Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dar Es Salaam

Jambo, Jambo!! That's hello here in Tanzania. Already our attempts at learning Swahili are paying off. We said goodbye to Mozambique and our less than stellar attempts at speaking Portuguese, and arrived in Dar es Salaam, the capital city. Swahili and English are the two official languages of the country. // We could instantly tell we were getting closer to the equator as the weather was hotter than our warmest days in Tofo. Driving from the airport to our hotel, you could easily tell the differences between these two capital cities. Dar had good roads, side walks and less trash piled on the side on the road - a clear contrast from Maputo. We actually never saw any trashcans in Maputo, and so it's not surprising that it ended up in the street. //. After a long and hot day of traveling, we decided to just stay at our hotel for dinner that night, which turned out to be a great choice. The food and outdoor garden atmosphere was good, but the highlight was the company. We sat at a table with two people from Johns Hopkins' public health program, and their local contact, a doctor from Tanzania joined us as well. Turned out the doctor was an infectious diseases specialist, as well as a fountain of knowledge and a good storyteller. He assured us that getting malarone (the malaria medicine) would not be a problem, and even gave us the name of a pharmacy that would be sure to have it. The next day we walked into a pharmacy and acquired the medicine, sealed with the Glaxo Smith Kline labeling, confirmed it had a good expiration date, and it was even cheaper than in the US. Betsy now has enough malarone and Hugh is back on Lariam, still disappointed with not having any psychotic dreams. Going back to the dinner from the night before, the two people from Hopkins were telling us stories of Baltimore's dangerous streets, as the topic of safety came up since we were in what is considered one of Africa's most dangerous cities. Apparently, according to them, the police have put up blue lights on telephone poles at the edges of the bad neighborhoods so that students, visitors, etc., don't accidentally walk the wrong way. One of them lamented that Google maps does not consider the blue lights when mapping out directions. //. We did not do much in Dar, as there was not very much to see. Since we only had plans to visit one tourist site, our first priority was mailing back some of our stuff that we no longer needed that took up a lot of space in our baggage, like our sleeping bags. Tanzania does have a national postal system, but like any good third world country, it was always the person at the other counter, which is easy to find just "over there", who would be able to help us. After 2 &1/2 hours of trying to buy a big enough box, having it inspected, sealed, wrapped in paper, then completely wrapping the box in packing tape, as we were instructed to do, the box was mailed. The woman at the post office said it would take one week to get to the US. We will be happy if it arrives at all. //. We visited the National Museum, which had some interesting fossils of early man and some history of the country. There was also a small memorial to the victims (who were Tanzanian) from the bombing of the US embassy by bin Laden, back in 1998. It was mostly wreckage, twisted bicycles, broken glass, etc., but conveyed the right emotion. No pictures of it, as photography in the museum cost extra, and we didn't pay. //. That night we had dinner at a restaurant that we found highly recommended on TripAdviser. It was an outdoor/sidewalk BBQ/Indian/Chinese restaurant called Mamboz. It was not a very clean place, but the food was great. The fires of the bbq were putting out flames several feet high and the smoke was tremendous - so happy we sat upwind. The staff were friendly, random strangers came over to us recommending ways to use the different condiments, other random strangers came to our table to sell us DVDs, magazines, hairbrushes, maps, hangers, pillows, etc.(the table was on the sidewalk), and we got to watch the Dar street scene- we were entertained and didn't have to pay for the show. And our stomachs still felt fine the next day! //. The next day we were off on a ferry to Zanzibar. It was only then that we started to use the camera again, as we had been a little skittish at having it in most places in Dar. Here is Dar from the ferry, and it does look kind of pretty from the sea.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Friday, September 23, 2011


Leaving a small town like Praia do Tofo is not always easy. We "knew" there was a bus that could take us to Maputo but without a bus station, most of the information is transmitted by word of mouth. Word of mouth is a bit harder when you don't speak the same language as those who have the information. The evening before we were leaving, we had one of our dive masters help introduce us to the bus driver who was hanging out in the central market and we made our arrangements: meet the bus at 4 am. The bus experience is typical of the undeveloped world, but I can say that there were no live chickens or other animals being transported with us, as experienced in some other countries. It was about 9 hours later of breathing fumes and a lack of personal space that we arrived in the capital city, Maputo. // Since starting our African vacation, we came across two magazine articles titled 48 Hours in Maputo, which made us very excited for our planned 48 hours in town. Unfortunately, our expectations from reading the articles clearly exceeded reality, and so we are going to keep this blog shorter and limit the photos. All the meals were great (we definitely suggest anyone visiting here to eat at Zambi's), except for the one restaurant that both articles and our guide book highly recommended and said couldn't be missed - Restaurant Costa do Sol. Even though they proudly print on their dilapidated menus that Wayne Newton has been there, it is not worth a visit for the ocean view, the food or the long, non-scenic ride to get there. But the flies there are skilled at swimming in wine glasses. //. Most tourist sites were not that special and run down. The train station, supposedly ranked in the top 10 most beautiful around the world, is nice, not thrilling, but nice. Same excitement with the iron building by architect Gustav Eiffel, of the Parisian tower fame. It's the greenish one on the right.

To be fair, Maputo is best known for it's nightlife, but being Monday and Tuesday nights, it was pretty quiet and we were unable to find live music. I (Hugh) did find a place to get a haircut, and I think the barber was enjoying cutting the hair of an American.

The people there were very friendly. When we had a hard time getting the bus, the locals in the street helped us. But then, we were traveling on an unfamiliar street, missed our stop, and before we knew it, the bus left the city center and was headed to some other town. It was a few miles before we finally felt it was a safe enough neighborhood for us to get off and find a way back. We didn't miss our stop the second time. //. We were unable to buy more Malarone in Maputo so the malaria medication issue remains. (Hugh had to take some of Betsy's malaria medication while in Tofo as he would not have been allowed to dive while taking his medication [Lariam]). We have enough for now, but will need to acquire more at some point. //. When we made our reservations to fly from Maputo to Dar Es Salaam, we were told that there were two stops but we could not find out where. Hugh was betting on another routing through Johannesburg (would have been #4), but Betsy won this one: Nampula and Pemba, two cities in Mozambique. - Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Whale sharks and Beach living

We just finished our two week stay here in Tofo Beach, Mozambique and despite the fact that many elements of the volunteer program were disappointing, we have loved the diving and snorkeling and so we are happy we came. We liked that all of our dives and snorkel trips have been through the same dive shop (Diversity), so we've had the opportunity to get to know many of the dive masters, hang out with them and get more of the local experience. About half of the dive masters are Mozambican and they were trained through Bitonga Divers. Bitonga is a Mozambique organization whose primary goal is training locals to be dive masters, helping put some of the money brought into Mozambique for tourism back into Mozambican pockets. Bitonga offers many locals an alternative profession, one that gives them a stake in environmental conservation. Fishing is a way of life along the whole coast of Mozambique, and many fish have unfortunately been overfished. Many fishermen are having to also catch sharks and rays, even though it is illegal, in order to make money to feed their families. (The demand from the Chinese market for shark fin soup doesn't help). Not surprising, the numbers or sharks and rays off Mozambique have also started to decrease. A few of the dive masters we have gotten to know are former spear fishermen and are very happy to have new professions, and one that helps keep the ocean life in the water. A local hotel has marine life lectures throughout the week (Manta Monday's, Whale shark Wednesday's, etc..) and each Friday is a local talk, at locals talk about their life in Tofo, and hearing from one of the spear fishermen turned diver was cool.

We have had a lot of experiences here but unfortunately so many of them have involved sand or ocean, and therefore are not camera friendly activities. But we've downloaded a bunch of pictures from the waterproof camera we used in the research and of others in our group and so finally have some proof of whale sharks, humpbacks and more. We've seen whale sharks over 25', but this guy is about 20'.

Even if you accept that he has no interest in eating you, when this mouth is open and swimming at you, you really try to get out the way.

We saw some turtles swimming at the surface and also along the bottom, this guy is ~2' across.

There were lots of eels and rays, and we can't recall how many different species of each we saw. Sorry there are no photos of mantas, but we didn't get a good view of them until our last day of diving, which was without a camera. And the photos of the other rays aren't that good. But here is a Honeycomb eel:

Trumpet Fish

Potato Bass (maybe; Hugh didn't pass the Fish ID Test and Betsy can't remember for sure):

Lion Fish:

We were very happy to be here during humpback whale season, which we had thought we were going to miss. We were excited by how close we were, watching them breach or slap the water with their pectoral fins.

Location:Tofo, Mozambique

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Conservation Pt 2

All the comments that get posted on the blog are emailed to us as well, so we are glad that you are enjoying following our adventures and we wish to respond and update you. Regarding the Swakopmund post, we found out that Nando's actually does have some franchises open in the US; looks like in the DC- northern VA area. And Peter, who asked for us to spice things up a bit, with some major movie style action - we are trying. The boat we were on just the other day started coming apart and we almost had to abandon ship. The boat launches and landings are rife with potential for harm but no injury yet. Each time, the boat starts on the beach at the edge of the surf. We then all push the boat into the water into the surf. When the surf is high, we get pounded. It can be pretty exciting.

Then the driver puts the throttle to full and we all hold on for dear life bouncing over the waves until we get out of the surf zone. We are not boat owners, but it doesn't seem necessary to go top speed; and it does feel pretty close to mayhem. And then to land the boat, they drive into the surf zone and gun it once more until we are beached. If there weren't straps for our feet, we might be thrown 100' from the boat.

In the aforementioned boat issue, one of the pontoons started to separate from the boat's plastic shell. As the tear grew, larger and larger sprays of water were gushing at us - while Betsy moved to the "dry" side, I (Hugh) was getting hit in the face and chest with enough water that I felt like I was being dragged behind the boat, instead of being actually on it. There were some South African tourists onboard with us, and they were actually enjoying it, more as it got worse: they even started singing songs as they were getting blasted with water. Eventually, the driver decided there was too much water coming onboard and a high probability that the pontoon would just completely fail, so he stopped and called in a rescue boat. Mozambique has been fun and educational: 1. We learned that bread conducts electricity. The toaster at the volunteer house is one of the pop-up types for sliced bread, but we only have rolls which do not fit in well. If we try to push the bread in the slot after starting the toasting process, zap! 2. There are two sizes of SIM cards used in today's mobile devices; the iPad uses the micro size which is not available in Mozambique. But with a scissor, our guide was able to make the standard size fit into the micro slot. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't be able to post any new blog entries

Tofo itself is not a major resort destination. Even though the diving community is well established here, there are no serious resort hotels, only small local establishments. There is a paved road that leads to Tofo, but within it there are only "roads" of sand. Pretty much every time we want to go somewhere we first have to walk to the beach to get there. In the mornings, the locals spread the fishing nets on the beach as we go jogging past. (We've increased our frequency from 3 times in 6 weeks to 5x over the last two. Betsy will run in her shoes while Hugh prefers barefoot). "Downtown" Tofo is a collection of huts and stalls made of wood, corrugated metal and thatch roofs. People are selling everything a little bit of everything - within 5 feet you could buy a coconut, flip flops or beer. A little bit of everything but nothing too exciting. We go almost every day to buy water as the tap water in the house is brown. This is the first place we visited in Africa where English is not the predominant language- portuguese and a bunch of different local African languages are used. Over the weekend when we were not working on the project, we found some other fun things to do; for instance, Betsy took a surf lesson and rode some massive waves.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Tofo, Mozambique

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Whale Shark Conservation

We left the west coast (Namibia), arrived on the other coast at Inhambane, Mozambique and then drove to the small nearby village of Tofo. From the sky we could easily tell things were going to be different - we could see palm trees everywhere and lush tropical vegetation. Most of where we had been had been so far the vegetation had been sparse, with large patches of land uncultivated and/or without weeds, and generally vegetation that was low-lying. We are now in a classic tropical paradise, where in the late afternoon you can find the locals playing soccer on the beach.

We are in Tofo as part of a conservation volunteer program. The main thrust is whale sharks, but we are also involved in other marine conservation efforts. We are going out on the water each day to either scuba dive or go snorkeling. The snorkel trips are where the majority of our whale shark efforts occur. The boat drives around until we spot a whale shark. Then we slip into the water and swim alongside it, which is just awesome. These fish are 15' and larger- the biggest we've seen is 24'. Although they eat plankton, and nothing larger, they have mouths big enough that either one of us could fit into it. It is a bit of a shock (in a very good way) when the shark first comes into view, and more so if their mouth is open and they are swimming towards you. It is so big, you find yourself just starring in awe of its size and beauty. It has been a lifelong dream of mine (Betsy) to swim with whale sharks, and it's absolutely just as amazing as hoped. As volunteers, one of our jobs is to take photos of the whale sharks. Researchers have discovered each whale shark has a unique spot pattern on the side of it's body, kind of like a fingerprint. A large part of the conservation work being done here includes tracking individuals in the whale shark population and observing their behavior, in order to learn about the population seen on the Mozambique coast, and elsewhere. There is a database being kept that is actually part of an international whale shark conservation program with people around the world taking ID photos of whale sharks and entering them into the database. It is a pretty cool system. Additionally, the researchers are trying is to establish a marine protection area in this region. If you are interested in swimming with whale sharks, there is a place off Cancun, Mexico that predictably has a population of whale sharks visit each July and August, due to the food source available at that time. Or you could come to Mozambique, but just don't come on the same program we did. We could easily fill a whole blog telling you how unorganized this program is, how unhelpful the volunteer coordinators are and what a shithole of a place we are living in. But the beach, the whale sharks and the diving are outstanding, and so we are still here. However, we are quite glad this is only a two week stint! It is unfortunate that the volunteer program run by All Out Africa sucks, because the cause is so good, and we like Marine Megafauna Association, the research organization that they work with. While going out to see the whale sharks on the Ocean Safaris, we also get to see some other stuff. We have seen dolphins, juvenile hammerhead sharks, and some other fish, including these fish called cobias that are often near the whale sharks, but from a distance look a lot like other kinds of sharks that we would rather not be in the water with. In addition, we did not realize that we would be here during humpback whale season - which is also amazing. We have never had such a great whale watching experience anywhere before. From shore and in the boats, we see whales all the time. The best part is when an adult and a calf are swimming together and the adult appears to teach the juvenile some typical whale behaviors. The adult will slap the water with the pectoral fins over and over again, while the juvenile tries to do it as well. This can last for over 10 minutes. The best viewing we had was on our ocean safari yesterday when the young whale was breaching over and over again, about 50 ft from our boat, sometimes closer, and the adult spent most of her time on her side or back slapping her fins. We were with them for about 15 minutes. It was spectacular. The scuba diving here is also pretty good. When we arrived, our coordinator told us that I (Hugh) may not be able to dive on this trip because I was taking Lariam, which is an anti-malarial drug. This is one of the many things that pissed us off, as we received plenty of material for this project, but many key items like that particular fact was never given. Fortunately, Betsy is taking a different anti-malarial, and so I stopped taking my medicine and switched to hers. Of course, there is no where nearby for us to get any malaria medicine, so at some point we will have to try and find some elsewhere (Dar Es Salaam? Nairobi?) Anyway, we have been scuba diving and there are tons of fishes. We studied the different fishes and are able to identify the "indicator" species which indicate the health of the reef ecosystem. We occasionally carry a clipboard and check off the fishes we see. We also got certified to dive deeper, as many of the dives are at a level past what the basic scuba course covers. We have seen many types of eels, a turtle, several rays, a white tip reef shark, and more. We have particularly enjoyed hearing the song of the humpback whales while underwater. We are looking forward to hopefully seeing a manta ray, as this is also a great place to see them. We don't have too many pictures as it is just not safe to bring the camera on the boat. There are not too many places to put it to keep it dry and with these boats there is constant water spraying. There is a waterproof camera that we occasionally use for the research, and we should have some photos for the blog from that for next time. I do have one picture of Betsy scuba diving from that camera.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Tofo, Mozambique

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Solitaire to Windhoek

In preparing for this self-drive portion of our trip, we read about being careful on the roads, trying to drive during daylight hours if possible, and most importantly - whenever you see a petrol station - fill up!! Even if you don't need the gas, because this is Africa and it is common for gas stations to simply run out of gasoline. You would have thought we would have taken all of these excellent recommendations. But you can already tell that we did not give this advice a lot of weight, since we already indicated that on our first day driving (from Swakopmund to the Naukluft mountains), we screwed around long enough that we drove the last hour in the dark. After enjoying our 2nd day in Sossusvlei-Sesriem, we decided it would be nice to start the drive and arrive at our hotel in mid-afternoon to enjoy a relaxing afternoon. We headed to the gas station convenience store in Sesriem for a cold drink before driving to Solitaire for the night, which is about 80km away. As we sat outside, looking at the gas pumps, we discussed buying petrol, but decided "nah, let's just wait until Solitaire", because we would be going to the gas station anyway when we go buy more apple pie from Moose. With that we hopped in the car, getting quite excited for our next bakery visit. We passed some beautiful scenery- we particularly liked this set of hills and nicknamed them the marble fudge cake mountains.

We received quite the reality check that we were clearly in Africa when we pulled into Solitaire and were told there was no petrol - they ran out. But maybe, the petrol truck would be in tomorrow morning, or maybe in the afternoon. Key word, maybe. This was not our proudest moment, as two people who like to consider themselves "smart" travelers. Waiting for the possibility of a petrol truck the next day was not an option for us, as we intended to leave very early in order to get our rental car back to Windhoek by noon. And it wasn't an option to get petrol on the way, because we would run out before the next petrol station, 200km away.

So, we got in the car and drove back to Sesreim, since we had enough petrol to get there, and it was the only petrol station within range. Of course we made sure we had enough energy for the drive by visiting Moose's bakery - chocolate brownies and blueberry cake today. We laughed at our dumb move and said oh well, more time in the car. But as we got closer to Sesreim, we started getting a bit nervous that maybe they didn't have fuel there either. After all, we had been at the station, but couldn't say we remembered actually seeing cars refueling. Luckily, they did have fuel. We filled up, drove back to Solitaire and arrived at our hotel about 2-1/2 hours later than planned. At that point, we were so happy to have a full tank and to be out of the car.

On a side note, we bought a CD in South Africa of African musicians and were hoping to listen to it in the car. Well, there was no CD player but surprisingly, it did have a USB jack which meant that we could use our iPod. The interface was unusual: we had to choose the music from the stereo and not from the iPod controls. However, it somehow reorganized the music into some playlists using a method that we were never able to decipher, except for one small commonality- 98% of the songs it chose were the worst songs on the iPod, and many of them I didn't even know I (Hugh) had. My iPod has a wide variety of music: a former roommate (Doug) combined all of his, mine and Rob E's music together and that is what is on my iPod. I squarely blame them for the abundance of poor tracks. Why this is relevant right now is because of the poor petrol decision, we now had over two extra hours to spend fast forwarding through the iPod. Our final night we stayed at the Solitaire Guest Farm, which Betsy chose for convenience, and we thought it was going to be a pretty non-descript place. As Hugh read the info booklet in our room, we learned that the guest farm is involved in wildlife conservation, and specifically cheetahs. Adjacent to the guest farm is a 500 hectare enclosure to rehabilitate cheetahs, preparing them for a return to the wild. We found out that they take guests into the enclosure to visit with the cheetahs. We quickly debated the importance and cost of getting back to Windhoek with the rental car in time vs. seeing cheetahs up close. So, the next morning we were driven into the cheetah pen. They tracked the cheetah using the radio collars until we got close. Then we got out of the car and walked on foot until we found them. First we found two females lying together under a bush. We were within 15' of them, which was really exciting. Then one of them stood up suddenly - we quickly got nervous until she started stretching and yawning. Later, we found a male but he was much deeper in the bushes. The fourth cheetah they had in the enclosure apparently does not let them get close and is always staying away and well hidden.

Now it was time to head towards Windhoek, which meant one last visit to see Moose; here with a fresh batch of apple pie. He actually was a happy gregarious person, Betsy just had bad timing with her photo.

This last portion of the drive was supposed to be easy. After traveling through desert (in the dry season) for the last few days, we were not expecting to have rivers to cross in our little car. Luckily, our little car made it safely, but not without a lot of apprehension and a bit of planning the best way to tackle the water.

We spent a day and a half in Windhoek and got ready to fly to the other coast for our next adventure: Mozambique. - Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Namib Desert - Sesriem

We were told that it is best to get to Sesriem-Sossusvlei for sunrise or just afterwards, and our hotel had even offered to knock on our door at 4:45 and provide a breakfast box to go in order to allow us to make haste. That made it surprising that no one was available to check us out for more than 20 minutes as we waited, not so patiently, watching it get lighter and lighter outside. The most agonizing part was that we kept being told that someone is coming "just now". This is one of those classic phrases that you learn again and again while traveling, and is similar to the Mexican "maƱana". In Namibia, "just now" means sometime in the future, but not any sort of specific future time. (At the next hotel, for our second day at the park, we were smart enough to pre-pay and make all checkout arrangements the night before.) Finally, we made it to the park. The area is famous for the giant red sand dunes and the white flat dry lake beds with these unusual-looking dead trees. The 65k drive from the park entrance to the most famous dunes offers some good opportunities to see animals, particularly springbok, oryx and ostrich, and the early morning light also makes for great landscape views. (Happy to report Hugh has been studying the camera manual and continues to explore other options beyond the "auto" picture setting).

Driving on the park's well-paved road was a treat particularly after the hundreds of miles of unpaved road we drove to get here. But the pavement came to an end, followed by a 4k long sand road where people like us have to leave their 2WD cars, and either walk or pay for a shuttle. Our guide book suggested that it is a pleasant walk that would give us a chance to view the desert landscape, so we chose to go on foot. We think we must have been the only ones to walk, and are sure sensible people do not choose a 2-1/2 mile walk in a hot, sandy desert when a vehicle is readily available. Particularly when the goal is to get to the base of the world's largest sand dune and then hike up it. Hiking up the Big Daddy sand dune was awesome. Thankfully, we had some good practice trekking up hill in sand from our sand boarding experience. Once we got some elevation, we started to see the dried lakebed below.

There were these little dune beetles that would zoom over the sand dune surface but then occasionally burrow into the sand and completely disappear.

Once we got to the top, we were able to take the steep straight "ski" slope down to the lake bed surface.

Before leaving the US, we had been shown a picture from National Geographic of this place, showing a tree, the white lake bed, and a red sand dune behind it - we were obsessed with getting a similarly cool image. As a result, we might have a photo catalogue of all the trees in the Deadvlei area.

There was a Swiss-German couple that was equally obsessed with photographing the trees and we bonded over it. They had a 4WD vehicle that they drove all the way and were mystified that we walked the final distance. We gladly accepted their offer of a ride back to our car, and continued exploring the park.

At the entrance to the park is another geologic site - Sesriem canyon. This is a canyon with steep walls. We walked on the canyon floor, which for the majority of the way was dry and sandy.

Near the mouth of the canyon, we noticed some baboons up on the higher elevations, and more than 100' away. At one point, I think they decided to not give us the welcome mat, and one of them started screeching and started charging towards us, but only for a couple of feet so he never got anywhere close. Betsy and I made sure to stick a little closer to each other while we were in their area. In between our 2 days at the sand dunes, we stayed at the Desert Camp, our favorite hotel during our time in the desert. The hotel was made up of individual little cottages, part structure, part canvas with lots of windows that zipped open and closed, so you could look at the mountains while taking a shower. The best part was each unit had it's own little outdoor kitchen with BBQ grill. We ordered food from their menu, which was delivered at 6pm, along with a box of cooking essentials/utensils. Hugh bbq'd an eland steak for the first time and we had a such a great night just cooking and dining al fresco. Here is the view from the "porch."

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Namib-Nakluft National Park, Namibia

Monday, September 5, 2011

Naukluft mountains

We left Swakopmund and headed into the desert - our destination was Namib-Nakluft National Park, known for being the home of the world's oldest desert with beautiful sand dunes, and the Nakluft Mountains, which has great hiking. Our mode of transportation was a little 2WD Volkswagen sedan, the Polo. Most of the roads we would be driving on are gravel and while a 4WD drive car was recommended to us, all the rental places were sold out of them. We knew most roads were open and accessible to 2WD drive cars, therefore with every damage waver and collision policy on board, we headed south. Importantly, this was Hugh's first experience with driving on the left side of the road, and using a stick shift with the left hand as well. We had first thought about stopping at the Martin Luther, a very old diesel locomotive that came to a stop while in service over 100 years ago and hasn't moved since, but then decided it was too lame to pay the nominal fee. Therefore, our first stop was the Moon landscape 30k outside town, which was an interesting canyon-style landscape.

The drive along the coast to Walvis Bay was beautiful, desert on one side, blue Atlantic ocean on the right. As we drove further south, we passed the Tropic of Capricorn, which was both of our first times driving across it.

During the long drive, the landscape changes of coast, desert, mountains, flat open emptiness were really impressive. We also saw plenty of animals, including oryx, springbok, baboons, ostriches, and at dusk even an owl in the middle of the road who didn't flinch as we drove past. We also found it pretty funny that at one point, as Betsy was offering Hugh a piece of springbok jerky, we almost hit one as it dashed across the road. As big of fans as we are of jerky, we were not really interested in making our own at that moment. At home, Betsy regularly eats jerky and we both were happy to find out that it is popular here in southern Africa, but it is known as biltong. We have had biltong from beef but prefer the other game/antelope species (kudu, oryx, springbok, eland). Our first night was at the Namib Lodge- our tent/cabin was interesting but had too many insects - Betsy will no longer use a towel without shaking it a couple of times, after the monster spider Hugh found in his. This night will also be known as the Night of the Grasshoppers. It seemed like a plague had overtaken the lodge. Dinner was a buffet and we had to walk outside 20 ft to get to the food area. It was hard not to step on one or more as they were jumping at us from all directions. They even jumped into the hot pots with the chicken as soon as the top was lifted from the pot. We should point out that these were not the size we were used to, but about 4 inches or longer. After dinner, Hugh spent a few comical moments trying to capture and remove one from our tent cabin. The next day, we stopped in Solitaire to get petrol and investigate this famous bakery we had heard about. Solitaire, the town, consists of only a gas station, the adjoining snack shop, and a bakery! Yes, it was true that here in the middle of nowhere a guy named Moose started making apple pies and opened this bakery here in 1992. We met Moose, as he was the guy ringing up the food, and had to exhibit self control as we surveyed the long counter filled with all types of cookies, cakes, muffins and of course, huge pieces of apple pie. We choose apple pie and some cookies, and before we even took our first bite, we were trying to figure out how many more times we "had" to pass through Solitaire again. The apple pie was outstanding and we were excited to work out that we would have two more opportunities to pass through Solitaire. Apparently, Moose's brownies wouldn't be available until Friday. No problem, that worked for our schedule. Finally, we went hiking in the Naukluft mountains. The trail began with a steep climb but then descended down into a dry river bed within a tall canyon. It was beautiful walking through the canyon. While 99% of the canyon was dry, there was a small section with a deep pool and no trail through it. The only way to pass was to use the chains on the canyon wall. It seemed intimidating at first but actually turned out to be fun.

A couple of times we saw this random plant (above) growing amidst the rocks. We didn't know what it was but the leaf looked a lot like what we see on signs of the medical cannabis clinics in SF. Hugh's mom should stop reading this post. Afterwards as we checked in to our next hotel and mentioned our hike, the hotel person asked us how many black mamba we saw. This happens to be one of the most poisonous snakes. He was surprised that we did not see any since apparently they are breeding out of control up there. We admitted to each other that we had each been apprehensive but didn't want to say anything because while we were getting the permit from the park office, there were about a dozen wildlife photos on the wall and more than half were of poisonous snakes. Maybe this was the reason the park ranger asked us to check back in at the office when we were done hiking. - Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Spitzkoppe, Seals, and Swakopmund

After leaving Etosha, we headed west and spent a night in Spitzkoppe, a rocky desert area. Betsy climbed to the top of the nearby hill while I / Hugh wasted his time on a walk to see some bad tribal paintings, which apparently were probably faked: being outside, they have aged badly and may have been re-done by local guides trying to earn some easy money. But even the story of them was bad: I was told they were made by local tribes sometime between 200 and 4000 years ago. You might be able to see Betsy on the peak of the hill - she is one of the dots. We slept on the rocks under the stars for another night of stargazing, our last outdoor night as part of the Acacia Africa camping trip.

As previously mentioned, Namibia used to be a German colony. The effects/benefits of that are still seen today in many ways, which thankfully includes bakeries! On the way to Spitzkoppe, we stopped in some small town and found a German bakery. We had a really good pretzel and some tasty bakery cookies. In discussions with some other travelers and our driver, we were told about another bakery, located in the very small town of Solitaire that was the best in Namibia and possibly had the planet's best apple pie. We are less than a week from going to Solitaire ourselves, and we are surely going to have to investigate! In the morning, we drove to the coast to see the Cape Cross Seal colony, where apparently 50,000 - 100,000 seals live. It was a pretty impressive sight, and pretty impressive smell. It was horrible: even from 100 yards away, it was almost unbearable. Even the vet found the smell tough to handle. Of course, a lot of the seals were sitting around lazily like we see at the piers in San Francisco, but there were also a lot of them struggling in the surf, others barking and squawking, and some coughing like they had a 30 year, 2 pack a day cigarette habit. There were males fighting for some sort of dominance, females nursing their young, and some even scratching themselves like dogs do.

We then traveled down the Skeleton coast of Namibia, known for the many shipwrecks that have occurred here, and the low chance of survival for the crews involved. We were taken to a shipwreck, but Hugh feels it was a fake, that it was a ship purposely put here, and so no picture was taken of it. But it was a desolate place, and here is a pic of our vehicle/home for the past 11 days.

It was during this drive that we left the Kalahari and reached the Namib desert. We arrived in Swakopmund, a resort town on the coast of Namibia. It's an interesting place because it is full of colonial German architecture, plus palm trees. It also happens to be one of the safest cities in Africa and the only city we've been told it is safe to walk around in at night.

There were a lot of cool things about Swak. Betsy was able to get a good cup of coffee (best since Pt Elizabeth, SA) at a cafe that had an original bell from a San Francisco trolley car. Our Australian friends, Jon, Naomi and Paul were excited to take us to Nando's, a Portuguese fast food chain that they have in Australia, specializing in spicy Peri-Peri chicken. It was plenty spicy for us, and therefore decided it would not be appreciated back in the states, so we are abandoning the idea of bringing this franchise to the US. Another meal in town allowed us to continue to taste many of the animals we've viewed in the wild. This time it was just two of the antelope species: oryx meatballs with spaghetti, and springbok medallions, which is now our favorite. Swak was one of those places with a clear delineation where the town ended and the desert began.

You might be able to tell that it was overcast, which continues our streak of having suboptimal weather in every coastal town we have visited so far, but then again, it is winter in Africa. Swak is also one of those adventure towns for backpackers. Being just a few miles from sand dunes, there are lots of opportunities for playing in the sand. While most of our camping group went quad biking (ATVs) around the dunes, we decided to go sand boarding, which is essentially snowboarding on sand. With boots and board, we hiked up the sand dunes outside of town and rode down. A bit harder to do than snow, as sand is not as slippery, but still a lot of fun. However, hiking back up the sand dune takes about 5 times longer than boarding down. We also rode lying down on sheets of particle board which was much faster and easier. Betsy only went sledding on the "junior" slope as it was too fast for her, but Hugh tried all the slopes, and unsuccessfully did not match the hill's highest recorded top speed. We both felt the sport could be improved with a chair lift, but that apparently may not fit in with the environment. We unfortunately do not have any pictures to share of sand boarding, as we were warned that sand and cameras are a dangerous combination. But we did get a free DVD, that we can show all of you. But only if you watch the wedding video first. :) We said goodbye to our camping group and headed to a guesthouse where we cleaned up (best shower in weeks!) and got ready for the next adventure - renting a car and driving to the southern deserts of Namibia. - Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Central Namibia