Monday, May 28, 2018

WET BOTSWANA, Guest Post by Owen Floody

Botswana, Africa. Half-collared Kingfisher
Our friend Owen Floody, who recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, has had the good fortune of being able to travel frequently.  These trips have been divided between treks and safaris, reflecting his interests in seeing (and photographing) interesting landscapes and wildlife.  In 2017, for example, he completed three treks and two safaris, a personal record. (Note his previous posts on The Intrepid Tourist.) This post will describe the first of his 2017 safaris, a 14-day trip to Botswana with Wilderness Travel .
The trip to Botswana appealed to me for two major reasons.  First, it ran at an unusual time of the year.  Whereas one usually goes on safari in the local dry season (for reasons that will become apparent), this trip was aimed to coincide with the end of a wet season and I was curious to see how the African landscapes would look then.  Second, in comparison to many other commercial safaris, this had an unusually diverse and interesting itinerary.  Rather than visiting just one or two areas, this included 4-5 distinct (sometimes very distinct) habitats.  These included the Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve, Savuti Channel and Chobe River.  But perhaps most notably, it included the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which I was particularly anxious to see and which essentially can only be visited in the wet season.
Including myself, there were seven guests on this trip and at least twice that number of support staff.  In that and other respects, the trip might be described as a luxury camping tour.  For the most part, we lived comfortably (e.g., hot showers on demand, amazing food from an extremely simple “kitchen”) in a tented camp, but one that moved from area to area with us.  The only exception to this was our stop in the Okavango Delta, where we got in and out by small plane and/or boat, and so could not bring with us the truck that gave our mobile camp its mobility.
Wild dogs, Kalahari
In turn, my decisions to follow this itinerary in the wet season had both positive and negative consequences.  Let’s get the latter out of the way first.
The first negative consequence was completely predictable and so can’t really be seen as a weakness of the itinerary.  Because of the lush vegetation and widely distributed water, animals simply are harder to find and view in the wet season.  For instance, (1) Why is the lioness walking in the road? (2) How visible would she have been if displaced a few feet to the left?  Second, even though I initially thought that the mid-April timing of this trip might be too late, we ran into a surprising amount of water, enough to flood roads and potential camps, requiring adjustments in our plans. All safaris are at the mercy of unpredictable weather and our guides were able to make very effective adjustments on the fly, reflecting a big advantage of travel with a very reputable company.  Last, I thought that the amount and variety of wildlife near our Okavango lodge was a bit disappointing.  But I don’t know if this says something about the choice of lodge, the season or my expectations.
Offsetting these limitations were a like number of pluses.  First, we were able to visit the Kalahari and it was an eye-opener—much more lush and productive than I expected it to be in even this relatively fertile time of the year.  Second, largely due to the efforts of our two expert guides, we managed to see many wonderful mammals and birds.  This was a little less true in the Okavango than elsewhere. 
Hippo, Okuvango
But even in the Okavango, we had a terrific encounter with a pod of hippos and also a very pleasant morning on a Delta island, tracking elephants on foot.  Third, I think it’s worth emphasizing that the variety of sites that were included on the itinerary exposed us to a greater variety of wildlife than we otherwise would have seen.  Last, the wet season really was different.  It was lush and highly attractive as a result.  And the late rains even made the skies attractive and dramatic, especially early and late in the day.
So, do I recommend this trip?  That depends completely on the person I’m advising and what they’re after.  Remember that any safari is in part a game of chance.  And, despite the greater ease of avoidance and concealment enjoyed by animals in the wet season, we did very well.  Therefore, I found the trip to be very productive and enjoyable, though I might research the Okavango site to be used a little more searchingly before signing on again.

Monday, May 21, 2018

SIX DAYS IN LONDON, Part 2: Guest Post by Paige Arnold

Shakespeare's Globe Theater, London
My granddaughter Paige, age 12, spent six days in London with her parents during her spring break. She kept a diary of her daily activities (a family tradition) and has written them up in this blogpost. I am impressed with the number of things they did and the detail of her report. I thank her for her excellent report! Part 1 posted last week.

Day five, we went to Shakespeare’s Globe. The tour guide showed us the outside of the Globe.  It’s not the original, because the first one burned down, and the second one broke down.  It’s the third version.  The inside was very intricately decorated, especially the ceiling above the stage.  There are trapdoors on the ceiling above the stage and in the floor in the middle of the stage. 
Ceiling above the stage of the Globe Theater
The ceiling one was used for god-like characters to enter through.  The bottom one was for, well, the opposite.  Characters coming from hell would enter from the ground trapdoor.  In the middle of the tour, we sat down and watched actors practice for their play that they would be performing later for the public.  One of the actors was deaf, so she was acting with sign language and there was a translator on stage for her.   

Tate Modern, Mao by Andy Warhol
After that, we went to the Tate Modern Museum for a little while.  The art there was really, really cool.  We only stayed for a short while, because we had to go to lunch.  We ate somewhere called Padella.  It’s a pasta restaurant right outside of Borough market.  The pasta was exceptional and I would have gotten more, but I was stuffed.  
Footbridge across the Thames to the Tate Modern
After that, we walked back to the Tate Modern Museum and looked at the rest of the exhibits.  It filled my mind to the point of overflowing with new ideas and thoughts.  Then we walked home.  For dinner, we went to a tapas place.  We got many little plates, which were all fantastic.  My favorite dish was the jamon croquettes.  They are deep fried mashed potatoes and ham.  I also liked the shrimp.  It was just shrimp in olive oil with herbs, but it was so good! 
Underground in Churchill's Bunker used in WW II
On the last day, we went to lots of places.  First, we walked to Churchill’s bunkers.  We got very lucky, because the people in the front of the line had to wait 1 hour 30 minutes, but we only had to wait about 5-7 minutes.  The inside was really cool, and a lot of the stuff inside had actually been there during the war.  You had to have an audio tour, so it was really quiet when you took off the headset.  In the middle, there was more of a museum part, but the rest of the tour was just the bunkers. 
St. James Park on a warm April afternoon
After that, we went to Saint James Park so I could draw.  There were lots of people because it was a beautiful day.  There is a small lake in the middle, and there were lots of pretty waterfowl.   
There was an abundance of storks, swans, ducks, coots, and pigeons.  We just had hotdogs for lunch.  They were pretty good.  
Mounted soldier at Buckingham Palace
Then, we went to Buckingham Palace.  We didn’t know this, but the day before was the queen’s 92nd  birthday. Also, the streets were blocked because the day after was the London marathon.  It was cool because they had the traditional guards with the tall black fluffy hats and red jackets, but they also had police officers on the side.
Nike statue at Trafalgar Square
Next, we went to Trafalgar Square.  There were two floating people in Yoda costumes, and two other floating people in costumes.  
Yoda mime at Trafalgar Square
There was someone in a giant Pikachu costume, and a mime or two.  Oh, and there was also a concert going on.  There was a lot of stuff.

Van Gogh's Sunflowers at the National Gallery
We then took a quick look inside the National Gallery.  They had the famous Van Gogh sunflower painting.  They also had lots of Monet and Murillo paintings.  We took the subway back home and rested for a bit.  After that, we went to dinner at an Indian restaurant called Mango.  The food was spicier than I was used to, but it was very good.  That was our last day in London.  I had a great time there, and I hope some of you will also go there.

Photographs by Paige and Matt Arnold 
Paige and her dad, Matt

Monday, May 14, 2018

SIX DAYS IN LONDON, Part 1: Guest Post by Paige Arnold

Tower Bridge, London, England
My granddaughter Paige, age 12, spent six days in London with her parents during her spring break and kept a diary of her daily activities (a family tradition.) She has written them up in this blogpost. I am impressed with the number of things they did and the detail of her report. I thank her for her excellent writing! Part 2 will post next week.

My first day in London was very nice.  We rented an apartment near the London Bridge, which is in a very nice neighborhood.  It’s close to the tallest building in the U.K., the Shard.   
The Shard, London's tallest building, was designed by Renzo Piano and is 1016 feet tall
We walked around a bit, and ate dinner at a pub called “The Garrison Public House.” They had some classic English food like mushy peas and fish and chips.  It was great food. Before that we walked across the Tower Bridge, which is one of the many bridges crossing the River Thames. 
Fresh juice at the Borough Market
The second day, we went to the Borough Market. It’s a big market with many stands selling a variety of foods such as meat, fresh produce, and baked goods. To have lunch, we went to somewhere called Fish! in the market. There was lots of seating and great food. They even gave me and my dad a napkin and a little bowl of water with a slice of lemon in it, just in case we had greasy fingers from our lunch.
Tower of London
Later that day, we went to the London Dungeons. It was around 80% fun haunted-house-like and 20% historical.  It was fun, and there was a water roller coaster in the middle of the tour. They went over many subjects, such as the torture methods, the plague, and murderers. It was very realistic and neat to go through. Also, the tour guides were very good at acting. For dinner, we went to a restaurant named Sartoria.  It was really fancy and the food was super great and rich. The only problem was that it took a really long time for us to leave because they forgot to give us our check. 
At the Olympic swimming pool
On the third day, we went to the Olympic complex to swim. They have three pools: a competition pool, a training pool, and a recreation pool.  They are all very nice, and the competition pool has a good depth. Afterwards, I went outside into the enormous park to draw people.  
Climbing wall in park outside Olympic Complex
There was a playground, a climbing wall, and it was right next to a river which had boats you could rent.  Right across the river, there was West Ham United.  We spent around 1 hour 30 minutes there, and then went home. 
Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theater, London
That night, we went to Wicked, which was playing in the theater district. It’s kind of like the prequel to the Wizard of Oz that shows the Wicked Witch of the West’s backstory.  But, it was shown in a different format, with her going to high school.  It lasted about two hours, with a 15 minute intermission in the middle.  Before that, we went to an Indian restaurant called Simply Indian.  The food there was the best Indian food I have ever tasted, even though it was just this little hole in the wall place on a side street.
High Tea at Sketch
For the fourth day, we went to this place called Sketch for high tea.  It’s a modern restaurant with art posted all around where you eat.  They had really nice plates and cups and things that said random stuff on them.  For example, forget about it was written on the bottom of each teacup, ghosts was written on all the teapots, and it’s ok and it’s not ok were written on the sides of the little sugar bowl.  
Egg bathroom at Sketch. Inside each individual egg, forest music was playing.
But the coolest part of the restaurant was the bathroom.  Both the men and the women went through a door; then there was this giant fat egg thing in the middle of two curved staircases. Oh, and the whole bathroom (including the stairs and the giant fat egg) was pure white. The women went up the staircase on the right, while the men went up the staircase on the left.  Then comes the most interesting part. The toilets were inside eggs. There was a cluster of about 8-10 eggs on both sides.
National Portrait Gallery
After that, we went to the National Portrait Gallery. They had a lot of portraits of kings such as King Charles II and King Edward VII.  For dinner, we went to a pub called Trinity.  They had some very interesting food. My dad ordered whitefish fries, which we thought were deep fried pieces of whitefish, but they were entire fried mini-whitefish! My mom ordered fish and chips, which came with the fish’s skin and scales on. Overall, the food was good. I had a good time. 
Old London phone booth

Photos by Paige Arnold and Matt Arnold

Look for part 2 next week. 

Monday, May 7, 2018


Trekkers in the Cordillera Blanca of the Peruvian Andes
Our friend Owen Floody, an avid trekker, recently hiked the Cordillera Blanca in Peru. Owen recently retired from a career of teaching and research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He has always been an avid photographer and in his retirement has taken numerous trips that allow him to pursue his passion. He is a frequent contributor to The Intrepid Tourist. Here is the report of his trek and a few of his superb photographs.
In the past six years, I’ve done about twelve treks on three continents, curiously not yet including North America.  Of these, my favorite was a trek in the Huayhuash (“why wash”) range of central Peru.  Accordingly, I jumped at the chance to join close friends on a return to the same region in May of 2017 for another famous trek, in the Cordillera Blanca.   
Our trek (in early May) enjoyed the added bonus of amazing wildflowers almost wherever one looked.
Both of my treks began in Huaraz after an overnight bus ride from Lima.  Likewise, both were expertly supported by Peruvian Andes Adventures (PAA), a family-owned trekking company based in Huaraz,.  This is one of those companies that are so good you are tempted to keep them to yourself.  They are pleasant, reliable, well-organized at every phase of the game, and do a great job of supporting camping treks such as those in the Huayhuash and Blanca.  To understand the importance of their services, it’s important to appreciate the main challenge posed by these treks, i.e., the altitude.  For example, the twelve days of the Blanca trek were spent entirely above 13,123 ft.  The high point was 15,945 ft, but this represents just one of eight passes (nearly one per hiking day), each of 14,436 ft or more. 
Laguna Churup
In view of this challenge, I think it imperative for one to arrive in Huaraz several days early and devote 2-3 days to nearby practice hikes.  And one of the nice things that PAA does is provide and support many such day hikes.  These get you up to the right altitudes, help to get you into shape more generally and even expose you to some beautiful scenery.

My Cordillera Blanca trek lasted twelve days, including two devoted to rest or optional hikes. But another nice thing about PAA is that they can tailor treks to the time and energy at your disposal: It’s not required to include rest days if a 12-day trek would be too slow, and it’s not essential to do the entire circuit if that would exceed your limits.
Camp for the night in a beautiful valley.
A typical day’s hike ascended 2,000-3,000 ft to a pass before descending to a camp, usually located in a beautiful valley. Aside from the contents of our daypacks, all of our gear (much of it provided by PAA) was packed, transported and set up for us.  Likewise, all meals were provided. I don’t think that anyone would confuse this with a tour of famous French restaurants. But we (including the one vegetarian in our midst) were impressed and satisfied (in both senses) by the meals provided.
Glacial lake
Not surprisingly, the main attractions on this trek were the often stunning views of mountains and glaciers. The Cordillera Blanca boasts about twenty peaks exceeding 6,000 meters (19,686 ft) and contains one of the world’s largest concentrations of tropical-zone glaciers.  Unfortunately, we did not see everything: The weather was sometimes too overcast, as several of the images will confirm.  But the mountains, glaciers and glacial lakes still were great. 
Looking outward from a point just outside one of our camps toward the peak of Alpamayo.
This last photo shows the mountain Alpamayo in early-morning light. This peak was literally and figuratively central to our trek: The trekking route encircled it and Alpamayo is considered to be one of the most beautiful of peaks, perhaps in the world.

In logistics and other respects, there was much overlap between the Huayhuash and Cordillera Blanca treks. Therefore, you might want to read my columns on both if you are potentially interested in either. Click HERE for Owen's Huayhuash post.
To consider a vacation of this sort you should be attracted to a region that is about as beautiful, pristine and remote (no cell-phone service here!) as you will find.  But it probably doesn’t hurt that such an adventure can be undertaken without breaking the bank: For each of the five of us, the land cost that PAA charged for our 12-day trek was just $1,752.  Tell me where you can better this!