Author Archives: Marce

Stunned and coddled

It took some doing to find a PCR test site we could walk to from our hotel, but we managed and tested negative and finally got to insinuate ourselves into my sister’s home for a few weeks. Jack and I were suffering severe culture shock and were barely communicative at first. The sale of the boat happened so quickly, we had no plan for what’s next, and the Covid situation in America was much worse than we’d experienced previously, especially compared to our safe little island in Malaysia. But my sister and brother-in-law gave us the space to process and kept us fed and watered while we adjusted to a culture that’s familiar and alien at the same time.

Eventually we rented a car and started off toward Pittsburgh, our old home town and still home to other family members.

We took a few days to drive what normally would take one day, zigzagging north and south, shopping for warm clothes and exploring back roads along the way.

Pennsylvania, we learned, boasts more covered bridges than anywhere else in the country and we made it our mission to find a few and appreciate their construction.

It was comforting to be on the move again, and even though we miss the endless blue of our life on the water, driving through the hilly piedmont and over the familiar Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania helped calm our uncertainty. Lovely as it is, even in the bleakest of seasons, we agree we don’t want to live here anymore. But we’re on our way to see some of our favorite people, and that’s the joy we’ve been missing.

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A shock to the system

We had mixed feelings about leaving Zanzibar. Of course we were eager to see our families again but we also knew we were flying from the frying pan into the fire as far as the global pandemic is concerned, and conversely from the tropics to the frozen North in air temperature.

We packed up our bulging suitcases, arranged a lift to the airport and showered the hotel staff with praise as we said goodbye to Stone Town. We enjoyed it almost as much as we’ve enjoyed our visits to Penang over the years.

At the airport our driver escorted us to the outer gate of the terminal building, and I dug the printout of our itinerary out of my tote bag. The stern gatekeeper lady shook her head no.

“What does she mean, ‘no’?” I asked. Our driver held a long conversation with her during which she became even more emphatic. Finally, he turned to us and said, “There is no such flight.”

Apparently, and this took some back-and-forth before it was clear, our flight was canceled and we were now booked on a flight six hours later. I checked our itinerary. We originally had only a 2-hour layover in Dubai. This change meant we’d miss our connecting flight.

Gatekeeper Lady wouldn’t let us enter the terminal because the check-in for our flight hadn’t opened yet. She directed us to an outdoor snack bar where we were welcome to wait the four or five hours until we could enter the terminal. That wouldn’t do, I argued, because I needed to rebook our Dubai to New York flight, which also affected our airport limo and our hotel in New Jersey. Nope. Not allowed in. And we had no internet to attempt the fix online.

For the next couple of hours I appealed to anyone who looked official until finally a security guard escorted me into the terminal and parked me outside the airline office (read ‘broom closet’) where I was supposed to wait until someone official — anyone, really — showed up. No flight, no staff. Occasionally someone would ask me what I needed and then tell me to just wait, the right person would be there “soon.”

It was the longest couple of hours in recent memory, but eventually the right person did show up, we were rebooked on a later flight, the rest of our itinerary was shifted and we were allowed to enter the terminal proper, check out with Immigration, Customs and Health and then the real waiting began.

Had we not been so out of practice on air travel we would have thought to check the status of our flight before leaving the hotel. Lesson (re)learned. It’s so different on a boat.

We spent the last of our Tanzanian shillings on snacks and eventually boarded the plane to Dubai. The rest of our journey to New York is a blur, except to say our seats in Economy Class on the Airbus A380 were the absolute worst we’ve ever had to spend 15 hours in. The flight was packed and we were in the middle two seats in the middle section. It was hell for us long-legged folks. Luckily I slept most of the way, but Jack was not so fortunate.

At JFK airport there was no health screening, no random testing, no Customs inspection, nothing, except for a routine passport check with Immigration. We had just arrived from Africa and Malaysia, countries the CDC lists under “Do Not Travel” and no one seemed to care.

As expected it was freezing in New York, and the wind cut through our thin fleece as we stood outside waiting for our ride. Luckily the driver Michael was friendly and funny and made the long, long trip from Long Island to Paramus, New Jersey, not only bearable but enjoyable. It was a shocker when the sun set over Manhattan at 4:30pm. We had traveled from 8°S latitude to 41°N. We are back in the Land of Long Nights.

We agreed with our family to isolate for a few days on arrival until we could get a PCR test and be assured that we’d all be safe from each other. My sister and brother-in-law booked us into a hotel not far from their house and when we arrived they were waiting for us, with warm socks, gloves, scarves, jackets and virtual hugs.

As anyone who’s sold their boat and traveled back to their own country after many years of cruising will agree, it doesn’t feel like home any more, but it’s sure good to see loved ones in person again.

What’s next, you ask? We still can’t answer that question. First up is finding a place to get a PCR test in a few days, and getting into some warmer clothes.

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Testing, testing

We didn’t really think how we’d fill a few days in Zanzibar since most people come for the beaches and we lived on a boat for nearly ten years. Turns out, though, you can’t really just stay in a place for a few days anymore because you have to factor in the PCR test needed to get a Fit to Fly certificate, and balance out how soon before boarding your destination country requires the sample to be taken with how long the processing time is in your origin.

We were flying Emirates Airlines to New York via Dubai. At the time — it’s changed since — we needed a PCR test within 72 hours of boarding. The website of the Ministry of Health in Zanzibar said it takes 96 hours to get results. This does not compute.

As we usually do, we enlisted the aid of a local, this time the warm and friendly lady who served us breakfast each morning in our hotel. She called the testing site, told them when our flight was scheduled to leave, what the requirements were for boarding, and asked when we should get tested in order to get the results in time. Ha! They suggested a day and time that was only 48 hours before our flight. Our breakfast lady also arranged for a driver to take us there. Well all right!

We could have — should have — filled out the online form before we arrived but there are always people to assist when you need them.

We had a bit of a hiccup when it was time to pay. We’d understood we needed US cash for the fee but at the testing site they wanted local currency. I didn’t have enough with me and the nearby ATM was out of order. We also tried a credit card but their machine went down just as we got to the cashier. In the end we talked them into taking our dollars, and the swab test took about two minutes.

About 22 hours later we got an email that our results were in. This was so much easier than when we tested in Penang for our flight to Tanzania. Since then, the US changed the requirement for all travelers, including citizens. You must now have a PCR test one day before your flight. We know you can get results within 24 hours but whether the bureaucracy is set up to deliver those results remains to be seen. Clearly, Zanzibar is up to the task. Penang wasn’t.

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Before we go…

We aren’t leaving Tanzania just yet. Sometimes you have to visit a place just because the name beckons. You can’t deny the allure of Timbuktu, Samarkand, Rapanui. That’s why we’re heading for Zanzibar.

It’s Jack’s birthday. Two years ago he celebrated by having knee replacement surgery. We’re pretty sure this is going to be better.

We took our last photo of Mount Kilimanjaro, boarded a small plane and flew the 250-ish miles to Stone Town. We were sad to be leaving the game parks, but eager for a new destination.

We made no plans beyond booking a hotel near the sea for a few days with the understanding that if we felt the need to go further afield, we’d move on later in the week..

Our style of travel has evolved over the years. We no longer do much planning. We like to just show up and figure it out when we get there. I did look up “Top 10 Things to Do in Zanzibar.” Maybe later.

Stone Town in Zanzibar is one of those cultural crossroads, a UNESCO World Heritage site that commemorates the ancient Swahili village that became a trading post for Chinese, Arab, Asian, Indian and European merchants. Zanzibar is called the Spice Island, although it’s also known for trade in ivory and even more so, enslaved people.

The people, architecture and cuisine reflect that history. Jack and I love this kind of place, where the mix of influences is right there in front of you, in the faces, the buildings, the restaurant menus. Just wandering the narrow streets on our own without a guidebook is enjoyable.

Stone Town has a more recent claim to fame as the birthplace of Freddie Mercury. We skipped the museum but I did take a photo, right before two guys reminded us that Stone Town still has one foot firmly in the past.

New or restored buildings share space with old colonial era ones that the town refuses to give up on.

We dined at local eateries where we got friendly advice on what to order.

In the late afternoons we walked to the beach. I think barring the plastic buckets and jugs in the foreground, not much has changed here in centuries.

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Squeezing out sparks

It all went so quickly and before we knew it we were on our last safari day. I remembered to take a few more photos of our tent and the general camp layout. All the Tortilis camps are the same layout so that after your first stay in one, all subsequent stays feel like home.

We had no particular plans for our last game drive.

We’ve seen a lot of monkeys in our travels but check out the wedding tackle on these vervets.

I’m still gaga over secretary birds and by this time Emanuel stopped the Landcruiser any time he spotted one and let me watch them to my heart’s content. I’m sorry I didn’t shoot video because they have a gait that amused me no end.

It was another perfect day with chromakey blue skies and billowy clouds. Everywhere we pointed the camera was a calendar shot.

We disturbed these elephants as they were chewing on the bark of a fallen baobab tree and the big guy looked momentarily like he was contemplating making us pay, then thought better of it. Emanuel never turned off the Landcruiser just in case.

This is the Tarangire River, dry season.

And then it was time to secure the top of the Landcruiser and make tracks back to our lodge in Arusha for a couple of days of much need rest before moving on to our next destination.

It was tough to say goodbye to Emanuel. He’s the best guide, smart, kind, funny, flexible, and a damn fine driver, all the qualities you want in a guide. If you’re planning a Tanzania safari, we highly recommend him and will happily share his contact info.

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Masai territory

We haven’t mentioned before but all of our tent lodgings during our safari are within the boundaries of the parks. We chose that option not only to have the “glamping” experience but also to lessen the drive times each day to and from the wildlife areas. What’s been an added unexpected benefit is that we are staying in close proximity to Masai villages, and our daily commutes take us past large and small settlements, children in school uniforms, herders in the fields, and women collecting water and firewood. We have no photos of these daily activities because sadly most Masai don’t like to be photographed without compensation, which we eschew. Turn your camera toward anyone and suddenly there’s a crowd offering to pose for a price.

The villages are beautiful and the sweep of the land, especially in the hills in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, was irresistible.

We left the highlands of the Ngorongoro and made our way to our last park, Tarangire National Park. It’s known for a concentration of elephants and for baobab trees. Almost as soon as we entered the park we saw a mixed herd of animals turn as if on signal toward a watering hole.

We just sat and watched for a while until they had all had their fill and walked as a group back to the grazing ground.

Many of the baobabs are damaged by elephants.

Who can resist ostrich chicks?

Not far away we spotted the other end of the life cycle, circling vultures, and the remains of a giraffe.

The rest of the day was spent watching whatever wildlife we came across. We’re not on a mission to tick any boxes. We’re just happy to be here in this beautiful place.

We just about got settled in our tent when a couple of the camp crew came to escort us down to the water for sunset. With my lingering cold I just wanted to nap before dinner but I’m glad I rallied for the display. Because of where our Escape Velocity was docked, we hadn’t had a clear sunset view from our boat for a long time and this warmed my soul.

Exactly one month ago I watched the sun rise and the full moon set from the beach at Rebak Island and revealed that we had sold Escape Velocity. Here, on this beach in Africa, we watched the sun set and the full moon rise. No long term plans yet. But the sun comes up and the world still spins.

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Down, down down

I’ve really been looking forward to this day when we descend 600m (2000 ft.) to the floor of the largest intact caldera in the world. Ngorongoro Crater is home to about 25,000 animals in an area of about 260 sq. Km (100 sq mi.)

The steep switchback road was the first paved road we’d been on in any park and a joy for our bums, but as soon as we reached the bottom we were back to rutted and washboard tracks again.

At the bottom we encountered a stand of beautiful yellow fever trees. As promised by our safari company we’re experiencing different landscapes and ecosystems in each of the four parks on our itinerary.

The lakes and rivers in the crater guarantee easy sighting of the herds of zebras, wildebeests, and buffalo, and we saw our first jackals, flamingos, and ibises.

We never tire of watching hippos and there are plenty in the crater.

The Ngorongoro Crater is home to the densest concentration of lions anywhere in the world and the current population is somewhere between 40 and 60, depending on the source.

We were puzzled by this group of three lying in full sun in a dry creek bed.

“What are they doing there?” we asked Emanuel.

“Guarding a kill,” he said, but we couldn’t see anything nearby.

We drove a little further to find a lioness drowsing by a half-devoured buffalo. A couple of jackals circled closer and closer, hoping to sneak in for a quick bite, mostly ignored by the lion.

Before long two hyenas inched toward the kill, and at this point we chose to stop trying to photograph and just watch the drama unfold as Emanuel narrated the action.

Emanuel was puzzled that the hyenas didn’t signal for backup, but when they did eventually bark a small group answered the call and immediately chased the original two away. Emanuel said that was because the first two were from a different territory, interlopers on the range of the larger group.

The new group howled for reinforcements, and when the lion saw that a genuine threat was gathering she made a run at the hyenas and chased them back. The lion retreated to her guard post exhausted by the effort in the heat on a bloated stomach. More hyenas arrived in twos or threes until there were over a dozen. The jackals continued to flit around trying for scraps but the lion paid no attention to them.

A few times the lead hyena tried advancing toward the lion, but not enough of the pack followed. Emanuel said they were missing an opportunity, that there were plenty of them to overpower the lion and chase her off, but they were too timid, or the leader wasn’t assertive enough.

“Look over there,” said Emanuel, and he pointed back toward where we saw the original three lions in the creek bed. One by one they shuffled toward the guardian lion and the kill. The hyenas had no chance now, and they meekly dispersed.

The whole drama unfolded in slow motion over the course of about 30-40 minutes. We were fascinated with the ebb and flow of the power struggle. It’s a numbers game, a kind of Jets vs Sharks with so many hyenas equal to one lion but Emanuel said just look at their tails. If they’re vertical they are feeling brave. Tails down and they’ve given up.

Just as we were about to move on we heard a desperate howl and one of the hyenas ran right in front of our vehicle with a baby jackal in its teeth, chased by the howling mother jackal. It was hard to watch.

Our day in the crater was coming to an end when Emanuel heard over the radio that two black rhinos were spotted at the far end of the caldera. He drove like Lewis Hamilton to get us there as fast as possible, and when we got in the vicinity it was clear that the two rhinos were too far off the track for a good sighting.

There were four other Landcruisers, all trying to get a look at these hardest to spot animals. Our guides convinced a ranger to allow an overland jaunt to get closer, and we bounced and jangled off-road over the savannah, then lined up so everyone had a good view. It was still just beyond easy reach of our 200mm lens, but we got to see rhinos and that’s what matters. One of the hippos tried to upstage the rhinos, lumbering through the frame from left to right. I could hear Flight of the Cosmic Hippo in my head.

Seeing the rhinos was another peak experience but it almost made us miss our scheduled rim walk with a ranger. Emanuel called to make sure we could still make it in time, and it was goodbye to the caldera and a race to the ranger station to pick up our guard.

What a day so far! But there was more to come.

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Goodbye to the Serengeti

After the hot air balloon we met up with Emanuel and turned south again towards the Ngorongoro Conservation area. Along the way we encountered banded mongoose, more lions and warthogs, and a bonus find, a serval cat, a rare sighting according to Emanuel.

It was another stunner of a day and I think our photos compare favorably with the best travel posters. You can’t lose with this scenery.

We paused for a while to watch an elephant family group taking shelter from the heat.

And then it was time to leave the endless plain. But first Emanuel took a detour to the Mbalageti River so we could watch a branch of the wildebeest migration. You may have seen video of the famous river crossing at the Mara River which happens earlier in the year. What we learned is that the migration is constant in a great circle from Tanzania to Kenya and back again as the herds seek new grassland.

We drove to an area with thousands of animals grazing their way through the landscape as far as the eye could see. We spent a long time appreciating the sheer numbers and struggled to take photos that come close to recording the majesty of it. In the end we admitted defeat, but it was a peak experience to be in the middle of it and take it all in.

And then it really was time to say goodbye to the Serengeti. Down came the top on the Landcruiser and we went into serious drive mode to get to our mountain camp at Ngorongoro before dark. It’ll be a cold night in the forest at higher elevation. When we got back to our tent after dinner we found the staff had tucked “bush babies” (hot water bottles) under the covers to kept us warm and toasty all night under the big down comforter.

Tomorrow we drive into the crater. I can’t wait.

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Seize the day

We were back at our camp by 8am and the whole camp crew were as disappointed as we were that our hot-air balloon flight has been canceled. Four hours of our day was gone, we were hungry and tired and I was sick. We ate a quick breakfast and I asked Emanuel if I had time to take a nap. I’ll be useless if I can’t rest for a while. He assured us the animals will still be there later.

We got on the trail about 11, and as inauspiciously as the day began, it quickly became our favorite day yet.

After more impalas and our first wild ostrich, we noticed Emanuel looking even more intently than usual as we drove the dirt tracks. “What are you looking for?” we asked. He told us leopards often spend the heat of the day in a tree, and you can spot them because there’s usually a leg or a tail hanging over a branch. We all started looking but of course it was Emanuel who spotted one. He positioned the Landcruiser as close as he could but it was only one of two sightings that would remain just beyond the reach of my 200mm lens. I did the best I could with the camera, but we all enjoyed watching the beautiful cat through binoculars as he panted in the noonday heat. If you click on the second photo so that it’s full screen you get a pretty good look at this stunning animal.

On the day we entered the Serengeti we passed some interesting rock formations but I hadn’t taken any photos. I asked Emanuel if we weren’t too far I’d like to see them again. On the way we saw topis and our first eland.

The rocks are beautiful and the day was perfect. I could have spent hours just soaking in the scenery. But Emanuel had other ideas.

In a cleft in one of the rock formations he spotted a three month old leopard cub, snoozing in the heat, waiting for mama to come back. What a find! We watched quietly for a while until he woke up, stretched and walked to the other side of the rocks.

We followed him around and found his brother, also snoozing. We watched again until he woke up. Both eventually returned to their preferred spots and went back to sleep. We never saw mama. Emanuel speculated that she was probably hunting.

The rest of the day brought more and more wildlife to our eyes and lenses. Emanuel understood by this time that we hadn’t come with a checklist, or the need to get the perfect shot of anything. We were happy just to watch and enjoy this privileged proximity to a rich and complex ecosystem. We appreciated his knowledge of the habits and behaviors of the various species. As we watched, he said, “It’s like living in a National Geographic film.” And it was.

This turned out to be our shortest game drive day, but one of the best. Tomorrow we’ll try again for the balloon safari. It’ll be our last chance.

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Long day’s journey

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.

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