Tuesday, December 1, 2015

African Safari: Planning Phase

In late 2014, when I made the decision to go on safari, I knew that I'd need at least two years to save and plan everything.  Apart from the fact that I'd need at least a month on the ground just to scratch the surface in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, it's hugely expensive.  As always, time and money tend to have an inverse relationship as you progress.  The more time you have, the less it potentially costs... up to the point where you've dragged out your transportation to a full year and have now also added 365 nights of accomodation to the tab.  Well, I didn't have a year.  Or, if I did, the net result would also be that I did not have a job.  And, as I'm quite partial to money, a month it was!

I considered, briefly, that I might just visit South Africa.  Johannesburg to Kruger and back, and then a week in Cape Town.  Maybe splurge on a flight to Victoria Falls for a weekend, if I had the funds.  Or, I could have attempted a single week in Tanzania and Kenya; not during the migration, but still -- a week in what is arguably the best safari preserve in the world was approximately equal to 3 weeks in and around South Africa.  But as I planned, my list got longer and longer... I wanted to see more animals, for one; and I wanted to experience more than the big parks and largest cities in that part of the continent.

The obvious answer was to fly into my destinations, which is what many with deep pockets do.  There are scores of small air strips both in the field and in the neighboring towns to support short-flight tourism, and the tickets are actually pretty reasonable.  But a reasonable flight is still not a cheap commodity, and I didn't want to beggar myself to save what amounted to 3 days.

So, instead, I turned my idea toward booking an overland tour.  Normally, when I travel in South and Central America, I can move relatively easily and affordably on public or chartered transit.  A bus seat from La Paz to Rurrenabaque cost a whopping USD $20, even if it did take nearly 2 days.  But the options I was able to research in South Africa and Botswana were significantly more limiting.  Schedules were irregular, seats were pricey, and stops were frequent.  When you have to travel overland on a crowded bus for 2 days, you'd at least like it to be the same vehicle the whole way.  Lots of changes makes it quite stressful.

Overlanding and camping, I managed a budget and a time-table that worked for me.  The overland option priced lower than renting a car to self-drive (barely), but it really won out because we were able to rent out the equipment we needed.  Tents, bedrolls, and cooking equipment are all bulky and not something I particularly wanted to purchase on the ground when we arrived.  There are any number of overlanding companies online, but we chose Nomad.  Their trucks are rugged, their gear is reliable, and they had departure dates that we liked.  It was just that simple.

Looking back, I can say that overlanding was a bit too much like chartering a tour for my tastes. We also had a couple of long drives, in excess of 12 hours, which gets tedious fast.  It might have been worth the effort to do less, but on our own terms.  However, camping was exactly the right choice.  We had so many amazing experiences around the camp fire -- spotting glowing eyes in the bush, listening to predators prowling beyond the fence, watching Scorpio and the Southern Cross circle high overhead.  We even introduced our camp-mates to s'mores culture, which we had to toast on the wrong end of a serving spoon.

For me, it was heaven.  Oh, early mornings and strange nights punctuated by disasterous toilets and cold showers -- that's true.  But also building up a fire to cook over the coals (commercial charcoal being uncommon or even unheard of), unplugging and sipping Pinotage on a camp stool, watching monkeys fight for marula nuts in the trees above, sipping red tea and nibbling on biscuits at sunrise on the waterfront.  It was the best choice we possibly could have made.  So, as this blog moves (belatedly) into 2016, I just want to record the full weight of the undertaking.  I'm sure to focus more on the sights, animals, and experiences, but getting there was an experience worth remembering in and of itself.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Cozumel & The Coral Reefs of Mexico

Well, I've accepted by this point that an annual vacation with my mother is the wage of returning home only for Christmas and Thanksgiving.  And, given how well we get on (which is to say: in short bursts), we've decided that a cruise is the best middle ground.  It's affordable, convenient, and boozy.  Someone else does all the housekeeping and cooking; we can sip cocktails and read all day; we can dip our toes in the sea.  So, it was with some trepidation that I added my father to the mix this year.  He's good company, but I don't think we'll be doing that again.

I shall spare you the doldrums of a floating hotel and instead focus on the one thing about this trip that was a little bit unique: we got to spend a couple of days in Cozumel!

Anyone who's met me knows that I am completely disgusted by fish.  I mean... God, why? The eyes alone, yeesh.  But, at my father's invitation, I spent part of a day with him on a tour of the Cozumel Reef.  It is the same reef that runs all the way south toward Belize, and offers some of the best scuba, snorkel, and biodiversity of any marine habitat anwhere in the world -- second only, perhaps, to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  So, suffice to say, we booked a submarine.

It was just about as uncomfortable as a day at the aquarium, but hey -- I drank a lot of tequila and took some photos.  A unique experience.