water near the islands was far better than what we had by our hotel, and we were running out of things to do. Not to mention, a day of just chilling on a luxurious beach sounded great. We booked it for the next day, and went to grab a taxi back to the Hilton Cartagena.

7.22.17 325Once we got to the hotel, we decided to head back down to the pool for a bit to cool off. We spent maybe an hour goofing off in the water again. Then we did the usual showering before getting ready to head to dinner. We knew exactly where we were going, which felt rare. The restaurant was Kiosco el Bony, a beach side restaurant (it sits on the sand) serving up fresh seafood.  We grabbed a table near an open window in the muggy building and watched the sunset over the water. It was a gorgeous view in a fun spot. Since I am not a huge seafood person, especially in foreign countries, I let Brad order the fish, and I opted for a chunk of beef and a pile of fries. Safe… and worth it. We both enjoyed our meals immensely. It was a great recommendation from diving guide the day before & I would definitely recommend it to anyone else in the future.  After dinner, we wanted to stay out a little bit  loner & what better way than with crepes!? …That’s right we went back to Mr. Crepe,  wandered a little, then grabbed our bottled water at the market & headed back to the hotel.

Day 6:

7.22.17 353Once again, after breakfast we were out the door early to head back toward the old city. We made our way to the docks where we were instructed to wait with the large group of people heading to our tropical paradise with our own private cabana & luxurious beach.

We got our wristbands, made our payments and waited patiently before we were all boarded onto the full boat one by one. The large number of passengers made it somewhat uncomfortable, but I didn’t care. Paradise was waiting. As we began to slow down and made our descent into the small stone built dock my dreams, once again, began to slowly be dashed. It wasn’t quite what I was thinking of, and the pictures we were shown, once again were slightly misleading. Although we did each have our own private cabana on a private beach, the water was still a little ways away down a rocky set of steps, or from a small ladder off the dock that was down a set of stairs. The beach was littered with small sharp rocks and broken shells that made walking in slightly like torture. It was more pleasurable to swim around and exhaust your muscles than it was to walk in and out. I knew I had to make the best of it, this was as good as it was going to get. Hey! At least the water was crystal clear!

7.22.17 399The other bummer is that I anticipated a bit nicer of a facility. What they didn’t tell us was that our meal would be served at picnic tables on the much more 2nd world appearing behind-the-scenes facility.  I should preface that the whole situation wouldn’t have bothered me if I truly knew what I was getting into before booking. They made it seem so much more glamorous than it actually was.  I will say that the lunch (I chose chicken) was very delicious!

After lunch, Brad made friends while swimming & I sat on the beach for a little bit looking for shells that weren’t broken (there were none) before I joined him. We both donned our hats in the water trying to keep any further UV rays from turning us pink while we waited for the grey clouds on the horizon to push in further.  I think we were both happy to be in the beautiful aqua waters despite the rough entry. Sunburns or not…  “Deception” or not… It was a good way to spend the better half of the day.  NOTE: I feel like I may have made it sound like I was very unhappy with the whole experience, and I wasn’t, just caught of guard to be truthful. This was a far better experience than what we had in Baru.  

The boat ride back was a little different than the one going. Instead of just going straight back to the mainland, we made several pit stops to pick up additional passengers and their luggage. They crammed them in the best they could, and then we continued on our merry way. At this point, the weather was stirring and so were the waters. The boat ride became quite choppy and little more exciting than some may have wanted. However, we made it back safe and sound while taking in the lovely views of the old city.

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7.22.17 431Once on dry flat land, we made our way back across the street to grab a cab & head back to wash up. When we got to our room the rains had hit & it became a waiting game. When we walked out the door we had no idea what we were in for and headed along our usual route. We noticed the roads had flooded and anticipated a slightly more challenging excursion than usual. It wasn’t long before a set of cars made their way through (nearly a whole tire deep in water), pushing the waters over the curb and onto the side walk, drenching the lower portions of our legs. We were partly amused and partly disgusted thinking of having the dirty Cartagena street water all over our shoes and clothes.  We quickly turned back to the hotel to change, laughing along the way.

All changed up & re-rinsed, we headed back out, but decided to take the back way around the lagoon. We were in the process of looking for a place where I could get dumplings. We found a place not too far, Maii Sushi. This worked out great since Brad’s favorite food of all time is sushi.  He stuffed himself with sushi rolls & stuffed myself with chicken and pork dumplings… It was great. NOTE: That was the nice thing about Cartagena is that they have all sorts of different types of cuisine to enjoy!  

Afterward, you guessed it… Crepes… and then a leisurely stroll back to the hotel.

Day 7:

7.22.17 450It was our last day in Cartagena & once again we were unsure of what to do. We went back and forth until after breakfast when we decided that we should just go to Aviario Nacional de Colombia. We didn’t do much research on it. I just kept seeing it on all of the tour cards in the taxis. We aren’t huge bird lovers, but we love nature & wildlife and figured there was nothing better to do. We were a little surprised at the cost to get there & back, I think $60 or $80 USD, but the driver said he would wait for us. Because of the remote location there were no taxis there to bring us back.

7.22.17 457When we pulled up to the Aviario, I still wasn’t sure what to expect. We saw the quaint but nice, entry set up with a large hang out area for a bunch of Macaws and other types of parrots. We said our hellos to the birds, and followed the arrows leading us in to the first exhibit.  The very first exhibit was a large walk-in aviary full of beautiful exotic colorful birds. Many of them were not shy and loved chatting with us. Others played coy and we had to admire from afar. As a whole, we easily spent over half an hour in this one enclosure. It was that exciting. NOTE: I can tell you this now, what we experienced at the Aviario Nacional was hands down the best experience of our trip & possibly one of the top 10 in all of our travels. This was the best “why not, we have nothing better to do” decision of my life! 

We continued on our way down the path and saw many other stunning birds including more parrots in all the colors, large cranes, emus, flamingos, etc. The last encounter we had was with a bunch iguanas near the water that mingle with the ducks. There were bright green and deep brown and had no interest in being too close. They were truly something to behold though.

On our way out we stopped at the main parrot encounter near the entrance. We were having a lot of fun with some very interactive and quite cheeky small green parrots. They were not at all shy, and had no problem hopping all over at us, biting us, and just being flat out impertinent .

7.22.17 511As we were headed toward the exit, I couldn’t resist one more stop on the big enclosure we first enjoyed. We spent several more minutes inside snapping last minute photos, and Brad said goodbye to his favorites. We didn’t want leave.  As we made our final exit our two green parrot friends were now sitting on the railing out side the entrance of the large enclosure. They stalked us, so Brad decided to start talking to them again, and within a moment of my arrival one was on my shoulder and biting at my ear. I was at a loss, and Brad had to help me free. I said my last goodbyes to these little monsters, while Brad headed on without me. As I made my way behind Brad, I suddenly felt an impact with the top of my head. No joke…. There was a parrot on top of my head. The little fella loved me & wanted to come with. All I could think to do was call to Brad. “Braaaad….. Help!” When Brad turned around & saw what was happening he couldn’t help but laugh at what had unfolded.  (I think it will be one of his favorite memories of me until he dies, and I don’t blame him.)

BLUE PARROT
SHOP THIS PRINT

I was parrot-free when we got in the cab, but the last thing I wanted to do was leave. However, I was looking forward to escaping the mass amounts of mosquitoes in the park. TIP: If you visit the National Aviary bring bug spray or buy it at the window because you will get bit over and over if you don’t. Brad was craving pizza again, and I couldn’t blame him. He can’t get Dominos in the Congo, so we had our driver drop us off outside of the restaurant. We ordered, we sat, we soaked in the humidity… actually, it soaked the water out of us, and we chilled. We enjoyed the savory meal for a little while, but the wind was picking up & there was a light rain happening on and off and we thought it might be wise to head back to the hotel for a little bit. My feet were filthy from wearing flip flops at the Aviary (all the paths are dirt), and I wanted to just get cleaned up & start packing. It seemed reasonable.  We made our way back on foot. 

A little while later we were ready to go back out for our last supper in Cartagena. I was ready to go, but also, not. I would miss the great food & the Aviaro, but I would not miss all the sweating. We made the conscious decision to have our last meal back at Carbon de Palo. The same place we ate our first night. We figured with empanadas like that, how could we go anywhere else. The atmosphere was great and the food was good. It was all we needed to close out our trip. We enjoyed the singing of older men & feasted in the intense heat while praying the fan get stuck in our direction.  We talked about the women’s wrestling that was playing on the tv & soaked in our last night alone together.

We walked along the streets listening to all the sounds. Brad wanted ice cream so we stopped at a shop along the main road & then headed back toward the hotel for my nightly crepe. …and finished up our last night in the hot tub talking about life.

Day 8:

We woke up, ate breakfast zipped up the luggage, and headed to the airport a little early. We had plenty of time until our flight left & it felt like it never would. The Cartagena airport was fairly small, and getting out was challenging. Literally…. They did last minute random passenger checks while the flight was boarding and I was one of the lucky few. We were all grouped together and escorted to another room off to the side of the terminal. I thnk all of the Americans were a little sketched our and people were pretty upset to be missing their boarding groups for this. Brad boarded the flight without me& thankfully was able to ensure that our seats and baggage were all set, while I had my personal carry on sorted thru (again) and answered random questions. ….there was no coccaine to be found. haha. Once they had their way with my bags, I was sent on my way & thankfully got to cut the line for the plane since I had priority boarding. Finally, I was on the plane & and headed home.

There is no place like home… but those empanadas were the bomb!

Cartagena Travel Tips: Don’t go with overly high expectations… I feel like that was my biggest mistake. Cartagena is a neat city, but 7-8 days was too long for me. I could have settled at 5. Also, Cartagena isn’t a great beach city… Not like Phuket or Cancun… I, personally, wouldn’t go back to go the beach. As a whole the beaches were dirty, crowded, and full of muggy water… Unless you want to take the long boat ride to the islands… but even then there are better beach options. Go to Cartagena simply for the culture, and the Aviario… & get the empanadas at Carbon de Palo. Bring bug spray, sunscreen, and be ready to sweat!

Yosemite National Park: The Tourist Edition.

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There is no point in me going on and on about our day to day visiting the main attractions of Yosemite… so, I’m just gonna hit you with the highlights and cover the various activities that are available…  Ready? Let’s do this.

Yosemite as a tourist (not a backpacker) in the month of June may be one of the most frustrating experiences I have had. Though Yosemite is very beautiful, and I enjoyed my time there… I have no desire to go back during the height of the tourist season. The place is packed!!! To the brim!!!   Hotels are booked solid, there is no parking and everywhere you look there are people…. in my opinion it defeats the purpose of being in nature…. You know what I mean?? That time to immerse yourself in God’s beautiful creation, find your center, and just unwind and relax.  If you think your time in YNP will be relaxing in June, you may be mistaken… It’s like Disneyland. …but there are no churros. Thankfully, it is more spread out, but the parking is an absolute nightmare, traffic is backed up, and the buses are maxed out with people trying to get from point A to point F, and the bus lines require waiting for possibly an hour.

So if you can go, go before kids are out of school, or when they are back in. Maybe, when it’s cold. The waterfalls may not be in their full glory, but there will be more room for you to enjoy them.  Winter, when the ground is covered in snow, also, sounds magical.

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 Here are some of the things we did while in the park.

  • latest iphone 138Walk around Yosemite Valley. We were fortunate enough to find parking outside of the Village store, which was almost as difficult as actually backpacking through the park. We headed through the shop full of souvenirs and groceries where we later picked up a variety of souvenir tees & camp cups.  The walk around was really enjoyable. In June it was quite warm, but nice to be out of the car. We walked down the bike/walking path stopped into the Ansel Adams Museum, visited the Visitor Center while we continued our walk toward Yosemite Falls. It was lovely & the oncoming mist was incredibly refreshing in the warm air. However, I was very excited to get past the falls. Once again, there were just too many people for my liking.  (I should note that I don’t thrive in crowds. They make me uncomfortable and can give me anxiety – so take my notes with a grain of salt if you are the opposite.)  We continued on our nature walk around the grounds and eventually headed back to find a place for lunch. We stopped in at the Mountain  Room Restaurant & Lounge. It’s safe to say the food was subpar in the lounge. I actually sent my chili back as it wasn’t even hot enough to melt the cheese on top. I was greatly disappointed, and instead of ordering anything else, I just nibbled off everyone else’s plates & decided to hold out for dinner at the hotel. The food my mom had gotten from the Yosemite Valley Lodge Food Court when we she picked us up post-backpacking was far better, and seemed fresher. …but that also, may be because I was dying for real food when I got in the car.
  • latest iphone 177.jpgVisit The Majestic Yosemite Hotel. If you aren’t staying here already, this is a great place to stop in for lunch at the Majestic Yosemite Bar or dinner at The Majestic Yosemite Dining Room. The food is far superior to that in the valley. The interior is very cabin-tastic, historical, and interesting to wander through. The grounds are beautiful & it’s easy to walk through parts of the park from there. We found our way toward Mirror Lake across from Half Dome. We were able to wade in the water to our knees to cool down our body temperatures and shrink our feet before wandering back.

  • Explore the great Sequoias. There are 3 groves within Yosemite NP that you can explore. Tuolomne Grove ( this is the one we visited), Merced Grove, and the biggest and most famous Mariposa Grove.  These light nature hikes are a great way to get some quieter time, a little work out & time away from the crowds and, of course,  marvel at some of the largest and oldest trees on the planet.

  • Just drive. See what Yosemite National Park has to offer, with miles and miles of winding roads, scenic views, and possibly some great wildlife sightings you can’t go wrong with a packed picnic lunch & a little wanderlust.

  • yosemite & cartagena 723Technically, we hiked past Vernal & Nevada Falls on the last leg of our backpacking excursion, but it’d make for a great day hike too. Be forewarned, the Mist trail is very packed. However, the closer you get to the top, the less crowded it is. The bulk of the people stop between Vernal Falls (lower) & Nevada Falls (upper) sunbathe on the flat rocks and take in the scenic views near the railings. This hike up is probably pretty tiring as it has a lot of steep steps covering the incline, but the way back down is fun. …and Vernal Falls does provide a nice cool down of mist along the way.
  • Enjoy dessert with a view. At the Mountain Room Restaurant you can sit in the dining room enjoy a sweet treat or a full meal with the possibility of watching Yosemite Falls in it’s fully glory. One of my dad’s favorite things… preferably with apple pie (they no longer serve it). latest iphone 128

There are other things that you can do while you are in the park such as climbing the rock face of El Capitan or Half Dome. You can, also, attempt the rigorous hike up Half Dome’s backside, feel free to be just an onlooker of rock climbers, get a massage at the lodge, camp in one of the camp’s campsites, day hike some of the many trails. The list probably goes on and on with things like bird-watching… but that’s the most I can come up with right now.

Hopefully this will be helpful for planning your upcoming trip to Yosemite. And hopefully you will enjoy it’s beauty as much I did… maybe even more!yosemite & cartagena 881

Yosemite National Park: The Backpacking Edition.

When my Dad initially brought up the idea of backpacking through Yosemite, I didn’t take it all that seriously. I wasn’t sure how committed I would be because the idea of roughing it in the wilderness was never my idea of a good time.  Eventually, though, things began to change. My dad reserved a few nights at a hotel just outside the park for all of us to stay after we backpacked through.

At this point, I had no choice but to commit. My dad had always wanted to take my sister & I backpacking in his favorite spot. He had been backpacking in Yosemite since the age of 14 (nearly 40 years!!) , and Touloumne Meadows is his favorite escape from reality.

As the dates came closer and closer, I knew there was no backing out. Thankfully, in March, during my trip through the African wilderness with Brad, I did get a little “roughing it” experience which including popping squats in the African jungle to relieve my bladder, missing entire meals, and light snacking in time of desperate hunger…. Not to mention, all those mosquitoes, which were actually worse in Yosemite.

Finally, it was prep time. We began plotting our course through the forest on our map, and shopping for our gear. We were doing back and forth trips to REI for footwear, backpacks, sleeping bags, and doing our best to take advantage of the periodic promotions to save as much as possible.

My dad kept making phone calls to the park rangers to find out about what trails were open and what was closed due to the record snowfall that they had been having last winter. He was sad to find out that the trails, Toulumne Meadows, and the roads leading to it were all closed. We had no choice but to reroute.

He kept reaching out to the rangers, in an attempt to plan our journey and to check on the snow levels… The problem was that with the record snow, our plan kept having to change. We had a loose plan to hike near Upper Merced Lake in the High Sierras, but knew that nothing would be final until we arrived.

Finally, the day was here. My dad and I headed to the airport, checked our backpacks, and brought along our carry-ons. We headed to our gate where we awaited the arrival of my sister. She had flown in from Charlotte earlier that morning & was heading on with us to Fresno. We were all tired, but also anxious to get there. We were ready to have a good time, and have a new adventure together.

When we got to Fresno, Erica (my sister) & I gathered the bags while my dad went on to collect the car. We had a red Dodge Durango that we loaded up with our gear before hitting the road.  On our way out of the city we made a pit stop at Big 5 Sporting Goods where my dad picked up some fuel cans for our quick boil stoves & some emergency space blankets, just in case it rained at night (it didn’t) because we were sleeping under the stars. That’s right… no tent.

We finally arrived at the park gates where we paid the $40 park entrance fee, and then headed on to get our permit at the Wawona Visitors Center north of the south park entrance off of the 41.  The office was a few miles up the road.

When we got there, we parked the car & we all headed inside. My sister and I took turns wandering through looking at displays and keeping my dad company in the very short line. Finally, it was our turn. We  made our inquiry about getting a permit for an area around Upper Merced Lake, and thankfully, we had no issues. There was plenty of room for us in the backwoods. TIP: You have to get permits to backpack throughout the national park, so I would advise to be checking on availability prior &/or have a backup plan.

We all got back in the car, and began our drive to our final stop, the Glacier Point lookout.  I should point out, first, that the traffic in Yosemite in June is ridiculous. There were long lines of cars, and parking lots were pretty full. We were directed to the visitor shuttles originally, but when we explained that we were backpacking they forwarded us on to Glacier Point.  When we got there, we began getting our gear in order. We changed into our hiking boots, and got our backpacks stuffed and organized with any possible necessity that we had. My sister and I made the mistake of using the bathroom before we began the journey. TIP: These bathrooms are one the most rank and disgusting things I have ever encountered. They don’t flush, are covered in every type of bodily excretion possible & smell so bad that it took all I had not to vomit all over the floor four times!!! So, in other words, if you can hold it… Pop a squat in the woods, ladies. It’s far more pleasant, believe it or not.  

With that stinky experience behind us, we headed back to the car and got strapped into our backpacks which all weighed between 30-40 pounds. It was literally a physical burden.  We made our way towards the lookout point where we snapped our starting photo in front of Half Dome & the falls. …and it was all downhill from there. …or so I thought.

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The descent was pleasant. We were in the shade, the air was tepid, and I was in the company of two wonderful people with some of the most beautiful scenery that I have ever seen.

When we arrived at the Illilouette Creek,  we all dropped our packs to cool off and fill up our water bottles. It felt so good to drop the weight for about 15 minutes. The great thing about the record snowfall is that rivers were rushing with freshly melted clean clear water. We didn’t need to filter or treat it. We just drank straight from the earth.

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yosemite & cartagena 124With packs back on we crossed the river over the bridge and proceeded on the trail. We made it up a couple of the switchbacks when we began to question our path. At this point, I was beginning to struggle. The uphill climb combined with the weight of my backpack was slowing me down immensely. We stopped to look over the map since the path seemed wrong.  My dad & sister were in charge of directions while I was handling the photos.  The general consensus was that we must have somehow missed our trail, so we headed back down to the river and crossed back over the bridge. We went one way, and then the other, but were surrounded by dead ends. My dad headed out to survey the land and search or the missing trail, but there was no sign. Our only option was to head back the same way we were going before.

So, we began to climb once, again. It was exhausting, draining, and down right brutal, or as my dad just called it, “a bitch”. ..and it truly was. By the time we reached “the top” AKA Panorama Point, the lookout point that overlooks Yosemite Valley, I didn’t know how much further I could go, but I knew I had to keep going because we were nowhere near water.  So after, calling our mom (I know, I can’t believe we had service either) and I texted Brad… We put our packs back on and kept pushing ourselves forward, or should I say up. The views along the way were incredible. Being able to see Half Dome at sunset was truly a special moment for me.

The trail we were on was leading us straight for Nevada & Vernal Falls, which was not where we were wanting to go on day 1.  So when we came to a fork in the road, the map came out once more. Erica and my dad looked it over, and not 100% certain, mostly because of drinking water restrictions, we took the road less traveled. As we walked, we noticed a couple of spots that would make good campsites, but there was no water source. My sister went ahead to scout it out, and came back with the assumption of water ahead. We continued to trek forward with flashlights in hand because by this point, we were in the dark. We found ourselves, quickly making our way back down the mountain in the dark, and slowly wandered back below the tree line. We were wandering through a “bear infested” forest in the dark.  I was getting so frustrated and crashing fast. We still had not found water, and were at a complete loss.  …on day 1. I couldn’t keep going, I felt like my body was going to collapse.  We found a large clearing, and set up camp. I’d like to say that we got it done quickly, but considering we all were exhausted, and we all somewhat felt sick, it took a little longer than planned. Armed with flashlights, we started setting up camp. We laid out our tarp, and sprawled out our gear. My dad took the initiative to start the fire, after all, he was the Yosemite expert.  We gathered wood, and as he got it started I couldn’t help but  stare. I was so exhausted, in physical pain, and at this point my desires were food had vanished. All I wanted to do, all we all wanted to do, was sleep. We each took turns wandering off to relieve our bladders, and change into our sleepwear.

We all agreed that we had no desire to eat except for a light snack. We all had two issues, a lack of desire for food, and a lack of water to cook our food.  We were to concerned with the fact that we had not found water, to waste it on a hot meal.

As the fire began to fade, I struggled to sleep, I kept fading in and out. I was having severe pain in my chest & trouble breathing which I figure was muscle fatigue from my pack mixed with stress & anxiety. I couldn’t sleep and was so overwhelmed with emotion, thinking I might die in the wilderness on my first night (haha). I was ready to jump off a cliff to relieve the suffering, I knew I just needed my body to relax. As I sat there knowing that I was miles from civilization, had no way of calling for help, I did all that I could do: I stayed calm. I knew if I woke my dad or sister they would not be able to help me, so I took 3 Advil and a small sip of water, and stayed lying flat on my back, and stared up at the night sky focusing on monitoring my breathing.  Within, 30 minutes I was finally asleep. Although, my painful & difficult symptoms subsided. My first night was rough. I got hardly any sleep.  I kept thinking about the spiders getting into my sleeping bag, and was plagued by one pesky mosquito as the sun began to rise. It was just very uncomfortable.

I laid there as long as I could. My sister and dad finally woke up & were moving around before I could. We took our turns finding cover to use nature as a bathroom & change. We all agreed that cooking breakfast was still out of the option. We had to conserve water. We munched on some of our nuts and granola, and packed everything up.  It was time to get back to the trail.

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As we continued in the same direction from the night before, it wasn’t long before we ran into another backpacker.  We had a very quick chat about how he hadn’t seen anyone in a while, and there was water ahead.  We marched on through the forest with hope.  Water.

When we reached the small creek, we all grabbed our “camp cups” , and filled up. We were basically chugging at this point. It was cold and incredibly refreshing. We were all so excited. The pep had been returned to our step.

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Onwards, we went.  We need a deeper stream to fill our water bottles.  Within about 30 minutes we had it. Sadly, there was no shade to keep the brutal sun off of us, but there was water. We tried to find the best place to setup our make-shift kitchen. We crossed the creek one way, and then back to the other side to a small clearing. It was perfect. There was a tree to prop our packs against, and a stream just a few feet away. We were dipping our cooling towels, and constantly filling our water bottles to hydrate, cook, and clean.  Our dehydrated egg breakfast tasted soooooo good. It was so nice having a hot meal.

We enjoyed the break to play and truly reset our bodies for the grueling journey that was ahead.  Our goal was to try and make it to Upper Merced Lake. Little did we know we would never make it.

With breakfast devoured, and cleaned up, we strapped back in and headed back to the trail. The sun was beating down on us hard. We all re-wet our cooling towels, and had them draped all around our necks and heads. (They were a game changer.)  We made our way around Mount Starr King, and found ourselves reemerged in the forest. yosemite & cartagena 278

Because of the record snowfall they had last winter, there was tons of caked tree debris on the ground, which I think also contributed to the large amount of insects.

As we trekked on, we found ourselves, walking across large fallen trees to get across raging rivers. My sister, had a hard time with this, and several times had to have my dad help her across. Oddly enough, crossing over dead trees above a raging river with 40 pounds on my back was nothing. I’d rather do it 100 times than endure day 1 again.

 We crossed Clark Creek where we stopped for a lunch break. Tuna with avocado & mustard on pita pockets. Let me tell you… It was one of the most delicious sandwiches of all time.  I  enjoyed it with a side of cheese filled Ritz Bitz & a fruity snack.  We soaked our feet in the creek & cleaned up our mess once again.  We all had been slightly revived, and had to face the reality that it was time to move on.

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We geared back up & continued to press on. It wasn’t long before we came up on Red Creek. The water levels were quite high, and so we had to wander a bit to find a place to cross. Finally it happened.  We had a short climb before we rose up into a clearing which overlooked the beautiful snow covered Buena Vista mountain range.  We ran into a group of people out for a day hike (from their camp), and chatted for a little while about what each other had experienced thus far.  Erica rigged her phone on a tree so we could take a group photo, and then we shuffled along. As we moved on rain clouds began to finally catch up with us. It started as a light drizzle and only picked up for a few minutes. The cool water was incredibly refreshing, but

did also slow us down a bit.

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Eventually we met up with Illilouette Creek, and it was much more than that. It was a raging river. We had been trekking in the rain for a while now, but as we started moving further and further along the creek, the forest floor became more and more treacherous. There were many fallen trees that had yet to be cut through, there was rotting plant debris everywhere, and I had mosquitoes biting me through my pants.  I was losing momentum fast, but knew I had to keep moving & keep up with my sister… especially my sister. My dad & were feeling about the same physically on and off for the duration of the trip, my sister on the other hand was a lot like the energizer bunny until the final day.  We all did our best to keep each other going. My sister wanted to keep pressing on to the lake, but my dad & I had to persuade her to our side. It wasn’t going to happen.  Instead we found an incredible make-shift campsite with a great flat spot on the granite. We were able to set up between a creek and the river.

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My bodies physical pain began to melt away as I slipped my feet out of my Merrils and into my Birkenstocks. That act alone had a sense of revival in it. We took turns heading down to the creek to wash up and do some light laundry, mostly socks.  We got our camp set up, collected firewood, & then began preparing for dinner. We all pulled out our dishes and sporks. We boiled the freshly collected water & poured it over the dehydrated beef stroganoff. As we let it stew, we also boiled up some Lipton chicken noodle soup.  We were so excited for our dinner. We were starving, and ready to get comfortable. As we sat there, we saw a furry creature run from one end of the granite to the other and then vanish into the forest. It was one of two animals we had seen so far.

We enjoyed our dinner immensely. The temperature was dropping and so was the sun. My dad got the fire going, and we gathered around with s’mores necessities. Yes. I brought stuff for s’mores, and we ate them off of sticks! But now, I would pack it completely different.  The sweet crunchy gooey goodness was overwhelming to my taste buds, I couldn’t eat much, but it was fun to roast marshmallows on a stick over a campfire under the glowing stars. It brings out the kid in you.

We each enjoyed tea while we finished up by the fire. Then we brushed our teeth, and were off to bed. I was at peace watching the stars shoot across the sky above me while we laughed and enjoyed each other’s company from the comfort of our sleeping bags. (It will probably be one of the most memorable nights of my life.) As the fire died off in the distance, we drifted off to sleep one by one. It was the only night I slept the whole night through. I was at peace on that slab of granite.yosemite & cartagena 483

The next morning, my sister was the first up. She started the fire, and made sure we got moving. I finally had a full night sleep. I slept like a baby. I did not want to crawl out of my sleeping bag despite the fact that my air mattress had deflated. Clearly, my body was able to relax enough after all of the exhausting experiences I had put it through in the previous 48 hours. The temperature had been just right to allow me to sleep comfortably without being too hot or cold. However, freeing myself from the clutches of the sleeping bag was a different story. It was cold. I was bundled up in sweat pants, wool socks & my fleece pull over. I slipped on my Birkenstocks and found a quiet place to use as a bathroom.

yosemite & cartagena 570 - CopyWe readied our small quick boilers to make some breakfast, tea & coffee. At this point, the dehydrated food was starting to wear on us. It wasn’t quite as satisfying as it was before, but our bodies needed the fuel for the day.  We started packing up our gear, and as we sat on the tarp doing so, a critter appeared from the forest: a marmot.  It was scavenging for food, and wasn’t too concerned with getting close to us which seemed odd. In this area, it was doubtful that they interacted with humans regularly. It was easily within 10 feet of us, sniffing around our open bear vaults, hoping to snag a prize. Slightly skittish, it kept a close eye on us, if it thought we were getting to close, it would skedaddle.  A little while later, we watched it sifting through the ashes of our exhausted fire, where we had dumped our breakfast scraps, and the area next to it where we had washed our dishes out with water. That marmot  ate every tiny morsel that it could get its tiny marmot lips on. Off in the distance, we noticed a second marmot. It’s possible they were tag teaming our camp for food.

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Finally, we were all dressed and packed. ..but our journey was different this time. I had removed the day pack that came with my back pack and filled it with our essentials. We hid our backpacks (without the bear vaults) back behind a large rock in the forest & left our bear vaults out on the main rock behind a boulder.  We didn’t want to risk a bear getting into our packs while we were away, and we didn’t want to risk other backpackers getting into our bags, so everything was hidden.

latest iphone 045We set off on our journey. We headed further back into the wilderness in search of  Upper Merced Lake. We climbed over large granite rock faces with the tiniest trickles of water flowing down, along the rushing rapids of Illilouette Creek, and through the marshy forest floor.  Nothing had prepared us for the wilderness we were wandering into.  The forest floor was in such shambles that it was almost unbearable to walk through. Between the amount of bugs, decaying debris & the lack of crossing points for the river, we were tempted to give up the journey. …but we didn’t. We headed down river a ways and found a large fallen tree that spanned from one side to the other. Mind you, it was close to 30 feet across.  We each took a turn crossing. My sister lead the charge in trying to find our way back toward the trail. We were basically in a free climb through very rough terrain, but eventually met back up with the trail. We followed it for as long as we could, but it wasn’t long before we were back on our own.

yosemite & cartagena 629All we had to navigate with was nature, and that wasn’t much help.  The theory is that because of the large amounts of snow melt passing through the area, the trails were basically gone. We had no way of finding it. Our only option was to wing it. We were crossing stream after stream over log after log, jumping from rock to rock, trudging over snow banks, and eventually found ourselves climbing up the side of mountain wall made entirely of granite.. Steep granite that was at times slippery. There were a couple close calls. We had come so far, and it seemed like we were continually losing hope, but for some reason we also held onto the hope, saying “we have to be close” & “we’ve come so far”.  We were all feeling it, but we kept going. Eventually, we ended up on top of a mountain top… or close to the top of the mountain. We stood across from Red Peak on the edge of the Buena Vista Crest. The views were incredible You could see for miles. We could see where we came from (around Mount Starr King) over the last couple days. It was truly incredible. We found a shady spot under a juniper tree and snacked on our sustenance… Nuts & stuff.  We were all hungry.

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We had a long journey still ahead of us, so with no lake at our feet, just a tiny murky pond tucked in the crest, we knew it was time to head back down. We quickly made our way down the granite mountain side, navigating our way over and around large boulders while hoping not to misstep.  Before we knew it, we were back in the tree line. We navigated our way back through the marshlands, trying to find our way across streams and river. We would go one way, and then back the other. It was truly challenging terrain that we were all incredibly thankful to get out of. There were many mosquitoes that were constantly pestering me. I just wanted to be free and clear.

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On our way back to our main crossing log, we stopped off at the raging rapids plummeting over the small waterfall. We grabbed a couple of photos, and then it was back to trekking. It truly was trekking. The floor was treacherous. The goal was not to misstep… not to scrape your leg… not to walk into a spider web… because there is no way to call for help should something be broken, you fall into the rushing freezing river, or better yet, you’re unconscious or dead. WooHoo!!!!

Finally after weaving our bodies over and under fallen trees, we followed the river quite a ways. There was concern we had passed our crossing-log. We didn’t it was just a little further ahead. My sister led the way, I followed, and then my dad. We were making our way back quickly. We kept going. I kept swatting away mosquitoes and we searched for the trail we had lost hours ago.  Within minutes, we were back on track. We hustled our way back to our packs. We grabbed our gear and headed to the opposite side of the river, on a clearing just downriver from where we slept. We found a great spot where the water was shallow & the raging water slowed to a safe pace allowing us to wade in slowly and soak our aching feet, refill our water, and clean our dishes. We set up for lunch which was a mix of snack, tuna, and whatever else. NOTE: Don’t leave a bag marshmallows in the heat. They turn into one giant sticky blob. We were famished. We soaked our feet in the shallow granite shore of the rushing river, and tried our best to regain our energy.

Once again, it was time to put our hiking shoes back on & strap into our Gregory backpacks. We filled our water bottles & headed back North West. We knew where we were going to camp. Just on the south side of Clark Creek where we had eaten lunch the day before. We pushed ourselves hard that afternoon. It was a lot easier to make the journey without the rain, fatigue, and inclines.  We were moving quick. We came face to face with a dear on the path, and watched it until it ran. Once again, I didn’t have my camera out and ready which was disappointing, but it was okay. I enjoyed a beautiful & serene moment while wondering how long it would last & how close could we get before it left us.

In the last 24 hours, we had seen more wildlife than people and we were okay with that. It was great to have a break from people, an opportunity to truly connect with nature. We came to the intense river crossing once again. We waited as my sister kepting waiting to step up and cross. I couldn’t take it anymore. I cut the line & went first. My dad helped her across, and we wrapped up our trek for the day. Finally, early that evening we reached our campground.  Found what seemed to be the clearest spot, and did our best to make it even clearer by shifting small rocks & moving the bigger rocks over by the already built fire pit.  We laid our tarp for the last time and strategically placed our sleeping bag, my dad & I at opposite ends, and my little sister in the middle. Everything  was laid out as we wanted it.  Pillows were placed at the top of sleeping bags which laid on our inflatable mats. The knives laid by head and the tarp was lined with a border of Off! (the bug spray).  Our backpapcks were propped up against the adjacent tree, and our bear vaults sat by fire pit.

We took turns by the river washing up and changing our clothes into our sleeping gear. The water was freezing, but it felt good to wash away the sweat. When we were ready we wandered the campground to gather firewood.  My sister took charge of the fire while my dad took some time to rest. She became very proud of her ability to start fires. …but this one wasn’t taking off the way she hoped. We were all involved. …naturally, my dad was the one who got it going.

With the fire burning, it was dinner time.  We opened up our bear vaults & sifted through the food. It was Chili Mac night. We lit up the quick boilers and heated the correct amount of water for two packs of food.  We let it sit until it was ready and split it up amongst the three of us. The only problem was… none of us had much of an appetite. Two days of grueling activity and dehydrated food are just hard on the body & on the digestive system. We all ate as much as we could, but then decided it was time to clean up. We dumped the remaining food into the fire, rinsed the food bags & stuck them in our ziplocs , then my dad and I washed the bowls a little ways away.  We reconvened by the fire. As the sun was setting we had a lot of fun talking and taking  group photos. We drank tea & tried to relax.

Once again, it wasn’t even completely dark when we nuzzled into our sleeping bags, but it felt good. It was cold that night, and for whatever reason I was struggling to sleep. In fact, I barely slept (my tea was probably caffeinated, haha). I was so cold. Sleeping without socks this night was a mistake. (It was however, the only night that I got my air mattress pad to stay inflated the entire night, so that was a win.) As I laid there frigid, tossing and turning, I kept trying to sleep. It felt impossible. I couldn’t shake the concern for bears and spiders as I laid there cold and almost shivering. Looking back, I wish I had made an effort to find my socks, but in the moment it felt far to overwhelming in the cold darkness.

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The next morning, we all slowly woke up. But, of course, my sister was the first up, eager to start the fire. We all gathered around for our last breakfast. A mix of random things from our vaults. We didn’t even bother with trying to eat the freeze-dried stuff, we could barely stomach the thought of it.  We all had uneasy stomachs & a long journey back to the village area. We headed back over to our sleep spot & started packing up. Within 20 minutes we were ready for the final leg of our great excursion.  We made sure our fire was out, and headed back across the river in the direction we came barely more than a day before.

yosemite & cartagena 708yosemite & cartagena 709The final leg was rough. It was hot, we were tired, had uneasy stomachs, and were all ready to drop our packs for good. We were sluggish but pushing our hardest to make it through. We took a different route than we had before, and it was paying off. It was a little shorter, but a good chunk of it was in the hot sun. We had our last water fill in a small creek near the back of Kings Peak, and pressed on. We went up and over & found ourselves at the lookout point facing the back of Half Dome near the falls.   We were so excited. We finally had cellphone reception to call my mom to let her know where we were and where to meet us.

latest iphone 077We thought we were almost done. My dad had made it sound as if we would be down and out within 30 minutes, but it took us at least 2 hours, maybe 3. Honestly, I think the end may have been the worst part simply because of the amount of tourists that we came into contact with. First we headed down a long paved trail that took us from the lookout point down to Nevada Falls. This part wasn’t too bad because it seems fewer people decide to go past Vernal Falls. We had to cross the bridge over Nevada Falls & began our next decent down steep rock steps. Thankfully, the traffic was still mild.

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We continued down and along the path until we hit flatter ground and the next bridge. It was time for the next crossing. We found the crowds…. We continued on the given trail which was a little tricky to find at first because the large space was packed with sunbathers and families. We made it to the railed in stairway down… It was steep. The further down we go the more people we were coming into contact with. Here we were walking along massive water falls on rock steps that were completely lined with tourists that half the time didn’t seem to be fully paying attention. After over 72 hours in the wild without a real shower, sweating, drinking river water, and not having a hot fresh meal, the last thing you want to deal with is mobs of people who could care less about about your sleep depravity, aching feet, and bruised torso.  #respectthebackpackers  Its hard to slow your momentum on your downward climb of massive rock steps, so it’s incredibly frustrating when you have people just coming out of nowhere right in front of you.

latest iphone 095When we reached the south side of Vernal falls, we were soaked. Vernal Falls is the one you have to look for! It It was like my encounter with Vic Falls. There had been so much snow last winter that the snow melt was raging over the cliffs  and was drenching every person that was bold enough to pass through. It was 100% unexpected, and although it wasn’t ideal, I still sort of enjoyed the cool down and the little bit of peace that it brought to my soul. …but then came the traffic jam. The rest of the way down had the largest amount of traffic, at one point there was a small mob where it seemed no one could move. It’s how I imagine a New York department store is during Black Friday. …awful.  Finally, we made it to flatter grounds, but it just kept going. The paved trail just kept going. It was cloudy & damp, my poor dad was lagging behind, and my sister was really worn out. I was on my second wind with the thought of being done. We just wanted to reach the end.

When we did cross the final bridge and made it to the road, we headed to the bus stop where the line to get on seemed a mile long. We called my mom & found out that there was no way for her to get to us. We came to the realization that the only way this was going to work was for us to take the bus into the village & meet her. However, the traffic in the area was so dense that buses were not running on time, were taking alternate routes, avoiding stops & doing whatever they could to keep things moving as efficiently as possible. I think just our bus ride took nearly 40 minutes, and it wasn’t the most enjoyable. We all got separate seats and I was freezing as I sat next to a stranger in my damp clothes looking like a trainwreck. Haha.  We stayed in constant contact with my mom, and rearranged our plans in an attempt to meet sooner.  Finally, it worked out. We got off the bus with our packs and headed her direction. We got into her rental car, where she greeted us with cups of chili, soups, salad & drinks… She had literally read my mind in some magical mom way.  Earlier that day we had all been talking about what we were wanting to eat… mine was a salad.  Thanks, Mom!

Our day still wasn’t over though. We had to go back up to the Glacier Point Lookout in order to get the other rental car. It was probably another hour and a half of driving before we ever got back to the hotel. It’s safe to say that shower was one of the best of all time.

…to be continued

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Australia: The Sydney Edition.

Day 1:

Barely a week after returning from Charlotte, I had Brad dropped off at the airport on the morning of May 20th & I was wrapping up all my loose ends before I headed out on an evening flight that same day. I was bound for Sydney.

I was going to visit one of my best friends who has been working over there for the last several months. The plan was for me to grab a cab to her place in the suburb of Surry Hills. It is definitely an artistic community, and as I shared with her… at one point I felt like I should be in some form of hipster music video strolling passed stores of refurbished vintage furniture, and old records.  …but back to day one.  When I arrived at my friends home, she wasn’t there. Shit. I wasn’t sure what to do because I didn’t want to leave and then have her arrive, but as I was sifting through my phone for options, I figured out that there was magical wi-fi throughout the city that I was able to sign up for right outside her home for like $10.  I was finally was able to get a hold of her. She was still at work, but on her way to let me in.

When we got inside her small, modest home. I dropped my bags, changed and quickly freshened up so that we could go get some lunch. First, we made our way to the metro, where I loaded up a pass with travel funds & then made our way into the heart of the city, the Circular Quay stop, Sydney Harbournew 1619.jpg

Lunch was in a food court type setting. There was just about every type of food you could imagine. I, as I usually do when travelling, was craving asian food. In particular, dumplings. I had never had them before, but a I could not shake a certain level of curiosity that had been plaguing me for months. Finally, it happened. Inside the Gateway Shopping Centre is Din Tai Fung. Din Tai Fung had magical dumplings. They were an explosion of flavor that have made my desire for dumplings stronger than ever before.

After lunch, we parted ways. I headed further into the city to find a cellular provider who could get me a SIM card for my phone. It ended up being a much cheaper option than paying for international service with my US provider.   Once that task was complete, I headed back to Gateway to Four Frogs Creperie. If you know me by now, you know how much I love a tasty Nutella crepe. Four Frogs were pretty delish. Were they the best, no. …but they held their own.  iphone 217I headed toward the end of the wharf as I snacked on my sweet treat. I took a seat by the water and watched the ferries pull in and out of the harbour. Then, I decided to make my way around to the other side. I followed the waters edge all the way to the Sydney Opera House, and then back into the amazing Botanical Gardens. I followed the water quite a ways until I had the best view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. FACT: For $253 AUD you can climb the Sydney Bridge. I didn’t climb it because walking up the side of a bridge in a line of people in matching jumpsuits, just doesn’t appeal to be for the cost.  It was some of Sydney’s biggest sights all in my first day.   Here’s a little photo collection from that afternoon:

I was doing well at keeping the jet-lag at bay. I took my time wandering back into the city. I had agreed to meet my friend at her office before we commuted back to her place. It was a casual night in for dinner as she cooked up a quick meal for us to enjoy. We exchanged funny conversation before we headed to bed for the night.

Day 2:

The next morning, my friend headed into work early, and I slept in. I took my time getting ready, and didn’t make it into the city to close to 11 AM. I stopped into Gateway to find a quick snack. I decided on Top Juice. I figured a juice would be a good way to settle my system  with all the travel I had been doing, and fill me up enough without ruining my appetite. It was perfect.

iphone 231I wandered around for a little bit before heading to my friend’s office so that we could meet for lunch. She ended up taking me down by King Street Wharf where we settled on a burger joint called Beer Deluxe. Here a beer with your lunch was basically mandatory.  We downed our burgers, fries, and drank our beer before my friend escorted me along the wharf.

 

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My thoughtful host walked me to the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium, where I proceeded to spend a decent chunk of my afternoon alone. …well, I wasn’t really alone I was with the animals!

I spent a couple of hours here enjoying the various exhibits. Jellyfish… sharks… a manatee/dugong… rays, fish, etc… My favorite part though, was the penguin exhibit. I definitely spent the most time enjoying the funny little birds as they waddled around and attempted to interact with the visitors. TIP: I had a great time there & would recommend it to anyone in the area, especially if you have kids.  Here are some photos from the excursion:

After that, I began making my way back toward’s my friend’s office, but made it a point to weave through the shopping district first. I was in and out of department stores and wandered through the malls. There were beautiful things to see, but the price points were outrageous, higher than home… So I walked away empty handed.

Once my friend and I were back together, we took the train back into Surry Hills. We grabbed some warmer layers & headed out to dinner. IIMM Thai was the choice. I grabbed the chicken fried rice for a big, but light, and warm meal. It was a great option while we exchange funny banter.  I paid the tab at the counter before we headed down the block for gelato at Gelato Messina. The place was very busy. The line was out the door, and the product was worth it. They had a series of unique flavors. Mine was chocolate based and super delicious… TIP: Stop at Gelato Messina if you are in Sydney, they have a couple different locations, and it’s really worth the stop in!

We headed back home so that we could just unwind at the house. We spent a while talking before we headed to bed.

Day 3:iphone 503The next morning I woke up, got dressed, and we headed down the street to a small cafe called Reuben Hills. I ordered the avocado toast, which is the best avocado toast I have had thus far! Once we finished up, I grabbed an Uber to Bondi Beach.

I spent an entire day alone in the area just wandering along the coast and photographing the sea. I started at Bondi Beach and made my way all the way south to Shark Point right next to Clovelly Beach. I took the Coastal Walk which will take you all the way to Coogee Beach if you are up for it or if you have the time. It’s a very scenic walk which takes you through Waverley Cemetery which sits on the coastline.  (For the record, I grabbed lunch at the restaurant at Hotel Bondi & was able to enjoy an order of chicken parmi & fries, and the quiet patio with an ocean view.  It was so delicious & pleasant!) Here is my collection:

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As my free time was coming to a close, I was able to sit on the beach and watch the sun set over the ocean and watched the surfers catch the last few lit up waves before I had to get back into Surry Hills. I had the house key, and had to get back so we both could get in the house.

When I got back to the house, we took time to relax before we got wrapped up to go back out. We were having dinner with my bestie’s Aussie boyfriend & Jamaican was on the menu. Rosie Campbell’s is where they were taking me, and I will say that I never though Jamaican food would be a thing for me… by the pulled jerk chicken sliders were one of the best things that I have ever eaten.  After some sweet live music & filling myself up on tiny sliders,  we headed back to Gelato Messina so that I could get my second helping of gelato… like every girl needs.  We took a seat and gabbed for a little bit and got to know each other a little better before we went our separate ways for the night.

Day 4:

iphone 663.jpgWe were in agreement on a zoo day, so my friend and I woke up a little bit earlier than usual. I ran out to pick up breakfast from Reuben Hills again before we headed out. We took the train to the ferry and on to Taronga Zoo. It sat just off of the edge of the water, and we took the cable car up to the top. We bought our tickets, and made our entry. We were in our element. We both are major animal lovers and were dying as we watched the platypuses, were entertained by the seals, and fell in love with the meerkats. The zoo is a pretty good size, and has a beautiful collection of animals. Some of which, I had never seen anywhere else. Also, it is very well done, and because of its location in certain areas you can take in beautiful views of Sydney Harbour and the downtown area, and The View restaurant serves delicious lunches.

…I never did get to see the koalas.  But here are some photos:

After a great day with the critters, we took the ferry back to the city, and then took the train back to Surry Hills. We had a short walk back to the house, where we whipped up a quick dinner & just spent time hanging out chatting. It was nice to just relax and enjoy each others’ company without having to worry about going anywhere or paying for anything. It was just a comfortable night in.

Day 5:

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The next morning, I rushed around town in search of the Aussie version of Ibuprofen & picked up our breakfast at Kawa Cafe. It was another adventure today. We took the train to the ferry again & headed to Manly Beach. She was insistent on bringing me here because she thought the beach was better than Bondi, and the town was a little bit quieter, & I would agree. It was a cute area to wander for the day. We popped into Jellyfish for lunch, where I grabbed a pulled pork sandwich that was pretty good! Nowhere near American BBQ level, but it was still good enough to mention. …and the curly fries were BOMB! We wandered slowly, popping in and out of a few shops, and made a stop for gelato just outside the ferry station.

When we got back to the city, we picked up wine & Pellegrino for a girls night out, at Phamish, a Vietnamese Cafe in Darlinghurst. I got the privilege of meeting my friend’s group of ex-pat friends. Here I was, an ex-pat wife at a table with a bunch of women from all around the world and who have lived all over the world. It was a really great experience, but a little overwhelming. These girls were ready to party, go dancing, live their crazy lives to the fullest. Me, I was ready for bed.

Side Note: I don’t like Vietnamese food… 

Day 6:

Our plan… Head south to Kiama to visit the blowhole. The uncertainty was whether or not we would have a third party that morning.  Sure enough, we all met up at Paramount Coffee Project for breakfast, and then very quickly made our way back to the train station. The three of us girls rushed as quickly as possible, reloaded our train cards, boarded and took nearly a two hour train ride south. We were in awe of the idea of seeing a blowhole in real life, but the added possibility of seeing whales had us in pure excitement.

new 5421.jpgWhen we arrived, we all needed a snack and to use a bathroom. We stopped in at a small cafe for drinks and cakes, and began taking in the delightfully warm sun. It was warmer than we anticipated, but nothing short of pleasant.  Along the way to the coastline, we became distracted with a small farmers market full of all sorts of handcrafted items. As we continued on we found a small black sandy bay where we sat on the sand and enjoyed the warmth and the view of others around us. I was obsessed with taking photos once again.  Finally, we were back on track and began an incredibly leisurely walk along the coast line in search of the blowhole.

new 5596We found our way over to what we thought was the blowhole, which was tucked in a little ways. We waited a short time, and it spit out a small spray of water, and we decided it wasn’t good enough. So we extended our wait time, and it paid off (sort of). Finally, we got to see  a decent spray. We all hoped for bigger, but we didn’t want to spend the bulk of our day waiting on a blow hole, so we continued on our way. (Turns out, this wasn’t even the right blowhole.) We passed by the lighthouse, and wandered back along the coast line in towards town. Along the way, we found the most beautiful small bay where the water was crystal clear, and the colors you could see were of the most beautiful shades of blue, yellow and orange. It was a perfect spot. You wanted to dive in to the chilly water just to see what was in it!  TIP: If you want a romantic night away from the city, Kiama is great spot. It’s absolutely stunning. 

Here are some of the photos:

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When we got back into town, along the street, we stopped into a small shop for sandwiches to take on the train with us. The train ride back was far more mellow. We were disappointed about not seeing any whales, but as it turned out… whale season was a couple months away.

When we got back into Sydney, we went our separate ways. My friend  & I arrived back at her house and had a little time to unwind before we went out once again! This time, we were heading to her co-worker’s house for another girls night.

When we got there, it was just a small group of girls gathered around the coffee table that was littered with assorted cheeses, meats, crackers, veggies and more. It was great. We were entertained by the funny cat running all over the place, and his constant attempts to steal the food. We were there for several hours. It was one of my favorite nights. It was one full of laughter and joy, and it was a great way to meet new people.

Day 7:

It was my last day in Sydney, and I was pretty worn down. I was ready to get home. It had been a crazy month & I was ready for some time to myself.  …I had to pull myself together.

We headed to breakfast with the intent to meet up with my friend’s boyfriend again. We all met up at Rogue Cafe. Honestly, I don’t remember what I got… and if it isn’t memorable is it worth sharing??? Probably not…

After breakfast, we ended up spending a good chunk of our day with my friend’s friend again in the botanical gardens. We walked and explored and enjoyed the warm weather with the cool breeze once again before we headed back to the house. I had decided to stay at a hotel that night since I had to be up early and my friend had to be to work early. So, I packed up my bags and left them by the front door while we headed out for the evening. The one thing I was wanting before I left were the dumplings from Din Tai Fung just one more time. So we headed back out on the train to circular quay. We weren’t just going for dumplings, we were going for VIVID, the electric light show that covers the harbour.

We ate our Chinese food, and then headed for crepes. I had to have my nutella crepe again from  Four Frogs Creperie, and it was the perfect night for it. It was chilly and so gently raining that the hot sweet treat was perfect to warm my core. While we waited for my friend’s friend to show up… (yep! she was meeting us again! lol) We wandered into the tourist gift shop, and were amazed at all the funny things that were in there for crazy prices.

Finally, the three of us were reunited, and more crepes were in order… So we waited, and finally, we were free to head off on our adventure with snacks in hand. We began wandering through the lit up buildings, and through the light exhibits. It was fantastic! We wandered from one end of the harbor to the other, taking it all in in enjoyment.

The time did finally come for us to head back home. We said our final goodbyes once again to my friend’s friend, and were off. When we got back to the house, I promptly ordered my Uber to Meriton Suites Mascot Central, my hotel.  We said goodbye to each other knowing it would only be a month or so until we saw each other again; and after that, I was off in a flash.

When I got to the hotel, I checked in & made my way to my room. My room was far better than expected. It wasn’t just a room. It was a full suite. I could finally spread out in this immaculate place.

Day 8:

I was up early, and debated taking an Uber or the train. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with the cold, so an Uber it was… Sadly, the Uber ended up taking quite a bit longer than the train would have because my driver took me to the domestic terminal instead of international, and there was a heap ton of traffic as well. But it wall worked out. I made my flight without any issue, and found my way back home thru LAX.

THE END.