I reached over to tap the hull, our signal to trim the sheets or mind her course. No hull. In fact we’re in Tanzania in a tent on safari. I know that sound though and that’s around 8 knots which is about cutoff for today’s activity. It’s 04:00 hrs and we’re catching a ride this morning.
So it’s going to require some warmish clothing and all the cameras at full charge. Don’t have much that’s warm. Living in 95 F in Malaysia for three years will tend to winnow down the warm stuff.
Africa’s deeply rutted and washboard dirt roads are hard to take at 04:45. We pick up a German woman at a remote camp about a half hour from us. Back on the road a sated and blood-covered lioness appeared in our headlights. She strolled down the center of our narrow lane unconcerned that we followed her at a crawl for fifteen minutes before she veered off into the undergrowth. After a while we are at the meeting spot. Brilliant light beams probe the blackness, turning the Serengeti grass to fire, darting dancing at all angles as Landcruisers come from all over to converge at this spot on the plains of Serengeti to watch the sunrise. The vast majesty of this place, especially at sunrise, must be seen to be believed.
Frank is a short spunky bloke with a funny tie under his well worn leather flyboy jacket, who was not pleased with the 8+ knot gusts passing over the Serengeti plain. No, not at all pleased. We are happy just to watch the sun come up.
There are over 10 trucks and 30 paying guests and even more ground crew waiting for the word from Frank. The word is no. Safety first. We will not fly today.
The entire process reverses, the chattering, the bouncing, but without lioness. Maybe tomorrow.
We knew our second safari day would be a doozy. We had a lot of ground to cover, from Lake Manyara all the way to the Central Serengeti with stops inbetween.
I started in Rebak Island Marina fashion by getting up early to watch the sunrise over Lake Manyara. It was a perfect beginning.
If our first day was a bit underwhelming, day two got better and better with each passing hour. We started with some game driving in Lake Manyara where we saw our first impalas, more monkeys and hornbills different from the familiar residents of Rebak Island we’d lived alongside for three years.
We left Lake Manyara behind and entered Ngorongoro Conservation Area, but just as a drive through. We’ll be returning to the explore the crater in a few days but for now the road to the Serengeti goes right through the park. We stopped for our first look at the largest intact volcanic caldera in the world.
It’s impossible to convey the size of this thing in a photo so we didn’t try. Back in 2014 we hiked to the second largest crater, Sierra Negro on Isabela in the Galapagos but this one is nearly double the size. Emanuel pointed out that those tiny dots down there were animals, probably wildebeests. We could barely make out the dots. We couldn’t wait to spend a day down there.
As we drove through the conservation area we continued to see more and more animals, and while we technically weren’t game driving we stopped again and again to take pictures.
If you’re as old as we are and interested in science you probably remember the news in 1959 that Louis and Mary Leakey found remains of early hominids in a place called Olduvai Gorge in what was then called Tanganyika.
As a college freshman I took a course in Physical Anthropology and learned more about the discoveries here and in Ethiopia. While we were planning our safari I saw the Olduvai Gorge on Google Maps and asked that a visit be included in our itinerary. You can read more here if you’re interested.
We were the only visitors when we arrived and I asked Emanuel if many people come. He smiled and shook his head. “Why?” I asked, incredulously. But I know why. Most people come for the animals, not for fossils. Still, we found it interesting and wouldn’t have missed it. There’s a new visitor center and beautifully presented museum and we had a guide tell us the history, geology, and significance of the site. For us it was worth the stop.
Not long after the Gorge we arrived at the outer gate of the legendary Serengeti. The Masai word means “endless plain” and it’s aptly named.
Almost as soon as we entered the park our animal sightings went through the roof. We saw our first secretary birds, now my favorites.
Lions were everywhere, and often so close! One female walked right past my open window, and Jack hissing “close your window!” almost made me miss the shot.
We were amazed at how oblivious most of the animals are to the presence of the Landcruisers. Maybe not oblivious but certainly not bothered by them.
Many of our photos were taken on normal focal lengths and we were often only about 5 or 6 meters away.
As the sun dipped low in the sky we saw our first hippos, a large group of elephants and our first hyena.
We got to our camp just as the sun set, and we were tired and hungry. What’s worse, I felt the beginnings of a cold coming on, caught, no doubt, while jammed in the airport bus in Doha to be driven to our plane out on the tarmac. So much for social distancing. And we had our sunrise balloon safari the next day. Four AM is going to hurt. Time to sleep.
Emanuel picked us up at 8 and after spending an hour finding an ATM that would give me more Tanzanian shillings, we were off toward our first destination, Lake Manyara National Park. I was excited about this park because it reportedly has 2.5 million flamingoes (cue the theme to Out of Africa.) It has most of the other famous African animals too, but the wetland birds would be a strong contrast to the dry Serengeti plain we will visit next.
As we drove we got to know Emanuel and it didn’t take long to learn how good a naturalist he is, knowledgeable in every aspect of the parks with a deep understanding of the delicate balance of ecosystems. It was around the time we entered the park that he told us that unusually heavy rain in 2018 and 2020 had flooded Lake Manyara so much that it greatly reduced the salinity of the water and killed off the algae the flamingoes feed on. The flamingoes were gone.
I was profoundly disappointed from a personal standpoint, but even more saddened by the abrupt environmental changes.
“Global warming?” I asked. Emanuel nodded.
“Will they come back?” I was thinking about the flamingoes but it was clear the bird life wasn’t the only consequence of the floods.
“No,” he said. The damage has been done.
We saw our first African elephant in the wild just then and while I was happy to see it, I felt a cloud had moved overhead and the sparkle had dimmed on the day. As time went on I started to appreciate the scenery and especially the trees, so different from the tropics where we’d been for so long. We were looking at a completely different color palette of browns and greens, instead of the blues we’ve lived in for nearly ten years.
When Emanuel stopped the vehicle and we listened, the silence was so complete we felt our ears were cartoon hearing trumpets reaching out for any sound at all. I knew then that coming to Africa was the right decision after selling Escape Velocity. We needed this.
The park continued to deliver. Our first giraffe, our first lion, and a bonanza, two young lion cubs resting in a tree.
In between there was no shortage of baboons, reminding us, in behavior if not appearance, of the macaques we’d been living among for the past three years.
We made our way down to the lakeside and saw for the first time what the heavy rains did to the lake. I read that it’s only ever about 10 feet deep all the way across, but the rain flooded the shoreline so far that trees that once stood at the water’s edge are now well into the lake, dead or dying.
Emanuel drew our attention to the color of the water, now brown instead of clear. In a normal cycle, by this time in the dry season the rainwater would have evaporated, preserving the salinity and the shoreline. But, as Emanuel said, “there’s just too much water.”
Near the lake we found our first camp. We’d elected tent camps instead of lodges because we wanted the whole classic safari experience and it was the right decision. The camps rest lightly on the land. There are no permanent structures, no hardscape, no concrete pads. The whole operation could be pulled up and moved and within a short period of time, the savannah grasses would reclaim it, then the trees. The animals and birds are always there, and we were serenaded all night by the calls of the wild.
Wheels down in Kilimanjaro, after a layover in Doha, and in minutes we knew this was going to be different. It’s a smallish, but certainly not the smallest airport we’ve ever landed in. We found our bags sitting on the floor in the terminal.
A guy, who looked like he had highly discounted Rolex watches to sell leaned in and said, “I get you tru these lines tout de suite. Show me your Covid papers.”
He frowned. Evidently we were missing the secret most important form. He smiled and said, “I get you tru anyhow,” followed by the standard awkward pause while we fumbled for shillings in astronomical quantities. It is something like 2,301 Tanzanian shillings to 1 usd. As a reformed cheapskate Yours Truly finds it hard to hand over 20,000 anything as a tip.
Dazed and confused, we’d been traveling continuously for two straight days, schlepping all our bags. We squinted out into the African sun to find our new friend Emanuel, smiling his humble smile, holding a sign that proclaimed “Jack Archer.” Close enough! He stowed our bags and we scrambled up into a genuine nine passenger indestructible 4×4 Toyota Landcruiser, standard transportation in African bush.
Forty-five minutes later Emanuel pulled into the lush deep green oasis of our game sanctuary lodge just outside of Arusha, our home for the night.
We hadn’t had to dodge one motor scooter the whole trip. We’re in the land of dodging the small engined motorcycle.
We knew we’d have to rest fast because tomorrow morning Emanuel would pick us up in the Landcruiser for the long ride up to Lake Manyara National Park to start our African safari. I have to say it felt like we’d already been safari-ing.
We’re off to the airport for another couple of flights. I don’t much like the idea of spending time in crowds and especially airports, not to mention crowded planes, or the new-normal of getting a deep poke in the brain with a cotton swab for the privilege, but we didn’t much like the alternative of not going anywhere either, so here we go.
To get anywhere from here you’ve got to go through Kuala Lumpur. The first flight we booked got canceled so we booked one much earlier than we need just in case the same happens again. We absolutely can NOT miss our international flight so KLIA will be our home for the better part of a day, and the lounge is closed. That’ll give us time to get copies of our Covid test results printed. We’ve been advised that our destination requires hard copies.
Our flight to Kuala Lumpur was on time and not crowded, and just before boarding we got our Covid test results.
They showed up as a small green banner in our national Covid tracking/tracing/vaccination app. Great idea, with everything in the same app, but we’re flying to a place that requires a hard copy in their hands on arrival. We were promised a detailed email and it wasn’t forthcoming. After several calls to the hospital with no success, we put our fate into the hands of a nice lady at the service counter of our airline. She called the hospital, got cut off a few times and eventually read the riot act to a poor unfortunate on the other end. We had our emails five minutes later.
Now we have six hours to kill in an airport with few seating areas land side, a Covid-reduced food court, and a closed lounge. CLOSED! We’ve commandeered the only bench we could find, between Lancôme and Swarovski, and maybe in a little while we’ll go back to the pathetic food court for a cuppa. I’ll definitely be ready for a nap by the time we board the first of two long flights.
By the way, we will miss the comprehensive, intelligent public health response to a global pandemic here in Malaysia. There is nearly universal mask compliance, including outdoors; there are very few places you can go without being vaccinated (they check at the door); there is mandatory contact tracing by scanning a QR code on a mobile app everywhere you go; and shops consider the vaccination of their staff critical to doing business. We feel very safe here. And we wish every other country did the same.
So where do you go to find the breathing space to make a plan to try to piece your life back together again? Cruisers always say that plans are written in the sand at low tide, and when you consider that the wind changing direction just a few degrees means you aren’t going where you thought you were going, you can see where this mystical fatalism comes from. Our answer is Penang.
We always stay in old Georgetown which is a world heritage site chock-a-block with crumbling colonial architecture, some being repurposed, some not.
Famous for street art. I don’t know why but this is a vibe I seem to really like.
This time we’re staying in an Airbnb which is a two story traditional family home, maybe middle class, with the craziest fixtures, hardwood floorboards one foot wide, omnipresent shutters, open air courtyard, dog bone windows and clay tile roof.
Some might think we moved here because we are right around the corner from the Mugshot which has the best bagels this side of New York City.
Only partly true because the pastries next door are sensational. We even found a new Banh Mi place that’s better than any we had in Vietnam.
Ah…the plan you ask. There is a destination and an activity. It involves Covid testing, visas, money changing and the kind of clothing we haven’t seen in years, so shopping in Penang’s massive malls is considered great sport for the huge towers filled with wealthy Hong Kong expats, but Yours Truly is not amused by the activity. All I know is every day I reach for something I need but now it’s missing. It’s going to take some time.
So check the box for the first step, done and dusted, and take a deep breath.
PS just heard that Escape Velocity is now called ESCAPE VELOCITY.
The offer on Escape Velocity came as a surprise since Malaysia’s international border is still closed and even interstate travel was restricted at the time. The buyer was eager to take possession and asked how soon we could vacate the premises, throwing us into a whirlwind of sorting, packing, selling and giving away all of our worldly goods. This is completely different from moving house, where you can toss it all in boxes, load up a truck and sort it out later. We chose the keepsakes we want to hang on to and arranged a shipment, but most of the contents of the boat can easily be replaced and will be cheaper to buy new than to ship.
Our friends and dock mates benefitted from the giveaway frenzy, just as we’ve benefitted when others near us sold their boats. The liveaboard community are masters of sharing and it makes me happy knowing that my beloved Cuisinart pots, the knives I bought in Berlin in the 80s, my well-used pressure cooker, and all the rest of our life’s accumulations will continue to be useful on other boats at Rebak Island Marina and beyond. I even gave my Atlas pasta machine and a kilo of semolina to the owner-chef of our favorite Italian restaurant. Thirty years of ravioli, tortellini, agnolotti, and caramella came out of that machine. I know Lorenzo will keep it busy.
A boat is not the best place to pack up a life, so we asked the resort, which is temporarily closed to guests while they repair the fresh water system, if we could possibly have a room where we can spread out and organize. Not only did they give us a room, but they put us beachfront, with the sunrise view I’ve been walking to most mornings.
In the midst of the packing, we had the marine survey and sea trial, all the various complications of selling a boat from one country to an owner from another for registration in a third. I admit to mostly being in a daze and just followed the expert guidance of our broker until it all got done.
Then we handed over the keys to the new owner, said our goodbyes, gathered up the rest of our belongings, and boarded a plane for Penang where we’re eating bagels and ice cream to our hearts’ content while we plan our next move.
One turns to the other and says, ”hey what’s all that moss about?” “Well I’ve been hanging around here for quite a while now and it kinda feels like a change would do us good.”
Where to start? I’m searching for the words. After all, I’ve found Rebak Island to be an amazingly safe hurricane hole, both for storms and Covid, quiet, friendly, beautiful, with abundant birds, sea eagles hornbills, monkeys, lizards and so many fish that it can be annoying.
We’ve even been able to carry out many projects, collecting boat bits from all over the world’s chandleries.
But after returning from our South East Asia travels and getting locked down by the pandemic, we took notice that a curiously odd bit of lurgy was spreading out from roughly our neck of the woods. Some of our cruiser friends provisioned up and asked to be excused. I mean they rolled right on out of here while the rolling was good, even though the traditional harbors along the way were closed. Even Thailand’s border, almost within sight, was closed. Many of those brave souls got involved in international imbroglios spending many months quarantined on their boat. Most, in true cruiser fashion, found a way to have fun and adventure regardless. Unable to travel off the boat because once you left Malaysia you couldn’t return, and feeling less and less inclined to cross the Indian Ocean, we stayed put.
We aren’t used to “put.” We don’t do “put.” It chafes. We watched as the world turned upside down under lockdown. Stuck in our own little tropical paradise doesn’t sound so tough, but it wears. A velvet lined trap for the traveling soul.
Maybe it was time for a serious change. A big change. It’s tricky changing when everything you own in this world is stashed into forty feet of sailing yacht.
For me it felt like a stealthy plan that formed out of the ether, which then snuck up on me while Yours Truly was dozing poolside. Much too soon, before anyone was even allowed into Malaysia, improbably an offer was proffered for our loyal home. Big changes were afoot. It was madness from the get go. Eleven large boxes, overstuffed with, well stuff, numbered, weighed, categorized, schlepped, ferried to Langkawi to await a slow boat to New Jersey.
But what will we do with us? I mean what’s the plan Stan? Every day we have to field that question and I usually say, ”I’m not driving this bus my friend.”
The logical destination would be Thailand but they’ve been working Covid as a money making proposition with weeks of quarantine at their special hotel eating their special food, with special testing, special visa prices, etc. We will pass on that at least for now, although rumors persist that they’re going to lighten up.
I don’t know, where do you Escapees think we should go? The problem is that we’ve been here so long we’ve got to calling it home.