exploring the cities, the reef, and the red centre

It’s been a busy five weeks in Australia, and we only scratched the surface of what’s possible in this vast country. But we did take in several major cities, explored a coastline, snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef, hiked the challenging Valley of the Winds trail through the spectacular rock formations at Kata Tjuta, and completed the 9.4 km base walk around the most famous red rock in the world: Uluru — aka Ayers Rock.

We also sampled many craft beers and dropped by many brewpubs along the way; our favourite was the 4 Pines brewery and restaurant in Manly, just outside Sydney— they also had the best ribs we’ve ever tasted.

Our favourite urban area was greater Melbourne — easy to get around on trams and buses, lots of interesting neighbourhoods and festivals, and free admission to major art galleries. We also had a friend in Melbourne (who we first met in the Amazon) and relatives in the suburbs, so that helped us feel welcome. From Melbourne we explored the Great Ocean Road; it reminded us of the Sea to Sky highway that connects Vancouver and Whistler. Even with mountains, seaside cliffs, lighthouses, and brewpubs, the highlight was seeing not one, not two, but three wild koalas along the way. Oh, and by the way, koalas are NOT bears, they are marsupials, something completely different.

In Sydney we walked around the iconic opera house, visited more free art galleries, but two highlights come to mind. Our AirBnB was about 2 km from the opera house, and on our way we were watching for a cafe to have a coffee and snack, and found ourselves facing Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, perhaps the most famous food truck in Aussieland. Their specialty is meat pies, and g’day are they delicious! Later we ended up at Fortune of War, which claims to be the oldest continuously running pub in Sydney, and mostly filled with locals which is usually a good sign.

We happened to be in Brisbane during the Commonwealth Games, talking place just down the coast. Officials had bizarrely recommended that residents stay home or leave the area during the games because it would be too congested — and only realized their mistake when games attendance was much lower than expected but then it was too late. The local media reported that the closing ceremonies took place in a nearly empty stadium. We took a very pleasant boat cruise upriver to visit a famous koala sanctuary, established in the 1930s in response to the possible extinction of koalas when they were wantonly killed by the thousands for their fur coats, much like the near extinction that faced the buffalo in Canada for the same reason.

Confession time. We knew about the big cities and the vast outback, but we had no idea a large portion of Queensland is tropical — hot and humid, and perfect for vast plantations of sugar cane, coffee, banana, citrus fruit of every description, and avocado. But this also means the water off the ‘far north’ coast of Australia is a steady 27-28 degrees C throughout the year. You don’t need a wetsuit to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, but you do need a ‘stinger’ suit, a tight-fitting Lycra suit that protects swimmers from a dangerous species of jellyfish who also like warm ocean water. We called them Smurf suits because they are head-to-toe blue. We had booked an overnight excursion to the Reef, which meant that after three sessions of snorkelling and a gourmet dinner on the first day, we awoke floating over the reef and ready for a 6:30 am snorkel and another after breakfast. And what fantastic snorkelling it was, probably the best we’ve ever enjoyed in terms of the diversity and colour of the coral and the fish.

In the first few days we were in Australia, the number one recommendation we heard repeatedly was to go see Uluru, and we finally gave in and booked our flight to the ‘red centre’ of the continent. We’re so glad we did.

At one time, people could camp or stay at motels within a few feet of Ayers Rock. But eventually, Indigenous protests and negotiations resulted in tourist facilities being moved away from the rock, title to the land returned to the traditional owners, agreements made around co-managing the national park that included the Uluru and Kata Tjuta rock formations, and new tourism facilities established at Yulara, just outside the park boundaries. The resort trains and hires local Indigenous people, who make up about 30% of the 1000 staff on site. There is of course much more to it than that, but it all seems to be working really well.

From the Ayers Rock Resort we caught the bus to hike Kata Tjuta one day, and to the walk around Uluru the next. Both days involved getting up by 5 am because the bus excursions included watching the sun rise on the rocks. We respected the wishes of the Anangu people who ask visitors not to climb the rock they hold sacred. Only a small percentage of visitors still climb Uluru, and in fact the jointly-managed national park has set a date in October 2019 when the steep path, known as the Mala Walk, will be closed to the public.

We had wonderful and varied experiences in Australia: the train system between the cities we visited was inexpensive and ran on time, the craft beer and local wines were excellent, the people were great, the art galleries were free, and the landscape was outstanding. Go to Australia, but not for less than a month!

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awesome tanzanian safari

We’ve never seen so many big cats. More than 50 lions, cheetahs, and leopards over 6 days. Not to mention scores of elephants, Cape buffalo, and giraffes, and hundreds, probably thousands, of zebra, gazelles, and wildebeests. Oh, and while we’re at it, throw in some jackals, hyenas, scrub hares, mongooses, and countless species of weird and wonderful birds. The Tanzanian “northern circuit” has a lot to offer, and is no poor cousin to Kenya or South Africa when it comes to wildlife viewing.

We were so lucky to have an excellent driver/guide for our Tanzanian safari. Elisante with African Savannah Trekkers took us deep inside Tarangire National Park, along the rim and down across the floor of the massive caldera (crater) within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, out into the vastness of the Serengeti, and over to Manyara Lake National Park to see thousands of flamingos feeding in the lake.

It was very hot and dry, animals were often gathered near rivers and waterholes — with any luck the heavy rains will start in a few days. March and April is a short but important rainy season here. Farmers around Arusha, our launching point, have tilled the soil and are waiting to plant corn and other crops as soon as the rain starts. In the meantime, on safari with the roof up for viewing means within minutes everything inside is covered in a layer of red dust and it is all you can taste. But we so enjoyed the 360 degree view!

Sometimes we would travel for an hour or two across the savannah along dirt tracks, dry grass and solitary trees as far as one could see — and then suddenly, under one of those lone trees would be gathered a family of cheetahs or a pride of lions (including one group of 18 lions and sleeping in the shade except for the rebel sitting in the tree!). Less frequently, someone will have spotted a leopard sleeping in a live or fallen tree, and soon other safari trucks would gather around, everyone hoping the leopard would get up and walk over. Eli was very patient with us; we hung out even after everyone else had given up on one leopard in particular, and sure enough, she stood up, stretched, and walked away for us.

One day out in the Serengeti we came across others watching three young cheetahs resting and playing under a tree not far from the road. In fact there were at least a dozen trucks lined up, but Eli pulled up so that we would have a very clear view of the family; the mom was resting on the other side of the tree. Two of the cheetahs wandered into the middle of all the trucks, but then one seemed to be watching something behind us all. We swung around to see a jackal running parallel to the road and before we knew it the cheetah was dashing up the road ahead of us. We then realized they were chasing a young gazelle and soon all three young cheetahs had joined the chase. Eli quickly repositioned the truck to give us a front row view of the brave little gazelle running back and forth across the road as the cheetahs played cat and mouse with it. Unfortunately, all this commotion attracted the attention of a passing hyena, who dashed past the cheetahs, grabbed the gazelle, and trotted off with lunch.

It was amazing to witness extended families of elephants grazing and drinking water from the river, and so much fun to watch baby elephants playing with each other in the mud. It was awesome to see hundreds and thousands of zebra, gazelles, and wildebeests watching out for each other scattered across the landscape (although we were told the zebras are quite smart, and during migration let the wildebeests cross crocodile-infested waters first!). And so many flamingos!

Save up your shekels and plan now to go on safari in Tanzania, you’ll be glad you did!

search for the big 5

In South Africa: Addo Elephant National Park, Kruger National Park, and Balule Private Reserve. In Botswana: Chobe National Park. All absolutely amazing!

In Addo, an hour from Port Elizabeth on the east coast, our first encounter with an elephant was awe inspiring. Our driver, Peter, followed the lone elephant to the watering hole. We watched as this very thirsty elephant drank non stop for more than five minutes.

We drove along the road, following, until he got pissed off at a Warthog that had been running around him. The massive elephant swished him off with his long trunk. He then stopped five metres ahead of us, turned, and gave us the evil eye. He started rolling his head back and forth, while continuing to stare menacingly at us… we realized he was getting very angry and might charge. Peter was about to back up when the elephant suddenly changed direction, urinated, dropped a large amount of dung and with what we imagine was a look of disdain, walked away. Needless to say, we didn’t follow him.

In Kruger National Park, we joyfully spotted four of the Big 5 on our first day out. We observed Elephants, White Rhino, Lions and a Leopard in their natural habitat, from the safety of our 4-wheel drive. We all took turns sitting on the much loved bouncy seats on the third tier in our canvas covered Land Rover. The second morning we spotted a magnificent male lion on a rock overlooking a field of Impala (small, but pretty antelope). The fifth of the Big 5 was a fabulous sighting! A herd of Cape Buffalo crossed the road right in front of us. They are very dangerous creatures, so William, our driver/guide, turned off the 4×4 and we all watched in silence.

There is a huge difference between professional guides (like ours) and the tourists who drive independently through Kruger. One such tourist started honking his car horn at the Cape Buffalo as he seemed to want them to get out of the way, so he could travel on. When there was a small gap between the buffalo, the car sped through. He was fortunate the animals did not attack him. We saw quite a bit of poor tourist behaviour in the park. Shame on them!

Our next safari stop was at the wonderful Naledi Enkoveni (star of the river) Lodge within the Balule Private Reserve. Again, an experienced guide, this time in an uncovered 3 tiered Land Cruiser. The first day there was an exciting afternoon jaunt; Don and I noticed clouds were gathering a long way off to the west.

We were in the upper back of the 4×4 and man did we have to pay attention. We were off-roading to the extreme and had to constantly watch that we were not impaled by tree branches, going ahead and in reverse. Quite the experience!!!!

Our driver spotted a 9-month old lion cub in the bushes, no mom around that we could see. We followed it for a bit at a distance, the cub was trying to hide under bushes from the lightning and thunder that had just started… and then the rains came.

WIth the rain pouring down on us, lightning flashing, and thunder crashing, our driver tried to get us home before worse things could happen. He told us that a few weeks past, they had hail the size of baseballs in the region. Even though we were huddled under the blankets, one of our fellow travellers spotted a male Black Rhino about 10 metres in the bush. We stopped and stared in awe.

Even though the rain was pelting us, lightning was so close we could smell the air burning, and the thunder was booming — we had to stay put. There is an anti-poaching protocol within the safari groups, that if you spot a rhino you stay there until another Jeep arrives. Well, we stayed and stayed and were totally drenched and finally another group arrived. Off we went immediately and when we pulled up to our lodge we were greeted with a shot of Sherry. It tasted fabulous and warmed us up quickly.

The next morning we went out again before breakfast, this time in the sunshine and we spotted and enjoyed watching a Black Rhino mother and her baby walking through the bush!!! It was amazing!

Our last safari, for this blog, was in Chobe National Park in Botswana. We stayed in Jollyboys Hostel in Livingstone, Zambia. Not only did we see Victoria Falls from the Zambia side, we walked into Zimbabwe to see the Falls from that side as well.

Our day long trip into Chobe started with being picked up from our hostel for the hour drive along the Zambezi River, a short 10 minute boat ride across to Zimbabwe, walking 20 metres to cross the Botswana border, and then a 45 minute drive to Chobe National Park. Our morning was spent with four other tourists on a small motorized boat that got us very close to the animals. Maybe too close! As we travelled up the Chobe River we saw hippopotamus in the water, a few over here, a few over there. Suddenly there was movement in the water underneath and our guide swiftly scooted the boat ahead — a hippo was trying to topple us over!

We were also able to get really close to the elephants and watch them mud bathe and swim cross the river in front of us… fabulous! According to our guide, the elephants were gathered in such large numbers because the rains hadn’t come yet (though it was the rainy season) and the Chobe River was the only source of water for miles around. If it had rained, the elephants would have been in other parts of the national park and we wouldn’t have seen so many along one stretch of river.

That afternoon we hopped onto a 4×4 for a land safari. Chobe is the perfect setting for the numerous giraffes, zebras and hundreds of elephants we saw. Our guide told us the zebras hadn’t been spotted for weeks… he said we were very lucky and we felt we definitely were.

We also spotted a lion resting under a tree very close by and we stopped to look and take photos. The most amazing feeling came over me when the lion and I locked eyes. It was me who broke away first… though I am sure it had been at least a 30 second stare!

I feel so fortunate to have had these wildlife experiences and many more, too many to contain in one blog post (our 100th by the way).

So, until next time my dear family, friends and fellow travellers, much happiness to you all!

Deborah