Friday, September 26, 2014

Delicious Dubrovnik

I arrived in Dubrovnik after 22 hours of travel, and then waited at the world's most boring airport for Terri to arrive 1.5 hrs later so we could share a car into the city.
Dubrovnik is mostly situated on the side of a steep mountain-y/cliff-side (particularly the part we were staying in; Ploce; located above the Old City) leading down to the Adriatic Sea. This means that there are a lot of stairs. And when I say a lot, I really mean a LOT. Particularly if you've been sedentary sitting in a safari vehicle and then lounging at the lovah's resort for the past 3 weeks. Our apartment was at the top of a large (LARGE) amount of stairs, looking down over the old city of Dubrovnik. Downside: STAIRS. Plus side: AMAZING View. There were so many stairs though, that we strategically tried to plan our days around one trip down and one trip up per day. This only failed us once. The first day. It was a bad planning mistake that we made sure not to repeat.

We arrived late Thursday evening. First night (after thankfully having our bags carried up said stairs by our lovely hosts), and then enjoying some fantastic beers on the balcony enjoying the amazing view; we traipsed down to the old city for dinner at the pizzeria Oliva. This was a fantastic recommendation from Matt, who had been to Croatia the previous year.

Day 1:
I was sadly in need of laundry. This necessitated the aforementioned 2 trips up the hill. Silly laundry. In between figuring out the machines (read directions very carefully...) we had breakfast and went to the local market in the old city. After this we decided that we would partake in the siesta tradition and veg out at the apartment for the afternoon before venturing back down to the old city. We had a snack, and then went for a wander on the city walls. The old city is a walled city. Nerd alert - the city is actually where King's Landing in HBO's game of thrones is filmed. While wandering the walls, we attempted to copy the other tourists and their artistic photo shoots (almost every single one of these shots has since been deleted I fear - we have learned that we end up looking like we are not artistic at all, and just that we like to hump stone walls when we attempt these shots). We also scoped out a really cool bar on the cliffs overlooking the sea, that we managed to find after the wall walk. We had lovely lemon beers and were chatted up by some elderly US tourists. Being chatted up by elderly travellers would be a repeat theme for us.
After cliffside drinks, we had sushi and oysters at a restaurant in the city. It was difficult to curb our Canadian girl tendencies and not order ALL the sushi on the menu though!

Day 2: Saturday
One of the things that I really wanted to do in Croatia was go sailing. Since we a)didn't plan anything in advance, b) didn't want to go on a booze cruise on a pirate ship where you don't actually sail (I know though - you're second guessing the no booze cruise aspect??), and c) apparently don't really like hanging out with other people; we decided to charter a sailboat for the day. The 36' sailboat came with skipper Srjdan (the most handsome man in Croatia) and his dad Goran. The trip was to the three Elephiti islands (I can't remember all their names) and basically whatever we wanted to do. Again, we didn't plan, so relied on our skipper's knowledge. The bad thing was that is was a cloudy and rainy day. The first island stop was spent hiding in a coffee shop and purchasing a super cheap umbrella. We decided that we needed to swim in a new body of water, regardless of the rain, which was pretty much the best decision of the day. The water temp was actually as warm as the outside temp; plus this was T's first time swimming off a sailboat. Best part of the day really. It cleared up long enough for us to sail, have a fantastic fresh fish dinner on the second island (where the waiter helped us by removing all the bones from our whole sea bass!) and have a wander along the promenade of the third island. All in all a super good day!
Since it was a crazy downpour when we got back to the city, we ended up ordering pizza back to the apartment and drinking the rest our our boat beers.

Day 3: Sunday
So again, no planning... and we decided we wanted to do a wine tour! The night before we managed to sneak the last 2 open spots on a wine and food tour of the Plesjic (sp?) Peninsula with the highly knowledgeable and esteemed Mario. (We later found out the other's on the tour had booked 8 months prior). (We also found out that all of the other 6 people on the your were Canadian; and that 4 of them were from Calgary. Super small world!).

The tour was amazing and included:
- oyster farm and wine tasting near the town of Ston. Apparently this is the clearest water in the Adriatic and why the oysters are so amazing from here. We had oysters pulled from the water and shucked in front of us at 10 am. Best way to start the day. They were super fresh and delicious.
- stops and wine tastings at 2 small family owned vineyards. There was also olive oil and local wine and cheese. Much wine was purchased.
- a drive through the Dingac vineyards (most important vineyards in Croatia) - 17 owners own parcels of land along this cliffside vineyard that produces these famous grapes that some of the most prominent Croatian wines are made from.
- during the Communist times local winemakers could not make wine and sell it commercially; they had to sell grapes to gov't coop who made and sold the wine, and this sent many families out of the wine making business. Since then however, many families are getting back into the wine making commercially, having kept their lands but not making wine for commercial sale.
- stop at a local wine bar for a wine and cheese tasting. This was amazing. By this time we have had at least 15 wines. And maybe some liqueurs. Most of us are tipsy.
- back to Ston for an amazing seafood lunch. There were many things I cannot even name. All of which were delicious. And also the (apparently; news to me) famous black risotto; so called due to squid ink that gives it it's color. Sort of strange, but really tasty. And of course more wine with dinner.
- Ston is well known for it oysters and salt. It has the largest amount of free standing stone walls after China, which were built to protect the salt factory and salt shipping port. Back in the day 1lb of Salt was worth 1 lb of silver, so was super important to the economy.
We were a little tired (and pre-hungover) when we got home, but had made reservations at the top rated restaurant on trip advisor (Panturel) and managed to rally. Good thing we did, as we decided to see if we could put our wine and food pairing skills to the test. We made our own three course meal with wine pairings with amazing results.

Day 4: Monday
We were worried about rainy weather again, but decided to brave a trip to the island of Lokrum. The island is only a 15 boat ride away from the old city. Once there we staked out some spots on a not super comfortable rock platform for some swimming and sunning in a protected swimming hole called the Dead Sea (sea water fills it through an inlet). We lounged, drank some beer and watched the local peacocks before heading back to the old city for snacks, wine and a bit of wandering.
We were still a little tired from the previous long day and late night and had a wine, cheese and olive oil dinner at the apartment with some goods our tour.

Day 5: Tuesday
This was T's last day. There had been a crazy storm overnight but the morning dawned clear so we headed down to Banje Beach to sun and think about kayaking. It was still really windy though, so we decided against the kayaking and just swam and sunned in the really overpriced beach chairs in front of a super pretentious beach club. T had to leave at 2:30 so we climbed back up the giant hill one last time.
I had a 4:30 am airport pickup, so just spent the afternoon sunbathing and finishing off our wine on the balcony, and then managed to stuff all my clothes and wine goodies into my backpack one last time. The bag is a little heavier for the trip home and I'm hoping I've managed to out my packing talents to good use so I don't have any broken bottles when I get back to Calgary.

So that's it! That's the trip! I'll post some better safari pictures from my actual camera on Facebook or maybe here when I get home (if Manon is reading this; I promise I'll be better than with SE Asia!!).
Thanks for reading; and I'm as surprised as y'all that I managed to blog about the entire thing!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


After the safari time we were ready for a break. We headed out to the Seronera airstrip, which is located in the Serengeti park. Camille the scheduler wanted to make sure that we were there 90 min before our flight time of 11:30. We arrived at 9:30. We walked over to the shack that appeared to be the airport building (the building for the bathrooms was actually bigger than the office) to check in, and were laughed at. "There is no check in. Your guide will talk to the pilot and then you get on the plane. You could even take a baby cheetah with you". 
Ok then! We settled in to wait for 11:30. The plane showed up at 12:00. There were six of us plus the pilot in a plane for 9. We all got window seats. No passport check. No boarding passes. No one even asked us our names. 
The flight took us back to Arusha for a stopover before flying to Zanzibar.  It was pretty to cool to fly back over the parks and landscapes we had just driven though over the previous 7 days! 

As soon as we landed on Zanzibar it was obvious we were in a tropical landscape. We were ready for some relaxing and beach time! Off we went to the Swahili House hotel in Stone Town for 2 nights. 

Stone Town is the main city on the island and used to be central for the old slave market, and also spice market. Unlike the main land, the majority of people on the island are Muslim, so we saw a huge difference in the dress type from mainland Tanzania. A lot more covered up, particularly for women. We basically had 1.5 days in Stone Town. We had not had wifi for 8 days, had been coming from tent city where the good was not awesome and the showers were not long. We had also been sitting in a land cruiser for 8 days. There was a lot of relaxing. I washed my hair ( for those of you counting, this is only the second time this happened on the trip) (and of you're still counting, it's now day 19 (Sep 16) and it's only still happened twice. No judging). 
We did a city tour, with Osman, who we suspect just made stuff up when he didn't know the answers to our questions. He did know a lot of dates related to the activities of the early colonial times (German then British) and the Sultans. We went to maybe the most boring palace museum I've ever been to. The furniture in the queen's dressing area was almost identical to the furniture we had growing up in Halkirk. 
Walking around the old town was really cool. We did this a lot. Usually it involved following Matt, with varying degrees of success. The old town is a lot of really narrow alleyways with people and goods and bikes and scooters and sometimes cars all trying to fit down them. They are twisty and turny and dark, since the buildings are all at least three stories. I would have been lost many times on my own. We watched the sunset on the beach, drank our first decent coffee in weeks, and watched the local boys trying to outdo each other diving off the rocks into the harbour area. We also visited Freddy Mercury's bar for lunch. 

After Stone Town  we headed an our north to the beach. We are at the Sunshine Hotel which is a lovely 15 room boutique hotel on the beach. There are 2 pools and a restaurant area, as well as a few comfy lounging areas. It is also remote from really anything. And full of lovahs. 

It's really great for relaxing. But I think we definitely thought there would be more to do. There are some pretty rusty bikes we've taken out. We have gone for walks up and down the beach. And to the village (which basically is shacks and goats and children yelling Jambo at you). We have 5.5 days here. Today is our last full day. I have read 3 books since our arrival. We have swam in the pool. Played cards. Napped on all the chairs. Drank the hotel out of our favorite beer and wine choices multiple times. Maybe went a little stir crazy. Did not wash our hair. 

Today I went diving,  which was amazing. Not only because it was awesome, but because it have me a much needed respite from the hotel! I have not dove in 6 years. I didn't bring my dive card. I did a mini refresher in the pool and then they let me dive. Shhh. We did 2 dives, and the group was small so I had a dive master to myself, which was good, although everything came back real quickly. We saw lionfish (so cool!), a stonefish (which apparently is the most poisonous fish in the ocean; you touch it you die), nudibranchs, Napoleon fish, lobsters, crabs, parrotfish, dolphins (twice!) and about a million other fish that I would just name myself if I didn't actually know what they were (black and white spotted dogfish anyone??). It was a really good time.

 Tomorrow afternoon we leave here. We all have the same couple flights to Amsterdam, and then the rest of the team flies home while I head to Croatia to meet up with Terri. I've got about 22 hours of travel to get ready for good European coffee and pastries. This trip is like 5 mini trips in one really. I'm ready for the next one!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Tent City and the Serengeti

We left our lovely lodge near the town of Karatu and drove for three hours on motion-sickness inducing windy roads around the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater, to get to the Serengeti. Serengeti is Masai for "endless plain". It is a huge park, and also the first national park in Tanzania. The park is the start and end of the giant wildebeest migration (between here and the Masai Mara in Kenya). Typically we would have been able to see the migrating animals at this time of the year, however due to climate change, the animals were still in the southern parts of the Masai Mara. 

We had a total of 2.5 days in the Serengeti. We saw a LOT of animals. We also spent a lot of time driving around on dusty, bumpy, windy roads. The landscapes in the Serengeti are incredibly varied. We started out in a giant plain that pretty much looked like Southern Alberta, but there are also rock formations (called kopjes; think Pride Rock from The Lion King), rivers, streams, green meadows, scrub land, and little tropical oasis areas with Palm trees around little ponds and streams. As it is still the dry season here, many of the rivers and streams were small or dry. 

Highlights of our three days here included: 
- 8 separate lion sightings
- watching a young male lion attempt a run at some zebras (which I happened to catch on video)
- lion copulation. The male was huge and super sexy. We could see why the female chose him and his luscious ginger mane. 
- 3 separate leopard sightings (2 mating pairs, and one solitary leopard in a tree right before the park gates on our last day)
- many many hippo viewings 
- a group of vultures devouring an old dead hyena
- 5 hyenas 
- coming across a group of at least 20 giraffes one morning 
- 2 cheetah sightings (the first a pair of brothers eating a dik dikthat we first saw from afar and then later got to go in for a closer look, and then a mama and cub (kitten?) that we saw REALLY close up. As we were watching the second pair, a safari jeep with cheetah wheel coverings came up, and the mama, seeing the cheetahs on the car, G&T super defensive and crouched like she was going to pounce. I actually got down and shut my window this scared me so much!)
- many many elephants. Just when you think you've been there done that though, you stick around and watch and see new cool things, like a nursing calf, or elephants drinking and playing in the water. One day we saw Stumpy, an elephant that had a stunted trunk (genetic or damaged we were not sure but it looked like it had been chopped) that was about half the usual length. He had adapted by kneeling down to be able to teach grass, and then bracing the grass against his tusks before putting it into his mouth while feeding. 

By the end of our first day in the Serengeti we had seen all of the Big 5 (last was the leopard), but we still had 2 more full days after this. Luckily we still saw lots of amazing things to keep us entertained, including 2 more leopard sightings on the last day. 
The entire trip we have been wanting to see a lion kill, but this is extremely rare to actually witness. We thought that we were pretty lucky when we saw the one lion charge the herd of zebras on our first day in the Serengeti. We got really lucky on our last afternoon however and came across a group of lions that we swore had surrounded a lone Cape buffalo. We watched for quite some time with nothing really happening, and then thought we would drive around and come and watch for the other side of the plain, where more lions were lying under a tree. As we are coming around, we got stuck in a mud hole! While we were being pushed out of the hole by another jeep, we were just able to see the lions attack a zebra (apparently the buffalo was a decoy!) and take one down! We didn't see the actual kill, but arrive to see them eating, which was pretty incredible in itself. The sounds of lions eating is crazy! They are all growling and asserting their dominance for a position at the kill. I think we watched the pride for at least an hour, until they were mostly finished eating and went back to the shade to sleep off the kill. Pretty great end to our last day on safari! 

We had quite the experience with out lodge the last three nights. Out itinerary from the travel company said we were to stay at Robanda Safari Camp, but when we arrived, they had no reservation for us. No reservation in a safari camp means no food, water, preparations, anything. We then proceeded to go to three more camps in the area to see if they had our reservation. By the second, Camille and I decided that we better get some beers and embrace the hakuna matata mentality. She had even started chatting up and making dinner plans with a couple of Malaysian boys at the third camp that thought we were university graduates. This was also not our camp however, despite the fact that we had keys to tents, and someone ready to carry our bags for us! 
We ended up at Robanda Wildlands Camp. They had our reservation; however this was not the level of accommodation we had become accustomed to, or that we had paid for. We decided that we would have an adventure, and then deal with the travel company the next day and move to the place on our itinerary, which had had lovely permanent tents with a lookout tower where we were already planning on drinking some bia beredi (cold beers). We had even learned a new cheers for the occasion (myshamarif!). 
The Wildlands camp was a basic tented camp.  These were military style canvas tents with small, not very comfortable beds in them. A shower was a bucket of hot water heated by the kitchen (6L each), dumped into a bucket with a shower head in a separate canvas compartment of your tent (definitely no hair washing). There were spiders. Dinner was by candlelight in a mess tent. Local village men patrolled the grounds at night for hyenas, with their African bow and arrows, the tips treated with poison for the kill. Definitely a great addition to the safari experience. But we thought one night would be enough! 
Unfortunately we were extremely disappointed by the travel company's refusal that they had made a mistake (the name, and the picture of the camp in our itinerary, and in the guide's itinerary very clearly matched the first lodge, NOT the tented one). We were very frustrated for a part of the day, and then decided to let it go, embrace the adventure, be slightly grubby and hungry for the next couple days, and just deal with the company when we got home. So we tented for another couple nights! And no one got eaten by a hyena (although we did hear them often at night, very close to the tents)!

This is not a dik dik

Day 3 safari we left Tarangire and went to Lake Manyara national park.  This reserve was made into a park one year before the country's independence (by the British colonialists) and I got a more formal "national park" vibe here. This was a much more tropical landscape, with rainforests and many more rivers and streams. There are a large number of baboons in the park, so we spent a lot of time hanging out watching them play and interact on this day. Overall this was a much slower day for exciting animal sightings. New animals spotted: blue monkeys, some kind of stork, black faces fervet monkeys, and hippos! The highlights included hippos (they were fairly far away but we got to see them climbing out of the pond and hanging out in land, not just lying about like lumps) and a large group of elephants that crossed REALLY close to our jeep while we were hanging out watching them. This was super cool. 

We stayed the next two nights at the Oldeani Safari Lodge, which was a fairly new lodge, with only 4 rooms, partially owned by some Americans. The lodge was realllly nice, and even had a potable water filtration system! This is the only place we saw this. We were also the only guests so had the entire place to ourselves! There was a staff of 2 guys that were super attentive and the food was amazing. There was also a big fireplace that they lit every night (we were at higher elevation and it was cold here). There was even enough water pressure that Manon and I managed to wash our hair for the first time since the start of the trip! This was a big deal for everyone. 
The only complaint was the poor beer selection - note to future Tanzanian visitors - Castle Light is not good beer. 

Safari Day 4: we headed into the Ngorongoro Crater, which is in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. This is not a national park, so is a multi-use land area, which means that people and domestic animals can also live inside the park as long as their behaviours to not cause damage to the environment or the wild animals.  The area used to be part of Serengeti national park but some years ago (Matt would remember the year but not me) it was turned into a conservation area to allow the Masai more land to live. The crater itself was formed when the volcano exploded and collapsed in on itself. The volcano is no longer active. The crater used to be the only place I. Tanzania to see the Big 5 easily, however due to interruptions from the Nadia I. The park, it is now really hard to see leopards as they tend to hang out in the forested area by the escarpment, where there are not a lot of roads going though for viewing. This is the only place however that it is really possible to see rhino though, since they are very endangered due to poaching (apparently one set of rhino horns can bring in $700 000 US dollars on the Asian market) and also cuz they hang out in areas where there are not a lot of roads as well. At this point we had seen all of the Big 5 except for leopards and rhinos, and our goal was to see rhinos today. We did accomplish this, which was really cool, however they were pretty far away and most of the viewing was through binoculars. (Bring binoculars!! Very important. Thanks Maggie for the lending of your's, in case you happen to read this!). 

Other highlights included: 
- five separate lion sightings (we pretty much never get tired of lions)
- three hippo sightings (I never get tired of hippos, but I might be the only one to say this) 
- first hyena sighting 
- watching some wildebeests humping (highlight for Manon anyway)