Our time in Malawi was probably the most chill time we had in the 54 days. We camped 2 nights at Kande Beach which, for whatever reason, had the best wifi signal ever. You can be assured that we took full advantage of that.
We stayed 2 nights in Kande Beach and had the option of horseback riding, going on a village walk, snorkeling, among other things. Half the group opted to get laundry done, do some admin, and sunbathe on the sand with ciders in hand. In the afternoon, I opted out of snorkeling to the small island 800m away. The thought of swimming out there seemed too tiring and having seen Viv almost drown in the semi-treacherous waves with Alex, a former lifeguard, helping her back to shore, then seeing Courtney trail behind with someone’s missing goggle or flipper, I was glad to have made that choice. People actually warned that it would be tiring and that the normal option was to take a canoe out and then snorkel by the island. They totally disclaimered all of it when everyone rented out their snorkel gear and decided to swim instead.
At our next campsite at Chitimba Beach, we declared this our chilly bin/cooler punch night. Connor even managed to find a random ice vendor who sold us a box of ice. And, by “box,” I mean a box-sized cube of ice, a full-on rectangular prism probably the size of my head.
One part clean large cooler, many parts orange and apple, and an assortment of fruit juice, vodka, and gin. You know, your typical house party punch. The night ended with us lying on the beach in pitch black, with nothing but the light of the stars and the sound of the waves.
Mostly hungover, we opted out of the Livingstonia walking tour the next morning. Instead, several of us went on a easy village walk that began with a visit to a nearby school where we were cajoled into making donations, and ended at a fortune teller/witch doctor who dressed in a costume that could’ve been made by a third grader. He chewed off the glowing embers from a piece of wood that had been in a fire, then engaged in a dance that made his body do all sorts of vibrations.
While we asked him questions that were communicated via his translator, he kept shouting a truly guttural OOOO-WEE! I can only imagine that it was the power of whatever spirit that helped him to predict our very generic futures (“Your family misses you; You’ll have x number of kids”). I wish I had just stayed at the campsite and napped.
At the end of the day, we girls got our hair braided like badasses. (Photo credit: Alex)
Note: We were later told that it’s better to donate through our G CEO or a foundation. The direct donations into their cash box may be misdirected, if you catch my drift.
Visa tip: Malawi visas are known to be tough to get at the border but, we were able to get them at our border crossing without any issues. The cost at the time of this trip was $75.
We crossed this bridge to get from Zambia to Zimbabwe. (It’s also where we met up with everyone else later on to cheer on the bungy jumpers and zip liners.)
Travel/visa tip: Try to book Devil’s Pool tickets more than a week in advance. Because of limited spots, we were split into 3 groups – the morning group with breakfast included, the lunch group, and the afternoon tea group. H, Rachel and I already decided on afternoon tea but, splitting the other 2 groups became an unnecessary nightmare. As for visas, we were able to get them upon arrival at all the border crossings on this trip. Just make sure that you have relatively crisp USD issued from 2006 and on, and try to have exact change. They tend to give you a hard time about getting change back. As of Aug 2016, the Zambia visa for U.S. citizens was $80 and Zimbabwe $30 or 35. Carry a pen with you.
Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya), Zimbabwe
The afternoon tea group (minus the Canadians since the Zim visas were double the price for some reason) decided to hit up the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls in the early morning to avoid long lines at the border. We began at the David Livingstone statue by Devil’s Cataract and made our way to Main Falls, Horseshoe Falls and Rainbow Falls at a leisurely pace. We didn’t go chasin’ them.
There was literally no railing at the edge, and a simple trip could have you free-falling, then floating down the Zambezi below. Hand clamminess level: high.
Interesting that they would call this Rainbow Falls. Can someone tell me why?
History tidbit: The indigenous name for these falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya or, translated, “The Smoke That Thunders.” David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary and explorer who supported the abolition of slavery, named the falls in honor of Queen Victoria. Because Britain.
Armchair Falls and the Eastern Cataract towards the end of the trail. Rafters below were beginning to set off into the river on the right.
After reaching the end of the trail, we circled back and spotted the breakfast group chilling out in Devil’s Pool on the Zambia side. If you can’t see them…
…here’s a closeup, (They’re in the top, middle in the zoomed out photo.) That’s where we were going for the afternoon. YAY.
Devil’s Pool / VIctoria Falls, Zambia
Before our scheduled departure, we grabbed a delightful lunch at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, a place so out of our league that they had their own giraffes and zebras roaming around their privately-owned premises. From here, we took a boat ride to Livingstone Island, the access point to the Devil’s Pool and, of course, hors d’oeuvres, scones, tea and beer.
The backsides of Alex, Rachel, H, me, Mandy and Isabelle as we all leaned against the naturally formed rock enclosure. Rachel’s extremely nervous, hysterical laughter was definitely a highlight to the experience. What weren’t highlights were the asshole little fish in the pool that nipped at our legs.
A view to the left, to the left.
And, the view to the incredibly ominous-looking right.
Yup, we swam around somewhere along the edge back there. Hell yea.
Our cozy campsite was on grounds that were adequately fenced off to keep out the cool animals that could kill us. If you look closely to the right, you will see our laundry tree. We felt pretty genius about it because the branches were sturdier than the clothesline. Then we later found out that there was a nice ant colony that also very much liked the tree and, later, our clothes. Quite literally, we ended up with ants in our pants. Monkeys also later made their way to the trees and it became a legitimate concern over the safety of my banana shirt. But, unlike some U.S. citizens, they know when something is fake.
Our group for the second leg: George, Hayley, Erin, Chris, Courtney, Tanja, Ashley, Mandy, Viv, Connor, Isabelle, Kate, Hayden, Robyn, Nadine, me, Shani, Taryn, Alex, Rachel, Casey (?) and Whitney. We then said goodbye to 11 and hello to 9 new people.
Our Zambezi River whitewater rafting group was split into 2 rafts and the guide taught us some basic skills at the very beginning. Before entering the rapids, we were to stop paddling on his signal, duck into the raft, and hold onto our paddles against the “oh shit” line (rope handles). But, I have Trump hands and it’s damn difficult to hold onto a rope and a paddle simultaneously while going through thrashing water. The bumps of the raft against the rocks easily dislodged me and the guide kept yelling at me to hold on. I don’t handle people yelling at me well, especially when I’m trying my best to follow directions. Sorry that I’m not anatomically equipped to handle whitewater rafting. Even my childhood piano teacher yelled at me when I struggled to play octaves. But, I can damn well properly wash the bottoms of small jars.
Just to elaborate a bit more, my previous whitewater rafting experience was in the Delaware Water Gap. “Whitewater” in Delaware is a loosely used word. “Whitewater” in the Zambezi, on the other hand, is fucking terrifying. I was under the impression that we’d want to avoid raft flippage. Our guide promised not more than two. TWO. And, both times, the raft ended up flipping on top of me, once on the bottom flat side where there are no air gaps to help you out. I had to inverse crawl my way out. Then, when I finally freed myself, I gasped for air only to have the whitewater constantly splashing in my face. It’s hard not to panic. (That is me in the yellow helmet about to be pummeled by the raft in the above photo, by the way.)
There was another guide, though, who was a real beast. He sat on a wooden platform within the raft with 2 oars attached and paddled the shit out of the Level 5 (6 is the highest) rapids. He even went through the “Washing Machine” like it was still bathwater. That is exactly how it sounds like.
Mfuwe / South Luangwa National Park
This campsite had a small pool but, by the time we arrived, it had become a very pretty shade of green. “Pretty,” in this case, did not look sanitary. So, we chilled on the loungers and watched the sunset instead. I went to bed early since I opted for the morning game drive and fell asleep to the sound of Patrick and Catherine’s pronunciation of “mayor” in a very thick Irish accent. Then, I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of elephants and/or hippos roaming in between our tents. I’d say that it was an interesting night of sleep.
Road blockage en route to our morning game drive.
We indiscreetly followed this elephant around and he was obviously annoyed by it. He abruptly stopped walking to turn around and shout WTF with this facial expression.
LEOPARD. Marking its territory. When I see its cute tail and paws, I momentarily forget that it’s not just a cat. Then, I realize that it would rip me to shreds if I, let’s say, walked up to it and hugged it or something.
I didn’t even have to zoom that much for this photo. It was right in front of our 4×4 and the driver had to tell us to carefully sit back down or else it would think we were threatening it. Oh, okay.
Boulders in the water? No.
Hippos. Why do they look so damn cute from afar? Another animal I want to hug but clearly won’t.
Reflection after sunset.
We weren’t able to catch a kill but, we saw the aftermath of one during a night drive. After watching the leopard go through many unsuccessful attempts at dragging the carcass up the tree, it was getting pretty late and we had to go before closing time. It was a little disappointing that we couldn’t stay longer. But, on the way back, we stopped abruptly to let a hippo family cross the road in the pitch black with nothing but the headlights to illuminate them. A baby hippo trailed behind in complete cuteness. “Ain’t no one fucks with tiny hippo. Ain’t no one.”
While falling asleep in the 4×4, I got whacked in the face on 2 separate occasions by a low-lying tree branch. That shit had thorns.
George was always on top of his game as CEO. He let us know the daily itinerary and made sure we knew each time we entered a different time zone. And, by the time we all woke up, washed up, packed our stuff and rolled up our tents, he always had the breakfast table set up, sometimes with eggs and bacon already sizzling on the pan. So, when we arrived to an empty table this morning, all of us scratched our heads. Did we all miss something? Luckily, by now, we became familiar with where things were packed and figured out on a whim how to turn on the makeshift stove to make tea and coffee. Turning on the stove was a collective moment of sheer pride. Yes, we were able to turn on the gas and light a match! You get a coffee; you get a coffee; everybodyyyy getssss a coooofffffeeeeee! (Or, tea.)
By the time we were washing the dishes, George stumbled in looking all alarmed and disheveled. He had forgotten to set his watch forward one hour.
Because of our awesomeness, we made it in time for our morning walking tour with the Kalahari Bushmen (the San people) who then demonstrated their hunting techniques and survival skills. Badass.
Maun / Okavango Delta
H, Rachel and I have been discussing this flight for about a year and here it finally was! It was a true test of Rachel’s stomach and the power of Dramamine.
The Okavango Delta is a huge wetland, all swampy and marshy, that is flooded seasonally by the Okavango River. I highly recommend watching all of Planet Earth II. The Okavango is featured in Episode 5: Grasslands and if the amazingness of the visuals and the dramatic orchestral music aren’t enough, you also have David Attenborough narrating in complete majesty.
The reflection of our Cessna on the blades of grass. By now, all of us were still beaming with smiles while Rachel had her head down in silent meditation, “safety” bag in hand.
We finally completed our Big 5 bingo when we spotted some buffalo, the other four being the lion, elephant (pictured above), leopard, and rhino which we first saw in Etosha National Park. Apparently, there was a croc in the midst that I completely missed. Doh.
The next day, we packed smaller bags and took mekoro (plural of mokoro, a dug-out canoe) out into the delta to a spot where we were going to camp out for the night. We later tried out steering the mokoro ourselves and when I thought I was getting the hang of it, I began going in a circle, several times. Then flies began to devour my ankles as I was trying to maintain balance. I wanted to swat them away so badly but, apparently, there are leeches in the water and the thought of possibly falling in and having them latch onto unwelcome places resulted in me getting swollen, incredibly itchy ankles instead.
We had the afternoon to ourselves before our sunset walk. Connor, Viv and Hayley had the right idea of how to spend it.
Hippos lurking in the water. I really think they have the best life. They are land animals who spend their days in the cool water and are also scary as hell. They’re in the top 3 list of creatures in Africa responsible for human deaths. Also in that mix are mosquitoes and snakes. Combine all 3 and you have a nice party. Of death.
We ran into a herd of (I think) lechwe antelope, zebras, elephants and warthogs. The usual suspects.
It appeared that this turtle was attacked and eaten by a lion. Seeing that he was not too far from the water…
H: “Aww, he almost made it!”
But, s/he didn’t. What are you gonna do.
Uh huh, sunset. We also had a sunrise walk the next morning. It never gets old.
After dinner, we huddled around a campfire and the locals sang and danced for us. The main song that stuck with us:
Bee-yoo-tee-ful ___________! ( ___________ )
Bee-yoo-tee-ful ___________! ( ___________ )
I shallllllll never for-gettttttt
Bee-yoo-tee-ful ___________! ( ___________ )
The blanks changed with each repeat of the full song – Botswana, animals, tourists, toilet, etc. To be fair, the toilet was a freshly dug out hole. Not quite beautiful but, it wasn’t the worst one we’ve had. And, on that topic, we were told to buddy up should one of us have to use the toilet in the middle of the night. We were in the wild and hippos were known to roam the premises at night. Most of us tried to stop drinking liquids after dinner and we all agreed that there was no shame in peeing by your tent. Because shame is determined by the presence (or lack thereof) of majority agreement. Sure enough, around 3am, I heard grunts and snorts so loud, I felt like the hippos were only a few feet away. COOL. (Scary.)
Back in Maun, Lando Bloom needed a kick starter and we all hauled ass. Well, except for Connor. Guess which one he is.
Kasane / Chobe National Park
Before heading to Chobe National Park, we camped out one night at a place in Gweta with baobab trees and an awesome pool. The camp was aptly named Planet Baobab. After cooking duties, I participated in a game of “Who Could Fold Down The Top Portion of Every Camp Chair The Quickest Without Knocking Them Over,” an awesome adult game possibly invented by Chris and Ashley. This may sound like a simple task but, with a few beers in your system, it becomes quite the challenge and ignites a heightened sense of competitiveness. I forgot who won but, it sure wasn’t me.
We took a BYOB (and BYO-Biltong & BYO-Pringles) river cruise where we saw crocodiles, elephants, hippos, buffalo, and a variety of birds, some of which were getting free rides on top of hippos and buffalo. One younger elephant, however, was limping with a white puffed gash in its leg that looked infected. It was probably attacked as prey and the guide told us it was likely that the park officials had already been alerted about it. The likelihood of it being saved, though, didn’t seem great 🙁
Boats, elephants, sunset.
And, then, we hit the lioness jackpot during a morning game drive.
It is, indeed, a bee-yoo-tee-ful Botswana. So beautiful that Alex had a, and I quote, “chubby for Chobe.” [Shivers.]
For some reason, the second I step out of a plane and onto foreign soil, I develop a ravenous craving for Pringles and it suddenly becomes my mission to try every local flavor offering. The most unique one so far has been cream of mushroom soup in Hong Kong. Africa seemed to cater more to tourists – salt & vinegar, sour cream & onion, cheddar cheese, and BBQ. You know, just in case any of you were wondering. Now that I’m back in the U.S., Pringles hasn’t entered my mind a single time until now. Curious.
As soon as we arrived and set up camp, the majority of us went for a hike while some decided to chill out on the rocks and drink beer. I went for the best of both worlds. One of the girls was geocaching and we all excitedly followed along. A lot of us weren’t wearing our hiking shoes, though, because we thought they’d be simple hills. Wrong. The rock face was too smooth for our Chucks and while most of us made it up halfway, the way back down was scary AF (yes, I’m actually using this acronym). Phil, probably the nicest guy ever, had to help each one of us down. (Photo credit: H)
Due to the lack of scary animals, we were allowed to drag our mattresses and sleeping bags out onto the rock and sleep there for the night. The sky was slightly cloudy around 11pm but when I awoke around 3-4am to go pee, it was beautifully clear and sparkly. I tried to stay awake to stare at it but blinked my eyes to suddenly find the sun on its way up.
We visited the Damaraland Living Museum where we learned the ways of life of the Damaras, only to later find out that they go back to wearing shirts and pants and live in a less primitive looking setup somewhere else. (We also met some Himba people selling handmade jewelry on the way here.) The Damara men demonstrated how to start a fire by repeatedly turning a stick left and right against a stone which most of our guys failed at doing. The locals have been egging Chris and Ashley on for not being “man enough” to try out their other demonstrations, so Chris decided to shut all of them down by being the only guy to successfully start a fire. Booyah!
Twyfelfontein is the site where thousands of rock engravings were found. The exact origin is unknown but one thing I can tell you is that these drawings may be better than mine. [Hides animal rock garden.]
The guide then began to explain the different animals when she was interrupted by a misunderstanding.
Tanja: “Oryx lay eggs?”
Nope, ostriches do. But, thanks for a quote that we will be repeating almost everyday for the remainder of the trip. Note: oryx are a species of antelope.
Etosha National Park
I must say, we got pretty damn lucky with all of our game drives. We spotted a lion napping in the shade of a bush on our very first day. SQUEAL.
Impala, springbok, and other kinds of antelope became so common that we’d excitedly spot an animal only to disappointingly say “Oh, just another springbok.” But, at this point, they were still quite exciting. We even saw one springing (or stotting, pronking) which was a treat until we realized it was most likely a warning sign to scare us off.
At night, we camped ourselves by the watering hole with our cameras and beer. First show on prime time was just a casual herd of elephants following a casual sunset.
Then came the giraffes and black rhino. Still casual.
Then, two male elephants engaged in a full showdown of manhood, with their manhoods later fully erect as if to finally settle the matter. It always comes down to that, doesn’t it?
And, as if the male springbok caught onto the idea, we encountered this the next morning. The females were probably somewhere getting actual life done.
I was later chased by a giraffe into the horizon of nothingness. Chyea right. This is the most exercise I got during the 54 days and it was for the purpose of posing for a photo. It really was the middle of nowhere, though, and this is all you could see for miles.
Beautiful creatures and the unfortunate mascot for Fruit Stripe gum. Google it if you don’t know what it is. That zebra’s name is Yipes, as in “Yipes, the flavor has disappeared after the first chew.” I’m starting to feel like Sean Spicer and his rant against Dippin’ Dots. Anyway, ignore all that commentary and look at the magnificent grazing zebras in the wild.
Oryx out, wildebeests in! And, okay, you too, springboks.
Wonder what the gossip is like around this water cooler. Hm, a lot of grunting. Must be about current politics.
“Damn, Zeb took my headrest.”
This was Chris’ paradise. He was the ultimate lover of giraffes and every time we saw one, we’d shout “Chris!”
The male giraffe kept trying to get it on but I think the presence of our vehicle ruined the romantic moment. The female kept inching forward every time the male tried to enter.
George: “Okay, guys, it’s time to go.” Phil (in his German accent): “Nooo, we cannot leave until the male is inside the female!”
10 minutes pass, and still no luck.
George: “Okay, let’s go. Are you guys ready?” Chris: “No, I’m not listening to you!”
We passed another 4×4 from which a man shouted in 3 syllables, “Le-o-pard!” It made me think of Bugs Bunny as the conductor, Leopold. And, sure enough, there the leopard was, quietly napping in the camouflage of the grass. Can you spot (ha ha) him? (Psst. Bottom, middle.)
To top that off, Joseph spotted a honey badger with his hawk eyes. A sole honey badger, a lone ranger more badass than Chuck Norris.
George: “How many of you are going on the night drive?” Tanja: “What is a night drive?” Robyn: “It’s a drive…at night.”
But, a drive at night that involved awesomeness in the form of jackals, a lion, lioness and her 3 cubs.
This is probably the only time we went “glamping.” The tents were “permanent,” meaning they set up nice individually standing rooms and put a tent-like structure around each of them to give it a camping feel. We still had to use communal bathrooms, so I suppose that counts? But, anyway, here is where the first leg of our trip ended and we said goodbye to Kristina, Phil and Rukshana…and then added 3 new people.
History tidbit: We didn’t find out until later (after we left the country) that there was a forgotten genocide of the Herero and Nama people during the German colonial rule (early 1900s) of what is now Namibia. Apparently, the methods used here in Namibia were the first experiments of what would later be used during the Holocaust. The officials in Germany didn’t even acknowledge it as a genocide until mid-2015, over a century later, and the remaining descendants of the Herero and Nama are still seeking reparation payments.
I always thought Africa would be something I’d do in way older age. It seemed daunting in terms of time and cost. But then, I realized that by camping and cooking your own food everyday (well, helping to cook), costs can be kept relatively low. And, I had time. So, I joined my 11th trip with G Adventures. Can you tell I like this company? No, I don’t get paid to say any of this. This blog barely gets visitors anyway.
54 days, 10 countries, many hours spent on the road. There were 21 of us to start (+ the G CEO and the driver, George and Joseph, respectively), and only 7 of us were going the entire distance.
Travel tip: Visas were not required for up to 90 days for U.S. citizens in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana.
Our first stop was a wine farm and camping site called Highlanders. There was a pool here but, it was getting late in the day and we all opted for the wine tasting instead. Here, George taught us how to put our tents up and take it down, something we’d be doing almost everyday to the point of it becoming an automatic, involuntary action. Like coffee in the morning. Or morning poo.
At night, we all sat around the campfire and went through several rounds of Would You Rather. Among the dirty ones, there were some serious questions, like “Would you rather be the only one to transform into a T-rex or be the only human living amongst them?” Well, what if you were a homeowner? Would you still retain the deed if you became a T-rex? Is estate planning necessary? Are you still covered under the Constitution? I know, serious.
We camped our last night in South Africa by the Orange River, where we could see Namibia just on the other side.
And, the next morning, we went canoeing for about 2 hr in the river. I agreed to partner up with someone without realizing what I was getting myself into.
“Ah, this is nice.”
(10 minutes in…)
“So, how long more do we have to go? I’m tired.”
She then proceeded to stop rowing. Just like with Trump’s presidency, I was exhausted within minutes. I seem to have bad luck with canoeing/kayaking partners [Re: Odda, Norway].
Fish River Canyon, Namibia
Fish River Canyon is Africa’s largest canyon and a magnificent beast to watch a sunset over. We didn’t have permits to hike down into it (apparently, it’s a 5-day hike that you need to book in advance).
Rachel taking photos that I won’t get to see for another decade (hehe).
As we were walking towards our dinner spot, “someone” needed to relieve himself but the only coverage available in this vast canyon was this one tree (and luckily the darkening sky). But, as he tried to do his business, strong winds began going in the wrong direction and ultimately prevented him from doing so. Nature didn’t want his nature. Nor did he want his nature on his nature. Savvy?
Namibia’s night sky was incredible. We cooked and ate dinner against this backdrop and George treated us to boxed wine. Not a bad capture for a point and shoot, right?
Namib Desert / Namib-Naukluft Park
En route to our next campsite, Sossus Oasis Campsite, we stopped for lunch by the only tree that we could see for miles. It provided adequate shade and pleasantness as long as you didn’t inadvertently walk into one of the low lying thorny branches.
Desert for miiiiiiles. We had to cover our noses and mouths every time an occasional car or truck passed by. No matter how frequently you washed your clothes, there was always sand and dust embedded in the fibers.
According to this Evolution of Man, I clearly haven’t progressed much (I am second from the left). I’m also wearing my banana shirt so, I guess that’s fitting.
The campsite where we were staying made a poor choice of fencing off areas with a thin metal wire not too far up from the ground, about mid-calf level. It was easy to forget to step over it, especially when going to grab your 3rd or 4th beer. I tripped and face-planted onto the sand in said scenario and slightly damaged the camera I had slung over my arm. So, yea, I really haven’t progressed much in life after all. Going to the bathroom in the middle of the night, half asleep with a head torch, proved to be a serious challenge and others have tripped and fallen also. Just not in front of everyone else like I had. Whomp whomp.
Dune 45, nature’s Thighmaster.
We made it just after sunrise and the red hue was on full blast. We sat here in complete wonderment…before we littered the undisturbed sand with our footprints as we ran almost uncontrollably down the slope.
By the time we reached the bottom, I had grown a sand dune inside each shoe. Hayley was smart to have taken off her shoes and walked barefoot.
We then took 4×4’s to Sossusvlei, a salt and clay pan, where we then embarked on another thigh-mastering journey into…
…what appeared to be a Dali painting, minus the melting pocket watches. Officially, Deadvlei.
Me: “I walked halfway up the dune where you can get a more panoramic view.” Courtney: “You mean, you walked a quarter of the way up…”
She was right. But, my legs felt otherwise.
At our next campsite, the guy running the camp took us on a walk to show us the desert and talk about how the Bushmen survive. Various desert plants can remain dormant for a long time while dry and sprout again with water, an adaptation clearly useful with unpredictable rainfall. The surrounding sand contained black iron which can be maneuvered around with a magnet. Beetles are able to hydrate by collecting condensation on their backs in the wee hours of the morning. And, there are hideout spots within the sand where spiders hide. I have no idea how he spotted them but he stopped at a seemingly random spot, kneeled down to reveal the teeniest tiniest hole in the ground, opened up a small flap with a blade of grass to reveal a slightly larger hole, dug into the hole with his hands until he reached a white ball, then provoked that white ball enough until the legs popped out of it to reveal a highly alert creepy ass white spider. GAHHHH. Quite loudly.
We then took a drive around the desert to see zebras galloping among the neighboring oryx with the African sun setting in the distance. There are sunsets, and then there are African sunsets. Ahhh.
This campsite also had a watering hole that animals frequented late at night. So, after dinner, we grabbed beers and chairs and sat silently a good distance away for almost an hour. A group of zebras finally came by. They were like little kids fighting for the water fountain after their gym period. Then came the farting, as if water was the last component to add in their bodies to cause a chemical reaction. It was a whole chorus of the flattest, thinnest sounding passing of gas. If sound can be described as 2-D, this was it. It took a whole ab workout for all of us to keep our laughter silent. Whatever our age, farting noises are always hiiiiilariousssss.
First came the Arctic Circle. Then came the Tropic of Capricorn. HRC (standing as CRH), crossing imaginary latitudes, one by one.
Our amazing group, standing by our overland adventure vehicle, lovingly named Lando Bloom. Because it’s not a truck, it’s a Lando. And if I heard this line one more time, I would’ve exploded.
Left to right: George (CEO), Rukshana, Rachel, Isabelle, Hayley, me, Kristina, Hayden, Ashley, Chris, Phil, Joseph (our driver), Courtney, Connor, Kate, Robyn, Viv, Erin, Mandy, Shani, Nadine, Alex and Tanja.
We took a break from our tents and slept in actual beds for 2 nights. Except, 15 of us girls were stuffed into one room stacked with bunk beds, while the 6 guys enjoyed a more sprawled out space. Something seemed unfair. At least we were able to catch a part of the Olympics on TV and watch a replay of Usain Bolt’s win! We also tried oryx, kudu and zebra for dinner. That was creepily delicious. Although it’s not really different from eating beef, I still felt some guilt while eating it.
Now in the city of adventures, we did everything from skydiving to quad biking to sand boarding. Being on a budget limited me to just sand boarding and I almoooostttt landed that jump. Almost. If I hadn’t said anything, I could’ve just had you believe that I did. Hm.
Then, we did the other kind of sand boarding. Remember to keep your elbows and feet up. Oh, and your mouth closed :T (Photo credit: H)
On the way to our next campsite, we stopped for lunch by the Skeleton Coast, a graveyard for ships that were unaware of its craziness. It was also endearingly dubbed The Sands of Hell by early Portuguese sailors. The Bushmen called it The Land God Made in Anger. I will name it The Gentle Giant…Who Will Then Rip You To Shreds.
We officially made it to Nelson Mandela, Elon Musk and Trevor Noah country.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens – we grabbed lunch at the Tea Room before taking a stroll through the gardens. The day was very golden and much deserved after laying over at Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa Bole International Airport for a second time.
We got used to it being forbidden to lie on the grass in the public parks in China that being able to lay on this was such a delight. Yes, a delight. Now go get me biscuits for my Earl Grey, love.
Magical trees from another world, a world where Obama was still president.
Travel tip: It’s not really safe walking out in Cape Town when it’s dark. Uber was really easy to use and actually pretty cheap throughout the city. We even used it to get into the city center from the airport.
Next morning, we took an Uber to the cable car entrance of Table Mountain which was under its annual construction the week we were there. So, we began our hike up from there. Everything was great until we reached the midpoint, when my mind/body decided that I didn’t want to do it anymore. Just like that. I still completed the hike, though, just with cement blocks for legs.
As expected, it was totally worth it. It was so damn windy up there that at times, the entire top would be covered in clouds, aptly called the “tablecloth.” Oh, and I also ate a really juicy pear up here.
The view of Lion’s Head, Sea Point and Green Point out yonder. If you have a day to spare, take a leisurely stroll along the promenade from Green Point to Sea Point.
And, the best part? Well, the best part was probably the combo of Table Mountain suffering + the chateaubriand I ate later that night as a reward. But, the next best part? WINE TOUR. We booked with Wine Flies and visited 5 wine estates in the Stellenbosch area. The first two we visited were Lovane Boutique Wine Estate (above) and Annandale Wine Estate, which is owned by ex-Springbok player Hempies du Toit. We were given a sampling of chocolates in the first and not enough bowls of biltong (best meat jerky ever) in the second.
The next two were Middelvlei Wine Estate (pictured) and Villiera Wines. At Middelvlei, we were served a farmhouse lunch that, while being mass produced for the throngs of tourists strolling in and out, somehow managed to taste like it was especially made for us. A true homecooked meal that made you feel all cozy inside. Grilled meats, grilled sandwiches, a nice small soup and a salad.
Last stop – Remhoogte Wine Estate. By then, everyone else on our bus was utilizing the spit bucket. My spit bucket was called my esophagus.
And, if you haven’t guessed it already, I passed out on the ride back to our hostel back in Cape Town.
V&A Waterfront, where we caught a ferry to Robben Island (try to book this in advance!).
This is Nelson Mandela’s tiny cell, with nothing but a bucket, a small table and a floor mat to sleep on. As if being imprisoned wasn’t bad enough, black prisoners were given only shorts to wear, even in the harsh winter season, and very little rations to eat. White prisoners were given way better nutrition. Communication with the outside world was highly censored and book privileges were limited. Mandela had to write his book in secret in the middle of the night with the help of three other inmates. Persistence and perseverance. I suppose those two are taught for a reason, huh?
Our tour guide was a former prisoner who, in retelling his stories of the cells’ horrible conditions, found redemption and the will to forgive and become friends with the very guards who had tortured him. Now that’s very in the spirit of Mandela.
And, then, ROAD TRIP!
Around the Cape of Good Hope.
H&C now became the trio HRC, in full support of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The original cast of Jackass on location at Boulders Beach. (They’re called Jackass penguins or, African penguins.)
The start to the day was made even more glorious with an oat porridge breakfast. The past few days, we, instead, had millet porridge which tasted fine on day 1, but started to taste sour in the days after. We literally rejoiced out loud at the sight of it, probably the only time people were this excited about oat porridge.
Then, we set out for the Barranco Wall above. If you look really closely, you’ll see the bright colors of the hiking gear of very tiny people.
The wall was probably our favorite part of the entire Lemosho route because it was a really fun rock climb. Nothing technical but still really cool. The above was the view of our last camp from the wall, becoming more and more empty as other hikers packed up their stuff and headed towards the wall.
About 45 min later, we were at the top of the wall and I immediately went into mermaid pose. An air mermaid, because I make sense.
With this incredible view, a Chinese couple engaged in a shouting match. Correction: the girl was yelling at her significant other who was failing horribly at trying to appease her. Jeffrey spoke Cantonese but he was able to translate the major theme of the couple’s very loud Mandarin. “How could you abandon me! You left me behind!” It appeared that she expected to be handheld throughout the Barranco Wall climb.
We made it to our next camp 3-4 hr of uphills and downhills later. On our last hill, though, Tom and Allie (brother and sister duo) devised a plan to build a bridge from the last hill to the campsite, all in the name of exhaustion, laziness…and tourism profits. They then came up with an even better, lower cost idea – a zip line. That idea occupied our minds for that last leg and helped pass the excruciating time. We estimated foot traffic to reach 25K people per year. With a per person charge of about $10-15, perhaps we could breakeven in the first year and start making profits the second. On what basis did we estimate building costs, I have no idea.
After a quick nap, we acclimatized with another hike up 100m to about 4,100m in elevation, about an hour’s worth. Our teeny tiny camp is in the middle of the photo above.
Back at camp, it was popcorn and dinner time before the CEO’s went into a brief history of Kilimanjaro, a name that, among others, stuck after being butchered by the Europeans. The current name was thought to derive from a saying in local dialect that meant “unconquered journey,” which was mistaken for its name rather than its description. Hm, foreboding.
Before heading to bed, I made sure to make a bathroom stop, which seemed to be everybody else’s plan as well. While waiting in line, Marilyn walked out of the bathroom enclosure and simply said, “I did not do whatever you see in there,” and walked away. I braced myself, took a deep breath and did my business as fast as possible. I walked out quickly, with Catherine and Allie as the next two in line, and planted myself by a rock a short distance away to take this night shot. A few minutes later, I heard Allie yell, “HEATHENS!!”
It took about 3-4 hr to reach base camp. Gerald told us not to ask returning summitters how they felt during their ascent and we all laughed. After all, he wanted us to believe that it was all “easy peezy lemon squeezy.” The real struggle came at 5:30pm, when we were given a local dish of potatoes & plantains for dinner. The plantains just had a very odd texture and it was so starchy that it made us not want to eat it. It was the only dish that we collectively didn’t like, by the way.
We woke up at 11pm for the midnight ascent. H and I probably managed to sleep only 1 hour. I had on 6 layers on top and 2 layers on the bottom and I still felt chilled to the bone. Apparently, it was about -12°C (about 10°F). I started to warm up as we zigzagged up the mountain but, my toes remained frozen the entire way.
Walking up a mountain with nothing but the light of the stars and head torches was a magical experience. I could only describe it as “like walking on the moon.” The only downside to the head torches, though, was that every so often, I would look up to see how much further we had to go. When I saw head torches wayyyy up there, it made my heart sink a little. The altitude and really cold winds started to take its toll on me so, I would walk up a zig, take a breather, then proceed up the zag before taking another breather. This, unfortunately, translated into “I’m having great difficulty” to the CEO’s and they insisted on carrying my daypack. I was stubborn about it for a bit but, finally agreed to it to get them off my back (pun maybe intended). Around 2am, I saw my first moonrise.
My hydration pack eventually froze but, luckily, the water in my Nalgene was only half frozen. At one of our short breaks, Jeffrey asked Tom to play a song that had high energy and when Queen’s We Are The Champions came out of his phone’s speakers, all of us started shouting along to the song, now fully pumped. “WEEE ARE THE CHAAAAMMPIONS! NOOO TIMEE FOR LOOOSERS ‘CAUSE WEEEE ARE THE CHAAAAMMPIONS!” Next up: Bohemian Rhapsody.
Further up, our morale started to droop again. Saddam and the other G Fighters broke out into their local songs, the main one being the Kilimanjaro song, and brought it right back up.
“…Jambo! Jambo bwana! (Hello! Hello sir!)
Habari gani? (How are you?)
Nzuri sana. (Very fine.)
Wageni, mwakaribishwa (Guests, you are welcome.)
Kilimanjaro? Hakuna matata! (Kilimanjaro? No worries!)
Tembea pole pole. Hakuna ma-ta-ta! (Walk slowly, slowly. No worries!)
Utafika salama. Hakuna ma-ta-ta! (You’ll get there safely. No worries!)
Kunywa maji mengi. Hakuna ma-ta-ta! (Drink lots of water. No worries!)…”
By 5:45am, we reached Stella Point right before sunrise.
I never expected the top to be THIS beautiful. For some reason, I pictured barren land and more dirt. Instead, it was a sea of clouds broken up by a giant glacier that seemed to come out of nowhere.
It was another 45 min before reaching Uhuru Peak in time for sunrise. I lagged behind H a bit but, by the time I caught up to him, I gave him a dumbfounded high five which came out looking like an unenthusiastic, super exhausted gesture on his GoPro video.
The sun making its way up over Kibo’s crater rim…
…and over Rebmann Glacier and Mt. Meru in the back.
HELL FREAKIN’ YEA. Uhuru Peak – Elevation: 5,895m (19,341 ft).
The queue to take this photo, though, was mayhem. A bunch of Spaniards dumped their cameras into Tom’s hands before he even agreed to take photos, then proceeded to spend a good 5 minutes trying out various poses. They even had the nerve to tell Tom to take off his gloves so that he could take better photos. Um, the wind chill made the -10°C (14°F) feel like -30°C (-22°F). After that, H and I then pushed through and went up to the sign for just ONE quick photo but, when the porter lifted my camera, a Korean lady crawled under his lifted arm and walked into our space while gesturing to her posse of other Korean ladies. Ruthless.
After one last look, we began our descent, 2 full hours of running down scree (small loose rock and soil) with our trembling legs. We bumped into the slower half of the group still making their way up. But, in the end, everyone had made it. It was an emotional moment particularly for Floyd who, at age 70, decided to grab life by the balls and attempt Kili without much previous hiking experience.
By 9am, we were back at base camp and the G Fighters had set up a mini station where they gave us very enthusiastic high fives and glasses of the tastiest mango juice EVER. After lunch, we packed up our stuff and headed to a lower camp, High Camp at 3,950m, back in the moorland.
Gerald: “So, do you guys have any complaints?” Everyone but Tom: “No, everything was great!” Tom: “I agree that everything was great! Well, except that meal with the potatoes & plantains…”
Before heading back to Moshi, the 30 or so G Fighters and CEO’s sang and danced for us again. Things got emotional. Saddam led the group once more and got so much into it that he kicked up a dust storm with his dancing. Gerald had to walk over and calm him down a little as people started to cough. They’re probably the most hardworking, enthusiastic group of people I’ve ever met.
5-6 hr later, we reached Mweka Gate and ran into blue monkeys en route who aren’t obviously blue until you see their testicles.
At the gate, the G Fighters prepared one last lunch for us.
“It’s an African dish…”
Tom’s face dropped.
“…beef with plantains!”
To make matters worse, the tables were set up with various soda bottles for people to choose from. I saw a bright yellow bottle labeled “Sparletta” and, never having heard of it, I decided to try it. Catherine warned me, though. She tried a green Sparletta once that ended up being an odd cream soda. That should’ve given me the hint. So, I took a sip. Bubblegum flavor. Gross! Now curious, everyone else wanted to try it. H thought it tasted like Malibu and Tom described it as “all the jellybean flavors at once.” We then discovered that the bottle cap said “Pine-Nut,” a misleading abbreviation for pineapple coconut.
Finally, we arrived at the hotel where we took excessively long showers and shampooed everything at least 5 times. For our last dinner, we decided to eat at Indoitaliano which Tom and Allie had been raving about for the past week. It was worth alllll the hype. We also proved that mosquitoes loved Asians because in the dim lighting of the restaurant, swarms of them appeared only on top of my and Jeffrey’s heads. This is even after we both sprayed copious amounts of bug repellant. Seriously?
Travel tip: The neighborhood around Moshi isn’t the safest so, even in broad daylight, the 11 of us split up into 3 cabs to go the short distance to the restaurant. All of us managed to squeeze into one minivan (the “clown car”) on the way back.
We stopped in Bangkok before heading onto a midnight flight to Tanzania, with one layover in Ethiopia. If I ever shat on Laguardia or LAX before, I take it alllll back. The Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia is, by far, the worst. I could’ve implemented a better operations management system for a class project in college. The screens would tell you to approach the gate for your flight but, once you tried to, they would hold you back right before security. Apparently, a bunch of flights’ passengers were told to “Go to Gate” because a good hundred of us were sardined together by the security entrance. Then the airport officials started freaking out once they realized some of these flights were due to depart soon. So, they began to shout out random flight locations and let those people go through first but, it was still a whole crowd of us and security check became bottlenecked. I mean, doesn’t all this just involve common sense? I thought maybe this was a one-off thing but, I unfortunately had the pleasure of coming back here on the way to Cape Town and going through it all over again. Except, that time, when they announced “Shanghai,” a white guy next to me asked if I was going. I flatly replied, “I’m not Chinese and I’m going to Cape Town.”
Right before landing, the pilot announced that we’d be seeing Mt. Kilimanjaro shortly on the left side of the plane. We were sitting at the window seats on the right. The Chinese lady next to me, however, did not give a shit. She jammed her camera-toting arm right in front my face and started clicking away at blue sky. Lady, the mountain is on the opposite side. And, you’re taking horrible flash photos of light reflecting off the window. I looked at the left side, though, and the Asians have gone wild.
Anyway, we were lucky to be one of the first passengers off the plane at the Kilimanjaro International Airport. Once off, we rushed off to immigration, quickly filled out the customs forms, then ran off to be first at the visa desk. We were able to get visas on arrival and, after going through Addis Ababa, the Kili airport was a breath of technologically advanced air. At desk 1, we paid the fee (multi-entry was only available for U.S. passports). Desk 2, we got our photos taken and a visa sticker printed out with our photo then attached to a passport page. Desk 3, we were fingerprinted. Efficiency.
Travel tip: We had our yellow fever cards checked before entering the terminal, so have those ready. Also, we pre-booked a taxi through our hostel for $40 to get into Moshi. Otherwise, you’d probably have to haggle with a taxi driver at the airport or take a short taxi ride to a bus stop that looked unreliable.
On the road to Moshi (maybe almost an hour ride), we were stopped at one of the many police checks. Our driver, who looked 19, began explaining something in Swahili to an officer with an AK47, then repeated “Sorry” a few times before the cop eventually let us go. At a second stop, the driver then told us that he needed to go out and apologize to another officer. Apparently, this one had taken away his driver’s license at his second speeding infraction. When he got back to the car, though, he told us that this particular officer was actually the twin of the one he needed to apologize to. Um, what are the chances? At the third stop, the driver seemed to know the officer there. It turns out that the second cop was the actual cop and not the twin. I knew it. It was almost too coincidental.
Our G group for Kili included 11 people in total – Carla, Floyd, Marilyn, Darcy, Catherine, Tom, Allie, Daniel, Jeffrey, Hayden and me. Canada, England, Germany, Macau, NZ and the U.S. Then we had our main G CEO, Gerald, leading the G Fighters (the awesome group of porters).
H joked that I should take one of those photos where people arrange their gear artistically and post it onto Instagram. I scoffed. Then, I saw him do it, and immediately did the same. (And, yes, 8 days of no showering requires a packet of baby wipes.)
We left the hotel by 9am and stopped at a mini mart to grab trekking snacks (aka Snickers, Bounty bars and digestives). We then picked up the G Fighters and ate boxed lunches at the park’s ticket office. We drove past pine trees that, for whatever reason, made me feel weird. The stem portion was completely bare and the pine up top was too soft-looking that it reminded me of Tom Selleck’s mustache, copy/pasted a gazillion times.
By 1pm, we were off! We were already at an elevation of 2,100m (6,890 ft). Vegetation zone: Montane forest.
We hiked about 3-4 hours to our first camp, MTI Mkubwa (Big Tree) Camp, just 7km of gradual inclines at a pole pole (pronounced po-leh po-leh) pace. It was almost too slow…though I would not be thinking that on day 7.
We encountered some black-and-white colobus monkeys (aka skunk monkeys) en route. Can you even point him out in the trees? Start from the bottom middle of the photo, then work your way up. Stop a little before the tree ends. Actually, it’s probably just better if you Google imaged it. Or just literally pictured skunk monkeys.
Because the porters are badass, they had our tents already setup by the time we got there and a wash wash ready as soon as we got in. Same badass service as on the Inca Trail. The outhouses were quite horrible, though, and I was very thankful that there was no lighting inside them.
Our routine became a 6:30am wakeup, 7am wash wash (has to be said twice), 7:30am breakfast and an 8am start. Day 2 was a 6-7 hr day and described as “some up, some down, some flat.” (Hm, where have I heard that before?) A majority of it was up as we trekked up and over the Shira ridge at 3,500m (11,483 ft), though very moderate compared to the Himalayas. We completed the hard part before we stopped to have our boxed lunches. Gerald (and the co-CEO’s) called this the “training paths.”
Other than trekking at a gradual pace, water (and lots of it) helps with the effects of altitude. “Water for life” became such a common saying (in addition to “pole pole”) that I eventually got annoyed into drinking water. Whatever works, right?
Shira I Camp – Elevation: 3,610m (11,844 ft); Vegetation zone: Moorland. This campsite was a vast land sprinkled with soft grasses and shrubbery. The higher we went, the dustier it became and no matter how short I cut my nails or how often I washed my hands, dirt found its way underneath them.
The clouds finally cleared around 6pm and revealed the very mountain we were going to summit in 5 days. Then came popcorn, hot chocolate/tea/coffee and a very hearty dinner. It still amazes me how these porters carry, cook and clean everything so effortlessly.
Once the sun set, the warmth was completely gone and frost formed on the outside of our tents. This day’s night sky may have been the best one all week. The Milky Way was so bright and the stars were so overwhelming that it was difficult to point out the Southern Cross. It was still dark enough for me to get lost on the way back from the bathroom, so I yelled out “H! H?” until I finally got a response. That was actually a little scary given how many tents there were. Most of us stopped drinking liquids around 6pm to avoid having to pee in the middle of the night. Otherwise, we would hold it in until it began to hurt, then go through a whole process of unzipping the sleeping bag, putting on an extra layer of pants/jacket and a head torch, unzipping the inner layer of the tent, unzipping the outer layer of the tent, then zipping up both, walking to the bathroom in the freezing darkness, then coming back to unzip both layers of the tent, zipping both layers back up, taking off the outer layers of clothing, then zipping back into the sleeping bag. If that was annoying to read, you can imagine how it felt to actually go through it.
Sunrise. It was still frosty at 7:30am but, by 8am, it was almost as if the frost never existed.
Day 3 was an easy day, mostly flat with gradual inclines and only 4 hr of hiking. We also passed an emergency road that Carla decided to take. Because food poisoning. At least a car was able to pick her up. It would’ve been great to have that in the Himalayas. (Whomp whomp.)
Elevation: above the clouds.
Shira II Camp – Elevation: 3,850m (12,631 ft); Vegetation zone: Moorland. To acclimatize, we hiked an extra 100m up in altitude and back down, an hour roundtrip.
Fun fact: Mt. Kilimanjaro is actually made up of 3 volcanic cones – Shira, Mawenzi and Kibo (in ascending size order).
Back at the camp, the G Fighters introduced themselves one by one and then broke out into song and dance led by Saddam, the guy in the middle. Each one of them was so enthusiastic to be there and with each other that their excitement became contagious. This is going to sound cheesy but, they really made you happy to be alive and on that mountain. I’ll never forget that feeling. (Photo credit: H)
Sunsets and sunrises are always beautiful but, the ones in Africa are on another level. The mountain glowed orange as the sun sunk beneath the horizon of clouds. After dinner, Gerald and the co-CEO’s went into the history of the Maasai people, from the plaided red that the men wear down to their tradition of circumcision and polygamy. A young boy is forbidden to cry during circumcision (done sans anesthesia) or it would bring shame and make it difficult for him to find a wife. The boy would’ve also had to kill a lion beforehand, but this is no longer a common practice. Young women also had to go through circumcision but, this thankfully was made illegal in the country. And, a man’s wealth was and still is measured in cattle. The more a man has, the more respected he is. But, despite how all this sounds, they are a very friendly people and are more than willing to show you their villages and everyday life.
The first 5 hrs were all about the inclines toward the Lava Tower at 4,600m (15,092 ft) elevation. Vegetation zone: Alpine desert, meaning bare open spaces with not much to hide behind for a wild wee. By the time we found seating on a large boulder littered with egg shells of hikers past, we were so famished that we ate in complete silence then took brief naps in the sunlight.
Then, sweet relief, it was mostly downhill for 2-3 hr.
We eventually passed through palm trees and heard running water and a waterfall a short while later, an oasis in the alpine desert.
Hello. And, bye bye birdie.
We’ve encountered a lot of cool birds along the way, one of which I labeled the “delightful pigeon” because they are prettier and a lot less likely to carry disease than the urban kind.
Barranco Camp – Elevation: 3,900m (12,795 ft); Vegetation zone: Moorland. From this camp, we were able to see a view of the Western Breach, the surrounding Breach Wall, and Moshi town below (well, once the clouds cleared the way).
July 22 – 31, 2016: Mt. Kilimanjaro Group Trek – Lemosho Route
Travel tip: We chose the Lemosho route because we felt that 8 days gave us sufficient time to acclimatize. We’ve heard that the shorter routes had a much lower success rate of summiting.
For $15 more, we then convinced our driver to take us around the bigger circuit.
Fifth stop: Pre Rup (“Turning the Body”). This temple was believed to hold funerals during which the body’s ashes were rotated in different directions in a ritual.
Sixth stop: East Mebon, which began to look a bit deja vu. It now stands in the center of a dried up reservoir, the East Baray, with its base guarded by stone elephants on all corners.
It was so damn hot that day that by 10am, my clothing was a different shade. And, though the heat was obviously felt by all, apparently I was the only one showing it. A guard came up to me as he was passing by.
Guard: “Very hot.”
Okay, thanks for taking the time to tell me that.
Tuk tuk driver: “Very hot…for you.”
Yea, I got the point, OKAY!
Seventh stop: Ta Som, another temple bombarded by awesome, majestic trees.
Neak Pean (or Neak Poan)
Eighth stop: Neak Pean or Neak Poan (“Intertwined Nagas/Serpents”), which was a large square pool surrounded by 4 smaller ones, representing earth, fire, wind and water (no heart? Captain Planet would be disappointed). Each of the 4 smaller pools were fed by the main larger one through spouts that were sculpted as the heads of the “Four Great Animals” – an elephant, horse, bull (replaced by a human) and lion. The pools were built with the concept of balance and was thought to have healing powers. Most of them were gated off, though, so I guess I’ll just have to continue living with my mysterious disease known as “great beauty.”
Ninth and last stop for the day: Preah Khan (“Royal/Holy/Sacred Sword”), another favorite and a perfect end to the day.
The purpose of the 2-story structure on the left is still unknown but, regardless, it’s awesome.
Again, trees taking over the premises, though this temple was in a better state than Ta Prohm.
The ride back to the hotel took some time and we drove along tree-lined roads with motor-assisted breezes. The heat and the hum of the engine made me sleepy, and as my head began to bob, H looked over, his mouth open to say something, but ended up just laughing instead.
Me: “What?” H: “I was just about to ask if you could fall asleep in this.”
For our last morning, we grabbed another tuk tuk for the day to reach 2 temples a little further out and to stop at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. All for $26. We reached Banteay Samré around midday and it was hot as balls. At least we pretty much had the temple to ourselves. (Again, don’t forget to cover your legs and shoulders!)
Banteay Srei, the only major temple to have not been built by a king.
This temple probably had the craziest carvings that I’d ever seen and because of the immense intricacy, it is believed to have been done by a woman. Yup, that’s right. Women, represent! It is, after all, named “Citadel of the Women.”
Note: If you visit any temple without a guide or tour group, try to come prepared with an information source (e.g. a Lonely Planet guide). Though the main pathways have been made safe, if you venture off the beaten path, you may trigger a forgotten landmine. (The Lonely Planet book had alerts for specific temples.)
Afterwards, we visited the Cambodia Landmine Museum, the entrance ticket of which had the following statement: “Everything on display has been inspected 100% Free from Explosives (FFE).” Um, phew! The museum itself is definitely worth a visit. It was started by Aki Ra who, as a child, was drafted into the Khmer Rouge (Communist followers) and helped to plant landmines. After realizing that those landmines were killing way more innocent people than enemies and doing a lot more damage than good, he dedicated his life to de-mining efforts and set up a rehab center behind the museum for victims. Ticket proceeds help fund de-mining campaigns and support the museum/center.
Also worth a visit: Angkor National Museum.
Later that night, we were off to Phnom Penh. We booked an overnight bus that left Siem Reap at 11pm and arrived in Phnom Penh around 5am (about a 6hr trip). The beds were mostly reclined, included a blanket and pillow, bottled water, individual power sockets and free wifi. These bus rides were known to be pretty unsafe in the past but, nowadays, they’ve been made much safer and nicer.
We decided to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and take a tuk tuk to The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek afterwards (about $10 for a 30-40 min ride). The audioguide was definitely worth paying for at the museum (one was already included at the fields). It was really hard to imagine that not only could a genocide like this happen, it could happen repeatedly over history all over the world. During Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge’s regime, millions of citizens, including the sick and elderly, were duped into leaving Phnom Penh and other cities by foot only to end up in slavery in the countryside. That year was known as Year Zero and was the beginning of the 3-4 year purification process of the population. In other words, genocide.
Tuol Sleng (aka Security Prison 21 or, S-21) was a high school overtaken by Pol Pot in 1975 and turned into one of the many secret prisons in which citizens were wrongfully accused of crimes and tortured. Absurd rules were imposed. They were then brought to the Killing Fields to be murdered and dumped into mass graves. Educated people, professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.) and religious leaders, even people wearing certain items like glasses, were targeted and killed. Out of an estimated 12,000 – 20,000 prisoners, only 12 were confirmed as survivors. And, as if that weren’t barbaric enough, they kept records of the prisoners, including photos before and after torture. It was believed to have been done so that the security officers could somehow separate themselves psychologically from their actions – record and file away. This was all done for a cause that even made the leaders eventually suspicious of each other.
Several foreigners were captured and killed also, including a Kiwi, Kerry Hamill, who was sailing around the world and happened to drift into Cambodian waters. Not believing that he was just an innocent traveler, the security officers eventually forced a “confession” out of him through which he fictitiously claimed that he was sent into Cambodia by Colonel Sanders of KFC. He also included a cryptic message which was believed to be a goodbye note to his mom and family.
The Killing Fields was also a secret operation, accidentally discovered later by people who, while looking for food, smelled a horrible stench. By then, the mass graves had grown into mounds from the gases emitted from the corpses. The eeriest and saddest part was the Killing Tree, against which women, children and infants were smashed. Brain matter was later found on the tree. Bullets also became too expensive so farming tools were used to bludgeon people and make them suffer. All the screams were then masked by large speakers playing music. Horrific on all levels.
On the tuk tuk ride back to the hostel, H and I just sat, dumbfounded. We came to the conclusion that the general rule for people should be “Don’t be a dick.” We needed to cheer up the day so we ended up meeting H’s friends, Aimee and James, for dinner and drinks at FCC (with a view of the Mekong), Friends The Restaurant (where we tried a Scotch egg with a baby duck), then Masamune (wedged in a cute alleyway of bars).
Travel tip: Whenever you ride a tuk tuk, make sure to hold onto your bag securely. Passing motorcyclists were known to grab bags and speed away. For hostels, I totally recommend staying at the Mad Monkey Hostel, the only hostel I’ve seen with a swimming pool (and a clean one, too).
Having learned my lesson, I made sure to get to the airport exactly 2 hours before my scheduled flight. So, I walked out onto the shady street by the “hotel,” not realizing there was a main road not too far away with plenty of cabs. Instead, a motorbike stopped to offer to take me for ฿50. I pointed at my backpacking bag, clearly communicating “And, where are you going to put this?” Unperturbed, he said that he could straddle it in between his legs. For whatever reason, I just agreed. “It should only be 10 min anyway,” I thought. So, I hopped on, now realizing that I have a higher chance of dying, without a helmet or long pants to shield my legs. The driver, on the other hand, not only had on a helmet but also a leathery jacket that motorcyclists wear for protection. Great.
But, I made it safely to…
Siem Reap, Cambodia
H had told me he took a motorbike as well to the hotel for only $2. A cab was $7. Having survived round 1 in Bangkok, I thought, “Why not?” Bring on round 2 of risking my life on a motorbike as the driver straddles my luggage. Again, I made it in one piece, unharmed. But, then, I later found out that by “motorbike,” H really meant a tuk tuk. A nice carriage pulled by a motorbike. “You took an actual motorbike??” Yea, laugh. And, thanks to my credit card points, we were able to stay at Le Meridien Angkor. We totally belonged.
Travel/visa tip: If you need USD, make sure to take it out from the ATM’s right by the door/entrance after you disembark the plane and enter the terminal. The ATM’s are before immigration. Otherwise, you would need to circle back to the departures hall. Everything in Cambodia seems to run on USD. Also, I was able to purchase an e-visa online. You just need to print out 2 copies (doesn’t have to be in color) and bring that with you.
First stop, of course, was Angkor Wat (“Temple City”) with a sea of Asian tourists toting sun umbrellas. It was just as epic as I had imagined it to be and worth being on multiple lists of top things to see in the world. It was even worth dropping my iPhone onto the extremely hard brick ground and cracking the screen when I tried to take a photo. Well, almost.
Travel tip: The tuk tuk driver took us to the ticket office before we visited any of the temples and we bought a 3-day pass for $40. Make sure you bring something to cover your shoulders and legs. They don’t provide anything so come prepared. I just wore a maxi dress and brought a t-shirt to wear over the top.
Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple turned Buddhist, was built facing the west, the reason for which remains theoretical since most other temples faced the east. But, similar to most temples, its architecture was designed to depict a temple-mountain, a representation of the Hindu sacred mountain, Mt. Meru, the center of all universes. The moat surrounding it apparently prevented the surrounding jungle from encroaching onto the premises. Because, you know, trees and plants grow wherever the fuck they want. Fair enough, since we’ve taken all their space.
The bas-reliefs (sculptural technique) along the wall depicted either scenes of war or of heaven and hell, 37 heavens and 32 hells to be exact. Not very comforting to see scenes of torture of those condemned to hell.
I must say, I’ve never seen so many monks pose for photos in my life. Nor did it ever occur to me that monks could be tourists. I thought one guy was sitting in meditation against a column, looking all pensive, until he turned to his friend a few seconds later and asked, “Did you take the photo?” He then proceeded to drape his robes and look away into the distance. Another pose. I wished I had a pashmina on me to ask him for draping tips. Instead, you get the above photo, where I’m so itty bitty, it wouldn’t have mattered if I was posing or not.
We later sat on the steps of a ruin by the left pond and watched the sunset. It was pretty but, sunrise (above) was so much more epic. We had to wake up at 4am and take a 5am tuk tuk but, it was so much more peaceful in the morning that it didn’t matter. Since the sun was rising on the left, everyone crowded around the left pond. H and I were smart and perched ourselves by the still empty right pond (around 5:20-30am) which the left siders gradually migrated to as time passed. With the gradual daylight reflecting off the water, you could see all sorts of movement on the surface of the pond. Bugs, and lots of them.
H: “Does it make you feel all itchy even though they’re not biting you?”
The answer was a scratchy yes.
The sun then started making its way up around 6:10-20am and as soon as the sun rose, the crowds dispersed almost immediately. Epic on another level. We left by 6:30am.
Travel tip: We ate dinner at Marum where we tried beef satay with fried red tree ants. The only real indication of it in your mouth was the horrific crunch. Delicious, though! Other places to try: Genevieve’s, where we tried beef lok lak and 1kg of sweet & sour fish. I didn’t realize what 1kg really meant until the dish clunked down in front of me. H then challenged me to eat the red pepper garnish, seeds and all, which for some reason I agreed to do and immediately regretted. Remember to make reservations. The Little Red Fox in Kandal Village had amazing breakfast and flat whites. And, try fish amok anywhere!
Tuk tuk parking.
Travel tip: We rented a tuk tuk for the day through our hotel. It was $25 to cover the small circuit, starting at 5am with the Angkor Wat sunrise and ending at 5-6pm. We let him go at 1pm, though, since we covered 8 hr by then.
Second stop: Bayon Temple, in the center of Angkor Thom (“Great City”). We arrived by 7am but had another half hour before opening time. This gave us time to meander around the perimeter and have first dibs at the entrance.
Within 15 min of it opening, though, a line of people streamed in and we no longer had the place to ourselves.
Bayon houses 216 faces (6 or so pictured above) of Avalokiteśvara, an embodiment of compassion of all Buddhas, but really, they’re probably the faces of Jayavarman VII, the king responsible for its construction. Perhaps even the original “Many-Faced God.” Either way, I wouldn’t want to mess around. The king’s face was everywhere and always watching you. He was, indeed, the OG CCTV. He did, however, abolish castes and improve infrastructure but, on the other hand, his aggressive construction work exhausted both the people and supply.
There were 3 levels to this temple and it was easy to get lost while exploring.
A close-up of one of the bas-reliefs.
Third stop: Baphuon. The entrance was a really long pathway which we later realized was propped up on stone columns. Another architectural delight.
Baphuon was a 3-tiered temple-mountain, another representation of Mt. Meru.
Fourth stop: Ta Prohm, also known as the “Tomb Raider temple.” When I mentioned before how trees can grow wherever the fuck they want, this temple was the epitome of that. Even in the smallest little crack, there was a sprout (I could’ve also worded that a little differently…) But, that’s what made this temple a real adventure. I channeled my inner Lara Croft, sans sexy outfit.
If I thought this temple was in a state of “ruin,” I was seriously wrong. They showed before and after photos, and the current state was a result of conservation efforts. But, I hope they leave it as it is because the trees made this temple seem mystical, making it easily one of my favorites.