Homer's Travels: July 2014

Thursday, July 31, 2014

African Adventure: Tanzania: Arusha And Lake Manyara

June 21st

Eye to eye.
We left Amboseli National Park and headed for the border town of Namanga.  We arrived mid morning and went into the immigration office to fill out forms and to have our passports stamped.  This would also be where our super powers would activate.

The Wife's super power is to meet either someone she knows while traveling or someone with some sort of connection with home.  This time the super power rubbed off on me as well.  We got in line at the immigration office.  The Wife was ahead of me.  The Tanzanian border agent looked at the Wife's passport and asked if Marshalltown, IA was anywhere near Ames, IA.  When she said yes he said that he had gone to school at Iowa State University ... my alma mater.  We had a laugh while talking about the weather in Iowa and he asked how the corn crop was this year.  Small world.  We had one of the smoothest border crossings ever.

At the border we switched guides.  Our new guide/driver would be with us most of our time in Tanzania.  All our guides were knowledgeable and friendly.

An Impala.
We drove to the nearest large town, Arusha, where we stopped for lunch.  While we ate at the excellent buffet we chatted with a couple guys from the U.S. (Mk and Tm) who were on safari as well.  We compared notes about where we had been and where we were going.  Most of the safaris in Kenya and Tanzania follow the same basic route between the same parks.  We finished our lunch, said our goodbyes to Mk and Tm and headed to our next stop, Lake Manyara National Park.

Baboon Traffic Jam.
We would do only one safari drive in Lake Manyara national park.  The park felt smaller than Amboseli and the Maasai Mara but that might have been because of the jungle feel of the park.  The park definitely had a denser forest than what we had seen so far this trip.  I got pictures of more elephants, monkeys, and storks.

After a few hours driving around looking at wildlife we headed up to a ridge ... part of the Great Rift Valley ... where our lodge for the night was located.  As we pulled up they were lowering the Tanzanian flag for the night (the sun was setting).  Next to that flag was a red flag with stars ... the Chinese flag.

There are a lot of Chinese in Kenya and Tanzania.  Chinese companies are building roads, buildings, and other infrastructure.  I noticed that some buses on the city streets had Chinese writing on the side.  If you ask the locals you will most likely get a bad opinion of the Chinese.  Several guides noted the increases in poached elephant and rhinoceros after the arrival of the Chinese - a big market for ivory and rhinoceros horn.

We were shown to our rooms.  I noticed a tent with Tanzanian military troops nearby.  At dinner we saw Chinese military personnel at the buffet.  As we left I headed for the entrance.  A large man in military uniform ... with a riding crop ... coming in with what looked like two of his underlings in tow.  He reminded me of Idi Amin.  I stepped back to let him pass and nodded my head.  He did not acknowledge me at all ... I was one of the little people apparently.

June 22nd

View from the lodge pool/bar area.
The next morning I got up and soaked in the views from the pool/bar area of the lodge.  You could see the lake and most of the park from here.  As we left the lodge for our next destination we noticed the Chinese flag was being flown upside down.  Knowing this might be an accident and that an upside down flag could be disrespectful, we pointed it out to our guide and suggested he should tell someone at the lodge.  He just smiled.  I think he knew and was amused.  He told us that the Vice-President of China was at the lodge.  That would explain all the security.

Next stop ... The Ngorongoro Caldera.

I took quite a few pictures here as I did most places but ... how many elephant pictures can you upload.  I picked a few pictures of the animals at Lake Manyara and our lodge and added them to my 2014-06 Tanzania Google Photos album.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

African Adventure: Kenya - Nairobi And Amboseli National Park

June 19th

After the short flight to Nairobi, we picked up our bags at the airport and stopped for lunch at Tamambo Karen Blixen.  For the fans of "Out of Africa", the name Karen Blixen should be very familiar.  The Wife is a big fan.  She owns the DVD and watches it twice a year.  The Wife had thought that the restaurant would be at Karen Blixen's house where the film was shot.  Unfortunately this was not the case.  The actual house was not far away, a half kilometer or so, but we were running short on time and would not be visiting the actual house.  This was a big disappointment (the only one on the whole trip I would say) for the Wife.  If we'd done our research, we had a whole extra day in Nairobi, we could have gone to the house and taken the tour.  We did get our driver/guide to take us by the house on the way out.  We were not allowed to take pictures without actually taking the tour though.

We left Nairobi and drove through the countryside, through towns and villages, before getting off the highway and, as they say, got an African massage on the rough dirt roads.  As we approached our destination for the day, Amboseli national park, we got a beautiful view of Kilimanjaro.  We could see the whole mountain with its shrinking snow cap.  The driver didn't stop for pictures - he said there would be better opportunities the next day.  He was wrong.  Clouds moved in over night and this would be the one and only time we would see Kilimanjaro.  (The driver claims he offered to stop for pictures but we all agreed he hadn't.)

We checked into the Ol Tukai lodge.  As we checked in they told us to keep our doors locked at all times since the monkeys and baboons knew how to push the doors open and would go inside looking for food.  We would see several monkeys and baboons on the way to our room.

This was the first night we had a clear sky at night (the clouds came in later).  The sky was full of stars.  I was going to try to take a picture but I decided to do it the next night ... and the clouds prevented it.  You should always take the shot when you see it because you may never see it again - how many times have I told myself that?

June 20th

We would have the same routine here as we had in the Maasai Mara - Safari drive in the morning, lunch and rest at the lodge in the early afternoon, and a second safari drive in the late afternoon.

Four elephant lined up with their attending birds - they come in all sizes.
During our chilly morning drive we saw a lot of animals but the leopard still eluded us.  We did see a lot of elephant with white birds riding them and keeping them bug free.  In the national park we didn't get as close to the animals as we did in the Maasai Mara because the jeeps weren't allowed off road.  This felt like a bit of a let down - the Mara spoiled us a bit.

Taking a mud bath.
Back at the lodge we ate lunch and watched the elephants just outside the electric fence that surrounded the lodge grounds.  A couple of the elephants were wrestling/fighting/playing.  A baby ran around trumpeting.  Incredible experience.

A serval - a type of cat not often seen.
In the afternoon we did our second safari drive of the day.  We saw a rare Serval - a type of small cat.  We saw hippopotamus both in and out of water.  At one point a hippopotamus ran towards the jeep then turned and stood behind a small berm.  We couldn't see its head but the rest of its large body was clearly visible.  Since it couldn't see us it probably thought it had hidden itself from us.

Observation hill.
We drove to a place called observation hill.  We walked up a path up to the top of the hill where we were afforded a beautiful panoramic view of the park.  If the clouds hadn't been so thick we would have had a great view of Kilimanjaro.  Never the less the views of the shallow lakes and the flat savannah were awesome.

View from Observation Hill.
On the way back we saw a standoff between a herd of zebra and at least five cheetah.  Cheetah normally do not hunt zebra but the zebra were not going to let them out of their sights.

Can you see the five cheetah?
Another great evening meal and we went to bed.  Amboseli was buggier than the Mara and when we returned to our room the mosquito netting was wrapped around our bed.  It made it hard getting in and out of bed, and going to the bathroom in the dark is a chore with a net surrounding your bed, but it did result in a biteless night.

Tomorrow we would leave Kenya and move on to Tanzania.

A sampling of the pictures of Amboseli National Park can be found in my 2014-06 Kenya Google Photos album.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

African Adventure: Kenya - Nairobi And The Maasai Mara

June 16th

We must have been tired from our stay in Morocco as we ended up sleeping some thirteen hours.  The news in Kenya was all about the terrorist attacks in northeastern Kenya.  We had the day free and we decided to stay on the hotel compound.

The Wife is a big "Out of Africa" fan so she was stoked that we were in the Lord Delamere wing.

We ate lunch, swam in the pool, and the Wife got a facial (The person who gave the facial did not wear gloves and the Wife said it felt wonderful ... like unprotected sex).

The weather in Nairobi was near perfect - sunny in the 70s.  You wouldn't know it by how the Kenyans were dressed.  Most of them were in heavy coats, hats, and gloves.  We were in shorts and t-shirts.

That night something caught up with the Wife.  She became sick as a dog for most of the night.  Fortunately it didn't last long and she felt better in the morning.  I suspect the British Airways sandwich.

June 17th

Today the tour/safari officially started.  We met the couple who we would be travelling with for the next ten days - a very nice couple from Pittsburgh (Ls and Gg).

We were picked up my our guide and driver and headed first to the Giraffe Center for our up close encounter with the endangered Rothschild Giraffe.  While these were technically wild giraffes, the fact that you could hand feed them took away from the wildness.

A baby elephant.
After the Giraffes we stopped at a center that raises orphaned elephants.  All baby animals are cute but elephants have that stumbly way of walking that is so endearing.  We watched as they were bottle fed by their minders who are with them twenty-four hours even sleeping in the same elephant stable.

After watching them feed the elephants it was time for us to feed ourselves.  We were taken to The Carnivore restaurant.  We were brought a diverse selection of sauces to dip the meat in and then came the flood of meat of all types.  The meats varied from the common (chicken, beef, pork) to the less common (ostrich, crocodile).  They kept dropping off small servings of each onto your plate from a long barbecue skewer. If you got overwhelmed you could tip over the small sign signifying you needed a break.  The only non-meat product served was soup and a baked potato.  We finished it off with a dish of non-meat ice cream.

From there we headed to the airport to catch our bush plane to the Maasai Mara.  Unfortunately the Wife and I hadn't been informed of the weight restrictions on the bush planes.  While we were below the 50 lb (23 kg) per bag limit of most flights, the bush plane limited us to 33 lb (15 kg) per bag.  Fortunately we always carry small duffels to carry extra souvenirs.  We packed a couple of days worth in the duffels and left our big bags locked up at the airport.

The 12 seater bush plane was fairly small but the flight was not long and we had a chance to see the Kenyan countryside before we landed on the dirt airstrip.  We stretched out legs and looked at the tiny shop while we waited for the next plane that was bringing two more people who would be riding with us to the lodge and would be with us on our Safari drives.  That was all there was at the airstrip - bathrooms and a shop.  The guys,Ol and Gt, arrived on the next flight and were awesome guys who made the next few days even better.

A yawning hippopotamus.
Once we were all together we got into the custom stretch Toyota Land Cruisers, the norm for the stylish safari drive, and we did a two to three hour safari drive on the way to the lodge.  It was amazing how many types of animals we saw on this first drive: hippopotamus, elephant, cheetah, ostrich, warthogs, jackal, and the ubiquitous herds of impala, thomson's gazelle, zebra, and wildebeest.  The one thing about the Maasai Mara reserve is that drivers are allowed to drive off road and you can get right up close to the animals.

To cheetah at the base of an acacia tree.
The lodge was beautiful.  The rooms were permanent tents i.e. canvas walls on a permanent floor.  They had electricity, hot water, and bathrooms better than most hotels.  I wouldn't even call this glamping (Glamour Camping) - too nice and not mobile.  The main lodge had a huge fireplace, a large screen TV to watch the world cup on, and a very nice restaurant.  There was also a pool that we did not use.  The whole thing was built along the Mara river where we could hear hippos grunting (The Wife accused me of snoring loudly until she realized it was hippos making the noise).

I loved the acacia trees.  They are so cool looking.
June 18th

Inflating our hot air balloon.
Today was an early start ... really early.  We got up at 3:15 AM to catch our ride to the launching point of our hot air balloon ride.  The drive was about two hours and totally in the dark.  We were amazed that our driver could navigate the dirt paths where there was absolutely no signs pointing the way.

Sunrise from the hot air balloon.
We arrived, met our balloon pilot, and watched as the hot air balloons were inflated.  There were two balloons with large baskets that would easily hold twelve people plus the pilot.  Once the balloon was filled we climbed into the basket and away we went.  The sun was rising and it was near perfect weather.
Hippopotamus wallowing in the Mara river.
Our shadow.
An excited exclamation point which mirrors how I felt.
The balloon safari was different from what I'd expected.  The burner was not run as often as I thought they would be.  When the burner wasn't lit it was quiet and peaceful.  We also flew lower than I thought possible.  Over the savanna we flew some ten to twenty feet over the grass giving us an up close and personal view of the zebra and wildebeest.  We say hyena, hippopotamus, and gazelle.  We skimmed the tops of the trees and saw monkey, giraffe, and elephant among the trees.  It was amazing.

When it was time to land the pilot looked for a dry spot.  It had rained the night before and the land was swampy with almost an inch of standing water.  The balloon slowly descended.  We assumed landing positions (sitting on the benches in the basket holding onto straps) and prepared for the bumpy landing.  The landing was just like our pilot had described it before we launched.  The basket bounced and hopped a few times until we stopped.  We were going to congratulate the pilot for an awesome landing until the basket slowly ... very slowly ... tipped over onto its side.  The roll over was so gentle we didn't even splash in the watery mud - I was expecting a mud shampoo.  We all laughed a bit before we carefully climbed out of the basket.

Jeeps picked us up and took us to a long table set up along the Mara river. The table was dolled up with fancy linen and silverware and we all enjoyed a champagne breakfast.

A cape buffalo with riders.
After breakfast we got back in the jeeps and had a nice three hour safari drive back to our lodge.  On the way we saw a huge herd of elephants with babies, giraffes, and baboons.

Elephants as far as the eye could see.  The green mound is a termite mound - they were everywhere.

At the lodge we ate lunch and had a nap before going out for our late afternoon safari drive.  That would be the pattern at all the places we went - a morning safari drive, a break over lunch, and an afternoon safari drive before dinner.  We rejoined Ol and Gt, who we'd met the day before (and were not on the balloon safari with us), and went out on out afternoon drive.  Ol and Ghad seen two leopards mating on their morning safari drive.  Our driver tried to find more so that we could see them but had no luck.  We did see other animals, of course.

A large elephant.
We saw a couple of white rhinoceros.  The rhinoceros horns are often poached and these two rhinoceros were followed by three armed guards who stayed with them all day.  They were herded into a pen at night for their protection.  (The white rhinoceros are fairly non-aggressive but the black are very aggressive and cannot be herded/guarded like the white rhinoceros.)  Sad that the guards are need.

A white rhinoceros who was accompanied by three armed guards for its protection.
Late on that day we found a pride of lions.  We stopped and watched them with a few other jeeps.  The animals were so used to the jeeps that they walked among the jeeps and really didn't care we were there.  I got an awesome picture of two cubs nursing less than twenty feet from out jeep.  We also witnessed a lion greeting.  A lone lion come over a hill.  The pride perked up and watched the stranger approach.  When she got close enough the pride recognized her as one of their own and they all went over to greet her and welcome her back.  It was a wonderful thing to see.  The pride was mostly female with one juvenile male with just the start of a mane.

Cubs nursing so very close to out jeep.
There were four jeeps there and we all got a great view of the lions ... except for one teenage girl.  She must have been fighting with her parents since, while everyone was standing up and looking at the lions through the open tops of the jeeps, she was sitting down, ear buds in her ears, with her back to the lions.  Someday she may realize just what she missed.

Loved the giraffes.
That night we had dinner (we being the Wife and I and our tour mates from Pittsburgh) with Ol and Gt.  They were great guys.  They made our experience in the Maasai Mara a better one with their conversation and humor.   Too bad we would be saying good bye to them the next day.

June 19th

We checked out of the lodge early in the morning and had one more safari drive on the way to the airport.  We still didn't see any leopards but we did see African Wild Dogs which are rare for this area of Kenya.  While Ol and Gt managed to see the big five in twenty-four hours, we only managed to see four.  The big five are the five animals most sought after by hunters: lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceros, and cape buffalo.

African Wild Dog.
At the airport we headed to the next chapter of our safari.

A sampling of the pictures of Nairobi and the Maasai Mara can be found in my 2014-06 Kenya Google Photos album.

Monday, July 21, 2014

African Adventure: Morocco - Marrakech

June 11th

Today was going to be a long day involving visiting two towns in the Atlas mountains before driving to Marrakech.  The night before our guide suggested we skip the towns and go directly to Marrakech instead.  The difference would be a seven hour drive instead of a ten hour one.  The Wife and I did a few Google searches.  The towns sounded touristy and not that interesting.  One was a ski resort, not my idea of authentic Moroccan.

The other American family who was on their own tour parallel to ours were offered the same choices as we were.  Apparently both guides didn't think it was worth the extra three hours.  All three of us on the tour, as well as the other American family, ended up deciding to skip the mountain drive and take the quicker route to Marrakech.

A few days later I would wonder if we made the right decision.  I'd seen pictures of the Atlas mountains and I'd hope to see them on this trip.  We would end up not seeing what I'd expected to see.  I suspect the extra three hours would have given me what I wanted.

The drive from Fes to Marrakech was uneventful and I took no pictures this day.

June 12th

Le Jardin Majorelle.
Today was our tour of Marrakech.  We started at Le Jardin Majorelle, the villa and gardens once owned by Yves Saint-Laurent.  The gardens are now open to the public and the buildings are now a museum of Berber history, art, and culture.  We walked through the well maintained gardens before touring the museum where we saw tools, clothes, and other Berber items.  Yves Saint-Laurent's ashes are buried in the garden.

The columns, mosaics, and carved plaster of the Saadian tombs.
After the gardens we visited the Saadian tombs.  We ended up seeing quite a few tombs in Morocco.  The Saadian tombs were just as magnificent as the ones we saw in Rabat and Fes.  The mosaic work and the carved plaster work were exquisite.

Last major stop for the morning was the Bahia palace built by the Grand Vizier in the late 19th century.  Another display of opulent Moroccan architecture.  Here we learned more about the culture and the harems - the palace is named after one of the Vizier's wives.

We ate lunch, another tadjine of course, at a restaurant near the palace. After lunch we stopped at a herbalist/pharmacy where we learned of different herbal remedies used by the Moroccan people as well as spices used in the cooking.  It was interesting ... and fragrant.

The souk or marketplace.
The day was heating up so we headed back to our Riad.  Temperatures in Marrakech were approaching 105°F (40.6°C) and we would spend the hottest hours in our hotel.  During this down time the Wife got a henna tattoo in the Riad spa (pictures are on Facebook if you are my Friend).

Our afternoon, once it cooled off a bit, was the large Djemaa El Fna square.  We walked around the souk, finished most of our Moroccan shopping, and ended in the large open square where large food stalls were being set up for later in the day.  We stopped at a tea house perched on top of a building overlooking the square where we avoided the tea but enjoyed our Coke Zeros.

Panoramic view from the rooftop tea house.
After a brief rest we returned to ground level and walked the square.  The Wife got her picture taken with monkeys.  I avoided getting my picture taken with the snakes.  We walked among the food stalls before stopping at a stall that sold music CDs.  The Wife had told our guide of her interest in the Muslim call to prayer.  After listening to clips of several CDs, the guide picked a recording of the cantor who calls the prayer in Mecca.  I have to admit hearing the call to prayer is always a highlight of visiting a Muslim country.

The three of us had dinner at the Riad before heading for bed.  It was another nice day in Morocco.  Tomorrow we would head out into the countryside.

June 13th

Our last day in Morocco was spent in the Ourika Valley.  We got a small taste of the Atlas mountains during our drive.

Our first stop of the day was at a village's weekly market.  We saw what the average Moroccan would buy and what services they could get at the market including barbers/dentists and healers of various kinds.  One of the stops confused us a bit.  We were going through the meat market (a vegetarian's nightmare).  There were goat and sheep heads on the ground in front of the stalls to indicate how fresh the meat was.  Our guide stopped at one stand and proceeded to bargain for and purchase a half a sheep.  We all were wondering if he was doing some grocery shopping during our tour.

We got back in our car and headed up in to the valley.  We made a stop along the way to drop off the meat - I assumed he had a friend up here with a fridge to store his groceries.  We passed Mick Jagger's home up in the hills.  We passed Brigitte Bardot's former house.  It was a beautiful valley and I could understand why one would want a home here.

As we drove higher into the mountains the temperature dropped noticeably.  At our turn around point we stopped and walked down to the river that flowed down the rather narrow valley.  The area was a popular vacation area for Moroccan's to beat the heat.  A few of us soaked their feet and we got our picture taken.

We started back down and stopped at a mill.  The water powered mill was in a small farmer's house.  We saw how he made flour and cornmeal, how their home was organized, and how Berber families lived out in the countryside.

We returned to the place our guide had dropped off his groceries.  It turned out not to be for his family but for us.  He'd dropped off the half of sheep to a family who cooked us all a meal.  As is customary, the food was prepared by the women of the home but they did not eat with us.  It was Friday and the men of of the house were at the Mosque for prayer.  The tajine was delicious and the meat was tender.  Another excellent meal.  Entertainment was provided by a kitten who decided she would join us for lunch and go hunting for wild napkins.

Our lamb tajine over couscous - Yum.
We returned to our Marrakech Riad and rested for the remainder of the afternoon.  Our tour mate, Ac, spent her time having a hammam.

That evening we were going to have our farewell dinner.  We met our guide in the Riad lobby and he took us to our waiting horse drawn carriage.  The carriage took us back to Djemaa El Fna square.  A comedy festival was starting and people were watching Charlie Chaplin projected on a large outdoor screen.  Is was a bit surreal.  The carriage wound itself through the stalls and restaurant tents until we reached our destination, the Palais Soleiman.

The night started with a Moroccan salad (eight to ten small bowls with different vegetables and salads).  While we ate the music started and out came the belly dancer.  Everyone in the restaurant stopped eating to watch her.  She danced with all the men ... she tried to get me up but I defensively turning my face red until she went away.  I took a movie and pictures ... none that turned out in the low light of the room.

We were then served a whole half of sheep.  This was followed by a large tadjine.  We ended up leaving early and skipping dessert - there was just so much food one could eat.

Pictures of Marrakech can be found in my 2014-06 Morocco Google Photos album.

June 14th and June 15th

The next two days were travel days.  It's amazing how long it takes to get from one part of Africa to another.  We ended up flying to Madrid.  We had a thirteen hour layover so we spent the night at the same hotel where I stayed during my first Camino in 2011 (a coincidence since our travel agent made the reservations).

We got up early the next day, ate at the airport McDonald's (the only place open at that hour), rechecked our bags and flew through security (no lines that early in the morning), and caught a plane to London Heathrow airport where we then caught a direct flight to Nairobi.  I managed to watch four movies between London and Nairobi.

In Nairobi we were picked up at the airplane by an expediter who drove us to the terminal (bypassing the crowded bus) and we went through the diplomat/VIP queue to get out passports stamped.  It felt a bit naughty.  The electricity went out two or three times as we waited for our bags to arrive on the belt.

A driver picked us up and dropped us off at our hotel.  It was late, it was dark, and we really didn't see anything on the way to the hotel.

Tomorrow our Safari adventure would start ... with a free day.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Loss Of Myself And The Celebration Of Another Year Of Life

As I've grown older it's been easier to accept, and celebrate, my birthday.  This birthday, my fifty-first, I am celebrating with an ice cream cake provided by my Mom - a delicious ice cream cake I might add.

As I've gotten older I have tried to accept the changes that come with age.  Unexpected aches and pains in places I didn't know I had resulting from activity that I've done hundreds of times before without consequence.  You start to understand all about the products that are advertised for that group that you will never belong to, senior citizens.  With acceptance of the aging process has come a greater acceptance of birthdays.  It is not always easy though.

There is one thing that I'm having a difficult time accepting.  My reaction to it often results in arguments, embarrassment, and hours of stewing.  I have difficulty accepting memory loss.

I have encounters holes in my memory.  Some large (whole concerts, whole streets, forgotten) and some small (conversations that I would never forget, forgotten).  My reaction every time is the same - confusion, denial, anger, and fear - for what are we but accumulated memories and when a memory dies, does not part of us die with it?

How do you know when you have forgotten something?  For me is seems to always involve the Wife who always gets the raw end of my denial and anger.  It is embarrassing for me but even more so for the Wife when my existential crisis blows up in public like it did just a couple weeks ago in front of her family.  I am sorry to the Wife and her family for the discomfort and embarrassment I caused.

Perhaps in time I will learn to accept my memory loss as well and put it all in a safe place.  Until that time arrives I will have to be careful how I react to my loss ... and have me another piece of ice cream cake.

P.S.  Thank you to everyone who have sent their birthday wishes and cards.  Thank you to the Wife for the delicious cupcakes.  Thank you to mom for the delicious ice cream cake.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Camping Indian Cave Or "I've Never Seen So Many Daddy Longlegs In My Life!"

Last night I went for my second ever overnight camping experience.  This time I went to Indian Cave State Park.

While I planned for months for my first overnight camp, this time I pretty much packed the day before.  I had an idea of where I was going to camp but that changed the night before as well.  I'd originally planned to camp somewhere on the East Ridge Trail part of Indian Cave.  Instead I picked two camps as first and second choices on trails to the west of the East Ridge trail.  The campsites I picked were a bit more remote ... though we are only talking a mile or two at most to the first campsite.

I drove down yesterday afternoon, paid for a one day pass and a campsite fee and headed for the designated backpacker parking nearest to my first choice.  I get there and the parking lot was closed due to road work and river dredging.  I turned around and went to the another parking lot about a half mile up the road.

I geared up, sprayed Deet on my pants to ward off ticks ... but I decided not to spray my arms until I got to the campsite.  This would end up being a mistake.  I ended up getting a slew of bites on my elbows before I reached my final campsite.

My final campsite was neither my first nor my second choice.  I followed the map that I'd picked up at the gate to what I thought was the location of the first campsite.  I found nothing there.  I moved on to the location of the second campsite ... and once again found nothing.  I suspect they were both overgrown.  Several of the trails I was on were overgrown in spots and were in need of some tender loving care.  After adding a couple miles to my short hike looking for these two campsites, I decided to follow a sign to an Adirondack shelter instead.

An Adirondack shelter is a building with a floor, three walls, and a ceiling.  The front of the building is open.  The shelter was perched at the end of a ridge and was surrounded by trees and tall brush.  A fire ring was about five feet from the open end of the shelter.  There was very little flat land around the shelter to put up my tent.  I decided this would be a good opportunity to try out something.  Some campgrounds, including some along the Appalachian Trail, have raised wooden platforms for people to tent on.  This is great if you have a freestanding tent but my ultralight tent is not freestanding - it requires tent stakes pushed into the ground.  The floor of the shelter would be a good place to test a solution to this problem.

My tent pitched in an Adirondack shelter - not the proper way to use an Adirondack shelter.
Now, the proper way to use an Adirondack shelter is to place you sleeping pad/bag combination on the floor and not pitch your tent.  You are not supposed to pitch you tent inside the shelter like I ended up doing.  I'm sure I was breaking some unwritten camping rule but I had a couple good reasons:  to test pitching the tent without test stakes and to avoid all the critters in the shelter.

Anticipating (though not expecting to do this during my second camp) I packed four screw in hooks.  I screwed the hooks into the floor of the shelter and used them instead of the tent stakes.  They worked great.  They were actually better than tent stakes as they wouldn't pull out when tension was added to the tie down cords.  Note to self: be careful where you put the hooks - they like to fall between the slats in the floor and can be hard to fish out once they do - a hard learned lesson.

Using a screw in hook instead of a tent stake.
My tent has a floor and mesh walls to keep the insects out.  A rain fly covers the tent to keep out the elements and provide some privacy.  One of the mesh wall's functions is to keep out insects.  I was very grateful for the mesh.  It really wasn't the mosquitoes so much - they were a problem - but the wasp warning worried me a bit and the dozens of Daddy Longlegs just creeped me out.

I built a fire ... even though I had a lighter, it took me way too long .  I will have to work on my fire starting skills.  I have a few ideas to try next time.  I ate my dehydrated meal (beef stroganoff - Yum) and spent most of the evening reading, shooing away the daddy longlegs exodus who apparently thought the setting sun meant "let's leave the shelter" no matter if I was in the way, and playing with the Hiker TV (i.e. the fire).

I went to bed around 10:00 PM after watching the clouds turn red and pink from the sunset.  My sleep was a bit restless but I ended up sleeping more than on my first camping trip.  I think I'm just a little bit too anxious to sleep well.  With more camping trips I will be less anxious and I will sleep better.  Add in a little hiker exhaustion and I will sleep like a baby.

I woke up this morning with the first light.  I spent a minute knocking off all the daddy longlegs who thought the outside of my tent would be a great place to hang out during the day before I packed up my camp and returned home.  A successful second camp.  Time to plan for my third.

Monday, July 14, 2014

African Adventure: Morocco - Fes, Volubilis, And Meknes

June 9th

The city of Fes.
Today we explored the city of Fes.  We started with a brief visit to the royal city and the nearby Jewish quarter of the city.  The visit was brief and I suspect this was the "see, we are friends with the Jews" part of the tour.  The quarter was mainly shops and commerce.

Next we stopped at an overlook that gave us a wonderful view of the city of Fes.  It was a beautiful day.  Our guide pointed out where we had been and where we would be going later in the morning, the medina.

Clay pots drying in the sun.
These tours are often subsidized by visits to local merchants and factories.  These stops are often interesting and informative.  I don't think I've always learned something at the "commercial" stops along the way.  Our first such "commercial" stop was at a pottery/mosaic factory.  We watched as the local Berber Tajine pots were made and learned how they handmade the intricate mosaics.  The artistry was impressive.  This visit ended in the gift shop where we supported the local economy.

Walking the narrow, vendor lined streets of the Fes medina.
The next stop was the most anticipated for me this day - the visit to the medina.  We were dropped off at a convenient entrance to the medina and we followed our guide through the twisting, narrow streets lined with vendors selling stuff including fresh food of all types.  It was a bit overwhelming as we tried to soak up all the sights, sounds, and smells as we dodged overloaded donkeys and carts in the narrow passage ways.  Among the sounds were men pounding out large vats used during marriage celebrations.  They hammered the copper pots with a musical rhythm that attracted a crowd.  No way we could have done this without a guide.

Metal lamps.
In the medina we visited a mosque, a madrasa (Islamic school), and the buildings of the university.  It was a lot to take in as we wandered among the crowd of people shopping the medina streets.  We took a break to have lunch in a small storefront restaurant.  The restaurant was owned by a former circus performer and his family.  From the neck up he was a man of seventy-one years.  From the neck down he looked like a man in his lower thirties.  While we ate our yummy lunch he demonstrated his physical prowess by doing handstands in the middle of the tiny restaurant.  He put a smile on everyone's face.

The inside of the madrasa or Islamic school.
After lunch we visited a rug merchant.  We were given our umpteenth-zillion cup of hot mint tea before they started to unroll the magnificent wool rugs (I'm not a fan of hot liquids and the mint teas were too hot to drink ... and they were served everywhere we stopped in Morocco). The owner first explained a little about the Riad that his stores was in, pointing out common features of Moroccan architecture: marble floors, a water feature, mosaic tiles, intricately carved plaster, and cedar wood ceilings. They moved on to show us their rugs. Our visit didn't last long as the Wife is allergic to wool. A few unfurled rugs and she was making a hasty retreat to the street for fresh air. Needless to say we didn't buy any rugs. The Wife itched and had a drippy nose the rest of the day (note to self - pack benadryl next time).

Our medina tour ended with a visit to a tannery where we saw them process leather.  I'd seen this before on TV and it was really cool in person.  We were given Moroccan gas masks (sprigs of mint) to cover the rather pungent smell of the open air tanning process.

A smelly tannery.
That night we had dinner with our driver at a local restaurant not far from our hotel.  We had a tadjine (of course - it was as common as the cups of mint tea).  The tadjine, similar to stew, always had some of the most tender meat I've ever eaten.  I didn't have a bad tadjine the entire stay in Morocco ... but I ate so many of them - beef, chicken, and lamb - that they became old after a while. Our driver only knew basic English and we knew little Arabic or French so our conversation was simple but full of smiles and laughter. We had a fun time and good food.

Our drive walked us back to the hotel.  It's odd ...  unlike most places where you tend to walk on the same side as you drive, Moroccan's drive on the left but walk on the right.

June 10th

Barrage Sidi Chahed Lake.
The next morning we left Fes and drove out into the countryside.  We drove passed farm land and a lake on our way to roman ruins.

Our first stop of the day were the Roman ruins of Volubilis.  The ruins are famous for their mosaics.  The mosaics were impressive as were the storks roosting on the top of some of the ruins.  We walked around the complex as our guide pointed out the features of the buildings and the subjects of the mosaics.  We bought our first magnet (of many) here.

The Triumphal Arch at Volubilis.
We stopped for lunch at the nearby town of Moulay Idriss - where Islam was first brought to Morocco - before we drove on to the city of Meknes.   Meknes, one of the four imperial cities of Morocco, is the home of the royal stables that once held over 20,000 horses.  The stables were adjacent to a huge food storage facility.  The thick walls and water cooled interior made the structure feel air conditioned.  The storage facility allowed the city to survive long sieges.

The royal stables in Meknes.
Next we visited the rather creepy prison where the king once kept captives until they either died or their country/families paid a ransom. The prison was underground and was lit by holes bored in the ceiling ... holes that were added for the tourists. When it was a prison is would be absolutely dark and the only way to see the sun was to be freed. The whole place, while well lit today, felt a bit spooky today.  (I've included a couple pictures in my Morocco 2014 Flickr album but they do not to the spookiness justice.)

From the prison we walked to the nearby mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, the local ruler between 1672–1727 and builder of many of the places we visited this day. He and other members of his family buried here are considered the founding family of Morocco.  The mausoleum, like all the other Moroccan buildings, was spectacular with intricate mosaics, carved plaster, and cedar roofs.

The Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail.
The last stop of the day was the Bab El Mansour gate. The gate, designed by El Mansour, is one of the most spectacular imperial gates. When the king asked El Mansour if he could do better, El Mansour said "yes". The angry king had El Mansour executed. We had our pictures taken in front of the gate before we returned to Fes.

The Bab El Mansour Imperial Gate.
That night we had our last dinner in Fes at our hotel which was just as good as the first dinner in Fes which we also ate in the hotel.

Tomorrow ... Marrakech.

Pictures of Fes, Volubilis, and Meknes can be found in my 2014-06 Morocco Google Photos album.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

African Adventure: Morocco - Casablanca, Rabat, And Fes

Our travels this year would take us to three countries in Africa.  The first of these was Morocco.

We were dropped off at the airport by the Wife's brother and we had a fairly smooth trip from Omaha to Casablanca via Chicago and Frankfurt.  The longest layover was in Frankfurt which gave us time to handle our check in (we had to collect our luggage and recheck it for some reason) and we relaxed in the very comfortable lounge recliners with a pretzel for the Wife and a chocolate croissant for me.

We arrived in Casablanca late on the 7th of June.  We missed the tour of Casablanca that had been scheduled for the first day but our guide set up a private tour of city for the next morning.  We went to bed on a very comfortable bed ... that is as soon as we could figure out the weird switch setup and turned off all the lights.

June 8th

We were picked up by our driver (Yf) and our guide (Nd) and we headed for our first stop of the day, the Hassan II Mosque.  The mosque is the largest in Africa and the 7th largest in the world.  We took a tour of the very impressive structure.  The mosque was designed by a french architect and built using predominantly Moroccan materials and labor.  The mosque is built on the Atlantic Ocean coast and partially hangs out over the water.  The roof, like some stadiums in the US, opens to allow open air prayer.

Interior of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca.
After the mosque we stopped at a beach festival where Moroccan youth were cleaning the beach and celebrating.  We met an artist friend of our guide.  I have to admit that the Wife and I weren't sure why we were here.  I imagine our guide was showing off the progressiveness of Moroccan youth and the art of his friend.  This was not my idea of a normal tour stop but we didn't stop for long.

Our next stop was the downtown area of Casablanca.  Before the mosque was built this part of the city was the main attraction in Casablanca.  The central square was surrounded with old colonial buildings.  My impression was it was very run down.

We returned to our hotel and picked up the rest of our group which consisted of one person.  There was another family that opted to form their own private tour group, figuring that they would overwhelm other tour members.  We would see them all along the tour as we were traveling the same itinerary.  They seemed nice and I think we all would have gotten along nicely.  In the end, though, our group of three made it easy to travel with and our travel companion, Ac, turned out to be a good travel companion.

Together as a group we left Casablanca.  The city didn't leave me with much of an impression.  The one thing we had not done was visit Rick's Cafe (famous from the movie "Casablanca").  Ac went there the night before and said the staff was rude and the food was underwhelming so we didn't really miss anything there.   I think I was expecting more from Casablanca.

A gate of the royal palace and the Moroccan flag.
There is one soldier representing each of the branches of the military and police.
We drove to the capital city of Rabat.  Our first stop was the royal palace.  There were no public tours so we just saw the outside but the architecture was interesting. As a royal palace it was understated but this is true for a lot of the architecture I saw in Morocco - plain on the outside and incredibly beautiful on the inside.

The mausoleum of Mohammed V.
Next we stopped at the Mausoleum of Mohammed V.  The impressive tomb holds the remains of Mohammed V, the king of Morocco who negotiated independence from the French, and his son King Hassan II.  The architectural artistry of the mausoleum was very impressive.  There were elaborately uniformed guards and an Imam reading the Koran.

It was lunch time when we left the mausoleum so we stopped at a seaside restaurant.  Rabat is known for its seafood ... unfortunately none of us were fans of seafood but the buffet at the restaurant had a good variety of foods.  We ate at a table overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the ocean breeze felt good.  It was not hot here but it would be much hotter later in the week.

We walked off our lunch with a stroll along the beach to the nearby kasbah.  The kasbah is a walled area of the city with narrow, almost maze like streets.  It was interesting walking through the narrow streets and seeing how people lived.  We stopped at a cafe with a view of the Bou Regreg river before walking back to our car.

The Kasbah wall overlooking the Bou Regreg river.
We left Rabat and drove on to the city of Fes - with a pit stop where I had a magnum bar.  Our hotel in Fes, the Riad Fes, was located in the medina - a maze like district of narrow streets similar to the kasbah we'd visited earlier in the day.  The car could not enter the narrow streets so we were dropped off as close as possible and we followed our guide through the narrow canyon-like avenues to the entrance of our hotel.  Not sure if I could ever find that place on my own.  The hotel was magnificent.  A Riad is a Moroccan home with a courtyard.  The hotel was a combination of three Riad and, like the streets outside, was a maze of corridors and staircases.

We rested the remainder of the afternoon in the hotel with a substantial time spent at the terrace bar located on the top floor of the Riad.  The city view was nearly 360° - magnificent - and the breeze felt wonderful.  Dinner was in the hotel restaurant, a rather famous restaurant people travel to to eat at.  The food was really good including the chocolate lava cake with ice cream.

The night skyline of Fes from the terrace bar of our Riad.
Tomorrow we would explore the city of Fes.

Pictures of Casablanca, Rabat, and Fes can be found in my 2014-06 Morocco Google Photos album.