Zanzibar

Yes, I’m finally making time for my Zanzibar post! So when we left off on this African adventure, we were in the Serengeti, having the best time of our lives. Sadly we couldn’t stay there forever and the time too soon came for us to continue our journey. We boarded a tiny plane and flew three hours through a terrible storm that made a few passengers rather nervous (I thought it was kind of fun, although after nearly banging my head on the roof I did eventually concede it might be smart to put my seat belt on). Finally we landed on the drenched island of Zanzibar.

Our tiny, wet plane:

After waiting a long time for the rain to let up enough they could unload the plane of our luggage, it finally arrived (most of it sopping wet anyway) in the waiting area of the airport and we were met by our driver, who rowed drove us to our B&B in Stone Town. After unpacking and drying off a bit, the boys and I took a walk down to a bar on the water and had a drink while watching the sunset.

The next morning we did a walking tour of Stone Town, which I highly recommend if you visit as you’ll learn about the history and start to learn to navigate around. Our guide showed us Jaws Corner, where the town’s men drink coffee and sit around talking. It was named Jaws Corner after the film Jaws was shown on a TV in the square once.

We also toured the slave dungeon – Stone Town was the main slave port for all of the Eastern slave trade – which was extremely depressing.

There is a memorial outside as well.

We also walked through the colorful fish market (where not just fish but vegetables and spices and some crafts are sold).

One of the most charming things about Stone Town to me was the number of cats running around. Because it is a predominately Muslim area and many Muslims do not have dogs, many people have cats. Smucky had to admonish me for trying to touch them all because he said they could have diseases, and some of them did seem as if they could use a good bath, but I do love following cats around on vacation and playing cat paparazzi.

Another beautiful African sunset.

After a couple of days in Stone Town we embarked on the last leg of our trip, to a beach resort. On the way, we stopped for a spice tour – Zanzibar being renowned for its spices. The spice tour was interesting and I also recommend it as well. Here are our guides, cutting up something for us to taste or smell:

They made us wear silly hats they had made for us.

Finally we arrived at Unguja Lodge, where our room was amazing but missing a few walls! These were taken from the loft:

Even the toilet was missing a wall! (The shower, in another room, was also open and overlooked the ocean.)

You may be wondering, “Renae, if there were walls missing from your lodge, how did you keep the monkeys from coming in and stealing your stuff?” Good question. The bedroom (and bedroom only) was lockable and monkey-proof (provided you actually shut and lock the door), so basically you keep everything in there. Mark and I didn’t have any monkey visitors that I know of, but Smucky and Olivia did! Coming back from an ocean swim one day I passed Smucky and Olivia who informed me there was a swarm of monkeys ravishing their loft after making off with Olivia’s soap. “YOU’RE SO LUCKY!” I screeched, “Give me your keys!” And off I went to confront the monkeys, who absolutely did not care one iota about my presence. They continued to swing from the rafters and tumble around the bed and generally be deviously adorable like I wasn’t even there.

Here is our lodge from the outside. As you can see, as open as it is, you can’t really see inside, and no one can really get to them anyway: the perimeter of the property is guarded and the area in front of the beachfront lodges is really only accessible to the resident of that lodge.

Mark and I liked to sit on that bench above every night before going to bed and just listen to the waves, and every morning just after waking to watch the local women and children collecting shellfish while the sun rose.

Obviously we didn’t eat any of the sea creatures but Mark did befriend a sea urchin.

The lodge offered scuba diving tours. Smucky got certified before the trip but I didn’t, so I took a quick lesson in the pool and was approved to do a sort of tethered dive (a guide held my wrist the whole time). Scuba diving was actually a little scarier than I thought it was going to be. I had absolutely no qualms about jumping out of plane when I went skydiving – I jumped with no hesitation or fear at all; I simply found it not even remotely scary – but I unexpectedly freaked out a bit when we were in the pool practicing diving with the oxygen tank. I didn’t let on that I was freaking out because I like to play it cool, but when I went under the first few times I confess that I very suddenly realized HOW MUCH I LOVE AIR. SWEET, GLORIOUS AIR. But I passed the test and we were soon on a boat. After a 5-minute boat ride we arrived near a coral reef and pretty soon I was told to put my tank and mask on, place my hands around my head, and fall backwards off the boat into the water. One thing I’ll say for myself is that although unlike skydiving I was a bit nervous, but I also didn’t hesitate. My mother likes to say that I am a risk-taker. (I don’t think this is actually one of my mother’s favorite qualities about me, however…) The cool thing about being nervous about scuba diving is you are supposed to take nice, slow, long breaths, which coincidentally is very calming. So I just concentrated on breathing, which totally made me look like I was an ace scuba diver but also kept me from panicking about the fact that I was 11 meters below the AIR, WONDERFUL AIR.

I had earlier in the year purchased an underwater point-and-shoot camera specifically for going diving in Zanzibar, so taking pictures also helped keep me calm.

And yes, by the end of the dive, I was comfortable enough that I was disappointed when the guides told us we had to resurface. My certification is good for a year – it’s unlikely I’ll find myself with the opportunity to do so before then, but if I do, I will dive again.

Smark, on the other hand, wasn’t into the scuba thing, although he had a GREAT time snorkeling. I literally had to drag him out of the ocean while he was snorkeling – once to get him to eat lunch and once to save him from some sea urchins that were not nearly as friendly as the one above.

Anyway, back to the monkeys. Basically monkeys are hilarious, and super smart. While eating breakfast one morning we watched one wait until none of the lodge employees were looking, then scamper into and across the room, jump up on the buffet table, lift the supposedly-monkey-hindering lid off a plate of pastries, snatch a roll, politely replace the lid just as he found it, and nonchalantly walk back out the way he came. Unguja Lodge is totally awesome and I highly recommend it, but if you are afraid of or don’t like monkeys you may want to consider staying elsewhere…although I think monkeys are a fun fact of life on Zanzibar beaches everywhere. This is a red colobus monkey in a tree next to the lodge pool.

And this is a monkey just lounging about the place, not caring that I was a few feet from him taking his picture.

And then too soon, we had to leave Zanzibar and Africa. When we planned the trip, I thought that after traveling for nearly three weeks, we would both be very ready to get back home, however, although I missed the cats, neither Mark (who doesn’t like traveling quite as much as I do) nor I wanted to go home. If someone had offered to let us stay another two weeks, another month, we would have accepted immediately. We both LOVED Africa, much more than we thought we would. Here is the plane we boarded in Zanzibar that took us on a 20-minute flight to Dar es Salaam (a city which I think I’ll sum up by saying IF YOU THINK TRAFFIC IN LA OR DC IS BAD, TRY DAR. Dear LORD is the traffic bad there), from where we caught our flight back to Amsterdam and finally home. A rainbow appeared to try to cheer me up, but I really was very sad to leave.

So that was Africa. It is a goal of both Mark and I to get back there as soon as possible; Mark to teach children and me to help cheetahs and lions. In the meantime, however, it looks like Mark and I have other big things to plan and think about: in the next couple of weeks Mark will be moving to San Francisco to start a new job that he’s very excited about. I will join him later in the year, after most of baby wildlife season. So I will be alone quite frequently until then. Will I therefore have more time to update the blog, or will I find myself cooking less often if it’s just me? Only time can tell, I suppose. I will, though, be back soon with a final post on Africa in which I hope to cover how I survived there as a vegan (spoiler: it wasn’t hard), what I packed, including camera gear, and travel tips. And, uh, if anyone has helpful tips about cross-country moves and/or recommendations for Bay Area neighborhoods, bring them on!

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Serengeti

If I had to pick a favorite place in Tanzania, I’d say I didn’t want to, because the entire trip was so, so, so great. But if I absolutely, positively HAD to pick a favorite place, I’m going to have to say it was the Serengeti. The Serengeti was a bit of a surprise for me because its elevation is higher than I realized and it’s therefore not as oppressively hot as I thought it was going to be, and it was much greener than I thought it would be at the end of the dry season. Basically the Serengeti was even more awesome than I thought it was going to be. So was the place we stayed, but more on that in a moment. The Serengeti is also full of (big) cats so I have a ton of cat pictures! Okay, the Serengeti is pretty much the greatest place on this planet and I’d be perfectly happy to go spend the rest of my life there.

To get from the crater to the Serengeti, we had to hop on a tiny (you had to crawl to your seat) little plane and fly for about 45 minutes. The pilot purposely flew over the Great Migration (of zebras and wildebeests) before we landed and tipped the plane so we could see it:

We were met by our guide, Jairo, at the airport and he immediately whisked us off on a safari. But before I get to safari pictures, let me talk about where we stayed. Our itinerary said we’d be staying in a mobile tented camp, one that moves every couple of months to follow the migration. I’m sure that would have been cool and Mark was looking forward to “roughing it” in an even more rustic tent than the one we stayed in in Tarangire, but for some reason our itinerary was wrong and we were deposited at Lamai Serengeti, which is the GREATEST PLACE EVER. This was by far the best place I have stayed while traveling. The only bad thing I can think to say about it is that our 10th wedding anniversary (which we celebrated there) may have ALMOST been even more crazy-awesome than our actual wedding, and our wedding – which was held in a Scottish castle – was pretty damn amazing.

I guess the only other “bad” thing was the walk to our room was kind of long and steep:

But that’s only “bad” until you finally get to the room …

… and you realize you have complete and utter solitude. And then you walk in and see this:

This is about 2/3s of the bathroom. Yes the entire wall is a window and no, privacy was not a concern. No one can really access the area on that side of the building.

And then you walk out on the balcony and peer in:

And in the morning, the rising sun awakes you, filling your entire room from the wall of window, and you crawl out from between the mosquito netting and you retrieve the hot tea or coffee that’s been delivered to your door before you awoke, and you walk out on the balcony and watch the sun continue to rise. And you never want to leave, ever.

So yeah, I don’t know how or why we ended up there (Lamai is part of the same company as the nomad place I thought we were staying in, so it’s not THAT mysterious) but it was so very fortuitous. And the FOOD! Was so good! But I’m going to do a whole post on the whole food/vegan thing, so I’ll rhapsodize there soon.

At Lamai, we would wake up just in time to watch the sun rise, then immediately hustle off to safari. Unlike the other places we stayed where we had breakfast at the lodge before heading out, our guide packed a breakfast for us and we ate it out on the plains after driving for a while – Jairo would set up a table and put out a whole spread. It was really nice. Then we’d drive around some more then head back to Lamai for lunch. After lunch and maybe a quick swim in the pool, we’d do an afternoon drive until the sun set. Then it was time for drinks and dinner. Basically I have just described what I consider to be an absolutely perfect day, and we had three of them. 🙂

This is a picture of Lamai taken just after sunset as we were on our way back for dinner one night. I think the room that is closest in the foreground is Smucky and Olivia’s and ours is off-camera to the right. To the left in the mid-ground is the common area where meals were served.

To me the Serengeti looked like another planet. Another, really awesome planet. There were a lot of boulders in the areas we spent the most time (although the Serengeti is very vast and looks quite different in other areas), it’s just unlike any landscape we have at home:

Animals we saw included giraffes:

Klipspringers:

Warthogs:

Rock agama:

Cape buffalo:

Zebras:

Hyena:

Baboons:

AFRICAN DEATH STICK:

LIONS LIONS LIONS!! I have so many incredible lion pictures from the Serengeti I’m finding it really hard to restrain myself and not post all of them!!

Olivia needs to Photoshop the twigs out of this one for me (Photoshop is TOO HARD!) because they are very distracting but he’s SO CUTE I can’t delete the picture!

Oh my gosh I have so many! I can’t stop posting them! Just one more!

But wait, lions aren’t the only cat! Oh, no! Could there possibly be a better way to start your day than to engage in a staring contest with a LEOPARD???

She’s chasing an impala in this photo, hoping for breakfast:

Here is a different leopard in a tree!

I love you, leopard.

But what OTHER kinds of cats live in the Serengeti? CHEETAHS!!

Baby cheetah:

This was a funny incident from our final safari. We found this cheetah lounging about looking beautiful:

Then her cub saw some gazelles off in the distance and goaded her into chasing after them:

So she obligingly headed off in their direction, but then she hit a nice patch of dirt and just flopped down mid-stride and rolled around like a total goofball! IT WAS THE CUTEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN, EVER!

As you can tell, the cats were once again my absolute favorite and we saw a ton of them and I was pretty much the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, but what a lot of people go to the Serengeti hoping to see is the Great Migration. We were fortunate to witness a “crossing” – herds of wildebeests and zebras crossing the Mara River. Not everyone gets to see such an event – the manager at Lamai told me she’s lived there for 5 years and has still not managed to see one – so when Jairo spotted some wildebeests looking like they might take the plunge, from a good mile away at least (safari guides have AMAZING eyesight), he ROCKETED over to the river so we wouldn’t miss it.

What a spectacle! Why is it kind of a rare opportunity? Because even if you do manage to time your drive so that you encounter a herd at the right time, there’s no guarantee they’ll be brave enough to follow through. We later saw a “near-crossing” when a bunch of zebras tried to push each other into the water, but no one was brave enough to go first and they eventually retreated. It’s very dangerous for them to cross and many of them don’t make it. They either drown or are devoured by:

And yes, we saw a few crocs staring down the brave animals we saw crossing. I was very worried for them but all the animals I saw crossed successfully.

I’d better wrap it up here as that has been a LOT of pictures. Okay, ONE MORE, here is the last wildlife photo I had the opportunity to take on safari. It was just about time for that lazy guy to wake up and go hunting!

Next: exotic, spicy ZANZIBAR!

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Ngorongoro Crater

After our very first day of safari, in Tarangire National Park, I thought to myself that if that had been the ONLY day I had been able to spend in Africa, it would have been worth all the expense, all the planning, all the flying, all the everything. It was THAT incredible. And then the second day was even better. And THEN we went to Ngorongoro Crater.

Ngorongoro Crater was created 2 to 3 million years ago when a volcano collapsed, forming the largest intact caldera on the planet. “Ngorongoro” is pronounced just as it’s spelled and according to our guide was named after the sound the bells around the necks of the Maasai’s cattle made as they walked down the crater walls. Driving from Tarangire, we stopped at a village for a cultural visit (where Mark decided he was moving to Africa to teach children) and some banana beer and banana wine, and then at an art shop, and finally at the crater rim.

I had never taken a panorama photo before but you really kind of have to; the crater is simply immense. This is 3 or 4 photos stitched together and if you click on it, you can see the bigger, better version.

One of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the entire world lives in this crater.

After spending a lot of time taking in the impressive view from the crater rim, we made our way to the lodge. There were random marabou storks roaming around the courtyard at all times at the lodge. Those things are HUGE. And kind of weird! “Yeah, I’m just walking to dinner and there’s a marabou stork 10 feet away; that’s totally normal.”

The next morning we descended to the crater floor. The drive down was beautiful – fog completely envelopes the crater.

Lots of ungulates in the crater. This is a Thompson’s gazelle, which you can identify by the black stripe on his side.

These are grand gazelles:

We saw two wildebeests fighting – very close to our car.

It’s probably an easy life for vultures in the crater!

I told you I loved it when ostriches cross roads; they seem to do it often:

Cape buffalo, with a bird flying by:

Hyena:

Hippos lounging:

Hippos sleeping in water with bird friends:

Another crazy African bird, the bustard:

But what was my favorite animal of the crater, you ask??? Need you really ask?

The lion population of the crater is actually pretty inbred because their numbers are dwindling, so I’m kind of concerned for their future. We saw some lionesses eating a gazelle or some other kill, then they collected their cubs, who were situated away from the kill, and led them to a stream.

They had to cross the road we were parked on to get to the stream; this they did RIGHT in front of us.

The cubs didn’t want to get their paws wet….sooooooo adorable!

After drinking for a bit, they crossed the road again to get back to their original spot. If I had thought it wise, I could have reached out of the car and scooped this cub up AND BELIEVE ME I THOUGHT ABOUT DOING IT.

(PS LOOK AT THOSE SPOTS!)

But I would have had to contend with a very angry mother.

And finally, the only thing we DIDN’T get a good opportunity to see on safari was a rhino. Sadly this is the only rhino we saw and he was VERY far away, so far away he’s little more than a rhino-shaped blob in this photo, and this was taken with a 600mm lens on a crop sensor camera. In a way, I guess it’s kind of poignant because it’s very likely that these animals will be extinct in our lifetime. One day soon all we may have of rhinos will be hazy memories. I wish I could express to you how much I hate poachers. It physically hurts me to have so much hatred inside me, but poaching is nothing short of pure evil.

I don’t want to leave you on a depressing note; it would be inappropriate because except for the times when I was contemplating my intense hatred of poachers, I loved EVERY SINGLE SECOND of this entire trip. So let’s end with more lion cubs, which are the cutest things on the planet and therefore the exact opposite of poachers.

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