Hello and welcome to my blog. This is a compilation of travel stories, photos and places that I have visited over the years (although once in a while I will include places that I WANT to visit!). I love to travel and am also a bit of a "foodie" so every now and then I will probably start talking about my favorite restaurants too. Enjoy!

Sunrise at Kruger National Park, South Africa

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Penguin Delight at Boulders Beach

Just outside of Simon's Town, South Africa is a very special place called Boulders Beach. This beach is special for two reasons: 1) it is home to a colony of approximately 2,500 African Penguins (formerly known as "Jackass" Penguins); and 2) it is the place where my wonderful brother proposed to his beautiful wife three Christmases ago. That was very romantic on the part of my brother because of the location but also because penguins mate for life... how sweet! :-) During our trip home to South Africa for the holidays this year, we made the trek back to this spot (two years after the proposal) so Rich & Shelby could remember that special moment and so that I could finally visit the penguins!

R&S -- Two Years after the proposal!

Before I dive into the fabulous photos, here are a couple of quick tips when visiting the beach. First of all, Boulders Beach is about 45 minutes to an hour driving distance outside of Cape Town (depending on which way you drive and where you are starting from). When you arrive in Simon's Town and start following the signs to Boulders Beach (or you see the Penguin crossing signs on the main road).

There is an official Nature Reserve called Table Mountain National Park/Boulders Beach where you can pay R30 per adult to enter the reserve and walk along wooden walkways to view the Penguins. Parking is extra. And depending on the time of the year (especially in Dec-Jan summer holiday season), be prepared to wait in line! BUT... here is the insider tip: park on the street just up the road from the official parking lot and acknowledge the car guard monitoring the street (you can tip him a couple of Rand on the way out once you confirm your car is just as you left it). Once you have parked, walk down the street or one of the alleyways to get down to the main entryway to the National Park.

Instead of waiting in line for the Park, continue walking past the entryway and continue walking down the wooden walkways towards the next beach. You will walk for somewhere between 1/4 - 1/2 mile down the walkway and through a parking lot before you reach the next beach. Here you will find FREE entrance to a beach which the Penguin colony also inhabits and you can literally walk right up to the Penguins with no barriers or restricted paths. I do not recommend trying to pet the Penguins though because they have sharp beaks and will bite!!

Okay, now that I have imparted my words of wisdom... back to these beautiful creatures! I was absolutely smitten with the penguins and took a couple hundred photos in a very short period of time. They are just too funny -- I mean, have you ever really watched them walk, hop and waddle around? They do this little shuffle-hop movement when they are skirting around the rocks which is just too funny for words... Here are some of my pics from our visit - I hope you enjoy and they will encourage you to visit when you are next in South Africa.

Contemplating a swim...

These guys were enjoying "group swim"

And this is after the swim... still hanging together

A different group migrating across the rocks

Their grooming habits are also flawless...

But it pays off... look how beautiful these little guys are!

More to come from South Africa soon... Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Zimbabwe Tip About Currency

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the political climate in Zimbabwe is a little unstable right now so we had been warned before going about a few things: our safety primarily, getting "ripped off" or "scammed" by vendors, and bringing enough cash in case credit cards were not accepted. Well, as it turns out, the main concern was the CASH issue! The people in Zimbabwe were very friendly and welcoming -- they were willing to negotiate prices fairly for souvenirs (in our experience) and the cab drivers were WONDERFUL when it came to pricing and picking us up/dropping us off throughout the day at our different destinations. But, I digress... back to the cash issue!

As a result of the political instability in Zimbabwe, the dollar experienced severe hyperinflation and became one of the least valued currency units in the world. Back in January 2009, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe legalized the use of foreign currencies for transactions within the country and in April 2009, the Zimbabwe dollar (virtually worthless at this point) essentially was replaced by the U.S. Dollar and South African Rand as the new local currency. I became a little obsessed with the currency (as I had heard they had printed Billion and Trillion dollar notes before the change happened) and was determined to get my hands on some Zim dollars. Lucky for me, on our way back from Vic Falls one morning, one of the hawkers on the path offered me 7 Zimbabwe notes for $7 USD - $1 USD per note. Now, let's be honest, these Zim notes are not even worth the paper they are printed on, let alone $1 USD per note... but I really wanted the notes so I paid my $7 USD and went on my way. Of course 3 other hawkers jumped out of the trees and tried selling us a bunch more notes but I had what I wanted so after about 5 minutes of them pestering us up the path they finally gave up...

Here are some pics of the Zim Dollars that I collected. First is a 100 Trillion Dollar note - yes, you read that right! One Hundred Trillion Dollars!

I was also amused by the 50 Billion, 20 Billion, and 10 Billion Dollar notes...

So what should you expect if you happen to go? Well, when we arrived in Zimbabwe, all prices were quoted in U.S. Dollars wherever we went. Due to the warnings we received, we had plenty of USD in small denominations on-hand which turned out to be a really good thing ($20 bills or less). We had brought a few travelers checks but they turned out to be useless because the banking system is still pretty unstable, so travelers checks are generally not accepted anywhere (even at the bank!) because they might not have enough local currency to fulfill the exchange. AND... the use of credit cards is also very limited -- most local retailers and restaurants will not accept credit cards, and the local excursion agents (bungee jumping, river cruises, etc.) will not accept them either. The exception is large hotels - if you are staying at the hotel, you can charge everything to your room during your stay and then pay with a credit card upon checkout. But, just in case... be sure to plan ahead, see what everything costs before you go, and to carry enough cash to last for your whole trip! Most hotels have a safe in your room so you can leave most of the cash in the room when you go out -- just take enough to cover your excursions for the morning or afternoon and leave the rest behind. Better be safe than sorry...

Since you are paying in U.S. Dollars, things are much more expensive than you will expect so be prepared. Here are the costs of some things that we incurred during our trip:

(Prices in USD)
- Entrance to Victoria Falls National Park: $30 per person
- Lunch by the pool at the Vic Falls Hotel: $80 (2 sandwiches, 4 cocktails)
- Lunch at the Safari Lodge: $75 (1 sandwich, 1 lunch pie plate, 4 beers)
- Cab from Vic Falls Hotel to Safari Lodge, then from Safari Lodge to Town, then from town back to the Vic Falls Hotel: $25
- Dinner at the Vic Falls Hotel on the Terrace: $100 (including a $35 bottle of wine)
- Sunset Cruise on the Zambezi River: $60 per person

So if I haven't scared you already, my advice is basically plan out your trip ahead of time (including all your excursions) and budget accordingly. If you build in a little buffer for unexpected additional things, you should be fine! And, you can book things like excursions ahead of time where you can use your credit card from the US (although expect your credit card to be declined the first time since the originating transaction request is coming from a travel agent in Africa -- this is standard operating procedure for most US banks so just be prepared...) I was on the phone with my bank every other day asking them to please authorize hotel bookings and plane tickets for this trip! And also remember to call your credit card and debit card carriers before you leave and let them know you will be traveling abroad and the dates so you card is not declined while you are in the middle of your trip....

Hopefully you find this helpful if you ever find yourself in Zimbabwe. Happy Travels!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World: Victoria Falls

During my recent trip to Africa, I had the pleasure of visiting one of the most amazing places in the world -- Victoria Falls! Now for those of you who have been following my blog, we spent the first part of the week in Botswana so had to take planes, trains and automobiles to get to Vic Falls (okay, so there was no train per se but we did have quite the adventure!)...

(Above is our charter flight arriving, on the left is our guide Water driving back after chasing a herd of Impala from the runway!)

True to “Africa time”, our charter flight from Xakanaka Camp in Botswana was about 20 minutes late, but it finally arrived and we hopped on for an hour and a bit flight to Kasane in northeastern Botswana. From there we took a charter bus to the border of Botswana and Zimbabwe, went through border patrol and customs (twice, once as we left Botswana and then again when we arrived on the other side of the border and entered Zimbabwe).

Once we paid our $30 entrance visa fee (per person), we walked across the border and then transferred to basically a cab which drove us the rest of the way to Victoria Falls. From the time we took off from Xakanaka to when we arrived in Vic Falls only took about 3 hours and went very smoothly. This part of our trip was all arranged through a travel agent who worked with Falcon Safaris in Botswana/Zimbabwe to facilitate everything. I would highly recommend doing something similar if you ever come to this part of the world. It was so easy and stress-free which is something to say when you are traveling in a part of the world that you do not know at all.

We arrived at the Victoria Falls Hotel around 3pm and were warmly greeted at every turn. The hotel is absolutely stunning in its old Victorian way. The service is first class and everyone is welcoming, friendly and polite.

We (okay, I) were starving when we arrived so we decided to drop our bags and head to the pool deck for lunch. I am not entirely sure how we managed this, but we were given one of the best rooms in the hotel – we are in the Southern wing at the very end across from the Livingstone Suite (where the Queen of England has stayed in the past!). Our room has views of the central courtyard and the Falls! You cannot actually see the water, but you can see the spray billowing up in the sky and you can hear the thunder of the water in the distance.

(Below is the view from our room at the hotel -- it was one of the best rooms in the house with a view of the falls!)

Down at the pool deck we sipped on some cocktails and had delicious sandwiches for lunch while watching the bungee jumpers off the bridge connecting Zimbabwe and Namibia in the distance. The place is absolutely amazing, although the service is very sloooowwwww (something you just have to be prepared for and bring a good dose of patience!).

Okay, so let's get to the best part! Victoria Falls is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and after seeing it firsthand, I am not surprised why! Now for those who are not familiar with the falls, here are some fun facts about this natural beauty.
1) The Victoria Falls actually spans two countries - Zimbabwe and Zambia, are just over 1 mile wide (1.7 km) and 355 feet (108 m) high.

2) During the wet season over 500 million liters (19 million cubic feet) of water plummets over the edge into the Zambezi River.

3) This incredible amount of water generates a huge amount of spray which can shoot up to 1000 feet into the sky and can be seen 30 miles away.

(Above is the view of Vic Falls from the grounds of the Vic Falls Hotel during the low water season)

4) Victoria Falls was originally named “Mosi-oa-Tunya” (the smoke that thunders) by the Kololo people who lived on the north bank of the Zambezi river.

We visited in December, which is the dry season, which means the water flowing down the falls is at its lowest levels for the year (about 1/10th of the water flow of the peak season in April). As it turns out, this is probably the best time to visit Victoria Falls because you can actually SEE the falls during this time period. During peak season, the water is flowing so rapidly and with so much volume that you cannot see anything but spray and rain.

(First view of Victoria Falls from Zimbabwe entrance)

(Below is the first section of the Falls)

(Jason and I overlooking the Main Falls)

(Below is the Main Falls)

(Below is Rainbow Falls - my favorite point!)

(And finally, below is the view from the furthest point on the Zimbabwe side overlooking the Zambia side)

Since Victoria Falls spans Zimbabwe and Zambia, you can actually stay on either side of the falls when you visit. We originally planned to stay on the Zambia side due to the political instability in Zimbabwe, but we soon found out that during the dry season, not much water flows on the Zambia side so it would be best to stay on the Zimbabwe side for better viewing of the falls. We were a little nervous at first, but once we arrived at the Vic Falls Hotel and noticed the security around the hotel, we were much more at ease. Even when we ventured out to a neighboring hotel for lunch (The Safari Lodge) and shopping in town, we did not feel unsafe in any way. I am still curious to visit the Zambia side to see how it differs -- next time for sure (but only if it is during high season)! If anyone has any recommendations -- please share!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The King of the Jungle: Two Days of Photos

One of the hardest animals to spot in the bushveld is a lion -- first of all, it is a nocturnal creature so it is usually sleeping in the shade during the daytime, and it blends in so well with its surroundings that it is very difficult to see! Imagine my delight when we came across a pride of ten lions lounging around during the daytime! Apparently this pride had brought down a pair of giraffes the week before we arrived but had been MIA for a few days before our arrival on a hunting mission deep in the bush.

We came around a corner and spotted them under a thicket of trees - they were moving around in the shadows so we thought we could get a better glimpse from the other side of the trees. As we pulled around the back, the pride began to move in our direction and decided to flop down in the shade directly in front of us!

We were literally 15 feet away from these magnificent creatures as they rolled around in the grass, cleaned each other, and slept in the shade. I could've watched them for hours on end -- and definitely wanted to bring one home with me! I don't think my kitty cat at home would have like that though... :-)

Here is the first younger male who came and posed for us.

(Below is a series of him making a really big yawn, but looked like a snarl at the end)

And then he promptly fell asleep...!

And here is the Lead Male up close and personal

Isn't he SO cute?!?

On the second day, we spotted the pride lounging in an open field. Now, you would think since they are out in the open, they would be easier to see right? Wrong! With the grass being so long, when they lie down to sleep you can barely see them! Luckily we caught the young male lion causing some trouble -- it seemed like he was trying to wake up the rest of the pride to get them to move to a different location. I was able to get a few good shots of the pride in the grass though...

(This is another favorite of mine! Lion Hug!)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My New Obsession: Water Lilies

Our guide, Water, pulled a Day Lily from the delta and showed us how the women of his tribe make necklaces from these flowers by taking the stalk and splitting it into two pieces, then wrapping it around your neck with the flower in front like a pendant. Many women make these necklaces for their wedding since they do not have much money to by jewelry or other adornments. A picture of the necklace that Water gave me is here on the right. Cute huh?

So my obsession officially blossomed (no pun intended) during our boat cruise around the Delta. I started snapping endless pics as we drove by the various pockets of lillies. Unfortunately with a moving boat and ripples in the water, many of the pics did not turn out (I mentioned that I am a new photographer right?!), but I did manage to capture a few good ones to share in the process!

Below is my absolute favorite, and to my amazement, did not require ANY post-processing in photoshop (not kidding!) -- it is of Day Lilies on the waters of the Okavango. Somehow everything came together perfectly -- the late afternoon sunlight, calm waters, and the boat stopping to watch some hippos on the other side of the waterway -- and I was able to capture this simple but stunning image (in my humble opinion).

Below are my other favorite pics. Hope you enjoy!

South African Wildflowers