A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: cmgildea

Apple strudel in the desert

Back to civilization... but oddly, German civilization

sunny

Mary mentioned in her last entry how quickly the Namibian landscape has changed as we've gone from north to south and traveled through the Kaokoland region. I dare say that after a week or so we kind of got used to it. But then we entered the city of Swakopmund (which I refuse to call "Swako" no matter how many other travelers do) on the coast of Namibia. We've jokingly been referring to Swakopmund as "the Emerald City" because it's been the light at the end of the tunnel following our bush camping adventures. But I think encountering the great Oz at the Emerald City would have actually been less of a culture shock than the actual Swakopmund. Honestly, if you closed your eyes and were dropped in the middle of Swakopmund, Africa is the LAST place on earth you would guess you were. German architecture, cobblestone shopping streets, art shops, bakeries. Sadly, though, no lederhosen.

Besides being a sweet oasis of apple strudel (and shopping) for Mary, Swakopmund was also our "Adrenaline Stop, Part Deux" (see our Victoria Falls blog entry for Part One). On the docket were sandboarding and quad biking on the nearby sand dunes, and our first ever sky dive. We managed to get through them all unscathed, although we can't say the same for one of our traveling companions, Lee, who achieved legend status in our eyes by the time all was said and done.

We were mildly concerned about our first activity, sandboarding, when we found out that the only equipment involved was a thin plank of wood about 2 feet by 4 feet. But we were still on such a high from our good night's sleep and warm shower that we grabbed our boards with a smile and made the arduous climb up to the top of the dunes. It was a little windy, but the view was gorgeous: rolling dunes as far as the eye could see in three directions, and then the Atlantic ocean off to the west. Our activity leader briefed us at the top, essentially by saying "You can reach speeds up to 80 km/h, but wiping out doesn't really hurt too bad... who wants to go first?" And away we went. We made about 8 runs down the dunes, unfortunately having to climb back up the dunes each time. We both managed to eclipse 70 km/h on our final runs, but neither one of us could beat the top speed of our 63-year old friend Lee, who checked in at 75 km/h, got thrown off her board twice in the process, and still kept climbing up and sailing down. By the end of the day she was bruised an battered, but she did it all with a smile on her sand-covered face.

Quad biking, our second activity, was a fantastic experience as well. It was a 2-hour sunset ride through the gorgeous dunes that are only a few miles from the city itself. Again, the views of the dunes as we rode up, over and around them were amazing. The colors and shadows created by the setting sun were truly spectacular, and even though we knew that our German utopia of a town was just a few minutes away, it really felt as if we were riding off into the middle of the desert. We were going along great for about an hour and a half, enjoying the scenery and taking pictures, when a sudden sharp turn around a dune threw a twist into things. This sharp turn was made even trickier by the fact that we were riding into the setting sun, and our friend Lee rolled head over heels down the dune! We all rushed down to make sure she was OK, which she was despite the bike rolling onto her head (thank you helmet). And after a few minutes to collect herself she was off again at the head of the pack.

And then that left skydiving. Ah. Ever since the trip started we had been talking a big game, to ourselves and to skydiving addict Skanky, that we were going to do our first ever sky dive when we got to Swakopmund. By the time the day came, the weather was perfect so there was no turning back. We hopped in the car and headed out to the desert where our plane would be taking off from. Wearing sweet pink and yellow flying suits and clear goggles, it certainly didn't feel like we were going to be jumping out of an airplane... it felt more like we were going to be filming an 80's music video. But the plane's arrival and getting strapped into our parachuting gear quickly got us into skydiving mindset, and we took a deep breath and got into the plane with our tandem divers and camera men. So in total there were six of us crammed into a tiny tiny cabin. There were arms, legs and cameras everywhere, and at one point I tried to adjust my foot to aid circulation and actually ended up moving Mary's foot by mistake.

So there we were, on our way to 10,000 feet over the Namib Desert. Mary was all smiles and hamming it up with the crew, while I was basically saying prayer after prayer to my Dad and trying my best to look calm on video and enjoy the scenic flight leading up to the jump. It really was a beautiful flight: blue skies with puffy white clouds, golden sand dunes and miles of ocean coastline surrounded us. After about twenty minutes, we starting prepping to jump. Mary was set to go first. We unraveled our limbs, gave each other a quick kiss, and she and her tandem diver and camera man scooted toward the open door. Before I knew it, she was gone, hurtling towards the desert below. Being the only other jumper on board, there was no point in procrastinating from there. "You ready?", I was asked. "Let's go!", I said, with less authority than I probably imagine. But I really was eager to jump at this point, if for no other reason than to regain the feeling in my lower legs.

So we made our way to the door, wind howling through, and I dangled my legs over the edge. My brain balked for a millisecond as it tried to process the fact that I was exiting an aircraft without a tarmac directly below, but I knew it was time to jump. I gave the thumbs up, and the next thing I knew I was tumbling through space, watching the plane disappear above me. From that point on, it all happened incredibly fast. The 30-second freefall was unlike any other feeling in the world, an incredible rush that seemed to last for about three seconds. Then the chute opened, and I had the next five minutes or so to process the previous 30 seconds, wave to Mary who was also in the air, and enjoy the view from up above the dunes. Wow.

Lee and Alex then went up right after the two of us. Alex is a veteran skydiver and had no issues tossing himself out of the plane. Lee, always up for something new, did her first ever sky dive as well. So in the span of a day and a half she 1) wiped out on a sandboard going 75 km/h (fastest of our group), 2) rolled down the side of a sand dune in a quad bike, and 3) did her first sky dive. Oh, and I should also mention that when she first arrived in Africa, the car she was traveling in from the airport struck a kudu. Unbelievable. Lee, you are a true adventurer.

Well that about sums up Swakopmund, aka the German oasis in the middle of Namibia. From here we move on down to Sesriem and the red dunes of Sossuvlei and Dune 45...

Posted by cmgildea 09:21 Archived in Namibia Comments (0)

Whiplash at a Natural Wonder of the World

Big Adventure at the Big Falls

80 °F

Well, our 4-day stay here at Livingstone/Victoria Falls is just about over, and since this is a major tourist hub, there was plenty of entertainment to be had...

Right out of the gate on the first day we decided to take early morning microlight flights right over the Falls, which turned out to be a fantastic decision. The weather for our flight was crisp, clear, and most importantly windless - perfect for microlight flying. So up we went simultaneously in separate planes in these tiny (hence micro), seemingly weightless (hence light) aircraft. Having never been in a microlight before, my first sensation was how exposed you are to the elements in the air. No ceiling, no windows, just two wings, an engine and the wind in your face (oh, and don't forget the pilot).

Right after we were airborne, we could see a long plume of mist (aka "smoke") emerging from the Zambezi River ahead, and the smoke gradually grew bigger and bigger as we approached the Falls. The pilot then took a slight left maybe a couple hundred yards away so that we could circle around and and see the Falls from the front. From just a few hundred feet above, the entire length of the Falls was laid out in front of us... quite an impressive sight. Plunging into the gorge below and stretching horizontally for almost a mile, with the smoky mist hanging in the air above, this was an amazing way to see the Falls for the first time! Before landing we did a few circles around the national park to see our favorite safari animals from the sky. Nothing beats a view of an elephant charging through the forest from above.

After the flight we made our way to the entrance of the Falls on foot to see how things looked from the ground. Our first impression here was the sound, which we were unable to hear from the microlights. It truly lives up to what the locals call Mosi-O-Tunya: "The Smoke That Thunders." Seriously, you can feel it's presence before you can see it... a powerful rumble that just sounds imposing. Seeing the Falls was spectacular as well, particularly because you can get so much closer to them than we would have thought. We were drenched in no time just from the mist, and we even managed to see a few rainbows as well.

After a day of relaxing and trying to save money (Zambia is expensive), we went for an "adrenaline day" at the Gorge with our newly arrived travel mates, Alex and Jo. Another picture perfect day, spent at the cliffs along the picturesque Bakota Gorge, basically reenacting detours from the Amazing Race. In fact, one of the activities, the Gorge Swing, was actually featured on the Race in 2000.

We started things off by abseiling down into the gorge. We then upped the ante a bit with two goes on the Flying Fox. This involves putting on a harness which is strapped to a cable that stretches from one end of the gorge to the other, then sprinting off the edge of the cliff. The rope attached to the cable is pretty short, maybe a few feet long, so you end up flying across the gorge Superman-style along the cable. This was extremely fun and had the not-to-be-underestimated benefit of us not having to climb back up the gorge afterwards (a steep, 30 minute climb in 85 degree heat).

This all led up to the adrenaline climax - the famous Gorge Swing. Like the Flying Fox, the Gorge Swing involves a cable stretching from one end of the gorge to the other, with you attached by another cable. The cable attaching you, however, is 160 feet long. It's essentially a bungee jump down into the gorge, right next to the cliff. The major difference is that instead of bouncing back in the air like you would after a bungee jump, you swing out into the middle of the gorge. Once you're all strapped in, attached and ready to go, you step to the edge of the cliff and dangle your toes over. After an irresistible look down and a deep breath, you count down... 3, 2, 1... and take the step of faith into a 3.5 second free fall. Falling about 100 times faster than you had imagined (they say up to 180 km/h... get out your mile-to-km charts) you are yanked (literally... we got some minor whiplash) back into reality when your cable catches and then there you are, swinging in the middle of the gorge. A great experience, but one which will definitely require a visit to the chiropractor when we get back...

Today, our final day, was somewhat disappointing in that we were unable to cross the border into Zimbabwe due to the uncertain political situation there at the moment. So no lion walk, so seeing the Falls from the other side, and no dinner feast of warthog, zebra, etc. I guess it's a small price to pay considering the conditions many of the Zimbabweans are facing today. Hopefully their election results will be resolved soon and (fingers crossed) they can move forward to a better situation. As an alternative we were able to schedule a walking safari in which we saw rhino, elephant, and giraffe on foot at close range. A great day.

We've enjoyed our stay in Livingstone immensely. Not only did we get to stretch our adventure sports muscles but we took a much needed break from camping. Ah, fresh towels, a bed and air conditioning. Life is good. We'll miss you, Livingstone!

On to Botswana next... The free internet ends here but we hope to post again soon!

Posted by cmgildea 06:03 Archived in Zambia Comments (1)

Photos!

We have managed to find the rare combo of free time and a decent internet connection, so we decided to post some pictures from the last couple weeks. Hopefully this will keep everyone entertained until the arrival of Brangelina's twins.

maasai.jpg
tents.jpg
elephant2.jpg
zanzibar.jpg
scuba.jpg
lioness_ruaha.jpg
cheetah_scene.jpg

Posted by cmgildea 23:47 Comments (0)

Ruaha National Park

More Serengeti than the Serengeti

sunny 75 °F

We have to admit we were not expecting a whole lot from Ruaha National Park. No reason really... just that we hadn't heard much about it and we figured we were just stopping there since it was on the way to Malawi from the Tanzanian coast. But Mary and I are definitely in agreement that Ruaha has been our best national park experience in Africa to date.

We went on an 8-hour game drive yesterday through Ruaha and it was amazing. We entered the gates at about 6:30 AM, just as the sun was rising. The park is slightly elevated, so when the sun did rise, it revealed a thick layer of mist surrounding everything, a very spooky effect when combined with the many baobab trees in the park (some of which are absolutely enormous and can live up to 3000 years). As the sun gradually burned off the mist, we saw our surroundings: baobab trees everywhere, lush vegetation (a pro to being here during rainy season), and rolling hills and mountains topped with enormous granite boulders. And it was around this time that the wildlife started to appear as well. Giraffes were all over the place, seemingly peeking their heads from around every acacia tree. And they were accompanied by hundreds of zebras, impalas, eland, and the odd kudu.

We were just about to head to lunch very satisfied with our drive so far - despite having seen no animals we hadn't seen before - when we came across the mother lode of lion prides. Somehow, our guide spotted them about a hundred feet from the road under an acacia tree. We got the binoculars out, but they wouldn't be necessary... the driver promptly swerved off the road and drove right over to them. Startled, they spread out to a few different trees, and we drove right smack in the middle of them. Now, I should mention at this point that we were in a completely open safari vehicle with no doors, so this was slightly unnerving. However, the lions didn't seem bothered in the least and just kind of watched us watching them. It was unreal. Hanging out in the middle of a pride of nineteen lions, probably no more than 10 feet away... I couldn't believe it, and still almost don't. Needless to say, we and the other couple we were with had plenty to talk about over lunch.

lioness_ruaha.jpg

Then after lunch, we had an even rarer experience: a cheetah sighting. How the guide spotted it's ear sticking out of 6-foot high grasses, we have no idea. But sure enough, there he was, eyeing a small group of impala. I suppose we would have been satisfied with seeing just the ear, as cheetah are apparently extremely tough to find especially during lush rainy season, but again our guides apparently went to the Doc Brown school of safari driving ("Roads? Where we're going we don't need roads...").

cheetah_scene.jpg

So before we could even think about snapping a photo, we were off the road and into the bush. Not heading in the general direction of the cheetah, rather heading STRAIGHT towards it. So the cheetah pops it's head up and then makes a break for it, right towards the impala, who start barking and scattering. Our driver decides to follow the action, and while we we're trying to keep an eye on the cheetah we have a slight incident. Our first clue that something was wrong was the "Ah!!" cry that we heard from the driver or guide (we're not sure which). This was then followed by the unmistakable feeling of the front left of the car heading straight downwards into a ditch with a thud. We were stuck, and what a moment to be stuck in. As we spun our wheels loudly and in vain, the cheetah was standing a mere 30 feet away from us, still eyeing the remaining impala (why there were remaining impala at this point, I have no idea), and a lone giraffe was peeking over a tree to keep track of the goings-on. You could almost here him saying to himself: "This should be good."

When it became apparent that 4-wheel drive was not going to save us, the guide and driver got out and started trying to dig us out, yelling at each other in Swahili. And after a few minutes of this, the cheetah turned around and just looked at us with this look on his face that said "Are you kidding me? I'm trying to get a meal in here and you're not helping!" We eventually got the car out of the ditch and headed back to the road, so we're not sure if the cheetah managed to snag himself an impala or not, but it was one surreal experience. We can't wait to post the picture of what we saw. It almost looks made up.

So in closing, Ruaha was amazing. We both agree that it was exactly what we thought the Serengeti would be like (don't get us wrong the Serengeti was great, just different than we imagined). Miles and miles of open wilderness, barely visible roads (unlike the Serengeti which had paved roads everywhere), lakes and winding rivers, and we were clearly on the animals' turf. In the Serengeti, there were so many people that it almost felt as if humans belonged there as much as the animals, but not in Ruaha. We only saw one other car the entire time we were in the park, so during our lion and cheetah encounters, we were the only humans around for miles. Now THAT's how we pictured a true African wildlife safari.

Posted by cmgildea 00:54 Archived in Tanzania Comments (1)

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