Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Christmas and NYE in Canada (19 Dec 14 – 03 Jan 15)

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

The two weeks around Christmas and New Years we spend in Canada – mostly in Vancouver, with a three-night stint in Yellowknife in the North Western Territory.

J has extended family in Vancouver, and her mum and brothers also had come, so we spend a lot of time with family eating. Vancouver has some fantastic food, at a fraction of the price we would pay in San Francisco, so we indulged quite a bit: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, seafood, as well as some fast food specialties, like the “Japadog” which is a Japanese style hot dog – sounds strange but is actually very delicious. Other than eating, and of course celebrating Christmas with the family, we walked around the city a lot, including a visit to the Christmas lights display in the Van Dusen botanical garden, which is really very impressive – trees and plants around the whole garden are lit with lots and lots of lights, and there are also some themed sections like a gingerbread forest.

The highlight of the trip, however, was the visit to very cold (-30 degrees) Yellowknife. We had come mainly to see the northern lights, for which we had booked two nights of aurora viewing in the “aurora village” half an hour outside Yellowknife. The stay came with warm clothes (definitely required), transport etc. The village itself is not really a village, but rather a tourist operation with “tipis” that you can sit in and have a hot drink to warm you up between being outside and looking out for the aurora, a restaurant, gift shop, etc. On our first night, we were quite lucky since the aurora put on quite a spectacle shortly after midnight, with green, white and pink lights swirling and dancing across the whole sky. While we have some (long exposure) photos, it is quite difficult to fully imagine or describe all the detail and the movement of the lights in the sky – truly a unique and amazing experience! The next night, we were far less lucky – it was a bit cloudy so we could hardly see the lights, but after our experience the night before we were not disappointed at all.

In the daytime, we did some other winter activities: one day, we went ice fishing. Our guide, Greg, took us out on the  frozen lake in his little ice fishing mobile, which looks like an oversized and closed snow mobile. It has four holes in the ground through which you can fish, after having drilled holes in the ice with a massive hand-held drill. We didn’t catch anything, but since Greg operated a camera in one of the four holes, we could at least see a few fish below the ice, but they were apparently not hungry since they weren’t interested in our food. At least, the evening of that day we went to eat some fish – at Bullocks, which is a local joint that offers fish and chips that are expensive, but also extremely extremely delicious.

Another day, we went snow mobiling one the lake, which was a lot of fun – a bit like riding a scooter, but across an endless snow-covered white desert. The lake is so solidly frozen that for multiple months each winter they operate an official highway on it. In the afternoon, we went dog sledding – two persons on each sled, pulled by four dogs. Our dogs, however, seemed to be the worst pick: the two in the front were constantly distracted, looking back or trying to lick up some snow, and a third dog refused to run at all, sitting down again and again until the guides took him away. Only when the guides gave us one of the other sled’s dogs did we pick up some speed, but we still were the last ones to finish the course.

The cold in Yellowknife was really quite something. It has been a while since I have experienced cold winters in Germany, but -30 degrees is really a different world even to the -20 centigrade it sometimes reached in Germany. At that low temperature, every exposed part of skin hurts, and just from breathing, your nostrils start freezing – we were definitely glad that we had proper rental clothes provided by the various companies organizing the activities we took part in!

Some pictures follow.

Highway 1 and Los Angeles (27-29 Nov)

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, we drove down from SF to LA along the old State Highway 1, which is a really pretty stretch of road along the Pacific Ocean coast. We started off in San Francisco on Thursday morning. We made it to Monterey by noon, and visited the big and very well-made aquarium there. The aquarium has lots of interesting exhibitions, including one on jelly fish and one on octopi, squids and related animals. The marine research institute which is associated with the aquarium also does some groundbreaking research particularly in the deep sea right off the coast, which we were also shown a movie about.

We had lunch in Carmel, and also had a look at the very picturesque mission there – unfortunately, the grounds were closed since it was Thanksgiving day so we could only peek in through the gate. The afternoon, we spent driving through the barren but really beautiful landscape of Big Sur, the road always meandering along the coast line. We spent the night in San Luis Obispo, around half way between SF and LA. The next day, we went further south along the coast. We visited the grounds of the mission La Purisima, which was very interesting to see and gave a good impression of what lives the Spanish missionaries must have lived in those days. Afterwards we stopped by in Santa Barbara where we walked through town, soaked in the beach town atmosphere, and visited the very pretty old court house. As a last stop for the night, we drove through Malibu, but since it was already getting dark, we didn’t see much. We stayed for the night in Thousand Oaks, very close to LA.

Saturday was our last day before flying back to SF. We spend the day in and around LA – starting with a very brief visit to the Getty Center, which was very impressive in its location, architecture and the art on display (and all for free!). We didn’t have nearly enough time to look at anything in depth, but we vowed to come back another time. We then went to Venice Beach, looking at beach goers and hipsters, and spending quite a bit of time watching skaters in the beachfront skate park. Next stop – after a quick Mediterranean lunch somewhere on the way – was Hollywood, with the walk of fame and the hand prints in front of Grauman’s Chinese theater. Before we left for the airport, we took a drive through Beverly Hills and tried to spot some stars’ houses for fun – but most were too far off the road to really see anything.

All in all, it was a super fun trip, and we will definitely spend more time in LA soon.

Moving to San Francisco

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

End of June / early July marked the end of our stay in South Africa – after about a year and a half the time had come to move on. For work-related reasons, J had to move a few weeks before me, while I was wrapping up my last project in South Africa. The departure was therefore quite gradual – selling off furniture (mostly IKEA things we had bought in Germany and shipped to SA when moving there) over the course of a couple of months, firstly the non-essential things, later more and more of the stuff; putting everything in boxes and shipping it; J leaving; and lastly me moving out – the last few days I spent in the guest room of a colleague (and got pretty sick, not a good way to spend the last few days)!

On 11 July, my project was finished and I left the country that same night to fly to London. Despite the unfortunate timing that had seen J leave multiple weeks before me, we were lucky in the fact that she was booked for a training in London for the following week, so we met in London for a day and a half before she went to her training. I flew to Germany for a week to meet up with family and relatives (before moving to the next continent, again being far from most of my family). My week in Germany consisted mostly of a lot of driving – flying into Berlin and staying in Potsdam for a couple of days, and then driving to Frankfurt, Mönchengladbach/Köln/Leichlingen, and lastly Hamburg, from where I flew out again on Friday to meet J in London. From there, we then departed to San Francisco.

Arriving in SF, I still had about two weeks off, which was good to get organized, buy furniture and move, and unpack and get settled. On the first of August, I then went back to work in my new office in San Francisco.

After having spent more than five months in SF by now (time flies!), we really have been enjoying the time and we love it. Especially compared to Johannesburg: even though Joburg is a really very nice and livable city despite all its bad rep, SF is just so much more vibrant and exciting. Particularly for me, with a strong interest in technology, being in SF where you feel that you are at the forefront of development, is fantastic.

We haven’t nearly spend enough time scouting out the surroundings yet, unfortunately – two busy jobs just makes it a bit difficult sometimes, but we have done a few things that were definitely worth our while, such as visiting Berkeley and the East Brother Light Station, a tiny rock island in the bay with just an old light house and a fog horn (very important for the foggy bay); driving up to Point Reyes and eating cheese at the local creamery, visiting the computer science history museum in Mountain View (definitely super interesting for a CS geek like me, including one of the two working Babbage difference engines); and going to the Charles Dickens Christmas market in Daly City. Apart from that, we have been eating out in incredibly many different fantastic restaurants – just within ten minutes walk of the area we live in in Nob Hill, there is so much choice to pick from! Only downside is the cost – SF is really extremely expensive. For some of our restaurant bills in SF, we could have been eating out for a week in Joburg!

Another point we are really enjoying in San Fran is the walkability – in Joburg, you had to take your car everywhere, because it was dangerous without, but also because the distances were just too far. Now, we can walk to work, to restaurants, to town to go shopping, etc. And if we need to go further, we just take an Uber, a Lyft, or catch a cab – all from an app on our phones – such a difference to SA (where we were both still using employer-supplied BlackBerries)!

Garden Route (14-16 Jun)

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

Our last weekend trip before leaving South Africa took us to the Garden Route – another “must be seen” that we did not want to miss before moving to the other side of the world. In the winter, it was probably not the very best time to visit, but it was quite pretty still. We flew into George and rented a car to drive along the coast. We stayed in a very nice little place in Knysna.

On the way to Knysna, we made a few stops: We stopped to take a walk through the (rainy) “Garden of Eden”, which features a walking path through the thick and dense Knysna Forest, and we also stopped on the (very windy) beat in Buffalo Bay.

On Saturday, we drove further along the pretty coast towards Plettenberg Bay, and then on to the Tenikwa wildlife reserve. Tenikwa is a sanctuary and rehabilitation center for injured or abandoned animals, and most of the center is dedicated to preserving and supporting wild cats. There are lots of them in enclosures – including Leopards, Servals, Caracals, etc. , and (not a cat but still amazing) a Honey Badger. The highlight, however, was the cheetah walk. Around sunrise, a small group of tourists gets to take two cheetahs out for a walk through the surrounding forest – there are of course guards and the cheetahs are on leashes, but it was still quite amazing to walk – and sometimes run – with the cheetahs. It all happened at the cheetahs’ pace, so whenever they felt like sitting down for a while, or sniffing the bushes, the whole group had to wait. It was quite an amazing an unique experience.

After Tenikwa, we had dinner in Plettenberg bay (some nice sea food) and then drove back to Knysna. The next day, we had to take a flight back to Joburg already. However, since we still had some time and we had seen lol of the costal road already, we took some back roads and mountain passes on the way back to George, which was an entirely different side of the Garden Route, with steep climbs, rocks, and fields.

Some pictures follow.

Victoria Falls (6 – 8 Jun)

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

After more than a year in South Africa, we finally made it to Victoria Falls – a destination that had been on our to-do list since the very beginning. We went over an extended weekend, leaving Friday and returning Sunday. We flew into Livingstone on the Zambian side and staid there as well.

After arriving on Friday afternoon, we went to check out the falls. First, we looked at the river above the falls from the shore and from an viewing spot atop an old tree, and then crossed the border into Zimbabwe to view the falls from the Zimbabwean side. The Zambezi River spreads out to a width of 1700 m where the falls are, and then narrows again right after. There is a bridge that spans across the deep canyon behind the falls, which also serves as a border crossing between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Therefore, we got our passports stamped on the “Zam” side and walked across the bridge, getting a glimpse of the falls every now and then. The bridge was also very busy with lots of border traffic from pedestrians to big trucks. You could also bungee jump from the bridge if you wanted, but we didn’t opt to do that. Once we arrived on the “Zim” side, we got our visa on arrival and then proceeded to the park that gets you closest to the falls.

Since about two thirds of the falls are on the Zim side, these parks are quite big and there is quite a bit of walking involved if you want to see the whole falls. Given that it was already quite late (we had only left Joburg in the morning after all), we had to hurry a bit to see everything. First, we went up next to where the falls hit the shore. Then, we went down all the way along the edge of the canyon that the falls crash down into, so that we had views of the fall at all times. With the amount of water falling, there was constantly a thick mist in the air, especially when the path got closer to the falls, so we got quite drenched despite our rain coats. When we were done on the Zimbabwean side, we walked back over the bridge and visited the park on the Zambian side. As mentioned, it is quite a bit smaller, but it does also have a few nice features like a suspension bridge spanning across a canyon right next to the falls – crossing that bridge even at a running pace bridge got us completely soaked. The one thing we unfortunately could not make use of was the so called “Devil’s Pool” which is a spot where you can bathe in the river right at the edge of the falls – however, when we visited it was way too cold for that, at night the temperatures dropped to freezing!

On Saturday, we went on a combined boat and driving safari. For that, we got picked up in the morning, drove for about an hour and crossed the border to Botswana – another River border crossing, this time using a small boat to cross. Then, we embarked on a small boat for our boat safari. The river the safari was on actually separates Botswana from the small eastern strip of Namibia, so my phone picked up Namibian signals as well – the fifth country (including South Africa) in only two days! Seeing the wild life from the water was actually very interesting, especially since there were quite a few crocodiles and hippos in the river. The crocodiles were mostly sitting in the sun on the shore, and many of them jumped in the water quite quickly when the boat approached. Some of them, however, just sat still and couldn’t be bothered, so that we could get close and take some good pictures. The hippos mostly huddled together in large groups (making their strange grunting noises), but some also dived and resurfaced close to the boat, which was also quite cool. Towards the end of the boat tour, we also saw an elephant that had waded out into the river and was sticking out among some thick weeds in the middle of the water. We had lunch at a restaurant by the river, and then boarded an open safari vehicle for the second half of the safari, driving through the nature reservation along the river. We saw some more wildlife from the car, including more elephants, giraffes, meerkats, and many smaller animals.

After the safari was finished, we were shuttled back to our accommodation in Zambia, where we spent the last night before flying back to Johannesburg on Sunday. Some pictures follow.

Weekend Trip to Lesotho (24 – 26 Jan)

Monday, April 21st, 2014

At the end of January, we went to Lesotho for a weekend. We left relatively late on Friday, so we did not go very far into the country that night – in fact, we stayed at a small apartment in the (tiny) capital city of Maseru, which is just behind the border with South Africa. On Saturday, we went further into this remote and very mountainous country. We first paid a very short visit to Thaba-Boisu, which is regarded as the birthplace of the Basotho (the people of Lesotho) nation. It consists mostly of a hill, which we didn’t climb since it would have taken too long, and a tourist complex that showcases a traditional Lesotho village. The complex, however, was not open, so we could only look at the village from the outside.

After Thaba-Boisu, we went to the Malealea Lodge, which is a former trading post that has been converted into a community-oriented, very well-run lodge. We stayed in a small round hut there, which was very nice. In the afternoon, we went on a horse ride to see some of the bushman cave paintings in the surroundings, which was both a very nice way to see some of the beautiful, largely unspoiled countryside, and to get to see the paintings too. In the evening, a local choir and band performed at the lodge, and there was a barbeque dinner.

On Sunday, we had to go back, but we spent the morning still driving around the country. This country really feels so far away from the world, and quite poor. The Basotho have quite an interesting choice of apparel: They wear strange, pointy, woven straw hats, and wrap themselves in colorful woolen blankets – even though it was obviously summer when we were there! A very large proportion of the population, at least as per our impressions from driving through the countryside, are shepherds.

The last stop on the route were some dinosaur footprints, of which there are quite a few sites in Lesotho. Again, in very authentic Lesotho style, there is just a hand-painted sign leading you to the site from the main road, with a tiny hut where two people sit that had second-hand dinosaur books and pictures, and one of whom lead us around the hut to the back into a small stream where there were the big flat rocks that had the footprints in them – very interesting as well.

Some pictures follow.

Summer Holiday Pt. 3: Cape Town (30 Dec – 2 Jan)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

After coming back from Zanzibar, we spent one night in Johannesburg to rest, re-pack, and wash all our dirty clothes from Kilimanjaro. Then, we flew down to Cape Town to spend New Year’s Eve there, since a bunch of friends from INSEAD were also going to be around, flying in from Europe and the US. We had booked the accommodation only on very short notice, and were lucky to still get a spare room at the same B&B that we stayed at on our first visit to Cape Town, Upperbloem in the Bo-Kap.

On the night of our arrival, we went out to Franschoek for dinner – our friends had been on a wine tour all day so we met them there out in the wine lands. It was awesome to see all of them again and catch up with what was happening – most of them we hadn’t seen since graduation over a year ago.

On the morning of New Year’s Eve, we didn’t do very much – the only thing that was on our list was to visit the cheese shop in Cape Town that we had read about in numerous articles. We both really like the South African artisanal cheeses, and in any article on the internet about South African cheeses, this cheese shop was mentioned. Getting there, however, we were quite disappointed – the selection wasn’t huge and the person behind the counter was the most unmotivated salesperson I have ever encountered. She wouldn’t tell us anything more about the cheeses than we could read on the labels ourselves. After this experience, I am so glad that our cheese shop here in Johannesburg, Cheese Gourmet in Linden, seems to be so much better!

In the evening, we went with all our INSEAD friends to Madame Zingara, which basically is a circus / variety theater show over dinner. It was a lot of fun, and we enjoyed spending New Year’s with our classmates like this – unlike last year, where we slept through New Year’s in Yangon because we had an early flight the next day.

The next day, after having slept off our hangover, we headed out to Kirstenbosch Gardens, which is said to be one of the most beautiful botanic gardens in the world. We walked through the park there, which contains around 9000 of the 22000 plant species found in South Africa, and is really very well set up. After having had lunch there as well, we headed out to Llandudno beach were a few of our friends were spending the day sunbathing. In the evening, the rest of the group showed up as well, and we had a very nice sunset picnic on the beach – a very nice finish to our visit in Cape Town, since the next morning we had to leave again for Johannesburg, where we had a few more days to spare before having to go back to work.

Summer Holiday Pt. 2: Zanzibar (24 – 29 Dec)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

After having completed our climb up Kilimanjaro, we flew on to Zanzibar to have a few relaxing days on a tropical island after all that exercising. The first two nights we spent in Stone Town, which is the old town of Zanzibar city, main town of the island of Zanzibar and also the capital of the semi-autonomous region of the Zanzibar Archipelago (which also includes Pemba island and multiple smaller islets).

Stone Town is a pretty little old town, with lots of very narrow alleyways with architecture that combines African, Arabic, and Indian elements. Zanzibar’s heydays were as part of the Sultanate of Oman – Zanzibar became part of the Sultanate in 1698 and became such an important trading hub in the Indian Ocean that by ~1840, the sultan moved his capital to Zanzibar, and the traces of that period can be seen throughout the city. A very interesting feature are the beautiful carved wooden doors that can be found on many of the houses, combining Indian elements (decorative spikes originally used against elephants) and Arabic ornaments.

We spent most of the time walking around town and admiring the houses as well as visiting some museums – most notably the palace museum, which showcases some of the rooms of the Sultans along with some explanation about the history. In addition, we indulged in the great food – which again draws from origins all around the Indian Ocean. The special highlight, however, was Zanzibar Pizza, which we had almost every evening in Forodhani Gardens. In this seaside park, around sunrise every evening, a large number of food vendors set up their stalls, selling mainly seafood, Zanzibar Pizzas, and sugarcane juice. Calling them “pizzas” doesn’t really give you the right idea – it is more a Roti dough which is filled with either meat, vegetables and egg, or sweet things like Nutella and fruits, then folded and fried on a large plate – so you could call it a filled pancake maybe. It was cheap and delicious, so we kept coming back for more.

On 26 December, we went across the island to spend some time on the beach as well, in Jambiani on the east coast of Zanzibar. The water there was really blue and pretty, but I must admit that we weren’t that overwhelmed by the beach – I guess we have just been spoiled, since we have been to nicer tropical island beaches (Koh Lipe for example, or more recently Isla Mujeres). The beach in Jambiani just had too much seaweed for our liking. Due to that, a power outage that lasted almost a day, and the fact that we missed the good food in Stone Town, we cut our stay short and left after just one day to return to Stone Town for two more nights.

The day before we left, we went on a so called spice tour. Zanzibar is a major producer of spices, most notably cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper. The spice tour took us to a demonstration farm on which these and a wide variety of other spices and fruits are grown, so you can see how the plants look like. In addition to the aforementioned spices, we also were shown vanilla, cardamom, curry leaves, jack fruit, bread fruit, bananas, cocoa, coconuts, and others.

On 29 December, we took the ferry across to Dar es Salaam and flew back to Johannesburg from there.

Some pictures follow.

Summer Holiday Pt. 1: Climbing Kilimanjaro (17 – 24 Dec)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

In the three weeks around Christmas, nothing really happens in South Africa (there are multiple public holidays in that period, starting with Day of Reconciliation and ending with New Year’s Day). Particularly Johannesburg becomes a ghost town over these weeks, as everyone is heading out to the coast. Our two respective offices also remain closed over that period – so we had another reason to go on holiday, just three weeks after coming back from Mexico. We booked everything on relatively short notice, and our decision was to go to Tanzania first for a little under two weeks, and then to Cape Town for New Year’s Eve, since a bunch of friends from INSEAD were going to be there at that time.

For the first week of our stay in Tanzania, we decided to climb Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest mountain at 5895m above sea level. It is one of the highest mountains that can be climbed without technical climbing expertise. We booked a six-day trip up the Machame route, since it promised to be good for acclimatization in the altitude and a scenic route as well. Also, we hoped that living and regularly exercising at Joburg’s altitude of 1750m would help against altitude sickness. In the end, we did suffer from altitude sickness quite heavily on summit day – but we made it to the top regardless (just not in very good shape). But here is the story in more detail:

Day 0 (17 December): Arrival

We flew from Johannesburg to Dar es Salaam and then onwards to Kilimanjaro International Airport. Our second flight was quite delayed, so we only got to the hotel around 11pm – to a power outage that lasted all night, so we had to be shown to our room with torches. We had decided for taking the flight and against an overland bus since we thought it would be better to not have a strenuous bus trip just before attempting to climb the mountain (which was probably a good idea).

Day 1 (18 December): Machame Gate to Machame Camp

The next morning after breakfast, we got our briefing from the two guides, and then set out to the town of Moshi to organize a few additional pieces of equipment. We had bought and brought a lot of clothes specifically for the trip, but we were both missing waterproof pants and a down jacket (both of which were definitely required). Around 10 or so, we then headed to Machame Gate which is situated at an altitude of 1800m and one of the entrances to the national park. There, we gave our luggage other than our day packs (filled with water, food and additional clothing just for the day) to the porters who would carry it up to the next camp. Then, we started hiking.

The hike of the first day was relatively short, maybe four or five hours, and led through the rainforest up to Machame Camp at 3000m. In the beginning, it was quite hot still and we were walking in shorts and sleeveless tops. However, maybe an hour into the hike, it started pouring. We immediately put on rain jackets and waterproof pants (and put rain covers on our day packs), but the rain was so strong that after a couple of hours, we were completely drenched. Even my hiking boots, which held up quite well in the beginning, got wet eventually. Our lunch break we had under two umbrellas held by our guides. Due to the rain, and the wet clothes, I also got quite cold by the time we got to camp. At least, by that time the rain had stopped and we could put our clothes to dry. The lesson learnt that day: Everything, really everything that shouldn’t get wet needs to be put in plastic bags – even in the middle of my big bag pack that had been carried by the porters, things had been getting wet.

In the evening, we also got introduced to the team that was bringing the two of us up the mountain – quite the large group just for two people: Two guides, a chef, a waiter, a camp manager, and six porters – eleven people in total! I don’t think I have ever employed the service of that many people at once over such a prolonged period of time.

Day 2 (19 December): Machame Camp to Shira Camp

On the second day, we left the rainforest and entered the heather and moorland. We started hiking earlier that day, around 8am. Whereas the trail had been a quite well-prepared path the previous day, even with wooden stairs most of the time, starting the second day it became more of a path that included lots of rocks to be climbed on or over. Especially the first part of this day’s hike went up the mountain quite steeply. Thankfully, it was not raining anymore, but it was still pretty muddy. Shira camp is located up at 3800m, and by now we could really feel that the air was getting thinner – we had to stop quite a few times just to catch our breath. This day was relatively short, so we arrived at Shira Camp already around 2pm, had a rest and then went on a short acclimatization walk up to an altitude of 3900m – the idea being to always “climb high, sleep low” to help acclimatization at the altitude. Up to this altitude, we did not feel any symptoms of altitude sickness yet other than being out of breath.

Day 3 (20 December): Shira Camp to Lava Tower to Barranco Camp

The third day, we started hiking around 7:45am. The plan for the day was to climb up to the Lava Tower at 4600m, have lunch there, and then climb down to Barranco Camp at 3900m (climb high, sleep low). On the way up to the Lava Tower, we left the heather and moorland and entered the Alpine Desert, were there are hardly any plants anymore. By the time we got to the Lava Tower, the first patches of snow were starting to appear around us. It was definitely quite a surreal experience to climb from tropical climate and rainforest to this barren and cold desert within the course of two days. The last hour or so before reaching the Lava Tower was quite tough – we had hardly any energy left, and the thin air made it really exhausting to move forward. We still weren’t feeling altitude sickness, just physical exhaustion.

Luckily, after lunch the way to the camp was basically downhill all the way – which is much less exhausting, but by the time we got to camp my legs were a bit sore from walking downhill all the time. Also, I had quite a headache due to the altitude by then – I probably hadn’t been drinking enough on the way down, since with a lot of water and tea the headache subsided quite quickly.

After we had arrived at the camp, it started raining again – but by that time we were safely in our tent, and all our stuff that had gotten wet the first day was nice and dry again now – which I was very thankful for, since I feared having to climb up to the snow-covered, windy summit with wet clothes.

Day 4 (21 December): Barranco Camp to Barafu Camp (base camp)

This was the last day before summit day, and took us up to the base camp at 4600m. We started hiking around 7am, and the first hour and a half or so was actually more scrambling up relatively steep rocks – the steepest climb of the entire trek. After that, we had to cross a valley and then continue to hike uphill for the rest of the day. In the valley, we had to cross one of the many small streams that run down Kili, and unfortunately J slipped and fell in with one leg, but thankfully nothing more serious happened.

We had lunch at Karanga hut around 4000m, in the thick clouds. From there, the path went up through the alpine desert, in a barren landscape surrounded only by rocks. Due to the altitude, we were relatively slow now and took quite some time to get up to base camp. Especially the last two hours were very exhausting, since the climb up to Barafu was relatively steep, and the camp itself was huge and it took quite some time until we had found our way to our tents. At this altitude, everything is exhausting, even tying your shoes makes you get out of breath.

In the evening, I had the first signs of real altitude sickness. Coming back into the tent from the bathroom, I suddenly felt really cold and sick and had to rest in the sleeping bag for a while until I felt better. Up here, it was already quite cold and we had to sleep with multiple layers inside the sleeping bag. We went to bed relatively early to be prepared for our early summit day.

Day 5 (22 December): Summit day. Ascent to Uhuru Peak, then down to Millennium Camp

This was the big day. We got up at midnight to start climbing at 1am, and I was feeling pretty terrible – I threw up the first time while still in the tent, and couldn’t keep any food down. While J wasn’t nauseous, she also couldn’t eat, and she had hardly slept during the short night – definitely not a good start for this tough day. We started walking around 1, with headlamps on since it was obviously pitch black. From Barafu at 4600m we had to climb up almost 1300m to reach the highest point in Africa.

On the way up, I threw up a couple of times again, and since we were both very low on energy not having eaten anything, we were very, very slow. On the way, we met a couple of people who had turned around, and also considered going back, but were encouraged by our guides to carry on, which we did. In the thin air, with almost no energy, and feeling nauseous, we really dragged ourselves forward, having to stop to take a breath every couple of meters. Most people see the sunrise from the top – we were still quite far from it on the steep slopes when the sun rose. But we carried on.

The way up was also really, really cold – especially since the cold winds were sweeping over the rocks. My clothes were holding up pretty well (I was wearing six layers on top), but J was cold before she started wearing my hard shell in addition to the ski jacket she had rented. Also, her gloves weren’t warm enough unfortunately – mine were okay with the added glove liners that I had bought (a very good idea). For me, the coldest body part were the feet – despite hiking boots, ski socks and sock liners, they went numb after a while due to walking on the icy rock for so long.

We reached Stella Point (5700m) around 7:30am, and had some sugary tea – finally, something energy-providing that would stay down! From Stella Point, it takes around 45 minutes to Uhuru Peak, and the path is not very steep anymore. However, due to the thin air, we still stopped every twenty meters or so. At 8:40am (according to our official certificates we got after the climb), we finally reached Uhuru – more than seven and a half hours after we had left Barafu. While we were somewhat proud to have made it, we were way too exhausted to celebrate – we just took a couple of pictures and then started to go back down. We had definitely been the last of the bigger morning crowd up on the summit, but on our way back towards Stella Point we still met a couple of other climbers on the way up – so at least we were not the last ones to have made it that day.

The way down was much quicker than the way up – we took a different path down, which was very gravel-ly so that we basically kept sliding down all the time. It still took us about four hours to climb down to Barafu, and about half way down J started getting very dizzy. We had to take frequent breaks, and for the final hour or so, J was supported on both sides first by the guides and later by two porters.

When we arrived at Barafu Camp, we finally had the chance to get some rest and sleep for a little while. However, J was still feeling sick, and when we woke up again and had some lunch, J couldn’t eat much before she had to throw up. However, we had to continue further down – which was going to be painful that day, but promised alleviating the altitude sickness. So on we went, down to Millennium Camp at 3700m. We still had to walk very, very slowly and take frequent breaks, but we could feel the air getting denser and at least breathing wasn’t as hard anymore.

Arriving at the camp, J was feeling a little better, but still extremely exhausted and sick, so she went to bed immediately after we had had some tea and snacks. I stayed up for dinner, and had quite the hard time convincing the waiter and the guides that they didn’t have to wake up J to feed her: “She wants to sleep, and she will be better tomorrow” – “But how can she feel better if she doesn’t eat?” – “She is just tired and exhausted, and needs the sleep more than the food.” – “But what if it’s something severe?” – “Then eating now wouldn’t help her either.” – “But she won’t have any energy to walk tomorrow!” – “She’ll eat more at breakfast when she is feeling better.” and so on. Eventually, I convinced them by promising to bring some fruits and tea to the tent for her to eat.

Day 6 (23 December): Millennium Camp to Mweka Gate

This was the last day of the hike. J was feeling well again in the morning (despite not having eaten any of the things I brought to the tent, since she was just sleeping through the night), and we had our last mountain breakfast. We also had a little bit of a discussion with our guides around the tips for the crew – it is customary to tip, and with our big crew it was quite hard to tip everyone adequately without going far above the 10-15% of the tour price that is recommended – and in addition we had had quite some challenges getting US Dollars in South Africa, so we simply didn’t have enough cash to go far beyond that. However, in the end we managed somehow.

The way down to Mweka Gate led us through the heather and moorland and then into the rainforest, and on this last day we were quite fast again, having shaken off all signs of altitude sickness. We only had a quick lunch on the way, and arrived down at the gate around noon. After all the formalities had been completed, and we had returned the rented gear to the tour office, we were dropped off at the hotel and could finally after six days have a shower again… Such a good feeling, being out of the dirty and smelly mountain clothes, and back at a reasonable altitude!

We spent one more night in the hotel in Moshi before flying to Zanzibar on Christmas Eve.

In summary, we both concluded that while this was definitely an experience, and we can proudly say that we made it to the roof of Africa, we will not do something like this again – we will stay below 3000 meters or so, where you can still actually breathe, and normal tasks don’t become an exercise.

Some pictures follow.

November Holiday Pt. 3: Mexico (14 – 23 November)

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Since our rate of visiting new countries had significantly dropped since we started working again, we concluded that on our November trip we needed to visit a country that neither of us had been to before. Also, since it was going to be my birthday on the last day of our trip, I requested something warm with a beach for that – so we ended up going to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.

We flew in to Cancun, but fearing hordes of drunk American teenagers, we didn’t spend any time there other than one night in downtown Cancun close to the bus station. That area is completely untouristy, so that when we wanted to get some tacos for breakfast, our non-existing Spanish was already quite extensively tested… but with pointing and analogies from other Latin languages, we did end up getting some nice and really cheap food.

Our first “real” stop then was Chichén Itza, the Mayan ruins of which have been named one of the “new seven wonders of the world”. We arrived there in the afternoon, and hadn’t planned to go into the archeological zone that day yet, so instead we hunted down something to eat. Most of the places in Piste, which is the small town closest to the ruins, are really touristy and mostly cater for big tour groups. We were still very early and thus got some food alone in a pretty big restaurant. When we were about to leave, it started pouring, so we had to stay somewhat longer, and witnessed the big tour groups arriving (and a dance performance for them by the restaurant staff). Thankfully, the rain didn’t last very long and we were able to take a taxi to our hotel. The hotel was located at the back entrance of the ruins, and was a really nice place – and also very convenient to be the first one at the ruins in the morning (at 8am). Getting up relatively early then clearly showed the difference between Mexico and the places we’ve traveled to in Asia with similar tropical climate: Whereas in Asia everyone is up early to avoid the heat, in Mexico there was hardly anyone out on the streets even at 8am. For us, that was a good thing: Not only were there only very few other tourists with us in the ruins, but also hardly any vendors, and those that were there, were still busy setting up their stalls. So less harassment for us.

The ruins were quite impressive. The first eye catcher was of course the big pyramid in the center, but other sites that I found very memorable were the big ball court, with rings that players were meant to somehow put the ball through probably four meters above ground, and the platform of skulls which was decorated on all sides with hundreds of skulls carved out of the stones.

We spent a couple of hours at the ruins, and left just before the first tour groups arrived. We had some time to freshen up and pack our stuff, before we left in the afternoon for Tulum.

We spent the night in Tulum and got up relatively early again the next day to be at the Tulum ruins when they opened. The ruins here were Mayan too, but quite different – whereas the ones in Chichén Itza are basically enclosed by thick jungle, the ones in Tulum are located on a cliff over the ocean and surrounded by city walls on three sides. The individual buildings in Tulum are not as impressive as in Chichén Itza, but the location even more so – palm trees, cliffs, small beaches, and turquoise Caribbean water. It must have been good to live here as a Mayan (except for the ever-present risk of being sacrificed, which seems to have been quite the hobby of the Mayans).

Since it was still early when we got back from the ruins, and we weren’t planning to leave Tulum until the afternoon, we decided to go swim in a cenote. These cenotes are round holes in the limestone ground which are partly filled with water and often connect to systems of caves. We went to the Grand Cenote close to Tulum for a swim – you can also dive down the caves if you want to. The water was quite cold, but you got used to it after a while, and there were fishes and turtles swimming alongside the bathers and divers.

Later that day, we left for the island of Cozumel. We had to get off the bus and board a ferry in Playa del Carmen for that purpose, and were glad that Playa was one of the places that we hadn’t put on our itinerary — this town again seemed to be more of a place to be drunk on the beach than anything else. Cozumel itself has a little bit of a schizophrenic character: Since on any given day, 3 or 4 cruise ships dock here, it becomes quite busy during the day with lots of tourist traps (one jewellery store next to the other on the water front). Overnight, when the ships are gone, it is much more quiet. However, our main plan on Cozumel was not checking out the island itself, but rather to go diving – J did her Open Water Diver certificate, and I just went diving for three days (the last day we could go together). The coral reef around Cozumel is actually the second biggest after the Great Barrier Reef, and the diving was really amazing. The corals were extremely pretty and had very interesting shapes, and we got to do a lot of swim-throughs, were you dive through arches or tunnels in the coral. Also, I went much deeper than I had before, up to 30m. There was lots of marine life to see as well, including as the highlight a nurse shark that was sleeping on the ocean floor.

After three days on Cozumel, we left for our last stop – Isla Mujeres. To get there, we had to take the ferry back to Playa, a bus to Cancun, and then another ferry. In contrast to Cozumel, our only plan for Mujeres was to relax. The main town of Mujeres is located on the northern tip of the island, which also has the most beautiful beach – an absolutely stunning tropical paradise with white sand, turquoise-blue water and palm trees. One day, we rented a scooter to go down to the south point of the island and visit a turtle farm which is about half way – but all of that could be easily done in half a day since the island is so small. And while it was certainly a touristy place, it felt much more relaxed and less stressful than Cozumel. Our hotel was also pretty amazing, with a balcony that had a hammock and overlooked the ocean. In addition, the food was amazing on Mujeres – our favorite place was a tiny little hole in the wall three minutes walk from our hotel, which made the most amazing Tacos and other Mexican delicacies (and had J’s favorite ‘salsa muy picante’).

The last day of our stay in Mujeres was also my thirtieth birthday – which we spent swimming, eating, and idling. The perfect birthday 🙂 The next day, we unfortunately had to leave again – with another long flight from Cancun via Atlanta back to Johannesburg. Since we only arrived on Sunday afternoon, I was super jetlagged my first few days back at work – but it had been so worth it.

Some pictures follow.

© 2012 – 2018 JF Goetzmann — Impress